Slaughter of the innocents?

Posted: 16th June, 2008
Last updated: 18th June, 2008


Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?

Genesis 18:25

RAMI SIVAN IS A HINDU DOMESTIC PRIEST. A Jew by birth, in his early teens he began the requisite studies for a Jewish boy preparing to take the Bar Mitzvah. He read various passages where God commanded Israel to destroy all the people of Canaan and possess their land and cities — here was a God who ordered ethnic cleansing! Saying, "I don't need a God like this in my life”, Sivan abandoned his Jewish faith, changed his name, and turned to Hinduism. Rami Sivan is not alone in questioning the goodness of a God who would order such slaughter; millions of people have rejected the biblical God for the same reason as Sivan.

Believers cannot sweep this problem under the rug indefinitely; it must be faced honestly. The issue is unambiguous: How can anybody worship a God who issues vicious edicts against “innocent people”? We're all very happy to see the Lord as our shepherd and to be led beside still waters, but how many are willing to grant the same Lord the right to pronounce universal doom on an entire people?

Philosophical theologians have grappled for centuries with the “moral difficulties” raised by Joshua's bloody conquest of the Holy Land. Beginning with Marcion in the second century AD, some have solved the problem by denouncing the God of the Old Testament as a dangerous power and the Old Testament itself as the “document of an alien religion” (Kaiser 1983, p. 247). Those who see the Bible as one seamless whole inspired by the true God, the father of Jesus Christ, cannot accept that solution. What are we to do? We must grasp the nettle and deal with it.

The conquest

The Israelite invasion of the land of Canaan under Joshua was neither the first nor the last time God either slaughtered people en masse Himself or ordered His servants to do it on His behalf. The book of Genesis recounts the story of divine slaughter on a global scale in a worldwide flood and the extermination of the entire population of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Egyptians suffered horribly when every firstborn in the land was reaped by the angel of death. But the most intense criticism is leveled against the conquest of the promised land by the Israelites. We are left in no doubt as to what God expected of them:

Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: “When you have crossed the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, destroy all their engraved stones, destroy all their molded images, and demolish all their high places; you shall dispossess the inhabitants of the land and dwell in it, for I have given you the land to possess” (Num. 33:51-53).

That the command included extermination of the populace and not merely the vandalizing of their religious shrines cannot be questioned:

But of the cities of these peoples which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance, you shall let nothing that breathes remain alive, but you shall utterly destroy them: the Hittite and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite, just as the Lord your God has commanded you… (Deut. 20:16-18).

Even the least biblically-literate folk have heard how “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho” and the walls came tumbling down. Assuming that Jericho was about the same size as Ai, on that one day about twelve thousand citizens of the city perished at sword point (Josh. 8:25). Fewer are aware of some of the other tactics God had up His sleeve to help finish the job, such as,

And it happened, as they fled before Israel and were on the descent of Beth Horon, that the Lord cast down large hailstones from heaven on them as far as Azekah, and they died. There were more who died from the hailstones than the children of Israel killed with the sword (Josh. 10:11).

Moreover the Lord your God will send the hornet among them until those who are left, who hide themselves from you, are destroyed (Deut. 7:20).

Harassed and harried by hornets and hailstones as well as by Israelite swords and spears, the Canaanites were gradually whittled down in number to the point that, by the time of Joshua's death, the majority had been exterminated. However, the Israelites never did complete the task as ordered:

And it happened, when the children of Israel grew strong, that they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not utterly drive them out (Josh. 17:13).

When Joshua died there was still “very much land yet to be possessed” (13:2). As a result of their lack of zeal for the task, God allowed some of the local natives to remain behind “that He might test Israel by them” (Jdg. 3:1). The Philistines, for instance, continued to vex Israel at least until the time of King Ahaz centuries later (2 Chron. 28:18).

Let us not allow the lack of success to distract us from the comprehensive nature of the extermination process. And may we not pretend these Scriptures don't exist. Believers must come to terms with them one way or another. Biblical references to divinely-sanctioned slaughter are so numerous that some scholars see warfare as the Old Testament's centre of gravity. Early biblical scholar, Julius Wellhausen, “suggested that for the people of Israel war was not something tangential to its religious or cultural experience. Rather, it was the epicenter of this ancient culture” (Lyons 2003, p. 9). Lyons quotes Wellhausen as saying,

The name “Israel” means “El does battle,” and Jehovah was the warrior El, after whom the nation styled itself (p. 10).

Wellhausen has undoubtedly missed the mark in placing war at the centre of Israel's belief system, but he at least refused to water down the plain testimony of Scripture concerning God's involvement in slaughter.

The problem

Finding objections to Joshua is easy. Authors too numerous to mention have grappled with the problems posed by the Conquest. The majority find nothing in the account worthy of God; they certainly aren't falling over each other to find cause to sing God's praises! Michael Walzer puts the issue as simply as it can be put: “For the modern reader, the conquest of Canaan, with all its attendant slaughter, is the most problematic moment in the history of ancient Israel” (quoted in Lake 1997). Lake adds that, “It is not overstating the case to say that belief in a literal herem [the Hebrew word used when referring to the total destruction wrought] has contributed to a weakening ot confidence in the Old Testament as inspired among modern theologians”. William Lyons says,

herem is indeed a disquieting biblical concept. Readers pause in disbelief at these shocking passages. Can this be a part of the Bible? How can the armies of the Lord do such things? Did God really command total annihilation, or did Israel perhaps mishear him? (2003, p. 2).

Eryl Davies articulates the problem well, too:

The feeling of revulsion that modern readers of the Hebrew Bible are bound to experience when reading such narratives is heightened by the fact that such atrocities were not only permitted or condoned by God but were expressly commanded by him… Clearly such passages, which appear to justify what today would be termed “ethnic cleansing”, raise profound and disturbing ethical and moral questions. What edification and guidance for faith and practice can such narratives possibly have? How can such a portrayal of God, and such outrageous behavior on the part of his people, possibly be recounted without a hint of censure or disapproval? It is hardly surprising that such passages have sometimes been appealed to in order to question the very authority of the Bible itself (2005, p. 199).

