Many who have read the Old Testament are led to ask: “How can a good God command the killing of men, women and children?
Indeed, there are several places where it appears that God commands that all men, women, and children be put to death among certain groups of people. In Deuteronomy 7:2: “…thou shall smite them, and utterly destroy them”…, Deut: 20:16-17a:” But of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shall save alive nothing that breatheth, but you shall utterly destroy them…”, Joshua 6:21: “And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.”, Numbers 31:17 “Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him” 1 Samuel 15: “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not, but slay man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”
These are difficult verses, especially from our modern perspective. How can these commands and deeds be reconciled with a loving God?
There are several factors that need to be examined closely to deal with these passages. One is that we need to know the cultural context, and the language of the day. We also need to know the circumstantial context, what was going on. We need to decide whether this was the norm or were these special situations, and if so, what reasons there might have been for so drastic a judgment in these cases. And finally, we need to see why God may have dealt differently with people in the Old Testament versus the New Testament.
The Cultural Context: What was the language style of that day?
There are some who think it is possible that we are misreading some of the texts. I will present this view first because it is widely held even among some conservative scholars, and makes some valid points. However, it has its dangers and I believe it falls short of being the best answer to our difficulties with the texts.
These scholars are telling us that while it sounds to us like everyone was killed in these passages such as those quoted above, in fact it is known from the surrounding cultures of the ancient near east that exaggerated language and hyperbole were used when talking about battle victories. Kind of like saying, “our football team destroyed the opponent” when in fact the opposing team was back playing another game the following week.
Scriptural examples are put forth:
For example, Joshua spoke of the Anakim being “utterly destroyed” in Josh 11:21-22, yet later on in Joshua 14:12 Caleb asked permission to drive these same Anakim out who apparently still remained in the land. In Joshua 10:20a it is said that Israel slayed the Amorites until they were destroyed, but then in the very same verse 20b it speaks of survivors that entered into fortified cities. Joshua speaks of the war with the Canaanites in chapters 10-11 as having “left none remaining” and“utterly destroyed all that breathed”, in specific places such as Hebron ((10:36), Debir (10:38) or the “country of the hills” (10:40. Yet in Judges it says that they couldn’t drive all the inhabitants out, but there were still Canaanites in the hill country (1:9, in Debir (1:11) and in Hebron (1:10.) In 1 Samuel 15:8 it is said that Saul “utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword” (excluding King Agag), yet the Amalekites must have had survivors, for they show up again in 1 Samuel 27:8-9, and 30:1, 17.
These examples alert us that we need to carefully examine the conclusions we reach about what the text says actually happened. The writers were definitely not trying to confuse later readers and were not trying to be deceptive, but they may have simply been speaking of a specific group that they were warring with rather than every person of that nationality. It is also possible that they were inspired to speak in terms and in a style that the people of that time would best understand. It is true that there are many examples from the surrounding cultures that this style of writing accounts of wars was common. For example, Pharaoh Merneptah in the Merneptah Stela, in recounting a battle with Israel, said “Israel is laid waste, his seed is not”, yet Israel obviously survived this conflict. Many other examples from Ancient Near East cultures could be given (1).
Furthermore, there are many passages which seem to indicate that the main goal was not to kill everyone, but rather to “drive them out” of the land that the Israelites were given by God. We also see that they are commanded to break down altars and shrines and destroy the remnants of the Canaanite religion, which was a dire spiritual stumbling block to Israel, as is later seen. Some examples of this “driving out” and “breaking down their altars” language:
Joshua 3:10: “He will without fail drive out from before you the Canaanites…”, Joshua 13:6:”them I will drive out before the children of Israel”…, Judges 1:21 “…And the children of Benjamin did not drive out the Jebusites that inhabited Jerusalem; but the Jebusites dwell with the children of Benjamin in Jerusalem unto this day. “, Judges 2: 2: “And you shall make no league with the inhabitants of this land; you shall throw down their altars.” This is just a sample of many such verses that seem to speak of driving their opponents out as the main goal.
Therefore, this view concludes that it may be that the “utterly destroy” language did not necessarily entail killing all the people, mainly just driving them out and destroying their religion, otherwise, why the mention of not intermarrying or making treaties with those who are left? (see Deut. 7:3, 5, 16) Some scholars even think that the expression “men and women” was a catch-all expression of the day meaning everyone, even if women and children weren’t present. In fact, these women and kids likely would have fled or been in hiding by battle time, instead of waiting around to get killed, and outposts such as at Jericho may have been mainly military installations with soldiers and kings as the leaders. (2)
However, there are some problems with this view. We must be careful not to read into the passage more than is there, to make it palatable with our modern concerns. It is dangerous to try to change the clear meaning of a passage because of outside considerations, without adequate confirmation that the text was intended to be hyperbolic.
