By Hannah Brzozowski
One of the biggest questions for Christianity is: Why is God so violent? If you crack open your Bible and start to read the Old Testament. You'll find stories of war, bloodshed, and plagues. Just in Genesis alone, we see killing of animals for clothing, the first murder, a flood, and the selling of a brother into slavery. When we look at Exodus, we see the ten plagues put on the Egyptians and God even threatening to wipe out all of the Israelites just after freeing them from slavery. Leviticus is known for it's violent punishments for sin. Then later on in Deuteronomy, God commands: "Do not leave alive anything that breathes (Deuteronomy 20:16)."
This is a statement that has caused some to turn away from their faith or even, help turn others away from their faith too. After all, who could believe in a God that is so heartless? A God that would wipe out an entire people group?
I want you to imagine with me for a moment:
You are about to sit down to dinner with your wife and 2 children. One is six months old. The other is two. As you thank the gods for your meal, you suddenly hear screaming, clanking of swords, and rushing of horses outside your door. They've come. You've heard of this people. They say that their God commanded them to wipe you out. But you didn't think it would actually happen. As your children scream in terror, you quickly run over to barricade the door. But, a pair of soldiers manage to burst through. They scream "In the name of Yahweh" as they pierce your wife in the heart. One of them hesitates when they come to the children, cowering in the corner. But the other, encourages him: "It must be done." Just like that, they slaughter your children and now they're coming for you. This is it. This is the end (Idea taken from Gregory Boyd in Cross Vision).
Sometimes, the practice of putting yourself into familiar stories can show us a grim reality of heartbreak and chaos. These are not just words on a page. These are people that actually lived and died, like you and me.
After wrestling with this topic for years. I finally decided to do some research. I read books, watched YouTube videos, and read lots of articles. All the while, trying to understand why God would command this. While no theory is going to totally resolve the emotional challenge these stories present, I want to a few thoughts.
The first thing to understand in this story is about the Canaanite people. The Canaanites were living in the land that God had promised to the Israelites (the ones that are commanded to wipe them out in Deuteronomy). They had lived there for 400 years while the Israelites are enslaved in Egypt. 400 years of them taking over the land that was supposed to be for God's people.
The Canaanites were a very violent people. They would sacrifice their own children to their gods, trying to please them however they could. When it came to sexual violence, there was a ton, including: religious prostitution, sexual cults, incest and beastiality. They even bathed in blood and had violent slavery too. These were not your run of the mill people. They were very brutal to their own as well as to others.
When reading this verse, you probably thought: God told them to wipe everyone out so that's what they did. But we have to look closer. A lot of times in ancient literature, we find exaggerations. And this is most likely one of them, since they didn't actually kill every single person. For instance, we see in Joshua 2, the story of Rahab, a prostitute. As the Israelites were scouting out a city to take over, Rahab stepped in to help them. In exchange, they spared her and her entire family. She even married into the Israelite people and had a son named Boaz. Boaz married Ruth, who was the great grandmother of King David, a man after God's own heart, and ultimately in the line of Jesus. There is no evidence that God was displeased with Israel sparing Rahab's life, even though that appears to violate his command.
The Practical Need
Ancient people were much more nomadic than today. People moved around the earth and didn't really have set countries. Around this time, Kingships had started to rise up. Meaning that land with resources was beginning to be taken over. After the Israelites were let free from slavery, there were one million people that needed a place to live. That's a lot of people and not a lot of resources. Wherever they went, they would have had to force another nation out.
The Next Generations
This point is the most difficult to swallow and understand. When we look at the command to wipe out everyone, that included children. When we think of children, we think innocence. Some scholars believe that God was looking into the future of those children and seeing the violence that they would choose and instead, he decided to wipe them out. Other scholars believe that God was showing mercy to those children because of the child sacrifice that was happening. Thus, removing them from the terrible situation. Obviously, this is hard to understand because we can't see into the future. We just don't know what decisions someone will make, but God does (1 John 3:20).
Whoever you surround yourself with, you become like. The same is true with the Israelites. They were God's chosen people and were supposed to be an example to the rest of the world of how to live. How could they do that if they were next door neighbors with people who sacrifice their children? Odds are they would do the same. In Deuteronomy 20:18, it says: "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." God didn't want to lose his people to these other "gods." He cared about his people too much to put them in a position that they would be guided by the violent people around them.
When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace.If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies. This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby. Deuteronomy 20:10-15
When reading this passage, we clearly see an exception. Why is that? Why did God allow for the outlying areas to be spared? Because these areas were mostly filled with women and children. The cities were seen as military bases where soldiers lived (James Emery White, Outreach Magazine).
At this point in history, Israel was in a Theocracy, meaning God was the king. He was in charge and called the shots through his servant, Moses. So, these difficult decisions? He took them out of human hands. Instead, God, who is all knowing and just, told them who to destroy. Similar to the point about the next generations, this was a unique situation that doesn't happen today.
So, my imaginative exercise at the beginning, although heart wrenching, didn't tell the whole story. It didn't tell about the lack of resources, blood baths, or the child sacrifice. It didn't tell about the idea that that child might grow up to be the worst of them all.
Later on in the Old Testament, we see the Israelites still be influenced by their neighbors because they didn't follow God's plan. They are constantly in this cycle of going after other gods, being captured, repenting and then God rescuing them.
At the end of the day, our relationship with God (just like any relationship) is about trust. In these passages, we have to trust that God was in charge and he knew what he was doing. This isn't easy. I'd encourage you to ask God about these passages - wrestle with him about it. Ask him to speak to you more about them.
Ultimately, God sent Jesus to take care of all of this sin and to save all people, not only the Israelites. He did this by dying on the cross and rising from the dead.
If you'd like to get involved with Anchor Church or just know more, please email me: Hannah@anchorchurchil.com. I'd love to chat!