“Only in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the Lord your God has commanded you,” (Deuteronomy 20:16-17)
“The Bible 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 and the Marsh Arabs. The Bible may be an arresting and poetic work of fiction, but it is not the sort of book you should give your children to form their morals.” (Richard Dawkins, from “The God Delusion”)
It has become fashionable in recent years among many outspoken atheists to call into question God’s morality. Since many verses may be found in the Old Testament of God engaging in “mass murder” and wholesale genocide, according to Bible skeptics, His own goodness and moral purity has come under fire as His actions are compared to the most evil, depraved tyrants the world has ever known.
Even for many Christians, verses such as the one quoted above from Deuteronomy are a source of bewilderment, discomfort, and downright embarrassment. How can the loving, forgiving, merciful Jesus of the New Testament have anything in common with the God of the Old Testament? And why does the God of the Old Testament seem so bloodthirsty at times?
Joshua’s Campaign Against Canaan
Although there are many Old Testament passages dealing with the nation of Israel engaging in war with other peoples, it seems that Joshua’s campaign against the residents of Canaan usually brings up the most objections; perhaps because the accounts are given so early on in the Bible. How is it that God could not only condone but order the Israelites to conquer so many different groups of innocent people? Not only that, He instructs them to utterly annihilate them, leaving “nothing alive that breathes.“
The first myth to be addressed is the notion that these were innocent, peaceful people inhabiting Canaan. The next verse of the quote above from Deuteronomy 20 actually gives us our first clue about the answers to our questions:
“…so that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 20:18, emphasis added)
If the Canaanites were doing “detestable” things, then they weren’t innocent. The sins in which these people were engaging are numerous and horrific. Deuteronomy 12:31 tells us that they, “burned their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods.“
Moloch was a Canaanite idol to whom the inhabitants of the land, and later many of the Israelites who sought to emulate them, would sacrifice children. A bronze image of the deity with the head of a bull and the body of a man would be heated by fire and living infants and toddlers would be placed upon its outstretched arms to be burned to death in sacrifice.
Additionally, the Canaanites engaged in rampant sexual depravity. Homosexuality, incest, and bestiality were regularly practiced and were glorified in the stories of their gods. And while many of the Bible’s critics would not condemn homosexuality among consenting adults, the Canaanites did not confine themselves to such. As Genesis 19 tells us about the Canaanite city of Sodom, these people had no qualms about forcing others to have illicit sex with them.
Richard Dawkins’ comparison of what the Israelites did being on the same level morally as Hitler invading Poland or Saddam Hussein massacring Kurds simply does not hold up. The Poles and Kurds were slaughtered by evil dictators with their own greedy agendas while the Canaanites were under Divine judgment for unspeakable sins of the basest nature. Even the land itself was defiled by the Canaanite’s evil and God spoke of the land “vomiting out” the inhabitants (Leviticus 18:25). God was not conducting mass murder of innocent people to make room for another group to occupy the land. The Canaanites were being judged for their wickedness.
But Why The Children And The Animals?
One point of major contention exists over the fact that God ordered the Israelites to kill everyone. Nothing that breathed was to be left alive. We can assume that this included animals, young children, even babies. Surely animals and babies were innocent? Admittedly, this is a more sensitive area of the topic and calls, perhaps, for a greater deal of speculation. Robert M. Bowman, Jr. offers the following explanation in his article, “Joshua’s Conquest: Was It Justified?“:
First, after generations of the sort of moral degeneracy that characterized these peoples, it may be that even the smallest children were beyond civilizing. Apparently even they were abused and forced to participate in obscene conduct, such that they would have grown up psychologically and spiritually scarred-and perhaps threatened to perpetuate the cycle.
Second, the STDs and other infectious diseases that must have pervaded those cities may well have been carried by the smallest children, and if so, they may have posed a grave danger to the physical health of the Israelites. Imagine some of the nations today most ravaged by AIDS, but living more than three thousand years ago, with no access to even the most basic medical resources. It may be that infectious diseases were also ravaging the domestic animals in these cities, which would also explain why they were destroyed.
