Issues with the word "every," the flood and Canaan

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: The Bible says that "every intention of the thoughts of their heart is evil continually" (Genesis 6:5)… but how is that possible? Also, "When the LORD your God hands it over to you, kill every man in the town. But you may keep for yourselves all the women, children, livestock, and other plunder. You may enjoy the spoils of your enemies that the LORD your God has given you." (Deuteronomy 20:14). How do you explain these?

Answer: The Bible references you gave me are very clear and well known to me, but I am not sure what you mean by “how do you explain these?” Since I believe that an all-knowing and holy God exists, and since I believe that he unabashedly shared the things he wants us to know in the Bible, I am always explaining such passages to myself… and I will be happy to share these findings with you… it’s just that I am not clear about what you are looking for.

Now, an unbeliever may challenge the veracity and/or the wisdom of these passages, but I do not know if that is who you are (… it seems you were a bit stingy with your profile information). Are you a believer who needs clarification? Are you a nonbeliever challenging God’s instructions and actions? Are you a Muslim in Bangladesh? Are you a 100-year-old woman from South Africa? All these variables would affect how I answered this query. So, if you write back, please consider adding this information so we can help you more efficiently.

That being said, let me take a run at Genesis 6:5 where you challenged the notion that “every intention of the thoughts of their heart is evil continually.” My assumption — and I am not at all sure about this — is that you are having a problem with the word “every” in this verse. Perhaps you are thinking that this word does not fit the data.

For instance, we all know people who spend a lot of time thinking good thoughts and doing good deeds… and this seems incompatible with God’s assertion that every intention in the thoughts of every person is evil every moment. And since we have observed this nature in human beings for millennia, that was likely our nature before the flood too. And surely, there were newborn infants at the time of the flood — and innocents are incapable of having condemning thoughts… this, by definition! So, if these two likely conditions existed before the flood, then the word “every” sets up a contradiction.

If that’s your thinking, then here’s the issue: we must be careful not to press modern technical precision upon the languages and cultures of the Ancient Near East. Today, when we run into words like “every” or “all,” we are more prone than the ancients to think of these in their logical extremes — sort of like how they would work in a programming language. But the fact that the Bible shows God sparing Noah and his family — calling Noah a just man who was perfect in his generations (Genesis 6:9) — means that by “every,” God did not mean every.

The lesson here is that we are obliged to gather our biblical definitions from the source rather than from modern usage… and the Bible does this kind of thing all the time. To illustrate, let’s look at Mark 1:37 in two different versions.

“And when they had found [Jesus], they said unto him, All men seek for thee.” (Mark 1:37, AV)

“and when they found [Jesus], they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” (Mark 1:37, NIV)

Four-hundred years ago when the King James (AV) version was written, readers would not have understood the word “all” to be technically true… as if it were invoking a mathematical set — one that was inclusive to the nth degree. We know this because they chose the word “all” even though the phrase “all men seek for thee” was not true.

The fact that all men did not seek for him is obvious in the Gospels. The religious establishment had him killed… and many others heard Jesus but rejected his message. It is also obvious that people who hadn’t even heard of Jesus would not be seeking for him. So, the word “all” does not mean all like we would think of it today.

Now compare this to the NIV’s (New International Version) modern English translation. When we read the phrase, “Everyone is looking for you!” we don’t consider the word “everyone” to be mathematically or technically inclusive. It’s more like when I lose my car keys and I tell my wife that I’ve looked “everywhere” for them. I haven’t… and she knows I haven’t… yet our understanding of the word “everywhere” is unmolested. But this is only true when we refrain from applying a technical precision that is not warranted by the context.

But so far we have only discussed the words God used to describe the flood… but not the flood itself… and I’d like to do that in case that’s part of your issue. But I have to back things up to begin this topic, so let me ask, why did God create the universe in the first place?

