This sermon is shortened version of a talk given by the Revd Simon Coupland at the New Wine summer conference in 2010. You can download Simon's talk (£3 MP3 format, £3.99 audio CD) online at https://www.essentialchristian.com/revd-simon-coupland/teaching/is-god-homicidal-2
Last week began exploring the question if we believe in a God of love, and compassion and forgiveness, how are we to make sense of those passages in the Old Testament which portray God as being anything but a God of love, passages where for example God appears to order the wholesale destruction of nations that inhabited the Promised Land. In trying to address this question, we looked at two simple but wrong solutions, get rid of, or ignore the OT, or say it didn’t happen.
There aren’t any easy solutions to this problem, but this morning I want to give three helpful thoughts, which I hope will begin to address this difficult issue.
Helpful thought no. 1: judge events by the standards of the time
This argument gets support from an unlikely quarter. Richard Dawkins in his book ‘The God Delusion’ writes, “It is a commonplace that good historians don’t judge statements from past times by the standards of their own.”
By the standards of the day, it was quite normal that when you conquered a nation, you destroyed totally that other nation for your god. So for example, one of the difficult passages we looked at last week was the instruction in 1 Samuel for Saul to completely destroy the Amalekites. But when Saul failed to kill the Amalekite king Agag, Samuel does it instead. This is one of those difficult passages, but you have to remember that Agag was not a poor innocent victim in all this. He had blood on his hands, which is why Samuel says ‘Just as your sword left women childless, so will your mother be left childless’. Agag knew that as a king, if you conquered another king, you had him put to death.
We know from archaeological evidence that total destruction was something that other nations did. So for example we know the Amorites, Moabites, Assyrians and Egyptians acted in this way, destroying totally their enemies. We may look back and say that is a terrible thing to do, but at the time that was what they did, that was the nature of warfare.
So by the standards of the time, what we read in the OT, of the people of Israel being commanded to by God to slaughter other nations was no worse than anyone else, and what other people would have expected and accepted.
So with this in mind, it is surprising that there are some places in the OT where God does not command that. The destruction of certain tribes, cities, and people, was a very specific command by God in certain instances. It was not a general command for the people of God in Israel in every circumstance at every time.
So for example when the city of Jericho was attacked, Rahab and her family were spared, because she hid two of the Israelite’s spies hide from the city guard. And in Deuteronomy you see the rules of engagement for the Israelite army:
- · When attacking a city, make an offer of peace (Deuteronomy 20.10).
- · Spare the women, children and livestock (Deut. 20. 14)
- · Don’t destroy fruit trees (Deut. 20.19)
The point is that we need to judge events by the standards of the time. And by the standards of this time, what the Israelite’s did was no more brutal or worse than what anyone else was doing.
To bring this more up to date, consider for example the question was it right fight in WW2? Well most people would say yes, Hitler was evil, as we see with the holocaust. Fighting such evil was the right decision. But was the bombing of German cities – which resulted in the deaths of many thousands of civilians the right thing to do? I think that most people would argue that with hindsight, it wasn’t, but at the time most people thought it was the right thing to do.
Looking at the OT, with what we now know about the character of God, through the coming of Jesus, we would say that the slaughter of people was wrong, but at the time with what people knew, they would have said yes it was right.
So helpful thought 1 is that we must judge events by the standards of the time.
Helpful thought no. 2: remember why God commanded this
God commanded the death of some in Israel who had sinned, and the destruction of some nations outside of Israel, for the sake of holiness.
There is such a thing as real evil in the world. The Canaanite religion was one such religion, it was a religion based on prostitution, idolatry, and child sacrifice. And God said: ‘that must be wiped out, that must be destroyed’. That is why in Leviticus God says “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.” Leviticus 18:24-27
God knew that if they didn’t wipe out this religion, they too would be drawn into it, and be corrupted by it. That is why in Deuteronomy 12, God says “When you have driven them out and settled in their land, and after they have been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.” You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshipping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.” Deuteronomy 12:29-31
What God calls us to is radical holiness. If you are diagnosed with cancer, you want to get rid of every single last trace of the cancer from your body. That is what God said about the Canaanite religion, that if you leave Canaanites in your midst that practice their religion, you will start to worship their gods. And what we see in the OT, is that this is exactly what happened, time after time. The Israelite’s turned their backs of God and started worshipping other gods.
And that is why God calls us to radical holiness.
The question is how seriously do we take holiness? God says to us, be holy as I am holy. Jesus says “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away... And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” (Matthew 5.29-30) In other words Jesus says if there is something that causes us to be tempted, get rid of it, cut it out altogether. God demands radical holiness.
Helpful thought no. 3: Jesus changes everything
This is the main helpful thought, and the one to remember.
The OT has truth, goodness, and the character of God in it. But it is only a shadow of the reality that was coming, and that is Christ. And it is Jesus Christ, who is the one who fully reveals God to us. If you want to know what God is like, you only have to look at Jesus. Through Jesus we see that God is compassionate, loving, forgiving, generous, and full of mercy and grace.
And as Christians, we should look at the OT, and what it teaches, through the lens of Jesus and the cross, because that changes everything.
When we read about death and destruction in the OT, that was for then. But God has now shown us a better way, the way of Jesus, the way of love. Jesus changes everything and knowing him changes everything.
Because what Jesus reveals to us, is a God who gets his feet messy and his hands bloody, by coming down into our world and being slaughtered, being rejected, being destroyed on the cross. Taking into himself the pain and suffering of our world, and redeeming it, and giving life.
And because we know him, we can trust him, and we can trust even the things we don’t quite understand about him.
What I hope you can take away from this, is a slightly less big problem about these difficult passages in the OT. But what I really want you to take away is a trust in Jesus, that says ‘it's okay’, because if I don’t understand all of it, what I do understand changes everything, and that’s how I read those passages, through the light of the cross.