One of the hardest things for me to wrap my brain around as a Christian is how a God who defines himself as love (1 John 4:8) and defines the greatest form of love as laying down your life for someone else (John 15:13) could lead Israel on a bloodbath in the Old Testament.
Does God’s seemingly violent nature in the Old Testament change how Christians should see violence today? Does God’s violence justify ours?
Explanations for violence in the Old Testament
Christians reconcile Old Testament violence a number of ways. I’ll summarize a few of them.
Some say God commanded violence because he is not just defined as love—he’s also holy (Leviticus 11:44–45) and the God of justice (Isaiah 30:18). The relationship between his attributes of love, holiness, and justice, in some instances drives God to condone or even require violence out of his intolerance for evil. This argument often leads to the claim that God used Israel to judge other nations like Canaan, and the Israelites were morally obligated to kill people because they had to obey God.
And it’s not like God didn’t give Canaan a chance—he waited 400 years to judge them, until their “iniquity is complete” (Genesis 15:13–16).
In the book Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence, Dr. Preston Sprinkle presents a different view. He suggests that Israel’s violent laws and perspectives on war and violence were far more tame than neighboring nations, and that while God permitted violence, it was not his desire for Israel to choose it. He also suggests that God’s order to “kill everything that breathes” and the fact that the Israelites didn’t do that (Joshua 17:13) indicates God did not actually mean “kill them all” (whereas others would argue that the Israelites simply disobeyed). The biggest component of this argument, however, is Jesus. If God in the flesh says to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44), how could God the Father ask his people to kill theirs?
R.C. Sproul, however, says that “God’s instructions were as clear as they were brutal.” Sproul believes the command was rooted in God’s desire to protect Israel’s purity and to give Canaan the wages for their embrace of sin (Romans 6:23).
Most explanations offer some variation of these, and there are entire books written about them (my one paragraph summaries can hardly do them justice). But when we see how Jesus tells us to treat our enemies in Matthew 5:44, these explanations don’t always make Israel’s treatment of their enemies much easier to swallow.
Did God command genocide?
Throughout the Bible, there’s a supernatural thread that often goes unnoticed when we read what’s physically happening through our modern eyes. Sometimes we simply have to admit that God’s ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:9), but that doesn’t excuse us from learning what we can about what he’s doing in Scripture.
In Supernatural, Dr. Michael S. Heiser curates decades of scholarship to follow that often overlooked supernatural thread—so that we can see these passages the way Bible scholars do today, and the way Israelites did then. He says, “You can only understand the rationale and motive of the conquest accounts when you see them through the supernatural worldview of an Israelite.”
“Why was it necessary to kill entire populations in some cities—men, women, children, and even livestock?” Heiser asks. “Why not let the inhabitants surrender? Wouldn’t it be better to exile them than to slaughter them?”
You might even wonder why the Israelites had to drive them out at all.
“There’s an answer to those objections,” Heiser says. “But I’ve discovered that the answer seems to make Christians as uncomfortable as the problem.”
That answer takes us to the Tower of Babel and Deuteronomy 32. At the Tower of Babel, “God decided, after the nations rebelled against him, that he no longer wanted a direct relationship with the people of those nations. Instead, he assigned members of his divine council, the sons of God, to govern them (Deuteronomy 4:19–20, Deuteronomy 32:8–9).”
After the Tower of Babel, God supernaturally enabled Abraham and Sarah to have Isaac, beginning a new nation he would govern himself.
But God’s divine council proved to be just as capable of corruption as the humans they were to rule (Psalm 82:1–8). “They allowed injustice. People came to worship them instead of the Most High God. Thus, they became enemies of God and his people, Israel,” Heiser says. “Since some of those nations were within the land of Canaan, which God purposed to give to his nation Israel after the exodus, Moses and the Israelites believed the people who occupied those lands were their mortal enemies and their gods would do all they could to destroy Israel.”
This violence wasn’t just about the people who had been deceived by their gods and swallowed by sin. It was about putting these false gods in their place—false gods that, to the Israelites, were completely real, and totally committed to Israel’s destruction.
Israel was God’s weapon against the corrupt sons of God, and Canaan was the armor those false gods wore against him.
But that’s not all that’s going on in this supernatural showdown. When Moses sent 12 spies into the land God promised them, it was as rich and fertile as God had told them it would be (Numbers 13:27), but there was something different about the people who lived there:
The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them” (Numbers 13:32–33).
The Nephilim first appear in Genesis 6:1–4, when the sons of God “took as their wives” the daughters of humankind. “The Anakim giants the Israelite spies saw in Canaan were their descendants,” Heiser says. “And there were more of them scattered throughout the land of Canaan, among the nations and cities the Israelites would have to defeat to take the land (Numbers 13:28–29). The task of conquering the land and its gods had seemed difficult before; now it looked downright impossible.”
Canaan was inhabited by people who were not only ruled by sons of god that had rebelled against the Father, but spawned by them. Their very existence was a defiance of God and a threat to his people.
