While sitting in a Dentist’s office I picked up one of the magazines and read,
“More problematic … are the disturbing images of God we find in parts of the Old Testament. At times, the Old Testament portrays a God who seems judgmental, vengeful, and capricious, sanctioning or even instigating excessive violence. One has only to think of the conquest recorded in Joshua and God’s command to “utterly destroy” the Canaanite nations (Deut. 7:2; 20:17). Or descriptions of God unleashing disease and death among his own people (Num. 21:6; 2 Sam. 6:7; Jer. 21:3-7). Or the psalmists’ prayers to God as the great Avenger who curses our enemies and heaps evil upon those who seek our downfall (Ps. 69:22-28; 109:8-15).”
I would suggest here that there is nothing disturbing in the slightest about the images of God we find in parts of the Old Testament when we begin with the premise that because of man’s sin, no man deserved anything but the wrath of God against sin. The shock really isn’t that God was demonstrably wrathful in the Old Testament to the point of excessive violence upon some people. The shock is that God wasn’t demonstrably wrathful in the Old Testament to the point of excessive violence upon all people. From Genesis to Revelation the wages of sin has always been death and God does no one wrong in the slightest when He gives what is deserved. It strikes me that often the character of God in the Old Testament is complained about most when people wrongly believe that somehow they deserve something better from God then violence, destruction, and death.
We must consider that all that blood flowing in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament flowed, in part, to demonstrate what the one bringing the sacrifice deserved. The question is not then, “why did God kill people in the Old Testament.” The question rather is, “Why didn’t God kill everybody in the Old Testament.” We should not be surprised by justice. We should be surprised by mercy and grace.
Keep also in mind that God was long-suffering towards the Canaanites that He eventually visited with just judgment. In Genesis 15, God speaks to Abraham and tells him that His people will go into captivity for 400 years. In Gen. 15:16 we read,
16 But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.
What is suggested here is that those God would eventually visit just judgment upon were a people God was yet being long-suffering towards. They had not reached the point yet where they were ripe in their sin and rebellion against God and God was being patient in the face of their iniquity. The curiosity then of this aspect of the Old Testament character of God is not that He eventually visited just penalty against Canaan but rather the curiosity lies in the incredible patience, long-suffering, and forbearance of God.
Before our outrage swells to high at the thought of God’s just judgment against Canaan let us keep in mind what a wicked place Canaan was. They were a people who burned their children in honor of their gods (Lev. 18:21), and practiced sodomy, bestiality, and all sorts of loathsome vice (Lev. 18:23, 24, 20:3). As a result the land itself began to “vomit” them out as the body heaves under the load of internal poisons (Lev. 18:25, 27-30). Talking about how mean God is in light of this is really an objection to the highest manifestation of the grace of God in keeping the infection of sin from spreading to His people. After all, Canaan is justly judged so as to prevent Israel and the rest of the world from being corrupted (Deut. 20:16-18). Allow me to suggest that only if God had not visited the just wage of sin upon the Canaanites could we talk about the scandalous character of the Old Testament God.
We should also note here that the just visitation of God’s judgment against His enemies is also intended to be read as a warning to the greater judgment of God against His enemies in God’s visiting the unrepentant with eternal punishment. So Canaan serves as a type that is answered in the anti-type of Hell, the subject of which is on Jesus lips more than any other New Testament figure.
In terms of God visiting His own people with wrath, again this is consistent with the New Testament where we learn that judgment begins in the household of God (I Peter 4:17). It could be said of Ananias and Sapphira that they were part of the Covenant people who in the NT God visited with justice. In terms of the God of the Old Testament being a “great avenger who curses our enemies and heaps evil upon those who seek our downfall, we read in the New Testament in Romans 12:9 in the context of speaking to Christians that “vengeance is mine; I will repay, said the Lord.”
Also we find the theme of vengeance struck in 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9
6 For it is a righteous thing with God, to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you,
7 And to you which are troubled, rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall show himself from heaven with his mighty Angels, 8 In flaming fire, rendering vengeance unto them, that do not know God, and which obey not unto the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, 9 Which shall be punished with everlasting perdition from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power
And finally the desire for vengeance is articulated righteously in Revelation 6:10 where we find the martyred saints crying with a loud voice, saying, How long, Lord, which art holy and true! dost not thou judge and avenge our blood on them, that dwell on the earth?
What we see here then is that the Character of God is consistent from the Old to the New Testament. When people find problems with the Old Testament God the problem generally is, is that they believe that somehow God is unjust for giving people what they have earned.
Another aspect we need to consider here is that while it is our moral duty to follow God’s revealed law, God Himself is not under the same moral duty we are. God does not issue commands to Himself and so He has no moral duties to us to fulfill. The point here is that while we are responsible to God and so must follow His Law God is not responsible to us. He does not answer to us.
As an example, God tells me that “Thou Shalt Not Murder” and so I may not take a judicially innocent life and to do so would be murder. But God has no such prohibition upon Himself. He can give and take life as He chooses. We recognize this at every funeral when we say, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away … blessed be the name of the Lord.” We all recognize this when we accuse some authority who presumes to take life as “playing God.” Human authorities arrogate to themselves rights which belong only to God. God is under no obligation whatsoever to extend my life for another second. If He wanted to strike me dead right now, that’s His prerogative.
What that implies is that God has the right to take the lives of the Canaanites when He sees fit. How long they live and when they die is up to Him. This is the right of ownership. God as Creator owns everything and everything is at His disposal to do with as He pleases. When He does so, it is not for us to question God (Romans 9:20).
So the problem isn’t that God ended the Canaanites’ lives. Some might contend that the problem is that God commanded the Hebrew soldiers to end them. Isn’t that like commanding someone to commit murder? No, it’s not. Rather, since our moral duties are determined by God’s commands, it is commanding someone to do something which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been murder. The act was morally obligatory for the Hebrew soldiers in virtue of God’s command, even though, had they undertaken it on their on initiative, it would have been wrong.
On divine command theory, then, God has the right to command an act, which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been sin, but which is now morally obligatory in virtue of that command.