Slaughter of the innocents?

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RAMI SIVAN IS A HINDU DOMESTIC PRIEST. A Jew by birth, in his early teens he began the requisite studies for a Jewish boy preparatory to taking 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.

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?

The conquest

We are left in no doubt as to what God required of His people when they entered the promised land. 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).

Finding objections to the Conquest is easy. Few writers find a single thing in the account worthy of God; they certainly aren't falling over each other to find cause to sing God's praises! Christians, however, must recognize that the New Testament supports the genocidal action. 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… 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).

He did not breathe a word of disapproval! 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 right:

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? (Rom. 9:19-21).

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.

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, and what we may think becomes totally irrelevant:

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

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.

The victory of Joshua over the Amorites (Nicolas Poussin)

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. Logically, once we have accepted the premise that God is always right no justification of God is needed; indeed, it is presumptuous. Should we, though, leave the whole matter there, or should we probe further?

2. Seeking to understand the mind of God

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 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.). 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. The psalmist did not add, “…with the exception of the Conquest, for which You are to be condemned”. 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 the silence of death is equally a work of God's hands as is the fragrance of a rose — and equally good? Shocking, maybe, but true.

May we not join the brigades of those who attack God's goodness. He did not give Israel carte blanche to overthrow other nations at will, even commanding them to leave others well alone (Deut. 22:3-9). He got no pleasure out of the suffering of the Canaanites; instead, He suffered their every grief with them (Is. 63:9). Yes, the warrant of genocide is shocking to our sensibilities, but let us remember that the suffering lasted a few hours at the most. In the next instant the victims will be raised from their graves and will quickly forget what they endured. Those who rail against the slaughter of the children need to consider the alternative — making them into orphans. Which is more merciful and kind? Above all, may we recognize that criticizing God for decreeing the death of thousands while failing to sing His praises for giving life to billions — including those Canaanites who perished — is hypocritical (Job 1:21).

The Conquest teaches us about some salubrious attributes of God that the creation cannot. But what? We will consider two: justice and anger.

Divine justice

What moviegoer doesn't exult when the cad get his comeuppance? Why do we condemn Yahweh when He moves decisively to root out the crooks? That the administration of justice is what the extermination order was all about is hinted at, for instance in Deuteronomy 33:20-21, and made more obvious in passages such as 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. 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! 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).

Divine judgment, in the form of Israel's conquest, had to wait until the Canaanites were sufficiently wicked to deserve this fate. 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? And remember, the action was preceded by plenty of warning (Ex. 15:14-16; 23:31-33, Numbers 14:14, Deuteronomy 7:1-2, Josh. 2:1-11; 9:24 ). If you stand your ground in front of a steamroller rumbling towards you, whose fault is it when you get squashed?

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 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. 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. 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 anger 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. God's 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.

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. 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.

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