Gareth Jones, head of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Wales, goes even further:

What does an injunction to exterminate the Canaanites say about the character of the one who gives it? How does it represent Israel's God? A few adjectives spring to mind: xenophobic, militaristic, racist, exclusivist, barbaric… However one describes the God of Israel, there are times when his cruelty knows no bounds (1999, p. 187).

Jones adds insult to injury by informing his readers that historians have, “… discovered only one country which practiced ethnic cleansing as part of holy war, namely Moab…” (p. 191). None of the major powers ever did such a thing. “For these great civilizations, genocide was not a part of the package”.

But hold it a minute. Do not Christians follow gentle Jesus rather than the Old Testament “bully God”? Don't they have the right to reject the Old Testament in favor of the New? This idea, sometimes called supersessionism, regards the Old Testament as inferior to the New and maintains that, “The God of the Hebrew Scriptures is… inferior to the God of the New Testament” (Jones, p. 191). What does the New Testament itself have to say about the matter? At no point does it criticize Joshua; rather, it approves of his actions! Consider carefully the words of the apostle Paul:

The God of this people Israel chose our fathers, and exalted the people when they dwelt as strangers in the land of Egypt, and with an uplifted arm He brought them out of it. Now for a time of about forty years He put up with their ways in the wilderness. And when He had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, He distributed their land to them by allotment (Acts 13:17-19).

Paul did not breathe a word of disapproval. More tellingly, Jesus Christ foretold the coming of a time when, “Unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved [alive]” (Matt. 24:22). Who controls the destiny of the human race? Whose plan is it? Even though the evil actions of human beings provide the immediate cause of this horror, and those who press the button and send armies to destroy will stand accountable for their deeds, “ultimate responsibility” can be placed squarely at the feet of God and Jesus Christ every bit as much as it can for the genocides of Noah's and Joshua's time can. (However, the knotty challenge of analyzing the concept of “ultimate responsibility” cannot be dealt with here.)

After telling of the death of some Galileans who had perished at Pilate's hand and “whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” Jesus warns us that “unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-3). Jesus, as the judge of all mankind, is the One who will ultimately consign the unrepentant few (very few) to death. His no-compromise approach to sin and no-nonsense approach to salvation matches fully that of His Father as seen at Jericho and other such places. Further, when He returns, Jesus will wreak utter mayhem on the armies of mankind:

Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations… He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God (Rev. 19:15).

The New Testament fully backs up the Old Testament notion that God has the right to deal with His children as He sees fit and that His dealings at times involve death and destruction even of women and children. As Paul shows, we have absolutely no right to question His modus operandi:

For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.” Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens. You will say to me then, "Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?" But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, "Why have you made me like this?" Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor? What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction… (Rom. 9:17-22).

The long and short of it is this: Jesus Christ is the incarnation of the same God who destroyed the entire human race, barring a handful, in Noah's day and who ordered the pogrom against the Canaanites. All attempts to distance gentle Jesus from Joshua's commander-in-chief (Josh. 5:14) are doomed to fail. The Christian's God and Joshua's God are one and the same.

The problem is plain enough; the “solution”, if one can speak in such terms, will obviously not come readily or easily. We will grapple honestly with this problem. But first…

A vital caveat

On 11th December, 1763, a Conestogue Indian named Bill Soc took his broken tomahawk into the town of Lancaster, Delaware, to have it fixed. He made the mistake of taking it to a gunsmith named Abraham Newcomer, a man who despised “red niggers” as he called them. An argument ensued with the upshot that Bill Soc stalked out muttering angry words. When news of the incident reached the ears of one William Smith, he organized a gang of 57 ruffians dubbed “the Paxton boys” who descended with blood-curdling shrieks upon a tiny nearby Conestogue settlement. While twelve Indians managed to flee into the darkness, eight others fell victim to the murderous assault. After setting fire to the cabins, the thugs headed triumphantly back to Lancaster with the scalps of their victims dangling conspicuously from their horses. On the way they met one Thomas Wright who, upon hearing their account of what had happened, objected vehemently. The ringleader responded, “No reason to be upset, friend. We've only followed the Lord's word in respect to what should be done with heathen, as given to us in the Holy Bible.”

“The Bible?”, Wright responded. “Where?”

“Deuteronomy, sir. Chapter seven, verse twelve. I quote for you: ‘And when the Lord thy God shall deliver them before thee, thou shalt smite them and utterly destroy them …' That's what it says, friend, and that's what we did” (Eckert 1970, p. 687).

Some historians tell us that the Crusaders used the Book of Joshua as a blueprint for their military campaigns (Lake 1997). Does the Joshua precedent justify such behavior? Should believers ever kill? King David certainly did. Abraham, the father of the faithful, waged war (Gen. 14:14-15). These are men saved by the blood of Jesus Christ. William Cavanaugh compellingly argues that killing can be justified when — but only when — commanded by God. After pointing out the hypocrisy in the common notion that, “… killing in the name of God is always an outrage; killing in the name of the secular nation-state can be necessary and praiseworthy”, he argues that, “… killing in the name of God is the only type of killing that could be legitimate” (2004, p. 510). He is, however, quick to point out that if human beings take God's law seriously then violence would cease on the earth: “Taking God's commandments too seriously is not the root cause of violence; the problem is not taking them seriously enough” (p. 513).

Overlooked by those who seek to paint the Old Testament God in as dark a light as possible is the simple truth that He commands human beings to refrain from killing. Thus, “if any killing is ever justified, it can only be because God wills it” (Cavanaugh, p. 513), and because God alone is “sovereign over life and death” (p. 515). Leaving aside the biblically-mandated execution of individual criminals, which must be done “only and precisely in obedience to God” (p. 515), we have neither command to kill nor guidelines telling us how to decide when killing would accord with God's will. For individual believers, God's will is plain: “Thou shalt not kill”. Believers are to love their fellow man, not hate him (Lev. 19:18).

