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October 24, 2021 | Doug Sauder
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“How could a loving God . . .”
Let’s be honest. These words have crossed most of our minds at some point in our lives. As our spiritual journey begins, God’s Spirit works to draw us into an understanding of Who He is. We learn about Jesus and sense He’s everything we’ve always longed for. Our hearts resonate with the revelation of His unconditional love and we desire to devote to Him.
But as we continue to grow in our knowledge of God, we come across things that can create a wrestle in us. Things that seem completely inconsistent with the Jesus we find so captivating. It often happens when we turn to the Old Testament and take a close look at the history of Israel.
It’s a past filled with violence, and a lot of the violence was prescribed by God, Himself! There’s no getting around this fact; at certain times God commanded the armies of Israel to put the nations surrounding them to death. We especially see this in the Books of Joshua and Judges, as the Israelites forcibly displaced the Canaanite nations living in the territory God called them to possess.
Understandably, we struggle with all this. It can seem like this God isn’t who He said He was. “What happened to gentle Jesus? How could a loving God ever do such a thing? Is He into genocide? Is this God a racist?” If left to linger, these thoughts can easily lead us to the conclusion, “How could a loving God do all this? I don’t know if I could ever trust Him.”
Things can’t end here, because the God who commanded these things is the only God who can save and fulfill us. Apart from Him, we will never find a God worth trusting. So how do we make sense of all this? How do we work our way through this wrestle?
A People Unto God
For starters, we can say with certainty that this was not an ethnic cleansing or any sort of racial bigotry, as people like Rahab (a Canaanite) and Ruth (A Moabite), the Kenites who settled with Judah, Uriah the Hittite, and others throughout Israel’s history who put their hope and trust in God were not only allowed to stay, but also even grafted into the family—both Rahab and Ruth are part of the line of David and Jesus.
It was also not an imperialistic conquest, where God was leading the Israelites to become a major world power like Babylon or Greece. As Tim Keller points out, “no one is allowed to take plunder or slaves” (sadly we do see some of the tribes of Israel disobey the Lord in this regard and made slaves of some of the inhabitants of the Promised Land, which was one of the reasons that the Israelites were punished and allowed to feel the consequences of their disobedience and rebellion).
Now that we got a little more context and clarity on what wasn’t happening , it’s important for us to remember and really understand that times have changed if we are to truly understand what was happening here. While God’s essential nature never changes, His purposes throughout time have. In Old Testament times, He chose to reveal Himself to the world through the Nation of Israel—the Church had not yet been established. He gave Israel His Law to govern their actions and instill a sense of identity in Him. God purposed to make them separate and distinct from the surrounding nations steeped in pagan practices.
In the Book of Romans, Paul points out that God’s ultimate purpose for Israel was not to write-off the rest of the world, but to welcome it in (Romans 15:9-12). Israel was meant to be God’s beacon of hope in a landscape devoid of spiritual light. They were meant to be the light of the world, a city on a hill (Matthew 5:14). By being different from those around them, Israel could be an agent of salvation to those who recognized their God and obeyed His Law. Rahab, who lived during this time, was a perfect example of this (Joshua 2), as was Ruth, whose story took place during the time of the Judges.
Being different from the surrounding world was vital to God’s purpose for Israel. But being different doesn’t come about naturally. It takes a lot of effort. In fact, you have to fight for it . . . which leads to God’s command that Israel take measures against the nations surrounding them, nations that blasphemed against Him, worshiped idols, and were exceedingly wicked—but more on that later.
A World of War
When God put this into motion, it wasn’t a “live and let live” world. Territory was constantly contested, times were violent, and the use of force was necessary for survival. This is hard to fathom when you’ve lived your entire life in a relatively stable society governed by law and order. But as Israel was being established, the risk of being invaded and destroyed was very real. In fact, these people groups—Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—were always at war with one another within the land. One of the earliest extra-biblical findings regarding the people who inhabited the land, fragments of a 4,000-year-old letter, calls the people of the land “thieves,” and speaks of the conflict, disorder, unrest, and lawlessness that was present.
