One of the most difficult things about the God of the Bible is that He’s sovereign (meaning everything happens according to His will and indeed His design) yet we humans have free will and deserve any punishments meted out to us.
During my Bible study session today we covered Genesis 15, and there was a passage that I think sheds light on this tricky issue:
12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. 13 Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. 15 You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”
I added the bold above. It sure sounds like God is saying something like, “I’m not going to tell my chosen people to wipe out the existing inhabitants and take the Promised Land just yet, for the existing inhabitants should be given more time to turn back from their wickedness–which they won’t do.”
For an analogy, at least this passage suggests that God is like a police officer who just knows the guy is guilty, but waits for him to officially commit a crime before arresting him, in order to satisfy all legal niceties.
P.S. Check out this commentary if you want to see someone else (presumably with much greater training than I have) discuss the same text and reach similar conclusions. An excerpt:
In other words, the promised land had been dominated by an exceptionally cruel and bestial culture for hundreds of years. The Amorites who dominated that land practiced such abominations as the slaughter of virgins and first born children in sacrifice to appease their gods. They were a people who callously tortured and destroyed with long lingering deaths both men and women whom they considered their enemies. They were a nation whose morals and scruples were paper thin. They lived like that for centuries and we have proof of that from archaeology. They were a blot on human history. They were a stench in the nostrils of God, and yet we are told that he did nothing about this for a long time. Why was that? How could the
righteous Lord sit back and do nothing? Surely it matters to him how creatures made in his own image behave? Don’t they live and move and have their being in him, sustained by him? Isn’t their breath in God’s hands? Then how can he supply the energy to hurt others so unspeakably? Surely he should smite them down at once? That is the issue before us, and here we find the divine explanation.
Remember it is God who is speaking, not Abram. We may not escape from this question with the answer that God is simply helpless, wringing his hands in horror but unable to intervene. There is no doctrine of the so-called ‘openness of God’ taught in the Bible. It is quite clear from his words to Abram that God knows all that is going on. Nothing escapes the one who hates sin, yet God is waiting patiently for a certain moment in their history, a time when the wickedness of these Amorites has reached its full measure. That is, a time comes both for individuals and for civilizations when God says, “That’s it! Enough!” Until that moment sinners are spared judgment. They are benefiting from the longsuffering and patience of God.