10 “When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it. 11 And if it responds to you peaceably and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you. 12 But if it makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it. 13 And when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword, 14 but the women and the little ones, the livestock, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as plunder for yourselves. And you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you. 15 Thus you shall do to all the cities that are very far from you, which are not cities of the nations here. 16 But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, 17 but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded, 18 that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God.
19 “When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you? 20 Only the trees that you know are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down, that you may build siegeworks against the city that makes war with you, until it falls.” – Deuteronomy 20:10-20 ESV
Let’s face it, these are difficult verses to understand, let alone to justify. They deal with sensitive topics, and their content appears counter-intuitive and contradictory to our sense of fairness and ethics. This is one of those passages that cause many to reject the God of the Old Testament as antithetical to the loving, grace-giving, and merciful God of the New Testament.
But despite any reservations we may have with the more sinister portrait of God found in these verses, the Scriptures do not portray God as bipolar in nature. We may not like what we see. His actions may offend our more refined 21st-Century sensibilities, but the biblical portrait of God is designed to be taken in full, not in part.
The nature of God is complex and complicated. And mankind is at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to comprehending His wisdom or His ways. God, by the very nature of His being, is incomprehensible and beyond man’s capacity to understand. His own assessment of His transcendent nature is quite plain.
“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
“And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so my ways are higher than your ways
and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” – Isaiah 55:8-9 NLT
Even the psalmist understood that mere humans were at a distinct disadvantage when it came to understanding the ways of God.
When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—the moon and the stars you set in place—what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them? – Psalm 8:3-4 NLT
He was blown away that the God who created the universe and all it contains would even give a second thought to “mere mortals” like himself. But how quickly we more sophisticated and well-educated modern mortals attempt to judge God and hold Him accountable for His actions. And yet, the ancient prophet, Isaiah, would have us consider the danger of putting the God of the universe on trial, passing judgment on His behavior as if He somehow answers to us.
“What sorrow awaits those who argue with their Creator. Does a clay pot argue with its maker? Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying, ‘Stop, you’re doing it wrong!’ Does the pot exclaim, ‘How clumsy can you be?’” – Isaiah 45:9 NLT
These verses in Deuteronomy 20 must be read with the whole context of the biblical narrative in mind. The Bible is a single book written by a solitary author and tells a singular story. It is the revelation of God. On its pages are found a diverse and somewhat disparate compellation of images that, when taken together, provide a comprehensive portrait of God. As God, He is far from simple or simplistic in nature. His character is complex and multifaceted, yet never contradictory or conflicting. He is, at the same time loving, wrathful, holy, vengeful, kind, angry, just, condemning, forgiving, uncompromising, and compassionate.
So, when we read of God advocating the complete annihilation of a people group, we are tempted to react with shock and disdain. The image it portrays stands diametrically opposed to the one we have formed in our minds. But far too often, our image of God is a flawed and overly simplistic one, based on human reasoning and not divine revelation. We tend to paint God using a limited palette of colors, designed to cast Him in a way that mirrors our own nature and pleases our human sensibilities. We prefer a God who looks like us, acts like us, and can be fully understood by us. We are not comfortable with the apparent contradictions and contrasts that accompany a transcendent, incomprehensible God.
In these verses, God provides the Israelites with His rules regarding warfare. He has brought them to the land of Canaan and now it is time for them to inhabit the land He had promised to them as their inheritance. But to do so, they would have to remove the nations that currently occupied the land. And while we may find this as nothing more than a display of God-ordained ethnic cleansing, we have to be careful that we do not step into the very dangerous role of acting as God’s judge.
Our inability to grasp God’s ways does not give us carte blanch to judge His actions. As God said to His disgruntled and disenchanted servant, Job: “Do you still want to argue with the Almighty? You are God’s critic, but do you have the answers?” (Job 40:2 NLT).
In response to Job’s relentless questioning of His motives and methods, God went on to ask Job, “Will you discredit my justice and condemn me just to prove you are right?” (Job 40:8 NLT).
God was unsparing in His response to Job’s arrogant assault on His character, asking him, “Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorance?” (Job 42:3 NLT).
And, while we may find if offensive and incomprehensible that God would issue a command for Israel to put all the males of a city to the sword and to take all the women and children as captives, we must refrain from acting as God’s judge. When we hear Moses tell the Israelites: “in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction” (Deuteronomy 20:16 ESV), we naturally react with shock and dismay. But who are we to question the ways of God? What right do we have to judge the Almighty according to our limited wisdom and understanding? His ways are far beyond anything we could ever imagine or comprehend.
God was not asking the Israelites to approve of His methods. He was demanding that they trust His character and willingly rely on His track record of faithfulness. He had never let them down. He had never given them a reason to doubt His word or to question His integrity. And while we may not particularly like God’s methods or understand His ways, we have no right to act as His judge. This chapter of the story may not make sense to us. We may not see the method behind God’s seeming madness, but the Bible contains a story that has a beginning and an end. Every chapter and every verse in every book of the Bible paints a comprehensive picture of God’s redemptive plan for mankind. And this story, while sometimes a difficult read, ends very well.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.