The Killing of Women and Children in the Old Testament

Title: The Killing of Women and Children in the Old Testament
Category: Theology
Subject: Killing Women and Children

Often the question is raised--sometimes by skeptics, but sometimes by sincere believers--as to why God on certain occasions in the Old Testament allowed the killing of women and children by his chosen people, the Israelites.

Examples of passages that cause people to raise those questions are the following: In Deuteronomy 3:6 Moses is recounting for the Israelites the events that had occurred during their journeying toward the promised land: “And we utterly destroyed them, as we did unto Sihon king of Heshbon, utterly destroying the men, women, and children, of every city.”

In Joshua 10:40 we read: “So Joshua smote all the country of the hills, and of the south, and of the vale, and of the springs, and all their kings: he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded.”

Reading such passages, people sometimes ask: “How could it possibly be right for God to approve the killing of innocent women and children?”--and in the two cases referenced above, as well in others that could be cited, clearly God did approve of that killing; indeed, he commanded it. The further question is raised, “Does not God thereby contradict his own command given in Exodus 20:13, “Thou shalt not kill” (KJV)?

First of all, a clearer and more accurate translation of Exodus 20:13 is, “Thou shalt not murder” (NIV). Murder refers to unjustified killing. Some killing is justified--such as soldiers doing their duty in war, the government executing murderers, and a person killing to defend his family or himself from a would-be assassin. So, Exodus 20:13 does not rule out all killing--only killing that is unjustified.

But there still remains the question, “How could the killing of innocent women and children ever be justified?--and how could God command such a thing?”

The first thing to be remembered is the truth of Isaiah 55:8-9: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” God is the Creator and Sovereign of the universe, which means--among other things--that he is the Sovereign of life and death. It is his prerogative to determine who lives and who dies.

“But,” the question persists, “how could God justify killing innocent women and children?”

While we may never in this life have a complete answer to that question, at least some light can be gained by bearing this in mind: we know for a fact--for Scripture reveals it--that certain nations and cities in which men, women, and children were exterminated were nations and cities that were horribly depraved and corrupt; they were like moral cancers in the body of humanity. Note what Moses said to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 9:3-4:

Understand therefore this day, that the Lord thy God is he which goeth over before thee; as a consuming fire he shall destroy them, and he shall bring them down before thy face: so shalt thou drive them out, and destroy them quickly, as the Lord hath said unto thee. Speak not thou in thine heart, after that the Lord thy God hath cast them out before thee, saying, For my righteousness the Lord hath brought me in to possess this land: but for the wickedness of these nations the Lord doth drive them out from before thee.

Furthermore, we know for a fact that God had given certain of those heathen people centuries of opportunity to repent and get right with him. In Genesis 15 God revealed to Abraham that his descendants would live in slavery in Egypt for 400 years. “But,” God said in Genesis 15:16, “in the fourth generation they shall come out hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.” The Amorites were one of the leading people groups in the promised land of Canaan, and appear to be mentioned in that verse as representative of all of the inhabitants of Canaan, who were unbelievers and followed licentious, corrupt practices. They worshiped false gods; various types of unthinkable sexual perversion were a major part of their heathen religions; they were brutal, depraved people. Even though, in accord with Romans 1:18-21, God had revealed himself to them through nature and through conscience for centuries, they had adamantly rejected that revelation and continued in their debased, immoral, vicious lifestyle.

Thus, apparently God, in his infinite wisdom and foreknowledge, determined that the larger good of humanity would best be served by “cutting out that cancer” from the human race. Only God knows what those women and children would have turned out to be and do. It may be that he saw that if those children lived and grew up they would be even more horrendously evil than their fathers, and thus would do terrible, widespread harm; and it may be that God saw that if those women were permitted to live, they would bear other such children. It is also quite possible that these “innocent” women were really not innocent after all, but were just as perverse, immoral, and brutal as the men; and even some of the older children might have been in that same category. But, as stated above, it may be that the main factor that led to exterminating many of the women and children--especially the children--was that God knew what horrible things they would do in the future if permitted to live.

Bottom line:

1. We limited, finite human beings have to acknowledge--to make the ultimate understatement--that God knows some things that we do not know, and you and I are not in a position to judge his actions.

2. So far as that goes, even if we did know all the details and circumstances related to God’s actions, we still would not be a position to judge his actions. He is God. He is the Creator, and we are his creation. As Isaiah 64:8 expresses it, “But now, O Lord, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand.” In Romans 9:20 Paul wrote, “Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why has thou made me thus?”

3. The story is told of a visitor to an art museum standing and looking at one of Rembrandt’s great paintings. He made some caustic comments about the painting to the attendant who was standing nearby; the attendant said, “Sir, that painting is not on trial; you are.” In like manner, God is not on trial before the bar of man’s reason; rather, man is on trial before God--and one day we shall all stand before him and give account of ourselves--we to him, not he to us. Hebrews 9:27 says, “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.”