The exploits of Deuteronomy and conquest of Joshua no doubt raise a few eyebrows for newcomers to the faith, doubters, cynics, and even longtime Christians, where accusations and questions of God’s moral character abound. Underneath these accounts of bloodshed, there is at first glance, a deep-seated conflict between God’s wrath and justice of the Old Testament and God’s all-loving, merciful nature in the New Testament. Abusing this tension of God’s wrath and love is not new, however; so much so that many so-called Christians today are willing to throw out the OT or commit gnostic heresies by pitting Father against Son, as if the God of the Old is different from the God of the New. Others simply skip over this section entirely for its all too barbaric, gruesome subject matter, likening the account to ethnic cleansing, Israeli propaganda, ungodliness, or what have you. Perhaps you have heard grumblings, ‘God is an egomaniac! A moral monster! How can God be good if He’s a racist bigot who condones genocide?’ An emotionally loaded accusation, masked as question, is hardly ammunition–––it’s mudslinging. Designed to trigger a kneejerk reaction for the less theologically inclined, either to brazenly push a Christian closer to the edge of atheism or to polarize their view of God’s character, dangling their faith between skepticism and contempt: God is a hypocrite, unworthy of your worship and belief. And so, seizing the opportunity, they get a foot in the door–––no need to pry it open.
But it is not solely God’s wrath on human evil that make’s people take a step back, it’s the fact that, in this instance specifically, God strongarms humans to do His bidding; or that’s how the picture is framed, at least. He delivers Israel from slavery and then sends them to Canaan, not as gracious missionaries but as a tool of His judgment. Charged with immorality and idolatry, God orders Israel to “completely destroy” the Canaanites–––children included (Deuteronomy 2:34-35, 3:6; 13:15; 20:16-18; Joshua 11:14). In the case of Sodom and Gomorrah however, God assumes His natural responsibility we all intuitively understand as the sole authority over life and death, the only one wholly sovereign and deserving to make life or take it. God utterly destroys every living thing in the sister cities by fire and brimstone for similar, if not, the same immoral and idolatrous reasons as Canaan (Genesis 19:24; Jasher 18-19). Again, God’s judgment against heinous depravity and unspeakable evil indulged by these cultures is not so bothersome, here, even though God’s judgment would, no doubt, include children. People usually desire for God to intervene against evil. In fact, it is the usual gripe against God, if I’m not mistaken–––that He does not intervene against evil enough! The emotional tension with the conquest, then, is narrow: Why would God use people to kill other people? Why not do it Himself? Especially to such a degree as not to show mercy to “infants and nursing babies” (1 Samuel 15:3) who have “no knowledge of good or evil” (Deuteronomy 1:39). It’s the children that get us, I know that much is true; considering adults have made the bed they sleep in, but children are innocent, teeming with potential, and sleep in the bed made for them. And yet, God makes specific claims about His moral character throughout the Bible that seem to conflict with this order: God is love, goodness, and justice (Mark 10:18; 1 John 4:8; 3 John 1:11); God is the defender of the fatherless, widow, and weak (Psalm 68:5, 82:3-4); God is truth and cannot lie (Numbers 23:19; Titus 1:2; John 14:6; Hebrews 6:18). How do we, as Christians, reconcile all this?
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
Understanding the moral character of God is a hot subject in theology today, given the enormous amounts of criticism against the faith. Theologians call this theodicy, which attempts to reconcile, vindicate, or explain God’s moral perfection and divine providence in the face of evil, however great or small the dilemma. Now I’ve brought several things to attention, perhaps too many things, but I wish to address each one as best I can. Resolve to this emotional and moral tension lies in a deeper understanding of theology, not just in intellectual sufficiency of Scripture or philosophical argumentation, but in the spiritual grasp of moral necessity.
Theodicy or Anthropodicy?
