Mass slaughter of the enemies of God’s elect is commanded time and again throughout the Old Testament. God both ordered and approved putting the populations of whole cities and nations to death. How do we reconcile such merciless bloodlust with the message of the meek and compassionate Jesus who preached that the Holy One of Israel is a god of love and mercy?
One example of wanton bloodshed is Deuteronomy 20:16-17, which prescribes the way the Israelites were to treat the people living in the land of Canaan: “16But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: 17But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee”.
Once Joshua had led them into the Promised Land, “they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.” (Joshua 6:21)
In Joshua 8:22-26:24And it came to pass, when Israelhad made an end of slaying all the inhabitants of Ai in the field, in the wilderness wherein they chased them, and when they were all fallen on the edge of the sword, until they were consumed, that all the Israelites returned unto Ai, and smote it with the edge of the sword. 25And so it was, that all that fell that day, both of men and women, were twelve thousand, even all the men of Ai. 26For Joshua drew not his hand back, wherewith he stretched out the spear, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai.
In Joshua 11:11-12:
11And they smote all the souls that were therein with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying them: there was not any left to breathe: and he burnt Hazor with fire. 12And all the cities of those kings, and all the kings of them, did Joshua take, and smote them with the edge of the sword, and he utterly destroyed them, as Moses the servant of the LORD commanded.
According to 1 Samuel 15, the divinely-ordained mayhem continued in the era of Samuel and King Saul:
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.
32Then said Samuel, “Bring ye hither to me Agag the king of the Amalekites.” And Agag came unto him delicately. And Agag said, “Surely the bitterness of death is past.” 33And Samuel said, “As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women.” And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal.
The Bible passages quoted above and many more like them are wildly at odds with the time-honoured conception of Christianity as a religion of peace and mercy. Can we reconcile God’s command that Israelites put their enemies to death on a wholesale scale with the same god’s blessing the merciful, who shall obtain mercy?
The same questions occurred to Origen, who was the foremost Bible scholar and teacher of the first half of the third century AD. His writing and preaching influenced the church for centuries after his own time. In his Sermons on Joshua 8.7 (AD 249150) he told his congregation that the wars and massacres in the historical books of the Old Testament were not meant to be applied literally as a precedent for how Christians should act. Rather, they were symbols or examples or teaching aids to instruct Christians to war against and totally destroy in our own lives not only every kind of sin but also every inducement and temptation to sin.
Just as the Israelites thoroughly obliterated their enemies, preached Origen, so should believers just as completely eradicate their own enemies: sin and everything that leads to sin. The thoroughness of the Old Testament exterminations, Origen said, is to teach Christians not to be content with avoiding major sins, or sins like fornication, malice, and lusts. Nor is it enough to refrain from all sins. We must exert our souls, he preached, to root out as spiritual enemies all wicked thoughts, distorted desires, and other enticements and inclination to sin with the same diligence and perseverance as an exterminating army acting under God’s orders.