HOW COULD GOD DO THAT?
Questions often asked by Christians, and even non-believers, when studying the Old Testament is: How could God be so cruel and violent? Jesus taught that God is loving and forgiving. Is the Old Testament God the same God Jesus taught about?
It can be confusing and disturbing, in light of what we understand about Jesus, to read how God’s people destroy everything and everyone in the cities they conquer. In the Book of Joshua we read, “As the horns blew, the people began to shout. When they heard the signal horn, they raised a tremendous shout. The wall collapsed, and the people stormed the city in a frontal attack and took it. They observed the ban by putting to the sword all living creatures in the city: men and women, young and old, as well as oxen, sheep and asses” (Joshua 6:20-21). The Scriptures are clear that the “ban,” the order to kill everyone and everything, is a command that comes from God Himself: “But in the cities of those nations which the LORD, your God, is giving you as your heritage, you shall not leave a single soul alive. You must doom them all – the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites – as the LORD, your God, has commanded you, lest they teach you to make any such abominable offerings as they make to their gods, and you thus sin against the LORD, your God” (Deuteronomy 20:16-18).
How could God’s people do such things? How could a loving God order them to do such things? Part of the answer to this difficult question lies in the reason God gives Israel for killing all of the people of the tribes in the land they are about to occupy. God is concerned that the sin of these people will infect the people of Israel, and they will turn to worship false gods and believe false teachings. These people practiced idol worship, temple prostitution (that is, they turned prostitution into a form of worship of their god), and even sacrificed children to their gods, among other horrible sins. Sin is infectious. The sins of people have a way of infecting those around them, so that soon everyone in the community is accepting behaviors that the Lord finds abominable, or everyone starts worshipping gods other than the one, true God.
Often, when Israel entered a territory, they would start intermarrying with the locals who worshipped other gods and practiced these terrible sins. This is what proved to be the downfall even of the great King Solomon:
“King Solomon loved many foreign women besides the daughter of Pharaoh …, from nations with which the LORD had forbidden the Israelites to intermarry, “because,” he said, “they will turn your hearts to their gods.” But Solomon fell in love with them. … “When Solomon was old his wives had turned his heart to strange gods, and his heart was not entirely with the LORD, his God, as the heart of his father David had been.” 1 Kings 11:1-4
As Christians, we rightfully emphasize the mercy of God. Doubtless this is partly because we are all too aware of our own sins, so we hope for God’s mercy on us. But God is also just. He will punish those who turn from Him, and who commit horrible crimes against Him and His people. The Book of Exodus tells of one of the encounters between God and Moses on Mount Sinai: “Having come down in a cloud, the LORD stood with him there and proclaimed his name, ‘LORD.’ Thus the LORD passed before him and cried out, ‘The LORD, the LORD, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity, continuing his kindness for a thousand generations, and forgiving wickedness and crime and sin; yet not declaring the guilty guiltless, but punishing children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation for their fathers’ wickedness!” (Exodus 34:5-7). Sin must be punished, as a matter of justice, because sin affects not only those who commit sin, but those around them and those who come after them, as this verse demonstrates. The order of things must be set right, and God is the One Who will do it. This does not change with the revelation of Jesus. Recall that Jesus will be our Judge, and that He will separate those who are faithful and those who are unfaithful, as He separates the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:31-46).
That God is our Judge is cause for rejoicing. If any man or woman were our judge, we would be condemned in a heartbeat. It is because God is our Judge that we have hope for eternal life. The Letter of James advises: “So speak and act as one who will be judged by the law of freedom. For the judgment is merciless to one who has not shown mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:12-13, emphasis added). God sees everything (“The eyes of the LORD roam over the whole earth, to encourage those who are devoted to him wholeheartedly” 2 Chronicles 16:9a), and He is merciful (“But if the wicked turns away from all the sins he committed, if he keeps all my statutes and does what is right and just, he shall surely live, he shall not die. None of the crimes he committed shall be remembered against him; he shall live because of the virtue he has practiced. Do I indeed derive any pleasure from the death of the wicked? says the Lord GOD. Do I not rather rejoice when he turns from his evil way that he may live?” Ezekiel 18:21-23). We see in these words of Ezekiel God’s desire to forgive. The “ban” was a temporary law. Already in the words of the Lord given to Elisha when the Arameans were defeated by Israel, we see a different approach to the Lord’s enemies. Instead of killing them, Elisha commanded the king of Israel to feed them. After having their full of the great feast, the Arameans never attacked Israel again (2 Kings 6:21-23).
For Christians, Jesus is the One to Whom we turn for guidance on matters of respect for human life. Jesus is the One Who gives life to whomever He wishes, and Jesus is the One Who is given authority for judgment (John 5:21-22). Jesus is clear: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun to rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:43-45). The Father gives gifts of sun and rain to both the good and the bad. We are to imitate the Father: “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
In his Letter to the Romans, Paul gives us a strategy for addressing evil. Rather than killing off the evildoers, Paul exhorts us to conquer evil by doing good. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil; be concerned for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, on your part, live at peace with all. Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ Rather, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.’ Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good” (Romans 12:17-21).
Perhaps we should be less surprised that God punishes those who sin against Him and refuse to repent, and more surprised, and thankful, that God proves to be so merciful to those who sin against Him and do repent. “All have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God. They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24).
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.