Before someone even thinks about putting God in the proverbial hotseat, though I advise you never do so, one must first take the plank out of their own eye lest hypocrisy run amok. Is mankind in a position to charge God with immorality? In other words, is humanity inherently good to assume the moral high ground above God? For sake of argument, presume atheism is correct for a moment, that God is not real, but some imagined ideal. Does that not mean humanity (not God) is the source and cause for such horrific feats depicted in the conquest? If the argument is that God is nothing but an unhinged toddler who always wants His way – immoral, irrational, narcissistic – what, then, does that say about human idealism? Is it not the human imagination conjuring up self-admiring evils while committing these heinous crimes against humanity in the name of a make belief God? All this does is shift the problem from God to man, which sounds strikingly Biblical, considering one of its central themes is the universality of sin. You could say the desire to blame God for evil hits the mark!
But the moral problem only gets worse from here. If God does not exist, there is no moral truth, and no way to differentiate good from evil. We are left with a contract between people as the highest source of moral accountability, with no actual moral value intrinsic to human wellbeing to determine if, say, killing is wrong–––what we agree on is good. This fact is well known among Christian philosophers and theologians, though unpopular among cynics. What has been shown time and time again is that when God is illusory, morality ends up becoming a cultural phenomenon, a composite of ideal mutual beliefs, attitudes, and feelings instituted by contract or force, by popular majority or elite rule. And if morality is cultural and subjective in nature, not objective or true, what is inherently wrong with killing the Canaanites? Killing, murder, and genocide is not objectively wrong, it’s just not ideal, subjectively speaking from our cultural standards today. Why so? Because, simply put, there is no moral truth. If you discredit God’s moral character, you end up defending moral relativism, which is a subjective way to say immorality. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. When we assume God does not exist, we as humans do not have an inherent objective moral basis in nature or biology, in physics or psychology, to charge God for immorality. We all have a sense of what’s right, a conscience, but we are not obligated to do what’s right, nor are we forbidden to do what’s wrong, especially when God is presumed dead. And, if evil is a human problem, then all we ought to do is ask ourselves how well have we morally done without God so far? The bloody atheist regimes of the twentieth century speak for itself–––Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot. It is because of their brutal, inhumane immorality does the word “genocide” even exist! Least of all the onslaught of average citizens willing to follow direct orders from the dictators of the highest contract to save their own skin, such as ‘murder your neighbour’. When there is no higher moral accountability – that is conscious and loving supreme being – morality is nothing but a subjective, private opinion. Why not do whatever it takes to survive? If so, then Joshua and the Israelites are vindicated by a lack of actual morality. We are in no position to judge God. But we are in position to charge man by all accounts.
God’s Mercy Before Judgment
We all know humans have killed for lesser reasons than God’s, and the account given against Canaanites is staggering – sacrificing children to idols, burning people alive, cult prostitution, all kinds of sexual immorality, worshipping demons, wicked perversion, lying, swindling, selfishness, unloving, et cetera (Deuteronomy 7:5, 12:2-3, 12:31, 32:17; Joshua 6:26). In fact, the archaeological data paints a more wicked picture of Canaan than the Bible! Rather than destroy them right away, God patiently waits 400 years for them to repent since “the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure” (Genesis 15:13-16), and they don’t. Let’s not confuse patience for injustice, that God mercifully endures evil so that all can come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). So, due to their moral depravity, objective moral judgment was coming. And according to Rahab, they all knew it! (Joshua 2:8-11) Rahab says that the people of Jericho’s “hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed” because of Israel’s God freed them from slavery, dried up the Red Sea and destroyed the Egyptians, that He completely destroyed the two kings of the Amorites, and that they knew judgment was coming from them by this same all-powerful God of “heaven above and on the earth below”. And yet, they refused to repent and leave (keep in mind; these cultures were not naturalistic, they believed in the supernatural). The people of Jericho could have spared their woman and children by repenting, but they chose to fight against God to preserve their filthy culture of injustice and bloodlust. That is not on God, that’s on them. They had a choice, as God tells the prophet Ezekiel: “Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?’” (Ezekiel 33:11)
Furthermore, consider that God was driving the Hivites, Hittites, and Canaanites out of the land before Israel went in to take it, causing panic and confusion so that they would flee, meaning that people were presumably leaving before God’s full sweeping judgment came (Exodus 23:27-30; Leviticus 18:24; Numbers 33:52). God also told Israel to offer peace treaties to select cities that were not totally depraved and only committed complete destruction to fortress cities and military outposts and not civilian-run villages (Deuteronomy 20:10-11). It was a targeted judgment. God also waited 40 years before engaging Canaan, giving them ample time to repent or even leave. If so, they could have just left and avoided war altogether, sparing their children if they so cared, since they knew the Hebrews were coming back to claim their land under God’s provision. God gave them ample time and opportunity to turn from evil or just leave.
