And when they brought those kings out to Joshua, Joshua summoned all the men of Israel and said to the chiefs of the men of war who had gone with him, “Come near; put your feet on the necks of these kings.” Then they came near and put their feet on their necks. And Joshua said to them, “Do not be afraid or dismayed; be strong and courageous. For thus the Lord will do to all your enemies against whom you fight.” And afterward Joshua struck them and put them to death, and he hanged them on five trees. And they hung on the trees until evening. (Joshua 10:24-26)
This is just one example of the brutal destruction of the people living in Canaan during the time Joshua led Israel into the Promised Land. It wasn’t just the kings that were killed. Everyone living in the cities “devoted to destruction” was killed. This is one of the reasons some have suggested that the God in the Old Testament is not the same as the God in the New Testament, who is all about forgiveness and love. What are we to make of this? Can the God we see revealed in the New Testament, the God who is love, be reconciled with the God we see in the Old Testament, who commands His people to destroy others, even whole cities with women and children?
To answer that, you have to consider the whole of the Old and New Testaments. You can’t pick out isolated pieces and characterize God with just those pieces. That would be like seeing a father discipline a child and declare him a child abuser. You don’t know the context of the situation and you don’t know the heart of the man. You have to look at the whole package. This is true for God in the Old Testament, and for God in the New Testament.
When God directs Joshua and the army of Israel to “devote to destruction” whole cities in the Old Testament, it is brutal. It reminds us of a Hollywood movie in which an evil army marches into a city and kills everyone, except for a young boy who grows up to seek revenge for his fallen family. He is the protagonist in the story for whom we all root. When we compare Joshua and his army to this evil warlord, then of course we are led to conclude that Joshua and his God are terrible brutes. But God’s story doesn’t begin with Joshua and his conquest. In fact, the story of the cities in Canaan (the Promised Land) don’t begin here either. They are in the story long before (see Genesis 9 for their beginning). With regard to the Promised Land, we read of them in Genesis 15, where Abraham is reassured that God’s promises to him will be fulfilled. You see, many years have passed since God first made promises to Abraham (one of them being the land of Canaan) and nothing yet has happened to fulfill that promise. When Abraham needs a faith boost, God explains something about the timing of his promises that gives us an important clue to Joshua’s destruction of the cities in Canaan. God explains,
“Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” (Ge 15:13-16)
The Amorites is the name of one of the peoples in Canaan (and is representative of the whole). They are a people guilty of heinous forms of idolatry (including such things as child sacrifice), all kinds of sexual perversion and abuse, and a neglect of the poor. They deserved to be destroyed. And yet, God held back for 400 plus years from dispensing justice. Why? Because God is patient, not wanting any to perish! This “God of the Old Testament” is just and merciful, just as is the “God of the New Testament.” They are the same God. The Old Testament shows us God’s pattern for salvation. Just as Israel was shown to be God’s favored people by his mighty acts against Egypt, Jesus was shown to be God’s Son by his mighty acts of healing those who were in bondage to disease and evil spirits. Just as Israel waited 40 years before entering the Promised Land, the Church is waiting for the new heavens and the new earth. Those 40 years gave the people of Canaan time to see God’s judgment coming (they had all heard what happened to Egypt) as well as see the favor of God resting on Israel and to respond. Only one city did, which was Gibeah (in Joshua 9). They survived and are even saved by God and Israel from their enemies (the five kings in the passage above) as a result. In 2 Peter 3:9-10 Peter explains,
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.
We live in this time of God’s patience. The day of the Lord, of conquest, has not yet come. And so we read of the God of love and forgiveness in the New Testament. We live in the era of God’s patience. The writer of Hebrew says,
Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” (Hebrews 4:6-7)
So rather than see the Bible as disjointed, with an angry and wrathful God in the Old Testament and a forgiving and loving God of the New Testament, see them as painting the same picture of God. He is gracious and merciful but also just. We live in the time of his patience so that we might still repent and believe in His Son, whom he has given to lead us into the true Promised Land, the new heavens and the new earth where we will dwell with God for eternity. But make no mistake; this era of God’s patience will not last forever. The day of judgment will come and the “Old Testament God of wrath” will be seen once again as he brings his justice upon the earth.