In PART 4 of our series “Is the Old Testament Moral?” we looked at the death penalties listed in the Old Testament. We argued that God is right in ordering the death of certain people who commit certain sins. And He has no problem using regular people to carry out His penalties. If we successfully defended the notion of capital punishment for individuals than it should be possible to apply this same judgment on a large scale. In short, it should be possible to identify scenarios in which God asked people to carry out the death penalty on an entire tribe or nation.
Many secular folks would cry out at this point, and state that no such mass killings could ever be justified. Yet the with a world wide death toll of nearly, one billion over the past 120 years, abortion is a form of genocide that almost no secular person objects to. So it is difficult for me to hold their objection seriously. If they can entertain the mass killing of the most innocent humans, why not a much, much, much smaller annihilation of extremely depraved and murderous people groups? In fact, the Late Bronze Age (3300 – 1200 BC) population in all of Canaan was estimated by researchers from the University of South Africa to be less than 600,000. In a single year, in a single country (the U.S.) there are almost twice as many abortions carried out.
Judgment Executed By Pagan Nations on the Jewish Nations
Remember that when Israel went sour, God used the Assyrians to destroy it and a century later used the Babylonians to utterly devastate the remainder of His own people in the nation of Judah. This was purely an act of His judgment. God did not turn a blind eye to sin — even if it was the Jews who were at stake.
Is Conquest the Same as Genocide?
In 1948, in the wake of the horrors of the Holocaust, the United Nations held their Genocide Convention and defined it as “”acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” In the book of Joshua we see that God asks the Jews to “drive out” several nations that resided in what would today be Lebanon, Israel and Jordan:
“This is how you will know that the living God is among you and that he will certainly drive out before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites.” (Joshua 3:10)
These tribes were all considered “Canaanites” because this term referred to a large geographical region known as Canaan. It would be like calling someone to conquer “the Europeans.” Which of course would entail several sub-division of national identities such as Germans, French and Greeks.
In Deuteronomy 7, God calls for the driving out of the Canaanites stating that Joshua is to “utterly destroy” all the Canaan tribes. Joshua is then warned that Jews are not to intermarry with any of the Canaan region tribes people. This was to circumvent the Exodus laws permitting the marrying of wives of conquered enemies. Now, in 1 Samuel 15:3 we see Saul being asked to explicitly kill every last man, woman, child and donkey of the Amalekites, and although this people group were not explicitly Canaanite, it is a command that fits the bill of national and religious genocide. The purpose of these annihilations of all Amalekites and Canaanites was to erase their influence fully and completely. The reason for their guilt was not their ethnicity, but their sin. Hitler on the other hand, identified “lives not worthy of life” based on genetics. And the express goal of the Nazis was to eradicate their land of all genetic traces of Slavik and Jewish races as well as those of handicapped and homosexual persons. God, however, only wanted to remove the influence of the Canaanites so as to preserve the morality and the survival of His people and their new found nation. But this death penalty was not based on ethnicity — it was based on cultural morality.
God could have placed His people anywhere on the planet, He did not simply want the land of the Canaanites. I strongly propose the notion that He chose that land because it was a place where wickedness had reached a point where His judgment was going to come. Therefore He chose His people to carry it out, and simultaneously carved out a home for them.
I think it is fair to call this not only a conquest but a genocidal command by the Hebrew God. Again, remember that the unlawful killing of a man is murder but the lawful killing of a man is not. Large scale capital punishment of a nation is not necessarily unlawful. Just because something is genocidal does not automatically make it evil. Now, please notice that nowhere in Scripture is man allowed to judge an entire nation, it is a brutal choice that is for God, and God alone to decide. Such as in the case of the Flood and the utter destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. God does hold the right over life and death over every living thing. And sometimes calls for mass scale capital punishment. For the atheist, his beloved “Mother Nature” will do the exact same thing and yet, I usually hear only praise for Her eminating from his pen.
A Special Command Not a Way of Life
A very important point to make here is that genocide was not included in the “way of life” of the Jews. When God instructed Moses as to what moral and civil laws Israel was to be guided, He did not include military conquest of other nations or genocidal commands of all non-Jewish nations. He only asked for a specific people group to be removed during a limited period of conquest. In comparison, the Muslim religion was born from a clan of Arab caravan robbers who wrote into the fabric of their religion the command to never-endingly continue military conquest until the entire globe was under an Islamic caliphate. God does not have a militant way of life and the history of Israel is not one of military conquest but that of a country whose size is quite humble and whose military is not turned outward into on-going, universal expansion.
Why Is it Right for God to Conquer a Nation?
In Genesis 15:16 God tells Abraham that his descendants must wait over 400 years to possess the land of the Canaanites because “he sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”
What exactly was this “sin?” Well, as best we know, the Canaanites were prone to the worship of the pagan gods Baal and Asherah. Baal involved child sacrifice that included placing infants into the red hot arms of bronze statues in his likeness. Asherah worship was part and parcel of a sexual circus that included temple prostitutes (both male and female), incest and bestiality. What the gods do, the people do. The Canaanite epic poem(1), The Baal Cycle states:
“Mightiest Baal hears; He makes love with a heifer in the outback, A cow in the field of Death’s Realm. He lies with her seventy times seven, Mounts eighty times eight; She conceives and bears a boy.”
