Contemplate

Is God a Moral Monster? Violence in Christian Scripture

The Charge Against God

If you’re familiar with atheist Richard Dawkins, you’ve probably heard him describe the God of the Bible as “a vindictive bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser, a misogynistic, homophobic racist, an infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”[1]

How might we evaluate and respond to such a charge?

The Bible Doesn’t Endorse All that It Narrates
First, as with any issue, we must consider the context. The Bible records a great deal of historical narrative, including events not endorsed by God. For example, when 2 Samuel records King David committing adultery and murder, readers understand from the context that David is not to be imitated in those things.[2] Adultery and murder had actually been unequivocally forbidden.[3]

Indeed, I would submit that many of the behaviors recorded in the Old Testament are not to be imitated! The Old Testament is the narrative of Israel’s disobedience and of the inability of all people as sinful humans to attain righteousness under the law.[4] The Old Testament reveals our need for a Savior. The consistent message throughout the Bible is that all people fall short of the glory of God, and all people need forgiveness and redemption that only God can provide.[5]

The Command to Destroy the Canaanites

However, historical narrative doesn’t account for all the violence in the Bible. It was God himself who commanded the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites, saying,

You are not to leave even one person alive in the cities of these nations that the Lord your God is about to give you as an inheritance. You must completely destroy the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, just as the Lord your God commanded you, so they won’t teach you to do all the detestable things that they do for their gods. If you do what they teach you, you will sin against the Lord your God. (Deut. 20:16-18)

A similar command is found in Deuteronomy 7:1-2, using the phrase, “You must devote them to complete destruction.” How do we reconcile this with a loving God?

A Time-Specific, People-Specific, Divine Judgment, Long-Delayed
As we look at the Conquest of Canaan more closely, what we see is that this event was a time-specific, people-specific, divine judgment, long-delayed. That’s how it has always been understood by Jews and Christians, and that’s exactly the understanding the text warrants. Let’s take a closer look.  

Although the command to destroy the Canaanites is given in Deuteronomy, and the conquest itself is recorded in Joshua and Judges, to understand what’s going on we must first go back to Genesis.

Back to Genesis: God’s Plan to Bless All Nations

From the very beginning, God planned to bless all nations. He would make Abraham’s offspring into a nation and give them the Promised Land so they would be a blessing to all nations.[6] However, Abraham’s descendants wouldn’t inherit this land for another 400 years because according to Genesis 15:16, “the iniquity of the Amorites [was] not yet complete.” 

The Amorites were a tribe living in the land of Canaan, and God said their iniquity—their sinfulness—had not reached completion. He wanted to give them more time to repent. God gave the people in Canaan more than 400 years to turn away from their wicked ways! But their abominations only increased. When their evil was complete, God sent the Israelites to conquer the land as judgment for their wickedness. This is reiterated in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

In Deuteronomy 18:9-12, Moses spoke to the Israelites on behalf of God, saying,

When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. And because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving them out before you.

From this passage and Leviticus 18, we see that the Canaanites practiced divination, witchcraft, idolatry, child sacrifice, incest, adultery, pedophilia, homosexuality, and bestiality.

Notice Deuteronomy 18:10 specifically calls out “anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering,” and Leviticus 18:21 mentions child sacrifice to the pagan god, Molech. A common Canaanite practice was to burn their children alive to appease their false gods.[7] They also exploited their children and grandchildren to gratify their perverse sexual desires,[8] and they launched unprovoked attacks against Israel,[9] threatening the very existence of the people through whom the Messiah was to come. 

The Canaanites were consumed with evil, and yet God gave them hundreds of years to repent. Eventually, as judgment for their sin, he sent the Israelites to expel them from the land and to destroy all their idols.[10]

Some Gentiles Were Spared

It’s also important to notice that the Israelites were not commanded to kill everyone they encountered or everyone who didn’t follow the one, true God. This was people-specific. 

As they marched toward the Promised Land, they were commanded to spare the Edomites (the people of Seir), the Moabites, and the Ammonites.[11] These groups were pagans; the Edomites worshiped Qos, the Moabites worshiped Chemosh, and the Ammonites worshiped Milcom.[12] Yet God said not to harass them or go to battle with them.[13] Thus, it is clear the Conquest of Canaan was not a command to eliminate everyone who had different religious views or to go to war to convert people to Judaism. Rather, as the text states repeatedly, this was divine judgment on wicked people following hundreds of years of mercy. It was divine judgment, long-delayed.

Opportunities for Repentance

Not only did God give the Canaanites several hundred years to repent of their wickedness, but he also made sure they knew the truth. When spies went to Jericho to stake out the land, a woman named Rahab told them, 

I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan…. For the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. (Joshua 2:9-11; emphasis mine)

God provided a series of overwhelming displays of divine signs and wonders so that both the Israelites and their enemies would know he was God and have a chance to respond appropriately, yet they chose to continue in their evil ways. 

God’s Judgment of Women and Children

At this point you may wonder, “Okay, but was it really necessary for God to command the deaths of every woman and child too?” This, of course, is the more challenging question. To this, I would say that God alone knows what is necessary, but a few additional points are worth mentioning. 

