If God is love, how do we explain the Old Testament passages where he commands the Israelites to eradicate entire groups of people, even the children (Josh 9:24; Num 31; 1 Sam 15)? Sometimes people say it was to punish these people for their evil practices, like child sacrifice. Well, child sacrifice is certainly a terrible thing. But does it make sense to punish child sacrifice by killing all the children?
Let’s think about this for a moment. When cultures engaged in child sacrifice, it’s not because they just loved killing children — it’s because they believed it served as some kind of propitiation, appeasing their gods for the greater good. So if God didn’t approve of child sacrifice, what seems like the most rational way to deal with it: (1) kill everyone, including all the children you don’t want killed, or (2) make yourself known to these people as the one true god and tell them that child sacrifice is not what you want? Wouldn’t option 2 be a win-win scenario?
Here’s something else to consider. If God didn’t like child sacrifice, why did he command Abraham to offer his son Isaac as one? Granted, he stopped the sacrifice before the boy was killed, but isn’t this a weird command for a deity who despises child sacrifice? And what about Psalm 137, where the inspired writer is lamenting Babylon’s destruction of Jerusalem and says the following:
8 O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed,
Happy the one who repays you as you have served us!
9 Happy the one who takes and dashes
Your little ones against the rock!
Furthermore, if God wanted the Canaanites destroyed because of their heinous practices, why stop at Canaan? There were many cultures that engaged in terrible practices like this from time to time — why not send the Israelites to slaughter them all? Instead this “judgment” is only brought against people in the same geographic location that God wanted the Israelites to inhabit:
After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, it came to pass that the Lord spoke to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, saying: 2 “Moses My servant is dead. Now therefore, arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, to the land which I am giving to them—the children of Israel. 3 Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given you, as I said to Moses. 4 From the wilderness and this Lebanon as far as the great river, the River Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, and to the Great Sea toward the going down of the sun, shall be your territory. 5 No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life; as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you nor forsake you. 6 Be strong and of good courage, for to this people you shall divide as an inheritance the land which I swore to their fathers to give them.
— Josh 1:1-5
So they answered Joshua and said, “Because your servants were clearly told that the Lord your God commanded His servant Moses to give you all the land, and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you; therefore we were very much afraid for our lives because of you, and have done this thing.”
— Josh 9:24
How strange that these passages focus on taking the land from the Canaanites and not on their evil natures…
As a final consideration, even if the only thing left to do with these evil Canaanites was kill them all, does it make sense that God would choose the cruelest and most agonizing way to do it? Instead of speaking them out of existence, or immediately striking them all dead, he has them besieged by invaders. They’re forced to watch their loved ones being massacred before being hacked to death themselves. Would God really command this?
How does a god who would command genocide on this scale differ from the vilest despots of the modern era? What’s the difference between this god and bin Laden? What’s the difference between a god like this and a devil? Could a god this bloody be right?