In 1 Samuel 15, God told King Saul to wipe out the Amalekites, every last one of them, and leave no survivors. The story is about Saul failing to follow God’s directions while claiming to have done so. He kept King Agab alive and allowed his men to save the best of the sheep and other animals. When Samuel, the prophet, asked, “What is this bleating of sheep I hear?” Saul blamed the men for his failure to obey God, but Saul was the one who did not obey God. That is how the story goes….
But, wait a minute! …. God told Saul to kill them… all of them. That sounds incredibly harsh. It sounds worse than harsh. Is God not supposed to be a loving God?
This is a pretty common question (a rhetorical one) posed by people who oppose Christianity and reject the Bible. “A loving God would not kill people,” they say. Since the Old Testament, in particular, depicts God in this way, the Bible cannot be true, the Christian God is fiction and the whole thing is bunk.
The unspoken sentiment behind that line of thinking is that “we” (humankind) have come a long way since primitive times. We have evolved past the Enlightenment into a modern scientific age in which we have superior moral and intellectual stature. We are the gods of our own world. We have thrown off superstitious belief in a tyrant God that stifles human potential in this post-enlightenment age.
But does history add up that way?
Since the Enlightenment, Stalin killed some 20 million citizens (International Business News). Not to be outdone, Hitler also killed about 20 million citizens at about the same time. (DEMOCIDE: NAZI GENOCIDE AND MASS MURDER by R.J. Rummel). Regardless, of who was responsible for a greater genocide, (or how accurate those numbers are) these things happened in a post-enlightenment, scientific age. Humanism was budding as these mass atrocities were being perpetrated.
With numbers so large, there are bound to be some discrepancies. One site keeping a tally reports the following mass killings in the 20th Century in this order: 1) Mao Ze-Dong – China (up to 78 million); 2) Hitler – Germany (15,000); 3) Leopold of Belgium – Congo (8 million); 4) Stalin – Soviet Union (7 million); 5) Hideki Tojo – Japan (5 million); 6) Ismael Enver – Turkey (2.5 million); 7) Pol Pot – Cambodia (1.7 million); 8) Kim Il Sung – Korea (1.6 million); 9) Menghistu – Ethiopia (1.5 million); 10 Yakubu Gowon – Biafra (1 million) (Worst Genocides of the 20th and 21st Centuries) Those are just the genocides that are measured in the millions.
The Soviets wiped out about 900,000 Afghans in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s. About 800,000 people were killed in Rwanda in 1994. Saddam Hussein accounts for about 600,000 Kurds and Iranians. About 570,000 were killed in Yugoslavia after WWII through as late as 1980. Add to that 500,000 Indonesians in the 1960’s, 500,000 Chinese civilians in Japan in the 1930’s, 400,000 people in Angola in the last quarter of the 21st Century, 400,000 by the Taliban in Afghanistan; 300,000 Ugandans at Idi Amin’s hands in the 1970’s; 300,000 Bengalis in Pakistan in 1970-71; 359,000 Jews, Gypsies and Serbs in Croatia during WWII; and 300,000 at the hands of Mussolini in the 1930’s.
There were also genocides in Zaire (1965-67), Liberia (1989-1996), Sierra Leone (1991-2000), New Guinea (1975-1998), Vietnam (1953-1956); Burundi (1972), Yugoslavia (1992-1999), and Sudan (1989-1999); and those just round out the genocides that number into the hundreds of thousands.
If we are going to count genocides that “merely” number in the tens of thousands, the list is considerably longer. It includes the USA (100,000 in Vietnam – 70,000 under Nixon from 1969-1974 and 30,000 under Johnson from 1963-1968), South Korea (80,000 from 1948-1950), Syria (75,000, including 50,000 under Assad from 2012-2013 and 25,000 under Al-Assad from 1980-2000), Guatemala (70,000 from 1982-1983), Haiti (60,000 from 1957-1961), Dominican Republic (50,000 from 1930-1961), Equatorial Guinea (50,000 from 1969-1979), Chad (40,000 from 1982-1990), Taiwan (30,000 in 1947), Spain (30,000 after the civil war), Cuba (30,000 from 1959-1999), El Salvador (30,000 in 1932), Iran (20,000 from 1979-1989), Zimbabwe (20,000 from 1982-1987), and Argentina (13,000 from 1967-1983). Those numbers only round out the genocides that number in the tens of thousands.
