In our first message, we introduced the difficulty found in Scripture when God seems to command people to do things that are sinful. We examined specific cases of “sin by command” and considered the reasons for them. First, we discussed the command for Hosea to marry a prostitute; and not just a former one, but one who was still practicing. Yet we found that there was no specific command against anyone who was not a priest marrying a prostitute, though a woman who was a prostitute should have been punished herself. Second, we viewed the command to Ezekiel to eat meat defiled by being cooked on human dung. Yet we pointed out that the only reason food was unclean is because God proclaimed it unclean. Since it was not something inherent in the food itself and God made the clean and unclean laws, He certainly had the right to tell someone not to keep them, if He so wished. The same applies to the command to Peter to kill and eat unclean things in Acts 10.
From there we examined more examples. First was the case of the prophet in I Kings 20 who commanded a man to strike him. When the man refused, he was punished with death. Yet we established the principle that the ultimate good is always to obey the voice of the LORD, and the worst of sin is to disobey Him from I Samuel 15:22-23a.
22. So Samuel said:
“Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
As in obeying the voice of the LORD?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
And to heed than the fat of rams.
23. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft,
And stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.
So the man who refused to strike the prophet disobeyed, and paid the ultimate penalty. Later, when the prophet commanded another man to do the same, he did it, but only wounded the prophet, which was the point of the command. Next, we considered images that God commanded to be made in the temple, contrary to the command against graven images. Yet when we examined this command, we found that it referred specifically to idols, not to any image whatsoever. The images in the temple were not to be worshipped, so did not qualify under the prohibition. Finally, we considered Elijah’s altar that he built at Mount Carmel in I Kings 18. Since Deuteronomy 12 forbade them from sacrificing anywhere except the LORD’s altar at Jerusalem, this seems like God was having His prophet break the command. However, we saw that in Exodus 20, rules were set down for making your own altar, and surely Elijah followed these rules. Since in the northern kingdom they were cut off from going to the altar at Jerusalem, it seems that Elijah was in his rights to build an altar according to Exodus 20.
But there are other puzzling passages that seem to be examples in the Bible of sin by command. In this message, we will consider a few more of these.
Genocide Against the Canaanites
The Israelites were commanded by the LORD many times to commit what we would consider as genocidal acts. This was particularly true of the Canaanites whose land the people took in the wars under Joshua. This was not just something the people undertook to do on their own, but something the LORD specifically commanded them to do. One example of such a command is in Deuteronomy 20:16-17.
16. “But of the cities of these peoples which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance, you shall let nothing that breathes remain alive, 17. but you shall utterly destroy them: the Hittite and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite, just as the LORD your God has commanded you,
How is it that God could command something as terrible as the destruction of entire nations full of people? This we would consider to be genocide in our day, and would count it as a most terrible act for any nation or people to commit against another. How, then, could the LORD have commanded such a seemingly sinful thing?
What can we say about God commanding the Israelites to wipe out the nations in the land they were to inherit? The command was harsh and unequivocal. Moreover, the Israelites carried it out, as we see in the case of Jericho in Joshua 6:21.
21. And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword.
They did the same to the city Ai in Joshua 8:25-26.
25. So it was that all who fell that day, both men and women, were twelve thousand—all the people of Ai. 26. For Joshua did not draw back his hand, with which he stretched out the spear, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai.
And if we would follow it out in Joshua 10 and 11, we would see that the Israelites did the same thing to many other cities also, wiping out every single inhabitant. This would be considered a war crime of the greatest magnitude today. How could the LORD command such a thing?
To understand this, we need to see what the LORD says justifying this extreme command that He made. First, let us consider Deuteronomy 20:18, where the LORD explains the reason for His harsh command of verses 16-17.
18. lest they teach you to do according to all their abominations which they have done for their gods, and you sin against the LORD your God.
One reason the LORD wanted the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites, rather than allowing them to live alongside them as neighbors or slaves, is that He knew that the Canaanites would lead the Israelites into their abominable practices. They would be fascinated by their religion, and would end up worshipping their gods in the many grotesque and immoral ways that the Canaanites did. To spare Israel from the temptation to do this, the LORD wanted these wicked people wiped out. Notice that another reason is implied in this: the Canaanites committed abominations. This takes us back to a statement in the book of Genesis. There, the LORD explains to Abram in Genesis 15:13-16 what will happen to his family in time to come.
