I’d like to address a common accusation against the God of the Bible—that He is moral monster because He commanded the Israelites to commit genocide.
Atheist Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, writes,
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.
Now, that’s a serious charge. Did God command the Israelites to commit a moral atrocity? Genocide — the destruction of every man, woman, and child?
Jesus tells us to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. But it’s hard to love someone if you perceive them to be a genocidal monster. We must be able to answer this accusation, not only for our own love of God, but because this accusation seems to be increasingly prevalent in our culture, and people we love and desire to come to Christ will need an answer as well.
Now, some people have tried to answer this by saying, “Well, that was the Old Testament. The God revealed in the Old Testament was a God of wrath and harsh judgment, but we Christians believe in the God of the New Testament, who is a God of love and grace and mercy and patience.
But it doesn’t take too much reading of the Bible to realize that this attempted solution doesn’t work. First of all, it misconstrues the God of the Old Testament—overlooking His tremendous mercy, patience, and readiness to forgive. Second it misses the warnings in the New Testament about the judgment to come. It is true that Jesus came not to condemn the world but to save it, but again and again He clearly warns that He will return in blazing fire to judge the world and destroy the wicked.
Now, before we get into addressing this issue, I’d like to discuss a philosophical consideration. Whenever you doubt something or criticize something, it can only be on the basis of something else that is believed to be true. There are beliefs that our culture largely accepts that undergird this accusation that the Old Testament God is a moral monster. Yet, those undergirding cultural beliefs cannot be proven. They are simply assumed, I suppose largely because almost everybody believes them.
So, when we encounter a criticism like this, a good question to ask is “What’s not being doubted? What is the questioner believing to be true, that he’s basing his argument upon, but that cannot be proven—but is just accepted because ‘everyone knows this to be true.’?”
If we are going to judge the God of the Bible, we must ask, “What are the standards of judgment? Who determines those standards?” Do we, in arrogance, say, “These are the correct standards because I like them?” Or do we, in cultural arrogance, say “These are the correct standards because my culture accepts them?” Who determines the standards of right or wrong, good or bad, what’s loving or hateful?
Christians believe that the Bible lays out those standards for us. So, I’m not going to try to defend the Bible from our culture’s standards of right and wrong, good or bad. Rather I’m going to attempt to show that the Bible is consistent, that God in both the Old and New Testaments perfectly lives up to His own standards of right and wrong, good and bad.
So, let’s define Dawkins’ challenge a little more clearly, at least as I see it. Dawkins has four premises:
- The Bible says that God is love and loves all He has made.
- A loving God would never command genocide—the total annihilation of men, women, and children in a city or country.
- In the Law of Moses, God commanded the Israelites to utterly destroy all who breathed in Canaan.
- Therefore, the God of the Bible is a moral monster and we should not use the Bible as moral instruction for our children.
So, how do we answer this argument? First, it’s clear that the Bible teaches that premise number one is true. God is love and loves all He has made. Both the Old and New Testaments affirm this.
The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made. (Psalm 145:8–9, NIV84)
Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:8, ESV)
The Bible consistently presents God as loving, caring, generous, patient, merciful, kind, interested, and involved in His creation.
Second, it’s clear that the Bible teaches that conclusion four—that God is a moral monster—is false. God is absolutely and perfectly just.
But the Lord of hosts is exalted in justice, and the Holy God shows himself holy in righteousness. (Isaiah 5:16, ESV)
. . . the Lord is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him. (Psalm 92:15, ESV)
So, if the initial premise is true and the conclusion is false, there must be something wrong with number two or number three. Let’s start with number three—that God commanded the Israelites to destroy all who breathed in Canaan.
Number three is true, yet with a caveat. Let’s look at Deuteronomy 7:1-2:
“When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, . . . seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. (Deuteronomy 7:1–2, ESV)
And it appears that the Israelites basically carried out this command:
So Joshua struck the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings. He left none remaining, but devoted to destruction all that breathed, just as the Lord God of Israel commanded. (Joshua 10:40, ESV)
Yet these words need to be understood in the context of the story. For we know some were spared. Rahab and her family were spared. The city of Gibeon made peace with the Israelites. And it’s clear from the way things happened that many thousands of Canaanites fled and later returned and rebuilt their cities and fought against Israel for many years to come.
What the verse says is true, in the sense that all the Canaanites who remained to fight were put to death. But there is no question that thousands fled. And when He gave the command to destroy the Canaanites, God knew that some would fear the Lord and make peace and that others would flee.
In fact about half the time the Lord commanded the Israelites to “Drive them out.” So, number three is basically true, with the caveat that God foreknew that some would fear Him and make peace and that many would flee.
So that leaves number two, and this is the premise that is unquestionably faulty—that a loving God would never command the total annihilation of men, women, and children in a city or country.
I’d like to give you seven reasons why this is false.
Reason number 1—Genuine love demands justice.
