One of the arguments I’ve heard from people who object to Christianity is that they question the Old Testament stories that depict a God who commanded the Israelites to kill the inhabitants of the promised land in order to take possession. They point to those stories and say, “I can’t believe in a God who commanded genocide.” They essentially frame him as a cosmic Hitler.
I admit that when looked at in this light, the stories are disturbing.
However, there are two things I think need to be taken into account.
First, if one charges God with crimes against humanity and essentially put Him on trial, then along with our modern definitions of crime, one has to use modern standards of justice. In order to be just in this trial, one has to consider the evidence for and against the thing God did. If God had good reason for using His people to wipe out the inhabitants of Palestine at the time of Moses/Joshua, then God was justified. But if the inhabitants were not evil, then God was not justified.
The tricky thing is, there is not much documentary evidence in the Bible about what kind of people the inhabitants were. And there is some evidence in God's favor, but it is scarce. Because of this scarcity, it is tempting to acquit the inhabitants and condemn God, but actually our court standards require us to presume innocence until proven guilty. So one must withhold judgment against both the inhabitants that were killed and against God who commanded their killing.
And that leads to an interesting point where one presumes innocence of both the inhabitants and the God who had them destroyed. But this might lead one to ask oneself, “Who is likely to be more innocent—man or God?”
Second, it might be useful to imagine ourselves in God’s position at that time and consider the particular situation God was in and the goals He might have been working toward and the cultural situation of the peoples He had to work with.
So, imagine you are God.
You have a group of people who believe in you, and they have been slaves for perhaps a generation, maybe two. You’ve delivered them from bondage so that they can serve you and become a better people. They have practically nothing. They know how to work hard, but their greatest labors have been coerced, so you’ll need to teach them about being internally motivated. They also have a sad but understandable tendency toward disobedience and complaining that you’ve been trying to train out of them with 40 years in the wilderness.
Where are you going to settle these people of yours? Is there an empty land that is reasonably easy to cultivate? How will they survive in the time it takes to cultivate a season of crops if they have nothing? (You’ve been feeding them with manna all this time.) Where will they get the tools and seed to use, if they have practically nothing? How far will they need to travel to get to this land?
Is there a culture nearby who has enough charity and care for humanity that they will be willing to give relief to your people? Will they be able to tolerate the religious duties you have set your people?
Suppose, for argument’s sake, that there was such a people. Would there be any need to give your people the command to destroy? No, of course not. Your people would likely find refuge there and over a period of years find places to settle.
Now, suppose that the other cultures are hostile to everything you’re trying to teach your people. Suppose there are serious problems with moral corruption, perversion, violence, and injustice. (Suppose you tried all kinds of ways to reach these people before and they don’t listen.) You understand the pressures to culturally assimilate, and the last thing you want is for your people to start learning those nasty practices.
Destroying the inhabitants starts to look like a viable option. (Naturally, there are a lot of additional factors that God would probably take into consideration, along with a large dose of mercy and forbearance, but I think we get the idea.)
But does it have to be your people who destroy the inhabitants? Wouldn’t it be better to let the inhabitants destroy one another? There’s a small problem with this. Nature abhors a vacuum, and as soon as one culture destroys another, the land will be taken over by the victorious side, so it would still be occupied.
Why not destroy the inhabitants with massive natural disaster, like Sodom and Gomorrah? There’s a problem with that too. If the inhabitants get wiped off the map with natural disaster, it is likely their possessions and tools would be too, and you need to preserve that stuff to help your people get a leg up.
Why not hit the inhabitants with a deadly disease then? Problem is, it’ll leave all their stuff covered in germs, and while your people are instructed in cleanliness and washing as part of the law you’ve given them, all it takes is one person carrying it and you’ve got a pandemic on your hands.
Commanding your people to destroy the inhabitants starts to look more viable..
But why not try to use lots of big miracles to convince the inhabitants to receive the Israelites? Well, actually God did that. The news of the Exodus miracles and all the subsequent miracles spread to the Palestine peoples, but instead of deciding to help the Israelites, the inhabitants were frightened and most preferred to fight. One king (Balaak) even tried to have Israel cursed.
Ultimately, these considerations still may not be convincing to some, but as a person who believes in the God of the Old Testament, they help me remember several things:
--A decision of the kind God made is an incredibly heavy responsibility and would require full and complete knowledge. In a word, omniscience.
--I don’t know all the factors leading to this particular command, but the ones I can imagine give me a hint of how God worked with the conditions of the time.
--The Bible doesn’t tell the full story. But I have faith that ultimately there will come a day when all the whys and wherefores of God’s doings will be explained.
Probably the most worrisome aspect of this discussion may be the implication that such a command might be given again. But I think that unlikely. That particular command was instruction customized to a particular set of conditions, much like God’s command to Noah to build an ark was customized to circumstances in his day.
Since God is omniscient, no doubt He knew that future generations would not have a full record of the conditions that would make conquest by His people necessary. He knew He would be painted in black colors as an angry tribal God, but since He intended to bear the blame and fault for all mankind to give us all a chance to repent, He was not deterred by that.
When Jesus taught the people during His mortal ministry, He declared Himself as Jehovah, the God of the Old Testament. Since He bore the sins of the Palestine inhabitants, He certainly had authority to say when their time was up. It is possible that He intended our sparse Biblical record to be a test to see if people could muster the faith to believe He was good even though it might look like He did something that would appear unjustified.