“Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you:”
— Lev 18:24
People often say that the God of the New Testament is a God of mercy and love, but the God of the Old Testament is vengeful and angry. Consider the fate of the Canaanites. The LORD didn’t just tell the Israelites to take over the Promised Land. He had them destroy all the people, young and old, male and female. He even had them kill off all the animals (Deut 20:16–17; Josh 6:21–23). Later in 1 Samuel, the LORD tells Saul to absolutely destroy the Amalekites and all they had:
“Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”
— 1 Samuel 15:3
Who is this God who would order such a thing?
There are a number of explanations, the first of which are included in the text:
“That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods; so should ye sin against the LORD your God. ”
— Deut 20:18
There is also the Nephilim issue. Genesis 6:4 includes the haunting phrase, “...and also after that....” Apparently these strange events were not confined just to the period before the Flood. We find that there seems to be some recurrence of those things which resulted in unusual “giants” appearing in subsequent periods later in the Old Testament narrative, specifically the giant-races of Canaan. There were a number of tribes such as the Rephaim, the Emim, the Horim, and Zamsummim, that were giants (Gen 14:5; Deut 2:10–12, 22).
Additional explanations are available. However, even if we do not know them all, can we trust that God who gave His Son to die for us, the God of mercy and grace, did know what He was doing, even when He ordered the destruction of entire groups of people?
All Their Abominations
First, we often hear the complaint that if God were good, He would not allow evil. We find that the groups of people God wiped out were engaged unrepentantly in a variety of horrific practices—to the point of being completely out of control.
When God brought the Flood, the earth was filled with violence, and the wickedness of humanity was so great that “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually,” (Gen 6:5).
Sodom was so bad before God destroyed it, the men of Sodom (young and old) surrounded Lot’s house and insisted he send out his guests so that they could rape them. When Lot made an attempt to appease his neighbors, they tried to break down the door (Gen 19:4–5,9).
The nations whom the LORD ordered the Israelites to destroy in the Promised Land engaged in a variety of abominable practices. They practiced child sacrifice, burning their children in the fire to false gods (Lev 18:21; 2Kings 17:31; 2Chron 28:3; 2Chron 33:6 ). They engaged in bestiality (perhaps explaining why the animals could not be spared) (Lev 18:23–25), as well as adultery and homosexuality and incest (Lev 18:6–20; 24).) They invited demonic activity by practicing sorcery and witchcraft and consulting with evil spirits (Deu 18:9–12).
Yes, God had the Israelites destroy these people, but Gen 15:16 implies that He waited until their wickedness was “full”—until there was no alternative.
Sparing The Righteous
It is important to note that in every instance in which God destroys a people, He consistently rescues the few upright people in the midst of them. As Abraham noted in Genesis 18:25, God does not destroy the righteous with the wicked.
In Genesis 18:17–33, Abraham pleaded with God for Sodom, and God agreed that if there were 10 righteous people in Sodom, He would spare the city. Apparently, there weren’t even 10. Rather than destroy the one righteous man with the rest, however, God sent angels to get Lot and his family out before the brimstone fell. In fact, the angel says he cannot do anything else until Lot has escaped (Gen 19:22).
In Josh 6:22–25, Joshua’s men made sure to go in and rescue Rahab and her entire family because she had been willing to help the Israelites. In fact, Rahab—once a harlot—becomes the mother of Boaz, ancestor of King David and, ultimately, of Jesus.
In 1 Kings 14, the prophet of God told Jeroboam that he would be replaced as king of Israel because of his great wickedness in leading Israel to worship false gods and molten images. The next king would wipe out all of Jeroboam’s offspring. However, there is one son of Jeroboam who had a good heart toward the LORD. This child would not be slaughtered like the others. He would mercifully die of an illness and be buried and mourned (1Ki 14:12–13).
Then, there is Ninevah. Jonah wanted God to destroy this city, but God gladly had mercy on them because they repented. In Jonah 4:10–11, we find God reasoning with Jonah about his hard heart, saying:
“Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?”
The God of the Old Testament is a God of great patience and longsuffering. He does not enjoy having to deal harshly with wicked humanity, and in Ezekiel we find His true position on the issue:
“Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways, and live?”
— Ezekiel 18:23
As we read the Old Testament, we need to be careful. The heart of God in the Old Testament is the same heart of mercy and goodness as the God in the New Testament. But because He is good, He does not allow evil to continue unchecked forever.