Nobody today has permission to kill in God's name. John Bright, although seeing in the Conquest edifying exhortation to the church to get off its proverbial, don its holy military uniforms, and go to war against wickedness in high places explains that, “To use the stories of Joshua as examples to follow would be nothing short of hermeneutical blasphemy” (1975, p. 243). Amen! Acts 7:45 strongly suggests that the mandate ceased with the military operations of King David, even though the task had not been completed. Even the modern state of Israel may well find itself incurring divine displeasure should it ever seek to justify genocide of Palestinians by recourse to Moses. God will restore the land to His people in His way and time.

The victory of Joshua over the Amorites (Nicolas Poussin)

Search for a solution

Everybody who has an interest in this age-old problem has, naturally, sought to solve it one way or another. A summary of standard explanations can be found at "Search for a solution". Here let us simplify the issue by noting that, in the final analysis, each person must choose between one of three fundamental approaches:

1. The events described in the Bible are so shocking that one must conclude either that the God who supposedly issued the decrees doesn't actually exist or, if He does exist, He is a malicious, nasty character;

2. God does exist, and He is good, but He did not inspire the Bible writers;

3. The Bible is fully inspired. God not only exists, He always does right, and is pure “light” and “love”. He is also sovereign Lord of all creation, the Lord of life and death, and has every right to pass judgment of extermination on an entire people when He deems them worthy.

This article is firmly rooted in the third approach based on the premise that Paul was correct in 2 Timothy 3:16 in telling us that every part of the Old Testament was breathed by God and is profitable for building believers in the faith.

1. God's sovereign right: the effective solution

The correct solution to the problem at hand is the simplest one — God is always right no matter what His critics may say. We are God's creation, we did not make ourselves. He literally owns us and not only has the right to decide issues of life and death, His decisions always are right.

Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? (Gen. 18:25).

Though completely worn out by excessive exertion, famed Protestant theologian, John Calvin, devoted the last seven or eight months of his life to writing a commentary on the book of Joshua which has been described by one scholar as Calvin's “dying bequest to the church” (Henry Beveridge, Translator's Preface to Commentaries on the Book of Joshua). Although John Calvin's theology is defective in a number of respects, it is right on when it comes to his approach to the Conquest:

The indiscriminate and promiscuous slaughter, making no distinction of age or sex, but including alike women and children, the aged and decrepit, might seem an inhuman massacre, had it not been executed by the command of God. But as he, in whose hands are life and death, had justly doomed those nations to destruction, this puts an end to all discussion (p. 97).

Whether we like it or not, Scripture tells us that God wages war. An entire book was written entitled “ The Book of the Wars of the Lord ” (Num. 21:14). Further, Exodus 15:3 tells us that,

The Lord is a man of war; the Lord is His name.

Whatever God does is right. When He wages war, He is right to do so. Believers need not blush in grounding their answer to the vexed issue of reconciling God's commands with their natural sensibilities on this sure foundation.

The ease with which human beings stand in judgment of the one true God is nothing short of breathtaking. Oh how righteous we are! How compassionate. How good. But God; He should be arraigned before our righteous courts; if He were, His condemnation would be sure, and we could put Him behind bars forever with a clear conscience. The truth is, if righteous indignation is called for, may it be leveled against the outrageous presumptuousness of those who take the moral high ground, who call fire and brimstone down from their hillocks on God for His acts. Frankly, we should be shocked by the self-righteous, know-it-all philosophy that dares to criticize God and poses as “holier than Him”. We cheer Clint Eastwood when he blows away a filmfull of villains but jeer at God when He mercifully puts transgressors into a deep but temporary sleep. Oh that such folly should be. Do we imagine that any human being has more love than God? Who do we think we are to question God's actions? The universe is His; so are we. All human beings put together, “…are as nothing, and they are counted by Him less than nothing and worthless” (Is. 40:17). (He loves them, though.) That includes us today, and it includes the Canaanites who perished. Stephen Hawking does not believe in God; his reason is intriguing:

My work on the origin of the Universe is on the border between science and religion, but I try to stay on the scientific side. We are on a minor planet of a very average star in the outer suburbs of one of a hundred thousand million galaxies. It is difficult to believe in a God that would care about us. (“A Brief History of Stephen Hawking”, Readers Digest, Sept 1993, p. 148)

Any God that is “big” enough to create the masterpiece we call the universe could not possibly care about us, and hence we must have come into being by natural means, Hawking reasons. Though his conclusion is in error his observation warrants applause. We truly are “less than nothing”. The shocking truth about God is that He does care about us!

Since Yahweh is sovereign Lord of all that He made He needs no vindication for His actions; He is automatically vindicated whether we get it or not, just as He is infinitely glorious whether or not a single conscious creature exists to recognize it. Logically, once we have accepted the premise that God is always right, “no justification of God is needed; indeed, it is presumptuous” (Goetz 1975, p. 267). Who do we think we are to attempt to justify Him?!

If attempting to vindicate God would be foolish, the question then arises: Should we leave the whole matter there, or should we probe further? Goetz wonders out loud, “Can we not simply say that God is and doesn't give a damn whatever we think?” (p. 267). He even argues that Calvin weakens his whole theology of divine sovereignty by attempting to minimize the repugnance of the Conquest. Inasmuch as the ultimate vindication of God is predicated upon His sovereign right, any attempt to go further would merely shake the props supporting the fundamental vindication. Certainly, no damage can arise from further elaborating the principle of divine sovereignty, but Goetz is probably correct in warning against using any other strategy to vindicate God. He is God; He made all things; He is always right. No man can establish any viable criteria of “rightness” that conflict with this grand truism. Don't even think of trying.

