Question: Why did God order Israel to kill men, women and children?
In the Old Testament there are a number of instances of God telling Israel to completely wipe out the peoples who inhabited the land called Palestine (e.g. Deut 7:1-4,16,24). Doesn’t that make the God of the Old Testament a harsh and unjust God, completely different from the God of love portrayed in the New Testament?
[Note: This has continued to be one of the most popular or sought after of the questions and answers and I would wish to add the following comment even before you read on.
First, the challenge is often about a God who orders genocide in respect of the occupants of Canaan. Genocide, I would suggest, is the purposeful wiping out of a tribe, nation or people. A careful reading of the Bible text will show that that was NOT God's intention - it was to drive the occupants out of that land.
Second, if you would like to check out the above assertion I have covered this question in great detail in the book that you will find by using the website link on this page to "God's Love in the Old Testament." Please do go there and check it out and tell your friends about it! You will find this question's answer greatly expanded in Chapter 21, part 6. My intention in writing that book is that it may help many of us with our misunderstandings and misconceptions!]
If we are to adequately answer this we will have to give careful consideration to what the Bible says.
To understand this apparent situation we need to understand:
a) the nature of God
b) the nation of Israel and the surrounding nations
c) the options of the inhabitants.
a) The Nature of God
The Bible’s descriptions of God are not at variance between Old and New Testaments.
For example in the Old Testament we find God saying, “The soul who sins is the one who will die.” (Ezek 18:5)
In the New Testament, we find the apostle, Paul, writing “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23).
However, in the Old Testament we also find God declaring, “I take no pleasure in the death of anyone” (Ezek 18:32).
Similarly in the New Testament, we find the apostle, Peter, writing about God, “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish.” (2 Peter 3:9)
Now in both testaments, the way to avoid death was quite clear:
“Repent and live!” (Ezek 18:32) and “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
For the moment that will be enough about God:
- sin will be punished by death
- God doesn’t want death to come to man
- death is avoided by repentance, turning away from the sin.
b) The Nation of Israel and the Surrounding Nations
Israel were a nation created by God, starting from Abraham, then through Isaac and finally through Jacob, who was renamed Israel by God. While in Egypt the families grew over about four hundred years to become the equivalent of a nation of well over a million people.
At the Exodus (see Exodus, chapter 1 to 12) God took them out of Egypt and meeting with them at Mount Sinai created a new nation out of them who would be a special people, specifically related to God (see Exodus 19). The objective of this was to show the world the possibility of a nation being led and guided by God, i.e. to act as a light to the rest of the world, revealing the goodness of God and His plan for His world.
To achieve this possibility God instructed them to remove all the existing inhabitants of the land in order to create a new national identity.
ii) The Surrounding Nations
When we look at the people that Israel were told to destroy, we are told they were to be destroyed because of their wickedness (Deut 9:4), and because they worshipped idols and would turn Israel to those idols and away from God (Deut 7:4,16).
The picture we are given is of nations in possession of the land God had promised Israel, who were totally established in worshipping idols and all of the practices that went with that (e.g. sacrificing children).
From the beginning of the Bible we are shown mankind that has a propensity to turn away from God and turn to all kinds of foolish life styles that can only be described as pagan and uncivilised in the extreme!
This propensity to turn away from God is what the Bible calls ‘Sin’ and because Sin is living contrary to the design of the Creator, it means that such people live utterly destructive life styles.
Because mankind seems to be tainted with this tendency, it also spreads like a virus unless checked. If it is left unchecked, the moral direction of any society is downwards, as our own society is showing at the beginning of the twenty first century.
iii) Israel‘s folly
God knew that if Israel simply went into the land and mingled with the idol worshippers there, they would soon be led astray by them. Hence the objective of removing all the existing inhabitants.
Today we understand the need to destroy Cancer cells before they destroy the body. We may not understand it because we don’t understand the awfulness and destructiveness of Sin, but what we are considering in this question is a surgical operation.
A number of the wars fought in the last century and, indeed, in this century, have been those fought to prevent something worse happen. This is what was behind God’s instructions to Israel (but wait until you get to Part c) below before you make a final judgment!)
In fact this mingling with the idol worshippers did happen, even while Israel were wandering in the desert on the way to the land (see Numbers 25:1,2).
After Israel had settled in the land and after their leader Joshua had died, they quickly gave way to this tendency again (e.g. Judges 2:10-13).
In fact so often did they give way, that eventually the Lord allowed the inhabitants who had not been cleared out of the land to remain to act as a thorn in Israel’s side to continually bring them to their senses (see Judges 2:18-23)
There followed a continuing cycle in their early centuries in the land: apostasy (e.g. Judges 3:7) – disciplinary judgment (Judges 3:8) – repentance (Judges 3:9a) – deliverance from God (Judges 3:9b,10) – peace (Judges 3:11).
c) Options of the Inhabitants
Returning now to our original question, we must look at the possibilities that were given to the inhabitants, which fit in with all that we have said so far.
There were actually three options:
Option No.1 – To leave the Land
There was nothing to stop the inhabitants leaving the land and this some did.
Option No.2 – To join Israel
Some of the inhabitants actually joined the people of Israel and this was perfectly acceptable. Examples of this were Rahab, a spy-prostitute (Joshua 6:25), and the Gibeonite tribe (read Joshua 9).
Option No.3 – To resist God and Israel and die
This did happen for a number – but it was their choice! Similarly today as we saw in 2 Peter 2:9 the choice of death is a personal choice and NOT what God wants.
Our Difficulty in Understanding
We need to understand and hang on to the basic reasoning behind the instruction from God to destroy any unbelieving idolaters who resisted. It was to remove a scourge of pagan lifestyle and to do all possible to prevent Israel being corrupted. The picture given above, of Cancer, needs to be borne in mind.
Where we have a difficulty in understanding all this, it is probably because we fail to see the awfulness of Sin and its consequences.
We live very much in a Society where virtually everything goes and because of that we find it difficult to grasp the concept of wrong that is so abhorrent to a Perfect God that He has to deal with it with destructive judgment to prevent worse happening.
And that brings us right back to the subject of Jesus. To pick up again on one of the earlier verses we quoted (Romans 6:23) “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus“.
God is always wanting to bring life. WE are the ones who refuse it and prefer death instead!
May it not be so.