Further, these pagan religions were steeped in the occult and their practitioners were violently opposed to God’s people. We can therefore appreciate that there are limits to God’s patience. Yet the modern readers’ sensitivities are pricked because we are used to stories of “gentle Jesus” and are often reminded of God’s massive propensity for mercy. This is a legitimate struggle for the modern reader to have. God’s heart, we are repeatedly told in both the Old and New Testament, is for mercy and not judgment. In Jeremiah 18:7-8 we see:
“If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it.”
So yes, we should expect God to default to mercy and grace. Yet realize how depraved and unwilling to repent the Canaanite people had to be to fall short of even God’s willingness to preserving nations. We know from Joshua 2 that the Canaanites were well aware of the Jewish God Yahweh and therefore were not caught off guard. They were not ignorant of God’s ways or of who His people were. They were defiant and satisfied in their ways. Remember that God was willing to spare even Sodom and Gomorrah if a few righteous people had been found within them. Also God sent Jonah to the capital of Assyria — Nineveh — to get these savage people to repent and avoid destruction. 2 Peter 2:5 calls Noah a “preacher of righteousness,” making a case for the fact that he had tried to warn his contemporaries. Because only Noah’s family were aboard the arc once the rain began, it seems only theyheeded the warnings of impending destruction. God’s large scale judgments seem to come when evil has reached a critical point of no return.
Remember that it was Israel’s failure to completely drive out the Canaanites that lead them to intermarry with them and absorb their vile cultural and religious practices. Finally forcing God to use the pagan nations of Assyria and Babylon to purge His own nations, Israel and Judah. The point is, sin kills and sometimes God kills in order to… contain the killing.
What About the Children?
This is perhaps the touchiest of the issues when defending God-ordained genocide. Yet as we look at modern day cultures such as those of jihadist Muslims, we see how a deeply broken culture indoctrinates and brain washes its very youngest. Early childhood is steeped in military training and the teaching that killing non-Muslims is approved by Allah. As a result, a never-ending cycle of violence is perpetuated. From a Christian perspective, a child is not morally culpable and therefore death leads to eternal life. Child development science has repeatedly shown that early abuse leaves lasting scars. Even the intra-uterine environment is a sensitive place in which developing babies can be molded by the hormonal release and diet of their mothers. Children born under the Canaanite world in which sexual immorality, occultic rituals and brutal violence was as common as Sesame Street could very well have been doomed to an immoral and broken life and then, ultimately, to eternal damnation. Could it not be an act of mercy to save these children and infants from earthly and eternal suffering?
Before we can flippantly accuse God of immorality simply because He judged entire nations, we have to list the conditions He used to level His nation-wide death penalties:
- Only God can pronounce genocidal commands.
Genocide was not part of the life of a Jew. The 10 commandments were. Following the sacrificial laws of the Temple were. Dietary restrictions were. Public sanitation guidelines were. But God never once trusted men to judge entire nations. He did and then told His pronouncements to His chosen leaders.
- Nations had to be totally depraved.
If you’ve devolved to the level of having sex with animals, family members and priests and are tossing your kids onto a red hot burning statue to watch them burn… well, you may want to think about listening to God who asks you to repent…
- Nations had to refuse to repent.
Sodom and Gomorrah could have avoided destruction had their been a basketball team-sized group of righteous folks. God sent Jonah to preach forgiveness to the Assyrians. A people group arguably worse and more savage than any other in history. Including the Nazis and Canaanites. So if you fall short of God’s very easy standard and absolutely refuse any and all chances to repent, well, you will be judged. Remember that even Israel was judged and conquered as punishment for her refusal to repent. God does not play favourites.
- Nations had to be hostile to Israel
The Amalekites refused to cease from attacking the Jewish nations. Completely unprovoked by Israel but driven by a hatred and a lust for her destruction, these barbarians were not content with the existence of God’s Chosen People and decided to set themselves up against Yahweh’s will.
- Nations had to be a seductive danger to Israel and the rest of the world.
As we eventually saw, Israel refused to completely separate themselves from the surrounding nations. Unfortunately this lead them to mingle with the people and customs of the Canaanites and fell into sin. They even began worshipping Asherah and Baal. Consequently, God called up the Assyrian savages and pagan Babylonians to destroy Isreal and Judah. The seductive power of sin was something God wanted to cut off by driving out and destroying the pagan Canaanites. The same way your cancer surgeon does not toy with leaving even some of the tumour cells behind when he’s excising your cancer.
God is not a lover of death but a merciful Saviour. God is not a warring, genocidal God. His commands to eradicate entire nations was short lived and not an on-going part of the lives of the Jews nor the Christians. History bares this out. Israel has forever been a very small geographical land mass, and Christianity spread throughout the Roman empire for its first 300 years of existence, not by military exercise, but through gentle living and being unfairly martyred.
(1.) Mark S. Smith, trans. Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, Simon B. Parker, ed., (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1997), 148. In the same volume see also “Baal Fathers a Bull” Simon B. Parker, trans., 181-186 and “A Birth” Simon B. Parker, trans. 186-187. Albright says that in “the light of several Egyptian accounts of the goddess, unquestionably translated from an original Canaanite myth” that Baal raped Anath while she was in the form of a calf. W. F. Albright, Yahweh and the God’s of Canaan: A Historical Analysis of Two Contrasting Faiths (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1968), 128-129.