This is a question I’ve heard quite a bit from those who don’t understand how Yahweh can be the same God in both the Old and New Testaments. In their minds, it seems that God condones violence in the Old Testament while in the New Testament violence under any circumstances is condemned.
First of all, it is important to understand that violence came into the earth because of man’s sin. Violence is not God’s fault. As a matter of fact, I will go so far as to say violence started with Satan. Things were peaceful in heaven until Satan became puffed up with pride and decided he was going to take God’s throne. So he rounded up a third of the angels in heaven and started a war with the righteous angels who defended God’s honor. The rebellion was put down in a New York minute (see Isaiah 14:12-17; Ezekiel 28:11-19; Revelation 12:3-4, 7-9).
But back to the question at hand. God states clearly in his word that he hates for men to shed blood in Genesis 9:6 when he instituted the death penalty. From the context of scripture, it is understood that he was talking about murder. This is also what he meant by “Thou shalt not kill.” Otherwise, why would he then tell Israel to destroy all of the inhabitants of Canaan? There are times when violence is justified even by God. For instance, in Genesis 14 when the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah were taken captive by neighboring kingdoms, Abram got an army of his servants together to go save them because his beloved nephew Lot and Lot’s family were among the captives. Abram was victorious and was even blessed by Melchizedek, God’s priest, for his victory. So we see here a principle that it is okay to use violence to protect our loved ones if they are needlessly attacked.
Now back to the question of why God told Israel to kill all of the Canaanites. Here’s what Yahweh tells the Israelites:
“Speak not thou in thine heart, after that the LORD thy God hath cast them out from before thee, saying, For my righteousness the LORD hath brought me in to possess this land: but for the wickedness of these nations the LORD doth drive them out from before thee. Not for thy righteousness, or for the uprightness of thine heart, dost thou go to possess their land: but for the wickedness of these nations the LORD thy God doth drive them out from before thee, and that he may perform the word which the LORD sware unto thy fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Understand therefore, that the LORD thy God giveth thee not this good land to possess it for thy righteousness; for thou art a stiffnecked people.” (Deuteronomy 9:4-6)
So God is using Israel as a tool for his punishment against the Canaanites because of their many sins and because he wants to hold up his agreement with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He also states in Deuteronomy 7 that he wants Israel to be a holy nation without having the evil influences of the inhabitants of Canaan. God gave them one shot to get it right but they failed so just as God predicted, those Canaanites became pricks and thorns to Israel. Therefore, God justifies violence if it is to punish an evil nation.
“At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them.” (Jeremiah 18:7-10)
We must also keep in mind that in the Old Testament, God was establishing a physical kingdom in honor of an everlasting covenant to the three patriarchs. If Israel was attacked during their righteous periods, God condoned violence for their preservation. If Israel was attacked during periods of ungodliness, God condoned violence to punish them. In the New Testament, he was ushering in a spiritual kingdom that included all of mankind, so the violence for the preservation of a physical kingdom is unnecessary. “Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.” (John 18:36).
–Harry A. Gaylord–