How Could God Command Genocide in the Old Testament?
by Justin Taylor
This is a good, hard question. The way we answer it will both reflect and inform our understanding of justice and mercy.
In the book of Joshua God commands Israel to slaughter the Canaanites in order to occupy the Promised Land. It was a bloody war of total destruction where God used his people to execute his moral judgment against his wicked enemies. In moving toward an answer it will be helpful to think carefully about the building blocks of a Christian worldview related to God’s justice and mercy.
1. As the maker of all things and the ruler of all people, God has absolute rights of ownership over all people and places.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1) “and the sea and all that is in them” (Act 14:15). This means that “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Ps. 24:1). As God says, “All the earth is mine” (Ex. 19:5) and “every beast of the forest is mine” (Ps. 50:10). God’s ownership of all means that he is also free to do as he wishes over all things. “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Ps. 115:3). Within this free sovereignty God “determined allotted periods and the boundaries of [each nation’s] dwelling place” (Acts 17:26). God has Creator rights, and no one can say to him, “What are you doing?” (Job 9:12).
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2. God is not only the ultimate maker, ruler, and owner, but he is just and righteous in all that he does.
Abraham asks God the same question that we are asking, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen. 18:25). The implied answer is, “By all means!” This is the flip side of Paul’s question in Romans 9:14: “Is there injustice on God’s part?” Paul’s answer: “By no means!” Moses will later proclaim, “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he” (Deut. 32:4).
It is commonplace in our culture to ask whether this or that was fair or just for God to do. But if you stop to think about it, the question itself is actually illegitimate. Merely asking it presupposes that we are the judge; we will put “God in the dock” and examine him; God must conform to our sense of fairness and rightness and justice—if God passes the test, well and good, but if he doesn’t, we’ll be upset and become the accuser…
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