EPISODE 2: VIOLENCE IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
Whether you consider yourself a Christian or not, I would guess you generally like the way that God is portrayed in the New Testament. 1 John 4:8 makes the statement, “God is Love.” Jesus himself taught people to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” If this picture is who God really is, why does the Old Testament seem to tell a different story? God’s love is the characteristic we most deeply want to be true. It also seems to be the first characteristic of God to come under fire when we’re faced with the harsh realities of life, pain and death.
Almost every hard question we ask, whether explicitly stated or not, starts with “if God is really Love, then why…?” If we look specifically at the Israelite’s conquest of the Promised Land, the land of Canaan, a big question arises: did God command the Israelites to commit genocide? And if so, could a loving God really condemn innocent people to death? It hurts to think about these questions. In fact, when faced with these questions I find that most people have chosen the path of not fully examining the issue.
On one hand you have the faithful Christian who doesn’t have a good answer and so chooses to ignore the issue. This person will live their whole life with a question mark when it comes to God’s love. On the other hand, there is the atheist or agnostic who, because they perceive inconsistency in God’s character, they believe there is no God or if there is, He cannot be known. This person will have settled an issue without fully weighing and testing all the evidence. Whichever camp you find yourself in, I believe you may get a good start with some answers here.
Much of our misunderstanding comes from viewing these ancient events through the lens of modern events. When we think of mass murder and genocide, we picture the events of Germany, Rwanda and Cambodia. We see a stronger group singling out a weaker group for extinction. Their goal is to completely wipe out an entire group of people. What was the goal of the Israelite’s conquest of Canaan? Exodus 23 shows us that God’s plan was not to wipe out the inhabitants of Canaan but rather to “drive them out.” The nations that were to be driven out were chosen because of their sinful practices and the affect they would have on the nation of Israel. These weren’t innocent people in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were judged severely based on the severity of their sin. God commands Israel to welcome travelers from foreign nations and to show kindness to them because they themselves were travelers and foreigners. So this has nothing to do with race. The purpose behind the conquest was not destruction of people groups but rather purification of the land. Ultimately, we see in Judges and the rest of the Old Testament that the nations that were left in Canaan against God’s command continued to influence the Israelites to turn away from God to idols.
God also says in Exodus 23 that this driving out will not be fast, but rather will happen slowly. And it did. The conquest of Canaan took 7-8 years. And Israel is only roughly the size of New Jersey. This wasn’t a surprise attack there was no escape from. Also, we see in Genesis 15 that God had told Abraham that his descendants, the Israelites, would live in captivity for 400 years because the sin of the people in Canaan had not yet reached its full extent. Although God knew in advance that the people of Canaan’s sin would get so bad they would have to be judged, He still waited for them to reach that point before He brought judgement.
God also commanded in Deuteronomy 20 that every city they approach should first be offered peace. The only cities that were to be completely destroyed were the cities within the borders of Canaan. Even then, the cities that are referenced as locations of battles (Jericho, Ai, Shiloh) were not cities as we think of cities. They were fortresses that primarily were used as military outposts and likely had very few civilians within the walls. Most of the people would have lived in the surrounding countryside as herders and farmers.
This reality is seen when a city is said to have been completely destroyed and everything killed, but later in scripture, it talks of those same people still living in the land. This is consistent with other ancient writings that use what could be described as “ancient trash talk” to describe a total military victory. It’s like someone 3000 years from now reading an article about a football game from today that says “Team A slaughtered Team B.” It’s victory language that we use to describe Team A winning the game. Without that understanding it could sound like actual killing took place. Now to be clear, in the Old Testament, people were killed. But when we read scripture we see that when it’s said “nothing was left alive” and then those people are seen later on that this is just the writer using common language to describe the absolute victory.
Another reality is that battles were fought mostly hand to hand. If there were civilians in these military cities, they would have had plenty of time to flee before fighting took place. And the Israelites weren’t coming as the strong who were preying on the weak. We see that most of these battles were entered somewhat fearfully and reluctantly because they weren’t a military nation. They were a group of former slaves. It was God’s direction and ultimately His power that enabled this nation of underdogs to have victory.
This brings us to the most difficult point: God’s judgement and wrath. We see that He was patient, He gave time for repentance and escape from destruction, but ultimately, judgement still came. People were still killed. We have a hard time understanding how a God can be a God of love and judgement. But when we think about how we feel about evil and injustice, we also have an innate longing for justice to be served. We want God to put an end to the evil in the world. Thankfully God does put limits on evil. He only lets it go so far. And unfortunately, the end of evil is always death.
God doesn’t look callously at the death of humans from far off. He got into the mess. Think about this: He Himself died. The same God who creates and sustains all life subjected Himself to death. Just as God said “no more” to the evil of the Canaanites (which resulted in their death), he has also said “no more” to evil through the death of Jesus on the cross. He died so that no one needs to die for their own evil anymore. And although we still see evil in the world we live in, God has said a day is coming when He will say “no more” once and for all. All evil will be removed, there will be a new heaven and new earth populated with every nation, tribe and tongue.