Is the God of the Old Testament Cruel?
July 28, 2016
David Cloud, Way of Life Literature, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061
Is God Cruel?
“When the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them: Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and destroy thee suddenly. But thus shall ye deal with them; ye shall destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graven images with fire” (Deuteronomy 7:1-5).

Unbelievers have long used Israel’s destruction of the Canaanite nations as evidence that the God of the Old Testament is unjust and cruel.

American skeptic Thomas Paine called the God of the Old Testament “boisterous, contemptible, and vulgar” (
The Age of Reason, 1807). More recently, Oxford atheist Richard Dawkins called the God of the Old Testament “a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully” (The God Delusion, 2006).

Having studied the Bible for nearly 45 years, having been a skeptic and now a believer, I reject this as libel against the good God revealed in Scripture.

The following facts must be taken into consideration:

First, God waited 400 years before judging these nations, which reminds us that He is very longsuffering.

“And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance. And thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age. But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full” (Genesis 15:13-16).

These nations had the light of creation and conscience, and they also had prophetic light. There were prophets in the region such as Melchizedek, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and his sons. The Canaanite nations could have repented like Nineveh did, and God would have forgiven them (Jonah 3:5-10).

Far from being hot-headed, impulsive, and capricious, the Jehovah God revealed in the Bible is longsuffering.

“The LORD is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy” (Psalm 145:8).

“The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

The patience of God was seen in the days before the Flood.

“GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5).

Yet God waited a long time, probably 120 years, while Noah built the ark.

“Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water” (1 Peter 3:20).

In Abraham’s day, God would have withheld His judgment on wicked Sodom had He found even 10 righteous souls therein, but there were not even 10 (Genesis 18:32).

God is very patient with sinners, but His patience has an end. In Noah’s time, there came a day when God shut the door of the ark. The opportunity for salvation was finished and judgment fell irrevocably. The same thing happened to the Canaanites. “The time of God's patience and forbearance towards provoking sinners is sometimes long, but always limited: reprieves are not pardons; though God bear a great while, he will not bear always” (Matthew Henry).

Second, the nations in question were devoted to every sort of vile moral perversion, including homosexuality, rape, incest, bestiality, and the burning of their children.

“And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, I am the LORD your God. After the doings of the land of Egypt, wherein ye dwelt, shall ye not do: and after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do: neither shall ye walk in their ordinances. (Leviticus 18:1-3) ... Also thou shalt not approach unto a woman to uncover her nakedness, as long as she is put apart for her uncleanness. Moreover thou shalt not lie carnally with thy neighbour's wife, to defile thyself with her. And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD. Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination. Neither shalt thou lie with any beast to defile thyself therewith: neither shall any woman stand before a beast to lie down thereto: it is confusion. Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you: AND THE LAND IS DEFILED: THEREFORE I DO VISIT THE INIQUITY THEREOF UPON IT, AND THE LAND ITSELF VOMITETH OUT HER INHABITANTS” (Leviticus 18:1-3, 19-25).

“When the LORD thy God shall cut off the nations from before thee, whither thou goest to possess them, and thou succeedest them, and dwellest in their land; Take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before thee; and that thou inquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise. Thou shalt not do so unto the LORD thy God: for every abomination to the LORD, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods; FOR EVEN THEIR SONS AND THEIR DAUGHTERS they have burnt in the fire to their gods” (Deuteronomy 12:29-31).

These nations were not innocent. They were destroyed for their gross moral wickedness.

“For all that do these things are an abomination unto the LORD: and because of these abominations the LORD thy God doth drive them out from before thee” (Deuteronomy 18:12).

“Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you: And the land is defiled: therefore I do visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants” (Leviticus 18:24-25).

Consider the condition of Sodom and Gomorrah hundreds of years before God ordered the destruction of these nations. The men of Sodom surrounded Lot’s house and tried to force themselves on the visiting angels (Gen. 19:4-9).

These pagan nations were proud and bold in their sin (Isaiah 3:9).

Following is a description of the horrible practices of the Canaanites of Joshua’s day. This is from “Killing the Canaanites,”
Christian Research Journal, Vol. 35, No. 4, 2010.

Idolatry. The Canaanites took seriously the testimony of the Old Testament witness of Yahweh and His revelation, if for no other reason than intentionally to transform the scriptural depiction of Yahweh into a castrated weakling who likes to play with His own excrement and urine (See Ulf Oldenburg, The Conflict between El and Ba‘al in Canaanite Religion, p. 172). ...

Incest. Like all Ancient Near East (ANE) pantheons, the Canaanite pantheon was incestuous. Baal has sex with his mother Asherah (“El, Ashertu and the Storm-god,” trans. Albrecht Goetze, ed. James B. Pritchard, The Ancient Near East: Supplementary Texts and Pictures Relating to the Old Testament), his sister Anat, and his daughter Pidray (W. F. Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan), and none of this is presented pejoratively. ... In the larger ANE context, it is helpful to consider that in an Egyptian dream book dreams of having sex with your mother or your sister were considered good omens (Lise Manniche, Sexual Life in Ancient Egypt).

