When the armies of Israel conquered the Promised Land, God commanded them to kill every living thing, including women and children. Could there be any possible justification for barbarism?
One of the hardest questions confronting Christians defending the biblical record is, “How could a good God commission Israel to destroy women and children when they’re fighting their battles?”
This has happened more than once in the Bible. It’s difficult to explain the answer to this, though I think there are a couple of reflections on the issue that offer food for thought. You can approach this from a couple of different directions.
First one caveat. I fully acknowledge that not all good answers are going to be emotionally satisfying to a lot of people. That’s why this is a hard issue, because people let their emotional sensibilities rule instead of trying to see the bigger picture.
One way to approach the problem is to show that it’s a much bigger problem than first imagined. Curiously, I think this helps make the solution simpler. God’s command that Israel destroy women and children in battle is really just the tip of the iceberg.
What about when God slew the firstborn of Egypt? Many of these were women and children, some infants. Every plague on Egypt—the hail, the gnats, the frogs, the locust, the boils—fell on all Egyptians equally, not just upon the soldiers.
What about Sodom and Gomorrah in which, with the exception of Lot and his family, every man woman and child was turned to cinder? Everyone was indiscriminately destroyed. The same thing happened in the Genesis flood. Only eight in the entire world survived. It’s interesting that I have never heard anyone raise the complaint “What about the women and children?” in these instances.
When you read the book of Revelation you’ll find this practice of God’s is not limited to the Old Testament. In the future, God will once again visit judgment upon the world and destroy not just the soldiers, but the women and children as well. I’ve never heard anyone raise an objection about that, but isn’t it the same problem, essentially?
The underlying question, “Is it right for Jews to kill women and children at God’s command?” can only be answered by answering another question: Can God legitimately judge and destroy the world or any portion of it or its inhabitants that He sees fit to destroy? Is this inside of God’s prerogatives or outside of it?
My answer is unequivocal: It is not evil for God to take life, because God is the Author of life. He can give it and He can take it away. That’s part of the prerogative of being God. All that He creates belongs to Him. This is His world. He needs no further justification, because He is not compelled by any law higher than Himself.
Second, our notion of the sovereignty of God entails that every detail of the world is under direct control of God. Nothing happens that He doesn’t either actively cause or passively allow. God did not create the universe, wind it up, then let it spin out its course without His involvement. Instead, regarding every nation of mankind on the face of the earth He has “determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation” (Acts 17:26).
This means that since humans are mortal, there comes a time when every life God created “shuffles off its mortal coil” and returns to Him, either for ultimate judgment or for ultimate reward. God, the Giver and Taker of life, calls every life back to Him at some point and in some manner. The timing and the method of each person’s demise is somewhat incidental, from a moral perspective. It’s up to Him.
So I’m arguing first that it’s God’s prerogative to take life when He so chooses, and second that the means He uses to take that life is a matter of His prerogative as well. Whether it’s by disease, or mishap, or hailstones, or the angel of life, or the sword of a Jewish soldier, the means is up to Him. It’s His prerogative.
My third thought has to do with the question, “What did those women and children do? They were innocent.” I certainly understand the response and there is a sense in which on an emotional level I am troubled when I consider this. But there’s another aspect to keep in mind.
God deals with people not just as individuals, but as groups. When the nation of Israel is doing well as a nation, doesn’t He prosper the whole nation, even though there are individuals in the nation that are scoundrels? When the nation is doing well, generally speaking, God blesses the nation and everybody prospers.
However, the flip side is that when the nation is corrupt, then God judges the nation as a whole and everyone gets judged, even those remaining few that might be innocent. God is dealing with the nation as a group, for good and for ill. It works both ways.
This should not be a foreign concept to us, though we probably haven’t considered the connection between this biblical reality and modern day practices. When the President and Congress agree to go to war against another country, they act as federal heads of state and commit each and every American citizen to war against a foreign power. The nation is at war, not just our lawmakers.
And we all suffer alike in the process. We surrender our effort and our taxes and even our life blood, if necessary. We all participate, even though war wasn’t our idea. We acting as a unit, as a family, as a nation. And those we war against retaliate against us as a unit.
In the same way, when I nation rebels against God, it is not uncommon for God to go to war against that nation itself and not just against a few rebellious individuals. God takes up arms against the land and against every man, woman, and child.
Let’s keep this in perspective, though. In the case of the nations in question that were utterly destroyed by God, it isn’t a few citizens that imperiled the many. We know from Abraham’s appeal on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah that God will spare a whole city of sinners for the sake of a handful of righteous people. Instead, there was a pattern of ongoing, thorough-going, and persistent moral rebellion against God that went on for years—in many cases, for generations—in spite of repeated warnings by God.
There’s a third thing. It pertains to the challenge, “If God were really good, how could He do such a thing? How could He destroy these innocent people? This is barbaric.” They take this record of God’s judgment as evidence that the God of the Bible isn’t really good at all, and therefore should not be believed in.
I approach it from a different direction. I think the preponderance of evidence from the same historical record—the Old Testament—is that God is good. He continually demonstrates not just his holiness, but also His patience and forbearance for those that consistently rebel against Him, though He has graciously cared for them.
This gives us good reason to trust Him. And if we have good reason to trust Him, then when we see things that seem to go against our sense of goodness and justice, it seems only fair to give the benefit of the doubt to God, who just might know something more than we know.
When we were children, our own parents acted in ways we didn’t understand. We didn’t think their decisions were fair. Later we learned that, for the most part, they had insight and information unavailable to us that influenced their decisions. Many times we learned that they were acting in our best interests after all, though we didn’t see it at the time.
These are the kind of things we discover as we grow up. We learn that our parents were right most of the times we thought they were off base. The same kind of hindsight is true with God. God may know a few things we don’t know.
By the way, the question has also been raised, “Why destroy the cattle, too?” My understanding is that in many of those cultures the people were so decadent they were having intercourse with animals. This caused rampant venereal disease in animals and humans that even infected children as well. So this may be—I’m not sure, but it may be—another reason God wanted these entire cultures wiped out. Because of their moral corruption, they were physically corrupt, and this represented a health threat to the new inhabitants of the land, the children of Israel.
Even if that wasn’t the case, as the Author of life God still has the right to take life according to His own judgment. I’ve given you three good reasons to help make sense of that. Whether it’s emotionally satisfying for you or not is another issue altogether.