I think the above analysis shows that even though the text says “utterly destroyed”, they may have been referring to only the people that had not fled away. In other words, they killed all they encountered, without necessarily hunting down every person hiding in the woods or caves. But as we shall see in the Bible itself, there is a definite, clear distinction made between wars where only male combatants were to be killed, and special, drastic situations where it was also commanded that they kill women and in some cases children. This distinction is not solved by the hyperbolic theory. The danger of the hyperbolic view is that it is saying that God didn’t really mean what He said in these situations, and later cultures would mis-interpret that men and women and children were killed when they actually were not. The killing of even one non-combatant woman or child cannot be explained away by saying it was just the language of the day.
But, as we shall see below, there were only a few times in Israel’s warfare where God commanded Israel to kill anyone other than male combatants.
While the scholars that hold this hyperbolic view make some interesting and valid points, I believe the ultimate solution lies in understanding God’s justice and also the plan of God regarding Israel as His people by whom the Messiah would come.
What if the language isn’t hyperbole after all? This means we need to look at what happens if we go with the premise that women and children were actually killed in these passages, even if they were only the ones who were not able to escape. Even if we take the passages absolutely at face value and not as hyperbolic language of the day, we need not conclude that God couldn’t have decreed such things. Rather, we need to examine the circumstantial context.
The Circumstantial Context: Was this the norm, or were these special, occasional situations?
First, we have to realize that in the ancient near east, war was very common and people were hardened to it. Nations were warring just to survive as nations, not necessarily because they were greedy for land and power. Jesus noted the spiritual condition of those days when he talked about men’s hearts being hard (Mark 10:5). (Remember, this was before the cross and the indwelling Holy Spirit, which we will discuss below) Yet even then we find evidence in the Bible that the commands to kill women and children were not the norm.
In Deuteronomy chapter 20, it spells out the difference between normal wartime procedures and the unusual occasions above. They were first to make an offer of peace to their enemies (Deut. 20:10-11), but if the enemy refused, they were only to kill combatants: “And when the Lord thy God hath delivered it into thy hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword. But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city…shalt thou take unto thyself…” (v 13-14). But the cities such as those of the Canaanites and Amorites were a special, unusual case: “But of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth, but thou shalt utterly destroy them, namely the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, as the Lord thy God has commanded thee. “(v 16-17) Then a reason why is given: “That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods, so should ye sin against the Lord your God.” (v 18).
These societies had not only become immoral beyond measure, with all kinds of perversion and bloodshed, even infant sacrifice, but they were also a big threat to lead Israel astray into the same kinds of practices, and to try to derail God’s plan to provide the Messiah through Israel.
However, these societies took a while to deteriorate far enough for the Lord to take such drastic measures. God would not allow this judgement on them earlier than when He did, because, as He said in Genesis 15:16: “the wickedness of the Amorites is not yet full” Their society had become depraved, but had not yet reached the point of no return, which point only God could know.
If the women and children were all killed, this was a drastic measure that was not the normal situation. As mentioned above, this is probably the worst-case scenario. The women could have been guilty even though they were non-combatants, such as the Midianite women who helped to lead the Israelites into fornication in Number 25 and were later judged as we see in Numbers 31. Rahab, however, was an example of a woman who being repentant, was spared.
But how about if children were killed? In those few instances where the text may be read as God commanding the children be killed, it may be that this was the most merciful fate left for them in the depraved Caananite, Amalekite, or Midianite societies. What do I mean here? These nations were practicing every kind of vile sin that can be imagined. They had become so evil and demonic, that any child that escaped being sacrificed by being burnt to death in a superheated metal idol’s arms would have no chance of being able to find the true God and escape eternal condemnation in hell. Instead of surviving into adulthood and being certain of going to hell, they would die young and innocent but enter into eternity with God.
