Why would a good God command that anyone be killed? This is probably one of the more difficult questions for the Christian to consider. The fact of the matter is, there is a time in Scripture when the Israelites came out of Egypt and God commanded them to destroy entire nations as they made their way to and entered the Promised Land. What causes alarms to ring in the minds of many people (including myself at one point) is that the same God who commands some killing also gives a command to the nation of Israel not to murder (Exodus 20:13). With a command like this, we must decide whether we believe God is just in His own action or whether we believe He is not. If God is just, what does this mean for the faith and the trust that we place in Him?
Deuteronomy 7:1-11 HCSB
“When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess, and He drives out many nations before you — the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and powerful than you — and when the Lord your God delivers them over to you and you defeat them, you must completely destroy them. Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, because they will turn your sons away from Me to worship other gods. Then the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and He will swiftly destroy you. Instead, this is what you are to do to them: tear down their altars, smash their sacred pillars, cut down their Asherah poles, and burn up their carved images. For you are a holy people belonging to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be His own possession out of all the peoples on the face of the earth.
“The Lord was devoted to you and chose you, not because you were more numerous than all peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But because the Lord loved you and kept the oath He swore to your fathers, He brought you out with a strong hand and redeemed you from the place of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know that Yahweh your God is God, the faithful God who keeps His gracious covenant loyalty for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commands. But He directly pays back and destroys those who hate Him. He will not hesitate to directly pay back the one who hates Him. So keep the command — the statutes and ordinances — that I am giving you to follow today.
In this part of Israel’s history, we do read that God commanded the complete destruction of the Canaanite tribes who inhabited the promised land. Here, we need to make a very important realization. There is no story in Scripture, no reporting of events, that exists out of context. The events described in Scripture are always a result of their own history and their own current circumstances. In our own day, there is nothing that occurs without the past events that have led to its occurrence. There is always a context. In some cases, we are not provided with context. We are provided a description of an event and we are left to guess or discover the underlying context and circumstances. In the case of the destruction of the Canaanites, Scripture actually does give us context for God’s command. We find this specific context in Genesis 15:7, 13-16:
He also said to him, “I am Yahweh who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess…” Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know this for certain: Your offspring will be foreigners in a land that does not belong to them; they will be enslaved and oppressed 400 years. However, I will judge the nation they serve, and afterward they will go out with many possessions. But you will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a ripe old age. In the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”
In this earlier part of the story, God brings Abraham to the land of Canaan and tells him that the land would be reserved for his descendants (the Israelites). When God brought Abraham to show him the land, the iniquity of the Amorites (which was a Canaanite tribe) had not been completed. In fact, God, in His omniscience, revealed that it would be at least 400 more years before the Amorites would complete their iniquities and the Israelites would be brought back to the land to inhabit it. God gave the Amorite people 400 years to repent and turn to Him and they did not. This sounds a whole lot more like mercy and grace than vindictivity to me. I know that I do not have the patience or the grace to give someone one year to apologize, let alone 400. Perhaps this is a fault that we all have, but God practices great mercy before administering punishment. Context is so important for us to understand any time we read any document, especially the text of God’s inspired Word.
The two realities we see in this text is that God keeps his loving kindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him (Deut. 7:9), and that He repays those who hate Him to their faces (v. 10).
God’s just nature
If we are to look at the context and God’s action in this particular record of events, we can know that God always has a reason for doing the things that He does. The Amorites hated Him for 400 years before He brought destruction upon them. Secondly, God always acts with grace and mercy. He could have destroyed the Amorites much sooner than He did and gave Abraham the land from the start. In Genesis 18, we read of God’s judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah. His promise to Abraham was that if there were just a few righteous people in the cities, He would spare the all of the people. Yet, no righteous people were found. If we apply this aspect of God’s mercy and care to the Amorite people, then God would only command a people to be destroyed if there were no righteous people (or if their iniquities were completed). While God has every right to take life that He creates, He still provides more than sufficient reason to declare His own justness in His action. God is beyond reproach.
God and morality
In this, we come to the understanding that God is the standard for morality, human reason is not. Have we acted in love toward God or have we acted with hate toward Him? One is the measure of right action and the other is the measure of action that is morally wrong. If our morality is centered around our wants or what we feel like our needs are or our own nature, we are a people morally detestable before God. Sadly, in our case, this means that most people on the earth are morally detestable (even some within the organized church). What we understand, here, is that it is God who decides when and how to punish nations who have hated Him.
We also come to the understanding that genuine morality is important for us. God, again, draws a parallel between our love for Him and our keeping of His commandments. If we love Him, we will strive to keep His commands. Jesus made this exact statement in John 14:15 and 14:23. Our obedience to God comes as a result of our love for Him, but cannot cause us to love Him. When we love God, the result is obedience. If we are still concerned with justifying our own action rather than changing for God, then we have proven not to love God. Morality is, then, absolutely important for us. If we reject the commands that God has given, then we act in hate toward Him. There is no other option. We either love God or we do not.
So, God is just as He brings one nation against another. This is an especially difficult realization when we recognize that nations are composed of children as well. In this, we have to trust that God is both just and merciful. Some arguments can be made to make God look good to us in these circumstances, but I find them to be largely unsatisfactory. When considering this, our trust in God’s just nature must carry us because we don’t have all of the information. God is also always merciful and shows grace. He stands up against those who hate Him and shares His loving-kindness with those who love Him and keep His commandments.
With the Canaanites, God would no longer delay. His punishment on the nation was imminent. There will be a time when God will judge the nations and people of the whole earth. It is His responsibility and His alone (we cannot be arbiters of God’s wrath and we, as individuals, cannot punish on God’s behalf).1 When it is time for God’s judgment, will we be found to have loved God, or will we be found to have hated Him?
As we get to Deuteronomy 7:12-15, we read of some of the rewards that God would give to the Israelites if they kept His commands in love to Him. While these rewards are material for the nation of Israel and we are not promised material rewards as God’s people in our own day (though God may still grant them), we learn another important aspect about God’s just nature. Just as He punishes, He also rewards. Let us love God and receive His reward rather than His punishment.
1In Romans 13, we read that governments carry the sword and that God has given them authority. It seems that God may still use the military strength of one nation to come against another nation that has denied Him outright, but the government must be careful to wage a just war and to honor God in that war when it is waged.