Armenia. Cambodia. Rawanda. Bosnia. Darfur. All well-known modern examples of genocide where entire people groups were wiped out (or almost wiped out). These are awful tragedies, worthy of our sorrow and grief.
And yet, ask the critics, is the God of the Bible really any different? When the Israelites entered the land of Canaan, was it not God that commanded them to wipe out all the indigenous people (Deut 20:17)? Is God not guilty of genocide? It makes me think of the famous bumper-sticker quote, “The only difference between God and Adolf Hitler is that God is more proficient at genocide.”
Admittedly, this is a difficult, complex issue. We feel obligated, understandably, to find a way to get God “off the hook” for the deaths of so many people. Many possibilities come to mind for how that might be done. Maybe we’ve misread the passage. Maybe it’s just symbolic. Maybe the Israelites misunderstood God’s command. And so on.
But, in the end, I don’t think we need to get God off the hook. I don’t think he wants off the hook. As painful as this issue is, it highlights what we, and our culture, need to hear more than ever: God is holy, people are sinful, the world is broken, and his judgment is just.
If we are going to rightly understand the destruction of the Canaanites, several principles must be remembered:
First, every human being on the planet deserves God’s judgment not just the Canaanites. Right now, all humans everywhere—from the kind old lady that lives next door to the hardened criminal on death row—are all deeply sinful. And they were born this way. Since birth, all human beings stand guilty, not only for their own sins but for the sin of Adam which has been passed down to them (Rom 5:12). And the penalty for our sin is clear, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23).
So, what does this mean? This means that, at any moment, God could take the life of any human as judgment for their sins. And he would be totally justified in doing so. God owes salvation to no one. And this quickly changes our perspective on the Canaanite conquest. Rather than being surprised that God would finally judge people for their sins (even in great numbers), perhaps we should be shocked that he waits so long to do it. Every one of us is alive and breathing solely by God’s incredible patience and grace.
Second, the timing of God’s judgment doesn’t always match human expectations. Sometimes we think God should judge the most sinful people first and work down the list. But, of course, God doesn’t always work the way we expect. In fact, Jesus made this exact point when he was asked why the tower of Siloam fell and killed a bunch of people. Jesus replied, “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you. But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:4-5).
Ouch. In other words, people don’t have to be the worst of sinners to receive God’s judgment. God is not obligated to judge all people simultaneously.
While the Canaanites were not the only sinful people in the world, and not necessarily even the worst, their sins were quite egregious. God drove them out of the land primarily because their practices were “detestable” in his sight—gross idolatry, use of sorcerers and mediums, sexual perversions, and even sacrificing their own children to the gods (Deut 18:9-14). Despite these practices, God had been incredibly patient with the inhabitants of Canaan for generation after generation, dating back even to the time of Abraham (Gen 15:13-16). But, God’s patience had run out.
Third, God uses a variety of instruments to accomplish his judgment. Sure, God could just miraculously take all the lives of the Canaanites in a single instance. But, he has a history of using various means to bring judgment. Throughout Scripture, such means have included natural disasters, disease and pestilence, drought, economic collapse, and yes, even human armies. At numerous points throughout biblical history God “raises up” a human army to accomplish his purposes. And in the Canaanite conquest, God used the nation of Israel as his instrument of judgment.
It is here that we come to a key difference between the Canaanite conquest and modern day genocide. Yes, both involve great loss of life. And both involve human armies. But the former is done as an instrument of God’s righteous judgment whereas the latter is humans murdering others for their own purposes. On the surface, there may be similarities. But, they are decidedly not the same act.
An example might help. Imagine a scenario where one human injects another human with a deadly toxin which causes that person to die. Is that murder? Well, it depends. If this was done by a gang member who wanted to knock off a rival gang member, then the answer would be yes. But, if this was done by an official at a federal prison who was authorized by the state to administer lethal injection, then the answer would be no.
On the surface, the two acts might look the same. But, everything comes down to whether the taking of life is properly authorized. The issue is not whether a life is taken, but how and why it is taken.
Let me try to draw all of this together. If every human deserves judgment (and we do), and if God is justified in taking a life whenever he decides to execute that judgment (and he is), and if God uses various instruments for that judgment (including human armies), then there is nothing immoral about the Canaanite conquest. Indeed, to object to the conquest would require us to object to all of God’s acts of judgment. Do we also object to Noah’s flood, or to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, or to the plagues on Egypt?
In the end, the conquest of Canaan remains a difficult and complex issue. And yet, if the conquest is viewed within the context of the Christian worldview, rather than from outside of it, then the objections quickly fade away. God’s judgment is just, even if we don’t fully understand it. And if we take that away, then we are left with something other than the God of Christianity.
Michael guertin says
Agreed. Thank you for glorifying God & His holiness.
Rick Adams says
Exactly. Well said. Thank you so much for your Biblical wisdom and words on a difficult but important topic.
Jeremy Burch says
When you said, “At numerous points throughout biblical history God “raises up” a human army to accomplish his purposes. And in the Canaanite conquest, God used the nation of Israel as his instrument of judgment.” I thought of some of the other instances as well. God raised up the Assyrians against the northern kingdom of Israel because of their sin. God raised up the Babylonians against the southern kingdom of Judah because of their sin. All of his judgments were just. Then the thought occurred to me, God raised up the Romans too, but this time against the Son of God. Not because he was a sinner, but because he took on our sin. And God smote him, through the Romans, for our sake.
