Ethnic cleansing and genocide refer to destruction of a people group due solely to their ethnicity, by another group or nation who consider they have the right to carry out such massacres. A prime example is anti-Semitism, the evil intention to annihilate the Jews. Genocide and ethnic cleansing is the violent and unjust treatment of their fellow man by other sinful mankind. The remainder of this article considers the moral and just judgement of a holy God against sin.
While God loves people He does not condone sin and His righteous judgement of sinners are important biblical principles. Even in the accounts of mass killings in the OT we see both the justice and grace of God as His judgement falls on the rebellious but those who turn to Him and have faith are saved. His judgements are not based on ethnicity but on people’s response to His commands, with His values being known within each person’s conscience (Jer 31:33; Rom 2:15; Heb 10:16; Jas 4:17).
Sin must be judged
destroyed (Gen 18:20,21, 19:5). The Egyptian first-born deaths occurred because Pharaoh consistently refused to let the Israelites go to fulfil their God-given destiny (Ex 11:9,10, 12:12). God carried out these judgements without human involvement. There are two further accounts of God directing humans to undertake this task. Moses and Joshua were assigned to destroy the Canaanites because of their detestable religious practices and the extent to which sin pervaded their culture (Deut 9:4-6, 18:12; Lev 18:24,25; Num 21:2,3; Deut 20:17; Josh 6:17,21). The Amalekites showed unrelenting brutality toward the Israelites resulting in God’s directive; “You shall blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven” (Ex 17:8-14; Deut 25:17-19). Saul failed to completely fulfil the task assigned him, and the Amalekites who escaped continued to harass and plunder the Israelites (1 Sam 15:1-4,11, 30:1,2,17). However, during the reign of King Hezekiah, the remaining Amalekites were killed (1 Chr 4:42,43).
The Israelites were God’s agents of His judgement but not because they were morally superior for He repeatedly said, “It is not because of your righteousness” (Deut 9:4,5,6). Perhaps God wanted the Israelites to learn the seriousness of sin, the detestability of evil religions and the reality of His judgement. These truths should have been deeply etched into their consciousness as they remembered their involvement in the expulsion or annihilation of a whole civilisation as ordered by God.
God’s desire was to preserve Israel from the vile religions of the Canaanites, so they would have pure worship and bear God’s name and mission (Deut 12:31, 20:16-18). However, due to their failure to obey His command they were influenced to adopt the false religions of those they failed to destroy.
The nature of the judgement also included expulsion, the forced removal from the land rather than just focusing on genocide (the extermination of an ethnic group). God stated, “Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.” God tells Israel that if they do not follow the Lord and His law, then they will suffer the same fate (Lev 18:24-29). His threats and subsequent punishment for Israel’s unfaithfulness was not annihilation but exile from the land showing His impartiality, fairness and commitment to justice (Deut 32:4). God used nations who were more wicked to bring judgement on those who were the specific attention of judgement at a particular time, yet in turn those invading nations were also dealt with (Dan 5:28,30; Hab 1:6-11,13, 2:2-20).
The command given to Israel to annihilate was limited only to inhabitants within Canaan as it seems those who fled the Promised Land were not to be pursued beyond the borders “you will drive them out and annihilate them quickly, as the Lord has promised you” (Deut 7:1-4,16,17, 9:3). When the Israelites fought battles against cities outside the Promised Land some of the inhabitants could be spared, while battles inside the land required total destruction (Deut 20:10-18). It was a focused, targeted campaign, not an uncontrolled rampage.
Although such measures seemed harsh, Abraham said, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18:25). He correctly understood that the key issue in judgement is the character of God, and his question expressed confidence in God’s righteousness. Scripture consistently maintains that God is fair in His judgements and will not let the guilty go unpunished, for in the future all mankind will be judged by God’s standard of righteousness (Ex 34:6,7; Rom 2:1-16). “[God] repays a man for what He has done; He brings upon him what his conduct deserves” (Job 34:11; Jer 17:10, 32:19; Zech 1:6).
held responsible for the sin of their culture or religion.
There is no Scriptural basis for any justification of similar actions today. Christians are not promised an earthly kingdom or land and Christ commanded sharing the gospel message to all nations rather than pronouncing judgement on some (Mt 28:19; Mk 13:10; Act 8:4).
From the OT mass killings we understand they were Divine judgement against extreme sin, yet in each case they have been preceded by periods of opportunity to repent, during which there was knowledge available to the people that enabled them to know about God. Those who turned to Him in faith were saved. In each situation some were saved, except (apparently) among the Amalekites.
These same principles also apply to the final judgement from which no one is exempt: God will judge fairly. The outcome will be either
eternal punishment (much more serious than physical death) or eternal blessing (Rom 6:23; Rev 20:11-15).
God is now patiently waiting, giving people an opportunity to repent for He does not delight in the death of the wicked (Ezek 33:11; 2 Pet
3:9). Christians are present now in the world as witnesses to God’s truth and
love, commissioned to share the gospel (Mk 16:15; 2 Cor 2:14-16). There is
salvation for any who will repent and trust in Christ for salvation (Jn 1:12; Act 2:21).
This will result in the clear distinction between the righteous and wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not – this will be
irreversibly obvious (Ex 11:7; Mal 3:18).
God forgives those who repent
she was spared and became part of the earthly lineage of Jesus, while the remaining Canaanites in Jericho and numerous other cities inside the Promised land were killed (Josh 2:9, 6:21,25, 8:24,25, 12:7ff; Mt 1:5). Another example of God’s response when people repent is that when Jonah was told to “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me” (Jnh 1:2). The reaction to his message “In forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” was the king’s decree, “’Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from His fierce anger so that we will not perish.’ When God saw what they did…He did not bring upon them the destruction He had threatened” (Jnh 3:4,8-10). Jonah acknowledged, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jnh 4:2).
As believers, it is vital for us to be vigilant to continue being “pure and undefiled before God” and to faithfully share the gospel locally and abroad, for the truth is all sin must be judged and every person deserves eternal punishment – a worse fate than the physical death the Canaanites experienced (Rom 6:23; Heb 9:27). God’s judgement on sin is a reality, and we presently have the opportunity to repent and be saved, yet “How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?” (Heb 2:3).
The ultimate judgement of God against human sin is reserved for the future day “when He will judge the world with justice by the man [Jesus] He has appointed” (Act 17:31). However, there are instances where He intervenes in judgement during the lifetime of individuals (e.g. Act 5:1-10); groups of people (e.g. Num 16:1-35); and even, as in the case of the Canaanites and Amalekites, against entire nations.
Without understanding that God must judge sin, we cannot understand the wonder of God’s forgiveness and grace or the amazing truth of the cross, where Christ endured the wrath of God for our sin.