Recently, a parent posted this question to our website:
“My son was wondering why God wiped out tribes, including women and children in many stories in the Old Testament. He thinks this is pretty cruel. Thanks!
Without a doubt, some parts of the Bible are harder to deal with than others. Specifically, in Deuteronomy 7:1-6 God commands Israel to “destroy totally” the inhabitants of Canaan:
“the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites…you must destroy them totally.” (Deut 7:1-2)
These commands and Israel’s actions in carrying them out are repeated through other parts of the Old Testament, and often include the fact of destroying women and children also. Our reaction, or the reactions of our kids are often one of: “How can a loving God command such a thing?”
We may be tempted to explain such things away, or to simply avoid talking about them, but we musn’t because these texts are a part of God’s divine self-revelation through scripture, and teach us important truths about his being and character. Also, your kids are smart. They can spot apparent inconsistencies that if left unaddressed or seemingly swept aside will create doubts that could lead to skepticism or disbelief when it comes to other teachings of the Bible.
In addressing this issue of God’s commands to destroy the Canaanites then, here are some tips and talking points to help you answer your kids questions.
1. Know the Bible Yourself First.
First, it’s important to put these events into context. God’s commands to destroy the Canaanites are found in Deuteronomy, and the events of Israel carrying out these commands are found in Joshua. This was a part of God’s purpose in delivering Israel out of Egyptian slavery and giving them the promised inheritance of land that he had made to Abraham so many years before. (cf. Genesis 15)
It is important to grasp that these events were very specific in terms of God’s plan and so were not the normal way that he expected his holy people to behave toward other nations or people. In fact, if you take the time to read God’s law for Israel, it included some very gracious and progressive treatments for foreigners, which was a significant improvement over the cultural context that Israel was living in. (cf. Deuteronomy 10:17-19; Leviticus 19:33-34; 24:22)
That said, know the parts of the Bible that your child is referring to so that you can address the matter in context. Help them to understand that while these events did happen, they were not normative in terms of how God wanted Israel to treat foreigners, but were a part of a very specific purpose that God had.
What I would say to my children:
“It’s true that God commanded Israel to destroy whole cities, including women and children. But it isn’t that God wanted people to behave differently back then than he does today. In fact in much of the Old Testament God commanded Israel to love others, and care for people who weren’t like them, just as Jesus did. The parts where he commands Israel to destroy a whole group of people are actually very specific, and happened for a very specific reason.”
2. Focus on God’s purpose for this command:
When critics bring up God’s commands for Israel to destroy the Canaanites, they usually make it sound as if God was a racist, or just didn’t like them. It’s important again to affirm that God never acts in a way that is inconsistent with his nature. So help your children see the reason that God gave his command to Israel to destroy the Canaanites. This is found in Deuteronomy 9:4-6 which you should read with your children:
Deuteronomy 9:4-6 After the LORD your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, “The LORD has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.” No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is going to drive them out before you… Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.
So God’s decision to destroy the Canaanites wasn’t because he didn’t like them or liked the Jews better. (In fact much of the Old Testament records how God brought destruction upon Israel when they committed the same sins that the Canaanites had.) Rather, it was because the Canaanites’ sin had become so great that it warranted his judgment.
Now, remind your children that all sin brings every person under God’s judgment, but that is why he sent Jesus Christ as our Saviour; to forgive sin and bear God’s punishment against our sin for us. But not everyone will turn to God for forgiveness, and so one day will have to stand before him and face his judgement.
In the case of the Canaanites however, their sin had become so great that God decided judgment could no longer wait. We get a hint at this in Genesis 15:16 where God says to Abraham:
“In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here [i.e. Canaan], for the sin of the Amorites [a Canaanite people] has not yet reached its full measure.”
In other words at the time of Abraham’s journey the Canaanites were sinful, but their sin had not yet gotten so bad as to warrant immediate judgment. God was still going to give them 400 years in which they could change their ways…but they didn’t.
