Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass (1 Samuel 15:3).
Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:10).
How could God command the death of children and animals just because they were not Israelites? How can God be a “God of love” in the New Testament but command so much death and bloodshed in the Old? The Bible seems like it has two different gods– the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament!
These questions and declarations represent a major stumbling-block for many people. They involve very difficult issues. If we are honest with ourselves, we will confess that there have been times when we have been bothered by these matters even if our confidence in God was not terribly shaken by it. There does seem to be quite the disconnect– in the days of Israel, God told Israel to devote many Canaanites and Amalekites, among others, under the ban, meaning that everything– all people and property– was to be devoted to destruction (e.g. 1 Samuel 15). 1000 to 1500 years later, we read that this same God sends His Son to die on a cross for all men to make the greatest display of love (1 John 4:7-21). At one point, He is ordering execution for humanity; the next, His Son is dying for humanity. How can this be?
It does us no good to pretend that we can come up with a completely satisfying answer; there is none. This is a difficulty. While there are things we must keep in mind, and we can find a way through which to look at these events demonstrating how God is at least consistent, many of the Old Testament stories will remain offensive to modern sensibilities. They remain quite uncomfortable.
Nevertheless, we must remember that there is a very big difference between the old and new covenants, and that there are reasons why the first century of this era, and not before, was the “acceptable time” for salvation to come (cf. 2 Corinthians 6:2). The ancient world, especially the ancient Near East, was not a peaceful place. In societal terms, you killed or you were killed; you overran or you were overrun. Today, we read stories of devoting everything and everyone to destruction and we are horrified. Then, they would hear such stories and understand that they simply reflected reality. If you lost the war and the enemy took your land, and you were an adult male, you would likely be executed quickly. If you had a wife, odds are that she would be first raped, then enslaved. If it was your unfortunate lot to have a virgin daughter approaching the age of marriageability, she would become the wife of one of your enemies whether she liked the idea or not. Any young sons you might have would either become slaves or would be executed (cf. Deuteronomy 20:10-14). This was not something unique to Israel; this was consistent throughout the world of the day.
And there was a logic to it. This was a day and time of vengeance and retribution (cf. Judges 13-16). Adult men who had lost the war and had been humiliated might submit outwardly but would remain rebellious inwardly, looking for any opportunity to obtain vengeance for his loss and humiliation. The same is true with young boys. Yes, they are innocent at the moment of death, but what would happen when they grew up? If they maintained a sense of identity based on their ancestry, they would seek vengeance. As for women, Numbers 25:1-6 graphically displays their seductive and idolatrous influence upon men. While this might not have been a concern for other nations in the ancient Near East, it was of preeminent concern in Israel (cf. Exodus 20:1-6). The Canaanites needed to be entirely obliterated because otherwise they would lead Israel into sin through idolatry (cf. Deuteronomy 20:10-18). Notice that Israel ultimately did not devote all of the Canaanites to destruction, and the Israelites ultimately fell prey to the idolatry of Canaan (cf. Judges 1-2; 2 Kings 17:7-23, 2 Chronicles 36:15-21).
The other reason often given is the great sinfulness of the Canaanites: the men and women directly participated in the sin, thus “deserving” the death, and the children were killed to spare their souls from the destruction to which they were headed by following after their parents (cf. Genesis 15:16). Such logic might be appealing as a reason, but there is little consistency in it– by the same logic, God should have devoted everyone on earth under the same ban, even Israel, and all children should be executed to spare them the stain of sin that is inevitably coming (cf. Romans 3:23).
So even if this all represents reality on the ground during the days of Israel, how can we make sense of it in terms of the new covenant? How come God seems to do quite the 180 when it comes to humanity in general?
It depends on the way in which one looks at the situation. If one is looking in terms of those people who died because they were devoted under the ban, sure, it looks pretty bad. But through the lens of Israel– the people of God– how does it look?
God promises to be the God of Israel, and Israel would be His people (Exodus 6:7). Therefore, God has great care and concern for Israel His people and wants to do for them what is in their best interest to keep them secure. The Canaanites represent a significant spiritual threat, tempting the people away from service toward God in order to serve idols. But Amalek was devoted under the ban more because they dared to attack Israel at its weakest, right after they left Egypt, and God promised then to be at war with Amalek for what they had done (cf. Exodus 17:8-16). In short, God commanded Israel to devote some people under the ban in order to protect and cherish Israel His people. That is the logic presented in the Old Testament.
And if we look at the situation through that prism– God commanding a violent and thorough attack on all which is opposed to His people and the destruction of all that is opposed to His people– we find that such remains the case in the New Testament. Under the new covenant, anyone can be part of the Israel of God if they submit to the Lordship of God the Son (cf. Romans 2:25-29, Galatians 6:15-16). What is the enemy that provides a spiritual threat to the people of God today, the enemy tempting people away from serving God and toward serving idols? What is the enemy that threatens the eternal welfare of every person? Satan, sin, and death (Romans 5:12-18, 1 Peter 5:8)! And what has God done regarding Satan, sin, and death? Through Jesus Christ He gained the victory over all of them, and on the last day, Satan, sin, and death will be devoted to destruction (Romans 8:1-8, 1 Corinthians 15:23-28, Revelation 20:10-15)! The conditions and situations are more parallel and consistent than we would perhaps like to admit!
The God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament. God the Son, in fact, can be seen as acting in both (1 Corinthians 10:1-6, Jude 1:5)! In both the Old and New Testaments, God has loved and displayed great mercy toward His people, desiring that they would follow Him while opposing all enemies that would lead them astray. Under both covenants God devoted under the ban all those enemies who threatened the welfare and prosperity of His people. The way that God worked in the Old Testament may offend modern sensibilities, but modern people desperately need the love of God and salvation in Him, and modern people should be as resolutely opposed to Satan, sin, and death as Israel was to be resolutely opposed to Canaan and Amalek. Even though it remains a difficulty, let us appreciate that the essential nature of God does not change, and be thankful that we all can share in His love and be delivered through Him from our enemies!
Ethan R. Longhenry