This article is from Issue 53: Sept/Oct 2011

Reconciling the God of Love With the God of Genocide

How could the God of the Old Testament and the New Testament be the same?

My wife, Shannon, and I were on a date recently, and we ended up chatting with our server. He finally turned to me and asked, “So, what do you do?”

I told him, “I teach the Bible, mainly the Old Testament.”

“The Old Testament—isn’t that where God smites people and destroys cities?” he asked. “Not exactly, but I get that question a lot because the God of the Old Testament has a bad reputation,” I said. Everyone loves the New Testament God. He’s the one who sends His son to die on a cross for humanity’s sin. But do Christians really love the God of the Old Testament? Perhaps no part of the Bible gives God a worse reputation than His command to utterly wipe out the Canaanite residents of the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 20:16-18; Joshua 10:40; 11:10-15). How do we reconcile a loving God with a God who seems to command genocide?

It’s not just atheists or agnostics who ask these types of questions, but even committed Christians wonder what God was thinking when He commanded His people to wipe out another nation. (And if we aren’t wondering, we should be.) Adolf Hitler attempted to do something similar with the Jews during WWII with his “Final Solution” and he’s in the running for the Worst Person of All Time award. So ... is God Hitler-esque?

Often Christians are too quick to downplay biblical problems like these and make people who ask questions feel like they’re not taken seriously or even belittled, as if it were wrong, disrespectful or irreverent to ask about God’s behavior.

Personally, I think the Canaanite conquest raises not only a valid question but an important one. As someone who loves the Old Testament and the God it portrays, I find the Canaanite problem deeply troubling. While I may go to my grave still struggling over this issue, there are some good arguments that can help people understand why a loving God would command the destruction of the Canaanites.

Two Arguments That Don't Help

I’ll start with two arguments that are often used to explain the Canaanite conquest but don’t help since they don’t actually address the problem. One argu- ment may be more attractive to liberals, the other to conservatives, but neither takes the biblical text very seriously.

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