2. Seeking to understand the mind of God

But — and it's a powerful but — commitment to God's absolute sovereign rule should not stop us probing more deeply. Stop and think. Would the sovereign Lord of all condemn us for seeking to better understand His mind? Never! Don't try to justify Him, but do try to understand Him. Scripture fair pulsates with exhortation to “seek God”. For instance,

And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us (Acts 17:26-27).

Seeking and finding translates into going from ignorance to knowledge, from not understanding to understanding. Yes, yes, yes; the finite human brain is utterly incapable of fully grasping the infinitely great and good mind of God. Our first introduction to God can be likened to the view we would have of the universe through a keyhole. The best we can hope for in this life is to see it through a window. But the difference between a restricted view and no view at all is as love and hate. Scripture encourages God-fearers to participate in the never-ending pursuit of seeing His glory:

The works of the Lord are great, studied by all who have pleasure in them (Ps. 111:2).

The various Hebrew terms best translated by our word “works” cover a broad spectrum of meaning and seem to refer to everything God has done, both in the sense of works of creation (Ps. 145:9, Eccl. 2:4, etc.) and acts in history (Josh. 24:31, etc.). The psalmist enjoins God's servants both to study God's works and to take pleasure in them. As Paul brings out in Romans 1:20, God's works of creation provide us with invaluable insights into the power and mind of God; investigating them by whatever means are available should therefore be an integral part of the believer's way of life. What pleasure the exercise brings, what profit.

Of critical importance in the context of seeking God's mind on the bloodshed of the Conquest is to grasp a marvelous, brilliant, eye-opening truth:

I will praise You, O Lord, with my whole heart; I will tell of all Your marvelous works (Ps. 9:1).

All God's works, without exception, are cause for praise, not censure. We might find this blanket statement hard to swallow in relation to the Conquest, but believers have no choice but to accept its veracity and seek to understand how it can be said to be so. The psalmist also tells us,

The Lord is righteous in all His ways, gracious in all His works (Ps. 145:17).

“Gracious” comes from a root (chesed) elsewhere translated “lovingkindess” (KJV and NKJV) and “steadfast love” in the RSV. Everything God does is righteous and loving. King Nebuchadnezzar declared that all God's works, “are truth, and His ways justice” (Dan. 4:37). We could go on and on; the bottom line stands solid and immovable — God is good in everything He does. God is love and light. In Him is no darkness at all. Like a father, He pities His children (Ps. 103:13). His love for His people exceeds that of a mother for her children (Is. 49:15). He is, “merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Ex. 34:6). He “endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted for destruction” (Rom. 9:22). As William Lyons observes,

At polar opposites to the herem passages… are other passages about the proper treatment of human beings, including special care for the weak and the helpless (especially women and children), attention to the unique needs of foreigners, or the humane treatment of an enemy (2003, p. 2).

Yahweh's commands to Joshua were neither precipitate nor malicious. Yes, we can see something good about God in the Conquest! Can we conceive of the possibility that death on such a large scale is equally a work of God's hands as is the fragrance of a rose — and equally good? Shocking, maybe, but true.

Although seeing God in His infinite glory will forever lie beyond complete attainment for finite creatures (Ps. 106:2), this very fact ought to fill believers with joy beyond description, for upon this truth rests perhaps the core source of eternal bliss — forever seeing more and more of His glory (Ps. 16:11 and Rev. 22:4). In the meantime, those who bow before God's sovereign rule and diligently seek to find comprehensible patterns in His words and deeds, and to reconcile apparent anomalies, will be rewarded with understanding completely beyond attainment by those who deny His existence or fulminate against His mysterious governance. We ask again, how can we reconcile the sack of Jericho with the love of the God who was willing to enter flesh in Jesus Christ and to suffer the humiliation of the cross for all mankind, including even those who perished in Jericho? Let us consider first some general truths often overlooked in the mad rush to condemn our Maker and our Judge before we look at what we can learn about God from the Conquest.

The limited nature of the warrant

No question, God intended Israel to dispossess the inhabitants of the land promised to Abraham and his descendants four hundred years earlier, but He did not give Israel carte blanche to expand her lebensraum at will. He gave strict orders to refrain from territorial expansion; their good land would remain forever tiny in extent:

You have skirted this mountain long enough; turn northward. And command the people, saying, "You are about to pass through the territory of your brethren, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir; and they will be afraid of you. Therefore watch yourselves carefully. Do not meddle with them, for I will not give you any of their land, no, not so much as one footstep, because I have given Mount Seir to Esau as a possession. You shall buy food from them with money, that you may eat; and you shall also buy water from them with money, that you may drink…” And… we turned and passed by way of the Wilderness of Moab. Then the Lord said to me, “Do not harass Moab, nor contend with them in battle, for I will not give you any of their land as a possession, because I have given Ar to the descendants of Lot as a possession” (Deut. 22:3-9).

God had given other lands to other peoples and Israel was to leave them well alone. The warrant of extermination was very precise in nature, laid out in as much detail as any court order ever hammered out — itself a hint pregnant with significance for helping us understand what was going on.

God suffers with His children

When, hundreds of years after Joshua, the prophet Isaiah declared doom upon Moab for its treachery, he also declared, as spokesman for God, “My heart will cry out for Moab” (15:5) and “my heart shall resound like a harp for Moab” (16:11). The God of the Bible, far from impassively turning away from the suffering of those He punishes, suffers along with human beings in their affliction. When He afflicted Job with dreadful misery, God felt his every stab of pain, literal and metaphorical (James 5:11). God's sense of empathy with the afflicted is, as with all His attributes, infinite. Many times He “turned His anger away, and did not stir up all His wrath” because of His compassion (Ps. 78:33). When punishment became absolutely necessary, God gained no pleasure from imposing it:

In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the Angel of His Presence saved them; in His love and in His pity He redeemed them; and He bore them and carried them all the days of old (Is. 63:9).

