One of the greatest and most difficult problems for many skeptics as well as many believers to account for is the violence and apparent atrocities of the Old Testament. People are genuinely disturbed by God’s command for the Israelites to commit an apparent genocide by destroying the people who were currently dwelling in the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The people who were occupying the land consisted of seven tribes which included the Amorites, Hittites, Perrizites, Girgashites, Hevites, Jebushites, and the Canaanites (Deu 7:1). These were a people who were involved in the vilest of pagan worship rituals and practices including temple prostitution and child sacrifice. Their lives were so detestable and their evil so great that God saw fit to destroy their entire nation through violence.
War in the Old Testament
Before diving deeply into the issue of God’s order to commit violence against a nation, I think it is important to address a side-issue in regards to the Bible that most people become aware of when going through it’s pages.
Many people notice that the Old Testament mentions many battles and wars that take place, whereas the New Testament does nothing of the sort, with the exception of the book of Revelation which presents prophecies of a war to come. The short reason for this is that the Old Testament contains a vast amount of history regarding the nation of Israel which spans roughly 1,500 years while the New Testament focuses much of it’s time revealing the ministry of Jesus Christ that only lasted about three years.
It’s also important to note that nations often go through times of war; we can look for example at how many wars the United States has been involved with in under one hundred years: World War I and II, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, the Persian Gulf War, the Invasions of Iraq & Afghanistan, plus countless skirmishes and battles in between. As much as we don’t like it, violence and war is a part of reality and therefore a part of history, and history is a big part of the Old Testament.
Violence in the Old Testament
The command for the Israelites to destroy the land of Canaan stands out to those who have or who are reading the Bible. This is probably the most disturbing of God’s orders for it seems to be something that is ‘;out of character’ in comparison to what is read about him throughout the rest of the scriptures. But that is also a point to mention, that while there are multiple wars and battles in the Old Testament, this is the only time God tells his people to kill every occupant, including the women and children (Deu 7:2; 20:16-18).
Understandably a difficult truth to grasp, many people ask, “why would God command the soldiers to kill even the women and children?” The reason for such a harsh command was due to the fact that the Israelites were to be set apart from the rest of the world (Deu 7:6). If the women were permitted to live, the Israelites were likely to have intermarried with them and risked adopting their vile worship practices. If the children were left alive, they would grow up and also intermarry with the Israelites thus running the risk of pagan practices, or worse yet, be raised with hatred towards the Israelites and try to overthrow them when they had reached a fighting age.
I would like to make two side notes that I think are very significant in covering this issue. First, there are hints which suggest that not all the citizens of the land were slaughtered as is commonly believed. In a few verses (Lev 18:24; 20:23; Deu 9:4; 9:5; 18:12) we read that the Lord was driving the Canaanites out before the Israelites, which could be taken to mean that when the Israelites arrived there only remained those who refused to leave and it was those who were the ones that were slaughtered.
Second, while it is hard to accept God’s command to kill even the children, it can in some way be seen as an example of God’s mercy on them. The reason being is that an overwhelming majority of Christians (myself included) believe that children are granted salvation until a certain level of maturity is reached where the individual is mentally capable of either accepting or rejecting God. We see hints of this being the case in 2 Samuel 12:22-23 (See also Psa 16:10-11), after David’s son dies, he says ‘;I will go to him, but he will not return to me.’ If this notion is true, the violence carried out in killing the children actually assured their salvation and saved them from the pagan rituals of their people which would have sent them to Hell in the end.
While it is quite often said that it is immoral for God to do such a thing as command the violence mentioned in the Old Testament, it is important to point out that God in no way is under any obligation to sustain the life of any people. After all, according to Romans 5:12, it is because of our sinful actions that death even entered the picture in the first place.
Divine Command Morality
One explanation for why God’s command to the Israelites is justifiable is an ethical theory known as Divine Command Morality. It says that because the command was given by God himself, that it was therefore the duty of the nation of Israel to follow through and do as they were ordered. While this is often a difficult thing to grasp, and may sound like a statement that begs the question or commits the fallacy of arguing in a circle, I don’t believe this is the case at all, but please allow me to give the following example to explain why.
In our society, we follow this same method in our very own justice system. If I decide to take someone against their will and lock them up in my house for twenty years because I believe they’re guilty of a certain crime, we typically view this act as immoral and wrong. A crime in and of itself. However, if someone is taken to court for a specific matter and given a sentence of twenty years by the judge, it is no longer considered evil to lock them up for that same duration. Because a person in a position of authority has deemed the actions of the guilty worthy of punishment, it is no longer considered wrong or immoral to carry out justice or order others to do so.
Since God is the creator of the universe (Gen 1:1), he has ultimate authority over his creation (Rom 13:1). Since we are all guilty of sin (Rom 3:23) and all worthy of death (Rom 6:23), it is within God’s jurisdiction to carry out justice through violence or order others to do so, as he sees fit (1 Pet 1:17).