The very notion that God would command the obliteration of entire nations is abhorrent to skeptics and seekers alike. In context, however, God’s commands are perfectly consistent with his justice and mercy.
First, a text without a context is a pretext. God’s commands to destroy the nations inhabiting the promised land of Canaan must never be interpreted in isolation from their immediate contexts. The command to “destroy them totally” (Deuteronomy 7:2) is contextualized by the words: “Do not intermarry with them . . . for they will turn your sons and daughters away from following me to serve other gods. . . . This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire” (vv. 3–5). As such, the aim of God’s command was not the obliteration of the wicked but the obliteration of wickedness.
Furthermore, God’s martial instructions are qualified by his moral intentions to spare the repentant. As the author of Hebrews explains, “By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient” (11:31). Not only were Rahab and her family spared on account of her faith, she was allowed to live among the Israelites (Joshua 6:25) and came to hold a privileged position in the lineage of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:5). God’s desire to spare the pagan city of Nineveh further illustrates the extent of his mercy for the repentant (see Jonah).
Finally, God unequivocally commanded Israel to treat the aliens living among them with respect and equality. Foreigners living among the Israelites were allowed to celebrate Passover (Numbers 9:14; cf. 15:15), benefited from an agrarian system of welfare (Leviticus 19:9), and enjoyed full legal protection (Deuteronomy 1:16–17). Even descendants of Israel’s enemies, the Edomites and the Egyptians, were allowed to enter the assembly of the Lord (Deuteronomy 23:7–8). In fact, God condemned oppression of aliens in the harshest possible language: “Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless, or the widow” (Deuteronomy 27:19). Such concern for foreigners clearly demonstrates that mercy was to be shown to those who by faith repented of their idolatry and were thereby grafted into true Israel (cf. Romans 11:11–24).
For further study, see Gary M. Burge, Whose Land? Whose Promise? (Cleveland, OH:The Pilgrim Press, 2003): 82–93.
“If you really change your ways and your actions
and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress
the alien, the fatherless or the widow and
do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you
do not follow other gods to your own harm,
then I will let you live in this place, in the land I
gave your forefathers for ever and ever.”