Our culture has an assumption that I would like to challenge. That assumption is that true love is unconditional. This idea of unconditional love does not come from the Bible—the Bible never speaks of unconditional love. But rather it comes from modern humanistic psychology. And it’s actually untenable. True love is tolerant, persevering, patient, unearned, unmerited, and undeserved. But it is not unconditional.
Imagine being a father who deeply loves all his children. But, to your horror, one turns to evil so strongly that he becomes a sadist and gets a kick out of inflicting pain on your other children and your wife. In fact, before you realized what was happening, he tortures and kills one of his sisters. Would you continue to welcome him into your family with open arms, or would you banish him from the family until you were thoroughly convinced that he had fully repented and would not do anything like that ever again?
Well, it’s obvious! Love for your family demands that the murderer be banished until he repents. Now your father’s heart would be broken and torn and you would likely long, perhaps with all your heart, for your fallen son to repent, so that he could be forgiven and restored.
So, in a sense you would continue to love him and desire that he be restored. But love for the rest of your family would demand that, until he chooses to repent, he must be rejected and banished.
Perhaps it would be helpful to ask, “What is justice?” At its core, justice is the requirement to love. Justice derives from love. It’s the protection of the vulnerable from murder and rape and theft and evil manipulation and every other kind of abuse.
I can’t imagine any level of relationship in any society where a loving authority would tolerate murder or rape or stealing or chattel slavery. If an authority were to unconditionally love and accept an evil person, it would be a dereliction of duty—a failure to love and protect the vulnerable and the victim.
God is the Father of fathers, the authority of authorities, the creator of all, and the judge of all. He has a duty to judge, to require that His creatures love one another and to bring judgment on those who oppress and prey on the vulnerable.
If God didn’t ultimately banish evil people, the kingdom of God would be no better than the world that we see all around us, that’s so filled with greed and hatred and war and crime and division.
What does the Bible say?
The Lord tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence. Let him rain coals on the wicked; fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup. For the Lord is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face. (Psalm 11:5–7, ESV)
Only those who repent, who become upright, will dwell in God’s presence. When the kingdom of God comes in its fullness, no evil will be tolerated and all who practice wickedness will be banished.
But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” (Revelation 21:8, ESV)
This is not unconditional love. The core even of Jesus’ message was
“Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand” (Matthew 4:17).
All through the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, God requires repentance and faith in order to be accepted by God, be part of His kingdom and avoid eternal punishment.
Now, this doesn’t mean that God is not grieved when people refuse to repent.
Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ezekiel 33:11, ESV)
Oh that you had paid attention to my commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea; (Isaiah 48:18, ESV)
And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. (Luke 19:41–42, ESV)
It’s clear that God is grieved when anyone refuse to repent and believe. But love demands that He judge those who cling to wickedness and banish those who refuse to repent.
Reason number 2—Humans do not have infinite value.
In our secular humanist-dominated culture, where the idea of a personal, creator God is rejected, humans have ultimate value. With such an assumption, statement two seems pretty reasonable. But, of course, an all knowing, all powerful, all sufficient, and loving God does exist. He is the One with infinite value and all of creation derives its value from Him.
We love what we value and the degree that we love something ought to match its actual value. It would be odd to passionately love a roach or a spider or a grain of sand. We might love a tree or the ocean, if these bring us delight. They have value to us. And, of course, a spouse or a child or a friend—a human—ought to have the highest value to us of anything in the physical world.
But humans do not have infinite value. Only God has infinite value. Yet, as we have seen, humans are valuable to God. He cares for all He has made. But our value is not infinite or ultimate.
So, it is appropriate for God to judge twisted and spoiled humans who refuse to repent. It appropriate for Him to reluctantly and with sorrow destroy a portion of His creation that has gone so terribly astray that it has become putrid and disgusting. This is what happened in the days of Noah
When the Lord saw that human wickedness was widespread on the earth and that every inclination of the human mind was nothing but evil all the time, the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and he was deeply grieved. Then the Lord said, “I will wipe mankind, whom I created, off the face of the earth, together with the animals, creatures that crawl, and birds of the sky—for I regret that I made them.” (Genesis 6:5–7, CSB)
They had become so evil that they lost their value to God. So, God brought a flood upon the earth and destroyed every person other than Noah and his sons and their wives.
So, it’s appropriate for God to destroy creatures that He has created who have become putrid and disgusting and have lost their value.
Reason number 3—The Canaanites deserved God’s judgment.
The Bible is clear that the Canaanites were not punished because they were a different ethnicity, but because of their extreme wickedness. Generations earlier, before the Canaanites had become so terribly corrupt, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived among them, made treaties with them, and were at peace with them. But by the time of the conquest of Canaan they had become horribly corrupt, similar to what the whole world had become prior to the flood.
