It’s hard to imagine anyone today who is familiar with the Bible not being concerned about the violence in the Old Testament. It’s a fashionable bomb tossed by the so-called new atheists, and the easiest way for critics of Christianity to dismiss the Bible. To hear them talk, on every page of the Old Testament cities are burned to the ground, whole populations annihilated. Yahweh, the God of Israel, is in turn portrayed as a wrathful tribal deity constantly calling his people to commit atrocities in his name.
God created the nation of Israel from one man in the Ancient Near East: Abraham. His descents were to be a “holy people,” set apart by God. “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be His people, His treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 7:6).
In order to accomplish this, God had to deliver them from Pharaoh’s subjugation and their intensely idolatrous environment. They were enslaved by Egypt for 400 years!
The oppression didn’t bode well for Pharaoh.
Yahweh hears the cries of His people and unleashes His violent hand en masse via ten nationwide plagues. In the tenth plague, he strikes down every firstborn child through “the destroyer” (12:23).
The Bible states that “there was loud wailing in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead” (12:30). Even then, Pharaoh didn’t surrender. But he unwisely chased the Hebrews across the Red Sea to his own doom and the annihilation of the Egyptian army.
God set His people free.
The Amorites, on the other hand, met a fate worse than Egypt. On their journey to the Promise Land, the Hebrews meet a blockade in the pagan city of Heshbon. King Sihon was defiant, and wouldn’t let God’s people pass through his region (Deuteronomy 2:34). Bad idea.
God’s wrath arrived in full force. Moses documents, “At that time we took all his towns and completely destroyed them—men, women and children. We left no survivors” (v. 34). Everyone in the Amorite city died. Sheesh God!
No matter what, the Lord is always faithful to His promises. And nothing—or no one—would stop His mission for His people obtaining the Promise Land. “I will claim you as my own people, and I will be your God” (Deuteronomy 6:7). God was violent to Israel’s’ enemies to ensure his new people survived and thrived.
Still, it’s a big theological pill to swallow. It’s easier to go down when we understand that many of these pagan nations were also extremely wicked in their religious practices.
The Amorites not only attempted to thwart God’s plan, but they also practiced a barbaric religion. They worshipped the pagan god Molech, and sacrificed children to him by burning them in fire (Leviticus 18:21; Jeremiah 32:35). It was complete savagery. And there’s more.
God states in the Book of Amos, “For three sin of Ammon, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. Because he ripped open the pregnant women of Gilead in order to extend his borders…” (1:13).
Did you get that part about ripping open the bellies of pregnant women?
Please don’t throw up. It’s in the Bible.
But it wasn’t only the Amorites who were intensely evil. Other people groups (Arameans, Moabites and Canaanites) also sacrificed children. Furthermore, bestiality, sorcery, demon worship and orgies were also practiced amongst the pagan nations in that day (Leviticus 17:7, 18:23, 19:31). These acts were Satanic, and an abomination to the holy God of Israel (Deuteronomy 12:31).
Overall, God saved His most extreme use of force to crush extreme wickedness. Think of it this way: How could a nascent Israel sincerely trust a god who claimed to be all-loving but didn’t impart justice?
Could we trust a god like that?
God’s divine violence protected His people. It also condemned their insidious neighbors. He was violent but never cruel; vicious but never malicious; and he judged ferociously but was never bloodthirsty. Only God can do that.
Incredibly, the Jews fell into many of the same wicked acts as their pagan counterparts. Yahweh judged His own people harshly, as well. God ultimately allowed them to be conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians (Psalm 106). You could call it equal opportunity punishment.
Simultaneously, the God of the Old Testament is also love. He offered chances for repentance to both Jews and Gentiles alike. For example, God sent Jonah to warn the city Nineveh of His coming wrath. He loved these people, even though they dwelt in one of the most wicked cities of its day.
Jonah preached and “they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring up them the destruction he had threatened” (Jonah 3:10).
The city was saved from God’s wrath. No matter how God chooses to act, we should allow the Creator of the Universe to demonstrate His own character.
“The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”
In C.S. Lewis’ tale, The Lion the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the character Aslan is a lion, a savior figure. Lucy, a young girl, asks Mr. Beaver about him. “Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
He responds, “Who said anything about being safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Aslan wasn’t safe but he was good.
This is like the God of the Old Testament. He’s dangerous, powerful, but always overflowing with loving kindness.
God is sovereign over all of life and can take it whenever He sees fit. God and God alone can give life, and God alone has the right to take it whenever He so chooses. In fact, He ultimately takes every person’s life at death. It is not our life to begin with but God’s. While it is wrong for us to take a life, except in instances of capital punishment, war, and self-defense, this does not mean that it is wrong for God to do so. We intuitively recognize this when we accuse some person or authority who takes human life as “playing God.” God is under no obligation to extend anyone’s life for even another day. How and when we die is completely up to Him.
The fact that God commanded the killing of entire nations in the Old Testament has been the subject of harsh criticism from opponents of Christianity for some time. That there was violence in the Old Testament is indisputable. The question is whether Old Testament violence is justifiable and condoned by God. In his bestselling book The God Delusion, atheist Richard Dawkins refers to the God of the Old Testament as “a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser.” Journalist Christopher Hitchens complains that the Old Testament contains a warrant for “indiscriminate massacre.” Other critics of Christianity have leveled similar charges, accusing Yahweh of “crimes against humanity.”
But are these criticisms valid? Is the God of the Old Testament a “moral monster” who arbitrarily commands genocide against innocent men, women, and children? Was His reaction to the sins of the Canaanites and the Amalekites a vicious form of “ethnic cleansing” no different from atrocities committed by the Nazis? Or is it possible that God could have had morally sufficient reasons for ordering the destruction of these nations?
A basic knowledge of Canaanite culture reveals its inherent moral wickedness. The Canaanites were a brutal, aggressive people who engaged in bestiality, incest, and even child sacrifice. Deviant sexual acts were the norm. The Canaanites’ sin was so repellent that God said, “The land vomited out its inhabitants” (Leviticus 18:25). Even so, the destruction was directed more at the Canaanite religion (Deuteronomy 7:3–5,12:2-3) than at the Canaanite people per se. The judgment was not ethnically motivated. Individual Canaanites, like Rahab in Jericho, could still find that mercy follows repentance (Joshua 2). God’s desire is that the wicked turn from their sin rather than die (Ezekiel 18:31-32, 33:11).
Besides dealing with national sins, God used the conquest of Canaan to create a religious/historical context in which He could eventually introduce the Messiah to the world. This Messiah would bring salvation not only to Israel, but also to Israel’s enemies, including Canaan (Psalm 87:4-6; Mark 7:25–30).
It must be remembered that God gave the Canaanite people more than sufficient time to repent of their evil ways—over 400 years (Genesis 15:13–16)! The book of Hebrews tells us that the Canaanites were “disobedient,” which implies moral culpability on their part (Hebrews 11:31). The Canaanites were aware of God’s power (Joshua 2:10–11; 9:9) and could have sought repentance. Except in rare instances, they continued their rebellion against God until the bitter end.
But didn’t God also command the Israelites to kill non-combatants? The biblical record is clear that He did. Here again, we must remember that, while it is true the Canaanite women did not fight, this in no way means they were innocent, as their seductive behavior in Numbers 25 indicates (Numbers 25:1–3). However, the question still remains: what about the children? This is not an easy question to answer, but we must keep several things in mind. First, no human person (including infants) is truly innocent. The Scripture teaches that we are all born in sin (Psalm 51:5; 58:3). This implies that all people are morally culpable for Adam’s sin in some way. Infants are just as condemned from sin as adults are