What stuns the first time readers of the Old Testament is the apparent killing and death… many a time at the hands of human agents. I remember a convert saying that when she read the Bible for the first time, she started off with the Old Testament and she was stunned with the amount of killing and violence… so much so that she stopped reading the Bible and stayed away from it for a few years till such time that she got a personal visitation from the Lord, got good guidance and accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior.
There are a number of statements in the Holy Bible which can shock a careless or casual reader. A number of cases of mass killings of people, apparently at God’s behest, are recorded in the Old Testament:
- The Flood (Genesis 6-8)
- The cities of the plain, including Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18-19)
- The Egyptian firstborn sons during the Passover (Exodus 11-12)
- The Canaanites under Moses and Joshua (Numbers 21:2-3; Deuteronomy 20:17; Joshua 6:17, 21)
- The Amalekites annihilated by Saul (1 Samuel 15)
The first three examples are similar in that there was no human agent involved – in each case it was God, or an angel of God, who carried out the mass killings directly.
Certain passages in the Old Testament even give believers pause. Like these:
When the Lord your God brings you into the land where you are entering to possess it, and clears away many nations before you…you shall utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them and show no favor to them. Furthermore, you shall not intermarry with them…. For they will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you and He will quickly destroy you. But thus you shall do to them: You shall tear down their altars, and smash their sacred pillars, and hew down their Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire. (Deut. 7:1-5)
Only in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the Lord your God. (Deut. 20.16-18)
Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’” (1 Sam 15:2-3)
Strong words. Reading them brings to mind horrible terms like “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing.” Could this command really come from the God of all grace and mercy, the same God who, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, “became flesh, and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14)?
Maybe not, according to some.
The mass killing of the Canaanites is the first of two cases in which the text claims that God’s people, the nation of Israel, under commands from the Almighty attacked other nations and affected the mass killings. For this reason, this case will be the focus of this study.
For the sake of convenience and for better arrangement of the content, let me first break up the question into two perspectives: atheists and theists.
Dismissing an atheist who raises such a question is very trivial. Firstly, what is the point that the atheist trying to make? An atheist is trying to say that if there is a God, then he cannot command such things as commit mass genocide… committing mass genocide is a huge moral issue and totally wrong. For an atheist to say that there is a something which is morally or ethically wrong, there has to be something which can be defined as morally right. If there is a clear distinction or a universal law which dictates that actions such as rape, molesting babies, committing mass genocide, etc is wrong, then there has to be a moral law giver, this moral law giver is called God in theistic terms. So, an atheist when raising the question on morality to prove the non-existence of God actually has to assume God’s existence in the question itself, thereby nullifying the very question.
Secondly, since an atheist doesn’t believe that the Bible is the word of God, from that position, I can again dismiss atheist queries on this topic by saying that these were mere exaggerated accounts of warfare which is very common in Eastern warfare accounts. OR, that the Israelites were simply mistaken that an All powerful deity had commanded the incident.
Lastly, nowadays, with regards to freewill, atheists such as Sam Harris and Michael Shermer believe that since all living beings are nothing but a chaotic bunch of atoms and molecules having no designer or purpose, any and all of their actions are nothing but an outcome of the chemical reactions and the firing of neurons in their brains…. In other words, all actions are determined (https://www.samharris.org/blog/item/life-without-free-will) … very much like putting a pot of water containing tea powder and milk results in “tea” as the end product. If a car rolls down a hill and rams into a bus killing people inside it, can the car be put in jail for this “error”? NO, from an atheist’s perspective, there is no difference between a car rolling down a hill and a human being doing something immoral such as a murder. If that’s the case, then the Israelites cannot be blamed or have said to have done anything wrong… since these actions were all due to some faulty chemical reactions in their brains which led to these involuntary actions by their bodies resulting in the destruction of another chaotic mass of atoms and molecules a.k.a. humans.