Now, imagine the people of God just strolling in to the land He had promised their father Abraham and just trying to settle there. How do you think that would have gone down? So, in keeping with the needs of that time, God commanded Israel to do what needed to be done. If that seems overly dramatic, consider the practices that defined these nations as mentioned by Moses:
“When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, be very careful not to imitate the detestable customs of the nations living there. For example, never sacrifice your son or daughter as a burnt offering. And do not let your people practice fortune-telling, or use sorcery, or interpret omens, or engage in witchcraft, or cast spells, or function as mediums or psychics, or call forth the spirits of the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord. It is because the other nations have done these detestable things that the Lord your God will drive them out ahead of you. But you must be blameless before the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 18:9-13 NLT).
“Do not worship the LORD your God in the way they worship their gods, for in the worship of their gods they do all the disgusting things that the LORD hates. They even sacrifice their children in the fires on their altars” (Deuteronomy 12:31 GNT).
“They must not remain in your land, lest they cause you to sin against Me. For if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you” (Exodus 23:33 NIV).
The contrast couldn’t be greater. On one hand you have a people who’ve been set aside for the purpose of rightly reflecting God. One the other, you have nations infected with just about everything God is against. As with any infection, the slightest amount can quickly spread with deadly consequences. Drastic lines had to be drawn. God gave Israel the mandate to take no prisoners, because He knew any prisoners would eventually prove their downfall.
These were not innocent people who weren’t deserving of judgment and wrath. In fact, one of the defeated inhabitants, a wicked, sadistic, sociopathic man named Adoni-Bezek (Judges 1:4–7) who is a microcosm of the peoples inhabiting the land, knew this. Tim Keller points out, “It is notable that, while many 21st-century readers have many qualms about Israel’s conduct, this defeated Canaanite did not. God’s judgment throughout history is to give people over to the consequences of the life they have chosen (Psalm 63:3–4; Romans 1:21–32)—Adoni-Bezek, it appears, accepts this.”
God, who is compassionate and longsuffering, who “is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9 NIV), no doubt gave them countless chances and opportunities, years and years to repent and turn to Him, to repent as the people of Israel were at their doorstep, to cry out to the Lord . . . but they didn’t. And now, righteous and right judgment was upon them.
So let’s recap. How do we reconcile a God who would command Israel to destroy other nations with a God of love? By remembering God’s love was being expressed in a different way in that time. By remembering that God’s ultimate purpose for Israel was to be an agent of His revelation and salvation to a lost and perishing world. By remembering that it was vital for Israel to be different to accomplish this. By remembering the nations surrounding Israel were threatening its very existence and purpose.
By remembering the slightest trace of any infection was enough to undermine Israel’s survival. And when we look at their history through Judges and beyond, we see that God was right. The Israelites didn’t drive out all the people, they made covenants with them, they intermarried, and just one generation after Joshua’s death, the people had forgotten the Lord, had forsaken their covenant with Him, and had begun worshiping the false gods of Baal, Asheroth, Molech, and more. They lived with them, became like them, and were often subject to them and oppressed by them.
And let’s not forget that Israel’s ultimate purpose, the reason their survival was necessary was so that God could fulfill His promise and bring forth the Messiah, the King of kings and Lord of lords, the Savior of the world, His precious Son Jesus. With Jesus, a new era and new promise came into the world, a hope for the entire world, a grace we now get to live in. Not just the Israelites, but all the people of the earth, all who believe. With this panoramic perspective, we hopefully see that it’s not a question of how a loving God could do this, but how a God who truly loves the world couldn’t do what was absolutely necessary to save it
Pastor Dan Hickling serves our online community, also known as the Calvary Chapel Online Campus. He and his wife Becky have been married for 22 years and have two children, Lauren and Danny. Both Dan and Becky have been part of the CCFL church family for 22 years and have served in full time ministry for 20 of those years.