Question: What are we to make of passages of Scripture in the Old Testament in which God commanded the Israelites to slaughter entire cities or tribes, including the women and children? How do we square such a vengeful God with the merciful God we find in the New Testament?
Answer: This is a question that is often raised by atheists to attack the Christian Faith, but it is also raised by sincere laymen who are unsure of how we should understand these passages. To answer the question requires that we consider several issues, and not look at the question in a superficial way.
What is interesting is that people do not generally raise moral objections to the flood in the days of Noah, even though every man, woman, and child, except Noah’s family, was drowned. Nor do they raise moral objections to the fact that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, even though women and children were no doubt killed. And no one raises moral objections when the Scriptures talk about God sending other nations to destroy the Israelites, even though men, women, and children were killed as a result.
The problem we have with God telling the Israelites to kill women and children is that we live in a rationalistic age, and people are not so sure God really talked to people like Joshua. Also, we don’t want folks to go around killing people because they claim God told them to do it. But if God could wipe out a city with fire and brimstone, there’s no reason why He couldn’t do it via the Israelites if that was indeed His choice. And so if He did indeed tell the Israelites to utterly destroy a city, He had the sovereign right to do so, and the people of Israel, who had seen so many miracles worked by God had every reason to believe that God was speaking to them through, Joshua, and later through their Judges. The Church has not taken this as a precedence, but has seen it as something of literal application only to that specific time and place. The applications we can make from these passages today would be primarily of an allegorical nature, from a patristic perspective.
Another thing that we should keep in mind is that, if you really believe in God and in the afterlife, death is not the worst fate that could befall someone. Far worse than physical death is spiritual death, and it was for the salvation of future generations that these things were commanded. Death is a punishment for sin, but it is also a mercy in that it puts limits on the evil men may do, and also gives them cause to repent and turn to God. God sometimes allows people to die young in order that they might be spared worse things that would come their way. For example, the wicked king Jeroboam’s son was allowed to die at a very early age, “because in him there is found something good toward the Lord God of Israel in the house of Jeroboam,” and so of the house of Jeroboam, only this child died in peace, and was properly buried. And no doubt, in his early death he was also spared the evil influence of his family (1 Kings 14:13).
God judges nations in history. Nations do not have an afterlife in which they can receive punishment or reward. God dispenses His justice upon nations in history, and so this justice by its very nature is dispensed collectively. If a nation is wicked, it will suffer the fruits of that wickedness, and unfortunately that means even the youngest children in that nation reap the bitter harvest sown by their parents. Our culture is very individualistic, but in Scripture, we find a view of the human race that sees us as having a corporate personality as well as being individuals. We are ultimately judged as individuals in eternity, but in this life we are not just individuals… we are part of families, tribes, and nations. If our forefathers make wise decisions, we reap benefits that are not due to our individual choices or merit. If our forefathers make wicked decisions, we also reap what they have sown. This is why you find people in Scripture not only repenting of their own sins, but of those of their forefathers. Of course if we come from a line of unbelievers, we can make the decision to embrace the Gospel and change the future for our descendants for the better. Is it “fair” that a child who is born in a Christian home hears the Gospel, and is more likely to grow up as a Christian than a child born to an unbeliever? Is it fair that a child born to a drug addict will grow up facing challenges that other children do not? If you look at this with a purely individualistic mindset, it might seem unfair, but the Biblical worldview is that we are not islands unto ourselves. We are not just souls who had the misfortune or fortune to be born to a particular set of parents, but we are their offspring, and are connected to them on a deeper level. Adam and Eve’s choice to sin has affected all of their offspring – we were not consulted before they made their decision, and yet we have suffered the effects of their decision. However we have been given the option of placing ourselves under a new head, and aligning ourselves with a new Adam – Jesus
Christ (1 Corinthians 15:20-49), and so we can change the future for our offspring for the better, though they have not been consulted either.
The other thing that has to be kept in mind is that the level of civilization at the time, made things like internment camps impossible. If the Israelites were going to spare the children, they would have had to have spared the mothers, and unless they were going to marry the mothers or keep them as slaves, they would have needed to spare the men also. But the Canaanites were an incredibly evil people who engaged in ritual prostitution and child sacrifice, and so leaving Canaanite culture in their midst would prove to be a snare to the Israelites, who were like children spiritually, and more likely to be influenced by the Canaanites than to be able to convert them to a better way of living and thinking. It was God’s intention that the Canaanite culture be wiped out, and that could not be accomplished if the adults of the Canaanites were spared. Even the pagan Romans were shocked by the evils of the Carthaginian culture, which was Phoenician colony, that shared the same religion as that of the Canaanites – which is why their battle cry was “Carthago delenda est!” (Carthage must be destroyed!).