Mull those first six words over. Unbelievable! Herein we have one of the most staggering concepts imaginable. The pain He felt equaled the accumulated pain of every individual — in full. He does not act to lift the pain for a reason: motivated by infinite love He exercises His infinite self-control because His infinite wisdom knows that the best outcome requires letting the judgment run its full course. Yes, God shares our every grief. Inasmuch as He is the father of all nations (Acts 17:26), this compassion is not restricted to His chosen people. The account of His dealings with the people of Nineveh as recounted in the book of Jonah says it all. When Jonah grew agitated over the lifting of the decreed punishment when the Ninevites repented, God responded,

You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left — and much livestock?” (4:10-11).

In Jeremiah's time the nation of Esau reached a state of such rottenness that it deserved severe punishment in which the perfect Judge decreed “widespread destruction of young and old”, but not “in the sense of total extermination” (Freedman 1985, p. 317):

But I have made Esau bare; I have uncovered his secret places, And he shall not be able to hide himself. His descendants are plundered, His brethren and his neighbors, and he is no more. Leave your fatherless children, I will preserve them alive; and let your widows trust in Me (Jer. 49:10-11).

Freedman renders the verb “I will preserve them alive” as “I will rear them”, then comments,

A tender verse. Stern justice demands the suffering predicted in the previous verses; nevertheless, even when punishing, God does not abandon His love for His creatures, and the fatherless and widows who survive the holocaust may safely be left to His care (p. 317).

When it comes to God's tender mercies, one size fits all. Israelite, Edomite, Egyptian, or Canaanite, God's compassion extends equally to all. For hundreds of years God felt every scrap of pain inflicted by the Canaanites on themselves. He agonized with the children that were sacrificed to Molech, fully experiencing the lash of the flames against their little limbs. Yet we call God a monster for drawing it to a halt. Oh how compassionate are we.

Women and children: a puzzling puzzle

Most attacks against God focus on His order to spare none, not even women and children. Is sugar and spice and all things nice more righteous than slugs and snails and puppy dog's tails? Are women more worthy of leniency than men? Are the elderly less culpable than the young? Pain is the same for all age groups, so why should some be let off more than others?

But what about the children? Yes, what about the children? Only the hardest of hearts could eat a hearty meal after killing cute little kiddies and babies. In dealing with this question, John Calvin had this to say:

Who will now presume to complain of excessive rigor, after God had so long delayed to execute judgment? If any one object that children, at least, were still free from fault, it is easy to answer, that they perished justly, as the race was accursed and reprobated. Here then it ought always to be remembered, that it would have been barbarous and atrocious cruelty had the Israelites gratified their own lust and rage, in slaughtering mothers and their children, but that they are justly praised for their active piety and holy zeal, in executing the command of God, who was pleased in this way to purge the land of Canaan of the foul and loathsome defilements by which it had long been polluted (p. 97).

Calvin is right again in appealing to the sovereign right of God to do as He sees best. But at this point we are seeking to better understand the mind of God, and Calvin's comments help little. What are we to think? We are told again and again that the little mites suffered horribly at the hands of God. Oh how righteous we are — we who slice up untold millions of children every year with sharp instruments in their mothers' wombs. Could it be that the children of Jericho barely suffered at all? What!? Who in his right mind could possibly say that children who saw their father or mother pierced through before their very eyes would not have suffered terribly. But stop and think. The defense of the position that they suffered little is threefold:

1. The brevity of their suffering: To see one's parents killed before one's eyes would be traumatic. This author personally knew an Armenian lady who, at the age of five, saw both her parents slaughtered by Turks. Somehow, she survived the shocking trauma, and grew up to marry and have her own children. Her trauma did not last minutes or seconds, but years and years, yet she coped. For the toddlers of Canaan it was all over in seconds.

2. The unawareness of children: Children are largely unattuned to the gravity of their own situation when war strikes or death looms close. A recent radio interview with a holocaust survivor spoke of children in German death camps playing with carts used to transport bodies around the camp. The fear that the grownups of Jericho may have felt for some hours would not have affected the children in the same way; they simply would not have foreseen what was coming.

3. The manner of the killing: Contrary to much anti-biblical polemic, we can be confident that God intended the slaughter be carried out as mercifully as possible and that His instructions to Joshua would have contained explicit orders to act as humanely as possible. Perhaps the victims were separated from other family members before the deed was done, or maybe all the members of a family were killed at the very same moment. Who can say? What we can say is that the “operation” would be unique in the annals of warfare and would have been carried out in the most humane way possible. A sword thrust through the heart would be as painless and instant as a bullet. We can reject popular depictions of the assault in which children are violently snatched out of parents' arms by a glazed-eyed, hideously-grinning, mouth-frothing Israelite soldier and forced to watch their parents executed before their eyes. One writer begs us to, “Use your imagination and try to picture what it would be like to hack an infant to death with the sword, or to chase down and hack to death a screaming grandmother”. Hacking? We can reject such emotive portrayals of the scene and the method of death out of hand.

Yes, their days under the sun were cut short. But a resurrection and day of justice is coming; in the next instant they will be alive again — only this time in a world governed by Jesus Christ. What would God's critics suggest be done with the children? Spare them? Come, let us reason together. Which is more merciful to the children — to put them quickly into deep sleep to be raised in the next instant with their parents, or to condemn them to an orphan's life?

Blessed be the name of the Lord

Let's try to think clearly. Consider this one simple truth — were it not for God, not a single one of us would know life at all, or the joy of marriage or the pleasure children bring or the delight of watching them grow up. He made us. Most of us adapt quite well to the knowledge of mortality. We do not pass each moment in dread fear of the end. Premature death, though, strikes us as the ultimate cruelty. But stop and think; which is better — to never be born and know the joy of life, or to live five or ten years and enjoy the fun of childhood? Surely simple logic says that even five years of life is better than none! Why are we willing to revile God for letting a child die yet never stop to sing His praises for giving life in the first place? Job lost all his children in one fell swoop, yet understood this principle well. His reaction is the just reaction:

And he said: "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord (Job 1:21).

