Is it murder when God kills someone or what about when he orders the destruction of a whole nation?
Most people have a family member that they just don’t want to be seen in public with – they’re awkward. They say things they shouldn’t at the wrong times, things like that. For Christians, if there’s a part of the Bible that they’re most likely to be embarrassed about or not know how to handle, it’s probably what some people have called, “The morality of God.” How do we deal with God killing people or ordering their death or those types of things. There are numerous examples of this. We have Abraham and Isaac. You have a father ordered by God to kill his son, and he almost does it.
We have God killing Ananias and Sapphira in the New Testament, they just drop dead. And we have the largest example of God-sanctioned killing with the Canaanites, a whole people group that God ordered the destruction of. What is often said by atheists and non-Christians is “this is immoral. How can you believe in a God who would do these things? Your God can’t be good. He is fundamentally evil.” Christians don’t often know how to respond to that, so we are going to address that topic today. This is going to be the third and probably the last for a while in our little mini-series on Old Testament issues.
We’ve looked at women in the Old Testament, we’ve looked at slavery, and now we are going to look at the destruction of the Canaanites, that people group, for whom God ordered destruction. Here’s a passage from Deuteronomy where we see this command given: “For the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is going to give you as an inheritance, you must not allow a single living thing to survive. Instead, you must utterly annihilate them – the Hittites, the Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites – just as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that they cannot teach you all the abhorrent ways they worship their gods, causing you to sin against the Lord your God.”
In this we are given a glimpse into the heart and mind of God as He orders the destruction of lot of “ites.” Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, and on and on and on. “Just as the Lord has commanded you, don’t allow a single living thing to survive. You must utterly annihilate them.” Well, that doesn’t fit with the warm, lovey, fuzzy — God loves kittens, unicorns, and rainbows — image of God that all too often Christians like to portray, where God is love. That’s the primary thing when we think of God. But we have to have an idea of God that encompasses passages like these – passages where God seems to be wrathful, where he is exhibiting judgment and justice.
God is just as wrathful as he is loving. God is just as just as he is loving also. There isn’t a hierarchy of attributes in God, but for some reason we always want to talk about his love and not his holiness. We always want to talk about his love but not his justice, and this is a skewed concept of God.
We’re going to look at the specific example of the Canaanites and their destruction and what we should say about that and how we should understand these passages as Christians, and then we’re going to reason to the general issue of what is God’s relationship to human life, what responsibilities does he have, what moral obligations does he have.
The first thing we should say about the Canaanites in this example is that God was willing to wait more than 430 years before he destroyed them. They were sinful, they were depraved and wicked and yet God says the sin of the Amorite people has not yet reached its limit, and we see this in Genesis 15:16. He didn’t judge them right off the bat. He gave them opportunity to turn from their ways. Now they didn’t, which is why he ultimately judges them. Now, what are we talking about when we talk about their depravity and their wickedness?
Let’s look at some examples. The first would be adultery. Now, we don’t think of that as a big thing today, but that breaks one of the Ten Commandments. God has some strong thoughts about it, and it’s not just adultery – their whole religious system was based around sex. A church service if you want to call it that — I say “church” in scare quotes — involved going to the temple and having sex with the priestess. Sex was integral to their religion and of course what it really amounted to was institutionalized adultery and fornication, but it didn’t stop with just having sex with people who weren’t your spouse.
They also had sex with animals — bestiality. Part of temple sex or just sex in general would have included homosexual intercourse, and all of that sex and at that age without contraceptives is going to lead to what? Well, children. (Something Barack Obama has said, People necessarily shouldn’t be punished with when they have sex, referring to children.) All of this sex in the Canaanite culture led to lots of babies being born, because that’s the natural design of sex.
This brings us to probably one of their more heinous acts – child sacrifice. The Canaanites worshiped a god name Molech. They had a large metal statue of him, and he had two outstretched arms with hands on the end of them. They would build fires under these hands, which would heat them up and they would place their little babies on the hands, these flaming hot hands. Of course, the children would scream in pain and shriek and cry out as they were literally burnt to death. Their response to this was to play the drums louder to drown out the cries of the children so the mothers could not hear them. This is the Canaanite people. This is the people that God judged.
