In the Bible, God often commands the Israelites to murder and destroy. Why?
Say you’ve never read the Bible before—maybe you really haven’t. You’ve been told it contains moral lessons to teach your kids and is full of stories about God’s love for all people. You decide to investigate the whole Bible yourself, and you eventually come to a passage like this:
Samuel said to Saul, “I am the one the Lord sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the Lord. This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’”1
What? That’s in the Bible? God commands his chosen people to kill thousands of other people? And not just soldiers, but women and children—even animals?
Unfortunately, you discover this isn’t a one-time occurrence. In fact, the book of Joshua, which relates how the Israelites settled in the “Promised Land,” tells all kinds of similar stories. Many accounts in Joshua end with statements like this: “They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.”2
What should we do with passages like this? Is the Old Testament God different than the New Testament God? Is God just a warmonger who arbitrarily takes out his frustration on innocent people?
Reading certain verses, it’s easy to get this impression. The issues they raise about God, war, and violence present quite a challenge for Christians who believe God’s defining attribute is love. And for non-Christians, these accounts in the Bible often validate suspicions they already had about God’s “true” nature and how religion propagates violence.
But perhaps this issue is more complex than we realize. Before we judge God’s character based on a few verses, there are other factors to consider.
The Nature of Justice
God did indeed often use warfare as an instrument of justice. In the Old Testament era, the people that God commanded Israel to fight against had often committed extremely wicked acts.
For example, the aforementioned Amalekites had attacked the Israelites in an especially atrocious way. Moses reminded the Israelites: “When you were weary and worn out, [the Amalekites] met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God.”3 Rather than wage war against Israel’s army, the Amalekites attacked the women, children, sick, and elderly after the soldiers and healthy men had passed by. Other nations that Israel fought practiced child sacrifice, tortured prisoners of war, and engaged in perverse sexual acts against women.4
It’s important to recognize that God did not randomly “pick on” innocent people. Rather, he often used Israel to execute justice upon offenders who had committed acts that even modern people would call evil. This kind of justice values the lives of victims by acting on their behalf, and it values the lives of offenders by taking their actions seriously and dealing with them in the context of their place in human society.5
However, though God sometimes used warfare to bring justice upon entire societies and political structures, this does not mean he judged every specific person who was part of that group. The societal values that produced these detestable acts were the target of God’s actions. Unfortunately, some “innocent” people faced the consequences, but such, regrettably, are the ramifications of living in a world entirely corrupted by human evil.
A modern example is World War II. Most would agree that the nations of Germany and Japan needed to be resisted, defeated, and held responsible for their aggressive and destructive acts, even if it meant that some civilians of those societies suffered consequences they did not explicitly deserve.
The Bigger Picture
But why, you might ask, did God occasionally demand the annihilation of entire groups of people? As difficult as it is to accept—and as trite as it may sound—sometimes drastic times call for drastic measures. Thus, a third reason that God often commanded or approved of total war was as a preventative measure for the sake of others and future generations.
Perhaps in his wisdom, God recognized that half-measures would not be effective in certain circumstances. We might wonder why God utilized such methods to accomplish his will. The Bible addresses such questions in part, stating clearly that God’s thoughts are not the same as our thoughts, nor are his ways the same as our own.6
Fourth, we should remember that the events described in the Old Testament took place during a particular era of human history. It does not follow that we should use each story as an example to imitate today. The Bible is often descriptive, not prescriptive. Instructions given specifically to the nation of Israel three thousand years ago must be understood as limited to that time, place, and context.
Moreover, the specific context of that unique time period is crucial. In ancient Near Eastern culture, triumph in warfare was commonly associated with the strength of a nation’s god. Consequently, the annihilation of Israel’s enemies conveyed that the one true God of Israel had asserted his power and rule over the false gods of other groups.
Perhaps God utilized the currency of that culture—warfare—to make himself known to the people of that time. Consider the words of one Canaanite woman when she met some Israelites: “When we heard of [the destruction your armies wrought], our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.”7
A God of Grace
Finally, God is also portrayed in the Old Testament as having tremendous patience, grace, and compassion. God often gave wicked nations several generations to repent of their wrongdoings before he passed judgment, and he extended mercy to those who did (e.g., the city of Nineveh in the book of Jonah). The law that God gave to Moses also instructed the Israelites to offer peace before attacking a city.8 God even told Abraham that he would not destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if there were as few as ten righteous people living there.9 And when Jesus came to make God’s character and message most fully known, he preached about love and forgiveness, then demonstrated those values toward his own enemies.10
The issue of God and war is complex. God himself sometimes appears conflicted when faced with the need to exercise justice: “Though [God] brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone.”11
Nevertheless, the Bible portrays a hopeful future when there will be no more war, pain, or death.12 This is God’s redemptive design for our world. While he sometimes used warfare to judge wicked nations in the Old Testament, and while the depravity of human sin often makes war inevitable today, we can anticipate a chapter in God’s story when violence and bloodshed will be no more.