Did God order genocide?
In my house we have the strangest children’s Bible. It has only two pages in which to cover Israel’s forty years in the desert, so it places the Sixth Commandment – “You shall not murder” – on the same page as God’s order to annihilate the Canaanites. When I recently read those pages to my children at bedtime, my four- and six-year-olds started laughing and assumed that I was playing a trick on them. “Stop it, Daddy. Read it properly!” they objected. But I was reading it properly. That causes me a problem.
Frankly, it should cause you a problem too. The Americans and Soviets agreed on virtually nothing in the year of the Berlin Blockade, but even they found common ground to assert together that year that “genocide is a crime under international law, contrary to the spirit and aims of the United Nations and condemned by the civilised world.”1 How can God therefore order the Israelites to annihilate whole nations and see this as an important part of him being seen through his People? As the story of the Pentateuch turns towards the conquest of the Promised Land, we cannot simply ignore the question which provoked Richard Dawkins to assert that “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: … A vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser, a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”2 Thankfully Moses, himself a genocide survivor, foresaw this objection and answers it head on with some commentary in Deuteronomy 7. Why did the Lord order Israel to wipe out the indigenous inhabitants of Canaan, and what does this tell us about his character?
Moses explains in Deuteronomy 7:1-6 that this was simply the outworking of the Lord being God-the-Holy-One. When we object to the judgment which the Lord decreed for the Canaanites, Amorites and Midianites in these final chapters of Numbers, we simply prove that we have not yet fully grasped the message of Leviticus that sin is deadly serious. We forget that these people groups were gang-rapists, baby-murderers, drunkards, idolaters and incestuous sexual perverts.3 The Lord tells us in Leviticus 18 that such practices defiled the Promised Land, so he ordered the Israelites to perform a spiritual spring clean. This was not ethnic cleansing, as is demonstrated by the opposite fates of Rahab and Achan in Joshua 7. Rahab the prostitute converts to Yahweh and is saved, whereas Achan the Hebrew chooses idols and must die. The Lord wants us to be shocked by the annihilation of the sinful Canaanite nations, because it is a picture of a greater Judgment Day which is coming to the whole world. Unless we repent of our objections and turn away from sin, we will have an even greater problem with God-the-Holy-One when he comes to end world history with fire.
Moses tells us in the rest of Deuteronomy 7 that this was simply the outworking of the Lord being God-the-Indweller. We tend to forget how easily the Israelites were led astray, like an insecure teenager caving in quickly to peer pressure. They worshipped Canaanite idols before God took them down to Egypt, then swapped them for Egyptian idols during their years of slavery. They even started worshipping Moabite idols during the few days they spent camping near Moabite territory in Numbers 25!4 “Do not defile the land where you live and where I dwell, for I, the Lord, dwell among the Israelites”, the Lord warned, and then told them that they would find this command harder to obey than they imagined. Their only hope of steering clear of pagan idolatry was to “destroy all the peoples the Lord your God gives over to you. Do not look on them with pity and do not serve their gods, for that will be a snare to you.”5
That’s why Moses also tells us in Deuteronomy 7 that this was simply the outworking of the Lord being God-the-Faithful-One. We must not forget his statement in Deuteronomy 7:9-10 that there are two aspects to the fact that “the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God”. We tend to be happy that it means “keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him”, but rather less comfortable that it also means that “those who hate him he will repay to their face by destruction”. Remember that this problem was much closer to home for Moses than for us, since he was married to a Midianitess and had lived for forty years in Midian. We cannot fathom the depth of his agony in Numbers 31 when the Lord tells him to slaughter the Midianites who had rejected the Gospel preaching of Jethro, the Lord’s missionary-priest to their nation.6 His own sons were half-Midianite, and he had no doubt preached Yahweh in the Midianite language himself, but he knew that those who reject God-the-Saviour must ultimately encounter him as God-the-Judge. “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief.”7
Perhaps that’s why Moses is sure to fill these chapters of judgment with plenty of reminders that the Lord is God-the-Saviour. God forbids the Israelites from fighting the Edomites in Numbers 20, despite their rudeness, because he still had plans to save many of Esau’s descendants in the future. He forbids them from fighting the Moabites in Numbers 21, because he had similar plans to save many of Lot’s descendants too.8 He only commands them to destroy the Amorites after they choose to respond aggressively to Israel’s kind overtures, and he only tells them to destroy the Midianites in Numbers 31 when they conspire with King Balak of Moab to corrupt God’s holy People. Before we complain about these chapters of fierce judgment, we should note the inclusion of Hobab the Midianite, Rahab the Canaanite and Ruth the Moabitess among God’s People.
Seven centuries earlier, the Lord had told Abraham in Genesis 15:16 that “the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure”. As we read how he finally judged them when they failed to repent, we must not shrink back in embarrassment or complain against the Lord. This judgment is what it means for the Lord to be God-the-Holy-One, God-the-Indweller and God-the-Faithful-One. If anyone ignores his tender message that he is God-the-Saviour, then they will reap his fierce destruction when he comes as God-the-Judge.
This chapter is taken from Phil Moore’s new book “Straight to the Heart of Moses”, published on 1st July. To read more chapters, go to www.philmoorebooks.com
- 1 Quoted from the UN General Assembly’s Resolution 260 against genocide in December 1948.
- 2 Richard Dawkins in “The God Delusion” (2006).
- 3 For example, Genesis 19:4-9&30-38, Leviticus 18:1-30 & 20:1-6, and Deuteronomy 9:5. God wants us to feel the same horror against these sins as Phinehas in Numbers 25:6-13. Tolerance is not always a virtue.
- 4 Genesis 31:19 & 38:15&21, Numbers 25:1-3, Joshua 24:14 & Ezekiel 20:7-8.
- 5 Numbers 35:34 & Deuteronomy 7:16. See also Numbers 33:55-56.
- 6 Exodus 2:15-22 & 18:1-12. Even so, Moses told the soldiers in 31:14 to go even further in their slaughter than they intended. He understood that compromise would lead to the situation of Judges 6:1-2.
- 7 2 Peter 3:9-10.
- 8 Deuteronomy 2:5, 2:9 & 23:7-8 and Ruth 1:4&15-17.