What’s the Deal With God Killing So Many People In the Old Testament?

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My mom is reading through the Bible and recently she came to Joshua 6-8 and was prompted to ask a great and really important question: “Why is there such violence? God has the Israelites on the seventh day shout down the walls of Jericho and kill everyone. This is not the first or last time that killing has taken place in the Bible by God’s command. What am I missing?”

Hi Mom,

So, as you probably guessed, there are no easy answers to the question about wars in the Bible and God’s commands to wipe out entire populations of people. But I think there are three major, central biblical realities that we have to have in place in our minds before these wars make any sense whatsoever:

(1) No one deserves life; Everyone deserves only death.
There is no such thing as an “innocent” person in the grand scheme of things. Every single person who has ever lived only deserves death for their sin, according to Romans 6:23. This is an important corrective to our modern sensibilities. When we hear about people dying in war or in natural disasters, we tend to be outraged and ask questions like, “What did they do to deserve to die?!” But biblically a better question is to look around at all of the people who aren’t dying and ask with amazement, “What did we do to deserve to live?!”

Jesus once got a question that was very similar to the one you’re asking. Luke 13:4-5 records a bunch of people coming up and asking him about some people who had been killed when a huge tower collapsed and crushed them. They asked him, “Were they the worst sinners in Jerusalem?” And Jesus basically said, “No, they weren’t any worse. What happened to them is what everyone deserves, and it’s more or less what everyone will receive sooner or later unless they turn and follow me.”

All of that to say (harsh as it sounds to modern ears), all of the people who die in the Bible—whether they die through wars, natural disasters, natural causes, or by God’s own hand–all of them deserve to die, just like us. So there is no injustice on God’s part whatsoever when he orders the death of whole populations.

R.C. Sproul offers a helpful illustration. He says, “I once had a class in which students were late turning in a paper. Instead of giving them an F, I gave them an extension. For the next paper, even more students were late. Again, I relented and gave them an extension, but I told them that this would be the last time. For the last paper, even more students were late. This time I told them that they would receive an F. The students were outraged. They had taken my mercy for granted. They assumed it. When justice suddenly fell, they were unprepared for it. It came as a shock.”

We’re always shocked when God’s justice falls because he is overwhelmingly merciful to us in allowing us to live for another moment. The fact that we’re living at this very moment (despite our ongoing sin) points to God’s amazing mercy. We don’t deserve the breath we have in our lungs at this moment. The breath you just took—that one—you don’t deserve it. And neither do I. And the ultimate mercy, of course, is that not only does God spare us the death we deserve at this very moment, but he sent Jesus to die in our place so that anyone who would commit their life to following him would never really die, but would live with him forever.

(2) Idolatry is the greatest of all sin.
If we were to put together a “Top Ten” list of sins, we’d probably all arrange them differently, but I’m sure no one would leave out some obvious biggies: Murder, rape, slavery and child abuse would likely be toward the top. Maybe after that adultery, theft, dealing drugs, spousal abuse, and so on. But the fact is that the greatest evil in Scripture is idolatry—the worship of other gods besides the one true God. This is what the first commandment is all about: “I am the Lord your God… You must not have any other gods besides me.” (Exodus 20:2-3) Idolatry is the act of saying to the one true God, “You’re phony. This other god that I worship is the true god.” To tell God that he’s a phony is the greatest sin of all.

The people dwelling in Canaan at the time worshipped a variety of false gods. Now, keeping in mind what I said above, this added insult to injury. Not only did they already deserve to die (like we all do), they were every day committing the gravest sin–the act of giving worship to a god who is not the true God, and telling the one true God that he’s a phony.

Now, maybe it goes without saying, but this still happens all around us. And no, I’m not just talking about people who follow other religions. Lots of people who call themselves “Christians” aren’t even truly devoted to the one true God. Their “true god” is really money or comfort or pleasure or power, etc. And God would be acting within his justice to eradicate anyone who fits that description. But he sent Christ to forgive us and show us mercy, and to plead with us: Put away these other gods. None of them are worth your worship. None of them are worth giving your whole life to.

