How can anyone worship the God who commands people to murder others? God’s existence requires that God is morally perfect especially if He is worthy of worship. The definition of God is that He is the Creator of the universe who transcends matter, space, and time, and who is an incomprehensible Mind and demonstrates unimaginable power. By accepting that there is a Creator of humanity, God’s nature requires that God is the originator and foundation of moral values that He neither arbitrarily invents morals nor are morals greater than God. According to Christian theology, God’s divine nature is love (cf. 1 John 4:8). How does the Christian then handle the accusations of genocide against the biblical God? There are difficult passages where some interpret that God can command soldiers to kill the innocent.
How can God commit genocide? God gives life and He can take life. In considering the biblical Flood, did God commit genocide? God transcends this world and His existence presumes an existence beyond this world where He may receive people. When God kills, then He is transferring those souls from one place to another. For God to kill people is no more evil or morally wrong than for parents to move their children from one house into a better home. However, how could God command His followers to kill innocent people? God does condemn murder.
Did God command genocide? God commands that people love their neighbors and enemies (Lev 19:18; Matt 5:43–48). God commanded, “Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked” (Exod 23:7). There are three instances in the Bible where some perceive that God commanded the killing of innocent people.
(1) Some ask, “How could God command the Israelites to murder little boys of Midian along with killing their mothers and raping their virgin sisters?” — Numbers 31:17–18
- The Scriptures do not depict God ordering the killing of children or any innocents, and the text does not record that Israelite soldiers literally killed any boys (and certainly not the rape of virgin girls).
- After losing 24,000 Israelites to plague and execution because of sin induced by the Midianites, God commanded Moses to avenge Israel. Israel warred with Midian and returned with the Midianite women and children. This is what God commanded Israel to do in war (Deut 20:10–15).
- Because the women deceived and seduced Israel and thus brought a plague upon Israel, Moses ordered Israel to kill every remaining man, execute the women who were not virgins, and take the virgin women alive (Num 31:17–18). However, the text does not depict Israel accomplishing these commands from Moses.
- Josephus and Philo also did not perceive that the Israelites killed any male children (Josephus Ant. 4.7.1). Philo wrote that Israel kept the young boys alive (Moses 1.52). The translators of the Greek Old Testament describe Moses ordering the killing of males among the belongings — not the children (Num 31:17 LXX). Furthermore, the same word for the males killed in verse 17 is the same word for the males that the females had sex with in verse 17. This indicates that Moses did not order the execution of male children.
(2) “How could God command the Israelites to completely destroy the Canaanites leaving none breathing?” — Deuteronomy 20:16–17; Joshua 6:21
- Israel’s God condemned the Canaanites for sacrificing children, adultery, sexual perversions, divination, and idolatry (Lev 18:20–30; 20:2–3; Deut 20:18). Yahweh was patient for four centuries waiting for the Canaanite nations to repent (Gen 15:16).
- In the Word Biblical Commentary (“1 Samuel,” WBC 149), Ralph W. Klein observed that the destruction of the people is the biblical ban of herem was “not necessarily total in every case” according to Joshua 6:21–25, 8:27, and 11:4.
- In the book, “Did God Really Command Genocide?” (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014. 10), Paul Copan and Matt Flanigan noted that this destruction is biblical hyperbole for driving out the Canaanite nations in God’s instruction to destroy the nations of Canaan (Deut 2:34; 3:6; 9:3–5; 20:16–17; Josh 6:21).
- As God drove Adam and Eve from the Garden so that they would not live forever, likewise God commanded the destruction of the nations of Canaan by removing them from the land (Gen 2:15–17; 3:22–24).
(3) “Why did God command Saul to put to death children and infants among the Amalekites?” — 1 Samuel 15:3
- The Amalekites murdered Israelites when they left Egypt, and centuries later, King Saul fought the Amalekites who were raiding Israel (1 Sam 14:48).
- God commanded that Saul commit the Amalekites to destruction by putting to death man, woman, child, and infant (1 Sam 15:2–3). However, the text indicates that this command for death was hyperbole, because the Amalekites continued to live after Israel fought to drive them out.
- Neither Samuel nor King Saul interpreted this command to mean killing women and children. Samuel admonished King Saul for failing to kill King Agag of the Amalekites. However, the king’s mother lived and so did other Amalekites indicating that the command was not to slaughter innocent children, women, and any noncombatants (1 Sam 15:33; 27:8–9; 30; 2 Sam 1:1–16).
- The command was to destroy the troops rather than the people as indicated by other uses of the Hebrew word ‘am meaning “troops” and not “people” (1 Sam 15:4, 8; cf. Gen 14:16; Exod 14:6). Again, God’s command to put to death man, woman, child, and infant is hyperbole for Israel to drive this nation out of Israel’s lands. There is no account of Israel killing women and children by God’s command in the Scriptures.
The ignorant and unstable will continue to reinterpret these passages to reject God and the Bible revealing their dishonesty. However, God did not command people to commit genocide via mass murder.
Outside of God, there are no objective moral standards. Without God, morality is subjective to each individual’s choice allowing people to justify their favorite behaviors. However, objective morality requires the existence of God — the morally perfect Creator. If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist. Subjective morality allows individuals and societies to invent their own morals and accept atrocities, abuses, and sexual perversions. Subjective morality also dissolves the responsibility of authorities to objectively condemn and implement justice against evil behavior. Subjective morality means that murder, abuse, rape, and extortion are not wrong for everyone. Who can accuse God of genocide when people choose subjective morality and allow such atrocities by rejecting God?
If there is no God, then there are no objective moral values. However, there are objective moral values. Therefore, God exists. God lives! He is love (1 John 4:8, 16). He is God the Father and His Son is Jesus Christ (1 John 3:16).
[The above article is an adaptation of an academic paper that is also titled “God, Justice, and Genocide.”]