One of the most difficult things for Christian teens to understand is why God would command Israel to kill children. The question of whether God is evil often comes out of that emotionally-charged concern.
Parents and other Christian adults need to respond to their teenager’s concerns carefully and thoughtfully. [Click here for the first part of our answer.]
We continue with the second part of our answer to a Christian teen who asked:
“God’s ordering the Jews to kill every living thing in certain cities (Deuteronomy 20:16-18): Is the above a correct understanding of scripture? If so, how was it right for them to kill the children that must have lived in a city so large?”
Moses led Israel in its first battles against the Canaanites and Amorites. You can read about them in Numbers 21. Moses rehearsed some of what Israel did to the the Amorites in Deuteronomy chapters 1, 3 and 4. Moses went into depth about what Israel was to do when they entered the promised land and why there were to do it –
“When the Lord your God brings you into the land which you go to possess, and has cast out many nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than you, and when the Lord your God delivers them over to you, you shall conquer them and utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them nor show mercy to them. Nor shall you make marriages with them. You shall not give your daughter to their son, nor take their daughter for your son. For they will turn your sons away from following Me, to serve other gods; so the anger of the Lord will be aroused against you and destroy you suddenly. But thus you shall deal with them: you shall destroy their altars, and break down their sacred pillars, and cut down their wooden images, and burn their carved images with fire. ‘For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth. The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples; but because the Lord loves you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore to your fathers, the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. ‘Therefore know that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments; and He repays those who hate Him to their face, to destroy them. He will not be slack with him who hates Him; He will repay him to his face. Therefore you shall keep the commandment, the statutes, and the judgments which I command you today, to observe them.”Deuteronomy 7:1-11
Israel was a holy people to God. God had chosen them to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on earth. That’s why God them to conquer and utterly destroy their enemies. God did not want Israel to make marriages with them because He knew the people of the seven nations would turn the Israelites from following Him and to serve other gods. God wanted Israel to destroy their altars, break down their sacred pillars, cut down their wooden images and burn their carved images with fire.
Again we see that the reason God told Israel to conquer and utterly destroy the Canaanites was because they were worshipping other gods in the land God had promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Israel). God had been incredibly patient and longsuffering, but the iniquity of the Canaanites had finally reached its completion and God would lead His people to conquer, overthrow and completely destroy the wickedness of the Canaanites.
Moses died and the mantle of leadership fell to Joshua. Joshua sent spies into Canaan and learned that the Canaanites knew about Israel’s defeat of the Amorites and were afraid of the God of Israel (Joshua 2). We read this in Joshua 5:1 –
“So it was, when all the kings of the Amorites who were on the west side of the Jordan, and all the kings of the Canaanites who were by the sea, heard that the Lord had dried up the waters of the Jordan from before the children of Israel until we had crossed over, that their heart melted; and there was no spirit in them any longer because of the children of Israel.”
Joshua’s first military campaign would be Jericho, a very old city that belonged to the Canaanites. Before the battle of Jericho, Joshua met the “Commander of the army of the Lord,” who some scholars believe was the pre-incarnate Son of God.
As we read the early chapters of Joshua we see how God demonstrated His power to Israel. It’s clear that He will win the battles as they obey Him. Jericho was the first victory. Joshua and the children of Israel did as God commanded them.
“And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword.”Joshua 6:21
The only people who did not die were Rahab and her family. That was part of the promise the Israeli spies made to her because of her help when they were secretly inside Jericho prior to the battle (Joshua 2).
The next battle took place where Abram had started centuries before –
“Joshua therefore sent them out; and they went to lie in ambush, and stayed between Bethel and Ai, on the west side of Ai … For Joshua did not draw back his hand, with which he stretched out the spear, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai.”Joshua 8:9, 26
Remember what we read in Genesis 15? God said to Abram –
“… for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” We see the Amorites suffer defeat in Joshua 10. Joshua executed the five Amorite kings – “the king of Jerusalem, the king of Hebron, the king of Jarmuth, the king of Lachish, and the king of Eglon.”
Joshua 12 includes a list of the kings defeated by Moses and Israel and the kings defeated by Joshua and Israel. Joshua 13 says that Joshua was an old man and there was still more land for Israel to possess. God told Joshua to divide the land they had conquered into the tribal allocations according to what God had told Moses (Joshua chapters 14 – 23).
