Question from Visitor: Why does the Bible condone genocide? Was that just the Old Testament "god" who demanded that? It is clear that in the book of Joshua, God commanded the Jews to utterly wipe out people groups that inhabited Canaan. If this is so, why didn't Jesus denounce him?
Response: Before we can even address this question, we must make one thing absolutely clear: God is God and we are not. He alone is the Creator, the Giver of Life – and so he, too, is the Taker of Life. He takes life from whomever he will, whenever he will, and however he wants (1 Samuel 2:6; Job 1:21; Deut 9:4-6, 10:14; Isaiah 45:5-7). Even if we take nothing else into consideration, that alone is more than sufficient cause for us to "lay our hands upon our mouths" (see Job 38-42, esp. 40:4). Doesn't the potter have a right to make one vessel for honorable use, and another vessel for dishonorable use, from the same lump of clay (Isaiah 45:9-10; Rom. 9:19-24)? Well then, so does God, who created humans from the dust, have the right to do with all of them however he sees fit. Woe to anyone who dares to argue with him or accuse him of wrongdoing in anything he does in his world and with his creatures.
Before we get to Canaan, consider this further point: not only may God take life as he sees fit – he does take the life of every last human on earth (see Heb. 9:27). We should not lose the shock of this fearful truth: death is not natural, it is not a normal process of time and chance, it is not a necessary mechanism of evolution. Humans were created to live eternally, and the fact that they do not bespeaks a horrible truth – we are all born under divine wrath and judgment. Death, as the Bible reveals, is the just penalty exacted for Adam's disobedience in the garden (Genesis 2:16-17; Rom. 5:12-14). Not only did God take the lives of all the Canaanites – he takes the life of everyone. The peoples of Canaan were dealt out this death penalty earlier than they expected; but in essence, their lot was no different than ours. We are all subject to death.
Now, let us consider the case of the Canaanites with these things in mind: as God revealed through Moses, he had a special purpose for giving them their just punishment of death a little earlier than they expected. Specifically, God was judging them at that time for burning their children in the fire as sacrifices, for their gross idolatry, divination, witchcraft, sorcery, and for mediums – i.e. those who call up the dead (Deut. 18:9-13).
In Deuteronomy 9:4-6 God himself gives the reason for his command to slaughter the Canaanites; but it is of great importance that we also notice the following passage, where God declares that the Israelites were no less wicked than the Canaanites, and deserved the same fate:
4 "Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, 'It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,' whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you. 5 Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob 6"Know, therefore, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people.
7"The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, 8 but because the LORD loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the LORD brought you out by a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt."
This latter passage directly relates Israel's mandate to destroy the Canaanites and possess their land to what God had done for Israel in Egypt; therefore, it is vital to understand how God had just redeemed the nation of Israel. The climactic event marking Israel's exodus from slavery was the Passover; and in the Passover, the people all had to paint a lamb's blood on their doors so the angel of death would pass over their home (Exodus 11-15). If they did not apply the blood of the lamb, their firstborn would have been taken just like the rest of the Egyptians – they deserved the same judgment and only escaped it by the blood of the lamb.
In a similar vein, God warned the Israelites that they were not essentially immune from the Canaanites' judgment of slaughter: "But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live. And then I will do to you what I plan to do to them.' "(Numbers 33:55-56). The Israelites deserved judgment just like the others, whether Egyptian of Canaanite. This should serve to remind us that we may not assume that those who suffer unique or catastrophic calamities in this life or any worse than we ourselves, since it is only the grace of God in Jesus Christ which makes us to differ from anyone (see Luke 13:1-5; 1 Cor. 4:7).
A couple more points may be helpful to keep the slaughter of the Canaanites in perspective: first, at that time in the OT, God had given the nation of Israel clear civil authority and responsibilities; and as a lawfully-ordained civil government, functioning directly under his control, He commanded them to carry out His just judgment against the idolaters of Canaan. Although he gave Israel the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill" (better, "murder"), it is clear that this is a prohibition against unlawful killing of any kind, or taking vengeance into one's own hands. In the same document in which we find this commandment, we may also find many places where God commanded the Israelites to put their own people to death for certain types of disobedience (like idolatry). When it is a judicial act of a properly instituted civil government, taking a life may sometimes be warranted. Apparently, the slaughter of the Canaanites was one such judicial act, carried out by the magistrates of Israel.
We must be very clear here, however, that as Christians living under the New Covenant, our instructions to advance the gospel and "make disciples" never involves taking up the sword to do so. Genocide is never part of our specific mission, and the times in Church history when this has been forgotten are tragic and wrong. But be certain, just genocide will indeed occur again on the Last Day, when all those who do not know Christ and who disobey the glorious gospel will be punished with everlasting destruction (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9).
A second point to consider: it should not surprise us that God sometimes uses people to carry out His judgment. He used Israel to punish Edom (Ezek. 25:14). But he also used the nations of Babylon and Assyria to punish Israel for her own sins and disobedience. Then, when he had finished using those nations, he punished them as well (see Isaiah 10:5-27). Throughout the scriptures, God uses people (even wicked people) to judge other people, and exercises his sovereignty over war and the results of war (see the Book of Habakkuk). But we must never forget that there is no command for Christians to kill unbelievers.
In sum, whenever God takes a life, he does so not only because he has that right as Creator, but also as the perfectly just Judge. God is infinitely wise and infinitely powerful, so you can be certain that if He does something He always has a good reason for it. In the passage we mentioned in Deuteronomy, God even gives us a reason for taking the lives of the Canaanites, although he was under no obligation to do so. In his all-seeing eye of pure justice, these people were wicked and the time of his forbearance was over. Likewise, God had a good reason to flood the entire earth and to kill the whole world, Noah and his family excepted. Again, God had a perfectly good reason to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah with fire (Gen 6-9; ; 15:16; Deut 9:4-6; Deut 10:14; Deut 12:31,32; Deut 18:9-14; Isa 2:6; 2 Chron 28:3). And God has a good reason to return in his own time and again destroy the world with fire (2 Pet. 3:1-13).
God's right to take life should deeply humble us to repentance, since we all justly deserve to be killed (Luke 13:3-5). Yet God himself took pity on rebellious mankind by enduring the full wrath we deserve upon himself. Let this drive us to the cross of Christ, where all the wrath of God is absorbed in Christ, the sacrificial Lamb of God, on behalf of all believing sinners. The lesson we can learn from all this is that, in this life, some get justice while others get mercy – but either way, God gets the glory. The Canaanites, whom God commanded the Israelites to slaughter, justly deserved death, as do we; but God has had mercy on us, since Christ has suffered the penalty of death and the wrath of God in our place. When we truly understand our just reward, and the immense depths to which Christ stooped to deliver us from that terrible condemnation, we will be quick to abandon the presupposition which so often undergirds such questions as these, that we have the right as autonomous beings to live as we please, and demand an explanation from God for his actions.
"Man is not naturally mortal; death is not the debt of nature but the wages of sin." - John Murray
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