With all that in mind, how do we know for sure repentance would appease God’s wrath? Well, Jonah preaches repentance to Nineveh, who were also engaged in abominable evils like Canaan. Nineveh repents, and so God spares them. Likewise, Jericho and other Canaanite cities knew judgment was coming by a wave of destruction, and all they had to do was repent. And to those who did abandon their evil ways, such as Rahab and her family, they were spared. Again, this is not a “systematic cleansing or extermination of an entire ethnic group or race” that the definition of genocide demands, it was a targeted moral and spiritual judgment against the horrific atrocities committed by the people groups living in Canaan. This was an act of God’s justice, not injustice.
God’s Impartial Justice
In the conquest, then, the only thing God is guilty of, so to speak, is revealing to a people that He is the one who gives victory or defeat, who gives life or takes it. God is still in charge of taking life, whether that judgment is by natural disaster, or the hands of men, is of little consequence when it comes to God’s moral judgment because God is the basis of morality, the judge of good and evil, the author of life, and the sole authority to forgive sin. For instance, say God did not reveal to Joshua and the Israelites that He was with them, it would not change the fact that God still used them as a tool of judgment. After all, to further intensify God’s impartiality, God uses Gentile nations – Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome – as a tool of judgment against Israel 500 years later, unbeknown to the pagan kings and priests, even though God warned Israel not to become like them lest they too would be “devoted to destruction” (Deuteronomy 29:25-28; Josh 6:18, 7:12; cf. Numbers 33:55-56), comparing their swift destruction to the likes of Sodom and Gomorrah (Deuteronomy 29:19-24). God even forewarns Israel not to think so highly of themselves because they don’t morally deserve the land their inheriting, so that they can avoid this same type of judgment, and yet they still fail to heed His warning (Deuteronomy 9:4-6). If this is Israeli propaganda, it’s the worst propaganda I’ve ever seen!
God is good, and so a good God judges evil. How can we hold God culpable for injustice just because He revealed His plans to a nation in which He also uses to save the world through Messiah? Would we be better off if He had said nothing at all? And funny enough, isn’t that yet another usual gripe against God, that He is inactive, impotent, and voiceless? If God is the source of justice, truth, righteousness, goodness, love, and law – which is what Christians believe – why, then, is it wrong if He proves that He’s in control for our own good?
You strive against God, you desire evil. It’s a spiritual declaration of war against goodness. Plain and simple. In Christianity: God is good, people are evil. (Matthew 7:11) In fact, this is one of the foundational themes of the whole Bible. Humans are not inherently good. We are corrupt, selfish, manipulative, liars–––our hearts are deceitfully wicked (Jeremiah 17:9). That is, we are all born into sin and a fallen world. That does not mean beyond redemption, it just means we are all blemished, stained, torn, broken, sick, or what have you. We are not whole by nature having fallen, yet we retain a hazy sense of what wholeness is like being made in the image of God. That’s the crux of the issue, here. Humans inherently feel like they could be good based on their own merit, if given the appropriate means and opportunity for good motives to flourish in their lives. But that is not the picture of human nature being painted here in the text. Human proclivities are prone to lust after an array of evil passions, appetites, and desires, however subtle or grandiose these proclivities might be. Even Israel falls into deep sin in what feels like every other chapter in Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. No one is truly good. In our fallen condition, it is now natural for us to be evil–––it’s a moral fact. And yet, we somehow intuitively recognize this fact when we desire what’s morally optimal.
Why Would God Order the Killing of Children?
