Why Did God Command His People To Kill?

“Only in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the Lord your God has commanded you,” (Deuteronomy 20:16-17)

“The Bible story of Joshua’s destruction of Jericho, and the invasion of the Promised Land in general, is morally indistinguishable from Hitler’s invasion of Poland, or Saddam Hussein’s massacres of the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs. The Bible may be an arresting and poetic work of fiction, but it is not the sort of book you should give your children to form their morals.” (Richard Dawkins, from “The God Delusion”)

It has become fashionable in recent years among many outspoken atheists to call into question God’s morality. Since many verses may be found in the Old Testament of God engaging in “mass murder” and wholesale genocide, according to Bible skeptics, His own goodness and moral purity has come under fire as His actions are compared to the most evil, depraved tyrants the world has ever known.

Even for many Christians, verses such as the one quoted above from Deuteronomy are a source of bewilderment, discomfort, and downright embarrassment. How can the loving, forgiving, merciful Jesus of the New Testament have anything in common with the God of the Old Testament? And why does the God of the Old Testament seem so bloodthirsty at times?

Joshua’s Campaign Against Canaan

Although there are many Old Testament passages dealing with the nation of Israel engaging in war with other peoples, it seems that Joshua’s campaign against the residents of Canaan usually brings up the most objections; perhaps because the accounts are given so early on in the Bible. How is it that God could not only condone but order the Israelites to conquer so many different groups of innocent people? Not only that, He instructs them to utterly annihilate them, leaving “nothing alive that breathes.

The first myth to be addressed is the notion that these were innocent, peaceful people inhabiting Canaan. The next verse of the quote above from Deuteronomy 20 actually gives us our first clue about the answers to our questions:

“…so that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 20:18, emphasis added)

If the Canaanites were doing “detestable” things, then they weren’t innocent. The sins in which these people were engaging are numerous and horrific. Deuteronomy 12:31 tells us that they, “burned their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods.

molochMoloch was a Canaanite idol to whom the inhabitants of the land, and later many of the Israelites who sought to emulate them, would sacrifice children. A bronze image of the deity with the head of a bull and the body of a man would be heated by fire and living infants and toddlers would be placed upon its outstretched arms to be burned to death in sacrifice.

Additionally, the Canaanites engaged in rampant sexual depravity. Homosexuality, incest, and bestiality were regularly practiced and were glorified in the stories of their gods. And while many of the Bible’s critics would not condemn homosexuality among consenting adults, the Canaanites did not confine themselves to such. As Genesis 19 tells us about the Canaanite city of Sodom, these people had no qualms about forcing others to have illicit sex with them.

Richard Dawkins’ comparison of what the Israelites did being on the same level morally as Hitler invading Poland or Saddam Hussein massacring Kurds simply does not hold up. The Poles and Kurds were slaughtered by evil dictators with their own greedy agendas while the Canaanites were under Divine judgment for unspeakable sins of the basest nature. Even the land itself was defiled by the Canaanite’s evil and God spoke of the land “vomiting out” the inhabitants (Leviticus 18:25). God was not conducting mass murder of innocent people to make room for another group to occupy the land. The Canaanites were being judged for their wickedness.

But Why The Children And The Animals?

One point of major contention exists over the fact that God ordered the Israelites to kill everyone. Nothing that breathed was to be left alive. We can assume that this included animals, young children, even babies. Surely animals and babies were innocent? Admittedly, this is a more sensitive area of the topic and calls, perhaps, for a greater deal of speculation. Robert M. Bowman, Jr. offers the following explanation in his article, “Joshua’s Conquest: Was It Justified?“:

First, after generations of the sort of moral degeneracy that characterized these peoples, it may be that even the smallest children were beyond civilizing. Apparently even they were abused and forced to participate in obscene conduct, such that they would have grown up psychologically and spiritually scarred-and perhaps threatened to perpetuate the cycle.

Second, the STDs and other infectious diseases that must have pervaded those cities may well have been carried by the smallest children, and if so, they may have posed a grave danger to the physical health of the Israelites. Imagine some of the nations today most ravaged by AIDS, but living more than three thousand years ago, with no access to even the most basic medical resources. It may be that infectious diseases were also ravaging the domestic animals in these cities, which would also explain why they were destroyed.

