If God told you to kill children would you do it?
Quite a question, isn’t it? The answer should be an obvious “No”, right?
We’re studying the biblical book of Deuteronomy on Sunday mornings at Faith Church, and we’ve come to some troubling passages where God commands the armies of Israel to kill children. In chapters 2 and 3, Moses is reviewing with the people of Israel the story of how they made it to where they are encamped on the east side of the Jordan River. Their journey took them through lands inhabited by Canaanites, and both times they proclaimed holy war on the Canaanites, utterly wiping them out.
Look at Deuteronomy 3:3, “We left no survivors.” Skip ahead to verse 6: “We completely destroyed them…men, women and children.”
What in the world is going on? They actually killed children! It was holy war.
Holy war will come up again in Deuteronomy chapters 7 and 20, so I decided this week that we’re going to talk about Holy war this one time and be done with it. Why? Well, quite frankly, it is difficult material. I wonder how you are feeling as you read these passages?
Sometimes in the past, when we have come to a difficult section of the Bible, people in my church family have said, “Joel, just tell us how to understand it.” Or they’ve said, “Joel, how do you personally interpret this passage?”
I think behind these comments is desire for relief from tension. We feel very uncomfortable with tension, right? Tension is when you are the middle and you are being pulled in two directions, and generally-speaking we hate it.
Do you feel that pull, the tension, when you read passages about God commanding the people to kill all the men, women and children of a nation? I think you should feel tension. I do.
Where is the tension coming from?
I think it is coming from the fact that we want to believe in a loving, good, merciful God on one hand, and on the other, we want to believe the Bible is true. And when our true Bible teaches us about a violent, destructive, genocidal God, we’re stuck.
We want peace, not tension. We want our impressions and beliefs about God to make us feel good, comforted and safe.
So what do we do to relieve the tension? I do not believe there is a satisfying answer to relieve the tension about the amount of violence in the Old Testament.
Here are some ways that people have tried to resolve the tension of the violence in the OT. I got these from pastor and author Brian Zahnd. Check out a great interview with him here.
- Question the morality of God? Maybe he is actually monstrous. But we know that isn’t true. God is good, right?
- Question the immutability of God? Maybe he is changing. But we’re hesitant about this too, because God doesn’t change, right?
- Question our reading of Scripture? Maybe we shouldn’t take it so literally. But how do we know which parts of the Bible should be literal or not?
None of these options resolve the tension for me. What does resolve the tension for me? Nothing. Instead, I have two thoughts on holy war in the Bible.
Thought #1 – Be humble about difficult passages.
I think it is vital that I view my interpretation of difficult biblical passages as unfinished interpretations. A work in progress. My seminary Old Testament prof Dave Dorsey taught us this, and I think it is incredibly wise. He said that whenever he comes to a part of the Bible that does not line up with what he knows to be true of God, he does not allow himself to come to a final conclusion on the interpretation of that passage. He waits. He studies. Often, he said, there is more going on that he has not yet encountered or does not understand. It could be cultural or language or translation issues. I encourage you to follow Dr. Dorsey’s advice.
Thought #2 – Maybe the holy war passages are a justice issue.
Here’s where I’m at with all the times God commands Israel to commit holy war against people. It seems to me that the people of Canaan, including the Amorites (like King Sihon in Deuteronomy 2), were incredibly evil, and also very powerful. Think Nazi Germany with the atom bomb. For any of you that have watched the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle, this is exactly what happens. That TV show presents an alternate history, imagining that the Nazis win World War 2 because they create and use the atom bomb before we do. They bomb Washington DC and win the war, together with Japan controlling the USA.
It is possible that Israel was up against similar powerful, wicked nations. Archaeologists have done work on the Canaanites, finding them to practice child sacrifice and female temple prostitution, both practices treating vulnerable people terribly. It was evil that needed to be stopped. Also, take a much weaker nation with a slave mentality like Israel*, and the chances are incredibly high that Israel could have been quickly enslaved again by the Canaanites.
God knows this. And so when you have Nazis versus your Jewish people, what happens? Nazis exterminate Jews. Nazis are powerful and evil. But God has a plan, a hope for the redemption and recreation of the world, and it is a plan that is to come through the line of the Jews. Thus God empowers the Jews to eradicate the Nazis, judging evil in the land, and creating this new just society which is to be a blessing to the whole world.
Am I satisfied with this interpretation? Nope. Not in the least. Do I like it? Not really. I pray, “God, could there not have been any other way?” It seems like there should have been. So I follow Dr. Dorsey’s advice, and I keep studying. I’m leaning toward the interpretation that it was a justice issue, to eradicate evil and pave the way for a new just society, in much the same way as World War 2.
Today, in our world, if I had a vision or dream or heard the voice of God asking me to kill children, I would assume that I had not heard or interpreted God correctly, and I would not kill children. I’d be looking for any other way. And you know what I find?
I find Jesus on the cross. I find God dying for us. I find him weeping for us, weeping at sin, and then I find him giving his own life, so that they world could be radically changed. And I focus on that. That is powerful. That is what we need, that is what we know to be true. God the forgiver, God the merciful, God of second chances, God who loves you so much he would die for you. God who wants to remove violence from this world. I find a God of justice who wants wickedness and evil to stop, who has hopes and dreams, and empowers his people to recreate the world as it should be.