Is God cruel or loving?
People have trouble enough dealing with the dilemma of why an all-powerful and loving God allows evil. Yet the Old Testament stories make it clear that God, not only allowed but, was very much involved in the events recorded there.
One mistake people make when reading the biblical accounts is to assume that just because God permits something, He condones it. However, if God allows free will, it follows that people will sometimes choose to do things which are outside His will. Not everything which occurred during this period had God’s blessing. He often rebuked people for what they did.
Though that is true, to a certain extent it begs the question. The fact is that God often, not only condoned but commanded massacres and genocide. What kind of God would do that? What sort of God would sanction bloody civil war, the destruction and looting of defenseless villages and the forced marriages of captive women?
In light of the facts, many have concluded that the God we read about in the New Testament cannot be the same as the God we encounter in the Old. How can the God who loves so much that He sent His only Son to redeem mankind possibly be the same as the vengeful, vindictive and seemingly cruel God we read about in Joshua and Judges? For example, the founder of the Foreign Legion wrote, “...Yahweh (Jehovah) is the tribal god of the Israelites. ...By treating the threats and fulminations of Yahweh as the words of our God, we increase man’s misunderstanding of the divine Spirit. When we study the Gospels, we find much of the Old Testament to be at variance with the teachings of Christ.” (John Baggot Glubb, The Way of Love, Lessons from a Long Life, Hodder and Stoughton, 1974, pp. 111-115)
The problem with that conclusion is that Jesus, Himself, made it abundantly clear that the God of the Old Testament is indeed the same as His Father in heaven. For example, He said to the Jewish leaders, “...My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. Though you do not know him, I know him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and keep his word.” (John 8:54-55 NIV)
Nowhere did Jesus ever make a distinction between the Father, and the God of the Old Testament. On the contrary, He upheld both God and the Old Testament Scriptures. He said on another occasion, “...Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are gods’? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came – and the Scripture cannot be broken – what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does. But if I do it, even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.” (John 10:34-38 NIV)
Not only did Jesus clearly say that God is the same in both the Old and New Testaments, He said that His actions were identical to God’s. The Father was doing His work through Jesus. “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves.” (John 14:10-11 NIV)
Since Jesus does not allow any difference between the God of the Old Testament and that of the New, we who are Christians must also accept that He is the same Person. How then, can we reconcile the God of wrath and vengeance we read about in the Old Testament with the God of love and mercy in the New? The truth is that both these aspects of God’s character are revealed in both Testaments. The difference in perspective is that each Testament pertains to a different period of salvation history.
Life, An Inalienable Right?
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of God’s character to accept is His ordering the annihilation of whole peoples. To many, the death penalties imposed by the Law of Moses for some things which are widely accepted and practiced today are bad enough, but genocide? According to the Nuremberg Charter and other international criminal codes, that falls under the heading of “crimes against humanity.”
In the West, people have been deeply influenced by the United States Declaration of Independence which states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” To put it succinctly, they regard life as a right which cannot be transferred to another. No one has the authority to take life away from another. Many argue that even the life of murderers and other egregious criminals cannot be taken.
But is life really an inalienable right? Leaving aside the issue of whether capital punishment is ever appropriate, there is something which those who object to God’s commands to the Israelites to destroy other peoples, forget. There is a difference of degree between mankind and God. The same Declaration which proclaims that Life is an inalienable Right also says that the Right was granted by the Creator. If the Creator is the Granter then, by definition, He is outside of the grant or stipulation.
No doubt it is true that no person is inherently more worthy than another. No one has an innate authority to take life from another. By the same token, no one has the authority to give his life into the power of another. We can see the truth of these assertions in God’s statement to Noah after the flood. “And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man.” (Genesis 9:5 NIV) The same principle is endorsed in the Law of Moses in the commands against murder (Exodus 20:13, Deuteronomy 5:17).
However, there is another side to this. If the right to life comes from the Creator, then only the Creator has the authority to transfer that right or remove it. This means that though a person does not have authority over another’s life, God most certainly does. The Bible is clear and consistent that God is the One who gives life. “...the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7 NIV)
Our patent and copyright laws recognize the concept of intellectual property. An inventor or artist (and no one else) owns and has complete control over his invention or work of art. In the same way, if God is the One who grants life, does He not also have the right to take it or do whatever else He likes with it? The New Testament teaches that He does. “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath – prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory –” (Romans 9:21-23 NIV) What is wrong for man – depriving another of his right to life – does not apply to God. As the giver of life He is fully justified in taking it whenever He chooses.
