The Old Testament is full of extraordinary events and fascinating people. Far removed from our time, the differences between life then and now are sometimes enormous, enough that it can be very difficult to comprehend some of the more astonishing occurrences it records. Things that we find inconceivable – like a whole sea dividing itself, or a man wrestling with an angel, or ‘holy men’ saving a family from a city about to be burned – are described almost like everyday events. And although the events are extraordinary and the people fascinating, they lived in times of violence, war, intrigue, deception, repetitive apostasy and the corruptions of great wealth. Many of these conditions – the wonderful and the awful – intersected when the nation of Israel came from Egypt to retake their old land of Canaan. As they arrived at their ‘promised land’ they were commanded by God to completely destroy most of the peoples living there. Reading about that, from a safe distance of several thousand years, can be a shock. On the surface, it appears unnecessarily harsh. Why would a loving God give such a command?
If all you look at is the command to basically exterminate whole cities and peoples, you’ll see genocide and inhumane atrocities. But let’s stand back for a moment to look at the situation with a broader view. First of all, large parts of the land of Canaan had earlier belonged to the Israelites. Abraham had built a great household here, passed on to and expanded by his posterity. He was a respected leader and held great power in the area. Other peoples moved in to his sons’ and grandsons’ territory when Joseph brought his father and eleven brothers’ families to Egypt as a refuge from famine. A couple of centuries later, when their descendants returned, they needed a place to settle. It was really already theirs. Secondly, the Canaanite nations knew of the great miracles which had brought Israel out of Egypt and through their subsequent journey (Joshua 2:10 and 5:1). They therefore knew of God’s power, that Israel was His chosen nation, and that they lived in the land of Israel’s inheritance. They had three choices: to leave Canaan to the Israelites, and find other lands where they could practise their corrupted religions; to repent and submit to the culture and political leadership of this chosen nation; or to stay in the land and resist as it was cleansed from their wickedness – including them. In the history of the scriptures, people are always given the opportunity to repent before God’s judgements descend on them. I think of it as being a little like Captain Kirk (Star Trek) giving his opponents the chance to change their course and accept terms of truce before attacking and destroying them. You cheer for Captain Kirk because he’s on the right side; he’s protecting the galaxy from pirates or races with evil and destructive designs – enemies with an obvious threat. But God’s servants doing the same thing, for real, in the Bible…? Somehow the reality is harder for us to swallow. The city-states of Canaan didn’t take this opportunity to repent (but individual people did, or were already righteous), so they forfeited the right to live there when God had decreed it for a more righteous people.
Thirdly, the instruction to kill all inhabitants – even children – is a terrible one. It can seem horrifying. When you examine these peoples, though, a different picture emerges. The Canaanites, for example, worshipped the sun as Baal (Moloch or Chemosh), whose –
worship was everywhere alike, fierce and cruel. His consort, Ashtaroth, the Babylonian goddess Istar, the goddess of love, worshipped as the morning star Venus, and perhaps, also, as the moon – the Greeks translating her name Astarte – fostered abominations in her worship, almost inconceivable in our times. Erech was her chief city, and there she had, attached to her temple, choirs of festival-girls, and troops of consecrated maidens, all recognised as [prostitutes], whose pay went to the temple treasury; and crowds of priests – the festival makers who had devoted their manhood” (i.e. had emasculated themselves) so that they “might adore the goddess, and these, in their rites, carried swords, and razors, and flint knives, who in the wild frenzy of the sacred rites desired to dedicate themselves to the goddess, by self-mutilation, or to hack themselves as done by the priests, in Elijah’s time, at Carmel” (Geikie, Hours With the Bible, Vol. 2, p. 514, quoted in Skousen, The Third Thousand Years, pp. 526-27).
These were people who sacrificed their children to idols; others caused their children to be burned alive. The abominations they visited upon themselves and their own children were more atrocious than could be allowed by God. The Lord’s instructions to Israel were more merciful than what these children’s own parents did to them. In addition, those children would grow up to perpetuate their parents’ atrocities. It was better for them and for the world at large for that to be stopped. If Israel had listened and obeyed the instructions given them to completely destroy these degenerate peoples, the land of Canaan and its surrounding areas would have been a kinder place. Tragically, they didn’t, and the result was the suffering and destruction of many, many more over generations.
They did not destroy the nations, concerning whom God commanded them: but were mingled among the heathen, and learned their works. And they served their idols: which were a snare unto them. Yea, they sacrificed their sons and their daughters unto devils, and shed innocent blood, even the blood of their sons and of their daughters, whom they sacrificed unto the idols of Canaan: and the land was polluted with blood.
Thus they were defiled with their own works, and went a-whoring with their own inventions. Therefore was the wrath of God kindled against his people… And he gave them into the hand of the heathen; and they that hated them ruled over them. Their enemies also oppressed them, and they were brought into subjection under their hand. Many times did he deliver them; but they provoked him with their counsel, and they were brought low for their iniquity. Nevertheless he regarded their affliction, when he heard their cry; and he remembered for them his covenant, and relented according to the multitude of his mercies. He made them also to be pitied of all those that carried them captive. (Psalm 106:34-46)
If Israel had obeyed this difficult command, they would have been able to retain their God-given religion and the political strength to practise it in freedom. In time, they would have become a pure example to other nations, who might have been affected by the spreading of the religious and political ideals that God desired His children to live by. The whole history of the world might have been different. Many more could have led virtuous lives, shared the joy of true knowledge with their families and communities, and spread peace. Ancient Israel wasn’t God’s chosen nation because they were the only ones He cared about; they were meant to be the basis for peace and betterment for the whole world. Spiritual Israel still is. They needed a place of refuge where they could be established, learn anew the laws of God, and flourish in the blessings of righteous covenant living. This was their chance (well, one of the hundreds, but one of the best) – from this base, they could have been the example described above, and taken the wonders of the Gospel to bless the world. Instead, that had to come much later – our later. Ancient Israel did do great things, accomplished some of God’s purposes for them, and affected the trajectory of nations. How much more, though, they could have done if they really had trusted the Lord, who had led them through such miracles in the wilderness – and how much more is there for us to accomplish! As spiritual Israel, it is the latter-day disciples of Christ who are that chosen nation, the ones to bring peace and betterment to the world as ancient Israel failed to do. We are chosen, not for exclusive perks, but for the fulfilling of a mission that has been waiting millenia to be accomplished. As Joseph Smith put it,
shall we not go forward in so great a cause? Courage, brethren; and on, on to the victory! Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. Let the earth break forth into singing. Let the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the King Immanuel…. Let the mountains shout for joy, and all ye valleys cry aloud; and all ye seas and dry lands tell the wonders…. And ye rivers, and brooks, and rills, flow down with gladness…. and ye solid rocks weep for joy!
Note: This is a delicate subject because of atrocities committed over the centuries and into the present in the name of God, religion or purity. The particular instance I’ve written about here is not to be translated as an explanation for such atrocities.