Was God Guilty of Genocide? (1)2
I’ve seen a lot lately on the subject of the slaughter of the Canaanites and how it affects our understanding both of God and the Bible. I preached through Joshua last year and dealt with this issue as best I know how. Here are my conclusions.
One of the things that makes these texts in Joshua so difficult is that prior to Joshua 6:21; 8:24-29; and 11:10-15, we see such wonderful truths about God: his faithfulness, his compassion, his commitment to his people and his promises, and the way he performs miracles to sustain them and guide them as they make their way into the promised land.
So how do we explain the fact that now God evidently commanded Israel to exterminate the entire population of Jericho: men, women, and children? In technical, biblical terms, this is referred to as herem, a word that literally means "to separate" or “to devote”. 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).
Numerous attempts have been made to dismiss this problem or explain it away. 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 this is difficult to reconcile with the explicit instructions that we see in Deuteronomy 7:1-2 and Joshua 10:40 (“just as the Lord God of Israel commanded”).
Related to this idea is the suggestion that the Israelites themselves took the initiative to slaughter the Canaanites and later rationalized it as the will of God. The many references to God “commanding” that Israel destroy their enemies did not come from God but were later additions to the narrative designed to provide Israel with a moral justification for what they did.
But if the latter were true, why is there never any correction or rebuke found in the OT or the NT for what Israel did? “If the conquest of Canaan had actually been such a massive and mistaken misinterpretation of God’s will, we should surely read some corrective word later in the Scriptures – if not within the Old Testament itself . . . then at least in the New. But we find none. There is no hint anywhere in the Bible that the Israelites took the land of Canaan on the basis of a mistaken belief in God’s will. On the contrary, the refusal of the exodus generation to go ahead and do it (in the great rebellion at Kadesh Barnea in Numbers 14), and the failure of the following generations to complete the task properly, are condemned as disobedience to God’s will (Ps. 106:24-35)” (Christopher Wright, The God I Don’t Understand, 82-83).
And let’s not lose sight of the fact it was God himself who is described in Joshua 23:3-5, 9-10, as fighting for the Israelites and giving them the land.
(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. Atheist author Richard Dawkins penned these infamous words:
“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.”
But Jesus himself identified the Father as "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” At no time is Jesus or any of the NT authors embarrassed by the OT, nor do they seek to correct the OT record or apologize for it. Never once does any author in the NT suggest that what we read in the OT is immoral.
And we must reckon with the fact that the OT has much to say about the love and compassion of God even as the NT has much to say about the wrath and 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 once again, Jesus' attitude to the OT must be noted (see Mt. 5; John 10), as well as that of Paul and other NT authors (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 destruction of the Canaanite people. Why? Can such a God be worshiped and adored?
Many are inclined to read texts such as Joshua 6:21 and apologize for God: “We’re sorry that God is like that! Please give him a chance. His positive characteristics and his good deeds outweigh the negative and bad ones.” Understand this: I have no intention of apologizing for God. I rather think we should apologize to him.
The problem isn’t that God is evil. The problem is that we are. It isn’t that God has mistreated us, but that we have mistreated him. This text and others like it bother us for one fundamental reason: we have virtually no grasp on the holiness of God or the sinfulness of humanity. We have little sense of the transcendent beauty, moral purity, and infinite righteousness of the Creator. And we have little sense of the depth and extent and ugliness of our own depravity.
We think God exists for our welfare, to help us feel good about ourselves. Most people envision God as in their debt. He owes them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As we dig more deeply into this issue we will discover how profoundly misguided this is.
To be continued . . .