Only the mean-spirited will damn God for death yet never praise Him for life. Nay, it is hypocritical to do so, especially in light of His plan to give eternal life to all! A noble spirit would, like just Job, sing God's praises loud and long for every sunset reached.

A greater good

Although exceptions can certainly be pointed to (Iraq, for instance), generally speaking we support our governments when they decide to go to war. When the strategists and planners cock up completely with disastrous consequences, as happened during the Gallipoli landing in WWI, we forgive them and sublimate any potential anger by focusing on the sacrifice of those soldiers (on our side, of course) who lost their lives on the battlefield. They died in the cause of some greater good — the protection of us and our families. Why do we refuse to judge God's actions by the same yardstick, and bow our heads in remembrance of the Canaanites who lost their lives for a greater cause? What greater cause?

But of the cities of these peoples which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance, you shall let nothing that breathes remain alive, but you shall utterly destroy them… lest they teach you to do according to all their abominations which they have done for their gods, and you sin against the Lord your God (Deut. 20:16-18).

Saucy makes an intriguing point:

Even the command to destroy the Canaanite people was ultimately for the good of the nations, as it would prevent the demise of the knowledge of the true God through accommodation with the false gods of the nations (1993, p. 301).

God called Israel to serve as a model for all nations of truth and righteousness. He had promised that Abraham's descendants, “shall be a blessing” (Gen. 12:2). But they failed to carry out God's orders; the Canaanites led them astray, just as God foretold and they failed to live by God's law. Israel went into national captivity only later to be driven into international exile by the Romans. All people have suffered ever since. The greater good that could have come had the Canaanites been exterminated failed to eventuate. May we not blame God. He tried; when the time is right, He will succeed. Atheists abound today because knowledge of the true God has been lost, largely due to the evil actions of earlier generations of God-haters and superstitious idolaters who abounded because Israel failed to carry out its orders.

Divine attributes on show

We learn about God's power and Godhead from creation (Rom. 1:20), but creation teaches us nothing about His attributes of pity, compassion, longsuffering or others too numerous to mention. The Conquest teaches us about some salubrious attributes of God that the creation cannot. But what? We will consider two that appear to be valid and relevant: justice and anger.

Divine justice

What moviegoer doesn't exult when the cad gets his comeuppance? When “The Shawshank Redemption's” Andy Dufrene outwitted the evil prison warden, bringing about his overdue demise, who felt a stitch of sympathy for the warden? Even when he suicided! He was one nasty piece of work. Why do we condemn Yahweh when He moves decisively to root out the crooks? Are we guilty of harboring a spirit of murder to add a loud “Amen” to the words of the psalmist?

Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered; let those also who hate Him flee before Him. As smoke is driven away, so drive them away; as wax melts before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God (Ps. 68:1-2).

In a psalm that may well prove to be prophetic in perspective, the writer extols God because, among other things,

He turns rivers into a wilderness, and the watersprings into dry ground; a fruitful land into barrenness, for the wickedness of those who dwell in it (107:33-34),

then concludes,

The righteous see it and rejoice, and all iniquity stops its mouth (vs. 42).

By the same yardstick of justice, He will recompense “the hungry” — those who have experienced want all their lives — by “turning the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into flowing springs” (vs. 35). He will “set the poor on high, far from affliction” (vs. 41). Sing praises, sing songs of praise.

On those rare occasions when human courts administer justice men and women of goodwill cannot resist the urge to sing with joy. The most exemplary of human justice is but dung compared with divine justice. When God takes His seat as judge and renders a verdict and sentence — stand back in awe. Perhaps no work of God reveals the character of His justice as starkly as the Conquest does. That the administration of justice is what the extermination order was all about is hinted at in Deuteronomy 33:20-21:

And of Gad he said: "Blessed is he who enlarges Gad; he dwells as a lion, and tears the arm and the crown of his head. He provided the first part for himself, because a lawgiver's portion was reserved there. He came with the heads of the people; he administered the justice of the Lord, and His judgments with Israel.”

Of this passage, the New Bible Dictionary says, “… the wholehearted participation of the Gadites in the divinely ordered conquest of Canaan is described as ‘executing the justice of the Lord' ” (Douglas 1975, p. 681). Likewise, Scherman comments that, “During the conquest of [the land of Israel], the mighty tribe of Gad marched among the first” (1993, p. 1119). Confirmation of the punitive side to the Conquest is found in a number of other passages; consider Deuteronomy 9:4:

Do not think in your heart, after the Lord your God has cast them out before you, saying, “Because of my righteousness the Lord has brought me in to possess this land”; but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out from before you.

God acts fairly in all He does. The systematic slaughter of the Canaanites was 100% fair. This we can know because the Bible tells us so. If you were one of those Canaanites you might not be singing the Hallelujah Chorus as the Israelite juggernaut rumbled mercilessly over your villages, butchering men, women and children as it went. Of course, the fact that you would have gladly done the same to the Israelites is of no concern!

We must not assume that God behaves like human beings who show leniency towards their friends and deal harshly with their enemies. He doesn't play favorites. When Israel sinned grievously they, too, suffered intense punishment at God's hands, including death of women and children, as these words from Ezekiel show:

To the others He said in my hearing, "Go after him through the city and kill; do not let your eye spare, nor have any pity. Utterly slay old and young men, maidens and little children and women; but do not come near anyone on whom is the mark; and begin at My sanctuary” (9:5-6).

But back to the Canaanites.