Some of the other things they did: (Trigger Warning) They would also rip open pregnant women. This was kind of an ongoing thing, not necessarily institutionalized but common enough to be recorded so that we know about it. God judged these people. He wanted them gone, and he ordered Israel to take care of it, but these aren’t really shiny examples of good moral upstanding citizens, are they? No. They are not. They’re people who are breaking all of God’s laws as part of their institutionalized religion.
God says don’t commit adultery. What’s their religious practice? Adultery. God says don’t murder. What do they do? They kill children. These are not good people that we’re talking about. The fundamental problem here isn’t child sacrifice, it’s not sex. What it really is this: idolatry. They’re worshiping created things instead of their creator. What flows from that is their sexual perversion. The degree to which sexual perversion is accepted or even promoted in a society is a marker of how degraded that society is and ultimately will be.Look at Sodom and Gomorrah, look at Rome. These are not great examples of how society turns out.
Now without such clear divine guidance as God speaking through a prophet to Israel, Israel would not have been justified in attacking the Canaanites at all, so that’s something to be clear on. Two things we’ve seen so far. First, the Canaanites were evil and wicked, even by modern definitions in some regards, especially with regards to the burning of children alive and ripping open a pregnant woman, but they certainly at almost all points were breaking God’s laws intentionally. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is their main sin was idolatry, and God called for the destruction through a prophet. It wasn’t like they decided, “Hey, we want this land over here. Let’s go take it.” Now, it is true that God was going to provide the land he wanted to give to Israel by using Israel to destroy the Canaanites. So, the destruction of the Canaanites served a two-fold purpose. Judging sin and giving Israel — God’s chosen people — land he wanted to give them. That’s very efficient, don’t you think?
Now, Richard Dawkins, a famous atheist, has said that the killing of the Canaanites was an active ethnic cleansing in which “blood thirsty massacres” were carried out by “xenophobic relish.” Well, let’s examine that and see if that’s actually true. Xenophobic literally means fearful of strangers, and ethnic cleansing is fueled by racial hatred. The question is do these two statements accurately reflect Israel? Well, let’s see some things that God commanded.
First, God commanded Israel to show concern for non-Israelites. The aliens and sojourners in their midst, and we see this is part of their law in Leviticus 19:34 and Deuteronomy 10:18-19.Additionally, non-Israelites living in Israel had the same rights as we see in Leviticus 24:22 and Numbers 35:15.
So, what we see here is a part of their institution and legal system, they weren’t fearful of strangers. God commanded them to be welcoming to strangers. There wasn’t institutionalized racial hatred, certainly not from God and not as part of Israel at all. Now, does this mean, like we’ve covered previously, that no Israelite was a racist? No. Does it mean no Israelite was fearful of strangers? No. It doesn’t mean that. It does mean that Richard Dawkins claims are baseless. He cannot prove that these were blood thirsty massacres that were carried out with xenophobic relish all in an effort to commit ethnic cleansing. That’s not what was going on here.
Now, there’s some other context that I think will be helpful as we understand this Canaanite situation. Israel had no standing army, they weren’t a war-like people. Soldiers weren’t even paid, and they couldn’t take plunder when they conquered people, and kings couldn’t call for war. Only God could through prophets. This doesn’t sound like a war machine that’s just looking to clear the way and take everything in its path, because it’s not. Now, we’ve read the command that God gave them. “Don’t leave any living thing alive. Go and destroy everything” but what actually happened?
Well, here’s what it says, “Joshua struck all the land and the hill country and the Negev and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings. He left no survivor, but he utterly destroyed all who breathed, just as the Lord, the God of Israel had commanded.” Now, there’s more to say about this, but what if it ended there? Did Joshua and Israel do anything wrong? Well, the question we have to ask is, is it murder when God kills someone? Maybe said differently, is it murder when God orders the killing of someone? Well, that’s a question often times people don’t consider and we’ll get to that, but I think there’s actually something different going on here.
Joshua says that he left no survivor; however, God also says in these passages, “Don’t intermarry with the Canaanites. Make no covenant with the Canaanites.” So, if you were supposed to destroy all living things, who is left to make a covenant with? Who is left to intermarry with? Well, no one. This phrase that Joshua utterly destroyed all who breathed. This is not a literal truth. This is simply an example of Ancient Near East hyperbole. We see some other examples of this from 1200 BC even. Ramesses II’s son announced that “Israel is wasted. His seed is not.” Well, obviously Israel wasn’t gone. They’ve been around for a very long time.
