By Reuben Archer Torrey
There are few things in the Bible over which more intelligent readers have stumbled, and over which infidels have more frequently gloated and gloried, than God's command that certain people should be utterly exterminated, sparing neither sex nor age. Men, women and children were to be killed. Thus, for example, we read in Deuteronomy 20:16-17 this command of God to the people of Israel: "But of the cities of these peoples, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: but thou shalt utterly destroy them; the Hittite, and the Amorite, the Canaanite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee" (RV). In regard to other cities, it was commanded that if they sued for peace, it was to be granted and all the inhabitants spared; if they made war, the adult males were to be slain but the women and children were to be spared (Deuteronomy 20:10-15). These were the cities that were far away. But the inhabitants of the cities of the lands that the Israelites themselves were to inhabit were to be utterly exterminated.
How can we reconcile any such appallingly harsh commands as these with the doctrine so plainly taught in the New Testament that God is love? It is said that these commands can certainly not have been from God, and that the Old Testament is certainly wrong when it says that they were from God. What shall we say in reply to this?
1. It is certainly appalling that any people should be utterly put to the sword, not only the men of war but the old men and old women, the young women and the children.
But there is something even more appalling than this. That is that the iniquity of any people should have become so full, their rebellion against God so strong and so universal, their moral corruption and debasement so utter and so pervasive, even down to babes just born, as to make such treatment absolutely necessary in the interests of humanity. But this was precisely the case with the nations in question. Not from the Bible alone do we learn how unfathomable were the depths of moral pollution to which these nations had sunk. They had become a moral cancer threatening the very life of the whole human race. That cancer must be cut out in every fiber if the body was to be saved. Cutting out a cancer is a delicate operation, but often it is the kindest thing a surgeon can do under existing circumstances. The kindest thing that God could do for the human race was to cut out every root and fiber of these grossly wicked people.
2. God certainly has a right to visit judgment upon individuals and upon nations sunk in sin.
The only wonder is, when one stops to think of it, that He is so long-suffering, and that He does not visit judgment upon individuals and upon nations sooner. When one really comes to understand His holiness on the one hand, and the depths of covetousness, greed, lust, vileness, lawlessness and contempt for God to which certain groups today have sunk, and how even the young children go astray into unmentionable vileness, one sometimes almost wonders why God does not blot them out as He commanded the Israelites to do with the Canaanites of old! The command to exterminate the Canaanites was a command big with mercy and love. It was mercy and love, first of all, to the Israelites. Unless the Canaanites were exterminated, they would themselves be exterminated. In point of fact, the Israelites were contaminated for the very reason that they did not carry out God's stern decree to its fullest extent. They stopped short of what God commanded them to do, to their own lasting loss.
But what about the women--might not they be spared?
The answer is very plain. The women were the prime source of contamination (Numbers 31:15-16). Though true women are nobler than true men, depraved women are more dangerous than depraved men.
But what about the children? Might not they be spared?
Anyone who has had experience with the children of the depraved knows how persistently the vices bred for generations in the ancestors reappear in the children even when they are taken away from their evil surroundings and brought up in the most favorable environment. By the regenerating power of the gospel it is possible to correct all this, but we must remember that this case was centuries before the gospel proclamation.
Love and mercy for Israel demanded just what God commanded. Love and mercy for the whole race demanded it. God's purpose in Israel was not merely to bless them. Through Israel He planned to bless all men. He was training a people in the seclusion of centuries in order that when the training was completed they might come out of the cloister and carry benediction, salvation and life to all nations.
3. God's plans are not only beneficent but vast, and it takes centuries to work them out. We creatures of a day in our conceit look at some little fragment of God's infinite plan and presume to judge the whole, of which we know little or nothing.
It would be well if we could only learn that God is infinite and we infinitesimal, and so of scientific and philosophic necessity His judgments are unsearchable and His ways past tracing out (Romans 11:33). A child never appears a greater fool than when criticizing a philosopher, and a philosopher never appears a greater fool than when criticizing God.
4. The extermination of the Canaanite children was not only an act of mercy and love to the world at large; it was also an act of love and mercy to the children themselves.
What awaited these children, if they were allowed to live, was something vastly worse than death. What awaited them in death it is impossible to be dogmatic about, but unless one accepts the wholly unbiblical and improbable doctrine of the damnation of all unbaptized infants we need have no fears. Even today I could almost wish that all the babies born into families of wicked influence might be slain in infancy, were it not for the hope that some concerned Christian will carry to them the saving gospel of the Son of God.
5. But someone may still say, "Yes, I can see it was an act of mercy to blot out people so fallen; but why was it not done by pestilence or famine, rather than by the hand of the Israelites?"
The answer to this question is very simple. The Israelites themselves were in training. They were constantly falling into sin and they needed the solemn lesson that would come to them through their being made the executioners of God's wrath against the wickedness and vileness of the Canaanites. A deep impression of God's holiness and hatred of sin would thus be produced. They were distinctly told before they carried out God's judgment that the reason why they were to utterly destroy the Canaanites was "that they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods" (Deuteronomy 20:18). The whole proceeding is an impressive illustration of the exceeding hatefulness of sin in God's sight. It says to us that sin persisted in is a thing so grievous and ruinous as to necessitate the utter destruction of the entire race, male and female, young and old, that persists in it. It is simply the lesson that the whole Bible teaches, and that all history teaches: "The wages of sin is death."
6. Those who regard sin lightly and who have no adequate concept of God's holiness will always find insurmountable difficulty in this command of God. But those who have come to see the awfulness of sin and have learned to hate it with the infinite hate it deserves, those who have caught some glimpses of the infinite holiness of God and have been made in some measure partakers of that holiness, will after mature reflection have no difficulty whatever with this command. It is consciousness of sin in our own hearts and lives that makes us rebel against God's stern dealings with sin.
7. The sneering objection is sometimes made by infidels to the sparing, in certain cases, of the women as recorded in Deuteronomy 20:10-15, and also the sparing of the women in Numbers 31:21-35, 40. These critics claim that the women were to be spared for immoral purposes. One writer asks, "Am I to understand that God approved of taking as tribute in spoils of war, a number of virgins for a use that is only too obvious?" Words of similar import are to be found in a number of books. But to any fair-minded man who reads the actual Scripture account there is not the slightest intimation that the virgins were preserved for the use suggested. The whole context of the passage in Numbers 31, which is the one most frequently cited in this connection by unbelievers, is a solemn warning against immorality of this kind. Far from being a suggestion that God countenances acts of this character, it shows how sternly God dealt with this impurity.
In Numbers 25:1-9 we are told how the men of Israel did give themselves up to impurity with the daughters of Moab, but how in consequence the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and how God visited their impurity with the sternest judgment. In the very chapter in question every woman who had been guilty of impurity was slain (Numbers 31:17). In actual fact, it is suggested, at least by verse 18, that it was only the female children who could be spared. It was certainly an act of mercy on God's part to deliver these "women children" from their evil surroundings and hand them over to Israel for training where they would be brought in contact with a pure religion and trained up to become pure women. According to the record, far from being handed over to the Israelites for immoral purposes, they were entrusted to them for the highest purposes.