"God's Love in the Old Testament" - Chapter 19



Chapter 19: "A Contradictory God of Justice?"




Chapter 19– A Contradictory God of Justice?


“The LORD is known by his justice.”   (Psa 9:16)



Content of Chapter 19

19.1 Setting the Scene: the chapter's strategy

19.2 Approaching the Old Testament: An Overview

19.3 Justice & the Law of Moses

19.4 Justice in the subsequent life of Israel

19.5 Justice in the Songs of Israel

19.6 Justice and the Prophets

19.7 And So?


Thesis of Chapter 19: If the clear testimony of Scripture is that God is a God of Justice, it is inconceivable that He will commit acts that are contrary to justice, and so we will need to review all His acts in the light of this.




19.1 Setting the Scene: the chapter's strategy


In the early chapters of this book we noted the following description of God:


“the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” (Exodus 34:6,7)


However, we also noted that one of the biggest responses to my apologetics blog is about why God allowed or even commanded Israel to kill the inhabitants of Canaan, men, women and children. Surely, people say, this doesn't correspond with that description of God? Why did God allow or instruct Israel to wipe out the inhabitants of Canaan?

Did God actually say that to Israel - kill all the men women and children? Well the truth is that that form of words never appears but to sense of it does appear as the following:

Deut 20:16-18   "in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them--the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites--as the LORD your God has commanded you. 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.”

To catch something of the uniqueness of this though we also need to note the verses that immediately precede this:

Deut 20:10-15  "When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the LORD your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the LORD your God gives you from your enemies. This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby."

These were God's battle instructions for Israel which would have been necessary in the future when defending themselves against neighbouring nations and it is clear that the general instruction means that in war only the men of the enemy were to be killed. This therefore raises the question as to why it should be different in the case of the inhabitants of Canaan.  We will consider this later.


My usual answer to the question about Israel invading Canaan (and I will return to this in a couple of chapters time) is that, in fact, the occupants of Canaan had three options:

•  To join Israel – as the Gibeonites did (see Joshua 9)

•  To flee the land – as some of them no doubt did

•  To stay and fight Israel – where the outcome was not guaranteed – some lived and remained.


However, I would like us to think far more deeply about what was going on, and I warn you that there is some serious reading ahead of you if you would like to find answers. If you don't want to think about the underlying subject of justice you may want to jump straight on to chapter 21.


My strategy in this chapter is simply to consider what the Bible says about God and justice, as taught in the Old Testament.


The point, therefore, of this chapter, is to set up a framework to enable us to then think about whether there is a contradiction between God's reputation as declared in the Old Testament and His acts. The particular act we will be examining, as we've noted already, is the God-inspired attack on the inhabitants of Canaan by the embryonic nation of Israel as seen in the instructions in Exodus, Deuteronomy and Joshua, and then the execution of those instructions in Joshua and Judges.


Again let me lay out the order of things here that I want to cover:

•  to observe God's instructions about justice in the life of Israel ,

•  to observe that God would be entirely hypocritical if He demanded justice within the

   life of Israel and yet failed to be just Himself in His dealing with Canaan ,

•  to observe that the Biblical teaching is that God IS just and therefore set the

   challenge that we must see the historical aspects of the life of Israel in that light,

•  to question what justice actually means. (in the next chapter)

•  to examine what took place in respect of Canaan. (two chapters on)


Although love and justice are not the same, we might simply note that it is incomprehensible for a Being who is described as love, to be unjust. Love will always want there to be fairness and justice. We will assume this in the following chapters, even though we will not be referring to love. Our focus will be on God's justice which, we suggest, is an expression of His love.


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19.2 Approaching the Old Testament: An Overview


The concept of justice, and more importantly, the justice of God, is vital in approaching the historical events of the taking of Canaan. Is the Old Testament record completely skewed in its reporting on the subject of God's justice and how does it match or fit with the account of the taking of Canaan ?


