OT Judicial Killings
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Monday, September 7, 2009 at 3:20pm
I received this query via e-mail:
“A friend questions the morality of a God who condemns sin, specifically murder, yet orders mass killings in the Old Testament. In addition, this friend questions the morality and contradiction of a God who would sentence one to hell for disobedience. All of which is the end result of so-called liberal Christianity that has rejected the Bible as the Word of God.
“I have concluded that God sentencing one to hell is a direct result of the holiness of God that demands justice for sin. I am certain my friend will respond by asking how a just and holy God could order massive killings in the Old Testament. My response is that a holy God demanded justice (killings) in the Old Testament to cleanse Israel from sin and the influence of sin as a result of those peoples who refused to follow Him and practiced pagan idolatry. Although the Bible doesn’t specifically state it, I am inclined to believe that those whom God ordered killed, including children, were stained genetically as a result of their DNA, not original sin per se, but a genetic predisposition to sin that if left unchecked would contaminate the Nation of Israel.
“I took your course on the Doctrine of God in the early nineties and realize that much of my theology was formed as the result of that class, particularly your books, which I do not have as I gave them to my son-in-law. If I had the books handy, I would research the answer as I am positive I read it nearly twenty years ago and have not been challenged with this question since. I am confident that the answers lie in the concepts of the holiness of God combined with the justice of God. Am I on the right track, or have I taken a detour?”
Here is my reply:
You are definitely on the right track (except for the DNA speculation, which I would refrain from using). The reason many, even some Bible-believers, have difficulty with judicial killing and the reality of hell is that they believe in a false god, a love-only god. They do not accept the Biblical teaching that God’s nature includes BOTH goodness/kindness AND sternness/severity (Rom. 11:22). In other terms, God is both holy and loving. God is love (1 John 4:8), but his holiness responds to sin in wrath (Heb. 12:29). Because he is a just or righteous God, his holiness must punish sin/sinners. You have remembered the lessons you learned in Doctrine of God very well!
The book in which I deal with this specifically is “What the Bible Says About God the Redeemer,” in the chapters on holiness and love. (The book is still available, but pricey, from Wipf and Stock Publishers, Eugene OR)
On the alleged contradiction between God’s condemning murder and ordering mass killings, your friend, like many others, does not understand the difference between murder or unlawful killing (the 6th commandment specifically prohibits murder, not killing as such), and judicial killing as in the case of capital punishment as applied by appropriate governmental authorities. The mass killings ordered by God in the OT fall into the category of judicial killings (not arbitrary decisions), in which God the Righteous Judge finds entire populations guilty of heinous sin and thus deserving of capital punishment, and (sometimes) uses his people Israel as the executioners.
The ultimate judicial killing will be the bodily destruction and death of the wicked at the time of the second coming (2 Thess. 2:8; Rev. 20:9). In the OT the radical destruction of whole populations is a kind of proleptic [there’s that word again] apocalyptic judgment, the result of a judicial decision by God the Holy Judge. The closest parallel is the Flood (2 Peter 3:5-7), but less-than-universal examples are Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:24); the Midianite men (Num. 31:1ff.); Jericho (Josh. 6:21) and Ai (Josh. 8:1-2); and others.
The basic rationale for these mass killings was that the extreme wickedness of these populations deserved this judgment. Texts like Gen. 15:16 imply that the time would come when their iniquity would become full or complete, and judgment would be applied. “The implication of [Gen. 15:16] was that when the wickedness of the inhabitants of Canaan had reached a predetermined accumulation of guilt, then God would have them removed from the Land of Promise intended for Abraham and his seed” (Gleason Archer, “Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties,” Zondervan 1982, p. 158).
This leads to the related rationale for some of the mass killings, namely, not to CLEANSE Israel as such but more to PROTECT them from the horrific influence of these wicked cultures. “In every case the baneful infection of degenerate idolatry and moral depravity had to be removed before Israel could safely settle down in these regions and set up a monotheistic, law-governed commonwealth as a testimony for the one true God. . . . These incorrigible degenerates of the Canaanite civilization were a sinister threat to the spiritual survival of Abraham’s race” (ibid.). “The massacre was as regrettable as a radical surgery performed on the ailing body of a cancer victim. If his life is to be preserved, the diseased portion must be completely cut away” (ibid., 142).
The fact that even children were sometimes included in this judicial sentence reflects the depth of depravity to which these cultures had sunk. The positive considerations are that these children whose lives were taken before they reached the age of accountability were under God’s original grace and thus were eternally saved, and they were spared the certain fate of transitioning into an adult life of idolatry and depravity and thus eternal condemnation. (This applies also to children who perished in the Flood.)