If we are not supposed to repay evil with evil, how come God does?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question (from Africa): How could a God of love (Psalms 5:4) give instruction found at Deuteronomy 20:17 if they were evil, compare 1Thesselonians 5:15... if we are not to repay evil with evil?

Answer: Greetings friend. It shall be my pleasure to respond to your query today. Let me first restate the question as I will answer it because there is some ambiguity with your Psalm 5:4 reference, which is not specifically about God’s love. I presume the question to be, If God is a God of love, and if we should not repay evil for evil (1 Thessalonians 5:15) how then could God order the destruction of entire cities — including the men, women, children and animals (Deuteronomy 20:17) — even if they were evil in his sight (Psalm 5:4) and still be congruent with other biblical teachings on love and forgiveness. (Verses below).

“For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you.” (Psalm 5:4, ESV)

“but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded,” (Deuteronomy 20:17, ESV)

“See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.”
(1 Thessalonians 5:15, ESV)

I live in North America and you live in Africa, so I am praying that these explanations will pass successfully through our cultural differences. The problem is, I do not know which African country you are from, or if you suffer from the evil outfall of war — like dislocation, starvation, brutality or even genocide. So please forgive my Western perspective as I discuss Just War Theory. Our global community is comprised of sovereign nations who may wage war at any time. Therefore, (and generally speaking) countries have agreed on rules of war — what constitutes a legitimate cause for a declaration of war, and how we shall behave when thus engaged. I know…this sounds silly at first, but trust me. It is better than having no rules at all. In fact, wartime atrocities occur when people act outside of these parameters. Therefore, we must consider the rules of war to be a sensible accommodation in a fallen world, and Deuteronomy 20:17 is just that. Rules of war.

The first thing that I want you to do concerning Deuteronomy 20:16-18, is to notice the encapsulated nature of these war instructions — especially as this relates to places, people and time. First, this passage limits these commands to those cities that God promised to his people for an inheritance and to no others. Second, this destruction will be limited to their occupying people — and God names them: the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and the Jebusites. No other people are in view to receive this evil. Third, these instructions are time-sensitive — valid only during the time of the initial conquest of Canaan.

Thus encapsulated, the standard use of language prevents you from connecting to other segments without a legitimate catalyst like a biblical type (which is a specialized biblical symbol) or a New Testament quotation of the Old Testament passage. You cannot force a global doctrine or constraint upon sundry biblical passages from a contextually isolated source. That kind of hermeneutical treatment is evil in itself!

War, although admittedly ubiquitous, is still an exception to normal life. As such its rules are different. Therefore, it is not reasonable to synthesize its rules with the rules of peace. Remember, just because certain words live together between the covers of the Bible does not mean that they all relate to one another in all aspects and at all times. In fact, no book puts that kind of unreasonable strain on its words. Although the Bible is unique in all of literature, it is quite common language-wise. In fact, God used all the normal rules of communication when penning his written word. Now, you should expect more from the Bible… it’s God’s word after all! But you should not expect God to change the rules of language mid-stream.  We must assume that he gifted us with articulate speech and high diction so that we might learn of him and tell of him. Furthermore, he has trained us in logic and in language arts for millennia so that we might rightly divide his word (2 Timothy 2:15). After all that, he would never change the basic parameters for language in the Bible. Unfortunately, people read it like he did.

If God were speaking in general terms that we were to kill every enemy throughout all time — but then also told us not to repay evil with evil — then he would be in contradiction… and then he would be non-God! But that is not what we have here. On one hand (Deuteronomy 20) we have some rules for war written to the ancient Jews and to be used only in one particular war. On the other hand (1 Thessalonians 5), we have some general rules written to first-century Christians to be used freely in normal life. These are dissimilar in position, nature and context. They are in discrete sets, if you will, and cannot even be considered as a case for contradiction.

This completes the first part of my answer, which related solely to the rules of logical interpretation. But another problem remains. The underpinnings of your question imply that God cannot address sin and its outfall and still be loving. This is nonsense. Stay with me as we work through a parallel problem, the problem of divorce.

“And Pharisees came up to [Jesus] and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” (Matthew 19:3–8, ESV)

In the above passage, Jesus taught that the lawgiver, Moses, made a concession to sin by institutionalizing divorce. That was a huge moment in the history of the effects of sin — legalized divorce! Now, let us move up to 1 Corinthians 13 for a moment, and consider that love is patient, love is kind, etc. Do you see God as non-congruent since he legislated divorce on one hand while insisting that people behave in the exact opposite ways that cause divorce? Isn’t it more reasonable to assume that God’s love for his people was manifested in allowing divorce? I submit to you that it is an act of love to put a life raft in a cesspool. But your question implies the opposite! Do not let the immediate unpleasantness pressure you into redefining God. The fact that something stinks does not undo his love.

Concerning our current lot, Matthew 19 tells us that from the beginning it was not so, while 2 Peter 3:13 tells us that in the ending it will also not be so. That leaves the middle. Welcome home! We live in the cesspool of sin’s outfall where everything is accommodation to sin. Yet note the abutments. God’s love for us arches from before the foundations of the earth on one side of sin (Revelation 13:8), to the new heavens and the new earth on the other side (Revelation 21:1). God’s love does not fail because sin is festering below its arch. It is always there. Sure, it shows up in uncomfortable ways like in divorce or in war, but that is not in conflict with God’s total revelation, and this brings us back to the issue of context.

You cannot legitimately judge the Bible’s parts until you know its whole. Therefore, you must learn God’s plan for the ages. After so doing you will understand that we must go through certain uncomfortable things while God works his will and that these discomforts do not kill his love. This type of study is a lot of work! But it is the most critical work one can ever undertake, so get to it! However… knowing God only academically would be a waste of time. You should first know him as Savior, Father and Lord. God does not call us to be curious — he made us that way. He calls us to be disciples — and this we do with some effort (and with the Holy Spirit). Would you like to know the best tip I have for getting every morsel from God’s word? Read it in the family library.

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