Christian Struggles With Biblical Accounts of Genocide and “Holy War”

How do we explain God's command to slaughter the Canaanites in the Old Testament? I'm a Christian, but I have serious issues with the doctrine of scriptural infallibility, especially where the Old Testament is concerned. I'm particularly disturbed by the accounts of divinely authorized genocide and "Holy War" recorded in Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua. When the Israelites captured Jericho, the Bible says that "they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword" (Joshua 6:20-21). How could a gracious, loving God sanction this kind of slaughter? And how does all this fit in with the New Testament's message of love, compassion, and forgiveness for enemies?

At first glance, it does seem almost impossible to reconcile a passage like Joshua 6:20-21 with Jesus’ teachings about love for enemies, turning the other cheek, and laying down the sword. This issue isn’t easy to resolve. But it can be done if we’re willing to dig a little deeper. Let’s take a closer look.

Jesus preached a God of love and forgiveness. No doubt about that. But we have to remember that there was another side to His teaching. He never shied away from confronting His hearers with the terrible reality of God’s righteousness. Judgment and wrath were common themes with Him. As a matter of fact, He had more to say about hellfire and damnation than almost any other biblical concept. Matthew 13:41-42 is a good example: “The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Clearly, the God of Jesus is a God who does not tolerate sin and who is capable of executing fierce judgment upon the wicked.

This, generally speaking, is how Christian theologians have interpreted the Old Testament “ban” (Hebrew cherem). This term refers to God’s strict commandment to grant the heathen no quarter, to take neither prisoners nor spoil, but to destroy everything found in the cities of their enemies. Repulsive as it sounds to us today, this ruthless brand of warfare was not technically “genocide.” Not in the modern sense of the term. According to most biblical scholars, it was actually an expression of God’s judgment upon the Canaanites.

To say this another way, it was neither Joshua nor Moses but the Lord Himself who put the idolatrous nations of the Promised Land to the sword. This is perfectly legitimate from a strictly theological point of view. After all, God is the One who gives life. Accordingly, He also has the authority to take it away. His sentence was simply carried out by the agency of His chosen people, Israel. To quote one commentator, “The Canaanite civilization was so totally corrupt that coexisting with them would have been a serious threat to the survival and spiritual welfare of the Hebrew nation. Israel here is God’s instrument of judgment against those who refuse to honor Him.”

In the New Testament, we move into an era in which this type of judgment becomes unthinkable. Why? Jesus tells us in John 18:36: “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36).

The implication is plain. God no longer executes His judgment by means of the weapons of worldly soldiers. Instead, He punishes His enemies with the “sword of the Spirit,” which is His Word (Ephesians 6:17). That judgment will receive its final and ultimate expression when the true Bearer of the sword, Jesus Himself, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, returns to “strike the nations.” At that time He will “tread the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God” (see Revelation 19:11-16). Meanwhile, His followers are instructed to conduct themselves with love, humility, and forbearance toward unbelievers. As Christians, we are called to “live peaceably with all men,” and to “give place to wrath: for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:18, 19).

If you need additional help understanding these concepts, call us. Focus on the Family has a staff of pastoral counselors who would love to speak with you over the phone.


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