Kill 'em all, let God sort 'em out?

Today, a friend named Jake facebooked me this question:

From Today's English Version Good News Bible: Deuteronomy 3:3 So the Lord also placed King Og and his people in our power and we slaughtered them all.


Slaughtered seems a bit rough dontcha think? Why was God getting his people to be so violent and if it weren't God's intentions to be so gruesome dontcha think he would have stepped in?
Continued in that chapter verses 6 and 7 speak of having put to death men, women and children and then taking livestock and plundering the towns.

Something about that seems wrong. If it were huge sinners that God ordered to be killed that might be different, but then we probably wouldn't be taking their livestock because I would think them to be "plagued by the sin of their owners" or something of that nature.
So what's the deal?


My Answer:

Well, if you have a problem with that section of Scripture, just wait until the first half of Joshua! Holy Jihad, Batman!

OK, let me give you three interpretations that seem somewhat reputable to me of why Scripture sanctions jihad against the Canaanites (including King Og and others):

1. Scriptures like this are not history in the same sense as we think of history, and they suffer from what we might think of as "poetic exaggeration". So, when Scripture says they killed "ALL" of the Canaanites, it really means "they totally kicked their ass in battle". In this interpretation the only people that died were those directly in combat, and thus they were legit targets for death.

That ain't pretty, but war ain't pretty. And perhaps part of the passage is to show us that war ain't pretty (see #3 below as well).

The problem with this interpretation is that this text and the Joshua text seems to be saying something more: Namely, that by the command of God, the Israelites were doing "racial cleansing" and trying to get rid of a whole culture. Now, it is clear there probably was exaggeration involved (and they didn't kill everyone, and they even let some groups who helped them stay in the land), but it is also clear that this was done for more than just winning a battle. They were aiming to eliminate a whole culture, at God's command!

2. Perhaps this was a "mercy killing" either ordered or allowed by God. If Canaanite culture was half as violent and depraved as the Bible makes it out to be, it literally sounds like hell on earth. Perhaps God, in his foreknowledge and in his mercy knew what would happen if he let that culture keep perpetuating itself: It would keep breeding endless cycles of oppression and dehumanization.

So, with that said, God authorizes the Israelites to do a "mercy killing", to amputate this fatally sick society from the face of the Earth and replace it with something better. Sure, people would die violently in the process, but at least they would not die a long, bitter, dehumanizing death by growing up in Canaanite culture.

The problem with this is several:

(a) It seems to go against God's nature as Love, and his desire to save people rather than destroy them (cf. Ezekiel 33.11; 2Peter 3.9). Although, from a cosmic perspective, it could be an act of "tough love" to amputate a diseased culture.

(b) This sets a really bad precedent for jihad in God's Name in the future.

(c) It does not seem that, in the long run, the Israelite culture that replaced the Canaanites was any better. They repeatedly fell into gross immorality even worse than the Canaanites. Psalm 106 rails against Israel for being every bit as bad as the Canaanites they replaced. And, eventually, Israel was destroyed and exiled because of their sins, just as the Canaanites were.

3. It could be that God "commanded" the slaughter in the sense that he allowed it, or authorized it (rather than directly saying "You shall do this!"). In the Hebrew Bible, especially in the early parts, God is said to cause everything. And, in a primitive sense, God DOES cause everything, because he is the original cause of the entire universe.

But, as you move on through the Bible, we learn that God not only is the active cause of some things by directly doing them (such as miracles), but He is also the passive cause by allowing other free beings to choose something. So, in a primitive sense, God is the CAUSE of sin because He created a universe that is free to sin. But, in a more advanced sense of causality, God merely allows or permits sin, so that we can also be free to choose to love Him.

In this reading, God only passively allowed or authorized the Israelites to do jihad, and it was the leaders of Israel who interpreted this as God "commanding" them to do it. So, when God allowed the Canaanites to be routed, they interpreted this as a sign that "the Lord also placed King Og and his people in our power", and then they used that as the warrant to say God "commanded" the Israelites to "slaughter them all".

Why would God "allow" this to happen, and also "allow" his allowance to be interpreted as his "command"? I think He did this for two reasons:

(a) God knew that Canaanite culture was doomed anyway. If it wasn't the Israelites who destroyed them, it would be someone. If it wasn't external strife that destroyed them, they would devour themselves from the inside. So, God allowed them to be destroyed earlier rather than later, quickly rather than slowly. Like I said above: God allowed a mercy killing.

(b) The Bible not only shows us what pleases God, but it also shows us what displeases God (see Satan tempting Jesus in Luke 4). The Bible not only shows us people following God correctly, but also people using God's Name in vain to advance their own desires (read about the Kings of Israel sometime).

How do we tell the difference between whether the Bible is telling us something God APPROVES or something God DISAPPROVES? Well, sometimes the text tells us directly. Other times, we have to look at the long term effects of what happens in Scripture. When someone does something in God's Name in the Bible, and it causes good effects, then it is something God approves.

For instance, the Truth of Christ's life and message are validated in the long run by His resurrection, the outpouring of His Spirit, the spread of the Church, and [eventually] his second coming in power and glory.

In Acts, the Jewish Rabbis are discussing what to do with the Jesus Movement. One wise Rabbi says: "So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, IT WILL FAIL; but if it is of God, YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO OVERTHROW THEM-- in that case you may even be found fighting against God!" (Acts 5:38-39)

Thus, if someone does something in the Bible that God disapproves, then the long term effects will be failure, and it will not bring about the righteousness that God intends.

So, the question is: What were the long term effects from the racial cleansing of the Canaanites which God allowed? Did it bring about a lasting righteousness among God's people and a safe, peaceful land?

No. As Jesus said: "Those who live by the sword die by the sword". Read Psalm 106. The butcher of the Canaanites merely made Israel into butchers. They did not live out the Love and Justice required by the Law.

So, the second reason I believe that God allowed / authorized the jihad against the Canaanites was to show every generation afterward that JIHAD DOES NOT WORK in the long run. God's Kingdom simply cannot be established by force and coercion. Rather, it is only established by Love and Mercy and Humility (cf. Micah 6.8).

Jihad is ALWAYS a temptation to those in power to get rid of those they disagree with. God had to give us a warning, an object lesson, that this does not work. Every since Genesis chapter 4 God has been telling us that murder and hatred do not work to bring about His righteousness.

But God knows how barbaric we can be- especially when we are barbaric in HIS Name. So, God allowed, for a short time, His people to wage war in His Name. Not because He desired it, but because He knew that we needed to learn the hard way that it doesn't work.

And you will notice that after the book of Joshua, the Bible never again allows for "total war" to be unleashed without God warning His people that their violence will turn on them and destroy them in the long run.

So, ultimately, I think God is saying something like this through these passages:

"Look, it breaks my heart to do this, but I know you are a perverse and violent group of people who will only learn the hard way. So, I allow you to wipe out the Canaanites. If you don't do it, someone else will, because they are a culture even more screwed up than you. So go. Do this in my Name. But I warn you: This will not turn out well. The sword you take up will stab you in the heart. The violence you breed will come back on your children. The hatred you harbor in my Name will eventually make you even more wicked than the Canaanites, and I will have to allow you to be destroyed as well. But after you are destroyed, you will learn. And then you will call out for me to save you, and I will come. And when I come as a man, I will put death to death in my own Body, and then conquer it by my resurrection, so that you may finally live in faith, hope, and love."

So, that is what I think is going on in these passages. When you read them in light of the "big picture" which includes Jesus, it makes more sense.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.