Resources for Understanding Old Testament Violence

When dealing with passages of Scripture involving violence, I think it is very helpful to interpret the Bible with the mind of the Church and by comparing other passages that help enlighten us about the meaning of more difficult passages. These verses, for example, show that God does not like violence: Eze. 33:11, 2 Pet. 3:9, Eze. 18:23, Lam. 3:33, Eze. 18:32, Wis. 1:13, Matt. 18:14

These verses tell us some of the things that God wants to teach us through the violent passages of the Bible: 1 Corinthians 10:5-11, Deuteronomy 9:4, Jeremiah 18:7-8, Leviticus 18:25-28

These verses show that it is not immoral for God to take someone’s life: Job 1:21, 1 Samuel 2:6, 2 Kings 5:7, Deuteronomy 32:39

And these verses show that the violence of the Old Testament doesn't perfectly reflect the will of God: John 8:2-11, Jeremiah 31:28-33, Isaiah 9:5-6, Isaiah 42:1-4

One thing we can conclude from all this Scripture is that the penalties and wars in the Bible are there to teach us the consequences of sin. I don't think the Bible wants us to see violence and death as a good thing. I think it wants us to see violence and death as a terrible consequence of sin, and sometimes God makes this clear by inflicting a swift and/or violent death on sinners. Which is something only God can morally do, because only He has absolute rights over life and death.

You mention that in some parts of the Bible God takes the lives of children. Even that, I think, is meant to show us how horrible sin is. One of the worst things about sin is, it always harms the innocent. I think God may have shown us that by having the Israelites kill the innocent along with the guilty, which, again, He alone can morally do.

The Church has occasionally spoken about the violent passages of Scripture in authoritative documents. An example is the document Verbum Domini by Pope Benedict XVI. It says:

Verbum Domini 42 - “[Some] passages in the Bible [contain] violence and immorality [and can] prove obscure and difficult. Here it must be remembered first and foremost that biblical revelation is deeply rooted in history. God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance. God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them.”

Verbum Domini 42 - “Revelation is suited to the cultural and moral level of distant times and thus describes facts and customs, such as cheating and trickery, and acts of violence and massacre, without explicitly denouncing the immorality of such things. This can be explained by the historical context, yet it can cause the modern reader to be taken aback.”

Verbum Domini 42 - “[It] would be a mistake to neglect those passages of Scripture that strike us as problematic. Rather, we should be aware that the correct interpretation of these passages requires a degree of expertise, acquired through a training that interprets the texts in their historical-literary context and within the Christian perspective which has [the Gospel] as its ultimate hermeneutical key.”

See also the Catechism:

CCC 1964 - “under the...Old Covenant [there were] people who possessed the charity and grace of the Holy Spirit…[and] there exist [wicked] men under the New Covenant [who are] still distanced from the perfection of the New Law: the fear of punishment and certain temporal promises have been necessary, even under the New Covenant, to incite them to [virtue].”

CCC 1008 - “Death is a consequence of sin. The Church's Magisterium, as authentic interpreter of the affirmations of Scripture and Tradition, teaches that death entered the world on account of man's sin. ... Death was therefore contrary to the plans of God the Creator and entered the world as a consequence of sin.”