James also upholds God’s right over life as well as the limit on man’s jurisdiction. “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you – who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:12 NIV)
God Is Consistent
Though God has the right to take life He does not do so arbitrarily. He does not destroy nations or peoples on a whim. On the contrary, throughout human history He has followed the same pattern. When God does destroy, He does so for cause.
1) God waits until people’s wickedness is so great that He has to act.
God does not want to destroy. “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23 NIV)
In Noah’s day, “The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. So the LORD said, “I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth – men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air – for I am grieved that I have made them.”” (Genesis 6:5-7 NIV)
Even so, God gave mankind 120 additional years to turn away from evil before bringing the flood upon them. The Apostle Peter writes that God waited patiently during that time (1 Peter 3:20). But the people did not turn from their evil.
God also waited 400 years to bring destruction on the Amorites. He told Abram, “In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” (Genesis 15:16 NIV)
Thus we see that the destruction of the Amorites during the Israelite’s conquest of Canaan was not something arbitrary. It was the consequence of their sin from which they would not turn away.
2) God gives opportunity to repent.
A mistake which many people make is to think that the peoples whom God destroyed never had the opportunity to hear the truth. How could they turn away from wickedness if they never knew anything better? But it simply is not true that people did not have the opportunity to know God and do what was right. The fact is that if people didn’t know, it was because they chose not to know.
For example, through Noah, Christ preached to the people who lived before the flood. They died, not because they didn’t have a chance to hear the message, but because they disobeyed it when they did hear it (1 Peter 3:18-20).
The entire earth was repopulated by the eight people who survived the flood. Every one of them knew the truth. They all knew about God. Yet most of their descendants chose to turn away from Him and embrace wickedness.
Even then, the nations which embraced idolatry still retained some knowledge of God. For example, during Abraham’s day, God communicated to Abimelech of Gerar in a dream (Genesis 20:3). Melchizedek was a priest of God (Genesis 14:18). God appeared to Laban (Genesis 31:24). Moses’ father-in-law was the priest of Midian (Exodus 3:1). One of the purposes of the plagues was so the Egyptians would know the Lord (Exodus 7:5) and the other nations would learn to fear Him (Exodus 15:14-16, Deuteronomy 2:25). Even Balaam communicated with God (Numbers 22:8 and following). Yet, in spite of all these witnesses and opportunities the nations, for the most part, did not repent and turn to God.
3) God always accepted those who did turn from their wickedness.
In spite of the fact that God decreed destruction for the people of Canaan, He still allowed all those who wanted, to enter into the Covenant. There is a long list of those who did so.
Rahab and her family turned to God and were spared from the destruction of Jericho (Joshua 6:25). She is in the ancestry of Christ.
Joshua 8:35 mentions the aliens who participated in the renewal of the Covenant at Mt. Ebal and Gerizim.
The Gibeonites entered into a treaty with the Israelites and became part of the community (Joshua chapter 9). Later, God punished Israel because King Saul violated that treaty (2 Samuel 21:1).
Ruth the Moabitess renounced her gods and entered the Covenant in spite of the fact that God had instructed the Israelites not to have any ties to that nation (Deuteronomy 23:3-6). She became the ancestor of king David and, therefore, Christ.
Uriah the Hittite is one of the best examples of faith, loyalty and dedication in all of Scripture (2 Samuel 11:7-17).
David purchased the land where the Temple was eventually built from Araunah the Jebusite who is another example of faith (2 Samuel 24:18-25, 1 Chronicles 21:18-26).
Men from Gath proved to be some of King David’s most loyal troops (2 Samuel 15:18).
4) People chose to reject God.
In spite of knowing about God, and the opportunities they had to accept Him, the peoples chose to reject Him. Since they would not accept the truth, no alternative was left but to allow them to reap the consequences of their decision.
The kings east of the Jordan river chose to fight Israel even though the Israelites tried their best to avoid conflict (Numbers 21:21-35).
The citizens of Jericho were fully informed about the plagues in Egypt, Israel’s victory over the eastern kings and God’s promises to the Israelites. Instead of responding like Rahab, they chose to reject and defy (Joshua 2:2-11).
The kings in southern Canaan chose to fight against Gibeon for making a treaty with the Israelites instead of following their example and seeking a treaty of their own (Joshua 10:1-4).