And God takes all life anyway, which only He has a right to do, since He alone gave it, so who is to say that the children have to live a certain number of years on earth for it to be “fair” in our eyes? Simply put, God may have in these extreme cases spared the children a worse fate. Eternal death is far worse than physical death, as Jesus warned us (Matt. 10:28)
These societies had become like a cancer that needed removal so as not to infect the people around them. Does a surgeon want to leave any part of a cancerous tumor intact? And it was not God’s fault that these cultures had become so depraved, He gave them many chances to repent, over many centuries.
That’s a lot to say, when we are so far removed from the situation and culture that existed then that it may be hard for us to understand what God had to, but did not enjoy, doing. Knowing who God is and His character, we can be sure that He was totally just and merciful. “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25b)
Sometimes there are rare situations when innocent people must die to accomplish a greater good. For example, what if a plane is hijacked and aimed at a building full of thousands of people? That plane may have to be shot down to prevent it from hitting the building, even if innocent passengers, including infants on board would die.
The wars Israel fought were mostly defensive, such as against the Amalekites, who attacked the Israelites as they traveled, and picked on the old, sick and weak. The Midianites, whose judgement is written about in the passage in Numbers 31 above, after they had failed in their deliberate attempts to have a curse pronounced on Israel, (see Numbers ch. 22-25) were trying to lead Israel away from God and into sexual immorality. The world may not think this is a serious thing these days, but Midian was trying to commit the spiritual murder of God’s people from whom the promised Messiah would come. We therefore can see why the women who had slept with men to lead them astray were judged along with the men.
As for the very unusual command Moses gave to “kill all the males among the little ones, we have no direct explanation in the passage, but this does not mean there wasn’t one. We were not on the scene, but are thousands of years removed. Some possibilities: the young boys would probably want to know about the culture they came from and potentially would become the next enemy army against Israel. They would have been bound by their culture to avenge their father’s deaths and keep the depraved Midianite culture alive. But if they were killed before the age of accountability, they would be safe in Christ, not having consciously sinned, and their original inborn fallen nature redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ. The young girls were not a threat to become an enemy army and could have been more easily assimilated as servants.
These and other reasons only God may have known about could have been why God took such severe and specific measures. Moses command was most likely to prevent any future threat from the Midianites to destroy the spiritual integrity and very existence of Israel. The result of this command would have been extermination of the Midianites. This seems harsh to our modern ears, but these and other similar nations had been given centuries to repent, but instead they just became more and more evil, and were killing their own children both spiritually and physically. They had reached the point of no rehabilitation, so all that was left was a judgment of extermination. Only God could make the judgement as to when they reached this point. Again, “shall not the judge of all the earth do right?”
God’s dealings with people in the Old versus the New Covenant:
So why all the killing anyway? Was God warlike in the Old Testament but not in the New Testament. I think it was not a different God but it was different time periods, before and after the cross, before and after the indwelling Holy Spirit. This is a very important factor in this whole discussion.
It seems that in the Old Testament, God dealt with people in a more remote, external fashion, through prophets and other messengers. Sin and wickedness definitely needed to be punished by a just God. Many Scriptures support that principle. Sin is serious and God demonstrated that to be true by the death penalty for sin. Not something that God enjoyed doing however. Conviction was primarily from the outside. But repentance was still honored with life.
After Jesus came and took the punishment/death penalty on the cross for present and past sins, paying the ransom (Matt: 20:28) (Romans 3:25-26), it seems as though God now convicts and deals with people more directly, personally and internally, by the indwelling Holy Spirit, who was not available in the same way before the cross (John 16:7-11) In the Old Testament God’s people Israel had to be protected by physically removing the nations that would otherwise lead them away from God, but after the giving of the indwelling Holy Spirit after the cross, the protection and conviction was more internal than external. We see this in the lives of the New Testament saints, who having the indwelling Spirit did not fall into sins such as the Old Testament saints David or Abraham did. We don’t see Paul or Peter committing adultery or murder or having a child by a servant girl or taking multiple wives.
I think Jeremiah 31:33-34 also supports this idea. Just as physical death as a consequence for sin warned of the eternal consequences of sin, so now the Holy Spirit convicts the soul to warn of those same dire eternal consequences, and leads one to repentance and faith in Jesus and His work on the cross.
When the disciples wanted to call down fire in Luke 9:55-56, Jesus said that they ” knew not what manner of spirit you are of”. That may mean that they not only were presuming God’s judgement without really asking, but that they also were not in tune with God’s coming post-cross way of convicting people by the Holy Spirit and showing them the seriousness and eternal consequences of sin that way and also bringing them to repentance, to “save life”, as Jesus put it. It’s not that the Holy Spirit wasn’t operating before, but it seems that He was not operating in quite the same way to each individual before the cross.
