Last Sunday at Grace we looked a particularly thorny issue, one that when it is raised makes even the best Christian grimace; that is, the questionable actions of the God when he commands the people of Israel to wipe out entire nations such as the Canaanites – including men, women and children. What kind of God would do this? We would certainly condemn this if anyone did this today.
If, for example, the Mexican government decided to rid their country of drug lords by blowing up every building where they knew they were hiding, killing everyone inside – men, women and children, there would be international outrage. If the U.N. decided to do away with the problem of ISIS by poisoning all their water supplies and thereby killing off entire towns and cities, they would all be put on trial for war crimes.
So why should God get away with it? The answer, according to many is he shouldn’t. Richard Dawkins, a leading voice amidst the New Atheists says,
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
He goes on, ‘the Bible’s story of Joshua’s destruction of Jericho and the invasion of the Promised Land in general, is morally indistinguishable from Hitler’s invasion of Poland, or Saddam Hussein’s massacres of the Kurds or the Mash Arabs.’ His words are echoed by Charles Templeton who states:
“The God of the Old Testament is utterly unlike the God believed in by most practicing Christians … His justice is, by modern standards, outrageous…. He is biased, querulous, vindictive, and jealous of his prerogatives.”
Robert Wilson, another strong critic of the God of the Old Testament says,
“The Bible tells us to be like God, and then on page after page it describes God as a mass murderer.”
Those are pretty hefty accusations. What do we make of them? Are such portrayals of God accurate? The answers are critically important because Christians are wanting to tell the world about a God of love who is patient, forgiving, and slow to anger. Those who have some knowledge of the bible are saying, “Really? That’s not what I’m hearing.” There appears to be a real disconnect between what Christians are saying about God versus what is actually recorded in the Bible.
Let’s start with the evidence. Did God really command the wiping out of entire populations by the Israelites? Well, as a matter of fact, yes he did. In Deuteronomy chapter 7 we find this:
“When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess, and he drives out many nations before you—the Hethites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and powerful than you—and when the Lord your God delivers them over to you and you defeat them, you must completely destroy them. Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy.” (Deuteronomy 7:1–2)
Further on in chapter 20 of Deuteronomy, God says,
“However, you must not let any living thing survive among the cities of these people the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance. You must completely destroy them—the Hethite, Amorite, Canaanite, Perizzite, Hivite, and Jebusite—as the Lord your God has commanded you,” (Deuteronomy 20:16–17)
Later in the book of Joshua, which records for us Israel taking the city of Jericho, it appears they took these commands seriously and literally:
“They [the Israelites] completely destroyed everything in the city with the sword—every man and woman, both young and old, and every ox, sheep, and donkey.” (Joshua 6:21)
If genocide is to be defined as “the deliberate killing of a large group of people especially those of a nation or a particular group” (Oxford Dictionary), then there appears to be a case to answer. So where do we go from here?
The Defence (seeing the big picture)
Well, as with anything in life, its easy to jump to conclusions when you don’t see the full picture. If you had walked around the corner just as my dad was giving a beating to one of our farm dogs, you would have yelled in horror and reported him for animal cruelty. What you didn’t know is that that particular dog, only an hour beforehand, had bitten one of my sisters for merely stepping over him, leaving her with a nasty gash and five stitches. You also would not have seen the tears in the corner of my dad’s eyes because he loved animals and would never do anything to intentionally hurt them. My dad was trying to save the dog’s life. If it bit one us again, he would have to put it down.
It’s a poor analogy I know because we are not talking about dogs here but humans. But bear with me (no pun intended). What happens when we step back from these isolated passages where God commands Israelites to take out entire civilizations and look at them in the wider context of the entire bible? Well, what we find that they take on a whole different meaning altogether.
The bible is not just a collection of random, ad hoc, arbitrary stories that don’t relate. They are in fact, part of a bigger story – the story of redemption, which has at its focus the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If you don’t understand the big story, you are going to get all the other little stories horribly wrong.
The Bible begins with a supremely good God who creates a wholly good universe. Everything is perfect. Then one day the first humans start thinking about what life would be like without God. They acted on these thoughts, rebelled against God and we have suffered the consequences ever since. All human suffering – sickness and disease, hostility and war, violence and hatred, as well as all forms of human abuse including rape, incest, and human trafficking is caused by this rebellion. It is God, not man, who takes the initiative and sets in place a plan to reverse these terrible effects by dealing with their root cause which is sin.
The plan takes time to unfold. God is in no rush. There are many twists and turns along the way. It’s not all plain sailing and people don’t respond to God’s commands as consistently as they should. But it’s all heading somewhere – a complete reversal of all that went wrong in a new heavens and a new earth where there will be no more sin or crying or tears or pain. Why should God do all this? Well, the simple answer is he shouldn’t. He’s under no obligation, as the Creator of life, to do anything to help us. But he does.
With this new set of glasses on, you soon realize that God is no monster. We are ones who are monsters.
As I said to my mother one day as she was trying to persuade me that all human beings are naturally good and they just need a little help in that direction; I answered, “On the contrary mother, there’s a little Hitler in each one of us.” She was horrified and offended at this remark. I said, “Given the right conditions and the right place, if all restraints were taken off us, the human heart is capable of the worst atrocities.” One only has to read the likes of The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, where well-educated and civilized Englishmen are dropped into the middle of Africa, where the prospect of endless wealth and power transforms them into monsters, and they commit the vilest of acts against fellow human beings. Get a copy. It makes for wonderful bedtime reading.
The cry of this generation is that of Voltaire, the French philosopher – “How can God be so cruel?” The cry of Martin Luther, the great German reformer was something quite different: “How can God be so merciful?” The reason why so many of us side with Voltaire and not Luther is we don’t understand the seriousness of sin nor the pure character of God. If we did, we would never accuse him of such things as we do today.
The more pertinent question, therefore, is not why did God command such cruel atrocities as destroying the Canaanites, but why does he not command the complete destruction of the entire human race? Because if we really knew ourselves, we would conclude without equivocation, that he should do just that.
Let’s say you happen to buy this argument up until this point. Your next question would be, then why did God target these particular nations? What did he have specifically against the Canaanites? The answer is plenty.
But that is going to have to wait for my next post.
Note: this post was based on a sermon of the same title. It is part of a Hot Topics series we are working through at our church. You can listen to the full audio on our website here.
 The New Atheists (led by individuals such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and others) propose that religion – all religion – is not just false, but dangerous to civilization itself. Dawkins concludes his book, The God Delusion, by arguing that raising children to be religious is a form of child abuse. The new atheism is far more aggressive than the old and could be summed up in the statement, “There is no God, and I hate him!”
 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Black Swan, 2007), p.31
 Charles Templeton, Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith, p.71