We see another example in 700 BC, an Assyrian ruler said, “The soldiers of the Hirimme, dangerous enemies, I cut down with the sword; and no one escaped.” History tells a different tale. These people that were supposedly cut down and no one escaped, they were still alive; not all of them obviously but some of them. Now, you might be thinking, okay so the Bible says everyone was dead and yet everyone wasn’t dead. Does that mean the Bible’s not true? Well, no. That’s not what it means.
Here’s an example. I’ll give you two ways to think about this. The first would be Jesus saying that he was a door. Now, maybe we’ll do a poll later, but who thinks his hinges are on the right side? Okay, who thinks they’re on the left side?
No, no one thinks Jesus has hinges! Because we understand that Jesus was speaking metaphorically. It’s the same thing when he says he is a vine and we’re branches. I’m not a branch, right. The mirror definitely tells me I am not a branch, but in a metaphoric way I am a branch, and in a metaphoric way, Jesus says a vine and a door and these different things.
When the Bible says something, we need to look at genre it’s in. We need to understand the context before we can come to understand if it’s literal or not literal. Here’s an example. Many times you’ve probably opened your newspaper to the sports page and read a headline something like, “FSU killed the other team. They just destroyed them.”
Now, what’s the next thing you do? Well, any reasonable person would pick up their phone and call the police and ask how the mass murder investigation is going, right? Because a whole team of people was killed. Well, no. Because you understand that that’s hyperbole. It’s “exaggeration for the sake of effect.”
Well, the Bible is written in language, and language is sometimes hyperbolic. The Bible is not immune from the different uses of language. In fact, it uses them to great effectiveness.
What we see here with Joshua saying that he destroyed utterly all who breathed, it’s an example of hyperbole. Because the Bible gives us an example of Canaanites that lived long after that. Jesus even talks to a Canaanite. Well, how did he do that if they were all dead? Well, he couldn’t.
We see some more detail in Deuteronomy 7:3 though. “Furthermore, you shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor shall you take their daughters for your sons. For they will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods; then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you and He will quickly destroy you. But thus you shall do to them: you shall tear down their altars, you shall smash their sacred pillars, hew down their Asherim.” These were figures of one of their goddess. “And burn their graven images with fire.” So, what do we see here? A few things. Like I said the Canaanites, they’re not actually wiped out, but God reiterates the main reason for destroying the Canaanites.
Just like when he said initially, “I want them gone so they don’t teach their religion.” What did all of the details in this passage talk about? It talks about the fact that they would turn you away from me if you don’t destroy them. He wanted their altars gone. He wanted their pillars gone. He wanted their idols gone. He wanted their religion gone. That is why the Canaanites were destroyed. It was an act of judgment, but ultimately it was an act of preserving Israel so that ultimately one day Christ would come through it.
I firmly believe that if God had not gotten rid of the Canaanites and had not had another plan, Christ would not have gone to the cross. God obviously saw the necessity of destroying this people for their wickedness in order to preserve and help create Israel’s purity because he was working a plan of redemption all the way back from the fall in Genesis 3 through this time in Deuteronomy with the Canaanites to get to the cross, for you and for me. That’s why the Canaanites were destroyed.
Now, what if God had actually had Israel kill every single living thing like he commanded? What if they literally did that? Well, this brings us back to our question. Is it murder when God kills someone? Well, the answer to that is no. Murder is the unjustified taking of human life. It’s not just killing people. It’s not just killing innocent life. It’s the unjustified taking of innocent human life, and that’s the philosophically robust definition that generally rules in our culture today. However, there is another little phrase we need to tack on the end, and that would be “by humans”.
Murder is something committed by humans. What people want to do when they say that God committed murder here or genocide even — a much stronger term — is they want to try and level the playing field between the creator and the created thing. They want to say that everything that’s true of us needs to be true of God with regards to morality. If we can’t do it, God can’t do it. Doesn’t it just sound silly when you say it that way? The all powerful, all mighty, all knowing, everywhere present, God of the universe is somehow bound by the same regulations that bind us? No. There are actions your child can do that would be immoral, that you can do. By the same extension, there are actions God can do that would be immoral for us to do. He is the creator of life and he can do with it as he pleases.
