Many curious ponderers of Christianity, including Christians, skeptical agnostics, and atheists (but not limited to), have questioned the command of God when he instructed the Israelites to utterly destroy the Canaanites (among other nations).
“When the LORD your God brings you into the land which you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Gir’gashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Per’izzites, the Hivites, and the Jeb’usites, seven nations greater and mightier than yourselves, and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them; then you must utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them, and show no mercy to them.”
This post will attempt to shed light on God’s moral behavior and motives, which become clearer as the post progresses. There are some who simply mock Christians for their belief in a moral God, with some asserting points such as “I am more moral than your God,” or “if your God was real, I wouldn’t worship him anyway, just look at this [insert verse]!” If we take a deeper, less superficial look, we can see what God was doing and why it was part of His ultimate revelation, which He made manifest in Christ.
The problem for those who judge God as immoral is two-fold:
- If one claims that God was objectively immoral, they must have a foundation for objective morality that is justified by their own worldview.
- If one judges God’s actions by His own moral standards (in our case, Christianity), then they must show how he is being immoral by His own standards.
Of course, many times the assertion that God is immoral has no sufficient evidence to back up any of these possible arguments. This is because many do not attempt to dig deeper to understand the context of the text, but rather to use the text as a proof-text (using out of context) to support their feeling about God. So, let’s dig in.
Objective, Subjective, Absolute, and Relative Morality
In determining the meaning of morality, we should discern, first, what ‘being moral’ is and also what the concept of morality is; we can then contrast the difference between objective, absolute, subjective, and relative morality. We must remember that in order for God to have committed an objectively act, He would need to act immoral on the basis of objective morality. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines ‘moral’ as “of or relating to principles of right and wrong behavior.” And, the term ‘morality’ is defined as “a doctrine or system of moral conduct.” So, what we find is that the foundation for a doctrine of morality deals with the carrying out of morals (that which is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’).
Morality as Objective
Argument from Christianity
If morality is objective, this means that we have moral standards to live by – this being known by all peoples. Objective morality is sometimes confused with absolute morality – which is to say that in any case, we should behave a certain way (i.e. never kill, never steal, etc.). However, would you ever say that you should not steal a would-be murderers gun in order to keep a criminal contained? If a criminal broke into your home, would it be well to allow the criminal to do as he/she wished with whatever/whomever they wished? If we do not protect those we love, we are not being loving, which was Jesus’ second commandment “love your neighbor as yourself.” Of course, we can go to the extreme and say that we should never protect anyone from harm if it means we are committing a violent act, but is this really what Jesus meant when he said “live by the sword, die by the sword?” Think about it, the context of this passage refers to what Peter did to one of the Romans (cut his ear) who was among those capturing Jesus. However, Jesus knew that all of the things He spoke must come to pass, therefore Peter was not to protect Jesus this day – the Scriptures had to be fulfilled.
So, we are using our objective morality in determining ‘right’ vs ‘wrong’ behavior (e.g., it is better to protect, by force, than to allow evil). However, this is not to say that under normal circumstances, of which we are not being threatened, we should simply steal or threaten others with guns, knives, etc. This is obviously against the teachings of Jesus. So, although absolute morality would suggest that one would have to always keep with absolute morals, objective morality is what we know is ‘right’ to do depending on the situation. But, what about objective moral values without Christianity?
Argument from Humanism – Sam Harris
The humanist believes that objective moral values exist without these objective moral values having been given by God. This is an area of which Sam Harris has done a good deal of research, and he is the biggest name that we can attach to the concept for researched belief in humanism. This is just a touch on the concept of humanism here, but I think this deserves an entire post to really get into it. Now, to believe in what Sam Harris says is true, that we can have objective moral values when we derive the need for said values using human ‘well-being.' So, a basic good for the mind and body of a person. Sam Harris attempts to explain the basis of this foundation: he claims that if we think of the worst case scenario, a case in which all people have tremendous pain and suffering, this is a ‘bad,’ thing that we can all agree on. The concept of ‘bad’ is used as a basis, a given, for our well-being, thence our moral values can be derived in such a way. This does not dig deep, but is of merely superficial value. This is more of a feedback loop in which we must construct a belief of right and wrong based on the implication of an action.
Its epistemological basis is based on the result of said actions – those ‘good’ and ‘bad’ measurable outcomes. This method still lacks meaningful reason for objective moral values. Think about this example: we are all different in many ways, but to assert that we all have objective moral values, in the absence of a moral law giver, is to assert that this hard-wiring / enabling our development for morality, was done by nature itself; this reasoning begins to show how the foundation for this concept falls apart. Without a moral law giver, there is no arbiter of truth for our foundation of morality. Morality in this sense ends up being an idea of no meaningful value – we cannot know that being good is what we ought to do, or that being bad is what we ought not to do, this is the concept of right and wrong. This does not mean we do not have objective moral values, but rather that this explanation for morality fails to find a foundation for its belief system.
