Many people find certain parts of the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, abhorrent for their description of violence. What kind of God would claim to be good and loving but then order the killing of hundreds of thousands of people? Such a God is not good at all, these folks conclude. And who can blame them?
In Deuteronomy 7 God commands the Israelites to invade Palestine and kill everyone that lives there. “When YHWH your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations…and when YHWH your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally.” What the heck, God?
This is a difficult statement for many. How can a loving God order a genocide? How can this be in the Bible? How does this square with what I know about God through Jesus Christ?
The answer to these difficult questions, I believe, goes beyond the fact that Israel had been promised that land by God or that war was inevitable in those days (and still is today). No, the answer is that God hates idolatry. Idolatry, the worship of gods who are not God, is a fundamental and vile betrayal of your relationship with the God who made you. Idolatry is the door by which sin, evil, and wickedness enter the world. The more idolatry, the more wickedness.
Why? Because of the nature of the gods we worship. These are gods that have no concern for humanity. The pagan myths bear this out. The ancient gods were like horrible, shallow, vindictive humans with divine powers. They were the worst of us. Idolatry is dehumanizing. Idolatry undoes all that God is trying to do in the world. The gods are fundamentally opposed to God.
Therefore, as far as God is concerned, it is better for you to die than to live as an idolator. To be an idol-worshipper is to invite wickedness into the world, and to undo the work of redemption that God is trying to accomplish. Deuteronomy 9 says this: “After YHWH your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, ‘YHWH has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.’ No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that YHWH is going to drive them out before you.” Their wickedness stems from their idolatry.
You may not bow down to idols of wood or stone, but you have functional gods in your heart that are not the true God. They are, in fact, the same gods the ancients worshipped, but we have depersonified them, turning them into abstract concepts: Fame, Money, Power, Sex. What a trick the Enlightenment has played on us! But we are idolators, all of us, and you would do well to examine the desires of your heart to discover your own functional gods.
The people living in Canaan were killed because they were idolators, and their idolatry led them into wickedness. Idolatry always leads us into wickedness. You will find yourself doing things you never imagined to pursue the idols of your heart: Money, Fame, Sex, Power. You will invite great wickedness into your world in the pursuit of your idols–so much wickedness, in fact, that if you were to recover your right mind, you would look back and confess that it would have been better for you to die than to live as an idolator.