The Command to Destroy

ONE OF THE BIGGEST CRITICISMS of biblical history is how a good God could allow and endorse the military conquest and annihilation of one select people group over another. It is a criticism that still dominates conversations today regarding land disputes in the Middle East.  

As the Israelites prepared to cross the Jordan River and receive the land that God had given them, we are forced to come to terms with a difficult command given by God. God commands the Israelite warriors too "drive out all the inhabitants of the land and destroy all their figured stones and destroy all their metal images and demolish all their high places" (Numbers 33). We must consider some implications of this controversial command because the Israelites seem to be invading and capturing land that at the time seemed to belong to someone else.

How is this an acceptable thing for God to not only allow them to do but to actually command them to do and to threaten them with punishment if they don't do it?

This kind of question and many others like it tend to forget a foundational principle. The entire world and everything in it rightly belongs to God (Psalm 24). Men only possess what God gives them, and therefore men never own anything that is not ultimately God's. And since the entire world belongs to God, he is free to reallocate his property in any way that he pleases for his own plans and purposes.

Many critics tend to overlook the fact that Israel was also commissioned to not conquer any other lands beyond what God had specifically commanded (see Deuteronomy 2 for an example). There were clear and set boundaries to the Israelites' mission of conquering the land. Not only that, but after inheriting the land they were then commanded to be a blessing to the nations. The ultimate vision of this conquering was to establish a people that would be a blessing for all other nations.

But how can a loving God call for the destruction and decimation of an entire community and culture?

God is a God of love, but he is also a righteous God of justice. He had patiently (and lovingly) endured the idolatry and sinfulness of the Canaanites until their iniquity reached the decisive point of judgement (Genesis 15:16). God had appointed judgement for the idolatry of Canaan, and the Israelites were his appointed instruments for carrying out that judgement. God destroyed and decimated a people completely given over to idolatry and sin. This wasn't a matter of the Canaanites simply being in the way of God's plan for Israel.

God's plan to give Israel the land simultaneously fulfilled God's plan to deal with the idolatry of the Canaanites.

Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. (Deuteronomy 9)

Sometimes circumstances lead us to question the love, fairness and justice of God. It's these times and circumstances that force us into the humble position of acknowledging the infinite gap between our understanding and the sovereign ways of an Almighty God. The prophet Isaiah writes:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55)

So instead of us questioning God, we need to ask our ourselves whether we can accept this infinite gap or whether we consider such a thing as being completely intolerable. Can we stomach the truth that sin deserves destruction, decimation and death? Can we come to terms with the truth that only God's grace through the death of his own son spares us his judgement of our sin and selfishness? And can we accept (and even embrace) the truth that God has a plan for human history, and in his infinite wisdom, he is free to execute that plan however he sees fit?