13. And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years;
14. And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance.
15. And thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age.
16. But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.
The LORD was going to send Israel away to a foreign nation, where they would be afflicted and serve that people. It would be four hundred years before Israel would return to inherit the land the LORD had promised to Abram. The reason the LORD gives for this long delay is that “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.” In other words, the LORD knew that the Amorites were getting wickeder and wickeder, but they had not yet gotten to the point where He was willing to wipe them out. In four hundred years, they would reach that point, and then He would bring Abraham’s descendants against them. So we see here that the LORD’s judgment was long delayed by His grace. Whatever we may think about it when it finally fell, He graciously put off the punishment until the time came when the wicked abominations of the Canaanites had reached their peak.
Leviticus 18 gives us further proof of the corrupt practices of the Canaanites. In verses 1-3, we read:
1. Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 2. “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘I am the LORD your God. 3. According to the doings of the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, you shall not do; and according to the doings of the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you, you shall not do; nor shall you walk in their ordinances.
He then goes on to outlaw incest (verses 6-16,) taking a woman and her sister, daughter, or granddaughter as wife together (verses 17-18,) having sex with a woman during her period (verse 19,) adultery with your neighbor’s wife (verse 20,) causing your children to pass through the fire to Molech (verse 21,) homosexuality (verse 22,) and bestiality (verse 23.) After forbidding all these disgusting practices, the LORD continues in verse 24,
24. ‘Do not defile yourselves with any of these things; for by all these the nations are defiled, which I am casting out before you. 25. For the land is defiled; therefore I visit the punishment of its iniquity upon it, and the land vomits out its inhabitants.
The LORD accuses all the nations who had dwelt in the land before Israel of performing all these wicked practices. It seems no sexual perversion was beneath them, and the sacrificing of their children to their degenerate gods was a common practice. According to James Hastings and John A. Selbie, “Traces of infant sacrifice are much more clear” (than those of animal sacrifice.) “In the Canaanite levels of all the mounds, jars containing the bones of new-born infants have been found in large numbers, buried beneath the floors of the high places, under the corners and thresholds of houses, and in other places where sacrifice would naturally occur. With these infants were deposited small jars containing food and drink. In some instances the bones showed signs of burning, but usually this was not the case. The jars were often filled with fine sea-sand. It is evident that first-born infants were sacrificed in honor of the mother-goddess, the giver of children.” “Sacrifice of adults was not so common as sacrifice of children; still it was occasionally practiced.” (Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics Part 5, Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2003, page 187)
So we know that the Canaanite were, indeed, wicked, and committed many practices that would be considered abominable by any righteous standard. That the Canaanites deserved punishment is clear. Whether or not they deserved complete and utter destruction is our next question. To this question, the Bible provides a clear answer.
First of all, we need to keep clearly in mind the Biblical principle expressed in Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death.” Moreover, all we as human beings are sinners, as Romans 3:23 expresses. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Therefore, we all deserve death, for we are all sinners. Any time, therefore, when God metes out death in judgment, He is giving people no more than what they deserve. Whether He metes out that death by plague, by flood, by fire from heaven, or by an invading army, His actions are just, and His punishment fitting.
Therefore, far from dealing out death being harsh, any time God does not deal out death to sinful men, He is actually being gracious, and punishing us less than our sins deserve. As Lamentations 3:22 says:
22. Through the LORD’s mercies we are not consumed,
Because His compassions fail not.
Finally, I would like to point out that those who decry the destruction of the Canaanites probably imagine them to be normal people just like they are themselves. There might be some truth to this, but the fact is that none of us has ever met a Canaanite. It is very easy for us to question God’s judgment, therefore. Perhaps, if we actually met a Canaanite, we might develop a different perspective on things, once we saw what they were actually like. We judge too easily, without being able to possibly have all the facts at our disposal. It would be best if we left this decision to God, and trusted His judgment.