Is God a moral monster? How, for example, should we assess the moral status of the Old Testament account when the Israelites came into the land of Canaan and were commanded by God to completely wipe out the inhabitants? Deuteronomy 20:16-17 puts it this way: “But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the LORD your God has commanded” (emphasis added).
This command to annihilate everything that breathes presumably included women, children, and infants; from the very old to the very young, and everyone in between. To contemporary ears, this sounds deeply distressing and offensive. What kind of God would give such a comprehensively genocidal command?
There are several ways to respond to such a charge. Many contemporary scholars suggest that some of the language describing the total annihilation of the inhabitants of Canaan could well be conventional and intentionally exaggerated (that is, “hyperbole”), a common literary device used by other nations at that time to advocate for their military and moral superiority. Perhaps there is some merit to these claims. For those who are interested, consider, for example, the thoughts of Joshua Ryan Butler in the portion of his book, The Skeletons in God’s Closet addressing the issue of Israel’s “holy wars.”
Regardless, we know for certain from the text itself that contrary to this overt command of God, not all the Canaanites were killed—not even close. This was something that later became part of the problem and a profound source of temptation for the Israelites to turn away from Yahweh and serve the gods of the Canaanites instead. They were to wipe out the inhabitants so that “they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 20:18).
But let’s just assume for the moment that God really did command the Israelites to obliterate these Canaanite people—men, women, and children—from the face of the earth. What then? There are at least two important things to highlight here.
First, we need to appreciate the godlessness of the Canaanite peoples of that time. They were not kind and peaceful city dwellers just “minding their own business.” The gods of the Canaanites were ruthless and immoral, and the people of the land reflected that. For example, they advocated child sacrifice, and the enslavement and brutal treatment (including rape and torture) of those that they conquered. They also openly practiced sorcery and forced ritual sex in religious ceremonies to encourage fertility.
So, we are not talking about nice and kindly moral neighbors here. They were polytheists who were deeply rebellious toward God and deserving of judgment. Israel was God’s chosen instrument of judgment at this time in history, just as Assyria and Babylon would later become God’s instruments to judge the Israelites for their appalling unfaithfulness to Him.
The second aspect that should be mentioned regarding the conquest is that it is a very unique historical event with a very specific set of circumstances and purposes. Yes, the Israelites were God’s instrument of judgment for the sins of the Canaanites, but God’s purposes for Israel’s conquest and possession of the land went far beyond the punitive.
Israel was to take the land first and foremost because God had promised it to them as part of a unilateral covenant made hundreds of years before. Why? So that they could be a nation of witnesses to the fact that Yahweh was the one and only true God over and against all other so-called national “gods.” Conquest was one of the primary ways that one nation’s god proved its superiority over other gods. If Yahweh was going to demonstrate His supremacy over all other gods, conquest of the land was a major means of demonstrating that in a way that the surrounding nations would understand very well.
The elimination of the Canaanites was a safety measure intended to help Israel maintain their undivided devotion to Yahweh so that they might reveal His greatness and goodness to all the nations of the earth. As we know from the rest of the story, their failure to drive out and destroy the inhabitants became their downfall in the end. Rather than exhibiting the character of God to those around them, they wound up forsaking Yahweh and going after and being led astray by the gods of the Canaanites.
Thus, God’s somewhat shocking command here was hardly arbitrary or unrelated to the context and timing of the conquest itself. Failing to appreciate this can result in a failure to understand the character of God, as well as the importance, necessity, and means of divine judgment.
But there is another concern here that bears mentioning and additional reflection, namely the notion of “holy wars.” Some have suggested that on the basis of passages like these, “holy wars” might be justified in our time, just as they have been in later history. It is no secret, for example, that the Christian Crusades against Islam for access to the Holy Land were similarly seen as “holy” and commanded by God.
However, the theocracy that Israel was living under when the Canaanite conquest took place and the kinds of secularist and pluralist (non-religious) governments that we now have in most places are vastly different. While I understand there is a movement in some Christian circles to restore a kind of theocratic rule of Christians over the nations today—sometimes called theonomy or “dominion” theology—I believe this is ill-conceived and poorly supported biblically.
The point is this: governments and their militias today do not have the same covenantal relationship to God that Israel had in that time and are therefore not in a position to legitimately claim divine prerogative to go to war in the same way that Israel was sometimes commanded by God to do in the Old Testament.
There is a long history of just war theories, starting from at least the time of Augustine in the late 4th and early 5th century that can be referred to regarding when a nation can and cannot go to war, how that war should be waged, and whether or not Christians should ever fight in war, and if so, in what capacities. But they all recognize the crucial differences between theocratic Israel at the time of the conquest and the God-ordained governments—both secular and religiously influenced—since that time.
Is God a moral monster? No. But we sometimes arrogantly think we know better than Him in terms of how He should have handled and how He should now be handling national, international, and especially our personal affairs. This merely reveals that just like Adam and Eve, we do not adequately understand or affirm the wisdom and goodness of His ways, the holiness of His character, and the loving nature of His purposes and plans for us and our sin-infested world. Perhaps we (not He) are the moral monsters of our time.