Here’s the bigger way that you can use this argument. Atheists want to say that God acted immorally there. They want to say that having a rape victim marry the rapist is immoral. They want to say that the slavery of the Old Testament was immoral. We’ve talked about slavery and rape and how the atheist gets these things wrong, but let’s just say they’re right. Okay, let’s say that was immoral.
Well, by what standard do they actually make that moral claim? They’re atheists. If they’re consistent, they don’t actually think objective morality exist. There is nothing intrinsically wrong about rape or slavery or murder on an atheistic worldview, because there’s no such thing as objective morality.
If you want a refresher on objective morality, check out this episode. It’s pretty short and it should be helpful.
But what atheists are saying is the God of the Old Testament is a moral monster. He is blood thirsty, he is a bully, he’s simply not good, he is evil. But what are these people doing? They’re borrowing from the Christian worldview in order to argue against it. They’re saying, “Well, I’m going to use your idea of morality and the standard to then argue against God.” They can’t do that, because morality doesn’t fit as a part of their system.
Frank Turek, an apologist, has said, “Atheists have to sit in God’s lap to slap him in the face.” I think that’s powerful and it’s true. A consistent atheist is one who would say, “I don’t like that God did that. I don’t like that murder happened or rape happened or theft happened, but I can’t say it was wrong for the person who did it.” All the consistent atheist is left with is this idea of relativism. That we all decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. Maybe we do it as individuals or do we it as societies or countries or states, but nonetheless there’s nothing objectively wrong about rape and murder and genocide in an atheistic worldview. When they argue against the Bible on a moral ground, they’re being very inconsistent.
The other thing to point out is there’s nothing inconsistent in God being all loving and him ending human’s life on Earth. Like I said, he is the creator of life. He can do with it as he pleases.
Lastly, people complain that God doesn’t stop evil. That’s the whole problem of evil right? “Why is there so much evil in the world? Gosh. God, why don’t you take care of that?” In the same argument, the atheists might also say, “Look, what God did in the Old Testament. That was evil.” What did God do? He took care of a nation that institutionalized burning children alive. He got rid of them. He got rid of a nation that practiced ripping open pregnant women and so many other heinous acts. So, when God does stop evil, all too often the atheist complains about that too. They want to have their cake and they want to eat it too.
Our question, “is it murder when God kills someone?” No. It’s not. What we want to do all the time, and it’s not just atheists that do this, we want to diminish the distance between the creator and the created thing. We want to act and feel like and think like we are God or we’re close to him. That’s just far too incorrect. The Biblical view of man is that before salvation he is dead in sin, he has a heart of stone, and he is a slave to sin, and that dead man needs to be made alive by a sovereign, all-powerful God who loves those whom he bestows salvation on. That’s the gospel. When we understand the gospel, we understand, 1. God’s sovereignty and we understand, 2. man’s depravity, and any diminishing of either of those will result in a skewed reading of scripture and a skewed understanding of God.
When you’re confronted with Old Testament ethical issues of slavery, rape, or genocide, you now are a little more equipped to respond. If this is the first episode in the series you’ve caught, I would go back a couple weeks or potentially go all the way back to Episode 1 and get on the train that we’ve been riding. All the way back from morality through the resurrection to how we can argue for the authenticity and reliability of the Bible, and now we’re talking about Old Testament issues. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover. I hope you’re enjoying the ride we’re on. I hope it’s educational and informative, and I hope it equips you to take the gospel out into today’s context and be a powerful force for God.
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2 thoughts on “Episode 18 – The Most Difficult Old Testament Issue”
Very well written. Whether your a Christian, Atheist, Agnostic, or somewhere in between, take some time to read this. The Old Testament is tough to read, and the events within it don’t always align with our view of who we think God is. This is a great article offering much clarification and information. If you’re like me and have some difficulty answering for some of the things that transpired in the OT, or if you are opposed to giving God a try because of the way He is portrayed in parts of the Bible, then take the time to read this (if not now, then book mark it for later!). It’s lengthy, (you’ll spend 1/1,000th of the time spent on the latest Netflix series!) but well worth the read.
Thank you, Lawrence, for the kind words. I’m glad it was helpful!