To paraphrase Dr. J. Vernon McGee, when you’re dealing with an extreme form of cancer you perform extreme surgery to remove all of it. You don’t leave a little bit of it behind to see whether or not it will end up like the other cancer. You get rid of it. Although we tend to be appalled by the notion of small children being lumped together with their parents because we want to give them a fair chance to grow up and make their own decisions, God, Who knows all things, is not limited by the same uncertainty that we are. He knows what they will eventually become if they are permitted to live.

Ultimately, the Israelites did not wipe out the entire population as they were instructed to and we only need to turn a few pages over to the Book of Judges to begin to see the devastating consequences of allowing the Canaanite civilization to survive. Even a future king of Israel, Ahaz, would one day practice the same despicable child sacrifice to Moloch that would see a revival because the influence of Canaanite culture was allowed to remain (2 Kings 16:2-3).

We know that God dealt fairly with the Canaanites and gave them every opportunity to repent and change their ways. Genesis 15:16 refers to God waiting to enact His judgment because the “iniquity of the Amorite was not yet complete.” What if the Canaanites, or even a single Canaanite had turned to God during this time? Well, we know at least one did. Joshua chapter 2 tells us of Rahab, a prostitute living in Jericho, who believed that God was with the Israelites. She asked for mercy when they attacked the city and she and her family were spared.

Thou Shalt Not Kill?

Finally, I would like to briefly look at the question of how God can instruct people in the Old Testament to kill or even how He can kill people Himself when the Ten Commandments say that we shall not kill (Exodus 20:13).

First of all, the commandment given prohibits the personal killing of one human being by another, or murder. The distinction is made in the Bible between a person acting in their own interests and taking the life of another and what we would call justifiable homicide. Genesis 9:6 says that whoever sheds man’s blood shall have his own blood shed by man. This is the first Biblical reference to capital punishment which is condoned in both the Old and New Testaments. Romans 13:4 speaks of civil rulers “bearing the sword on behalf of God” as avengers against evil-doers. Those in authority have the God-given responsibility to punish criminals and that includes executing murderers. But they do so on behalf of the justice of God and the laws of the land, not for their own gain and interests.

War can also be justifiable use of deadly force because one is acting on behalf of the nation in which he lives. Genesis 14 tells us of a war in which Abraham fought in order to liberate his nephew Lot who had been taken by force by the enemy.

We see many instructions given in the Old Testament also for capital punishment being carried out for various infractions, including spiritual ones. Exodus 22:18 is rendered in the King James Version with the commandment to not “suffer a witch to live.” A verse which has come under attack by critics repeatedly. Although a whole additional article would probably be necessary to sufficiently explain why this was a law under the Old Testament and not under the New, let me just briefly point out that many of the capital offenses mentioned in the Torah were specifically relevant to a certain people at a certain time and in a certain place. Ancient Israel was a Theocracy whose original “King” was God Himself. In order to prevent the Jewish people from devolving into the same condition as the Canaanites before them and to protect the lineage through which Jesus Christ would be born, extreme measures were called for. Like the cutting out cancer analogy we considered with regards to the Canaanites, God wanted to be sure that any steps toward idolatry and spiritual rebellion were nipped in the bud immediately.

Witchcraft and spiritual rebellion might seem like harmless enough sins to many modern skeptics, but they are a big deal to God. And as we read through the rest of the Old Testament and see the horrible consequences Israel faced for their idolatry, we see what a tragedy these things can result in. Today, we do not have a Theocracy ruled by the laws of God and thus we, as Christians, are not instructed to go around killing adulterers and those who practice witchcraft. We are instructed to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a lost and sinful world.

