Is the God of the Old Testament Merciless?

canaanite genocideI had the privilege of serving as an editor for the recently released Evangelism Study Bible done by EvanTell and Kregel. I thought the following article taken from the ESB ties in well with this week’s theme.

In his review of the law in Deuteronomy 20, Moses set out specific instructions regarding the conduct of war by Israel. The goal of conquest was not to kill a city’s inhabitants, but to obtain its peaceful surrender and subsequent service as a vassal (20:10–11). Only if a city resisted and fought back were the Israelites to destroy its army and take the city captive (20:13–15).

In the case of the cities and people within the Promised Land, however, God decrees that they were to be completely exterminated and shown no mercy. All their inhabitants were to be killed, regardless of age or sex. The cities and their religious centers and shrines were to be totally destroyed (Deut. 7:5). Seen against the standards of international law today, some critics have described these instructions as “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing.”

How should believers address such attacks? Sometimes an unbeliever may be open to reading the Bible but be puzzled or repulsed by the examples of violence and destruction encountered in the Old Testament. While a complete discussion of the topic is beyond the scope of this article, some helpful observations can be made:

1. The Old Testament law was given to a particular people in a specific historical period and cultural context. We should always try to understand the Old Testament in that context rather than impose ideas upon it that have taken centuries to develop in our present day society.

2. Israel was a unique nation—it was a theocracy—a nation ruled directly by God, through His chosen leaders. As the only true God and creator of all things, only God has the right to judge the Canaanites and to bring about their punishment. No nation today can claim that privileged position, and Christians do not wield political and military power by direction from God. God’s people today do not represent a nation-state, but as believers come from every nation and peoples and follow Jesus as Lord (see Act 10:34–43).

3. Israel was to practice restraint in warfare, not wholesale slaughter on any and every occasion (see Deut. 20:10–11). In this regard, their actions were to be different from many of the contemporary and later nations that were merciless in their military conduct. God’s command concerning the Canaanites was not a standard for Israel’s general conduct but a specific, limited, and purposeful edict to bring about religious purity in the land.

4. God’s commandment to destroy the Canaanites was based on centuries of debased idol worship and corrupt culture (see Gen. 15:16). God’s ultimate concern was that His covenant people not be corrupted by the pagan religion of Canaan. Israel was to be a holy people. The continued presence of the Canaanites would be a continual snare (see Deut. 7:16) and a source of polluted worship for Israel (see Deut. 20:18). The destruction of the Canaanites took place within the moral framework of God’s rule as a holy God and His desire for holiness and justice among this chosen people.

5. God’s justice dictated that the same fate would befall His own people if they succumbed to idol worship and apostasy. Moses warned them that they would suffer the same fate as the nations that God was displacing from the land if Israel forgot Him and began to serve and worship the false gods of Canaan (see Deut. 8:19–20).

6. God’s justice does not negate His mercy. In pronouncing judgment against the Canaanites, there are still examples of grace shown to who sought Him out of sincere faith (such as Rahab) or even out of fear (such as the Gibeonites). All nations, people groups, and individuals are sinners and deserve God’s judgment. As believers, we have wonderful good news to share—God has provided, through His Son Jesus Christ, a payment for sin. We can be forgiven and have a relationship with God.