Why all the killing in the Old Testament?
Promise and judgment
Recently I was asked this question about the Bible: I was wondering, what about the parts of the Bible that say that God ordained for the Israelites to slaughter so many people. Yes, I understand that was God’s judgment on a wicked people, but that doesn’t explain slaughtering innocent children, and in some cases of wiping out a people. It seems inconsistent with a God who is against abortion and offers forgiveness to sinners. I agree that wholesale slaughter of nations seems incompatible with a God of love and mercy. It’s an argument that is often brought against the Old Testament.
The context of the Israelite invasion of Canaan begins with Abram who was in the 20th generation of life on earth. Abram was given many promises including that his descendants would be a great nation, the Jews who were God’s special people on earth. They were to be different and separate to the other nations: “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” (Dt. 7:6NIV). The Israelites were given special laws to follow, including “You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices” (Lev. 18:2-3).
In the 10th generation, Noah cursed his grandson Canaan (Gen. 9:25), which was an act of divine judgment. As the Old Testament is an account of God’s dealings with the nation of Israel, we will see that Israel as God’s representatives on earth was to be involved with the judgment of the sins of the Canaanites.
When Abram travelled to Canaan, God told him, “To your offspring I will give this land” forever (Gen. 12:7; 13:15; 17:8; 1 Chron. 16:15-18). God confirmed this promise in a covenant: “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it” (Gen 15:7). The promise was repeated to Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses (Gen. 50:24-25; Ex. 6:8). This was an unconditional promise (Ps. 105:8-11). It was like a grant given by a king to a loyal subject.
What land would they receive? “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates— the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites” (Gen. 15:18-21). They were to be given the land of Canaan that was occupied by these nations.
When would this happen? “Know for certain that for 400 years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there (Egypt). But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions … In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure” (Gen. 15:13-16). So under the leadership of Moses, the Israelites would leave Egypt and travel to occupy Canaan. Note that the timing of being given the land was when the sin of the Amorites was fully developed. This is explained in Deuteronomy, “it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is going to drive them out before you” (Dt. 9:4).
Sins of the Canaanites
The Bible describes the wickedness of the Canaanite nations: “When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you” (Dt. 18:9-12).
Their sexual immorality is described in Leviticus 18 as detestable. The Israelites were told “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants” (Lev. 18:24-25). They were also warned against child sacrifice to the god Molek (Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5) and against religious prostitution (1 Ki. 14:24; Dt. 23:17).
So the Canaanites were characterised by extreme wickedness, like the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. They have been likened to a cancer in society. In such situations, God gives a warning of His judgment. In the days of Abraham they had the witness of Melchizedek the king-priest of Salem (Jerusalem) (Gen. 14:19-20) and the judgment of Sodom and Gormorrah (Gen. 19:1-29).
Before Jericho was destroyed, Rahab told the spies, “I know that the LORD has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Josh. 2:8-11). They knew about God’s promise – the land grant – made over 400 years before and were fearful because of the exodus 40 years beforehand when the God of the Israelites defeated the Egyptians, who were the most powerful nation at that time. This fear had been predicted (Ex. 15:14-17). They also knew about the Israelites recent military victories. Most people would flee when their country was invaded by a stronger army (Jer. 4:29; 6:1). The Amorite and Canaanite kings were also afraid because they knew that God had dried up the Jordan river so the Israelites could cross over (Josh. 5:1). As the Israelite invasion would be gradual (“little by little”), the Canaanites had plenty of time to escape (Ex. 23:30; Dt. 7:22). So they knew what was coming and they could either repent of their ways or escape by migrating out of the land of Canaan.
God had promised that the Israelites would occupy the land of Canaan. When we look at how this is described in the Bible we see two kinds of words: the Canaanite nations were both “driven out” and “destroyed”. What does this mean? We see that the Canaanites had a choice, either migrate before the Israelites arrive or be executed. It was an eviction, not a genocide. This meant that the wicked Canaanite culture and nation was to be destroyed, but most of the people could be assimilated into the surrounding nations. Also, it was to protect the Israelites from being influenced by the Canaanite idolatry and wickedness.
