kroo'-el, kroo'-el-ti 'akhzar, "harsh," "fierce," chamac, "violence"): There are various uses of the word "cruel" in the Old Testament: (a) "the cruel (deadly) venom of asps" (De 32:33); (b) spoken of men of relentless hate: "They hate me with cruel hatred" (Ps 25:19; compare Pr 5:9; 11:17; 12:10; Jer 6:23; 50:42); (c) Job speaks of God's dealings with him as "cruel" and arbitrary: "Thou art turned to be cruel to me" (Job 30:21); conscious of his virtue, yet holding God to be the author of his sufferings, Job is driven to the conclusion that God has become his enemy and is bent upon destroying him; (d) the "day of Yahweh"--a prophetic phrase to denote the time of God's manifestation in judgment--is described as coming, "cruel, with wrath and fierce anger" (Isa 13:9). The word "cruelty" has nearly disappeared from the Bible. In the Revised Version (British and American) it occurs only in Ps 27:12. The King James Version has it in Ge 49:5; Ps 74:20 (the Revised Version (British and American) "violence"); Eze 34:4 (perekh, "crushing," the Revised Version (British and American) "rigor").
The Old Testament records many acts on the part of chosen individuals and the elect nation which are marked by gross cruelty, particularly when measured by the standards of our own age. Some of these acts are sanctioned by Scripture or even presented as commanded by God, as, for example, the sacrifice of Isaac, the extermination of the Canaanites, the authorization of the avenger of blood and of human slavery, and of retaliation for evil. Some of the deeds performed by Divinely appointed leaders of Israel are characterized by inhumanity. Samuel "hewed Agag in pieces" (1Sa 15:33). David massacred the Ammonites with great barbarity (2Sa 12:31). Elijah slew the prophets of Baal (1Ki 18:40; compare 2Ki 1:10; 10:25). Some of the utterances of the Psalmists breathe spirit of hate and revenge, as in the so-called imprecatory psalms (Ps 137:8-9; 139:21 f). This has often been a matter of great perplexity to the devout student of the Bible. He has found it difficult to reconcile such practices, which bear the stamp of Divine approval, with the highest standards of Christian morality. It is sometimes urged in justification that these deeds are permitted, but not commanded by God. But this answer hardly meets the facts of the case. We shall arrive at a truer answer if we recognize the fact, which Jesus emphasizes, that the Old Testament religion is a self-accommodation to the low moral standard of those whom it was designed to instruct. This He reiterates in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:22,28,34), and affirms in His reference to the hardness of the ancestral Jewish heart (Mt 19:8). In the Old Testament we are dealing with the childhood of the world, in which revelation is compelled to limit itself to the comprehension of its subjects. It must speak so that they can understand. It must start with them where it finds them. It must lead them along lines in which they of their own volition can walk, that character may grow step by step. A gradual development of spiritual and ethical ideals may clearly be traced in the sacred records. We must therefore read the Old Testament narratives and interpret their teaching, not according to the standards of our own age, but in the light of the age to which these narratives belong. The spirit of Elijah may not be the spirit of Christ (Lu 9:55). While many of the acts of cruelty and barbarity recorded in the Old Testament are indicative of an age of a low type of morality, yet we must at the same time recognize the fact, that Israel's religion by emphasizing holy living and righteous conduct created an atmosphere favorable for the growth of high ethical ideals. Wherever this religion is seen at its best, as in the teachings of the prophets, it is the mark of the righteous man to treat human life as sacred and to refrain scrupulously from inflicting unnecessary pain. Even the Gentiles shall be brought to judgment for their barbarities and inhuman practices (Am 1:2 f; 2Ki 25:7). Among the blessings of the Messianic kingdom, predicted by the prophets, is the cessation of war with all of its attendant cruelties and horrors. The Law of Israel also reflected this tendency toward humanity, and many of its ordinances, while seemingly inhuman, really tended to mitigate prevailing barbarity. Instances of such ordinances are those referring to the maltreatment of slaves (Ex 21:20), to the Cities of Refuge (Nu 35:19 ff; compare Jos 20:1-9), to rules of warfare (De 20:10 f), etc. The extermination of the Canaanites is represented as a Divine judgment upon a morally corrupt civilization (Ge 15:16; De 12:30). It is declared necessary in order to guard the Hebrews from contamination by the sins of the Canaanites (Ex 23:32). It is not so far back, that many of the practices that are condemned by the most enlightened Christianity of our day, prevailed universally and were not thought incompatible with Christian civilization. Even our own time needs to secure a more widespread practical recognition of the principles of humanity, kindness and justice, which are professedly the law of the Christian life.