Best of JCM: Mass Genocide in the Bible
That God commanded terrible things (like the mass extinction of the Canaanites) is the subject of much debate in philosophy of religion circles. How can God be just and merciful if he has ordered us humans to do immoral things?
Paul Copan covered this in a paper for Philosophi Christi which he later expanded into a book. This is both a summary of his answer and some of my own thoughts.
Although it is rarely taught in Sunday School, there can be no doubt that mass genocide occurs with alarming regularity in the Old Testament. Just crack open a copy of Michael Earl’s self-published wonder Bible Stories Your Parents Never Taught You and read a few chapters. Over and over again, Israel kills not just the soldiers of the territory they invade, but the women and children, too.
All of this takes place at the behest of God himself, who is the one that orders the killings to take place. God very often indicates that he wants no survivors left.
This, according to our most scathing critics, leaves a huge moral dilemma: how can we continue to call the Bible the “Good Book” if it contains more violence than the average video game? Was the bloodshed and violence necessary?
First understand where I’m coming from. All authority comes from God first. That leaves God as the ultimate authority in this universe. This means that there is no higher court of appeals. Any authority we exercise is a microcosmic reflection of the authority that God has granted us.
Second, the Bible is clear that the penalty for sin is death (see Gen 2:15-17 and Rom 6:14). Now that we have God as established as the ultimate authority and the penalty for sin established as death, let’s look at who is actually innocent before God.
According to Paul, no one is innocent before God. He establishes that the Gentiles are guilty in Romans 1, then tells the Jewish people that they are no better in Romans 2. Then he establishes that, while the Jews are under the Law, the Gentiles are a Law unto themselves, and both Jew and Gentile fail to live up to either the Mosaic Law or the natural order. That is where he makes the concluding proclamation that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” in Romans 3:23.
So, if the Jews fail to follow the Mosaic Law, and the Gentiles fail to follow the natural order of things, and Paul can confidently declare that we all fall short of God’s glory, what follows? Most people don’t like to admit this, but the only conclusion one can possibly draw from this data is that we all deserve to die.
Whether that death comes to us peacefully at the end of a long and fulfilling life, suddenly in a car crash, or at the end of an Israelite’s sword because we occupied the Promised Land, we all deserve it. That’s all of us–combatants, women, children, and even infants. No one is innocent in the sight of God, we have all sinned and fall short of his glory.
But wait–it hardly seems fair, does it? Especially to the infant who has no chance to repent of his nature yet. But this life is no guarantee. Any of us could die at anytime. Death comes to us all–it is absolutely unavoidable. What we need to keep in mind, at this point in our history, is that we thank God not because he is fair, but because he is merciful. We’ll return to that point in a minute.
I want to spend a minute on this point because it seems to stick in the minds of so many critics of Christianity. How can an infant deserve death?
Since the vast majority (probably over 90%) of these critics are pro-choice (that is, in favor of abortion), it’s hypocritical to even raise this sort of objection. It’s okay when a mother ends her own child’s life in utero, but it’s not okay for God to order the death of an infant? God is sovereign over the lives of humans and is justified in ordering the end of any life because he can give it back. No mortal can do that.
Somehow, I am accused of having twisted morals to accept God’s decree that even the infants shall die in the divinely commanded genocides, but the people who believe strongly in abortion are perfectly moral in believing that a mother can choose to end her own child’s life for any reason.
It’s tempting to argue that sometimes abortions happen because the pregnancy is a danger to the life of the mother. I’m fine with that. Sometimes incest is involved. I’m shakier on that, but I can still accept it (however begrudgingly). In the case of rape, adoption is the more merciful solution. We can’t just focus on the woman who was raped here, we also have to determine what is best for the child as well. Both parties have a right to life, and if the woman would prefer not to raise a child of rape, then give the child to someone who will love him/her. That said, I would not stand in the way of a rape victim who went that route–neither would I judge her–but I would strongly discourage her.
I’m not a black-and-white pro-life activist. I think there are cases where abortion should be an available option.
But let’s cut the crap. We all know that most abortions are not in the cases of life-or-death, incest, or rape. Those are the ultra-rare exceptions. Most abortions are for convenience. Most abortions happen because the mother or father either don’t want to raise a child, they wanted the opposite sex of what the ultrasound is showing, or the baby tested positive for a genetic abnormality that means he will burden the parents for longer than they want. This is not a valid objection.
Leaving the hypocrisy aside, let’s move from abstract philosophy into actual history. These genocides didn’t happen. There were three commanded genocides: Midianites (Num 31), Canaanites (starting in Josh 10), and the Amalekites (1 Sam 15). In each case, we clearly see that in later historical books, the culture and the people exist and are in tact. The Midianites opposed Gideon in Judges 6-7, the Amalekites later in 1 Samuel (28), and Jesus healed a Canaanite woman in Matthew 15!
God commanding the Israelite army in the way that he did is similar to the head coach of a football team pumping up his players for a tough game. God is trying to inspire them, to invigorate them. They didn’t take this command at face value, since clearly the cultures still existed long after the supposed genocides took place.
Even so, this does not contradict a God of mercy because mercy by its very nature is selective. God has chosen to mercy his elect, and calls them according to his purpose.
To address the lingering question of why God ordered the deaths of so many people, I reiterate that these people were not innocent before God. This was God’s judgment upon them for their sins. Their sin was worshiping other deities and not seeking after the One True God.
In this day of religious freedom and pluralism, it seems totally barbaric that God would destroy people for simply not believing that he is the True God. After all, have we not the right to choose our own religion? In the United States, we do. But in God’s mind, we have no right to choose our religion. He is to be worshiped, and him alone. He created us and endowed us with the responsibility to seek his will and worship him.
It seems foreign to our sensibilities, but it isn’t. Even in the progressive, enlightened United States, it is a crime punishable by death to betray the State. It’s called treason. This is exactly how to view not seeking the True God. By not putting God in his proper place–first among all things–and instead seeking nature the way that many scientists do or other gods the way many religions do, we are committing treason.
The objection of geographically inherited religion creeps in here. True, most people learn the religion of their parents and then move on with their lives. But that fact doesn’t absolve us of a duty to find out the truth. That few people do is hardly an argument against God.
The fact is we neither worship nor seek God, as the apostle Paul has already noted in the first three chapters of Romans. Since I’ve already established that it is sinful not to seek God and that none of us seek God, I can conclude easily that we all deserve the penalty for that sin. What is the penalty for sin? Death.
If God were fair, then all of us should die in our sins and that would be that. Fortunately for us, God has created a path by which we can be saved from our sins. God isn’t being fair; he’s being merciful. The path which he created is Jesus Christ. Repent and follow Christ, and God will have mercy on your soul. You won’t get you deserve; you’ll instead get what you don’t deserve–eternal life in heaven.
What does that mean for the mass genocides recorded in the Bible? Unfortunately for those poor souls, God was being fair rather than merciful. They got the punishment that they deserved for the sins they committed. Remember, “poor” does not mean “innocent.” No one is innocent before God.
This is part of the gospel message–that you are a sinner in need of being saved. That many churches fail to teach this is alarming. But it is a symptom of our highly individualistic culture. People believe that they are basically good, and that they deserve heaven. They think that they start with an “A” in life and that the bad things that they do take points away from their final grade from God. This is the reason that people read a story like the slaughter of the Midianites and think that those “poor souls” didn’t deserve to die.
The truth is that everyone starts with an F. Only faith in Christ can earn you a better grade.