And what was the nature of their sin? The more notable features included idolatry; incest; adultery; child sacrifice; homosexuality and bestiality. What is important to understand also is that it wasn’t just that there were individuals in Canaan who were committing these sins. These sins had become characteristic of their culture. They were built into the very fabric of how Canaanite society functioned. So, to use a metaphor, they weren’t punished by God because of a few “bad apples”. Rather, the entire “bushel and basket” were rotten to the core.
The Bible is clear over and over that God doesn’t show favourites. He is the righteous judge who will punish all sin, but extends grace and forgiveness through Jesus Christ to any who would turn to him and receive it. In the case of the Canaanites, he gave them over 400 years to show even a sign of turning toward him. Instead they showed the exact opposite. So great was their sin and so far had they removed themselves from God that when he judged the time right, he brought punishment for their sin against them, using the Israelites to do it.
What I would say to my children:
“The reason God commanded Israel to destroy the Canaanites was because their sin had become so great. Even though he had given them time and opportunity to turn to him, they just ran further and further away from him into sin. And because God is holy and righteous and just, he must punish sin…all sin. In the case of the Canaanites he decided that things with them had gotten so bad that it was time for punishment to come.”
These first two points attempt to bring clarity from the Bible as to what was happening during these events and what God’s reasons were for giving such commands. It is absolutely vital that we do not by-pass this in teaching our children about these difficult matters. We want them to accept that when looking for answers, we always turn to the Bible to find out about God.
These next points address the possible follow up questions our children may have. We’ve addressed what the Bible clearly teaches; now we deal with their possible response to what it teaches. Here are some tips to deal with those responses.
Answering questions with questions:
When our children react to something in the Bible, like God’s command to destroy the Canaanites, we need to know what is fuelling that reaction. If their response is something akin to “wasn’t it wrong of God to do that?” then we need to understand what assumptions they are holding that cause them to think this way. The only way to do this is to ask questions. Asking good questions helps us understand why our children are thinking the way they do, but also helps our children develop critical thinking skills which will pay big dividends as they grow older and face objections about God from the world.
In the case of God’s commands to destroy the Canaanites, if your child feels that God was wrong to do this, probe deeper to find out what assumptions they are holding that lead them to this conclusion. Here are a few questions that I would ask to do this:
a. “Is it wrong for God to take a life?”
This question will surface a crucial assumption that needs to be correct. Our secular culture continually bombards us with the message that our lives belong to us. But this idea of human autonomy is really at the heart of sin, and is absolutely contrary to the Bible which teaches that our lives actually belong to God.
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” (Job 1:21)
“[God says:] See now that I myself am he! There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life, (Deut. 32:39)
(See also Genesis 1; John 1; Acts 17:25-28; Romans 11:36)
So, if God is the giver of life and our lives rightfully belongs to him, doesn’t he have the right to take back what is his? Of course he does. When humans take a life, it is wrong because we are taking what does not belong to us; putting ourselves in God’s place. But when God takes a life, he is exercising his rightful authority as the determiner of life and death. All life belongs to God, and therefore he has the right to give and take it as he wills.
What I would say to my children:
Since God is the giver of life, he is the one who determines when life begins and when it ends. (cf. Job 14:5; Psalm 90:30) Since all life belongs to him, doesn’t it makes sense that he alone has the right to determine when a person’s life will end?
b. “Is it wrong for God to punish sin?”
One of my pet peeves with some popular Christian children’s materials is that they only teach a part of God’s truth. They focus almost entirely on God’s love and forgiveness, when the Bible places equal if not greater emphasis on God’s justice and wrath. Yes God is loving, but he is also just…and we wouldn’t want him any other way. To illustrate: imagine a judge who convicted murderers and rapist of their crimes, but then let them go free because he wanted to be “loving”. This is revolting on a human level, and even more so when talking about God.
