Genocide and the Old Testament
There is one question which comes up repeatedly, both as I travel and teach
for Christian groups and at the web site. The question takes different forms, but
in general it goes something like this: If God is such a loving God, how can we
explain the fact that he commanded the Israelites to wipe out entire nations
of people, including innocent children? If God commanded ?do not kill,? how can you
explain that God commanded genocide on a whole nation? A corollary question is why
did God show favoritism toward the Israelites and relative disfavor to other
nations? Isn?t this bias, which the New Testament forbids?
This question is not answered easily. The theological implications are great, as are
the implications for biblical consistency and infallibility. It is not hard to see the apparent
contradiction between the God who is defined as love in the Bible and the God
who asked Israelto wipe out whole peoples; men, women and children. As it says
in 1 John 4:16, ?God is love.? Add to that the sayings of Jesus about how to treat
our enemies. He prescribed, ?But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who
persecute you.? (Matthew 5:44) It does not take a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic of Christianity
to find an apparent contradiction here. The view of God as very loving combined
with his commandments to love everyone, including our enemies seems to be in
stark contrast, perhaps even contradiction with God?s command to his people to wipe out
whole populations of peoples, especially during the time of the Jew?s conquest
My answer will involve a few arguments, but let me say that even at the end
of this argument, I am still left somewhat troubled by the biblical accounts
of what the Jews were asked by God to do to the inhabitants of Canaan. In other words,
I can make a fairly strong logical argument for why a loving God would call
on Israelto do this, but in the end, my emotions struggle to follow my logic
on this. I am left uncomfortable with the idea, even if I can explain it. I am
?guessing that most or all of my readers are in the same place on this.
With that qualification to my answer, let me proceed to explain why I believe
that the scenario above (a loving God and his command to kill whole communities)
is indeed a contrast, but not a contradiction. First of all, we, as humans,
assume that death is an inherently evil thing. God does not see it that way. Sin is
evil. Rebellion against God is evil. Selfishness, greed, sexual immorality and violence
as well are all evil. However, physical death is not evil. From God?s perspective,
the death of a human being is not an end but a transition. Death is not inherently
evil because it is not the end of existence for a being with a soul. It is
difficult for us as humans who instinctually fear death to understand, but it
is not inherently evil for the lives of the Canaanites to be ended, even in
warfare. It is sinful to take a life in anger or out of selfishness or greed, but to
take a life because one was commanded to do so by God is not sinful.
Having said that, it is not reasonable to deduce that it is just fine for us
to go around killing people. Far from it. However, it is not an absolute that the taking
of a life is evil. Consider the situation in Canaanat the time the Israelites
were about to enter to take possession of the Promised Land. The religious practices
of the Canaanites were absolutely despicable. Worship of Chemosh included ?sacrificing?
of babies in the fire. Imagine how God felt about people killing their babies in
a vain attempt to manipulate a god who did not even exist! Other gods were worshipped
by performing sex acts with prostitutes in the temples. Idolatry and sexual immorality
were common practice of Canaanite religion. There was essentially zero chance
of anyone raised in such a culture to become a righteous person or to end up
with God for eternity. Children born into a Canaanite family were virtually certain
to be corrupted by the violence and sexual degradation they were born into. Suc
h cultures were abominable in God?s sight. As bad as things seem to us in our own
cultures today, Canaanin the fifteenth millennium BC was far worse.
For those who do not have a good understanding of the God of the Bible, his
justice and his love can at times appear to be in contradiction. In the case of Canaan, bo
th his justice and his love dictated that something radical be done. We do not have
the God-given right to judge or take vengeance on others. Period. ?Do not take
revenge, my friends, but leave room for God?s wrath, for it is written: ?It
is mine to avenge; I will repay?? (Romans 12:19) But God does have that right.
To quote Hebrews 10:30-31 (which is in the New Testament, by the way) ?Vengeance
belongs to Me, I will repay, and again, The Lord will judge His people. It is a terrifyin
g thing to fall into the hands of a living God. The God of the Bible is both loving
and just. In the case of Canaanin the fifteenth century BC, the time for judgment
God had a chosen people. Israelwas chosen, not because God is prejudiced
or cold and heartless. Israelwas chosen because of a promise as the result of the faith
of Abraham. God made a promise to Abraham that through his descendents all people would
eventually be blessed (Genesis 18:18). It was God?s plan to give Abraham?s descendents
a place?a Promised Land. This was an act of love, as was the final working out of
that promise when God allowed his one and only son to be killed on the cross
in Jerusalem. There was no way for Israelto receive that land without driving
out or destroying those who occupied that land. In ancient times, it was also impossible
to control and live in an abundant and fruitful land without an army and without
willingness to use that army to defeat one?s enemies. Israellived in a very violent
world. They were to rely on God for deliverance, but they were also commanded to
fight battles with weapons of war.
It is disturbing to me and I assume that it is disturbing to you that God asked I
sraelto destroy the peoples in Canaan. However, given the loving promise by God
to bless all people through Israeland through their occupation of the Promised
Land, what appears difficult for us to understand begins to make sense. I assume
that the children killed in this sad affair are with God in heaven. I assume that
all or virtually all of the adults killed by the Jews had the same eventual
fate that they would have had by virtue of the fact that they lived in a deeply
corrupt and perverted society. They are separated from God for eternity. G
od?s justice was served by the military action of Israel. I will admit that
it is harder to see this, but I believe God?s love was also served by what
Bear in mind that God did not give Israelcarte blanch to go around killing whomever
they wanted to. Their charge was for a specific and limited area, for a specific
and limited amount of time. They were never given encouragement or permission to
build up an empire or to lord it over other peoples. Their charge was to occupy the
Promised Land as a special and chosen people of God. If one studies the law, especially
in Leviticus, one will discover that God?s commandments were to avoid every
kind of unwarranted violence, abuse of outsiders, outbursts of rage and so forth.
To live as a foreigner in Israelwas to live in more humane circumstances than
most people experienced in their native lands. God commanded his people to very humane
behavior in general. However, this did not preclude the people using violence to occupy
the Promised Land or to defend Jerusalemand the templeof God.
To summarize, it is not unreasonable to find an apparent contradiction in the
Bible due to the historical accounts of God?s people destroying entire cities
in order to occupy the Promised Land. This certainly does not seem to jibe with
Jesus? commandment to love our enemies. However, the contradiction is apparent, but not
real. God is just and God is love. If one considers the intent of God to bless all people
through the descendants of Abraham and if one considers the irretrievably corrupt
lifestyle in the ancient Near East, the command to occupy the Promised Land
and to drive out or destroy its people becomes a reasonable one. I list the premises
of this little essay below.
1. Our assumption that the death of a human being is inherently an evil thing
is not correct.
2. What is evil is that human beings rebel against God and sin against him.
3. There exist situations in which God?s justice trumps his love for individuals
and for peoples
with the result that God will bring physical judgment on both individual
people and peoples.
4. Although humans do not have the right to judge others as deserving of life
or death, salvation
or damnation, God does.
5. God?s plan to bless all humanity through Abraham and his descendents is
the greatest good
possible for humanity.
6. If it were God?s plan to send his messiah/savior through a special people
with a definite
political and religious history, this could not be done in the ancient
world without the use of
Despite appearances to the contrary, the decision to destroy the peoples of
Cannan?men, women and children?was an act of both love and justice.
John Oakes, PhD