If God told you to kill children, would you do it? (Two Thoughts on those Holy War passages in the Old Testament)

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If God told you to kill children would you do it?

Quite a question, isn’t it?  The answer should be an obvious “No”, right?

We’re studying the biblical book of Deuteronomy on Sunday mornings at Faith Church, and we’ve come to some troubling passages where God commands the armies of Israel to kill children. In chapters 2 and 3, Moses is reviewing with the people of Israel the story of how they made it to where they are encamped on the east side of the Jordan River.  Their journey took them through lands inhabited by Canaanites, and both times they proclaimed holy war on the Canaanites, utterly wiping them out.

Look at Deuteronomy 3:3, “We left no survivors.”  Skip ahead to verse 6: “We completely destroyed them…men, women and children.”

What in the world is going on?  They actually killed children!  It was holy war.

Holy war will come up again in Deuteronomy chapters 7 and 20, so I decided this week that we’re going to talk about Holy war this one time and be done with it.  Why?  Well, quite frankly, it is difficult material.  I wonder how you are feeling as you read these passages?

Sometimes in the past, when we have come to a difficult section of the Bible, people in my church family have said, “Joel, just tell us how to understand it.”  Or they’ve said, “Joel, how do you personally interpret this passage?”

I think behind these comments is desire for relief from tension.  We feel very uncomfortable with tension, right?  Tension is when you are the middle and you are being pulled in two directions, and generally-speaking we hate it.

Do you feel that pull, the tension, when you read passages about God commanding the people to kill all the men, women and children of a nation?  I think you should feel tension.  I do.

Where is the tension coming from?

I think it is coming from the fact that we want to believe in a loving, good, merciful God on one hand, and on the other, we want to believe the Bible is true.  And when our true Bible teaches us about a violent, destructive, genocidal God, we’re stuck.

We want peace, not tension.  We want our impressions and beliefs about God to make us feel good, comforted and safe.

So what do we do to relieve the tension? I do not believe there is a satisfying answer to relieve the tension about the amount of violence in the Old Testament.

Here are some ways that people have tried to resolve the tension of the violence in the OT. I got these from pastor and author Brian Zahnd.  Check out a great interview with him here.

  1. Question the morality of God? Maybe he is actually monstrous.  But we know that isn’t true.  God is good, right?
  2. Question the immutability of God? Maybe he is changing. But we’re hesitant about this too, because God doesn’t change, right?
  3. Question our reading of Scripture? Maybe we shouldn’t take it so literally. But how do we know which parts of the Bible should be literal or not?

None of these options resolve the tension for me.  What does resolve the tension for me?  Nothing.  Instead, I have two thoughts on holy war in the Bible.

Thought #1 – Be humble about difficult passages.

I think it is vital that I view my interpretation of difficult biblical passages as unfinished interpretations.  A work in progress.  My seminary Old Testament prof Dave Dorsey taught us this, and I think it is incredibly wise.  He said that whenever he comes to a part of the Bible that does not line up with what he knows to be true of God, he does not allow himself to come to a final conclusion on the interpretation of that passage.  He waits.  He studies.  Often, he said, there is more going on that he has not yet encountered or does not understand.  It could be cultural or language or translation issues.  I encourage you to follow Dr. Dorsey’s advice.

Thought #2 – Maybe the holy war passages are a justice issue.

Here’s where I’m at with all the times God commands Israel to commit holy war against people.  It seems to me that the people of Canaan, including the Amorites (like King Sihon in Deuteronomy 2), were incredibly evil, and also very powerful.  Think Nazi Germany with the atom bomb.  For any of you that have watched the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle, this is exactly what happens. That TV show presents an alternate history, imagining that the Nazis win World War 2 because they create and use the atom bomb before we do.  They bomb Washington DC and win the war, together with Japan controlling the USA.

It is possible that Israel was up against similar powerful, wicked nations.  Archaeologists have done work on the Canaanites, finding them to practice child sacrifice and female temple prostitution, both practices treating vulnerable people terribly.  It was evil that needed to be stopped.  Also, take a much weaker nation with a slave mentality like Israel*, and the chances are incredibly high that Israel could have been quickly enslaved again by the Canaanites.

God knows this.  And so when you have Nazis versus your Jewish people, what happens? Nazis exterminate Jews.  Nazis are powerful and evil.  But God has a plan, a hope for the redemption and recreation of the world, and it is a plan that is to come through the line of the Jews.  Thus God empowers the Jews to eradicate the Nazis, judging evil in the land, and creating this new just society which is to be a blessing to the whole world.