With the “atheist” perspective out of the picture, let’s move to the theists who may be from the Christian faith or any other worldview which doesn’t discount out the existence of God.
Why the bias
As I will lay out below, due to skewed inputs from the media, pop culture and even selective readings/preaching by Bible readers/preachers, there is a bias that builds up against the nation of Israel with many writers even saying on record that the Old Testament was fictional writings of the Jews to show that they are a better race than the rest of the world… if you read the Old Testament, nothing further can be from the truth… to refute the “Old testament is fiction issue”, there are tonnes of archaeological and extra-Biblical evidence that has proven time and again the historical veracity of the Old Testament (further information on websites such as Bible History) or just reading through the Bible, especially the prophetical books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Lamentations, a completely reversed picture emerges… just by the historical method of the “principle of embarrassment”, it stands without any doubt that the Lord not only blessed but also chastised and punished the people… the nation of Israel more than any other race on the face of this earth at any point of time.
Such a bias, I think appears primarily cause of what I refer to as “lazy mind or copy-paste syndrome” which you see prevalent in this culture wherein people tend to repeat gossip news, titillating news (dog bites man is not news, man bites dog is news) without doing any research or using the last vestiges of their common sense/wisdom… a lot of responsibility need to be attributed even to the church which in violation of Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30-31 and Luke 10:27 is very much guilty of not propagating or encouraging responsible exegesis… loving the Lord thy God only with their heart and soul AND NOT with their mind. To quote well known apologist and writer Ravi Zacharias “What I believe in my heart must make sense in my mind”.
Another critical flaw that I see which is also responsible for the bias is that the Bible is treated as a religious book… if a person attempts to read the Bible without any religious or atheistic bias in mind, the picture appears is that of a book which chronicles world history and the history of the nation of Israel in particular and also documents how God intervened and guided human affair. In other words with the mostly chronological sequence of events and archaeological evidence in place, the Bible, especially the Old Testament should be put across a book on history which a reader can go through to understand parts of world history and the history of the nation of Israel in particular. What can be said is that no other nation or culture on the face of this planet has better documented record of its inception and history.
In my frequent interactions with Muslims and atheists, one of the top points that they think they can score on is when they show such verses to show that Christians are very violent OR that Jesus who is also God of the Old Testament is a violent deity… after taking a moment to stifle my laughter on their sheer ignorance and stupidity, I point out that unlike the Quran which is a mix of random verses which are eternal commands by Allah, the Holy Bible is a historical narration and what you see is a descriptive narration and not a prescriptive narration… there are commands such as the 10 commandments which are meant for all time but there are points such as ceremonial laws which were meant for a particular time and place. Lastly, if someone still insists on the current applicability of the killing of the Canaanites, then let’s refer to Joshua 1:4, this has clearly demarcated the physical boundaries of the commands… it was not universal and clearly the command was against the Canaanites in particular residing in a specific geographical area and not against all infidels globally such as in Quran 9:5 or 9:29… Canaanite tribes (especially the Hittites) greatly exceeded the boundaries that Israel was told to conquer. And since, as we will see, He punished Israel when they committed the same sins, what happened to the Canaanites was not genocide, but capital punishment.
Coming back to the original question…. Let’s break this up into smaller questions:
- Why did the Lord pass judgments against the Canaanites?
- Couldn’t they have repented much like the city of Nineveh at the time of Jonah?
- What about the infants?
- Then why the animals too? Couldn’t they have been used by the Israelites for farming, domestication, sacrifices?
- Were the Israelites any better?
- Is it cause God can do whatever HE wants?
- Lastly, one of the questions which always used to haunt me is like the first three instances quoted in the beginning of this article, why didn’t God wipe out the Canaanites himself?
- How is Christianity different from Islam
As we look at difficult issues such as this one, we must remember that God’s ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:9; Romans 11:33-36). We have to be willing to trust God and have faith in Him even when we do not understand His ways.
– Answering Hinduism