Most of us have ideas of what we think justice is, and so we'll leave a detailed consideration of it until later, and simply content ourselves to observing what the Old Testament teaches (not by activity) about justice.


So, in this chapter we will consider:

•  Justice & the Law of Moses

•  Justice and the subsequent life of Israel

•  Justice in the songs of Israel – revealing the cultural expectations of God

•  Justice and the prophets – a glimpse only

•  What this suggests about God and His behaviour.


There are many verses below so you may want to just scan down them, but please catch a sense of their importance as you do. So what does the Old Testament show us about justice?


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19.3 Justice & the Law of Moses


Well, first of all we need to examine the Laws of Moses given by God to Israel, as “the Law” forms the main part of God's instructions to this embryonic nation as to how to live. We can see that, in those laws, there is a demand for justice:


Ex 23:2,3 When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, and do not show favoritism to a poor man in his lawsuit.

  • Justice was to prevail over public opinion!


Ex 23:6,7  Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death

  • Justice was to prevail in the courts without bias against lower classes


Lev 19:15  Do not pervert justice ; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great

  • Again, justice is to prevail irrespective of class


Deut 16:19,20  Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous. Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the LORD your God is giving you.

  • Maintaining justice was to be a condition of them being given the Promised Land


Deut 24:7   Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice , or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge.

  • Justice was to include foreigners, orphans and widows, i.e. the weaker members of society


Deut 27:19   Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow

  • Failure to maintain justice for these people would mean a curse, God's decree of bad, coming on those responsible.


In other words, it is very clear in the Law that justice was a concept dear to God's heart and which he required Israel to think about and maintain.


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19.4 Justice in the subsequent life of Israel


When we follow through on the ongoing life of Israel in the Old Testament, we find that justice was an important aspect of their life together:


1 Sam 8:3   But his sons did not walk in his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice.

  • The absence of justice in Samuel's sons was noteworthy in a nation that expected it.


2 Sam 15:4 And Absalom would add, "If only I were appointed judge in the land! Then everyone who has a complaint or case could come to me and I would see that he gets justice."

  • Absalom, trying the win over the hearts of the people, puts himself forward as one who would ensure justice be done – a vote winner!


1 Kings 3:9-12 So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?" The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. So God said to him, "Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart.

  •  Solomon, in his first encounter with God asks for wisdom to bring justice – distinguishing between right and wrong.
  • This pleases God who grants him special wisdom to administer justice in the nation.


1 Kings 3:28 When all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice.

  •  Solomon's wisdom in action was seen to bring justice and this pleased the people (because it made them feel secure).


1 Kings 10:9 Praise be to the LORD your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on the throne of Israel. Because of the LORD's eternal love for Israel, he has made you king, to maintain justice and righteousness."

  • The Queen of Sheba praises Solomon for she sees that his wisdom has established an orderly nation where justice and right living are the norm.


Ezra 7:25 And you, Ezra, in accordance with the wisdom of your God, which you possess, appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice to all the people of Trans-Euphrates--all who know the laws of your God.

  • Following the exile, the king instructed Ezra, who was returning to the land, to re-establish a legal system to ensure justice, in line with the laws of God.


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19.5 Justice in the Songs of Israel


If we examine the psalms, the songs of Israel , we will see what the beliefs of the culture were:


Psa 9:7-9 The LORD reigns forever; he has established his throne for judgment. He will judge the world in righteousness; he will govern the peoples with justice . The LORD is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.


Psa 9:16 The LORD is known by his justice


Psa 11:7 the LORD is righteous, he loves justice ;


Psa 33:5 The LORD loves righteousness and justice ; the earth is full of his unfailing love.


Psa 36:6 Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your justice like the great deep.


Psa 45:6 Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom.


Psa 89:14 Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you.


Psa 101:1 I will sing of your love and justice ; to you, O LORD, I will sing praise.


Psa 103:6 The LORD works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed.