(3) The so called “holy wars” are over because Jesus is the new and greater dwelling place of God, not Israel.
In the first parts of the Old Testament, God was establishing the land of Israel as his “dwelling place,” where he would live with and among his people. He would be the “God who is with us” for Israel. For that to happen, the “holy wars” had to happen. Now, sometimes people ask me: “Well, what if God ‘tells’ someone to lead a Christian holy war again? The radical Muslims believe they’re in a holy war (jihad). Shouldn’t we be at war to take back Israel and the Middle East (not to mention America) for God?”

My response is that God will not say that. If someone claims to have been told by God to wage a holy war, they’re either crazy or they’ve heard wrong. And the reason I know that is because God no longer ties his “dwelling place” to a piece of land. Jesus is now the dwelling place of God. Jesus is Immanuel (which means, “God with us”). And as Jesus dwells in the hearts of his people by his Spirit he makes our own hearts the “Promised Land”; the place of rest for God’s people. So God couldn’t care less who lives on the hunk of land east of the Mediterranean. He doesn’t have much interest in real estate—until, that is, Jesus returns to claim the entire world as his own and declares, “the dwelling place of God is with man” again—in the most real sense (Revelation 21:1-4). So, there will be (or at least should be) no Christian “holy wars” until the end, when God finally lays waste to evil and sadness and death, and they cease to exist (Revelation 20). In the end, God wins.

Please feel free to respond and ask any questions about anything I’ve been unclear on. Thanks, mom!

Love,
B

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5 thoughts on “What’s the Deal With God Killing So Many People In the Old Testament?”

  1. Really great stuff PB. Thanks for putting this together!

    I’d only add that the movement from geography (carving out a chunk of soil to be with us) to relationality (being with us in Jesus) alone doesn’t explain the expiration of Divinely appointed warfare, because God theoretically could still justify violence/war as a means of forcing allegiance to Jesus (as some “Christians” throughout history have done) or drawing people to faith in Christ. God may very well draw people to Jesus through violence and war that takes place today, but something has changed. Ephesian 6 says that the battle has shifted to another realm, and that spiritual battle is now waged against the dark forces that seek to prevent humans from enjoying and sharing a mutual, loving, and peaceful relationship with Jesus and His world. So God still fights, and so do we. Our opponant is no longer human.

    1. Good points, Matt. My only (minor) push back would be that the “Ephesians 6 war” has always been happening. I assume that war was launched in Genesis 3 (or before). So the “Ephesians 6 war” was happening concurrently with the Canaan “holy wars.” So it seems that something has changed in God’s interaction with humanity, and I think the only explanation is Christ.

      Under the old covenant, people could be forced into (or out of) God’s covenant because the covenant was based on identifying with God’s people, Israel. But it’s not possible to force or coerce anyone into the new covenant because the new covenant is based on regeneration (i.e. “new birth”), confession of Christ as Lord and following him as our master. In short, faith. So could God “theoretically” justify violence/war as a means of forcing allegiance to Jesus? Unless God is interested in “allegiance” without conversion/regeneration/heart change, I seriously doubt it.

  2. Though wouldn’t you say that the old covenant was also based on faith and regeneration? Only, few people knew or understood that. “By faith Abraham…” and all that. The Old Covenant had the appearance of being entirely physical while the New Covenant revealed that it had always been spiritual.

  3. Brian,

    I think it is hard to think that we all deserve to die, but it is true. I do think that God looks at Israel with a special eye of Love. Certainly much prophecy is yet to be fulfilled in that chunk of real estate east of the Mediterranean.

  4. Thanks all this discussion. It’s interesting to think about what Ephesians 6 looks like before the Cross, especially when Satan was originally played an active role on God’s church council (the heavenly tsod). [I could insert a few jokes about members of my church council, but I’ll keep it holy here!]. Satan’s evolution into an archenemy of God happens throughout the OT and into the NT, and so it doesn’t appear to me that the “battle” in Genesis has the same, fixed shape (God vs. Devil; Angels vs. Demons) as it does even in Joshua or certainly in Ephesians. It seems that the battles expands and incorporates an ever increasing range of “evils,” starting with individual and then nation rebellion, and spiraling to global and then spiritual/demonic rebellion, as sin snowballs in the cosmos. I do agree that the Cross still marks the pivotal shift in the battle, where victory takes on a whole new meaning. That shift seems to be from law to gospel, flesh to spirit, and from establishing geographic lines to establishing a relationship with God through Christ. Thanks again for discussing and listening!

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