Joshua came to the end of his life and made a farewell statement to the children of Israel where he rehearsed the great things God had done for them. Joshua also left them with a warning –
“Therefore take careful heed to yourselves, that you love the Lord your God. Or else, if indeed you do go back, and cling to the remnant of these nations—these that remain among you—and make marriages with them, and go in to them and they to you, know for certain that the Lord your God will no longer drive out these nations from before you. But they shall be snares and traps to you, and scourges on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from this good land which the Lord your God has given you.”Joshua 23:11-13
Joshua led the leaders of Israel in making a covenant with God. It was a conditional covenant that included not serving other gods –
“Now therefore, fear the Lord, serve Him in sincerity and in truth, and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the River and in Egypt. Serve the Lord! And if it seems evil to you to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.’ So the people answered and said: ‘Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for the Lord our God is He who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, who did those great signs in our sight, and preserved us in all the way that we went and among all the people through whom we passed. And the Lord drove out from before us all the people, including the Amorites who dwelt in the land. We also will serve the Lord, for He is our God.’ But Joshua said to the people, ‘You cannot serve the Lord, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then He will turn and do you harm and consume you, after He has done you good.’ And the people said to Joshua, ‘No, but we will serve the Lord!’ So Joshua said to the people, ‘You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord for yourselves, to serve Him.’ And they said, ‘We are witnesses!’ ‘Now therefore,’ he said, ‘put away the foreign gods which are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord God of Israel.’ And the people said to Joshua, ‘The Lord our God we will serve, and His voice we will obey!’ So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made for them a statute and an ordinance in Shechem.”Joshua 24:14-25
What we learn in the Book of Judges is that Israel did not keep its covenant with God. Israel did forsake God and serve foreign gods. Israel did not finish conquering the Canaanites, but intermarried and co-habited with them. Judges is a record of the sad cycle of Israel’s unfaithfulness and disobedience that led to the punishment both Moses and Joshua had prophesied –
“Then the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and served the Baals; and they forsook the Lord God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; and they followed other gods from among the gods of the people who were all around them, and they bowed down to them; and they provoked the Lord to anger. They forsook the Lord and served Baal and the Ashtoreths. And the anger of the Lord was hot against Israel. So He delivered them into the hands of plunderers who despoiled them; and He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, so that they could no longer stand before their enemies. Wherever they went out, the hand of the Lord was against them for calamity, as the Lord had said, and as the Lord had sworn to them. And they were greatly distressed.”Judges 2:11-15
The children of Israel ‘forsook’ God and served the primary gods of the Canaanites – Baal and the Ashtoreths. That’s what God had warned them not to do and why He wanted them to ‘utterly destroy’ the Canaanites.
That also demonstrates that Israel did not kill all the people of Canaan, including ‘innocent children.’
With that historical background let’s consider the idea of the children of the Canaanites being ‘innocent.’
The iniquity of the Canaanites, Amorites and other people groups living in the land of Canaan began many centuries earlier. God told Abram that the iniquity of the Amorites was “not yet complete.” That means the iniquity of the Canaanite people was already in existence when God made His covenant with Abram. Based on the time period between the Tower of Babel and God speaking to Abram, the iniquity of the Canaanite people had been going on for centuries.
The so-called ‘innocent’ children of the Canaanite families (including the Amorites) had been growing up to become the violent and wicked people of the land of Canaan. That had continued for many generations from Babel to Moses and Joshua. Can we then call the children of the Canaanites ‘innocent?’
God allowed the Canaanite families to continue in their sin for hundreds of years until He viewed their iniquity to be ‘complete.’ God has suffered long with the nations of the world, but there is a point where He will judge them for their iniquity.
God wants wicked people to repent and live –
“As I live,’ says the Lord God, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.”Ezekiel 33:11
God’s patience with the Canaanite people is one of the remarkable stories in the Bible that demonstrates His patience. Even as God suffered long with people from Adam to Noah, He eventually punished the wicked who would not turn from their sinful ways.
The same is true of the Canaanite people. God suffered long with them until their iniquity was complete. That’s when God told Moses, Joshua and the people of Israel to utterly destroy the cities of the promised land. It was necessary to rid the land of the wickedness that had infested it for centuries.
God did not tell Israel to go beyond the boundaries He gave to Abram and they didn’t. What God told Israel to do was specific to spiritual cleansing of a specific group of people in a specific and small part of the world.
“But of the cities of these peoples which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance, you shall let nothing that breathes remain alive, but you shall utterly destroy them: the Hittite and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite, just as the Lord your God has commanded you, lest they teach you to do according to all their abominations which they have done for their gods, and you sin against the Lord your God.”Deuteronomy 20:16-18
God acted patiently, righteously and judicially in commanding Israel to utterly destroy the cities of the Canaanites – not every city everywhere. The people of Canaan had long been involved in doing things with their gods that the true God saw as ‘abominations.’ God would not tolerate similar behavior from His people, Israel.
Having said that, let me add that some Christian apologists believe Moses and Joshua used the phrases ‘utterly destroy’ in a way that might be similar to other ancient military leaders.
Dr. Paul Copan wrote a book titled “Is God a Moral Monster?” He argues for understanding the genre of the ancient writings. He believes Joshua’s warfare rhetoric was common in other military accounts from that region during the same time period. Copan also argues that archaeological evidence shows no civilian populations at Jericho, Ai and other cities Joshua mentioned, so no women and children would have been targets. Copan also believes that Israel’s conquest of Canaanite cities was to drive the people out and destroy everything about their evil religion, not destroy them.
I don’t agree with all of his perspective, but wanted you to know there are other views by Christian apologists.
Whichever perspective you might take, I think it’s fair to say that God was extremely patient with the Canaanite people. It’s also fair to say that Moses and Joshua went to war with the Canaanite people and killed their leaders and people and destroyed their cities and their worship of foreign gods.
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Previous Tough Questions
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The Next Question
In the next part of our special series, Tough Questions From Christian Teens, we will address the question —
Is It Right To Question God?
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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