Question: Hi Bob, In the Old Testament God commands the Israelites to destroy all the inhabitants living in Canaan as they go in to occupy the land. How do you explain this in light of the commandment given to them not to commit murder? This doesn't sound like a loving, compassionate God. Thanks in advance,
Response: The first thing I would like to say is that every believer has to understand that God's purpose is always for good, true good in every way. He wants everyone, every human being and angelic being, to be saved and to enjoy a blissful eternity with Him and our Lord Jesus Christ (Ezek.18:23; Matt.18:14; Jn.12:47; 1Tim.2:4; 2Tim.2:24-26; 2Pet.3:9). But He always wants us to want Him of our own free will. Ultimately, free will is what creature existence in time is all about. For whom will we choose, God or ourselves? In the case of the angels, this choice has already been made, and, sadly, many have chosen the devil instead of God and His Son. For human beings, salvation is the ultimate choice we face, but there are many other choices as well. As believers, we need to be very clear about God's complete and utter righteousness in all that He does or has ever done. Indeed, all that He has done and will do has been ordained by Him in eternity past, long before He ever brought the universe into existence by the hand of His Son. And those hands, those human hands, were nailed to the cross for you and me, and for every human being who has ever lived. God loved us enough to give us His own dear Son to die in our places so that we could escape the lake of fire and live forever instead in the New Jerusalem - if only we are willing.
Everything in life pivots around this central fact and the central person of history, our Savior Jesus Christ. There are many tragedies in life and in human history. The death of a loved one, a child, a murder victim - and many similar things - often leave us wanting to yell out "Why, God?!". This is always the wrong reaction, even if it is entirely predictable and understandable. Faith means, if it means anything, giving God the benefit of the doubt. He is pure good and He is pure love. Maybe what we see as horrible, as awful, as pointless loss, does have some point. It is just conceivable that we finite beings of exasperating ignorance do not understand everything that God understands. Certainly, the devil tells us that we understand well enough, and that maybe it is God who doesn't understand or who is being "unfair". But we know our God. We know that He is wisdom, and that He is justice. Furthermore, we know that not everything that happens in this life is His fault. Cain murdered Abel, not because God made Him do it. And God only "let him do it" in the sense that nothing can happen in life without His say so. But we know from scripture that what Cain meant for evil, God meant for good, and the sacrifice of "righteous Abel" still today stands witness to the justice of God, the love of God, and the wonderful nature of the faith of those of us who, like Abel, follow Him in spite of opposition, and that faith still speaks to us today in a way that it never would have if he had not met the famous fate he met (Heb.11:4). Now we may try to explain tragedies we find unexplainable. It says in Isaiah 57:1-2 that people don't generally appreciate that the righteous are often taken out of this sick world by a loving God to deliver them from pain and suffering. If we truly do believe that being with Jesus is better than a thousand days in the devil's wicked world (Ps.84:10), then we need to be careful about being too regretful when a fellow believer is taken home in victory. Enoch was "taken" because he walked with God, that is, not because of sinfulness but because he came to love God to an exceptional degree. We should take Paul's perspective and try to make it our motto that living is Christ - and dying is gain (Phil.1:21). It is very easy to lose this perspective in the angry, noisy give and take of life, but do we really want to be like Job, who, having endured so much unexplainable pain and suffering, in the end succumbed to just such self-pity when he did not see (and indeed could not see) that God was in fact paying him the highest possible compliment?
To return to your question, the short answer is to this apparent dilemma is that I don't consider the destruction of the Canaanites murder. There are a number of circumstances wherein the taking of human life is legitimate (i.e., self-defense). The real question here is whether or not this was legitimate, and ipso facto from the fact that God commanded it, it must have been. Murder is the worst of all crimes, because it takes away the free will of another person without any proper reason for doing so - and I truly believe that it is the issue of free will, the opportunity to choose for God and follow Him - that is the real point here. If, on the other hand, you intervene and kill a reprobate person to stop him from killing an innocent person, you have, it is true, taken away the free will of one, but you have preserved that of the other, and the very actions of the one killed prove that your action was completely righteous and justified.
Along these lines, it is clear from the Mosaic Law that while murder is prohibited, killing the enemy in combat (like capital punishment: e.g., Ex.22:18-20) is not murder (cf. Deut.20). Even in our secular law today, for example, we distinguish between manslaughter and first degree murder, just as the Mosaic Law does (cf. Num.35:6-34). I understand that you are not referring to combat deaths, but rather to the elimination of the idolatrous peoples of Canaan, so let me address this point in particular, now that we have established the background.
