However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God. (Deut. 20:16, 18)

It’s a troubling thing for us to wrap our minds around – that a loving God would condemn every man woman and child living in a certain place to be destroyed. And how does this square up with the sixth commandment: “You shall not kill?” Isn’t this disturbingly similar to the Muslim extremists who wage Jihad (holy war) on innocent people today?

Let’s start by taking a closer look at the commandment not to kill. There are seven words in Hebrew that refer to killing. Rasah, the one used in the sixth commandment, is only used to mean the killing of a person. It’s never used to refer to killing animals or to killing people in a war commanded by God. Rasah is the closest Hebrew word for our “murder,” and it always refers to violent, intentional murder, including suicide. The kind of killing we must not do is the kind that happens when we decide someone will die by our hand for our purposes.

The second point to consider is the question of war as God’s judgment. To understand this, we need to realize the difference between people’s understanding of both God and events in the period covered by the Old and New Testaments.

God’s revelation of Himself throughout the Scriptures is progressive; that is, He began with a people who knew nothing of Him and gradually brought us forward in our understanding as we were able to absorb the increasing knowledge. If we were able to go back in time and talk with Abraham about computers, we wouldn’t have a very long conversation. There would be absolutely nothing in his world and experience that would enable him to grasp what we were talking about. Just as we don’t graduate from kindergarten and become brain surgeons, we too have to be led step by step in our understanding of God. We can make progress much faster today than the ancients did, because we have the whole history and experience of the past at our fingertips in the Scriptures, immediate access to helpful material from scholars and other believers, and the presence of the Holy Spirit to make it all clearer to us.

When God revealed Himself to Moses in Ex. 34:6-7, He identified Himself first as compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, and forgiving. BUT, He said, don’t think you can take advantage of My love; if you don’t respond to it, you will be found guilty and punished. Every aspect of God’s character longs to forgive, but He can’t forgive those who refuse to repent.

By the end of the long period of time covered by the Old Testament, the concept of life after death was only partly revealed and poorly understood. For these people, judgment came during their time on earth. They understood military defeat and enslavement very well, and knew the source of it was their rebellion against God. They also recognized God’s mercy that had warned them repeatedly exactly what would happen if they didn’t return to Him. God revealed that the time of judgment came only after sin had reached its full measure; God’s desire was to give people and nations ample time to repent, not to jump on them in judgment at the first opportunity. When His judgment on nations finally came, it was always salutary to others who responded in repentance and recognized the fulfillment of prophesy. In the case of the Promised Land, God’s command was for the dual purposes of judgment on the full measure of sin and to protect His people from contamination.

With the coming of Jesus, for the first time people were able to see and know the exact representation of the living God. They no longer had to wonder what God was like; they could see and know and learn from Him directly. But even though Jesus spoke plainly about the need for His death and resurrection, even the disciples didn’t fully understand the nature of redemption and eternal life until after it happened. It took the coming of Jesus – and more significantly, His glorious going – to really impart what our inheritance is. We will either inherit eternal life with Him in heaven or eternal condemnation in hell. The choice is ours.

And so, while judgment normally occurred within the confines of history in the Old Testament, the new understanding revealed in the New Testament reserves final judgment for the afterlife. Jesus makes clear that judgment is coming, and it will be a terrible one for those who refuse to be saved.

Now that final judgment has been revealed, God no longer commands His people to wage military wars, but spiritual ones, for which He equips us with His Holy Spirit. “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does,” Paul says in 2Cor 10:3-5. “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”

But getting back to those military wars, was it fair for God to sometimes instruct that everyone be killed, even little children?

If we accept that parents are responsible for protecting and nurturing their children, let’s look at how the Caananites – the people who inhabited the Promised Land when the Israelites arrived – were doing that.

We know from historical records and archeological evidence that the Caananites were the epitome of sexual depravity. Archeologists have unearthed fertility symbols along with explicit writings that would make a pornographer blush. The Romans, no slouches themselves, were shocked at the deviant sexual practices of the Phoenicians at Carthage (the last of the Caananites). The Caananites had routinely sacrificed their children to their gods, and this was still happening at the time of the Roman Empire. So the children of Caanan, if they survived their parents’ need to kill them in honor of their gods, were raised to participate in every kind of perversion. The fact that this had been going on for centuries before God brought judgment indicates that the sin was so deeply ingrained as to be past redemption. Sin had, in fact, reached its full measure.

Finally, how does God’s judgment in the Old Testament compare with Islamic extremists?

God’s commands to the Israelites were specific to people, time, place and purpose. They were to be carried out only by His command, and in the way He instructed. They were never random, and always for a specific purpose. They were carried out after many warnings and a prolonged time to repent. God has never commanded His people to destroy every non-believer whenever and wherever they may encounter them. God wants all people everywhere to be saved, and Jesus came to make that possible for those who accept Him. He calls us to evangelize, not terrorize.

Jihadists take the position that Allah is calling them to kill infidels (non-Muslims) anywhere, anytime. They determine the time and place, and their victims are random. There is no attempt to evangelize or convert potential victims; there is only judgment without mercy. The purpose of the attacks are to terrorize, and the self-appointed participants are both judge and executioner. Jihadists often commit suicide in the execution of others, which they believe will secure their entrance to a special garden in paradise, where Allah will provide houris – maidens who will give them sexual pleasures. Shades of Caanan!

Is God fair? God is far more than fair – He is merciful.

The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.

He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever;

he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. (Ps 103:8-10)

In Jesus, we have the ultimate proof that God’s mercy triumphs over judgment.