To paraphrase Dr. J. Vernon McGee, when you’re dealing with an extreme form of cancer you perform extreme surgery to remove all of it. You don’t leave a little bit of it behind to see whether or not it will end up like the other cancer. You get rid of it. Although we tend to be appalled by the notion of small children being lumped together with their parents because we want to give them a fair chance to grow up and make their own decisions, God, Who knows all things, is not limited by the same uncertainty that we are. He knows what they will eventually become if they are permitted to live.
Ultimately, the Israelites did not wipe out the entire population as they were instructed to and we only need to turn a few pages over to the Book of Judges to begin to see the devastating consequences of allowing the Canaanite civilization to survive. Even a future king of Israel, Ahaz, would one day practice the same despicable child sacrifice to Moloch that would see a revival because the influence of Canaanite culture was allowed to remain (2 Kings 16:2-3).
We know that God dealt fairly with the Canaanites and gave them every opportunity to repent and change their ways. Genesis 15:16 refers to God waiting to enact His judgment because the “iniquity of the Amorite was not yet complete.” What if the Canaanites, or even a single Canaanite had turned to God during this time? Well, we know at least one did. Joshua chapter 2 tells us of Rahab, a prostitute living in Jericho, who believed that God was with the Israelites. She asked for mercy when they attacked the city and she and her family were spared.
Thou Shalt Not Kill?
Finally, I would like to briefly look at the question of how God can instruct people in the Old Testament to kill or even how He can kill people Himself when the Ten Commandments say that we shall not kill (Exodus 20:13).
First of all, the commandment given prohibits the personal killing of one human being by another, or murder. The distinction is made in the Bible between a person acting in their own interests and taking the life of another and what we would call justifiable homicide. Genesis 9:6 says that whoever sheds man’s blood shall have his own blood shed by man. This is the first Biblical reference to capital punishment which is condoned in both the Old and New Testaments. Romans 13:4 speaks of civil rulers “bearing the sword on behalf of God” as avengers against evil-doers. Those in authority have the God-given responsibility to punish criminals and that includes executing murderers. But they do so on behalf of the justice of God and the laws of the land, not for their own gain and interests.
War can also be justifiable use of deadly force because one is acting on behalf of the nation in which he lives. Genesis 14 tells us of a war in which Abraham fought in order to liberate his nephew Lot who had been taken by force by the enemy.
We see many instructions given in the Old Testament also for capital punishment being carried out for various infractions, including spiritual ones. Exodus 22:18 is rendered in the King James Version with the commandment to not “suffer a witch to live.” A verse which has come under attack by critics repeatedly. Although a whole additional article would probably be necessary to sufficiently explain why this was a law under the Old Testament and not under the New, let me just briefly point out that many of the capital offenses mentioned in the Torah were specifically relevant to a certain people at a certain time and in a certain place. Ancient Israel was a Theocracy whose original “King” was God Himself. In order to prevent the Jewish people from devolving into the same condition as the Canaanites before them and to protect the lineage through which Jesus Christ would be born, extreme measures were called for. Like the cutting out cancer analogy we considered with regards to the Canaanites, God wanted to be sure that any steps toward idolatry and spiritual rebellion were nipped in the bud immediately.
Witchcraft and spiritual rebellion might seem like harmless enough sins to many modern skeptics, but they are a big deal to God. And as we read through the rest of the Old Testament and see the horrible consequences Israel faced for their idolatry, we see what a tragedy these things can result in. Today, we do not have a Theocracy ruled by the laws of God and thus we, as Christians, are not instructed to go around killing adulterers and those who practice witchcraft. We are instructed to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a lost and sinful world.
To God goes all glory. In service to Him,
**Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (NASB) © The Lockman Foundation and are used by permission.
[If you do not know the Lord Jesus Christ or you are not certain where you are headed when this life ends, I invite you to read the article “Am I Going To Heaven?“]