Defeating the false gods of Canaan and claiming the promised land would require the genocide of giants.
When the Israelites, naturally, were terrified of the Nephilim, their fear revealed a lack of trust in the Most High God’s ability to overpower the sons of God. To them, it was like God either didn’t know what he was up against, or he was too ignorant to see when he was beaten.
God was more than a little insulted (Numbers 14:11).
“In fact,” Heiser says, “God was so angry that he threatened to disinherit Israel—the very thing he had done to the nations back at the Tower of Babel—and start over yet again, this time with Moses: ‘I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they’ (Numbers 14:12).”
After Moses pleaded with God, he compromised, and instead of starting over with a new nation, he would start over with the next generation (Numbers 14:20–31). None of the Israelites who had seen God’s power firsthand and still had the audacity to question him would live to see the fulfillment of his promise to their nation.
A new demonstration of God’s power
God would show the next generation of Israelites that they could trust him by demonstrating that he could do the very thing the previous generation had questioned. Before the 40 years of wandering was up, God led the Israelites to face their fears and take on giants.
In Deuteronomy 2–3, God led the Israelites East, eventually taking them to Bashan—known in other ancient literature as “the place of the serpent.”
Heiser says, “In the context of Israel’s supernatural worldview, God had led the Israelites to the gates of hell.” And it was at “the gates of hell” that they would do what they refused to do in the Promised Land.
“God had brought the Israelites there to encounter two kings, Sihon and Og,” Heiser says. “Those two kings were Amorites (Deuteronomy 3:2–3, Deuteronomy 31:4) and rulers of what the Bible calls the Rephaim. As Deuteronomy 2:11 ominously noted, the Anakim were ‘also counted as Rephaim.’ God, through Moses, had led the people to another area occupied by the same sort of giants that had frightened the Israelite spies into unbelief years earlier (Numbers 13:32–33), the event that caused the forty years of wandering.”
Years later, Amos would say of the battle, “[the Lord] destroyed the Amorite before them, whose height was like the height of the cedars and who was as strong as the oaks” (Amos 2:9).
This is where Heiser explains the genocide in the Old Testament. “The entire populations of the cities that were home to the giant Rephaim were ‘devoted to destruction’ (Deuteronomy 3:6). The goal was not revenge. The goal was to ensure the elimination of the Nephilim bloodlines. To the Israelites, the giant clan bloodlines were demonic, having been produced by rebellious, fallen divine beings. They could not coexist with a demonic heritage.”
As Israel’s leadership passed to Joshua, the Israelites would systematically hunt down the giant clans from Hebron, Debir, Anab, Judah, and Israel. “Only in Gaza, in Gath, and in Ashdod did some remain” (Joshua 11:22).
The surviving giants would go on to haunt Israel for centuries, though most Christians today only notice the one who came from Gath and fought for the Philistines (Goliath).
Related post: Everything You Need to Know about Goliath
This bloody conquest was part of God’s plan to take back all people from the rule of false gods—his plan to use Israel to restore Eden. The survival of the Nephilim meant his strategy had failed.
“The glory of the conquest was overshadowed by epic failure. Defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory. God’s kingdom rule—his plan for a restored Eden—went down in flames. The supernatural worldview that emerged from Babel, with unbelieving nations under the dominion of evil gods, remained intact. Israel was defeated and scattered, and her Promised Land came under the rule of other gods and their peoples.”
Israel’s failure didn’t mean God was giving up on his plan. He could still restore his Edenic relationship with humanity through Israel. But this failure did mean that it was time for a new strategy.
“It was time for a new approach to the old problem of sin and failure. Humanity could not be trusted with reviving the Edenic Kingdom rule. Only God himself could do what needed to be done. Only God could meet the obligations of his own covenants. . . . God would have to fulfill the Law and the covenants himself and then take upon himself the penalty for all human failure. But pulling off that unthinkable solution meant that it would have to be kept secret from everyone, including the intelligent supernatural beings hostile to his purposes.”
God would later trick the sons of God into bringing about their own destruction, fulfilling prophecies they didn’t know were prophecies (like Isaiah 53).
Shedding supernatural light on Old Testament violence
Heiser doesn’t gloss over Old Testament violence or try to brush it under the rug—he shows you how the ancient Hebrews understood it, and how vastly different that is from the way most Christians see it today. The supernatural worldview of the Israelites is a significant piece of the puzzle that most of us are oblivious to—simply because we’ve never heard it. If you want to fully understand what’s going on in your Bible, you have to see it through the eyes of the ancient Hebrews and the early Christians.
So follow the supernatural trail of bread crumbs behind the Nephilim, the sons of God, and other seemingly bizarre passages in Scripture to see where the spiritual world collides with our own.
In The Unseen Realm, Heiser presents an ocean of research and Bible scholarship about the divine council, the Nephilim, and a number of other bizarre supernatural elements in Scripture. In Supernatural, Heiser’s tone becomes more conversational, and he shows how the supernatural threads in Scripture affect you as a Christian today.