For example, God said, “I will give into your hands the people who live in the land, and you will drive them out before you” and “I will wipe them out” (Ex. 23:23, 31). The people were to be banished or killed and their idols destroyed. To avoid idolatry, there were to be no treaties and intermingling: “Do not make a covenant with them or with their gods. Do not let them live in your land or they will cause you to sin against Me, because the worship of their gods will certainly be a snare to you” (Ex. 23:32-33). More detail is given in Deuteronomy and Numbers: “you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them” (Dt. 7:2-3); “drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images and their cast idols, and demolish all their high places. Take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess” (Num. 33:52-53); “in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the LORD your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God” (Dt. 20:16-18).
So the Canaanites were to be driven out of the land (Lev. 18:24-25) and those who refused to leave were to be executed as judgment of their wickedness and to minimise the chance of the Israelites catching their wicked ways. It was an expulsion, not an extermination. As some always escaped and migrated elsewhere, there were no instances of “wiping out a people”.
Later when the Israelites followed the idolatry of the Canaanites, they were also evicted from Canaan and deported to Babylon (Lev. 18:28)!
Was this fair? Was it consistent with the ways of God?
God’s revelation to those who have not heard the gospel
According to Paul, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Rom. 1:18-20).
This passage describes people like the Canaanites. They could see the works of God in the created world. A creation requires a creator, it can’t create itself, and it doesn’t happen by accident or just by the physical laws of this world. The immensity and magnificence of the created world requires a creator with power and knowledge that greatly exceeds those of humanity. This should be obvious. There is no excuse for not realising that a powerful being has made the universe.
However, people rejected and suppressed this truth and foolishly worshipped idols (Rom. 1:21-32). Their gods were created things instead of the One who created everything. This led to sexual immorality and other sinful behaviour. That’s why the Canaanites were under God’s wrath and judgment. God was fair, He had revealed Himself in His creation and then He waited 400 years while the Israelites were in Egypt. God was patient in judgment (2 Pt. 3:9). He allowed evil to run its course and allowed plenty of time for repentance. Instead of turning to God, the Canaanites turned to increased sinfulness. Physical death was one of the consequences of the sin of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:19). In this instance, people died prematurely during the Israelite invasion. This means of death discontinued after the Israelites were defeated and captured by the Babylonians. After their captivity, God’s people were not required to kill so they could occupy the promised land.
In the instance of Sodom and Gomorrah, God said he would not destroy these cities if there were ten righteous people there (Gen 18:32). As He enabled Lot’s family to escape this destruction and Rahab’s family to be protected at Jericho (Josh. 6:25), we can infer that all the Canaanites who died had rejected God’s revelation and decided to stay and oppose the Israelites.
What about the children?
We have seen that the Canaanite inhabitants, including children, were either driven out or killed to prevent intermarriage and idolatry (Dt. 7:3-4; 20:16-18). Otherwise, the children who were killed would have probably followed the ways of their parents who were the leaders and those deeply involved in the Canaanite culture.
Also, with respect to idolatry, God said He punishes “the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (Ex. 20:5; 34:7; Num. 14:18; Dt. 5:9). Here we see that children suffer the consequences of their parent’s actions, which is also the case today. For example, if parents are involved in crime or drugs or are alcoholics, it affects the lives of their children. As they lived in extended households, more generations of the Israelites and Canaanites were victims of their family circumstances than would be the case today. For example, Achan’s family were stoned because of his disobedience – the plunder was put under the family tent (Josh. 7:20-25). Household members share in the fate or fortune of the parents, like collateral damage in a war. The fate of the Canaanite children depended on whether their parents migrated out of Canaan or stayed there. On the other hand, Rahab’s family were saved because they were in her house when Jericho was destroyed – they shared in Rahab’s fortune. We should blame the parents and not God for the “slaughtering of innocent children”.