. Not because God changed, but because our hearts were hard and so had to be led along gradually. This is also a consequence of our freedom. God seems to have had a trajectory He has led us on toward a deeper personal relationship. The veil to the Holy place is now torn open since the cross.
Even in the Old Testament, there is never a feeling that God enjoyed punishing people, but that His desire was for their repentance so that He could spare them. It tears His heart out today when people are still unrepentant and reject His substitutionary death for them on the cross. The punishment He took when He became sin was on the same level in one sense as the punishment dished out in the Old Testament because of sin. Sin against God is barbaric, and so is the penalty.
But Jesus also took it to a new level from the Old Testament, because no other person had their soul “made an offering for sin” (Isaiah 53:10), even though He was totally innocent. What a supreme act of love and justice!
. But, as I mentioned previously, assuming that God did command wars and killings as judgments, He did not desire to have to command them, in fact it grieved Him, and He would rather that people repented (Ezekiel 18:23,31-32, Lamentations 3:32-33). He doesn’t like to judge, but he must judge because that is as much a part of His nature as His love. I think God finds sin, and its judgment, more repulsive than we do. The fact that He took that judgment on the cross despite that, is again the supreme act of love. And the whole Old Testament system of sacrifices foreshadows that.
But some nations, including Israel at times, were very wicked, unrepentant, and hard-hearted beyond what we may be used to today, shaking their fist and mocking God, sacrificing even their own children to false gods, and therefore God’s justice required bringing back their own violence and wickedness back upon their own heads. Also, as mentioned above, God alone has the right to take a life because He alone gave it. What this means is that in a sense God “kills” us all by allowing us to die. We, however, do not have the same right that God does to take a life whenever we will to. But we should rejoice when God’s justice is done, even though we are sad that some must be lost.
I think God does seem to take direct action to judge sin, such as when He would send plagues or deliver Israel up to their enemies. At the same time, it is a consequence of sin, and so they are also bringing these things on themselves. Our freedom has consequences that God allows. Yet God knew when He created us that He would Himself have to experience suffering and death to rescue us from our predicament. Not only is God’s justice satisfied (Rom. 3:25-26) but we also die with Him (2 Corinthians 5:14-15), and are thereby born to new life. God’s remedy for sin was always the sacrifice of Christ, but I think people have a whole new access to God and interaction on a more internal level since the cross. So our responsibility is even greater.
I think that Jesus of the New Testament and the God of the Old Testament reveal the same God, of course. But when Jesus came the first time, His whole mission was reconciliation and redemption, not dispensing divine judgement. But what about His return? There is a reason why when he read from the scroll of Isaiah chapter 61 He left out “the day of vengeance of our God” (Lk 4:18-21, crf Isaiah 61:1-2). I believe He left it out because it is yet future. I think this day is alluded to by Paul in 2 Thess 1:6-9. In His first coming, he took the divine judgment for sin Himself for those who repent and trust Him as Savior. In His second coming, He will deal with the wicked and violent who have rejected Him.
What is found in the New Testament about those who don’t repent and continue mocking God and committing violence and other crimes against their neighbor? Jesus said Himself, “unless you repent, you shall likewise perish” (Lk 13:5) This same Jesus said to fear God and eternal death more than those who cause only physical death (Matt. 10:28). Now after the cross the Holy Spirit is present in an indwelling way and convicts people of the seriousness of sin and the consequences of eternal death, which are much worse than physical death.
But there are some cases where physical judgment was brought on people even in the New Testament. King Herod was struck down in Acts 12:23 just after his people proclaimed him a god, but he didn’t give the real God glory. I think you mentioned in a previous post Ananias and Sapphira who died on the spot after lying to God (Acts 5:4-5). In Revelation Jesus talks about punishment of the unrepentant (Rev. 2:20-23) and defeats His enemies at His second coming. Paul mentions that the powers in the land are there to punish evil with the sword and that they are “ministers of God ” (Rom. 13:3-4).
So there seems to be a justice as well as love and compassion aspect to Jesus as well as to the Old Testament God. It involves either the violence that He took for us on the cross, or that He brings back onto the heads of those who reject Him and His remedy on the cross.
(1) Copan, Paul, Is God a Moral Monster?, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan, pp. 170-172