In his first epistle, John writes, “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8).
In Deuteronomy, God who is love says, “I will make My arrows drunk with blood, and My sword shall devour flesh, with the blood of the slain and the captives, from the heads of the leaders of the enemy” (Deuteronomy 32:42).
At first glance—or fourth, or fifth—it can be difficult to reconcile these two verses. These are the kind of verses skeptics point to as they accuse the God of the Bible of being inconsistent or cruel or unjust. Someone even wrote a book about it. Drunk With Blood: God’s Killings in the Bible aims to be a comprehensive catalogue of what its author perceives to be the awful, unconscionable actions of God as presented in the Bible.
I’ve seen that sort of argument a lot, especially online. People latch onto one of the more graphic stories of the Bible and ask, “How could a loving God do that?” or “How can you believe in a God who told His people to do this?”
Fair questions. The problem is that, almost universally, these stories are presented without any context. Standing on their own, yes, so many of these stories look brutal, heartless, and unforgiving—but within the proper context, these stories all make sense.
The hurdle? The proper context is enormous. Before those stories can make any sense at all, we have to understand not only everything that led up to the event in question, but more importantly, many things that haven’t even happened yet. And after that, we have to identify our own misconceptions about what love looks like, what justice looks like, and what we’re really entitled to.
Even if they’re willing to listen, that’s not the sort of thing anyone can explain to a skeptic in five minutes or less. There’s far too much groundwork required before we can even begin to scratch the surface of the subject.
All the same, it’s a question we ought to be able to answer—if not for the sake of the skeptics, then for ourselves. If we believe that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, then we need to be able to explain how a God of love could promise to make His arrows drunk with blood.
This isn’t going to be a short journey. If we really want answers, we’re going to have to dig through the word of God, carefully inspecting passages as we go.
If you’re ready, let’s start at the beginning.
* * *
When God created the first man and woman, He entered into a personal relationship with them. He spoke directly with them, and they spoke directly with Him. For all intents and purposes, God had a close and meaningful relationship with the entire human race.
Then Adam and Eve rebelled. After being driven from the Garden, mankind became so incorrigibly wicked that God “was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart” (Genesis 6:6). Why was God grieved? The reason is important: “the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5).
The human race was so evil, so corrupt, so absolutely wicked that God decided to wipe them from the face of the earth and start over with Noah. Evil was so deeply entrenched in the culture of the world that nothing short of a hard reset was going to make any difference.
From there, God took a step back. As the world wasted no time recorrupting itself, God began working directly with a select few to produce a nation that would bear His name. When God promised the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants, He made a cryptic remark: “But in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:16).
“Not yet complete.” At that point, the Amorites in the land of Canaan weren’t wicked enough for God to be willing to destroy them. It’s easy to overlook the magnitude of God’s patience here: It would be another 400 or so years before they reached that point.
So… how wicked were these people? We’re not told exactly, although we do get a brief glimpse of their contemporaries—two little cities called Sodom and Gomorrah.
* * *
In Sodom and Gomorrah, things were bad.
These were two cities that God was ready to destroy, and it’s pretty clear why. He sent two angels in disguise to rescue His servant Lot before the cities fell—and that night, every man of Sodom surrounded Lot’s house with the intention of gang-raping his guests (Genesis 19:4-5). Lot had brought the angels under the shadow of his roof specifically to protect them from the men of the city (Genesis 19:8), which suggests that this wasn’t the first time such a horrific thing had happened.
And that was just a single evening in Sodom. Who knows depravities happened within the two towns on a daily basis? All we know for sure is that Lot “tormented his righteous soul from day to day by seeing and hearing their lawless deeds” (2 Peter 2:8).
We also know that Sodom and Gomorrah existed in the same cultural sphere as the tribes of Canaan (Genesis 10:19). God destroyed these cities because of their exceptional wickedness, but it’s not like they existed in a vacuum. How far behind were the Amorites, whose iniquity was not yet full? How much worse would they become, carrying on with their degenerate ways for four more centuries?
* * *
We don’t have to do too much guessing. Four centuries later, Israel stood at the border of Canaan, ready to claim the inheritance God had promised Abraham. Before they entered, God warned them about the people they would encounter:
When the LORD your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, “How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.” You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way; for every abomination to the LORD which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods.
These nations were abominable. They had deviated so far from the boundaries of right and wrong that setting the flesh of their own children on fire seemed like a perfectly reasonable way to appease their gods and receive blessings.
It’s not that they did not—or could not—know any better. Paul chastised the Corinthians for approving of a sin “not even named among the Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 5:1). Even the Gentiles, apart from God and apart from God’s law, understood that some things are inherently wrong. And “when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them” (Romans 2:14-15).
We all have, in other words, an innate moral compass. It’s a long way from perfect, hardly comprehensive, easily warped, and in desperate need of God’s fine-tuning—but it’s there. We have it, and the child-burning, gang-raping nations of Canaan had it, too.
* * *
God was not unjust in eradicating the Canaanites. For 400 years after fire rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah, Canaan continued its descent into a moral abyss, filling up the measure of their iniquity. The brief glimpses we get into their culture are absolutely horrifying, and it’s hard to imagine anyone making the case that God had no justification for doing what He did.
But justified and loving are two different words. Was it a loving God who told Israel, “of the cities of these peoples which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance, you shall let nothing that breathes remain alive, 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” (Deuteronomy 20:16-17)? Are those the words of a God of love?
I’ll admit that for a long time, verses like that troubled me. From my limited human perspective, they made God look so detached, cold, and uncaring. These were cities filled with men, women, and children—all of whom were being sentenced to complete annihilation.
In part two of this series, we’ll discover how that annihilation was an act of incredible love.
Until next time,