Is God Guilty of Genocide?
Please read carefully the following passages: Deut. 7:1-11; 20:16-18; Joshua 6:21; 8:24-29; 11:10-15 (also Ex. 23:31-32; 34:12-16).
How do we explain the fact that God evidently commanded Israel (Joshua 6:21) to exterminate the entire population of Jericho: men, women, and children? Numerous attempts have been made to deal with this. For example:
(1) Some argue that the decision was Joshua's, which indicates that Israel was simply at a very primitive stage of development. The OT itself is thus a record of a crude, warlike tribe of Hebrews who were simply fighting for survival. But: read Deut. 7:1-2 and Joshua 10:40.
(2) Others insist that the God of the OT is not the God and Father of Jesus in the NT. The OT God is wrathful, vengeful, evil, and the NT God is loving and compassionate. But: Jesus himself identified the Father as "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob," not to mention the countless references in the NT to the wrath and righteous judgment of God.
(3) Some simply can't entertain the thought of God ordering such slaughter, so they deny that the OT is the inspired word of God. It is a merely human record of events in which a barbaric people tried to justify ruthless policies by appealing to divine sanction. But: Jesus' attitude to the OT must be noted (see Mt. 5; John 10; also 2 Tim. 3:16-17).
There is no escaping the fact that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ ordered and sanctioned the extermination of the Canaanite people. Why? Can such a God be worshiped and adored?
We read about the "ban", i.e., the herem, a word that literally means "to separate". This was the practice in which people hostile to God were designated as "off-limits" to Israel and were to be separated or devoted to judgment and destruction. See Josh. 6:17,18,21.
How do we explain this? If such were to occur today, Israel would be called before the World Court or the United Nations and charged with barbaric cruelty, unprovoked aggression, and would no doubt be condemned and isolated, perhaps even invaded by other nations. Our answer begins with seven observations.
First, Israel was not commanded to do this because of any moral superiority. See Deut. 9:5. Indeed, the same fate was threatened against Israel if she were to rebel (Deut. 8:19-20).
Second, the Canaanites were the most depraved, debauched, degenerate people of the ancient world. They regularly engaged in religious prostitution in which people fornicated with cult priests and priestesses, hoping thereby to encourage the gods to copulate and bring fruitfulness to the land. They practiced child sacrifice (infants and young children were sacrificed to the fire of the god Molech). They also gave themselves over to the sexual sins listed in Lev. 18. Thus, the Canaanites received everything they deserved. They received justice, Israel received mercy, but no one received injustice.
Third, the judgment came only after remarkable and gracious patience and opportunity for repentance. See Gen. 15:16. God had given the people in Canaan centuries to repent! But they presumed on God's patience and took it as indifference and indulged in even greater sin. See Joshua 2:10-14; 5:1; Jer. 18:7-10.
Fourth, the survival of both Israel and the world was at stake because of the pervasive and perverting influence of such sin. See Deut. 7:1-4. We know, in fact, that on those occasions when Israel did not obey God's order to exterminate the Canaanites, the latter polluted the former. The kings of Judah practiced child sacrifice (2 Kings 16:3; 21:6). Sexual perversion was rampant (2 Kings 23:7). Israel practiced magic and necromancy (2 Kings 21:6), and even murdered the prophets (Jer. 26:20-23). Other examples could be given. The point is this: God as the physician of mankind occasionally finds it necessary to amputate a leg that is gangrene in order to save the rest of the body.
Fifth, think of the flood of Noah! There we see the extermination of virtually the entire human race because of their sin, with the exception of eight souls.
Sixth, what God did in Canaan and Jericho is no different from he at other times does through providential disasters such as famine, floods, pestilence, tornados, earthquakes, etc.
Seventh, why do we object to God doing during history what we agree he will do at the end of history? If you think what God did at Jericho was unjust, what will you do with hell?
Many, though, are still uncomfortable with what they read in Deut. and Joshua. This is often because it assumed that all people have a fundamental right to life which even God himself must honor. Note well: we must distinguish between the "right to life" referred to in the pro-life movement and that which I describe here. No human has the right to take another human life unlawfully. The unborn child has a right, under law, to protection from murder. When a fetus dies from spontaneous miscarriage, we don't charge God with murder. Life belongs to God, not to man. When God gives life, we can't take it (except when Scripture says so: e.g., war, self-defense, capital punishment). But God can do with life whatever he pleases.
So we ask: "How could a just and loving God cause the extermination of innocent people in Jericho?" Answer: "He couldn't! He didn't!" The fact is, not one innocent person in Jericho died. See Gen. 18:23-25. Let me illustrate this point by directing your attention to the reality of OT death penalty.
In the Mosaic code, people could be executed for adultery, blasphemy, incorrigible juvenile delinquency, breaking the Sabbath, homosexuality, rape, just a few of the 15-20 crimes for which one would suffer loss of life. But contrary to widespread perception, the Mosaic Law actually represents a massive reduction in capital offenses from the original list. As R. C. Sproul puts it, "the OT code represents a bending over backwards of divine patience and forbearance. The OT law is one of astonishing grace" (The Holiness of God, p. 148).
The original law of the universe is that "the soul that sins, it shall die." Life is a divine gift, not a debt. Sin brings the loss of the gift of life. Once a person sins he forfeits any claim on God to human existence. The fact that we continue to exist after sinning is owing wholly to divine mercy and gracious longsuffering.
We recoil and are aghast at what we are convinced was undue cruelty and severity in the OT law. Why? Because we are twisted and confused in our thinking. We think we deserve to live and that God owes us life. The fact that God made only 15-20 sins capital offenses was a remarkable act of mercy, compassion and grace. Why? Because it would have been perfectly just and fair and righteous had he made every sin a capital offence. The Mosaic stipulations regarding the death penalty, therefore, were remarkably lenient and gracious.]
I would suggest, therefore, that the mystery in Jericho is not that God would exterminate them all, but that he didn't exterminate them all sooner than he did! We have arrogantly presumed on a mythical "right to life" and thus are shocked by death.
Read Luke 13:1-5. The cry is: "How could God let innocent bystanders die this way?" Jesus might have responded: "I'm so sorry. It was an accident. My Father was tired from a long night of running the world and he momentarily fell asleep. Or maybe he was counting hairs on heads or watching sparrows fall or busy on the other side of the globe." No. Rather, he says: "Unless you repent, you too will perish!" In other words, they asked the wrong question. They should have asked: "Why didn't that tower fall on me?"
The fact that we draw breath this moment is an act of mercy, not justice.