You might have noticed the USA on that list, arguably the most advanced country in the world. Consider the fact that over twice as many people were killed in the City of Chicago since 2001 (over 5000) than soldiers who were killed in Afghanistan (over 2000) (Huffington Post as of 2012), and that is only one American city. The murder rate in Chicago is 18.5 to every 100,000 people! (PEW Research) But, Chicago hardly has the highest murder rate per capita in the US. Topping out the list are Flint, MI (62), Detroit, MI (54.6), New Orleans, LA (53.2) and Jackson, MI (35.8).
How far have we really come?
Going back to God’s direction to King Saul to wipe out the Amalekites, the fact that modern genocides are numerous does not “let God off the hook” (as if we are in any position to judge God); but it does create some perspective. We most definitely have not grown in moral stature. We only think we have.
But what about God; how could a loving God order Saul to kill all the Amalekites?
Before going further, I note that there is no inherent reason that the Creator of the Universe should even be a loving Creator, theoretically speaking. Why must he/she/it love? What is it about the kind of creative power or force necessary to create the Universe that requires the author or source of that power to be loving? Yet, even non-believers assume, if there is such a power or force, that it must be loving. At least some skeptics use that standard (loving) to measure the claims of believers that God exists, asserting that there is no God from the fact that evil exists in the world. That is a topic for another day, but it is somewhat ironic (and not particularly logical) for atheists to hold out love as a measure for whether God really exists. Why should love be the measure?
Of course, the Bible does portray God has a loving God. Agnostics have a better argument than atheists here, as they question whether the God of the Bible is really “the” God. The God of the Bible, at least God as He is portrayed in the Old Testament, seems harsh, arbitrary and quick to wipe people out en masse. 1 Samuel 15 is only one example. The Flood and Sodom and Gomorrah are examples of God wiping people out directly, and there are other examples of God directing His people to wipe out other people in similar fashion.
In fact, when God promised Moses and then Joshua the Promised Land, they had to go in and take the land by force, displacing the inhabitants and wiping them out. As with Saul, the instruction was to eradicate the land completely, but the Israelites did not follow that instruction. They left pockets of Canaanites (Philistines, and other groups) and that became a problem for the fledgling kingdom as it grew. (Biblestudytools.com)
The people groups left to live among the Israelites worshipped idols (Asherah, Ashteroth, Baal, Chemosh, Dargon, Hadad, Marduk, Milcom, Molech) (Biblestudytools.com). A primary practice of these people was child and human sacrifice. (GotQuestions.org) “The Ugaritic literature has helped reveal the depth of depravity which characterized Canaanite religion. Being a polytheism of an extremely debased type, Canaanite cultic practice was barbarous and thoroughly licentious.” (Quartz Hill Theology) (See Phoenicia.org for a rundown of the gods of the people groups in the Mediterranean).
We see God in the Old Testament instruct the nation of Israel not to engage in child sacrifice, though child sacrifice was practiced as a primary religious ritual by the people around them (the people God told the Israelites to drive out of the Promised Land). In Leviticus 18:21, Lev. 20:20-25, Deuteronomy 12:31 and Deut. 18:10 Moses is given clear instructions against child sacrifice. (For an exposition on an alleged claim that the bible is contradictory on the issue, see this Apologetics Press article.)
The people God called to be His own were continually turning to the idol worship and unsavory practices of the people they allowed to remain in their midst. In this way, those indigenous people became stumbling blocks and distractions from God. God’s people may have even succumbed to the barbaric practice of child sacrifice that was practiced by the people they allowed to remain in the land. (Patheos)
(I note that, to the extent that we allow sinful behaviors, attitudes and our own idols to remain a part of our lives, we are experiencing individually what the nation of Israel experienced as a people. God calls us to root those things out completely (to die to sin) and not hold on to them or allow them to remain because they draw us back to the sin and away from God. We, too, have many influences around us that tempt us to follow them instead of God.)