Morality as Subjective
If morality is truly subjective, then this would mean that our external environments and our genetics completely shape our morals. However, those that support violence and hate does not prove that objective moralities do not exist, it merely proves that with time, even those who know ‘wrong’ can do things that are evil in order to fulfill a desire (think of radical brainwashing, or plain evil). So, knowing good and evil does not prevent anyone from doing either, but we still have these moral compasses to guide us, when we are willing to listen – we cannot simply say they do not exist, though. In essence, the subjective type of morality can be ever-changing, it is individualistic, never amounting to any real objective and true morality. This is where the problem for proponents of subjective morality lies, because the have no grounding in morality, nothing can truly be said to be good/bad or right/wrong. There is simply no way to judge good or bad. Concerning the concept of subjective morality: if the moral beliefs of a given group of people coincides, this can feed the concept known as moral relativism. Many times, the Nazis are used as an example as for the concept of moral relativism. This means that because the Nazi’s decided to destroy another group (the Jews), then it is not wrong on their behalf, simply because as a group they were able to believe this was a good thing. Clearly, this seems wrong to nearly all of mankind; thus the idea of moral relativism is not one that many folks should peddle as truth.
Truth of Morality
Morality can be seen as objective when we look around at the things we do. Such as helping those in need, caring for children, looking after older parents, etc. These things cannot be explained by the simple concept of “greater good,” for many things that we do for people will not always end up giving us any real positive return; we do things even when we know we can’t / won’t be reciprocated for our deeds. So, again, we need an objective system of values if we are to claim God as immoral, in any way, which simply does not turn up if we are discussing this in terms of morality as a mere product of the notion of well-being. We can, however, discuss this rationally when we consider a moral law giver (God), as this gives us a reasonable explanation as to why we would have objective moral values.
Was God’s Command Immoral?
God’s Promises to Israel
The Israelites were God’s chosen people, He elected them to show the world that He is God and that He delivers His promises. He delivered Abraham and his descendants into a new land, rescued them from the hands of the Egyptians, and established His kingdom in the 12 nations of Israel. However, en route to establishing the 12 nations of Israel, God commanded the Israelites to destroy many others, as they occupied the land that God was giving to them:
“When the LORD your God brings you into the land which you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Gir’gashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Per’izzites, the Hivites, and the Jeb’usites, seven nations greater and mightier than yourselves, and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them; then you must utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them, and show no mercy to them.” Furthermore, you shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor shall you take their daughters for your sons. For they will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods; then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you and He will quickly destroy you.But thus you shall do to them: you shall tear down their altars, and smash their sacred pillars, and hew down their Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire.For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.“
Canaanites and History
The Canaanites were not a people that were full of goodness. On the contrary, the Canaanites were a people that worshipped false gods, committed sacrifices of their own babies to a false god known as Molech (Lev. 18:21), and had perversion and sexual impurity written in their culture. So, when Josiah renewed the Old Covenant of the God of Israel, we can see what occurred thereafter, which shows the nature of their previous doings:
2 Kings 23:4-5
“Then the king commanded Hilkiah the high priest and the priests of the second order and the doorkeepers, to bring out of the temple of the Lord all the vessels that were made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven; and he burned them outside Jerusalem in the fields of the Kidron, and carried their ashes to Bethel. He did away with the idolatrous priests whom the kings of Judah had appointed to burn incense in the high places in the cities of Judah and in the surrounding area of Jerusalem, also those who burned incense to Baal, to the sun and to the moon and to the constellations and to all the host of heaven.”
“He also broke down the houses of the male cult prostitutes which were in the house of the Lord, where the women were weaving hangings for the Asherah”
“He also defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter pass through the fire for Molech”
“The high places which were before Jerusalem, which were on the right of the mount of destruction which Solomon the king of Israel had built for Ashtoreth the abomination of the Sidonians, and for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Milcom the abomination of the sons of Ammon, the king defiled. He broke in pieces the sacred pillars and cut down the Asherim and filled their places with human bones.”
In essence, these were people that were performing murderous, perverted, and abominable activities, while worshipping false idols. These people did receive a high punishment, no doubt. But, why kill them all? Women and children included? Let’s take a look at what God had said would occur, if they had not entirely destroyed them, which is what Saul had actually failed to do when he ruled the Israelites:
“Only in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the Lord your God has commanded you,so that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the Lord your God.”
So, we see that they had indeed perverted those who once followed God, hence when Josiah had renewed the Old Covenant, he had to remove all of the idolatrous themes and perversions of the land.
God’s Perfect Nature
God, being all-perfect, cannot tolerate those who do evil in his sight. This sounds contradictory, to kill those who do evil, since God’s sixth commandment to Moses and the Israelites was to not kill. The seeming contradiction is actually justified because we know that God’s will takes precedence, always, in that He is creator of all things (Rev. 4:11) and His larger purpose for the Israelites was to bring them, and all nations, the New Covenant in Jesus Christ. This was accomplished through the many victories that He promised the Israelites when they would keep Him and not reject Him, as their sole God. A moral and just God has a right to do things that we may have difficulty in understanding, but we must realize that we are all imperfect beings, and all have sinned (Romans 3:23). He is not subject to us, but rather, a just God must punish those who sin, if there is no repentance for wickedness; we are all subject to Him. Do we know if those innocent children who were killed were saved to Christ? I would imagine so, as they had no part in the sin of their parents. A just God does what He does, we can only ponder when we don’t fully understand everything.
Thankfully, God’s plan included the birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ! God incarnate; who died for the sins of those who will believe in Him. Our Savior has came and conquered to take away the sins of those, such as the Canaanites and all those who do live!
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.”