To God goes all glory. In service to Him,



**Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (NASB) © The Lockman Foundation and are used by permission.

[If you do not know the Lord Jesus Christ or you are not certain where you are headed when this life ends, I invite you to read the article “Am I Going To Heaven?“]

Further Reading:

Evidence Unseen

North American Mission Board



The Golden Calf And Moses (Exodus 32)

“Then Moses returned to the Lord, and said, “Alas, this people has committed a great sin, and they have made a god of gold for themselves. But now, if You will, forgive their sin—and if not, please blot me out from Your book which You have written!” (Exodus 32:31-32)

Although Aaron was involved with the Children Of Israel’s fall into idolatry, being the one who had constructed the Golden Calf, Moses had absolutely nothing to do with the incident. In fact, he was high atop Mt. Sinai, receiving the words of the Lord, while the people danced and bowed before their new “god” in the valley down below. Nonetheless, Moses identified himself with his people and entreated God on their behalf.

“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, “Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves.” (Exodus 32:7)

“Then Moses entreated the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does Your anger burn against Your people whom You have brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” (Exodus 32:11)

God stated to Moses that the people which he had brought out of Egypt had corrupted themselves. Moses responded that they were God’s people and that God had brought them out of Egypt. In this, Moses was reaffirming that it was entirely the work of the Lord which had brought them out of the land of bondage and that they, as a people, were entirely dependent upon God’s continued guidance in order to reach their destination.

The Lord told Moses to leave Him alone so that His anger would burn against the people so that he may destroy them (v. 10). But Moses did not leave Him alone. He pleaded their cause before the Lord and interceded on their behalf. Moses defended God’s reputation by suggesting that the Egyptians would mock the Lord if He destroyed them in the wilderness (v. 12) and He reminded God of His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (v. 13). We are told in verse 14 that the Lord “changed His mind.”

The sin of the people was not, however, without consequence. Moses burned the idol with fire and poured the melted gold into the drinking water, forcing the people to drink the bitterness of their transgression. Moses called to himself all who were on the Lord’s side and the Levites came to him. Then Moses instructed them to draw their swords and kill, presumably, those who persisted in their sinfulness and failed to turn back to God. Approximately 3,000 Israelites lost their lives that day (v. 28). Additionally, God told Moses that He would punish the rest of the guilty people at a later time (v. 34).

In this incident, we catch our first glimpse of the propensity for turning away from God which will plague the Israelites throughout their history. This is definitely not the last time we see them dabbling in idolatry! Yet in this incident we also witness a change in Moses, a maturing of his character as he is shaped more into the image of the Lord. God’s anger burned against the sinful people, and so did Moses’ anger. Verse 19 tells us that, like the Lord, Moses’ anger burned as he threw the Tablets of the Law and shattered them; just as the Israelites had broken the precepts of the Law, so did Moses break the stones upon which they were written. As Moses came closer to God, he began to love that which God loves and hate that which He hates. If we belong to the Lord, then we ought to love those whom He loves and we should detest the sin which offends Him. Our anger should burn against that which angers God.

And in Moses’ offer to have the Lord blot his own name out of the Book of Life, we see a type of the Lord Jesus Christ in His own willingness to give Himself for His people. The Apostle Paul also reflected the same sentiment in his expression of love for his Jewish countrymen when he wrote to the Romans:

“For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises” (Romans 9:3-4)

Moses’ response to the sin of his people was in all ways appropriate and commendable. Aaron, though guilty, sought to avoid the anger of the Lord and Moses by shifting the blame away from himself, even going so far as offering up the ridiculous explanation that he threw the gold into the fire and the Golden Calf walked out on its own (v. 24). Moses, though innocent, took his place as a leader of the people and willingly offered himself on their behalf.

To God goes all glory. In service to Him,



**Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible  (NASB) © The Lockman Foundation and are used by permission.

[If you do not know the Lord Jesus Christ or you are not certain where you are headed when this life ends, I invite you to read the article “Am I Going To Heaven?”]

The Second Table Of The Law

“Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.” (Exodus 20:13-17)

Earlier in this series on the Ten Commandments, we considered how the specific Commandments could be divided into two parts, or tables; the first comprising the Commandments dealing with man’s relationship to God and the second regulating man’s interactions with his fellow man. While we have spent the last few posts focusing on the details of the first table, I would like to turn our attention now to more of an overview of the second.

