The fact that God commanded the killing of entire nations in the Old Testament has been the subject of harsh criticism from opponents of Christianity for some time. In fact, I have a few atheist friends who refer to God as “a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser and murderer.”
But are these criticisms valid? Is God a “monster” who arbitrarily commands genocide against innocent men, women, and children? Was His reaction to the sins of the Canaanites and the Amalekites a vicious form of “ethnic cleansing” no different from atrocities committed by the Nazis? Or is it possible that God had morally sufficient reasons for ordering the destruction of these nations?
Let’s take a closer look. God commanded Saul and the Israelites, “I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys” (1 Samuel 15:2-3). God also ordered similar killings when the Israelites were invading the Promised Land: “In the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them — the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites — as the LORD your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 20:16-18).
Why would God have the Israelites exterminate an entire group of people, women and children included? Unlike us, God knows the future. He knew what the results would be if Israel did not completely eradicate these evil people. God did not order their extermination to be cruel, but rather to prevent even greater evil from occurring. In commanding the Israelite attack on the Canaanites, God enacted a kind of corporate capital punishment on a people who were deserving of God’s judgment. It was not ethnically motivated.
The Canaanites were known to engage in bestiality, incest, and even child sacrifice. Deviant sexual acts were the norm. They were an aggressive culture that wanted to annihilate God’s chosen people. Israel was God’s instrument of judgment against the Canaanites, who were evil, almost beyond what we can imagine today: “Every abomination to the LORD which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods” (Deuteronomy 12:31). Their utter annihilation was commanded to prevent Israel from following in their ways: “Lest they teach you to do according to all their abominations which they have done for their gods, and you sin against the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 20:18, 12:29-30).
Probably the most difficult part of these commands from God is that He ordered the death of children and infants as well. Why would God order the death of innocent children? Because they would have grown up as adherents to the evil religions and practices of their parents. We must remember that the Canaanites were a barbarous and evil culture. If those infants and children had lived into adulthood, they would have turned into something similar to their parents… or worse! Surely the issue of God commanding violence in the Old Testament is difficult, but we must remember God sees things from an eternal perspective, and His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9).
The Apostle Paul tells us that God is both kind and severe (Romans 11:22). It is true that God’s holy character demands that sin be punished, but His grace and mercy remain extended to those who are willing to repent and be saved. The Canaanite destruction provides us with a sober reminder that while our God is gracious and merciful, He is also a God of holiness and wrath. It must be remembered that God gave the Canaanite people more than sufficient time to repent of their evil ways—over 400 years (Genesis 15:13-16)! But the Canaanites were “disobedient,” a phrase that implies moral culpability on their part (Hebrews 11:31).
The Canaanites were aware of God’s power (Joshua 2:10-11, 9:9) and could have sought repentance. The example of Rahab and her family is a sure proof that the Canaanites could have avoided their destruction if they had repented before God (Joshua 2). Always, God desires the wicked to turn from their sin rather than die (Ezekiel 18:31-32, 33:11). Until the final judgment, there is always mercy to be found!