Adultery. Canaanite religion, like that of all of the ANE, was a fertility religion that involved temple sex. Inanna/Ishtar, also known as the Queen of Heaven, “became the woman among the gods, patron of eroticism and sensuality, of conjugal love as well as adultery, of brides and prostitutes, transvestites and pederasts” (Gwendolyn Leick, Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature). As University of Helsinki professor Martti Nissinen writes, “Sexual contact with a person whose whole life was devoted to the goddess was tantamount to union with the goddess herself” (Martti Nissinen, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World). The Canaanites even remake the God of the Bible, El, after their own image and portray Him ceremonially as having sex with two women (or goddesses). The ceremony ends with directions: “To be repeated five times by the company and the singers of the assembly.” About this John Gray comments, “We may well suppose that this activity of El was sacramentally experienced by the community in the sexual orgies of the fertility cult which the Hebrew prophets so vehemently denounced” (Gray, The Legacy of Canaan).

Child sacrifice. Molech was a Canaanite underworld deity represented as an upright, bullheaded idol with a human body in whose belly a fire was stoked and in whose outstretched arms a child was placed that would be burned to death. The victims were not only infants; children as old as four were sacrificed (Shelby Brown, Late Carthaginian Child Sacrifice and Sacrificial Monuments in Their Mediterranean Context). Kleitarchos reported that “as the flame burning the child surrounded the body, the limbs would shrivel up and the mouth would appear to grin as if laughing, until it was shrunk enough to slip into the cauldron” (John Day, Molech: A God of Human Sacrifice, p. 87).

Homosexuality. No ANE text condemns homosexuality. Additionally, some ANE manuscripts talk about “party-boys and festival people who changed their masculinity into femininity to make the people of Ishtar revere her” (Stephanie Dalley, “Erra and Ishum IV,” Myths from Mesopotamia, p. 305).

Bestiality. Probably the ultimate sexual depravity is intercourse with animals. Hittite Laws: 199 states, “If anyone has intercourse with a pig or a dog, he shall die. If a man has intercourse with a horse or a mule, there is no punishment” (Harry A. Hoffner, Jr., “Incest, Sodomy and Bestiality in the Ancient Near East,” in Orient and Occident: Essays Presented to Cyrus H. Gordon on the Occasion of His Sixty-fifth Birthday). ... There should be no surprise that bestiality would occur among the Canaanites, since their gods practiced it. From the Canaanite epic poem “The Baal Cycle” we learn: “Mightiest Baal hears / He makes love with a heifer in the outback / A cow in the field of Death’s Realm. / He lies with her seventy times seven / Mounts eighty times eight / [She conceives and bears a boy” (Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, 1997, ed. Simon B. Parker). There were absolutely no prohibitions against bestiality in the rest of the ANE. In fact, in an Egyptian dream book it was a bad omen for a woman to dream about embracing her husband, but good things would happen if she dreamed of intercourse with a baboon, wolf, or he-goat (Lise Manniche, Sexual Life in Ancient Egypt, 1987). In short, their sexual fantasies involved everything that breathes. This explains why, in certain cities, Yahweh sentenced to death everything that breathes. If they had sex with just about every living thing they could get their hands on, and they did, then all had to die” (Clay Jones, “Killing the Canaanites,” Christian Research Journal, Vol. 35, No. 4, 2010).

It is not morally wrong for a holy, lawgiving God to punish those who willfully, flagrantly, and unrepentantly break His laws and pollute and degrade human society.

Men are quick to call for justice when
they are offended, but they hypocritically criticize God for exercising justice against sinners.

Three, blood retribution practiced by ancient tribal culture required the destruction of families as well as the men. 

“So long as one member of a family remained, that person was bound by cultural law to attempt retribution against the enemies of his people. Such unrest and hostility would have persisted throughout the nation's history, with no possibility of peace in the land. What appears to be genocide was actually the way wars were typically prosecuted” (Denison Forum on Truth and Culture).

“These children would have likely grown up as adherents to the evil religions and practices of their parents. They would naturally have grown up resentful of the Israelites and later sought to avenge the ‘unjust’ treatment of their parents” (“Why Did God Command the Extermination?

Four, God’s judgments are warnings to others.

The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and other Canaanite cities are merciful warnings to those who will listen, even to these end times. This is emphasized in Scripture:

“And turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrha into ashes condemned them with an overthrow, making them an ensample unto those that after should live ungodly” (2 Peter 2:6).

“Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire” (Jude 1:7).

Even in judgment, God is merciful. What He loves above all is mercy and what He is above all is a Saviour, but men must repent and turn to Him. That is His requirement, and the Creator has every right to set the rules!

Five, the Lord was merciful to individuals like Rahab who repented of their idolatry and put their faith in Jehovah God (Joshua 2).

God saved Rahab’s entire family because of her faith in Him. He would have done the same for others, but they did not repent.