Leviticus 18 says that they were detestable and perverted in their sexual practices. Deuteronomy 18 says that they had detestable customs, including burning up their children in sacrificing to their gods, as well as practicing all types of occultism, witchcraft, and demon worship. They were so corrupt that Moses said that the land itself would vomit them out.
This was not an ethnic cleansing, but a moral cleansing.
Reasons number 4—God uses some nations to judge others. This is something that God has done all throughout human history. During the Israelite Exodus, God brought devastating judgment upon Egypt for cruelly oppressing the Israelites for over a hundred years, including killing thousands of infant boys. Then, He used the Israelites to bring judgment on the wicked Canaanites. Later He judged the Israelites themselves, after they had become even more wicked than the Canaanites. Isaiah 41:25 says that God is the one who stirred up the Assyrians and then the Babylonians to destroy Israel. And that destruction was no less brutal and comprehensive than the destruction of Canaan.
So, it was not an ethnic cleansing. God did the same thing to His own chosen people when they became corrupt.
And Jeremiah 51:11 says that, later, God stirred up the spirit of the kings of the Medes to destroy Babylon, with a similar comprehensive judgment. Even in modern times, it seems apparent that God has used some nations to punish others. For example the destruction in World War II of Nazi Germany with its evil evolutionary and pagan beliefs and practices that led to the holocaust.
Reason 5—God desired to protect His chosen instrument of redemption
The Bible is the story of God working to bring redemption to His rebellious and fallen world. He has chosen to do so by electing some and blessing them so that they will bring redemption and blessing to others. In Genesis 12, God called Abraham to leave his homeland and go to Canaan. And God promised to bless him and his descendants so that through them all the families of the earth would be blessed.
So Abraham’s grandson, Israel, and the nation that came from His descendants, constituted God’s redemption project, not just for themselves, but for the redemption of the whole world.
In Exodus 19:6, God said that they were to be a kingdom of priests—representing God to the world. Well, in order for that project to be successful, they had to remain true to God. And God knew that if they lived in the midst of the Canaanites, who were so terribly corrupt, that they would become corrupted themselves and worship other Gods. And His world-wide redemption project would not succeed, as it could have had they remained true to Him.
And, indeed, the Israelites did not totally destroy the Canaanites. They did mingle with and intermarry with them and other pagan peoples. And eventually they became more corrupt than the original Canaanites. So God destroyed them and sent them into exile.
Yet, after 70 years, He brought them back to their land, yet He did not fully restore their nation. Instead, He sent His Son, the long awaited Messiah/King, the faithful Israelite who became the center of God’s redemption project as He died not only for Israel’s sins but for the sins of the whole world.
But I think it’s important to see that God’s choice of Israel and His using them to judge Canaan, was not because they were somehow special, but was for the benefit of the entire world.
Reason 6—God will vindicate the innocent.
In the resurrection, God will vindicate any innocent people who were killed in the conquest of Canaan, or in any of His judgments throughout history. Undoubtedly there have been countless innocent people, perhaps largely infants and young children, who have been destroyed in different judgments brought about by God, not only the judgment on Canaan, but on Egypt, Sodom and Gomorrah, Israel, Assyria, Babylon, Germany, and many, many others.
But really, these are probably only a small portion of all the innocent infants and children who have died over the centuries, whether through sickness, in war, in tsunamis or hurricanes or famine or plague. What will God do with all these innocent people?
But think for a minute about the judgment day. When that day comes and the whole world will be judged by God, there will undoubtedly be millions of infants all over the world who have not yet grown up. What will happen to them on the judgment day?
Well, the Bible doesn’t specifically say a ton about that, but I think it is safe to say that no one will be judge for an evil that they did not commit, and that we can trust that God will be perfectly just to all who are innocently of wrongdoing. So, in the world to come, God can and will make up for any and all injustice that has happened in this world.
Reason 7—God supplied incontrovertible evidence along with His command.
God gave the Israelites overwhelming evidence that He, Himself, was commanding them to do this. They witnessed the plagues on Egypt. They walked through the Red Sea on dry land. They saw the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire above them. They witnessed Mount Sinai covered with smoke and fire as it was quaking, and heard the voice of God boom out the Ten Commandments. For forty years they gained nourishment from a substance that appeared on the ground every morning. If God appears to us in such clear and powerful ways and tells us to displace and destroy another nation, we better obey.
But apart from such irrefutable evidence, we should not believe any voices that call us to an endeavor like this. Undoubtedly, that is the voice of the evil one, not the Lord.
So, in conclusion, if the God of the Bible is the true and living God, premise two is false. He was not unjust or unloving when He commanded the Israelites to utterly destroy the Canaanite nations because:
- Genuine love demands justice
- Humans do not have infinite value
- The Canaanites deserved God’s judgment
- God uses some nations to judge others
- God desired to protect His chosen instrument of Redemption.
- God will vindicate any who are innocent
- God supplied incontrovertible evidence along with the command.