Was God Guilty of Genocide? (3)1
In the first post of this series I briefly surveyed some interesting but inadequate ways in which people have tried to deal with the problem of the slaughter of the Canaanites. In the second post I offered a few initial observations that might help us better understand this otherwise befuddling incident. If you are just now joining in with me on this study, I strongly encourage you to go back and read those first two articles. We are now ready to conclude with some final insights.
(4) The judgment against the inhabitants of Canaan came only after remarkable and gracious patience and opportunity for repentance. See Genesis 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; Jeremiah 18:7-10.
(5) We must also remember that 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.
(6) Before you draw unwarranted conclusions about how God dealt with the Canaanites, 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. I don’t typically run into people who object to the justice of the flood. Yet they loudly protest the slaughter of the Canaanites by Joshua and the armies of Israel. But if God was in the right (and he always is!) when he sent the flood, we can be assured that it was not an act of unjustified homicide for him to issue the command to Joshua to kill the enemies of Israel.
(7) It’s also important to remember that what God did in Canaan and Jericho is no different from what he at other times does through providential disasters such as famine, floods, pestilence, tornados, earthquakes, etc. Regardless of whether you believe God directly causes such devastation or merely permits it to occur, the fact remains that he could prevent it but chooses not to.
Far more people died today of heart attacks and car accidents and cancer and murder than were ever killed during the conquest of Canaan. Could not God have prevented such deaths? I believe he could, but chose not to. Why, then, do we point an angry and accusing finger at God for what happened several thousand years ago but blissfully ignore the daily carnage in our world?
(8) Why do we object to God doing during history what we agree he will do at the end of history? If you are bothered by Joshua 6:21, what will you do with Revelation 19? In this latter text we read of the global destruction that will accompany the second coming of Christ. When he returns he will utterly destroy all his enemies. The slaughter at the close of history, when Christ returns, will be utterly unprecedented. The judgment that will fall on the unbelieving human race will be universal and altogether just. Indeed, as Christians we are told in Scripture to pray for the soon return of Christ and for the coming of God’s kingdom. Have you paused to consider the implications of the answer to that prayer?
(9) Finally, 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 Deuteronomy 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. Thus it’s important to remember that the “right to life” governs our relationships with one another, but not God’s relationship with us.
So we ask: "How could a just and loving God cause the extermination of innocent people in Jericho?" The answer is: "He couldn't! And he didn't!" The fact is, not one innocent person in Jericho died.
Consider the case of Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham’s request that God not kill the righteous together with the unrighteous (see Genesis 18:23-33). God would have spared the entire city if only one righteous/innocent person could be found. There was none!
Let me illustrate this point by directing your attention to the reality of the 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. Many respond to this by saying: “How barbaric! How intolerant of God! How unjust!”
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, 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. God was not obligated to give us life. The fact that we continue to exist after sinning is due entirely 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 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 offense. 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. In fact, we ought to be shocked, but by life, not death!
I strongly suggest that you stop and read again 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. We have presumed upon divine grace and are thus shocked by his justice. Rather we ought to expect his justice and be shocked by his mercy!
The amazing thing isn’t that God in wrath exterminated the Canaanites. The amazing thing is that he hasn’t exterminated everyone. And why hasn’t he? The only explanation is that Jesus Christ took upon himself on the cross the wrath and judgment that we otherwise deserved. I have no way of knowing or predicting how you or I will die. But die we will. Whether it be from a tornado, a terrorist attack, cancer, a car wreck, or simply from old age, is something none of us can know with certainty.
But this I know beyond the shadow of a doubt: whenever a born-again child of God dies, it is not under the judgment and wrath of God!