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God Is Not A Monster – God and Genocide

This final article in our five part series will examine whether the God of the Bible condones genocide and ethnic cleansing.
Read Time: 6 minutes

In our last article, we asked whether the God of the Bible is “a jealous God.” The Biblical answer is: “Yes, He is!” Exodus 34:14 states, “For thou shalt worship no other god: for the LORD whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.”

We saw, however, that God’s jealousy implies vulnerability and the capacity to experience pain—not the pettiness of a power-hungry deity obsessed with dominating people! In fact, God gets jealous precisely because He cares and loves His people deeply! God’s jealousy isn’t capricious or petty. God becomes jealous of our best interests, and His commandments are given for our good.

This final article will examine whether the God of the Bible condones genocide and ethnic cleansing.

The New Atheists will often quote chapters like Deuteronomy 20 to show that the God of the Old Testament is a racially prejudiced ethnic cleanser: 

As for the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is going to give you as an inheritance, you must not allow a single living thing to survive. Instead, you must utterly annihilate them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that they cannot teach you all the abhorrent ways they worship their gods, causing you to sin against the Lord your God. (Deut 20:16-18).1

While this sounds cut and dried, it will be important to get some context and background to understand what is happening here. 

First, it is worth noting that the Canaanites in Joshua’s time suffered the consequences of their own actions, not a cruel invasion by a foreign people. God says, “Therefore the land has become unclean and I have brought the punishment for its iniquity upon it so that the land has vomited out its inhabitants.” (Lev 18:25).

Was this fair of God to act in this way? Well, the Canaanites should have known better since their ancestor was Canaan, the grandson of Noah. Therefore, he would have been aware of the consequences of disobeying God since he grew up in the only family that survived the Flood. 

the people of the land knew of the Most High God

Melchizedek was the king of Salem and priest of God. (Gen 14:18). He lived amid the Canaanites. He and Abraham fellowshipped together and he blessed Abraham, who even gave him a tenth of all the spoils. Therefore the people of the land knew of the Most High God. They were not ignorant of God’s laws and expectations. They had no excuse for their immorality and idolatry.

Abraham and Lot preached extensively all across the region, and God did many miracles through them. The Canaanites were witnesses of God’s judgment poured out on Sodom and Gomorrah, so they knew exactly what happened to people who disobeyed him. They had no excuse. Therefore, Joshua and the people of Israel were God’s instrument to bring punishment upon disobedient nations.

This is a timeless principle!

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So, people are without excuse. (Rom 1:18-20).

It is also important to consider that God waited many years between giving the command in Leviticus 18 and acting on it. Why did God wait? Because He is merciful and longsuffering. When God promised to give Abraham’s offspring the land, God told Abraham that it would not be until “the fourth generation [that] they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.” (Gen 15:16).

God would not act against these people until their wickedness reached a level He could no longer tolerate. Interestingly, God eventually brought about the same judgment upon His own people Israel when they later behaved like the Canaanites they had dispossessed. (see Num 33:51-56).

Significantly, God’s call to battle (for example, in the time of Joshua) was unique to the nation of Israel. Such a command isn’t an enduring, universally binding standard for all times and all cultures. It wasn’t even a permanent fixture in Israel’s story after the time of David. It certainly should never have been used to justify the brutally horrific Crusades in the Middle Ages, nor any other atrocities that have been done “in the Name of God.”

In addition, the nation of Israel was not allowed to have a standing army, and they were not to be reliant on horses and chariots. Only prophets under divine revelation made the call for war (not kings, priests, or tribal leaders). The victories Israel’s non-professional, rag-tag army won against overwhelming odds clearly signaled that God was fighting for them. Often priests were praising and worshipping God before, during and after a battle. When acting in faith, Israel won their battles without any loss of life. God was obviously the one who brought the victory. 

This fact does not justify the many holy wars declared throughout history. As one writer said, “Yahweh-initiated battles were never intended for non-prophet organizations!”2

Most of the wars Israel fought as a nation under Joshua and David were in self-defense. God explicitly instructed them not to provoke any nations that chose to co-exist with them peacefully. For example, in Deuteronomy 2:9, God tells the children of Israel, “Distress not the Moabites, neither contend with them in battles.” This instruction was repeated for other nations too. But the chapter goes on to show that when attacked, Israel defended itself and was victorious over their enemies. 

So, was it xenophobia, ethnic cleansing, or genocide in Joshua’s time? No! These are just terms the New Atheists use to evoke a strong emotional response from their readers.

God always intended to include “all nations” in his plan of redemption (Gen 12:1-3). But, in time, God does judge and will judge all those who practice evil and wickedness—Jew or Gentile!

God is concerned about sin and wickedness, not ethnicity.

The account of Israel inheriting the land was not about race or ethnicity but about good versus evil. Many non-Jews were incorporated into the family of Israel—Rahab, Uriah the Hittite, and Araunah the Jebusite, to name just a few. Israel was instructed to care for foreigners (Lev 19:34; Deut 10:18-19) and give them full rights in the land. (Lev 24:22; Num 35:15.) Acceptance and inclusion, or rejection and annihilation, depended on whether or not there was a belief in God. It had nothing to do with race, color, or ethnicity.

God is concerned about sin and wickedness, not ethnicity. In fact, in the Old Testament, it is obvious God opposed Israel’s sin just as much as (if not more than) the sins of the Gentiles. God even used foreign nations to judge Israel! Assyria, Babylon, and Rome were all used to punish Israel and scatter them throughout the globe at various times as judgment upon Israel for continually rejecting God. 

While we may be troubled when reading certain Old Testament passages, we can put them into proper perspective by looking at their context and the historical period. The ultimate resolution is found in God’s Word and in His Son Jesus Christ–who lived among us, was put to death, and rose again on our behalf. The God whom the New Atheists consider a “monster” is a holy God who we need to revere, but also a loving, self-sacrificing God who invites us to be reconciled to Him.

Remember what Dawkins said. “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser.”3

Well, I don’t believe in the God that Richard Dawkins doesn’t believe in! This is the God I believe in:

The LORD, the one who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy and faithfulness, guarding mercy for thousands by forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin—so making innocent! While still visiting the iniquity of fathers and children, to the third and fourth, of those that hate Him. (a paraphrase of Exodus 34:5-7).   

Chris Sales,
Collingwood Ecclesia, ON


  1. 1 All Scriptural citations are from the New King James Version.
  2. 2 Copan, Paul, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God, Baker Books, Grand Rapid, MI, 2011, page 161.
  3. 3 Dawkins, Richard, The God Delusion, Bantam Press, UK, 2006, p. 31 in the hardcover edition and p. 51 in the paperback edition
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