A God of Justice? Exploring the Old Testament Genocide

One of the proofs people cite as evidence of a merciless God is His Old Testament commands to the Israelites to utterly destroy several nations of people, including their women, children and livestock. Such commands certainly seem to fly in the face of the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” and Jesus’ teachings to pray for enemies and turn the other cheek. And, not surprisingly, such passages pose the biggest problem for most Christians. How does one reconcile a God who sent His only son to redeem mankind with the God who erased entire groups of people from living memory? It seems like a task too big.

Well, after years of thinking it over, struggling with it, and just plain ignoring that section of the Bible, I finally received an answer. I shouldn’t have ignored the Old Testament, because the explanation was right there all along–and it does make sense. I realize this explanation may not prove entirely satisfying for some people, but I hope that what I share here today will bring some insight (and perhaps peace) to both Christians and skeptics who have been wrestling with this same issue.

Kill Them All?

However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them–the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivities and Jebusites–as the Lord your God has commanded you. (Deuteronomy 20:16-17)

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When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. (Deuteronomy 7:1-2)

Yes, kill them all. The wording leaves no room for doubt or equivocation. It’s there in your face. But why? Why destroy these seven nations? Just so the Israelites can settle their land?? And destroy not just the warriors of these nations, but also the women, children and cattle? That doesn’t seem very nice. Or forgiving. Or moral. Or even rational. I mean, what’s a little child ever done to offend God? Or, for that matter, a cow or a sheep?

Who Were They?

The Bible provides some information about these seven nations that resided in the land of Canaan. First of all, they did not accept God as the one true God. They practiced polytheism, worshiping (in particular) gods named Molek (Leviticus 18:21), Baal (Numbers 25:2-3) and Asherah (Judges 3:7). These nations were also warring nations, often striking out at each other for plunder or territory. A few of their conflicts are recorded in Genesis.

But simple idolatry and warmongering wasn’t enough to call down God’s ultimate wrath. After all, there were many other cultures engaged in aggression and idol worship that God commanded the Israelites to treat with peace before resorting to war (see Deuteronomy 20:10). And these seven nations, though they lived in the territory God wished to give the Israelites, weren’t completely in the way. Abraham (the Israelite patriarch) and his brother Lot had lived quite well among the Canaanites and Perizzites years before (see Genesis 13).

So if idolatry, aggression and location alone weren’t the problem, then what was?

The Worst Immorality Imaginable

The problem was evil. These seven nations were engaged in the most vile practices known to mankind. This was not some simple carousing on the Sabbath, or a little dabbling in adultery, or some petty thievery. The Canaanite nations of Joshua’s day practiced incest, bestiality and child sacrifice as part of their religion (Leviticus 18). They preyed upon innocent travelers–often beating them, raping or sodomizing them, and leaving them to starve in the streets for entertainment–if they weren’t raped to death (see Judges 19). Sodom and Gomorrah, the cities God destroyed by fire in Abraham’s day, were Canaanite cities. And they had an infamous reputation long before God unleashed the burning sulfur rain. The Bible says people routinely cried out against the cities’ inhabitants for their foul deeds. The victims’ outcry became so great that God could no longer ignore them (Genesis 18:20-21).

Over and over in the Old Testament, whenever God is commanding the Israelites to avoid certain practices, He mentions the sin of the Canaanites:

Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the foreigners residing among you must not do any of these detestable things, for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you. (Leviticus 18:24-28)

It wasn’t just God who found these practices detestable; anyone with a modicum of human decency found them deplorable, too. And these acts weren’t just committed by a few bad apples; the whole of Canaanite society was engaged in them. God couldn’t even find 10 righteous people in Sodom, for whom He would have spared the whole city (Genesis 18:32). God’s destruction of Sodom, Gomorrah, and the Canaanite nations was an act of divine justice–for all the babies that had been chopped up or burned alive in furnaces, for the animals that were sodomized, for the men and women who were gang-raped to death, and for the peaceful foreigners who were made to starve while men laughed in their faces. The Canaanites were so amoral, they made the paganism of the Greeks and Romans look like The Enlightenment by comparison.

What would we think of a God who would allow such depravity to flourish in the world? Would we want such cultures around today? I think not!

I find it interesting that any time some tragedy occurs in the world, people complain that God isn’t doing anything about it. Yet the times He has wrought justice are rejected as detestable and used to label Him “bloodthirsty,” “unfair,” and “merciless.” It doesn’t work both ways!