Interestingly (and tragically), the practice of living child sacrifice is not really much different than modern abortion. (Forerunner.com) Again, are we really any more advanced in our morals today than people many centuries ago? Not really!
Was God’s instruction to wipe the people out of the Promised Land arbitrary and harsh? Is it an indication that the God of the Bible is not loving in spite of the statements that He is? How can God forbid human sacrifice in one instance and instruct His people to wipe out their neighbors in another instance?
If we say killing any person at any time is unloving and wrong, then we would say that God is unloving and wrong. But who are we to make that judgment? We are not really any more morally advanced than the people of the Old Testament if we consider the genocides in modern times and abortion, including live birth “abortions”. Who are we to judge God?
The Bible says God is not just loving, He is love. (1 John 4:8) Jesus does not give us the option to disassociate God as depicted in the Old Testament from God portrayed in human form by Jesus. Jesus and God the Father are one ((John 10:30)
We really are not in a position to judge God. The Canaanite and Phoenician people groups that God ordered to be driven out of the land were were a barbaric, licentious, child-sacrificing group of people. He identified that place for the nurturing of a nation devoted to the God of love; would it now make sense to eradicate that place of the bad influences first? If they were allowed to remain, the influence would hinder the development of this people devoted to God. In fact, that is what happened because they did not do as God instructed.
The Creator of the world is not judged by His creation. We do not sit in moral judgment of God. But there is more.
Consider that God found in Abraham a man of faith, someone who was attuned and responsive to the voice of God. When God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his only son, Abraham would have been familiar with the practice of child-sacrifice practiced by all his neighbors around him. It would have been “acceptable”. But this was different.
God had promised Abraham that his seed would populate the earth like the stars in the sky. Though Abraham was old, his faith was steadfast. A son was finally born to him in his old age about fifteen years after that promise was made. In that context, the sacrifice of that son would have been a supreme step of faith. As “acceptable” as that sacrifice might have been in that day, it would have strained Abraham’s faith and grieved him. With all of the gods around and child sacrifice being a demonstration of allegiance to them, this was an important “test” of Abraham in following the One who claimed to be the only God. But this was different.
Abraham believed God would fulfill His promise, in spite of the instruction, and God did. He provided an alternative, and, in so doing, God also declared the end of child sacrifice for Abraham and all of his progeny.
From this one man in the middle of a primitive, licentious child-sacrificing people, God would attempt to grow a new group of people, a new nation that would lead the world in a different direction. Out of this nation, a Messiah would be born and summarize all that God in the Old Testament attempted to reveal to His people: that all of the Law and the prophets can be summed up in two main principals: 1) love God above all things; and 2) love other people as yourself.
God’s dealing with Abraham’s progeny was like the kindling of a fire. A fire requires the right material for a spark to ignite, and it requires care to keep it going. It must be protected from the elements of wind and rain. The wrong fuel (like wet wood), not enough fuel or even too much will fail to keep the fire going or smother the fire and threaten to put it out.
The world in which Abraham lived was full of darkness. God had to make room in that darkness for the light from the fire ignited by a spark that found the right material in Abraham’s faith. Even with God’s continual oversight provided through men who were able and willing to listen to Him, many things threatened to smother the fire. The biggest threat to this relatively insignificant group of former captives of the Pharaohs of Egypt were the depraved, barbarous, licentious people living among them and around them. These were the same people God told them to displace completely…. But they did not do it.
I need to admit that I approach the question (whether God is a loving God) from a biased position. I know God to be kind and loving. He has been better to me than I am to myself. But having experienced the love of God, and therefore having some confidence in God’s loving nature, I have a different view than someone who has not had that experience. I am not sure how I would convince someone that God is loving if they have not experienced the love of God.
At the beginning of the movie, the Ragamuffin, it begins with this proposition: “When you die God will ask you only one question: ‘Did you believe that I loved you?'”
This piece is not likely going to answer the question for someone who is not convinced, but I know that we (people) are not loving and good, in spite of all of our enlightenment. We are in no position to judge. Yes, God is jealous for the people He loves, and His love for His people is fierce. I will cast my lot with God.
“A Ragamuffin only knows that he is a beggar at the door to God’s mercy.”