The Bible doesn’t tell us directly. But if there were no truly volitional creatures in the universe, then God would be missing the type of glory that can only come from beings who can say no to him. That’s a precious commodity… one that can only come from us!

Additionally, the Bible shows that God wants a relationship with us (… go figure!). But he is holy, and we are not (Romans 3:23). This is why he had to redeem us — to justify our relationship with him. So, how did God go about redeeming billions of volitional people? He created a universe that itself needs to be redeemed (Romans 8:22) — a universe that would truly test his creatures.

But how many human creatures should there be in order for God to redeem what he considers an optimal number of them? I don’t know… but there’s been over 108 billion people on the earth so far… and not all of them made the cut. That is the price of volition, and subsequently, it is the nature of redemption that a greater number of creatures will be created than will be redeemed. This means there’s a ratio. Before the flood, that ratio had reached a tipping point.

Hugh Ross at Reasons to Believe ministries postulates that the murder rate was so high before the flood that, if God had not hit the reset button, the population would not have grown to where God needed it to be. Humanity would have foundered in sin rather than fill the earth and flourish… and I see the word “every” as speaking to this foundering body.

But here’s the uncomfortable part: I’m sure many newborn babies were killed in the flood, and these did not have evil thoughts continually. In fact, these were innocents! But children below the age of responsibility have always belonged to God… and as such, the flood was their salvation! If they had grown to maturity in a culture that was evil enough for God to destroy, most of them would have turned from God.

But we need to get one thing straight about the flood: God did not destroy the world. Sin destroyed the world. God was more the agent of humanity’s collective choices than he was the agent of his own justice. The result was the same, though… regardless of aegis. At the flood, God saved humanity by killing humans… and we are “stuck” with the redemption ratio and its outfall until Christ returns.

After the final judgment (John 5:28-29), however, those who were not redeemed will no longer be with us. So, the ratio of persons to redeemed persons will be one to one. But in this age, people still have the right to perish at their own volition. This is why we Christians are compelled to spread the good news of redemption. Everyone is perishing… but salvation is available through Jesus Christ (Romans 6:23).

In your second citation (Deuteronomy 20), the same forces were at work… but again… I’m not sure what your personal objection to this story is. You didn’t specify. But I will assume it is the common one: how could a moral God kill all these men… but also… how could he include their women and children in the spoils of war? Let’s look at that.

The scenario is the same as at the flood… it’s just that the geography was more limited and the numbers were fewer. In tactical terms, the flood was the nuclear option and the attack in Canaan was a surgical strike. There was a group of people (and God named them all) whom God knew would never yield to him — just like the people at the flood. So, God had to destroy them to advance his objectives for Israel. But this time, he used the Israelites, not water… but it was the same deal.

The big objection to this attack is not so much that the Israelites killed the men — that’s standard warfare; it’s that they took the women and children as part of the spoils. But just as the children who died in the flood found eternal life with God instead of living a long life on earth, ultimately finding death, so the women and the children who were captured found life at the expense of their old lives. They were absorbed into “God’s people” where their chances for finding the true God were so much greater than in their parents’ pagan culture.

I don’t call an upheaval like this cruel. I call it merciful. Sure… the process was uncomfortable, but the prize of eternal life with God is worth any trauma. In fact, we Christians are taught that we should consider even grievous sufferings as “light” because we have a view towards heaven (2 Corinthians 4:17).

As to your question then, all these “uncomfortable” issues are consistent with the Christian worldview… and that’s how I explain them to myself. So now, I’ve explained them to you. I’ve found that the Christian worldview best explains all the empirical data… and perhaps you will too if you give it a chance.

Let me invite you to read an article called An Alternative to Death. This is the best doorway to understanding the Christian worldview that I’m aware of, so it might answer some unasked questions for you. 

Also, I have addressed the Deuteronomy 20 issue in more detail in another question… and I’d rather not just rehash that here. So, if you want to see more details and a few more angles about the incident in Canaan, visit the following link:

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