Why Does God Seem So Mean in the Old Testament? 5 answers that may surprise you

By Lisa Quintana, MA Apologetics

I used to avoid reading the Old Testament because camping out in the New Testament was so much nicer! But after studying the Old Testament, I see things much differently. There is an overarching theme happening in Old Testament events that helped usher in the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. And the nation of Israel was critical in this occurring! When I began to see that narrative, the Old Testament made way more sense.

  1. Israel was a theocracy.

    One thing that is vital in understanding why God supported killing in the Old Testament is that, at first, Israel was a theocracy—a nation ruled directly by God. So, its law was much different than our modern-day governing. God was the King of Israel for a season, and therefore, its Judge. When God supported killing in those ancient days, it’s better to view it like capital punishment for crimes committed against Him and for the protection of Israel.

  2. Protecting the seed.

    God does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone (see Lam. 3:33), but depending on how people act, He will bring hardship to correct and protect. An example of this happened during the time of the Canaanites. Israel was commanded to conquer the land in order to protect the seed (see Gen. 3:15) which carried with it the promise of the future hope in the lineage of Jesus Christ. The salvation of humanity was to come through Israel’s lineage, and if the Canaanites continued in their immoral practices, it is a high probability that they would have raised up generations of Canaanites to conquer and eventually exterminate (some through syncretistic worship, which is combining different beliefs by blending practices of various schools of thought) the nation of Israel—protector of the seed. If not conquered, the Canaanites would have tried to exterminate every last Jew, similar to what Hitler tried to do in World War II.

    Let’s put this scenario in a modern context. During World War II, Winston Churchill declared that the war was for the “survival of Christian civilization.” The very way of life was being threatened globally. A decision was made to end the madness by bombing civilian population centers, including the devastating nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Why is it fair that we dropped a nuclear bomb, killing children along with adults? Most Americans still feel these were necessary acts to preserve our way of life. Thousands of years from now, without understanding the historical context, what will people think of this act? Yet we do this with the Old Testament killings. Thousands of years later, we question God’s goodness in ordering such acts. But when examining the Biblical meta-narrative, we see God working in history to cause the fulfillment of the coming Messiah.

  3. God hates sin.

    We can never forget that God hates sin. The first of the Ten Commandments is idolatry, and the Canaanites were infamous for this sin. Canaanites were polytheists, and their idolatrous practices included incest, adultery, child sacrifice, homosexuality, and bestiality. But the sin of idolatry is one act that God has shown little patience with—as if the other sins the Canaanites committed weren’t bad enough —and He judges it. It is hard to comprehend why idolatry was detested by God because this sin has been lost on us today; idolatry is much more subtle. For example, people no longer bow down to golden calves, but indirectly, some certainly do! Many love money more than anything else, giving their life to the pursuit of it. Their actions show that money has become their passion. One of the main reasons God hates idolatry is that to worship something (meaning anything you devote your whole heart to) made from human hands is worthless, and if you follow after what is worthless, you become worthless (see Jer. 2:5).

  4. God is sovereign.

    In the Canaanite case, He meant to destroy everything (even the cattle because they were used for bestiality practices). God has every right to order utter destruction – He is the creator of it all. We don’t like to hear that because we minimize sin today. We should remember God’s standard is holiness, and we need to understand the Old Testament in light of what that means. The Canaanite war was the only time in history that God ordered destruction on this scale, and it was to clear the land, make it holy for Israel to live in, and protect the seed.

    We tend to forget that sin has serious consequences. And it is hard to consider that everyone perished in this judgment. Children were involved, just like in war, and suffered the consequences. Perhaps we think this harsh punishment should have only been directed to the parents for not considering the result of their actions. Yet, the Lord had predicted that Abraham’s descendants would claim the land when “the sin of the Amorites” (Canaanites were their direct descendants) reached its “full measure” (see Gen. 15:16b). This “full measure” of sin was attained by the Canaanites in the generation leading to the Jewish conquest. If God allowed the children to live, it is highly likely that those children would carry on the generational sin of their Canaanite parents because of a common ancient practice called “blood retribution.” This tribal culture believed that as long as one member of a family remained, that person was bound by cultural law to attempt retribution. Such unrest and hostility would have persisted throughout the nation’s history, with no possibility of peace in the land. What appears to be genocide was actually the way wars were typically prosecuted.1

  5. The story of the entire Bible is redemptive.

    In the end, God often used Canaanite sin to teach Israel obedience. Yet He demonstrated grace in that sin by ultimately showing the need for a redeemer— Jesus Christ. Without the nation of Israel surviving in that ancient barbaric civilization, Jesus would not have been born. That understanding should make reading of the Old Testament fascinating by showing how God works sovereignly, while allowing the free will of humanity. He does this throughout history, and does this in our lives, too. Knowing this should bring comfort that God is ultimately in control, and the whole world is in the process of ultimate redemption.

1. James C. Denison, Ph.D, Denison Forum, “Why Did God tell the Jews to kill the Canaanites?”


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