The Bible teaches that we are sinful from birth: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5; 58:3). We are all sinners (Rom. 3:10, 23). So children are never innocent in the sense of being sinless. This is serious because spiritual death is a bigger issue than physical death.
Three Bible verses teach that young children are not accountable for their sin. Firstly, when the Israelites rebelled and refused to enter Canaan, they were punished with all their army except Joshua and Caleb dying while they wandered 38 years in the desert. At this time God promised that their young children would enter Canaan, “And the little ones that you said would be taken captive, your children who do not yet know good from bad—they will enter the land. I will give it to them and they will take possession of it” (Dt. 1:39, Num. 14:31). Because they did not yet know good from bad, they were not responsible or accountable for the Israelites’ disobedience.
Secondly, when the king of Judah was being attacked by the kings of Syria and Israel, he was given a sign that his enemies would be defeated by Assyria. Isaiah was to have a son and before he “knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right” the land of the two kings will be laid waste (Isa. 7:14-16). Children who are not accountable do not know the difference between right and wrong or good and evil. They are not yet aware of their sinful condition or God’s cure.
Thirdly, when God rebuked Jonah, He similarly distinguished between children and adults,“And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” (Jon. 4:11).
At what age can a child respond to God’s revelation in creation (Dt. 1:39; Isa. 7:15-16)? It is the age at which they can understand the issue and respond to the work of the Holy Spirit in their life (Jn. 16:8-9). It is when they can recognise His works of creation and choose to accept, honour and thank Him (Rom. 1:21). Those who die at a younger age go to heaven rather than be condemned to spiritual death.
Jesus “is the atoning sacrifice for … the sins of the whole world’ (1 Jn. 2:2). As a loving and merciful God, it is reasonable to assume that He accepts Christ’s payment for the sin of those who are unable to understand God’s revelation and their sinful state such as young children. After all, Abraham said, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25). Once children reach the age of God-consciousness, they are accountable for their sin.
Lessons for us
What can we learn from this (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:6, 11)?
Clearly, Israel’s God was greater than the false Canaanite gods, showing that there is only one true God (Isa. 43:10-12).
God kept His promise to the Israelites. It was a unique time when God established His kingdom across Canaan for a period of about 800 years, which was a foretaste of His future promised kingdom over all the earth for 1000 years. Also, God has given Christians many spiritual promises in the New Testament which He will also fulfil.
God punished the extreme wickedness of the Canaanites. This reminds us that sin has consequences. It results in physical and spiritual death. The only remedy is that eternal life is available for those who accept Christ’s gift of salvation.
God warned the Canaanites of the coming invasion and gave them plenty of time to escape. Today, the gospel message goes out and God is patiently waiting for people to turn to him (2 Pt. 3:9).
Household members, including children, shared the fortunes of their parents. We need to realize that our actions can have consequences for others.
Canaan was Israel’s promised inheritance, which was gained by their faith and obedience and lost by their disobedience. After being rescued (redeemed) from Egypt, because of their backsliding, most of the Israelites died before they reached Canaan. They succumbed to the temptations and trials of this sinful world. Canaan symbolises our present spiritual inheritance. God has given us many spiritual promises in the Bible. By claiming these and living lives in obedience to Scripture, we will be rewarded in heaven at the Judgment Seat of Christ. Let’s resist the temptations and claim God’s promises like the Israelites who claimed Canaan. It’s not easy, but God has supplied our weapons including; the truth in the Bible, our righteousness, the gospel, our faith in God, God’s salvation, the Bible and prayer (Eph. 6:10-20).
God’s main aim was to destroy the Canaanite religion, not the Canaanite people. This was to protect Israel from idolatry and the sins that were associated with idolatry. Likewise, we are told to flee idolatry (1 Cor. 10:1-14). When we are tempted, God will also provide a way out so that we can endure it. Christians are to be separate from all forms of sin, wickedness and idolatry such as are practiced by unbelievers. We are to flee from these like the Jewish exiles fled from idolatrous Babylon (2 Cor. 6:17).
So this unique period in history reminds us that God keeps His promises and judges sin.
Written, October 2012