Psa 140:12 I know that the LORD secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy


There it is, in the common culture, the belief and expectation was that God is a God of justice. Justice is a primary concern and expression of His.


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19.6 Justice and the Prophets


The role of the prophets was to bring encouragement AND correction where there was a failure to maintain the Law of Moses, and hold on to their national characteristics. Just a couple of examples will suffice; there are many more.


Isa 1:17   learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.

  • in an early rebuke, the Lord calls for the nation to reinstate justice


Isa 1:21 See how the faithful city (Jerusalem) has become a harlot! She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her-- but now murderers!

  • Jerusalem , the capital, is rebuked in that once she was full of justice but no more!


Isa 5:7 the LORD Almighty …. looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.

  • a further stinging rebuke for the loss of justice in the nation


Isa 33:5 The LORD is exalted, for he dwells on high; he will fill Zion with justice and righteousness.

  • in a reference to a future Israel, justice will be something God ensures is there.


Isa 58:6,7   Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter-- when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

  • the absence of justice it to be remedied.
  • God is fed up with spiritual fasting; He wants there to be changes in real life – justice to come back to their daily lives as expressed in the terms of these verses.


Isa 61:8 For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and iniquity.

  • If we still weren't clear about it, here is God's ultimate declaration through Isaiah.


Jer 9:24 I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,"

  • the same thing is declared through Jeremiah years later.


Jer 21:12 O house of David, this is what the LORD says: "Administer justice every morning; rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done.

  • again God's call to Judah to make sure justice is part of their lives.


Ezek 22:23,29,30 Again the word of the LORD came to me: "Son of man, say to the land….. The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the alien, denying them justice. "I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none. So I will pour out my wrath on them.”

  •  a strong similar rebuke through the prophet Ezekiel


Hos 12:6 But you must return to your God; maintain love and justice, and wait for your God always.

  • Hosea likewise calls for justice to be restored


Amos 5:15 Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. Perhaps the LORD God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph.

  • Yet another of the ‘minor prophets', Amos joins in the call for justice to be reinstated.


To save space we will simply note that Micah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Zechariah and Malachi all call for justice to be reinstated in this nation that had gone away from God.


There is no doubt that all these prophets, inspired by God, knew that justice was to be a vital characteristic of this chosen and special people, reflecting the nature of the God who had called them into being.


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19.7 And So?


As we conclude this brief study of how the Old Testament acclaims God as a God of justice, we must ask ourselves, how reasonable is it to suppose that the God who is so clearly described in these obvious ways as a God of justice, could act in other ways that appear contrary to justice? Or, as we briefly noted earlier, how can a God of love act in such ways?


Let's remind ourselves of what we declared at the beginning of this chapter:


Thesis of Chapter 19: If the clear testimony of Scripture is that God is a God of Justice, it is inconceivable that He will commit acts that are contrary to justice, and so we will need to review all His acts in the light of this.

Some people have struggled with this conundrum by suggesting the Old Testament is simply the product of human writers, conveying conflicting mistaken reports. Some have even suggested more than one God!


A much more likely conclusion is that we simply haven't thought about justice or understood it and therefore have jumped to wrong conclusions!


We need to move on and consider just what justice is. We have seen it referred to many times in the Bible, but what exactly is justice and can all of God's activities be considered just? That is the subject of the next chapter.


Finally, to remind ourselves these are the things we have covered in this chapter:


19.1 Setting the Scene: the chapter's strategy

  • description of God's justice by which to measure His deeds

19.2 Approaching the Old Testament: An Overview

  • how we will view it in this chapter

19.3 Justice & the Law of Moses

  • how the Law speaks of justice

19.4 Justice in the subsequent life of Israel

  • how it became part of the life of Israel

19.5 Justice in the Songs of Israel

  • how the songs reflected it

19.6 Justice and the Prophets

  • how the prophets called for it

19.7 And So?

  • the conclusions that follow




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