[Editor’s note: When this question came in to the web site, I was absolutely shocked to find that I had never posted an answer to this most basic of questions. So, I am publishing this as an article as well.]
While sharing my faith with a person of another religion, he was questioning me about why my God is so cruel to kill people when He is zealous.? I was going through Old Testament books and see lot of battles, killings etc.. I just want to be clear about what God want us to understand when we read about all of this killing, especially by Joshua, David, other Kings. Examples include Joshua 10 when the five kings were killed, and the total killing of Canaanites is suggested by God. Was there was no other ways other than wars for God? Sometimes I wonder why God made these kings to kill others.
I have taught a class many times titled “Answering the Hard Questions.” Here are some notes Hard Questions What you are asking is truly one of the hard questions. As a believer, surely we can understand why someone from outside our religion would find a rather blatant inconsistency between the Jesus of the New Testament who commanded that we love our enemies and that we go the extra mile and turn the other cheek (all from Matthew 5) and the God of the Old Testament who commanded the Jews to go into warfare and even to kill men, women and children. In fact, I assume that all thinking Christians, no matter how strong their faith, have come across this question and found it to be at the very least troubling, if not a downright challenge to their faith.
My first response, then, is “Good Question.” My second comment is that the biblical answer to this question is satisfying intellectually, but it is complex, and, besides, it does not remove the emotional part of the question. Even if we can provide an answer which is logical and reasonable, the emotional impact remains, as I am sure it did with the Israelites who were asked to carry out God’s commands.
Let me start by quoting from what may be the best example of a passage from the Old Testament which brings up your question. It is from 1 Samuel 15:2-3 “This is what the Lord of Hosts says: ‘I witnessed what the Amelekites did to the Israelites when they opposed them along the way as they were coming out of Egypt. Now, go and attach the Amelekites, and completely destroy everything they have. Do not spare them. Kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and donkeys.’”
Let us concede first of all that this is tough stuff! On an emotional level, it is hard to square this with Jesus who said that we are to love our enemies. How are we to square this in a way that allows us to still believe that the God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New Testament. I have a ten-part outline:
- If you are not bothered by this on some level, I am worried about you!
Let us admit up front that this is a difficult question.
- The argument assumes that physical death is bad/evil. This is a false assumption. Sin is evil but death is not. Death is a transition, hopefully, to something better.
Although the question brings with it great emotional impact because we are talking about people dying–actually, more than that–being killed, we should bear in mind that from God’s perspective, death is not evil. Death is not bad. Death of a human is the end of one thing, but the beginning of another. To God, the enemy is not death. To God the enemy is sin and rebellion. Death is an enemy to us as human beings, to be sure. In 1 Corinthians 15:26 Paul says that “the last enemy is death.” For us death is “bad” but not to God. I suggest you read 1 Cor 15:42-58 for God’s perspective on those who die.
- This is the Creator talking here. Like the father said to his kid: I brought you into the world, and I can take you out! God has every right to do as he wills.
As difficult as the scene of judgement in 1 Samuel 15 is, we need to bear in mind that God is the Creator of the entire universe and that, as our Creator, he also has the right to judge. He can do as he wills and, as Paul put it rather bluntly, “Who are you, O man, to talk back to God.” (Romans 9:20) Bottom line, it is God’s prerogative as Creator and ruler of the universe to pronounce judgement on whom he will. The modern, Western idea of Christianity talks a lot about the love of God, as it should, but we tend to cover up and ignore God’s holiness and his justice. God did say, as recorded in the New Testament, “Vengeance is mine: I will repay.” (Romans 12:19)
- God has a perfect right to judge.
Well, I already started on this point, but let it be repeated. God is righteous, he is powerful, he is just and he is good. If he says it is time for judgment to come on the Amelekites, no matter how hard this is for us to swallow emotionally, God has a right to judge those he created.
- There is the issue of the religion of the Amelekites. Sacrificing of children, worshiping gods by having sex with a prostitute in the temple, etc.
The religion of the Amelekites was beyond bad. It was absolutely disgusting and an abomination to everything which is good. They sacrificed their own children to Chemosh by throwing them into a fire. They worshiped Baal by having sex with a prostitute in the temple complex and more things which are horrifying and which surely God had a right to bring these things to an end.
- The situation for the children in this situation was hopeless.
Here I am addressing what may be the most “disturbing” aspect of the mass killing in Amelek. Presumably, even small children were killed. We should bear in mind that children who are innocent, will be with God forever after they die. Besides, what chance did these children have in such a society to grow up to become God-fearing, God-loving adults with the kind of ethics and morality which might eventually qualify them to spend eternity with God? Probably it was about zero. The tragedy for these children was not that their lives were taken but what would have happened to them if they grew to adulthood among the Amelekites.
- In the case of Amelek and other Canaanites, both God’s love and his justice demanded that something be done.
God’s love for humanity and his desire that the mass of humans have a chance for a relationship with him demanded that something be done. And, God’s holiness and justice demanded that something be done. If we go back to Exodus, God told Israel at that time that the sin of Amelek had not yet reached the point that it was time to judge, but by the time we get to 1 Sam 15, the time has come. (Genesis 15:16 is an example of this concept) God is extremely patient, but when the sin of a people reaches full measure, He comes in judgment.
- Either God was going to create a nation or he was not. If God is going to have a “people,” then such people must have a physical land and must have an army. God’s plan was to choose a man, then a nation, through whom to send a savior. God’s plan to bless humanity through Jesus trumps all else.
By our modern standards, what God had to do in order to give his people a place is something which we would find hard to accept, but it was a violent world back then and in order for God’s people to have a place they had to have the ability to defend it. Bottom line, God’s plan to save all humanity included his choosing a place for his chosen ones. Although I find this plan not to fit well with my modern sensibilities, I do not feel it is my place to question God about his plan to save humanity from destruction. It involved fighting physical battles to gain a physical place. We fight spiritual battles, not physical ones, and our enemies are spiritual, but for Israel there was a physical place and there were physical enemies.
- It is sinful to take the life of another in anger, out of greed or selfishness, but it is not necessarily sinful to take a life in war.
Did God ask the Israelites to sin? I say no. Although Christians generally would not choose to be soldiers, as this is not an appropriate job description for a Christian, warfare is not necessarily rebellion against God and taking the life of another in war is not murder. What he asked the to do was difficult and even traumatic, but it was not sinful.
- Everything God did to Israel as a nation was to limit their ability to wage war.
a. They had no authority to establish an empire or even to expand beyond the Promised Land.
b. They had no standing army and their ability to wage warfare was always to be extremely limited
c. They were not allowed to go on offensive wars, to raid their neighbors, or to do any of the things all other nations did in ancient times.
d. The were not to torture, rape or treat inhumanely those they captured. Those taken as slaves were to be freed at the Jubilee year.
God only allowed very limited warfare, and only so as to achieve the final end, which was to create a people with a place, prophets and a Law to whom to send the Messiah. The Jews were the best enemy one could have in warfare. This alone does not solve the problem raised by this question, but it certainly mitigates it.
More can be said, and I suggest you consider getting a copy of Paul Copan’s book “God is not a Moral Monster.” He is quite thorough in covering this topic.