Instead of seeking a peace treaty, the northern kings of Canaan chose to fight the Israelites (Joshua 11:1-5).
The Philistines learned all about God when they captured the Ark of the Covenant. They got a graphic lesson about God’s superiority over Dagon. Yet, they still clung to their idolatry instead of turning to God (1 Samuel, chapters 5 and 6).
The Broader Picture
When looked at in context, there can be no doubt that judgment fell on the peoples of Canaan because they deliberately turned away from God. He destroyed them because they would not repent and turn away from evil though they were given every opportunity and all the time they needed to do so. In contrast, those who did seek God were spared, accepted and included in the Covenant.
However, there were other considerations which made the destruction of the people living in Canaan necessary. God was not only concerned about the people of that time but about all mankind in all times. Paul teaches us that even before the world came into existence God had a plan to redeem mankind (Ephesians 1:4-10, 2 Timothy 1:8-10). The plan would not only redeem those after Christ, but also all those whom God counted as righteous before Christ (Hebrews 10:3-12, 11:39-40). To bring that plan to completion, it was essential that the Israelites be kept separate and distinct from all others.
Why the Israelites? We don’t know all the reasons why. God doesn’t give us a complete answer. We can say this much that starting with Abraham, they were the lineage of faith. More people from them than any other branch of the human race sought and trusted in God. That in itself would have made them unique.
Though Scripture does not say this, I suspect that another reason God chose to bring His plan to fulfillment through the Jewish people is that they were the ones who kept the accounts of what happened. Though at one time all the peoples of the earth knew the stories of how God had created the universe, how sin entered the world, the flood and what happened afterwards, only the Israelites preserved them. All other cultures forgot the truth or distorted it with myth. In spite of all their rebellion, their flirtations with idolatry and their attempts to assimilate themselves into the surrounding cultures, a remnant always remained faithful to God and the Covenants. There was always someone who kept the record. Someone always kept the witness and testimony alive.
If God had not chosen the Israelites, He would have had to select another people to fulfill the plan. And, whether it was the Israelites or someone else, God had to keep them distinct and separate. One of the reasons, which is repeated time and time again, for annihilating the inhabitants of Canaan, is so they could not lure the Israelites away from the Covenant and, therefore, away from their part in God’s plan in redemption. For example, “When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations – the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you – and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands. But those who hate him he will repay to their face by destruction; he will not be slow to repay to their face those who hate him.” (Deuteronomy 7:1-10 NIV)
God Is Still The Same
God was fully justified in destroying the peoples of Canaan during the time of the Conquest and Judges because it was His right as the Creator, they would not turn from their wickedness and enter the Covenant, and it was necessary to fulfill God’s plan to bring salvation to all mankind. However, there is something we, who are accustomed to look at God through the lens of the Gospel, tend to forget: God is still the same. He does not change. The God who brought destruction upon the Canaanites is the same God who offers us salvation through Jesus Christ.
Throughout history the cycle is the same. God offers, mankind rejects, God waits patiently, God brings judgment.
While reading the Bible we need to keep in mind that different portions of it deal with different portions of the cycle. The aspect of God which is portrayed will vary depending on which part of the cycle is recorded. When we read the books of Joshua and Judges, we are looking at a judgment section of the cycle. Therefore, God appears harsh and vengeful. When we read the New Testament, we see the part of the cycle where God offers. There we see more of God’s love.
But God is still the same. Even in judgment we still see glimpses of His love. Even when He woos us with the offer of pardon through Jesus Christ we can still see glimpses of His severity. The aspect of God’s character we ultimately experience depends on us and how we respond to His offer of a covenant relationship.
What Kind Of People?
The Canaanite people experienced God’s judgment during the Conquest and time of the Judges. The Israelites experienced God’s judgment at the time of their Exile. Today, we are in another cycle. God has made His offer. He has presented the Gospel to us. We have the opportunity to enter Covenant through the sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf. Now God is waiting patiently for those who will respond. In the meantime, mankind continues to travel down the road of corruption and wickedness. One day, the judgment portion of the cycle will come again. Only this time, the judgment will be final. There will not be another offer. The final and complete sacrifice for our redemption has already been made. Another one will not be made.
The Apostle Peter sums it up this way: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. 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. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.” (2 Peter 3:9-14 NIV)
What kind of people are we, indeed? Are we at peace with God?
Note: Except for a few changes, this essay is excerpted from my book Conquest and Judges. You can buy a copy of the whole book by clicking on one of the links in the right panel.