Why Cows, Women and Kids?

The Bible gives reasons for not allowing the women of these nations to survive judgment. The main reason was that, since they helped maintain the practices of their culture’s idolatry, they would corrupt the Israelite men with their immoral paganism (Deuteronomy 7:3-4). When the Israelites disobey God by marrying such women anyway, this is exactly what occurs.

The Bible doesn’t explicitly state why God also ordered the destruction of children and cattle, but here are some theories:

* All seven of these nations were stronger, more numerous, more prosperous and more technologically advanced than Israel, and their claim was that their gods had made them so. They mocked the God of the Hebrews, calling Him pathetic. God wanted to prove that His character and law is superior to those of other gods. If the Israelites had merely killed a few hundred Canaanite soldiers, they might have claimed it was just luck or tenacity. But being totally wiped out by a weak, inferior people? That could only be wrought by the divine. Through the Canaanites total destruction, God intended to reveal Himself to the world.

* Children become adults who wonder about their heritage. If the Israelites had spared them, they could have ended up with a resentful, rebellious Canaanite faction on their hands 15 or 20 years down the road when said children came into maturity. And since all seven of these nations were individually more populous than Israel, these Canaanite children would have become a significant portion (possibly the majority) of the Israelite population.

* These children came from nations that routinely engaged in incest. As a result, they may have suffered from genetic abnormalities, diseases and mental deficiencies. The Israelites were already known as a weak nation because of their small population and limited resources. Allowing these children to thrive and intermarry with the Israelites could have devastated the population.

* It’s likely that many of these children were sexually exploited by the Canaanite adults, considering everything else that went on in their culture. Children who have been sexually abused often display highly sexualized behavior, especially in young adulthood, as a way of coping with the pain and humiliation of their abuse. This could have jump-started the cycle of sexual sin within Israelite culture–the very thing God was trying to prevent.

* For burnt offerings, God required male animals with no defects (Leviticus 1:3). Such animals symbolized the sinless purity of the coming Messiah. Therefore, animals that had been defiled by bestiality were unacceptable for sacrifice. In fact, God commanded the Israelites to kill animals that had been used for sexual purposes (Leviticus 20:15-16). In plundering livestock from a bestial people, the Israelites wouldn’t have known which animals had been defiled and would have used them for sacrifices (see 1 Samuel 15).

* Bestiality wounds animals both physically and psychologically. In some species, it promotes aggression, which threatens the safety of humans and other animals. Bestiality has also been known to spread diseases between humans and animals. It’s entirely possible that both the Canaanites and their animals suffered from infections resulting from bestiality.

* One scholar draws parallels between the Canaanites’ total destruction and the amputation of a gangrenous limb. When a gangrenous limb is amputated, the surgeon cuts above the diseased area, removing some healthy tissue. This is done to ensure that no infection lingers in the surrounding tissues. The loss of the healthy tissue is unfortunate, but far better than risking a resurgence of the disease.

A God of Justice and Mercy

By now, I imagine some people are asking why God doesn’t deal with evil today. Part of the problem is, we fail to recognize God’s methods when He does respond. We expect Him to act in certain ways, and when He doesn’t, we question His nature or existence. God is not bound by time or our finite understanding. He can see the ultimate outcome of every choice before it is made.

The other reason God seems slow to act is because of His merciful nature. God gives people time to repent and recognize His power–not just in minutes, but in years, decades, and even centuries. The Bible says in 2 Peter 3:8-9,

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

Unfortunately, some people never come to that revelation. They continue to sin and lead others into the same foul depravity. It’s usually when they’ve reached the point of no return, and their victims’ cries ring through the heavens, that God must act. And then His judgment is swift and final.

Today, the depravity of the wicked seems to grow deeper by the day. But the day of God’s final judgment approaches as well. Those who have maliciously shed innocent blood and defiled the land with their sin will face the consequences. Those who have demonstrated love and compassion and kept God’s commands will be comforted. Until then, we wait for those who may still be saved.    

2 responses to “A God of Justice? Exploring the Old Testament Genocide

  1. Suppose “judgement” is not a juridical issue involving the justification of man(kind), but the “justification” (validation)of the Divine Revelation of God-Self as Unconditional/Kenotic Love to us?