The Bible teaches that God is love and that He never changes, but sometimes it is difficult to see His love in the Old Testament stories, especially in the ones where God’s people slaughter their enemies, killing thousands of people with God’s help. How can this be a picture of love?
The Bible begins with God’s creation of a world of beauty, joy and harmonious relationships, and ends with the recreation of “a new heaven and a new earth“ where there will be “no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:1-4). This shows that God’s original plan was for a perfect world, and ultimately He will accomplish His plan. But the Bible story shows that something went horribly wrong. Adam and Eve disobeyed the divine commandment, and the results of disobedience become quickly apparent: their oldest son murdered his brother, the earth “was filled with violence” so that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth and every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” Genesis 6:5-11.
God cleansed that world with a universal flood during the time of Noah, but within a generation sin was back, and throughout the rest of the Bible we read over and over the tragic stories of pain, sorrow, violence and death, and God’s efforts to save people who are marching toward their own destruction. The apostle Paul described the disease of sin in this way: “Just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned” Romans 5:12. In other words, humans have consistently chosen to be enemies of God.
Everyone has death to look forward to, because “all have sinned“ and “the wages (inevitable result) of sin is death“ Romans 3:23, 6:23. This is not an arbitrary decision on God’s part. Sin makes everyone miserable, including the sinner, and in order to bring about the perfection that God originally planned for this world He will have to bring sin to a complete and permanent end. Since most sinners are hopelessly addicted to sin and will not give it up, they must die in order for sin to be eradicated.
The fact that everyone dies means that death, as tragic as it is, is not at all unexpected. It is “normal” and can strike at any age. Because death is the result of sin, which God never wanted and does not control, there is nothing fair about it, and attempts to explain why it was fair, or for the best that someone died at a particular age or in a particular way are futile. Sin and death are inherently unfair, and to say that death in general or a particular death is a part of God’s plan or His will has the danger of misrepresenting God. “Good” people die in tragic ways, and “wicked” people seem to prosper, not because God is unfair but because the world is full of sin. However, God allows every death, and sometimes He intervenes to cause people to die, when death would be better than life.
We have all seen particular cases of suffering from painful and debilitating diseases such as cancer in which we feel that it would be better for the person to die. As humans we do not have the right to say that it is time for someone to die, but God the Creator, who always acts in love, has that right; often we wonder why He does not allow people to die more quickly!
But besides those who are suffering, God may choose to end the lives of people who are causing suffering, both for the sake of those they are hurting and for their own sakes. Since everyone will have to face the final judgment, it is actually better for those who will never repent to die as soon as possible so they will not have to face in the judgment the revelation of all the hurtful things they would have done if they had lived longer. For this same reason it is not really so tragic when “innocent” children die, if God in His foreknowledge can see that they would grow up in an environment where they would learn to add to the misery in the world and to their own guilt.
With these thoughts in mind we can consider some of the Old Testament stories in which the “enemies” of God are killed. We have already mentioned that at the time of the flood the world was filled with violence and the thoughts and intents of the people at that time were “only evil continually”. These people were beyond rehabilitation, they were not interested in righteousness and holiness (Noah preached to them for 120 years!), they were destroying themselves and raising children who would do the same. It was in mercy that God put them to death.
Although the whole world was full of sin, Sodom and Gomorrah were exceptionally wicked cities, to the extent that God had to intervene. God sent two angels to Sodom to test them, but “the men of Sodom, both old and young, all the people from every quarter, surrounded the house” (Gen. 19:4), demanding that they be brought out so that they could abuse them. Again, it was better for the people of that city to be put to death than to go on increasing their wickedness, bringing children into the world who would do the same and worse.
God told Abraham that he would be the father of a chosen people who would spread the knowledge of God to all the world. He promised Abraham and his offspring the land of Canaan, which was at the crossroads of the world, but He did not let them receive the land because “the iniquity of the Amorites (was) not yet complete” Genesis 15:16.
For 400 years God bore patiently with the Amorites, who were the inhabitants of the land of Canaan, but instead of improving they became more and more wicked. When God was finally ready to give the land to His people He said, “When you come into the land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominations of these nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire (they put their children into a fire as an offering to their gods), or one who practices witchcraft… or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells or a medium or a spiritist or one who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination to the Lord, and because of these abominations the lord your God drives them out before you” Deuteronomy 18:9-12.
We notice several things from this passage. First of all, God was establishing His people so that they could be an example to the world. The worst thing would be for them to be called by His name and then to misrepresent Him with the same kind of wickedness of the other nations on earth. For this reason He could not have His chosen people living alongside other people who would influence them and spoil the godly example He wanted to present.
We also notice that the sinful practices of the Amorites were serious and harmful, particularly the human sacrifices they were offering. Finally we notice that God intended to drive the Amorites out himself rather than have His children kill them. In Deuteronomy 7:20 God promised that he would send hornets to drive them out of the land. But that promise was contingent on the Israelites cooperating and doing what He told them, which they did not. Their disobedience gave Satan an opportunity to spoil God’s plans, forcing Him to use alternative methods to accomplish His purposes.
It is often thought that God, being sovereign, can do whatever He wants to, but God has had to make a lot of compromises in dealing with sin and with sinners to whom He has given freedom of choice. A clear example is divorce. God through Moses told the Children of Israel that if someone divorced his wife and she married someone else, he could not take her back later. 1500 years later some of the religious leaders asked Jesus a question about divorce, quoting Moses. Jesus answered, “Because of the hardness of your hearts (Moses) wrote this precept. But from the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female… and the two shall become one… therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” Mark 10:4-9.
God never wanted divorce but because of the spiritual immaturity and hard-heartedness of His chosen people He gave instructions that would minimize the worst abuses connected with divorce. The same was true of slavery, which God never wanted, but permitted under certain conditions while He waited for His people to gain the spiritual maturity to reject slavery.
This is the principle that explains why God instructed His people to kill their enemies, ie. the inhabitants of Canaan. Those people could not stay in Canaan because they would corrupt God’s people so that they would not represent Him. But because of their terrible wickedness it would not be fair to send them somewhere else. In mercy to them, their children and their neighbors they needed to die. In using His chosen people to kill them God made a compromise because of their lack of faith. The enemies around them would continually attack them, and because of their weak faith the Israelites did not trust the Lord to fight for them, so God let them fight wars and blessed them with victory so that they would learn to trust Him.
God loved the Amorites, even though they were steeped in sin, but for the sake of the whole world, which needed to see a picture of God, He could not allow them to live among His people. Many centuries later, after He had taught His chosen people through many prophets and finally Jesus, they were ready to learn to “turn the other cheek” and to “love your enemies”, actions which give a much clearer picture of what God is really like.
Now at the end of time God is still trying to make His people more like Him so that the people of the world can see what He is like, so that they will trust in Him and get ready for the Second Coming of Christ and the New Creation when God will finally bring sin and death to a final end.