A few nights ago, in the midst of a spirited discussion about faith and morality, my friend made a powerful statement. He said emphatically, “I can’t worship a God who would command his people to go kill all the men, women, and children of another nation.” This is one of the more common objections I hear to Christianity, and I can genuinely sympathize with those who feel this way.
However, the more I think about it, I believe the exact opposite. I don’t believe that I can worship a God who doesn’t command his people to commit genocide. That’s a provocative claim, so before you write me off as a someone who thinks there’s nothing wrong with ethnic cleansing (I don’t!), allow me to explain why I would make such a bold assertion.
God and Genocide in the Bible
God commands Israel’s first king, Saul: “Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (1 Samuel 15:3).
My first response to this verse is utter repulsion. Not only are women and children to be killed, but the animals are to be brutally slaughtered as well. How can anyone praise and honor such a violent God? It seems to defy our reason and our sense of morality. It is no surprise that many people feel they can’t worship a God who commands these atrocities.
I resonate deeply with this sentiment, and yet I think it rests on a shaky foundation. The objection to worshiping God is based on what we think God should be like. God should be good, loving, kind, merciful, and forgiving. Beneath this objection is the premise that God only deserves our worship and obedience if he possesses the characteristics that we approve of. When we bring this mentality to the Bible, we discover passages that don’t fit into that narrow picture of God. For my friend and for many, that incongruity leads to a rejection of God and the Bible.
A Real God Defies Expectation
As I contemplate the disconnect between our idea of what God should be like and what the Bible tells us God is like, it seems to me that we should expect a difference between the two. If God is a real being, then he is what he is. If God always fit into our notions of what God should be like, that is a sure sign that we created a god of our own imagining.
This is true of all interpersonal relationships. Have you ever had the experience of your ideas or preconceived notions about someone challenged when you interact with them? Every person exists as a distinct and unique individual, and this means that they will at times defy our conception of them. This happens often the first time we meet someone, but it also happens with people we have known for many years. In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis, noting this phenomenon in his relationship with his wife, aptly says, “All reality is iconoclastic.” Real people have a way of destroying our preconceptions precisely because they are real.
The fact that our notion of God is challenged by the Bible is a sure sign that the God revealed within the pages of Scripture is real. Lewis went on to say, “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence?" Instead of rejecting God because we don’t like what the Bible reveals about him, we seek to understand more deeply who he is.
A Real God Is Just and Loving
What does a passage like 1 Samuel 15:3 tell us about God? The first thing we have to do to answer this question is to look at the context. Verse four gives us the reason for God’s command, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt.’” Therefore, God commands Israel to devote the Amalekites to destruction.
Israel is God’s tool used to administer divine justice. In this sense, as one of my seminary professors said, “Israel is not behind the times, they are ahead of the times.” Israel is not barbaric and backward in following God’s command, rather God’s command to destroy the Amalekites prefigures the second coming of Christ at which the final judgment will occur and every human being will be called to account for their lives. 1 Samuel 15:3 tells us that God is a just God who will give everyone what they deserved for their actions.
The God revealed in the Bible is not one dimensional. He is not reducible to the attributes of love or mercy. Any attempt to do so is shattered by reality. God is a righteous, holy, and just God. He does—and in fact, must—punish evil. If this was not the case, I do not believe God would be worthy of worship. We would never praise a judge who chooses to let convicted thieves, murders, and rapists return home without so much as a reprimand. Even if a judge did this in the name of love, we would never be satisfied with the practical realities of having these people living unpunished in our neighborhoods or teaching our children at school. A God who never metes out justice is a God who should be rejected. A God who is both loving and just is a God that is not only worthy of but also demands our worship and obedience.
How Can God be Just and Loving?
The God of the Bible is most fully revealed to us in the person of Christ. As Jesus hung upon the cross, the love, and justice of God came together. Paul expresses this truth in Romans 3:23-26:
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show his righteousness at the present time so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Though he was sinless, Christ took on the punishment deserved by sinners. The justice of God is satisfied in his death. As a result, if we place our faith in Christ, God declares us righteous in his sight. On that final judgment day, when all are called to account for their actions, we are sheltered from God’s righteous anger. What an incredibly just, holy, righteous loving, gracious, and merciful God! Is there any other response to this God than worship?