Ask RC: Why did God command the children of Israel to kill every man, woman and child in the Promised Land?

Among the countless nuggets of wisdom I have received over the years from my father is this bit of gold- when you are reading your Bible and you come across something that makes you uncomfortable, resist the temptation to simply move on to something else. Where the Bible makes us uncomfortable is precisely where we need to slow down. It is compelling evidence of a specific weakness. When our thoughts or feelings bristle under God’s Word, He is right and we wrong.

That said, it is understandable that so many would recoil from God’s command that every living person in Canaan would be put to death as His people conquer the land. No mercy for those women and children, no compassion on the aged, God’s instructions were as clear as they were brutal.

Many outside the faith have planted their flag here, arguing that our God is immoral, monstrous. Many on the fringes of the faith perform sundry exegetical gymnastics to wiggle out from under the account. Many faithful believers are simply puzzled and embarrassed. The God we worship, however, the true and living God, did in fact give this command, and rightly so. If we would rightly worship Him, even here we would praise His name.

There are at least two reasons why God did this. The first is evidenced in what came to pass when Israel did not obey God in this command. God wanted the land cleared of all temptations to His people to turn from Him, His worship and His law. The Canaanites were a threat to the purity of God’s people. He had set them apart, consecrated them, adopted them. In giving this order, He was protecting them.

Joshua, for all his faithfulness, left the job unfinished. Once Israel was in the ascendency, once they felt safe, they began to think it might prove helpful to leave some of the Canaanites around, to fetch their water and chop their wood. The book of Judges reveals the results. Those few who were spared became a snare, just as God predicted they would. Soon, everyone did what was right in their own eyes.

Of course one might understand this motive, and still be horrified. These Canaanites were not mere abstractions, but real people. Is it not still rather cruel to kill them all simply for to seek to protect the moral purity of Israel? Perhaps, were that God’s only motive. The second reason God commanded them all to be put to death is because they were all, every man, woman and child of them, sinners. And the wages of sin is death. In short, God did this for the same reason He does all that HE does, for the good of His people, and for His own glory.

It is because we are sinners , and because God so often showers us with grace, that we lose sight of the justice of God, and the blackness of sin. When we read about the execution of the Canaanites we ought not to ask, “How could God do this?” but “Why does He not kill us all?” The shocking part of the story of the conquest of Canaan is God’s love for His rebellious people, not His just wrath toward other rebels. From the moment of our conception we are all under God’s just death sentence. Every moment of every day is a momentary stay of execution. When we forget this truth we show ourselves to be the sinners we are. But praise His name, Christ came into the world to save sinners. He who knew no sin became sin for us, and died a sinner’s death that we might live. May we who are called by His name never lose either the amazing, or the grace, in amazing grace.