Recently, TV talk-show host Bill Maher said, “God in the Old Testament is a psychotic mass murderer.”
Is this true? Many people think so, because of passages in the Old Testament where God allows people to be destroyed, such as Noah and the flood, the plagues on Egypt, and the many wars that Israel fought with their enemies.
There are three things we need to understand, in order to understand the God in the Old Testament.
I. We need to understand what actually happened
Many people are disturbed by the command of God for the destruction of people and cities in the Old Testament, but they are unaware of the culture and history of the time and the Hebrew words used to describe what actually happened. When one takes a closer look at all this, a completely different picture comes to light.
In some cases, the Old Testament is merely reporting what people did, not saying that God commanded that it be done. For example, King Jehu destroyed all of the worshipers of Baal (2 Kings 10:18-27), but the prophet Hosea said that God would punish King Jehu for this act of brutality (Hosea 1:4). So don’t assume that just because the Bible reports acts of cruelty that it means God endorsed those actions.
But the conquest of Canaan was clearly commanded by God. So how do we justify that?
The Canaanites were not innocent. They defiled the land with detestable practices that included incest, pedophilia, bestiality and homosexuality. (Leviticus 18:24-25)
Deuteronomy 20:16-18 gives the invasion policy for when Joshua was to conquer the land of Canaan. God commanded their destruction (herem, devotion to the ban), because of their wickedness. However, when we study the events of conquest of Canaan more closely, we see that it was not the kind of genocide some have made it out to be.
The word translated “city” in Deuteronomy 20:16 and in Joshua is ‘ir, which can mean a walled fortress, like Jerusalem was when David attacked it in 2 Samuel 5:7, 9. We know from history that in ancient times, the ‘ir was like a walled fort. It was an agricultural society, in which the people lived on farms around the ‘ir, but the military stayed in the ‘ir, which was primarily a military citadel, not an urban city as we think of it today. So when the Book of Joshua says that they conquered city after city, they were actually destroying the walled cities, or forts, of the Canaanites. They were taking military targets.
So when Deuteronomy 20:16 says not to let any living thing survive among each “city,” or ‘ir, of the land, God was ordering a military conquest of an evil empire, not a genocide of an innocent people.
II. We need to understand God’s mercy
Notice how the Old Testament describes God’s mercy.
God waited 100 years in Noah’s day for the people to repent. (Genesis 5:32; 7:6)
God waited 400 years to judge Canaan because “the iniquity of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” (Genesis 15:16)
God waited for generations for Israel to repent, sending them prophets to warn them. “But Yahweh, the God of their ancestors sent word against them by the hand of His messengers, sending them time and time again, for He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place.” (2 Chronicles 36:15) It was only after they failed to repent that God allowed the Jews to be taken into exile in Babylon.
God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. (Ezekiel 33:11) God is patient, not wanting any to perish. (2 Peter 3:9)
Romans 2:4 turns the question on our own generation: “Or do you despise the riches of His kindness, restraint, and patience, not recognizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?”
III. We need to understand God’s justice
We just read 2 Chronicles 36:15, which said that God had compassion on His people “time and time again.” But the next verse, 2 Chronicles 36:16, says, “But they kept ridiculing God’s messengers, despising His words, and scoffing at his prophets, until the LORD’s wrath was so stirred up against His people that there was no remedy.”
The other thing we need to understand about God in the Old Testament is that while He is a God of mercy and grace, He is also a God of justice.
Leviticus 18:24-25 explains that God drove the Canaanites out of the land because they had defiled the land with their sinful lifestyles, and God said, “the land will vomit out its inhabitants.” God is a God of mercy, but eventually if we do not repent, His patience will run out, and His moral stomach will be turned against sin until He can hold it back no longer.
In Genesis 6:3, the LORD said, “My Spirit will not remain with mankind forever, because they are corrupt.” God is merciful, but when mankind continues to reject God’s mercy, God will judge.
As we have seen already, the punishment of the Canaanites was anticipated by God long before it happened, as God told Abraham in Genesis 15:16 that the sin of the Amorites had not reached its full measure. The implication was that when it did reach its full measure, it would then be too late. Throughout the Old and New Testament, we see this pattern: God is a God of grace and mercy who does not wish to punish. But if we continue in rebellion and refuse to repent, eventually God’s patience will run out, and He will execute His justice. We see this with Noah and the flood: God waited 100 years for them to repent, but when they refused, God sent the flood. God waited 400 years for the people in Canaan to repent, but when they refused, He sent Israel to conquer the land. God waited hundreds of years for Israel to repent, but when they refused to listen to the prophets, He allowed them to go into exile. The conquest of Canaan by Joshua and all of the other stories of punishment are not only history, they are also prophecy. It points to the final judgment that we all must face. Hebrews 9:27 says, “It is appointed for people to die once—and after this, judgment.” But God has also provided a way to escape Judgment Day, by sending Jesus as a personal sacrifice for our sins.
God is not a bloodthirsty bully at all. God is a blood-giving Savior, who gave the blood of His own Son Jesus on the cross that we might be saved from judgment and spend eternity with Him in Heaven. This is the God of the Bible, both Old and New Testament.