How Can Christians Legitimize a God Who Orders the Genocide of Entire Nations?
WOW! This is a huge question with many aspects to consider in answering it fully. Let’s start out by looking at a specific scripture. Deuteronomy 7:2 says “…then you must destroy them totally”.
- If I told you that my head is exploding. I’ve had a terrible headache all day”, you’d understand what I was saying. You wouldn’t think that “Dave said his head was exploding. Since we know heads don’t literally ‘explode’, I cannot believe anything Dave says anymore. I now call into question everything he’s ever said”. Of course, you wouldn’t say that. You’d read the rest of what I’ve said in context. But this is what many people do with the bible. Remember, a text without context is a pretext.
Moses explains what he means by “destroy them totally”. He doesn’t mean annihilate them. Verses 3-6 say to “not to intermarry with them…break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire”. God didn’t want Israel following their ways. His command was not to obliterate their wicked people but to obliterate their wicked ways.
- God’s war time instructions always have the stipulation to spare the repentant. Rahab was not only spared (Hebrews 11:31), she was allowed to live among the Jews (Joshua 6:25) and was included as an ancestor to Jesus (Matthew 1:5).
God also spared the pagan city of Nineveh because they repented (Jonah 3:10).
- Deuteronomy 20:16-18 says “…you shall not leave anything alive that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them: the Amorites…the Canaanites…”
First, God was willing to wait 430 years for the Amorites to repent. It’s not like He didn’t give them any time. Finally the Amorties reached the point of no return. Sometimes God simply gives up on nations, cities, or individuals when they’ve reached this point of no return. He gives them up to a reprobate mind (Romans 1:24, 26, 28 2:2) Judgment is the last resort.There is precedence for this. Noah preached for 120 years. Only his family believed him. Then judgment came. Sodom and Gomorrah didn’t listen to Lot. Then judgment came.
Second, how wicked were these people? They practiced adultery, homosexuality, bestiality and child sacrifice among other atrocities.
And yes, you read that right…they practiced child sacrifice. These people were not innocent bystanders. They were a very depraved people. It is hard for us to understand how depraved they really were because we’ve grown up in a somewhat Christianized environment.
The land of Canaan was no moral paradise before the Israelites got there. Please note that God judges nations not because He didn’t like them but because of outrageous moral behavior. In Amos 1 & 2, God promised to send fire on nations pitted against Israel because of their moral behavior. God did the same for Israel and Judah. That’s why the Babylonians and other conquered them. Finally, Jesus pronounced judgment on Israel for rejecting Him. In 66-73 A.D., the Romans destroyed Israel as a nation and scattered her people. They remained scattered for 1,900 years.
- Only God determines when a nation/city/individual is beyond reach. We humans don’t decide that. When Israel went to battle without God’s approval, it was disasterous (Joshua 7, Numbers 14:41-45). God’s battle call was unique to Israel. It isn’t a binding standard for all time and for all cultures.
- Remember, God is a warrior (Exodus 15:3). Think more along the lines of the police going after the Mafia so citizens can live in peace rather than fear. In the Old Testament, only prophets could call for a holy war. Kings and priests could not. Israel could also not plunder their enemies. This was radical for the surrounding nations around them.
In the New Testament, we don’t wage ‘holy wars’ because we don’t fight against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12). This is why the early believers willingly give up their lives instead of taking up arms against their persecutors.
- Remember that the bible does use ‘figures of speech’. In Psalms 6:6, we don’t really think that if we touched the psalmist’s couch that it would be wet. Hyperbole is a figure of speech that exaggerates to prove a point. Figures of speech are common to all languages.
For example, in Joshua 11:21,22 says the Anakum were utterly destroyed and they were not left alive in the land. Was this literal? No, because Caleb later asked Joshua for permission to drive the Anakum out of town (Joshua 14: 12-15 & 15:13-19). A modern example would be to say that a sports team annihilated or destroyed their opponents. This is hyperbole…Moab’s king Mesha (~1500 B.C.) boasted that the Mitanni were destroyed in one hour and were completely annihilated. But Mitanni forces lived on to fight into the 1400’s and 1,300 B.C. This is another example of hyperbole.
These points may not answer everything. But they’ll go a long way to understanding these troubled passages.
Recommended reading: “Is God a Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament God” by Paul Copan.
For His kingdom,