How can God be so cruel? (Deuteronomy 17)

There was something about puberty that made me clash with my parents a lot.

I have distinct memories of scribbling angrily in my journal about how mean my mom was for telling me that I needed deodorant. I remember feeling so embarrassed when she punished me for prank calling boys I liked.

I thought she was unfair. I thought she was too harsh. It wasn’t until I reached the other side of puberty that I could see clearly enough to understand that she was firm because she loved me and she insisted because she was right.

But every so-called harsh parent can’t be seen so clearly.

Take, for instance, chapter 17 of the book of Deuteronomy. This chapter is all about law and order – but this time, God, through Moses, is specifically teaching about the laws and order of the Israelite community. He talks about how to select kings. He lays down some guidelines for how a good king will rule the people.

And then it gets dark.

God also explains how to respond when someone sins by worshipping other gods. He instructs the Israelites to “investigate it thoroughly”, even if that means taking them to court and inquiring of the priests and the judge (verses 4, 9). And ultimately, if the person is found guilty, the Israelites must “take the man or woman…to your city gate and stone that person to death“. The first stoners should be the people who witnessed their sin. Then the rest of the people should join in (verses 5, 7).

Find the wrongdoers. Try them. And then kill them. The passage conjures up images of the Salem witch trials or backwards, superstition-filled towns like in “The Lottery” (a short story that messed me up, by the way).

It is a passage that feels icky and uncomfortable and mean.

How can God be so cruel?

Self Care

But before we answer that, let’s talk about self-care. Not so much bubble baths and candles, more like healthy eating and therapy. People are getting wise to the less popular forms of self care, like ending toxic relationships, unplugging from the Internet, and working through their personal issues. It sounds like hard work because it is. But it’s all in service of becoming the Best Version of Yourself.

In other words, we do uncomfortable things because in the end, they will save our lives. Real self care has the potential to save us from disease, from heartbreak, from breakdowns, from isolation! It’s worth it. Thus the #selfcare movement.

But what does self care have in common with the investigations, trials, and corporate execution of the Israelite’s time?

Both are uncomfortable and both are life-saving. One cuts out choices that ruin our joy, the other cuts out sin that ruins our lives. One purges bad habits that will drain us, the other purges evil that will kill us.

In His love, God commanded the Israelites to violently attack sin because He knew it would lead to cheating and lying and abuse and rape and stealing and slavery and racism and classism and sexism and inequality and poverty and corruption and selfishness and greed and hatred and trauma and disease and mental illnesses and loss and–

If you could trace the most broken piece of your life all the way back to the source, the beginning, the cause – wouldn’t you eagerly and emphatically destroy it?

There is something worse than death

But did God really have to kill people? Completely erase their existence? Couldn’t He have made His point with a particularly long prison sentence?

Maybe – if He didn’t love them just as much as He loves everyone else.

This logic might seem completely upside down – but hear me out. We can all agree that part of the point of a long prison sentence is for the criminal to suffer, to live a miserable life.

We also can all agree that it would make no sense for a God who gave life to turn around and take life just to make a point – unless He could read hearts and futures and thus know that person would never, ever give their life to Him.

Just in case you weren’t sure, God can read hearts and futures. The people He commanded the Israelites to stone were people who would have never chosen God, even if they kept living. And because He loved them, He killed them.

He killed them because He knows that living in sin is worse than death. Living in sin is living in constant pain, blinding pain without a remedy. Living in sin is suffocating and panicking without the ability to take a deep breath. Living in sin is torture.

If you think I’m being dramatic, just look around. We joke online about “hating it here” and about our “existential dread”. We laugh painfully through our trauma and our illnesses and the injustice that breaks us day in and day out. We know personally the misery that sin causes.

Maybe we soothe ourselves by hoping for change. If we could just get that politician out of office or if we could just raise enough awareness or if we could just crowdfund these projects then maybe living in sin would be just plain fun, no pain.

I wonder if deep down all of us know that isn’t possible. I wonder if deep down we all know that living the way humanity has always lived, entrenched in sin, is doomed to fail. It’s a scary, disturbing thought. But it’s true. We’ve already shown our hand. It is humans living in sin that round up children and mothers and fathers and separate them and hold them in cages just for crossing a border. It was humans living in sin that enslaved and tortured our black brothers and sisters. It was humans living in sin that rounded up Jewish people just to brutally murder them. I don’t even have to go on. That’s it. We’re doomed. If humanity and their beloved sin was capable of that, there’s no hope. Living in sin is not just untenable, it is torture of the purest and most unending kind.

That’s why God commanded the Israelites to kill those of them who willfully broke His most important commandments. Because He needed to show us that sin must be cut out at the root. Because He knew that those who were killed would never have repented. And because He knows that there is something worse than death – sin.

“You must purge the evil from your life.”

How many times have we read this verse? How many times have we read others like it? We’re so used to this language that it practically bounces off of our ears.

When was the last time you investigated yourself, put yourself on trial, and decided to kill the evil in your life?

It’s a serious question because we all know it’s there. It doesn’t matter how nice other people think we are or how much worse that one person is – there is still evil inside of you. There is evil inside of me. We have to get it out. Yes, so that we can be happy, but more so that we don’t kill ourselves with our own self-destructive sins.

This is why God is so intense. This is why God says the same thing over and over again – because evil kills and destroys. And we simply don’t know when we’re going to run out of time. We don’t know whether or not this choice will be the last choice we ever make.

And it’s as simple as that – a choice. God is the only One who can clean up our lives. The life He offers is the only alternative to living in sin. All we have to do is open the door of our hearts. All we have to do is yield, hand Him the controls, let Him make the decisions. Life is just one “yes” away.

So again I ask you, if you knew life was this easy, and all the while murderers were inching closer and closer every day, wouldn’t you violently, passionately, emphatically wipe out the threat, and urge your beloved to just live?

How could God be so cruel? It’s because He knows the pain of the path we’re on, and He will do anything to place us on the Way to True Life.

What do you think? How do you understand the violence of God’s laws?

2 thoughts on “How can God be so cruel? (Deuteronomy 17)

  1. So true! And God destroyed sin also because He knew that sin is contagious. 😷 Just like the sin of leprosy. He knew that one sinner left to live for decades would produce thousands more, causing exponential misery.

    Liked by 1 person

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