The escalation of evil around the globe gives rise to many questions in the world of men. Why does God allow genocidal atrocities, suicide bombers, barbaric dictators and ‘natural’ disasters to happen in the first place? Is God a moral monster? (The title of Paul Copan’s book that seeks to make sense of our God in the Old Testament). The New Atheists of our day are proclaiming that God is a cosmic child killer, a bully, and a ruthless murderer. A plethora of books in recent years have leveled many such accusations to the Creator God of the Bible, so it’s important that we seriously look at these things.
Why would God command Israel in Joshua 6:21, to exterminate the entire population of Jericho: men, women, and children? Numerous attempts have been made to deal with this. There is no escaping the fact that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ ordered and sanctioned the extermination of the Canaanite people. Why? How could such a God be worshiped and adored? We read about the “ban”, a word that literally means “to separate”. This was the practice in which people hostile to God were designated as “off-limits” to Israel and were to be separated or devoted to judgment and destruction. (See Joshua 6:17,18,21). Why? How do we explain this? If such were to occur today, Israel would be called before the World Court or the United Nations and charged with barbaric cruelty, unprovoked aggression, and would no doubt be condemned and isolated, perhaps even invaded by other nations. Before we begin with any kind of answer, we must make a few observations.
Israel was not commanded to do this because of any moral superiority. (See Deuteronomy 9:5). Indeed, the same fate was threatened against Israel if she were to rebel (Deuteronomy 8:19-20). The Canaanites were the most depraved, debauched, degenerate people of the ancient world. They regularly engaged in religious prostitution in which people fornicated with cult priests and priestesses, hoping thereby to encourage the gods to copulate and bring fruitfulness to the land. They practiced child sacrifice, as infants and young children were sacrificed to the fire of the god Molech. They also gave themselves over to the sexual sins listed in Leviticus 18. Thus, the Canaanites received everything they deserved. They received justice, Israel received mercy, but no one received injustice. The judgment came only after remarkable and gracious patience and opportunity for repentance. (See Genesis 15:16). God had given the people in Canaan centuries to repent! But they presumed on God’s patience and took it as indifference and indulged in even greater sin. (See Joshua 2:10-14; 5:1; Jeremiah 18:7-10). The survival of both Israel and the world was at stake because of the pervasive and perverting influence of such sin. (See Deuteronomy 7:1-4). We know, in fact, that on those occasions when Israel did not obey God’s order to exterminate the Canaanites, the latter polluted the former. The kings of Judah practiced child sacrifice (2 Kings 16:3; 21:6). Sexual perversion was rampant (2 Kings 23:7). Israel practiced magic and necromancy (2 Kings 21:6), and even murdered the prophets (Jeremiah 26:20-23). Other examples could be given. The point is this: God as the physician of mankind occasionally finds it necessary to amputate a leg that is gangrene in order to save the rest of the body. Think of the flood of Noah! There we see the extermination of virtually the entire human race because of their sin, with the exception of eight souls. What God did in Canaan and Jericho is no different from He at other times does through providential disasters such as famine, floods, pestilence, tornados, earthquakes, etc. Why do we object to God doing during history what we agree He will do at the end of history? If you think what God did at Jericho was unjust, what will you do with hell?
Many, though, are still uncomfortable because it is assumed that all people have a fundamental right to life which even God Himself must honour. We must distinguish between the “right to life” referred to in the pro-life movement and that which I describe here. No human has the right to take another human life unlawfully. The unborn child has a right, under law, to protection from murder. When a fetus dies from spontaneous miscarriage, we don’t charge God with murder. Life belongs to God, not to man. When God gives life, we can’t take it, but God can do with life whatever He pleases. So we ask: “How could a just and loving God cause the extermination of innocent people in Jericho?” Answer: “He couldn’t! He didn’t!” The fact is, not one innocent person in Jericho died. (See Genesis 18:23-25).
Let’s illustrate this point by directing our attention to the reality of the Old Testament death penalty. In the Mosaic code, people could be executed for adultery, blasphemy, incorrigible juvenile delinquency, breaking the Sabbath, homosexuality, rape, just a few of the specific crimes for which one would suffer loss of life. But contrary to widespread perception, the Mosaic Law actually represents a massive reduction in capital offenses from the original list. As R. C. Sproul puts it, “the Old Testament code represents a bending over backwards of divine patience and forbearance. The Old Testament law is one of astonishing grace” (The Holiness of God, p.148). The original law of the universe is that “the soul that sins, it shall die.” Life is a divine gift, not a debt. Sin brings the loss of the gift of life. Once a person sins he forfeits any claim on God to human existence. The fact that we continue to exist after sinning is owing wholly to divine mercy and gracious longsuffering. We recoil and are aghast at what we are convinced was undue cruelty and severity in the Old Testament law. Why? Because we are twisted and confused in our thinking. We think we deserve to live and that God owes us life. The fact that God made only a relatively small number of sins capital offenses was a remarkable act of mercy, compassion and grace. Why? Because it would have been perfectly just and fair and righteous had He made every sin a capital offence. The Mosaic stipulations regarding the death penalty, therefore, were remarkably lenient and gracious. I would suggest that the mystery in Jericho is not that God would exterminate them all, but that He didn’t exterminate them all sooner than He did! We have arrogantly presumed on a mythical “right to life” and thus are shocked by death.
The fact that you and I draw breath this very moment is an act of mercy, not justice.