1. First, God was very serious about this. Saul, after all, was rejected from being king over Israel because of his refusal to obey God's command on exactly this point vis-a-vis the Amalekites (1Sam.15). Saul put his own sense of things before that of the Lord, and suffered the consequences.
2. In the same context where God commands the destruction of idolators among Israel - the same standard He uses for these idolatrous peoples - God also commands the Israelites not to oppress aliens and foreigners (compare Ex.22:20 with 22:21). Clearly, those who are not of Israel but who embrace the God of Israel, choosing to live among the Israelites and worship the one true God are blessed along with Israel, but those of Israel who reject Him are condemned along with the nations whose every action rejects Him.
3. The reasoning behind our Lord's commands to destroy the peoples of Canaan is very clear (cf. Deut.7:4). Failure to do so would be a snare of such terrible proportions that many in Israel would be led into idolatry and away from the Lord (and so would be condemned for all eternity along with those who seduced them).
So that the result of failing to comply with God's command might have meant a few short years for these corrupted peoples, but it would also have meant condemnation for those otherwise not condemned. God always in His mercy looks ahead where we cannot see and works things out for our protection and salvation - just as He did in this instance for His people, Israel. From the purely human point of view, we see people suffering and are moved. God understands the hearts of all, however, and knows very well who is going to choose for Him and His Son and who is not. In His great grace and mercy, He is not going to allow the reprobate to drag the elect down with them into condemnation. God is in the role here of One who intervenes to prevent the destruction of an innocent person's free will, and that is His ultimate purpose - just as in the example above we would be justified in stopping an attempted murder by equally deadly force.
In fact, the Israelites were not as zealous about carrying out our Lord's commands in this respect as they should have been, and it cost them dearly:
They did not destroy the peoples as the Lord commanded them, but they mingled with the nations and adopted their customs. They worshiped their idols, which became a snare to them. They sacrificed their sons and daughters to demons. They shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, and the land was desecrated by their blood. They defiled themselves by what they did; by their deeds they prostituted themselves.
4. Life is temporary, and what really counts is not the length or the quality of these few days we pass on this earth, but the eternal salvation (and rewards) to which we as Christians aspire. God gives all life (Acts 17:25), and as the giver of all life has the right to take it away as well. Indeed, all die in Adam as a result of His just judgment upon sin, and because of our universal sin we will not endure forever in these bodies and on this earth. Therefore whatever time we have is a gift from Him, and in each and every human life the issue is our response to Him and to His grace. There are many people (in fact the vast majority of mankind down through the ages) who are not at all interested in Him and who have rejected Him and His Son. Once this decision is forcefully and willfully made, the person in question is living on what amounts to borrowed time. It is only the grace of God that allows God's enemies (enemies by their own choice, for Jesus died for all) to continue in this world. As mere human beings, and particularly as followers of Jesus Christ, we respect all human life and do not undertake to end it lightly. We have this mode of behavior from our Lord Himself. In this case and in all other similar cases, past, present or future, we ought to trust to His wisdom, mercy and grace, and understand that He is Lord of all and can do whatever He pleases in this world He created. Without any question, all that He does is righteous and good (and could not be otherwise: Rom.3:4), so that if there is ever a question in our hearts, we must not "lean to our own understanding", but give Him who knows all the benefit of the doubt (especially since there is so much about time and circumstances that we will never know this side of eternity; cf. Rom.9:15).
5. So life and death are in God's hands - He will at the end consign all unbelievers to the lake of fire. It is the very basis of the devil's charge against God to impugn His righteousness by claiming that such judgment is inconsistent with His love (i.e., "how can a loving God ...?"; see the link: Satan's Rebellion and Fall), but God has shown His love beyond all question in the sacrifice of His beloved Son, and offered a way out for all who are willing. So then, those who are condemned by the will of God are really only condemned based upon their own free will - misused to abuse the grace of God and reject His love. This was certainly the case of the people of Canaan to a very large degree. Never has there been a more idolatrous, and anti-God, anti-good group of peoples (as can be seen from the subsequent conduct of those who were not destroyed). But remember, some did turn to God. Rahab was saved (and is in the lineage of our Lord Jesus Christ). The Gibeonites did go to great lengths to avoid the righteous destruction decreed against them, and, like Nineveh of later times, found compassion and deliverance.
So you see that, on the one hand, all judgment, condemnation and destruction that comes from the Lord is thoroughly just, and, on the other hand, all who turn to Him are saved and delivered by Him in His great mercy - just as are you and I, who though we deserved to die, yet we have been saved through the love and mercy of our God and the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ.
For more on God's Will and our free will, please see these links:
Faith: What is it?
Free will Faith and the Will of God
Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift! (2Cor.9:15; cf. Rom.11:33-36).