The wickedness of the Canaanites

Christian commentators seem strangely reluctant to recognize degrees of wickedness. Perhaps the reluctance derives from the popular dogma that law has been done away. Without a set of norms against which actions can be judged and declared right or wrong, degrees of error become meaningless. The biblical God seems to have no problem passing such judgments. As quoted above, He says He imposed the ban (a common translation of herem) on the Canaanites because they were wicked. Leviticus 18:24-25 adds more:

Do not defile yourselves with any of these things; for by all these the nations are defiled, which I am casting out before you. For the land is defiled; therefore I visit the punishment of its iniquity upon it, and the land vomits out its inhabitants.

For a list of “these things”, see preceding verses. How bad were they, really? Notice, for instance, one item in the list:

Do not have sexual relations with an animal and defile yourself with it. A woman must not present herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it; that is a perversion… for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled (23 & 27).

The list shows that incest, bestiality, homosexuality, and cultic prostitution were rife. 2 Kings 16:3 tells us that King Ahaz,

… walked in the way of the kings of Israel; indeed he made his son pass through the fire, according to the abominations of the nations whom the Lord had cast out from before the children of Israel.

Likewise, King Manasseh, “did evil in the sight of the Lord, according to the abominations of the nations whom the Lord had cast out before the children of Israel”, including child sacrifice, witchcraft and sorcery, not to mention defiling the holy temple with all manner of crass idolatrous paraphernalia (2 Chron. 33:1-6).

So we're talking raunchy and cruel! A wonderful descriptor comes to mind — abominations. Some critics argue that the archeological record doesn't provide evidence of debased lifestyles, to which we respond, what are we expecting to find? Could archaeologists thousands of years from now determine that millions of fetuses were sliced into shards every year in western nations, or that people profaned the name of God on a daily basis? Some sources tell us that the Canaanites were distinctly war-like and used their brilliant engineering skills to build cities that bristled with military hardware. If true, we can conclude that Jericho was probably not a city of musicians, poets, and fancy pigeon breeders. But, of course, perhaps all that was for defense from war-mongering neighbors. In short, our best source of information concerning their moral corruption is the Bible.

Although not strictly Canaanites, the Amalekites were a people who, like the Canaanites, came under the divine wrath. God ordered Israel to “blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven” (Deut. 25:19), adding “You shall not forget”. MacArthur provides an insightful account of these people based almost entirely on biblical data:

They inhabited the southern part of Canaan and were perennial enemies of the Israelites. They were the same tribe that viciously attacked Israel at Rephidim shortly after the Exodus… They ambushed Israel from behind, massacring the stragglers who were most weary (Deut. 25:18). It was a cowardly attack by the most savage tribe in the whole region… The Amalekites were fearful warriors. Their intimidating presence was one of the reasons the Israelites disobeyed God and balked at entering the promised land at Kadesh-barnea (Num. 13:29)… The Amalekites used to harass Israel by coming into the land after crops had been sown and moving through the farmland with their tents and livestock, razing everything in their path (Judg. 6:3-5). They hated God, detested Israel, and seemed delighted in wicked and destructive acts (1994, p. 181-182).

Note that they adopted a no-holds-barred approach, slaughtering women and children without scruple. Above all, they did not fear God (Deut. 25:18). Lots of people despise God today yet do not feel His burnished blade. But remember; these people were well aware of what Israel's God had done to Egypt and of the unprecedented miracle at the Red Sea. They had a clearer view of God's power over human affairs than we have. If a family of mice attack a lion they have only themselves to blame for the outcome. Likewise if they don't flee when they see the lion approaching.

Like the Amalekites, the Canaanites pooh-poohed God's commands against killing and violence and showed a marked disrespect for basic human rights, as is evident from the account in Genesis 19:1-9. Notice now one of the most revealing passages concerning the perfection of God's punitive purposes towards the Canaanites:

Then He said to Abram: "Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years. And also the nation whom they serve I will judge; afterward they shall come out with great possessions… But in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Gen. 15:13-16).

Speaking of this passage, Wenham says, “Divine judgment, in the form of Israel's conquest, must wait until they are sufficiently wicked to deserve this fate” (1987, p. 332). In Abraham's time they were already morally destitute, as the case of Sodom and Gomorrah demonstrates. What would they have been like hundreds of years later?

Justice preceded by warning

Often forgotten is a simple truth: God always warned people of the impending doom. This general principle is stated well in 2 Chronicles 36:15).

And the Lord God of their fathers sent warnings to them by His messengers, rising up early and sending them, because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place (2 Chron. 36:15).

The God of the Bible shows unbelievable patience with wicked humans. He waits… and waits… and waits. He warns… and warns… and warns. Noah preached for many years before God said He would give no more time for repentance (2 Pet. 2:5). Note these amazing words from 1 Peter 3:20 about that time: “… the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah”. God waited and warned, warned and waited, until any further delay would prove His warnings hollow and lead to total rejection of His credibility by obstinate men and women (and whose children were following in their parents' footsteps).

When the citizens of Nineveh reached such an abject moral condition that the perfect God who cannot behold sinfulness deemed it time to cut them off before they brought more misery on themselves and others, He sent the prophet Jonah to warn them. He told them they had forty days to repent or else (3:4). When they repented, God relented. Does this sound like the actions of a callous, cold-hearted demiurge, as the god of the Old Testament is often accused of being?

When the time came, as it did in the 8th to about the 4th century BC, for many nations to experience the sharp edge of God's sword, one after the other, they were not smashed like a bolt out of the blue; they had prior warning. Note Jeremiah 25:15:

For thus says the Lord God of Israel to me: "Take this wine cup of fury from My hand, and cause all the nations, to whom I send you, to drink it.”

God sent Jeremiah to all nations to warn them of impending disaster if they did not mend their ways. For this reason, Jeremiah was called “a prophet to the nations” (Jer. 1:5). We are not explicitly told that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah were warned prior to their destruction but, based on these examples just considered, we can safely assume they were. As for the victims of the Conquest — the descendants of Sodom and Gomorrah's neighbors who were mercifully spared the fate of the two cities — we know they were warned. After the Egyptian army was destroyed to a man in the Red Sea, Moses and the Israelites sang praises to God which included these words:

The people will hear and be afraid; sorrow will take hold of the inhabitants of Philistia… All the inhabitants of Canaan will melt away. Fear and dread will fall on them; by the greatness of Your arm they will be as still as a stone, till Your people pass over, O Lord, till the people pass over whom You have purchased (Ex. 15:14-16).