That said, God still ordered the Israelite military to kill children. How can God order such a command and expect humans to carry it out? It seems to me that this is the most difficult subject to reconcile. To repeat what I asked before, why would God order humans to kill children to such a degree as not to show mercy to “infants and nursing babies” (1 Samuel 15:3) who have “no knowledge of good or evil” (Deuteronomy 1:39)? In these accounts of judgment, God specifically orders Israel to “show them no mercy”, which implies that it is only natural for people raised in a theocentric society to show mercy (Deuteronomy 7:2; Joshua 11:20). To better understand this contrast, the surrounding cultures who did not serve God also did not show mercy to their children for reasons stated above, whether as sex slaves, burnt sacrifices for power or fortune, or whatever proverbial lot you pulled in life. The point here is that God was judging the people completely; the ones who deserved life in their own eyes and showed no mercy to their children were now the ones who would perish by the sword. Israel was carrying out God’s judgment, not their own peculiar sense of justice. It was not their will or desire to kill children. The Israelites were acting on behalf of God, putting each soul slain into His hands. Consider God’s perspective for a moment; God has permitted children to pass away every single day since the Fall. Likewise, if God were to destroy Canaan like He did Sodom and Gomorrah, the children would not be spared, either. It’s an inescapable fact. God was completely judging their spiritually corrupt hearts and behaviour, as difficult as His justice might be to swallow. And take notice that God doesn’t judge all nations in this manner, but only the select ones He knew “reached its full measure”. He, therefore, orders Israel to kill them all, and He will personally resurrect and judge each person and nation come Judgment Day. And on that note, there is also biblical evidence to support that children killed in the conquest will be saved, having not reached the age of accountability. Though admittedly, it is not universally concrete, so it cannot be dogma, in my view. But what is dogma and concrete is that God is good, just, and loving. God will always make the right judgment call, that much we are assured of. You will see your children again if and only if you repent and turn your life to what’s right, good, loving, and true–––God.
The spiritual reality that underpins this account cannot be underscored enough, and I personally have not stressed it enough. A lot of the concerns fade away with a deeper understanding of the spiritual war against the demons and gods underpinning the physical conquest. Too much to say, and too little space. Suffice to say, this judgment took place before Christ’s redeeming power and the inner work of the Holy Spirit. In other words, without spiritually transformative power, the powers of darkness reigned over people who worshipped them. This only intensifies the need for Christ. The apostle Paul testifies to this fact, “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:11-12)
With emotions running higher each day as the Russian-Ukraine War intensifies, the death of children has been thrown to the forefront. It’s unspeakable heartbreak to watch little children be killed. It’s a pain that runs so deep, that it only draws on deeper questions to find some temporal satisfaction. And to that, I encourage you to read: Q6. Why does God work with Satan? But to be honest, there is no actual resolve or emotionally satisfying answer when it comes to the death of children, and I think that’s the point–––there can’t be. Death never brings satisfaction. That is why Christ came, to save us from death. Come that Day when Christ raises the dead for judgement and redeems the world, then and only then will every tear be wiped away and will those who truly repented and desired truth and goodness will see their children again.
To bind back what I was saying earlier about morality in a world without God, the only reason we feel this way about the loss of children is because there is an actual sense of objective morality. So, ironically, we need objective morality in God to believe, feel, and know killing children is wrong, and yet other cultures that do not know God were (and are) willing to burn their children on the altar of self-preservation or spiritual power. In fact, full-term infants and children are killed regularly in abortion clinics–––our all-too civilized secular society built a whole industry around killing babies minutes from being nursed. And we cannot stomach the conquest?! Everyone’s hates the Bible for “condoning genocide”, but God forbid you cancel my Olympic games. The anti-theistic, communist regime China hosted the Olympic Games in Beijing while committing genocide at the same time and everyone tuned in–––no one protested. But God is the problem.
The problem, again, is that we can be guilty of judging God by human standards. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9) There is a greater plan at work in the redeeming power of Christ. While these counterarguments may help to some avail, I understand that it does not offset the moral and emotional tension that comes with the account. The spiritual weight of God’s plan will ease the burden and keep you grounded, but the pain of losing a child will not completely go away until the day of salvation.
Matlock Bobechko | March 5, 2022 – 9:00 AM EST.
 And it seems that God and Israel did drive many of them out because many of the Canaanite people groups were still alive and well during the time of the judges. So much so that they become a snare to Israel because they did not drive them all out, in which God says, “So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you” (Judges 2:3). This is a spiritual battle as much as it is physical.