God, Justice, and Genocide: Did God Command Genocide?

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.”]

About Scott J Shifferd

Minister, church of Christ in Jacksonville, FL. Husband and father of four. Email: ScottJon82[at]yahoo.com
This entry was posted in Apologetics, Christianity, Church of Christ and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to God, Justice, and Genocide: Did God Command Genocide?

  1. Mark says:

    I think your either lying to us or yourself.

    Numbers 31: 17-18

    Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. 18. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

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    • The Jews who translated the Hebrew text into Greek in the third century BC did not interpret and understand that Moses commanded the killing of male children. The Greek Old Testament (LXX) known as the Septuagint affirmed that the males were executed. In Numbers 31:17, Moses commanded Israel to execute the females who had known a male. The same Greek word for the males to be executed were those who slept the females. These are not children as many presume. Philo & Josephus make the same historical interpretation that children were not killed by Israel at Baal Peor. Israel protected women & children, but Moses commanded the execution of the guilty women & males hiding among the spoil (Num 31:10–11).

      See Paul Copan’s work on matter: Did God Command Genocide?

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  2. Matthew says:

    Hey Scott,

    “For “utterly destroy” the Hebrew has the far stronger expression, “put under the ban” (cherem). Whatever was “put under the ban” in Israel was devoted to God, and whatever was so devoted could not be redeemed, but must be slain. Amalek was to be looked upon as accursed; human beings and cattle must be killed; whatever was capable of being destroyed by fire must be burnt. The cup of iniquity in this people was filled up. Its national existence, if prolonged, would simply have worked mischief to the commonwealth of nations. Israel here was simply the instrument of destruction used by the Almighty. It is vain to attempt in this and similar transactions to find materials for the blame or the praise of Israel. We must never forget that Israel stood in a peculiar relation to the unseen King, and that this nation was not unfrequently used as the visible scourge by which the All-Wise punished hopelessly hardened sinners, and deprived them of the power of working mischief.”

    (Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers) …pretty much nails it on the head in my opinion.

    While it is true that God is Love, God is also the Most High Judge (James 4:12). He can overlook sin for a time, but there is judgement for those on Earth who live in disobedience to God’s commands and in this case, those who would attack His people. God’s judgement for Amelek was pronounced earlier in Exodus 17:14. He was patient and allowed time for repentance, just as He does today with those entangled in sinful lives. While the topic of child slaughter is not easy, I must emphasize that no child is innocent. We are all born into sinful flesh and thus God’s judgement here is righteous in His command to devote the Amalekites to complete destruction. It is dangerous to be found in the company of God’s enemies. We were all once God’s enemies before His Son reconciled us through His death and resurrection.

    Then I heard another voice calling from heaven, “Come away from her, my people. Do not take part in her sins, or you will be punished with her. (Rev. 18:4)

    One day His people will be called out of every land and He will judge the world one last time, with fire. In the mean time, let’s not forget that God has many characteristics.

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    • Thank you, Matthew, for the comment. For the most part, I agree especially with your theology. You have accurately displayed another perspective.

      I think our only disagreement is whether children are innocent and the meaning of herem. Concerning innocence, those who sinned are condemned and lost (Rom 3:23; 5:12, 18; 6:23). However, children are safe from condemnation according to Jesus (Matt 19:14).

      My academic sources demonstrate that herem was not a complete slaughter (Eerman’s Dictionary; WBC). There is much debate over the ban of destruction according to herem. My paper is linked below addresses herem further.

      I am ready to reconsider.

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      • Matthew says:

        Scott,

        Thank you for your reply. I believe we have a different interpretation of Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:14. The NLT renders the second part of this verse: “For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who are like these children.” To me, this does not mean that children are free from condemnation because of their ignorance of salvation. That would be also to imply that those who never hear the gospel will be saved by proxy, but we know from Romans 1:20 (NLT also for consistency), “For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.” That is a different topic all together so let me get back on track. LIKE these children seems to underscore character that is common to little children before the sclerosis of the heart is rapidly hastened by a fallen world. Qualities such as purity, obedience, and having a humble nature (all qualities that a regenerative new creation in Christ ought to possess and represent outwardly).

        As far as herem goes, I am open to learning new interpretation as well, considering my only knowledge of Hebrew is that which someone else has already translated, transliterated, or interpreted for me. What is the name on the link? (I’m not sure which one to click on). In my curiosity I also found an interesting read that appeals to the non-violent rendering of herem. Check it out.

        http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2013/05/devoted-to-destruction-reading-cherem.html

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    • Rudy Schellekens says:

      One thing would be interesting to see: A good definition of AGAPE. Based on what the word actually means, rather than the “soft and fuzzy” that is often described.
      It dawned on me a few years ago that “we” have mis-interpreted that word in the “preacher dictionary.” It has nothing to do with selfish vs unselfish. A good example of that is when Luke speaks of the scribes and pharisees who “love” the pre-eminent seats in the synagogue.
      That usage clashes loudly with the idea of “giving up at the cost of oneself…” etc.
      According to TDNT, the basic idea behind the word is “total commitment.” The positive (or negative) then lies in the object of our commitment. God so loved the world…
      Or, in OT development, God so loved Israel…
      1. In His concern about the nation’s existence
      2. In His commitment to the nation’s welfare
      3. In His commitment to the nations’s safety
      4. In His commitment to the nation’s purity
      5. In His commitment to the nations purpose

      Too many preachers have, in my opinion, lambasted Peter for not understanding Jesus in the conversation at the end of the Gospel of John. Peter, do you love (AGAPE) me? Yes, Jesus, I love (PHILEIN) you!
      PhILEIN is the correct usage by Peter in his response. Try it this way:
      Jesus: Peter, are you committed to me?
      Peter: Jesus, of course! You are like my own brother to me!

      Jesus: Peter, are you committed to me?
      Peter, Jesus, I love like my own brother!!

      And now the conversation makes more sense. PHILEIN is the love between family members. Where parents would give their life for their children! Brothers laying down their lives for each other (Hm, where did I read about that one?”
      PHILEIN, by the way, is also used in the description of the love God has for His Son!!

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  3. Schellekens says:

    I believe you failed to prove your point – thereby your conclusion remains unproven as well.
    You state that “there Are objective. Moral values.” But you did nothing to prove that! No matter how many times you make that statement, you are still circular in your argument: if God exist, objective moral values exist. Moral values exist. Therefore God exists.

    Identify objective
    Identify moral
    Identify values
    Have fun!

    Liked by 1 person

    • My only plea is that you reconsider and think deeply about what I have presented does not originate from me but from centuries of theistic philosophers and Christian apologists.

      Notice that this commenter brings forth some good points; although, separate from this article. This person aims right for the heart. Are there objective moral values?

      My only attempt at answering this is by addressing innate moral laws within humanity. The Bible supports such (Rom 2:14-16). The only evidence that I really provided was that murder, abuse, rape, and extortion are wrong. I must add that these are always wrong for everybody even if others do not agree. Most people accept that there are objective moral values.

      The commenter seems to support the first premise and rejects the second. First, if God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist. Furthermore, by rejecting the second premise that asserts that there are moral objective values, the commenter believes that morality is subjective. While the commenter may condemn abuses and atrocities against humanity, this individual cannot judge another person or society for accepting such evil as “good.” Therefore, the commenter concedes and allows that societies can accept moral atrocities, and subjective morals withdraw someone from interfering and bringing criminals to justice​.

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