Decades before Israel set foot in the land of promise its fate was published loud and clear. (See also Exodus 23:31-33, Numbers 14:14, and Deuteronomy 7:1-2.) Its inhabitants knew what was coming, as is confirmed in the amazing story of subterfuge recounted in Joshua 9. The Canaanites of Gibeon concocted a ruse to fool Joshua and the elders into thinking they had come from a distant land and to extract an oath of peace between Israel and themselves. When the trickery was exposed and confession time came, the Gibeonite ambassadors explained:

So they answered Joshua and said, "Because your servants were clearly told that the Lord your God commanded His servant Moses to give you all the land, and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you; therefore we were very much afraid for our lives because of you, and have done this thing” (vs. 24).

Clearly told! See also the witness of Rahab in Joshua 2:1-11. Nothing could be plainer. They knew; they had known for decades. And they knew God meant what He said, as had been shown by the afflictions of Egypt. Stop and think. If you see a steamroller on automatic pilot rumbling towards your house, whose fault is it when you are blended with the dust from which you were taken if you stubbornly stand your ground? The Canaanites had had decades to either repent or work out an evacuation plan. Let's at least be as charitable towards God (as if He needed it) as we would be towards the steamroller.

God is just; the Conquest illustrates this truth as clearly as can be imagined. Divine justice which corrects the sinner and comforts the afflicted will be seen in the fullness of perfection in the day of judgment.

Divine anger

God is angry; we should be driven to our knees in worship at the thought of this marvelous truth. What is He angry at?

God is a just judge, and God is angry with the wicked every day (Ps. 7:11).

God is angry, you see, with those who stubbornly reject the grace He offers and, instead, commit themselves to a life of sin. And here things get ironical. Sin, you see, is death. The twist in the Conquest story is that God will use the death of many to ultimately administer life. Let's elaborate.

Life is not a matter of mere consciousness, it's a matter of a way of thinking. Satan and his demons are “the walking dead”. They have consciousness, and they will have it forever, but they certainly do not have eternal life. To reject God is to embrace death, not in the sense of embracing unconsciousness but of embracing misery and suffering which are synonymous with death. Consciousness vs. unconsciousness is small change in the whole question of what really constitutes life.

Nothing provides a better backdrop against which we can silhouette God's hatred of death than His actions on the field of battle in Joshua's time. God was angry at the Canaanites because of their utter sinfulness; their intransigent attitude towards God's law brought upon themselves misery that was tantamount to being dead. Sin brings death:

Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin… (Rom. 5:12).

By contrast, freedom from sin is equivalent to “being alive”:

You shall therefore keep My statutes and My judgments, which if a man does, he shall live by them… (Lev. 18:5).

God showed His abhorrence of death, His anger towards it, by killing sin's stubborn perpetrators. His implacability in rooting out the Canaanites speaks volumes concerning His hatred of sin and His determination to destroy it, and serves as an everlasting witness of His love for all. In snatching away the consciousness of the Canaanites, God was merely taking their way of living — the way of death — to its logical conclusion.

God is angry with sin; the Conquest illustrates this truth as clearly as can be imagined. Deliverance from sin and the death it brings awaits the Canaanites in the day of judgment. Hasten the day!

Instead of cursing Him as a callous butcher of innocents we should praise God for His impeccable justice and His infinite goodness towards us amoebae crafted in the divine image. He intends to save us all from sin. He sent Jesus Christ to conquer sin and death just as He sent Joshua to end sin by death. The Canaanites will yet know the salvation from sin and death made possible by the sacrifice of their savior, Jesus Christ. They will soon awake from their deep sleep, blink their eyes, and begin to understand just why they suffered the fate they did. They won't complain; they will thank their Lord and Master for His goodness and mercy.

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References and notes

Bright, J. 1975, The Authority of the Old Testament, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids

Calvin, John, Commentaries on Joshua, trans. Henry Beveridge, Grand Rapids, 1949

Cavanaugh, W. T. 2004, Killing in the Name of God, New Blackfriars, 85:510-526

Davies, E. W. 2005, The Morally Dubious Passages Of The Hebrew Bible: An Examination Of Some Proposed Solutions, Currents in Biblical Research, 3.2:197-228

Douglas, J. D. (ed.) 1975, The New Bible Dictionary, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids

Eckert, A. W. 1970, The Conquerors, Bantam Books

Freedman, H. Rabbi Dr. 1985, Jeremiah, The Soncino Press, London

Goetz, Ronald 1975, Joshua, Calvin, and Genocide, Theology Today, 32:263-274

Jones, G. L. 1999, Sacred Violence: the dark side of God, Journal of Beliefs & Values, Vol. 20, No. 2, 184-

Kaiser, W. C. Jr. 1983, Toward Old Testament Ethics, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids

Lake, Todd L. 1997, Did God command genocide? Christian theology and the herem, Boston College

Lyons, William L. 2003, Between History And Theology: The Problem Of Herem In Modern Evangelical Biblical Scholarship, Dissertation presented to Florida State University

Saucy, R. L. 1993, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids

Scherman, N. 1993, The Chumash, fourth edition, Mesorah Publications Ltd., Brooklyn

Wenham, G. J. 1987, Word Biblical Commentary—Genesis 1-15, Word Publishing, Milton Keynes

Further reading

Dawn to Dusk publications

Other printed material

On the Web
Is God a monster?

Susan Niditch, War in the Hebrew Bible

Why was the ancient God so "cruel"?

The Bible: a Dangerous Moral Guide

Did God command genocide? (preview only)

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