Much could certainly be said about each individual Commandment of the final five. How hating our brother renders us guilty of murder (1 John 3:15);  how lusting in our hearts convicts us of adultery (Matt. 5:28); or how the man who covets is really an idolator (Eph. 5:5, Col. 3:5). Much could be said, indeed. While a great deal of the remainder of the Book of Exodus (along with Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) provide commentary and insight into what specific actions were covered by each of these Commandments, the New Testament cuts straight to the heart of the matter, briefly capturing the essence and spirit of the Law with the simple, familiar axioms with which many of us are acquainted. Consider the Lord Jesus’ summary of the Law in His Sermon on the Mount:

“Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)

Or, in another place, when questioned over what the “great commandment of the law” would be, Jesus responded to the Pharisees:

 “…Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

The Apostle Paul writes to the Church in Rome a concise commentary upon the entire second table of the Law with these words:

“For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Romans 13:9)

If there be any other commandment (and there certainly are; over 600 specific laws and statutes were listed in the Torah), it is briefly comprehended in what? In love toward others. To love God and love others is to fulfill the Law in its entirety. Though the Christian is not under the burden of the Law of Moses itself, he is under the Commandments of Christ, that is, to love the Lord and extend the love of God to others.

Since the earliest days of the Church, two extremes have drawn like a magnet the hearts and minds of many who would follow Christ. On the one end are those who have seen little difference between the Old Covenant and the New. They have believed that the Law of Moses must be kept, or at least kept to the best of one’s ability, in order to receive or maintain Salvation in Jesus Christ. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who hold that the Law has absolutely no relevance whatsoever in the life of a Christian and that practically every page to the left of Matthew 1 in our Bibles are merely residues of a bygone era. Some have gone so far as to say that God is actually glorified by our gratuitous breaking of God’s Commandments because it affords Him the greater opportunity to manifest His grace toward us.

Like so many other aspects of the Christian life, the truth is found closer toward the middle. The Law of Moses is a part of the Christian’s spiritual heritage, for it is through the Law that the same God we serve today dealt with the nation of Israel. Contrary to what many Christians have been taught, the Law of Moses was never repealed nor was it brushed aside at the coming of Christ. Jesus came not to destroy or overturn the Law, but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). The Law of Grace in Jesus Christ has never abolished the Law of Moses, it has merely superceded it. The Law still broods cruelly over anyone who would step out from under the covering of grace.

So what does all this mean for those in Christ? Must we seek to follow the tenets of the Law? Should we? Can we? Even if we accept that Salvation can only come, not by the merit of obedience, but by the unmerited favor of God born by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, is there, in fact, any advantage in attempting to obey the Law? Does following the letter of God’s Commandments given at Mt. Sinai avail the Christian anything?

The moment that we bind ourselves to a burden which is not intended for us to bear, we begin to walk, not in liberty, but in bondage. The message of the New Testament with regards to the Law is that God intends for our hearts to be in right standing toward Him, letting the indwelling Holy Spirit fill us with love toward God and man. The idea is not that we will refrain from murdering, or stealing, or committing adultery because the Law forbids it, but because a person who has the love of God will not do such things!

Wherever the Ten Commandments are mentioned in the New Testament, they are inevitably expanded and enlarged. Not because the Christian is under more restrictive Law, but because he has been given the Spirit of God to strengthen him to obey, not just the letter of the Law, but its intent. Never was man intended to keep the Law by his own strength, but the Law was given in order that we might know just how sinful we really are. Apart from the strengthening of the Holy Spirit, we are powerless to obey God!

The Christian is not instructed to obey the Law of Moses so that he might become a child of God, he obeys the Law of Christ because he is a child of God. We love God, not because we are commanded to, but because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). We are not expected to live under the guidelines of the Law of Moses, but we are expected to exhibit a life of holiness and obedience to the Lord by allowing the Lord to live through us. For when the Holy Spirit is indwelling us, filling our lives with His fruit, we will live a life pleasing to God and in accordance to any law and commandment He has given:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23)

To God goes all glory. In service to Him,