First, it’s noteworthy that the infrequent mentions of the destruction of “both men and women, young and old” refer only to Jericho and Ai (Joshua 6:21; 8:25).[14] Evidence suggests these were military outposts, not civilian towns, and there is no evidence that a single woman or child was killed.[15] Therefore, as Old Testament scholar Richard Hess points out, these may have been “stereotypical phrases that emphasize the complete destruction of everyone” rather than a specific charge to kill women and children.[16] 

A similar, but distinct, possibility is that most of the commands to wipe out the Canaanites may have been hyperbole.[17] Just as we might say, “The Duke Blue Devils completely destroyed the North Carolina Tarheels,” so it was also common in ancient Near Eastern writing to refer to military victories as destroying one’s enemies, blotting them out, and leaving not one remaining.[18] This would explain why phrases like destroy the Canaanites are used interchangeably with phrases like drive them out of the land.[19] It would also explain why groups we are told had been utterly destroyed show up again several chapters later.[20]

Third, it’s worth remembering that women and children participate in evil too. In modern-day Israel, approximately 1000 women and children are held in prisons for having killed, or attempted to kill, Jewish civilians.[21] Furthermore, if 400 years of history preceding the Conquest of Canaan are any indication, those children would have grown up to be as evil as their parents, if not worse. Had they been allowed to live, it’s likely these orphans would have sought revenge and tried to wipe out the Israelites. 

We know that God is just and merciful, and no one ever receives a punishment greater than they deserve, including the Canaanite children.[22]

Time-specific, People-specific, Divine Judgment, Long-delayed

Whether or not the language was hyperbolic, and whether or not any women or children were killed, it’s critical to understand that the Conquest of Canaan was: 

1. time-specific. It was not a standing order for Israelites or Christians. 

2. people-specific. Only the very most wicked of peoples on earth were killed. 

3. divine judgment. God is the creator as well as the judge, and he has every right and authority to take people from this life. Here he removed the most wicked of people. 

4. long-delayed. The Canaanites were given 400 years to repent. 

5. accompanied by miraculous evidence of who God is. Specifically, the Canaanites knew that God had parted the Red Sea to rescue them from slavery in Egypt and that he had given them victory over much stronger armies. 

6. God’s intervention to use evil for good. He rightfully punished the atrocities of the Canaanites to establish Israel in the land so they may be a blessing to all people.

God’s Grace Revealed in Christ

But that’s not the end of the story. Later, God the Son would come to earth himself as a man, not to punish us as we all deserve, but to provide a way for even the greatest of sinners to be spared. He lived a sinless life,[23] encouraging his followers to love and serve one another,[24] and to love even our enemies.[25] Then he endured the wrath of God while hanging on a cross,[26] bleeding and suffocating to death, to pay for our sins,[27] forgiving those who tortured him, and overcoming the power and finality of death for us,[28] even though he is the King of kings and we are the scum of the earth.[29] And now he offers to exchange our sin for his righteousness, that we may live in eternal glory with him forever! 

The Lesson of Canaan: God is Just

We learn about different aspects of God’s character through different accounts recorded in the Scriptures. Many accounts teach us of God’s love, his forgiveness, and his mercy. The lesson of Canaan is that God is just, and he will not allow evil to go unpunished forever. He is slow to anger, but eventually, the opportunity to repent ends and God’s justice prevails. Therefore, the best time to repent and turn to him is now.

[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Mariner Books, 2011), 51.

[2] 2 Samuel 11

[3] Exodus 20:13-14

[4] Romans 9:31

[5] Isaiah 1:3-5; Romans 3:23

[6] Genesis 26:4

[7] See also Deuteronomy 12:31; Psalm 106:35-38; and 2 Chronicles 28:3.

[8] Leviticus 18:10, 17, 24

[9] Exodus 17:8-9; Numbers 21:1-23, 33

[10] Leviticus 18:24-25

[11] Deuteronomy 2:4-19

[12] Joel S. Burnett, “Ammon, Moab and Edom: Gods and Kingdoms East of the Jordan,” Biblical Archaeology Review (Nov/Dec 2016), https://library.biblicalarchaeology.org/article/ammon-moab-and-edom-gods-and-kingdoms-east-of-the-jordan/.

[13] The careful reader will notice that the king of the Edomites and the king of the Ammonites refused the Israelites peaceful passage through their land and war ensued, but this was not commanded by the Lord. Rather, it resulted from the pagan kings’ obstinance and aggression; see Numbers 20-21.

[14] Richard S. Hess, “War in the Hebrew Bible,” in War in the Bible and Terrorism in the 21st Century, ed. Richard S. Hess and E.A. Martens (University Park, PA: Eisenbrauns, 2008), 29-30.

[15] Hess, War, 29-30. 

[16] Hess, War, 29-30.

[17] See Paul Copan and Matt Flannagan, Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014).

[18] Copan and Flannagan, Genocide, 76-124.

[19] Numbers 33:55; Deuteronomy 9:3; Joshua 13:6, 14:12, 17:13, 23:5; Judges 1:28, 29, 30, 32, 33

[20] For example, see Joshua 10:40 and then Joshua 23:11-12.

[21]  Ryan Saavedra, “Palestinian Women, Minors Swapped for Hostages Instantly Fly Hamas Terrorist Flags After Release,” Daily Wire, November 24, 2023, https://www.dailywire.com/news/palestinian-women-minors-swapped-for-hostages-instantly-fly-hamas-terrorist-flags-after-release.

[22] Exodus 34:6; Deuteronomy 32:3-5

[23] Hebrews 4:15

[24] John 13:34-35

[25] Matthew 5:42-44

[26] Romans 5:9

[27] 2 Corinthians 5:21

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