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Why is the God of the Old Testament so vengeful?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Fresco in the Sistine Chapel. The Creation of the Sun and the Moon (Credit: Michelangelo Buonarroti/Sistine Chapel)

NOTE: In the Cultural Commentary we occasionally depart from the morning news to explore more perennial faith questions. Recently I asked readers to suggest common misconceptions or roadblocks to the Christian faith. The fourth issue in our series has to do with war in the Old Testament.

One reader says, “I would like to hear your thoughts on the acts of brutality in the Old Testament on the side of the Israelites. I have had several people ask how a loving God could encourage complete annihilation, violence, the killing of children, etc. This seems to be a problem for many people.”  A second reader adds: “Why is God so vengeful in the Old Testament and in the New Testament is portrayed as “turning the other cheek,” loving, forgiving, etc.? I get asked this by non-believers.”

Let’s consider four facts regarding the Jews and Canaanites.

First, the Promised Land belonged to God before the Canaanites established temporary residency there. It had always been his plan to give this land to the descendants of Abraham (Genesis 15:16). The Lord did not take from the Canaanites that which was “theirs”—he reclaimed that which was his according to his foreordained purposes.

Second, the Canaanites lived in wicked rebellion against the will and purposes of God. Moses warned his people about them: “Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead” (Deuteronomy 18:10-11). Those who were conquered by Joshua’s armies were not innocent victims, but sinners who received the judgment their evil acts warranted.

Third, the blood retribution practiced by ancient tribal culture required the Jewish armies to destroy not only the soldiers of their enemies but their families as well. So long as one member of a family remained, that person was bound to seek retribution against the enemies of his people. Such hostility would have persisted with no peace in the land. What appears to be genocide was actually the way wars were typically fought.

Fourth, in these formative early years of Israel’s history it was imperative that the people refuse sinful influences. The holy God who gave them their land would uproot them from it if they rebelled against him (Deuteronomy 28:63-68). We find similar severity during the formative years of the Christian movement in God’s judgment against Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11).

God does not change, but his purposes are fulfilled in different ways at different times in redemptive history. Justice required retribution against the sinful Canaanites, while his salvation plan required a purified nation through whom he could bring the Messiah of all mankind. When Christ came, Joshua’s leadership of conflict and conquest was fulfilled.

Now we are taught to love and pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44). Not because God has changed, for such love proves that we are “sons of your Father in heaven” (v. 45). Rather, because such love expresses his grace toward us and all mankind.

Was it fair that Israel destroyed the residents of Canaan? If God were fair, none of us could enter his perfect heaven. We are all spiritual Canaanites, saved from eternal wrath only by the love of our Creator. Think back to your last sin. Admit that this one transgression warrants the judgment and condemnation of a holy God. And thank God that he is not fair.