You shall not murder.
Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones,
and kill every woman who has known a man intimately.
'Why did Yahweh ( God ) command the children of Israel to kill the inhabitants of Canaan?' This question, in other words, maybe, was presented to me recently by a friend who, like many others, is having a difficult time reconciling a God of Love with One who seems, in the Hebrew Scriptures anyway, to be filled with a 'holy hatred', One who instructed His people to kill their enemies & even further, to murder complete strangers. Then we come to the Aramaic & Greek Scriptures, where we find Jesus telling His disciples to 'love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you' ( Matthew 5:44 ). Many people, Pagan & Christian alike, find these passages hard to read, wondering how a loving Creator could order His Creation to be destroyed!
You may have heard, by way of explanation, that when Jesus came along, He tamed His Father down so that unlike the petty, vindictive God He is often painted as in the so-called Old Testament, in the so-called New Testament, He is now a kinder, gentler God, One who, rather than killing His enemies, loves them to death! This almost seems reasonable, until one considers that Jesus & God, according to traditional orthodoxy anyway, are One & the Same. To suggest that the God of the Hebrews would or even could change is to fly in the face of orthodoxy! Scripture tells us in at least one place, in no uncertain terms ( Malachi 3:6 ), that He does not change. Plenty are the passages that intimate the same, though admittedly, there are a few that seem to indicate that He's had regrets & gone back on His word ( Genesis 6:5-8, Exodus 32:10-14 ).
Those who like to 'cherry-pick', on both sides of the fence, choose certain passages from the Scriptures & almost ignore the context, both historically & culturally speaking. For instance, the context of the passage above, from the book of Numbers, tell us that this was a drastic situation, a time of war. Further, we should understand from Moses' words in verses 15-17 that it was more for the sake of purity than anything else that they were commanded to kill even those they had captured, the women & children. From the Ancient Near Eastern perspective, one which survives almost intact to this day, we may understand too, that killing the male children, but keeping the female children alive might discourage any further retaliation from their enemies.
The Scriptures, both Old & New Testaments, DO portray a vengeful God, one who judges those who take a stand against Him & His people with everlasting fire, but again, we must understand this from both a cultural & historical context. From a cultural perspective, we can see that Yahweh ( God ), by His seemingly genocidal commands, simply meant to purify His people Israel by removing from before them any temptation. We see how this worked out for the Israelites, though, particularly since they failed to remove those stumbling blocks as they were instructed. Furthermore, as with the Law given through Moses, these commands merely served to show that the temptation was really in themselves!
There can be no doubt that the History of Israel which we read in the Scriptures is indeed a bloody one; however, did Yahweh, or the Creator God mean for His human Creation to kill their brothers & sisters? Yes, the Lord commanded His people, as Judges of the Earth, to carry out His vengeance on the nations around them, but as we have seen, it was more for the sake of separating out a holy people for Himself with which to purify those nations than to actually exterminate them. This is not to say that He never ordered a genocide, of sorts, but the God of Israel, contrary to popular opinion, was not the petty, vindictive God that some have made Him out to be.
'Proof-texting', or 'cherry-picking', involves the mistake of taking a verse totally out of context & hanging certain beliefs & doctrines on them. The doctrine of Hell is one such doctrine. When taken out of their context, passages like the Parable of the Rich Man & Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 & Revelation 20 put 'the fear of God' in many people, when it comes to 'hell-fire & damnation'!
In Exodus 4 ( 23 ), we read that Yahweh did indeed instruct Moses to tell the Pharaoh of Egypt, 'let My son go that he may serve Me. But if you refuse to let him go, indeed I will kill your son, your firstborn'. The Lord ends up, as He promised, killing the firstborn, not only of the Pharaoh, but of all Egypt, those anyway, who refused to heed the word of Moses. In fact, before Moses even got to Egypt, Yahweh, it is recorded, tried to kill Moses' firstborn because he had not been consecrated in the way that Moses had been instructed!
'The Bloody Bible', it should be noted, is stained with not only human, but animal blood! This is a cultural phenomenon. Israel, at its conception, was rooted in a culture that operated largely on sacrifice; sacrifice to a pantheon of gods. Although human sacrifice was not uncommon in that culture, we can see that Israel was instructed to offer animal, not human sacrifice to Yahweh. Even in the History of Israel, we can see echoes of human sacrifice from the nations around them as Israel began to apostatize.
The Truths of the Bible are unavoidable! Many choose, right or wrong, to ignore the bloodier parts of it, but the truth is that these bloody parts are a part of our past. We were not born, most who read these words, in that part of the world, much less in that ancient culture, but even here in America, we have experienced bloodshed, almost, it would seem, on par with that of ancient Israel! Bloodshed seems to be an almost necessary part of life; for one to eat, it would seem, something must die, whether it be animal or plant. In the case of war, which I do not recommend, by the way, it would seem that one must kill or be killed. I will not judge in this matter, except to say that war is a veritable hell! In the case of self defense, much the same dilemma exists, 'kill or be killed'; which is the better choice? Would you rather lose your humanity, or become a murderer ( killer ) really, what's the difference? ) yourself, even if it's in defense of a loved one?
Then we come to the question that is at the heart of the History of Israel; 'what's it all about?' We tend to focus overmuch on the physical aspect of life, as indeed the earlier Scriptures seem to do, but when we, as Jesus did, focus on the heart of the issue, the spiritual aspect of life, we begin to see that, though the spiritual must affect the physical, much as the tiny & unseen rudder steers the much larger ship, we are spirit beings more than we are human beings! This puts things in a different light, as it should; for example, when Yahweh commanded His people Israel to drive out, even kill those Canaanites, was He actually instructing them to commit murder, or was He simply telling the Israelites it was time for the Canaanites to move on?
Charles Haddon Shank