But the fact is, the Israelites did not obey God. They did not kill all the Canaanites, and in fact the Canaanites and their culture were a thorn in their side that continually led them astray up until the time that God finally sent the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem, and to take the people into exile. When Israelite farmers had Canaanites telling them that if they wanted their crops to grow, they had to make Baal happy, they repeatedly gave in to the temptation to cover all the bases, and engage in the ritual prostitution and child sacrifice that the Canaanites believed were the only sure way to ensure good harvests. As it says in Psalm 105 (106):34-39: “They did not destroy the heathen, concerning which the Lord had spoken to them. They mingled among the nations and learned their works; and they served their graven things, and it became for them a stumbling-block. And they sacrificed their sons and their daughters unto demons. And they poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the graven things of Canaan. And the land was befouled with the blood of murder, and it was defiled with their works; and they went a whoring with their own inventions.”
It was only after this experience of the exile that the Jews matured spiritually enough that they would never again be tempted into idolatry by their neighbors, though they often lived in a diaspora, in which they were a small minority surrounded by a pagan majority. Having the fullness of Gospel, we are better able to resist the temptations that come with being surrounded by evil people, and in fact, we are called to bring the Gospel to those wicked people, and to change the spiritual climate by the power of the Gospel, and not by the sword, as before, in the Old Testament.
What is perhaps most ironic about this issue is that the atheists that point to these passages to argue against Christianity are appealing to a Christian sense of morality, love, and mercy, in order to be outraged. But the fact is, as
Dostoyevsky pointed out, if there is no God, all things are lawful. If there is no God, the slaughter of innocent children is of no more moral significance than when a colony of ants is washed away in a flood. There is no moral standard that one can appeal to. There is only power, and those who have the will to use it. And in fact, if you want to see the worst and most monstrous examples of the brutal slaughter of innocents by the millions, no one has surpassed brutality of militant atheism in the Soviet Union, Communist China, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, etc.
The only moral standard that can have any real meaning is one based on what God has revealed. God has revealed the most excellent way of the Gospel to us, and that is the standard we live by now. God, who is the giver of life, does not have to answer to us when He chooses to take it. We know that He is Love, and we know that He is Holy. We know that He always seeks the salvation of men, but we also know that He punishes the wicked, and places limits on their wickedness by His judgments, and that “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” (Psalm 18(19):9).
None of this means that we should read these accounts and feel no sense of grief over what happened. In fact, we have an entire book of the Bible that is called “Lamentations”, and it was written by the Prophet Jeremiah, who prophesied that the judgment of God would fall on the Kingdom of Judah, and he lived to see it come to pass. And this book is a lament over the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophesy, because the people did not listen before it was too late. Obviously, he knew that the judgment of God was just, but he nevertheless wrote:
“Oh, that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” (Jeremiah 9:1).
“My eyes fail with tears, my heart is troubled; my bile is poured on the ground because of the destruction of the daughter of my people, because the children and the infants faint in the streets of the city” (Lamentations 2:11).
“The young and the old lie on the ground in the streets: my virgins and my young men are fallen by the sword; Thou hast slain them in the day of Thine anger; Thou hast killed, and not pitied” (Lamentations 2:21).
But even in the midst of the Prophet Jeremiah’s lament over the destruction of his people, he also confesses:
“But though He cause grief, yet will He have compassion according to the multitude of His mercies. For He doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:32-33).
We should grieve over such destruction, but we should grieve for the right reason – not because God wished to destroy the Canaanites for some arbitrary reason, and that this was unjust of Him; but rather because sin and rebellion against God inevitably lead to such horrible ends as this.
It should also be pointed out that one finds a great deal of God’s mercy revealed in the Old Testament, and one finds a great deal of God’s wrath revealed in the New Testament. There was a heresy in the early Church called “Marcionism” and this heresy taught that the God of the Old Testament was not the same as the God of the New Testament, and so Marcion, the heresy’s founder, rejected all of the Old Testament, but also much of the New Testament – he only accepted the Gospel of Luke and 10 of St. Paul’s epistles, but he also edited those books he did accept in order to come up with a version of Scripture that matched his views. But the Church decisively condemned Marcionism as a heresy, and so the God of the Old Testament is the same God that we find in the New. He find God more fully revealed in the New Testament, but rejecting what we find in the Old is heretical.
Finally, it is a tempting approach to this problem to simply say “Those Israelites were primitive people, and God wouldn’t have really said those things.” However, if you say that about the passages in which God commanded the Israelites to kill all of the Canaanites, there is no reason why someone else could not come alon and apply the same logic to the question of sodomy, for example, and say “Those Israelites were primitive people, and God wouldn’t have really said those things.” In fact, once you go down that road, there’s no reason why you couldn’t dismiss just about anything in Scripture that you may happen to not like. However, if we believe, as the Church always has, that the Scriptures are fully inspired, this solution to this question is unacceptable.