The whole tenor of Scripture teaches that God delights in mercy more than in punishment. He “is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). He “will have all men to be saved and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).

Six, God is omniscient.

He knows all things. He knows the beginning from the end. He knows what people will do and the choices they make even before they born and while they are still infants. It might seem cruel and unreasonable for God to have children killed with their parents, but God knew what these children would do when they grew up, as He knew in the days of Noah.

Seven, it was necessary for those wicked pagan nations to be overthrown so that Israel could be established in that land as a light to the world.

Had they been left alone, Israel would have been corrupted morally and religiously within a very short time (Deut. 7:2-6). The destruction of those nations was actually an act of great compassion on God’s part. The tribes that were destroyed deserved what they got by persisting in their sin, and by exercising His righteous judgment on them God was preparing blessing for the whole world. Through Israel, God gave the world His divine revelation in the Bible, and through Israel He brought the Saviour into the world to die for man’s sin. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

Those who charge God with injustice and cruelty ignore the fact that God Himself paid the price demanded of His own holy law so that men can be saved. The heart of God was revealed in the amazing words that Jesus spoke from the cross about the people who had so terribly, unjustly abused him: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The God revealed in the Bible is the most compassionate Person in the universe. In fact, He is the source of all true love and compassion, but He is also a thrice holy, lawgiving God, and He cannot be judged by man’s puny, inconsistent standards and thinking.

“Was it fair that Israel destroyed the residents of Canaan? If God were fair, none of us could see his perfect heaven. We are all spiritual Canaanites, saved from eternal wrath only by the love of our Creator. Think back to your last sin. Admit that this one transgression warrants the judgment and condemnation of a holy God. And thank God that he is not fair” (Jim Dennison).

Eight, the atheist has no basis for making absolute moral judgments against God.

If life is a product of accidental, meaningless, naturalistic events, it has no ultimate purpose and there can be no absolute basis for moral judgments.

If man is merely an animal, who is to say how he must live and act? Is the snake morally wrong for eating a rat or the cat for tormenting a bird?

If “God” is merely a product of man’s invention, who is to say that one “God” is more righteous than another?

Further, the atheistic code of morality is relativistic. Situational ethics12 is the sound track of this skeptical generation:

I’m free to do what I want any old time” (Rolling Stones, 1965).

It’s my life and I’ll do what I want/ It’s my mind, and I’ll think what I want” (The Animals, 1965).

You got to go where you want to go/ do what you want to do” (Mamas and Papas, 1966).

It’s your thing/ do what you want to do” (Isley Brothers, 1969).

I’m gonna do it my way. ... I want to make my own decision ... I want to be the one in control…” (Janet Jackson, “Control,” 1986).

Nothing’s forbidden and nothing’s taboo when two are in love” (Prince, “When Two Are in Love,” 1988).

the only rules you should live by [are] rules made up by you” (Pennywise, “Rules,” 1991).

“So what we get drunk/ So what we smoke weed …
Living young and wild and free” (“Young, Wild and Free,” Snoop Dog and Wiz Khalifa, 2011).

We can do what we want; we can live as we choose” (Paul McCartney, “New,” 2013).

If man is the ultimate standard for morality and there is no higher authority, who can say it is wrong to lie, steal, commit adultery, and kill? Who is to say that homosexuality is wrong?

Under such a philosophical system, it is ridiculous for men to claim that God is unjust. Who says? On what absolute basis can such a judgment be made?

If atheism is true, moral arguments amount to a bunch of hot air.

“The extreme irony of the atheistic argument against God’s morality is that atheism is completely impotent to define the term ‘moral,’ much less use the concept against any other system. ... If atheism is true and humans evolved from non-living, primordial slime, then any sense of moral obligation must simply be a subjective outworking of the physical neurons firing in the brain. Theoretically, atheistic scientists and philosophers admit this truth. ... Dan Barker admitted this truth in his debate with Peter Payne, when he stated: ‘There are no actions in and of themselves that are always absolutely right or wrong...’ (2005). ... While the atheist may claim not to like God’s actions, if he admits that there is a legitimate standard of morality that is not based on subjective human whims, then he has forfeited his atheistic position. If actions can accurately be labeled as objectively moral or immoral, then atheism cannot be true. ... It is evident that atheism has no grounds upon which to attack God’s character” (Kyle Butt, “Is God Immoral for Killing Innocent Children?”

Ninth, the same skeptics who criticize God for the killing “innocent children” typically justify abortion.

They justify the killing of unborn children by the multiplied millions on the basis that it is “the mother’s body” and “the mother’s choice.” If the pregnancy is not convenient or desirable, it should end, though this requires the destruction of a perfectly innocent child.

Thus, they would have us believe that the God of the Bible is unjust to kill “innocent children” in the context of removing the wicked Canaanite nations, though this God is the Creator and owner of man and the infallible judge of right and wrong who can see the beginning and the end.

But this same crowd would have us believe that
they are just to kill innocent children in the womb, though they are but mortal, fallible, frail men.

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