According to the parables of the Wedding Banquet and the Wicked Tenants, God also raised up the Romans to destroy Jerusalem on behalf of his Son in AD 70.
Ron Felicia says
makes me think of WW2 and the awful things that happened to the Jews..however, isn’t it possible, maybe, that God was punishing them has He had in the past?? when they helped crucify Jesus they said to “let His blood be on us and on our children”..many times in history God used an “evil” king to enact judgment on His people..could it be possible that it was God who drove Hitler to pronounce judgement on the masses?? just a thought..just goes to this whole point that God is just no matter what He does or when He decides to do it..Matthew 20:15
“Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?” as painful as it can be, as disastrous as it may be, as cruel, terrifying or unfair it may seem to us, God has every right to do what He pleases with His very own creation..the created don’t get to make and/or set the rules for the creator..many things we’ll never understand..in the end I think we, as humans, make the mistake of putting too much emphasis on what happens to our physical existence which is just a blip in time..we’re warned many times in the scriptures to not focus on things that either are happening, or things that are coming on the earth..but to be praying always and walking in the spirit and setting our minds on spiritual things as opposed to things of the flesh..if we can learn to always remind ourselves of that then nothing that’s happened or will happen on this earth can derail us from this walk with God..and really if we truly believe and have accepted Christ and are filled with the Holy Ghost then in the end death is a gift, since Christ has already defeated “death” for us..
Yes. Our sense of justice and what is truth or wrong or right is very man centred as if we can cast judgment on God and as if we are somehow free of Him and His rule and innocents in all of this. What the world or even our own hearts at times puts in one basket belongs in two.
G. Lee Southard says
Really tough question but a very good answer. This is where the sovereignty of God comes it. God does what he wants for his own purposes. We fall in to the trap of trying to reconcile God’s action as though He was a member of our society. Since God created everything from outside of this creation He does anything He wants to it.
G. Lee Southard says
Really tough question but a very good answer. This is where the sovereignty of God comes it. Since God created everything God does what he wants for his own purposes. We fall in to the trap of trying to reconcile God’s action as though He was a member of our society.
Nicholas Perella says
This is good reading material to give for my next visit in prison ministry. Concise, meaty, and reality! Relating so much in Scripture to the fullest revelation of all – Christ Himself – and the work only He could accomplish.
Brian Phipps says
Thank you. This was helpful and well thought out.
I think a related issue is the disagreement among Christians as whether to label historic acts of war and violence as God’s Wrath or Man’s sin.
Historically, where the Bible makes it clear, it is simple. Outside of that guidance, it is not always going to be clear. We can risk being remarkably wrong when we are certain we know.
Nicholas Perella says
A very good circumspect point.
Thank you for a great answer, I have had this question asked of me numerous times, usually to finish an uncomfortable discussion about God. Much appreciated!
Am I following this correctly?
So victims of modern day genocide experience persecution because they are being judged for the sins? Even though this is an instance of humans carrying out murder for their own purpose?
Nicholas Perella says
I think Professor Kruger aptly already addressed in the last paragraph your questions, which are good questions.
He wrote, “In the end, the conquest of Canaan remains a difficult and complex issue. And yet, if the conquest is viewed within the context of the Christian worldview, rather than from outside of it…”
At times, I think there are assumptions the reader must already know in order to more tightly surmise our understanding so that we are not lead astray by our own wonderings. For example, God’s Word as written being authoritative is an assumption of the Christian worldview. So when we think through issues we should therefore always return to His Word for counsel on spiritual and ethic issues, including questions of just war and genocide. Brian Phipps said as much above. Professor Kruger implicitly noted where our answers to any questions should be coming from: a Christian worldview, as I quoted above, and he did explicitly, e.g. 2nd paragraph premises Deut. 20:17, so Professor Kruger is being Biblically exegetical in developing the main idea of the article. For Professor Kruger, such assumptions undoubtedly also include Reformed Theology, etc.
The Canaanites were being judged for their sin as a nation as it was very great. Scripture makes that clear. But in these last days (post revelation) just because something terrible on mass happens like genocide does not mean it is a specific judgement for specific sin but rather an outcome of mans sin. It also a bit like just because somebody or nation prospers well is not a sign that God is pleased with them. Ps 37. There are more things that come into consideration as nations rise, falter and fall.
Bryan A Piet says
I definitely agree white what what said however I do feel that the reality of God’s sovereignty in both the cannaanite conquest and the Holocaust was over looked. God used the cannaanite conquest to bring judgment upon sinful people but the Holocaust was something evil people did outside of the control of God ? Great answer that highlighted the Justice and holiness of God but I don’t see that it was NOT exaustive in this area and leaves some questions unanswered.
Daniel Thomas says
Thanks for shedding much crucial light on a very complex subject that has confounded both believers and non-believers alike
Great insight! Probably worth mentioning that anyone claiming to be the instrument of God’s lethal judgment today isn’t properly interpreting Scripture and is simply using Scripture as a cover for sin. Hard to say everything in such a short article, though.