It is important to help our children understand that God’s greatness flows from his holiness…that is his perfect moral character. God is completely separate from sin and is devoted to his own glory, and rightfully so since he alone is worthy of glory. Sin is that which seeks to rob God of his glory and give it to someone or something else that is NOT worthy of glory. To sin therefore is actually to commit an act of hatred toward God. As Paul says: “the sinful mind is hostile to God…” (Romans 8:7) and as such it brings sinners under God’s judgment.
When it comes to the issue of God’s command to destroy the Canaanites therefore, it is important to remind our children that whenever God punishes sin, he is acting justly. Any sin against God is an offence against his holiness, and therefore is deserving of punishment. This doesn’t mean that God is not loving, but his love can never contradict his justice.
“Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands. But those who hate him he will repay to their face by destruction; he will not be slow to repay to their face those who hate him.” (Deuteronomy 7:9-10)
What I would say to my children:
If someone stole your bike, wouldn’t you want the police to catch the person who did it and punish them for their crime? That’s called justice: when wrongs done are punished. Well, just like a good judge punishes criminals for the wrong they do, God, who is perfectly good also makes sure that all wrongs are appropriately punished.
The Bible teaches us that we have all done wrong…we have all sinned. (cf. Rom. 3:23) We know that because God loves us so much he sent Jesus to die on the cross to pay the punishment for our sin, but not all people accept what Jesus did. As a result, one day they too must face God’s justice; they must face punishment for their sin. This is called God’s judgement.
‘When’ we face God’s judgment is up to him to decide. In the case of the Canaanites, God decided that the time for them had come. And as judge, it was God’s right to decide what means he would use to carry out his judgment. In this case, (and this case only) he chose to use Israel.
c. “Is anyone really innocent?”
It’s heartbreaking to think about the scene in which Israelite soldiers had to carry out this command to kill woman and children. And, we should not try to candy coat this either. These were horrible events that we should never wish on anyone. It’s important to remember also that God himself does not relish or delight in such events. He tell us himself:
“Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezekiel 23:13)
It is worth repeating that God takes no delight in the destruction of the wicked, but as we’ve discussed, his holiness and justice demands that he punish sin. But some may object: “That’s fine for the obviously guilty, but what about the innocent like women and children?”
Here it is important to surface the underlying assumption and compare it to God’s Word. Can we really say that the women and children were innocent, and therefore that God was unfair or cruel in extending punishment to them also? In actuality, we cannot say this because the Bible teaches that all people are sinful. In fact, because our first parents Adam and Eve became sinful, every child born in their line (which is everyone) is also born sinful, inheriting both a sinful nature and the guilt of sin. (cf. Romans 5:12-21) What is more, because we are born with a sinful nature that impacts our entire being, we lack the ability to free ourselves from sin and therefore live a sin free life. As Paul says, “we are slaves to sin” (Romans 6:6). In other words the probability that any baby born into this world will commit sin is 100%.
So, the statement: “God was cruel or unfair to punish innocent women or children” is based upon a false assumption. Before God, no one is innocent, not even infants. This is what caused King David to confess:
“Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5)
What I would say to my children:
Something the Bible teaches us is that every person is guilty of sin. (cf. Psalm 51:5; Rom 3:23) In fact we are all born sinful. We know this because no one ever has to teach us to be sinful; we come by it naturally because it is a part of our nature. This is a horrible tragedy passed on to us by Adam and Eve who sinned first (cf. Rom. 5:12), but the fact still is that we all choose to sin, and so are all guilty of sin. So really, can we say that before God any person is truly innocent?
Questions like these are challenging to respond to, but so important because they show that our children’s minds are going through the necessary stages of growth, whereby the formation of their minds that comes from our sinful culture and their own sinful nature are being confronted by the transforming truth of God and his Word. (cf. Romans 12:2) We should not shrink back from tackling these tough questions, and shouldn’t feel like we need to only address them once. It may take a while for a complete understanding to sink in, so make sure you affirm your kids for asking good questions, but help pattern for them a reliance on God and the Bible to find true answers.