Am I satisfied with this interpretation? Nope. Not in the least. Do I like it?  Not really.  I pray, “God, could there not have been any other way?” It seems like there should have been. So I follow Dr. Dorsey’s advice, and I keep studying.  I’m leaning toward the interpretation that it was a justice issue, to eradicate evil and pave the way for a new just society, in much the same way as World War 2.

Today, in our world, if I had a vision or dream or heard the voice of God asking me to kill children, I would assume that I had not heard or interpreted God correctly, and I would not kill children.  I’d be looking for any other way.  And you know what I find?

I find Jesus on the cross. I find God dying for us.  I find him weeping for us, weeping at sin, and then I find him giving his own life, so that they world could be radically changed.  And I focus on that.  That is powerful.  That is what we need, that is what we know to be true.  God the forgiver, God the merciful, God of second chances, God who loves you so much he would die for you.  God who wants to remove violence from this world.  I find a God of justice who wants wickedness and evil to stop, who has hopes and dreams, and empowers his people to recreate the world as it should be.

*Consider that Israel had been enslaved in Egypt for 400+ years, and only 40 prior to the events we read about in Deuteronomy 2 and 3.  Compare that to slavery in our own nation’s history.  Our American slavery was a shorter length, about 250 years, and 150 years we are still very much feeling the pain of slavery’s wickedness.  

Published by joelkime

I love my wife, Michelle, and our four kids and two daughters-in-law. I serve at Faith Church and love our church family. I teach a course online from time to time, and in my free time I love to read and exercise, especially running,

19 thoughts on “If God told you to kill children, would you do it? (Two Thoughts on those Holy War passages in the Old Testament)

  1. I grew up hearing these stories in Sunday School as a small child so I became numb to the real horror of what happened. However, I’ll never forget the following experience:

    A few years ago my two small children were involved in a singing performance at their Christian school. The performance was scheduled as part of the Sunday worship service of the church which sponsors the school. Approximately one hundred little, cute, smiling children sang their hearts out. It was beautiful. You could feel the joy and happiness of all the proud parents in the room.

    Then the pastor started his sermon. The subject: The Slaughter of the Amalekites.

    The pastor described in detail the slaughter of every man, woman, and little child. I was horrified. Something in my brain said: “This just isn’t right. Not only should the pastor not be talking about these horrific details in front of little children, the story itself is immoral. There is NEVER a moral justification for the TARGETED slaughter of children. “Collateral damage” in a war is one thing, but running down a terrified, screaming child and chopping him to pieces has no moral justification whatsoever.”

    “Jesus would NEVER do that to little children,” I thought.

    And after that day, it was as if a small light had gone off in my head. I kept hearing myself say, “There is NEVER any moral justification for the targeted killing of little children. Never. Jesus would never do that.”

    I reviewed all the justifications that you have listed above, even the one about killing the children so that their parents wouldn’t kill them in a human sacrifice. Uh…Really?? It is moral to kill children so that someone else can’t kill them??? It is moral to kill children so that their more numerous offspring will not be killed in future generations???

    I don’t buy it. I cannot look my little children in the eyes and EVER consider any justification for the targeted killing of children. Nope, Jesus would NEVER have commanded such a thing. And if I no longer believe that Jesus would EVER order the targeted killing of little children regardless of the wicked sins of their parents and culture, how do I resolve the tension between this new perspective and Trinitarian Christianity which teaches that the God of the Old Testament was none other than JESUS!??

    Then and there I decided I could NOT believe that Jesus was the God of the Old Testament. I could no longer be a Trinitarian Christian. The God of the Old Testament was EVIL INCARNATE. Yet Jesus called this monster his “Father” and never once condemned his “Father” for his wicked acts in the Old Testament. In a hypothetical scenario, if Hitler had had a son, and that son was the most wonderful, kind, generous, giving person on the planet…yet…he refused to ever condemn the horrific moral crimes of his father, would I still respect the son?

    No way.

    Something’s wrong here, folks. Something is really wrong. Jesus can’t be perfect if he refuses to condemn the evil actions of his father and asks other people to “love” and “obey” this evil father.

    The more I dug, the more problems I found with the Christian belief system. The evidence for the accuracy of the prophecies in the OT are poor. Multiple blatant historical (and scientific) errors exist in the Bible. The evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus is much weaker than our pastors tell us, and on, and on.

    Nope. There is never any justification for the targeted slaughter of children, folks. Don’t ever let ANYONE attempt to justify such a horrific act.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I hope my consternation with this passage, and the many others like it, came across. I feel as though you didn’t give me credit for the internal doubt and struggle I presented. I clearly stated that I don’t like any interpretation of this passage. I’m saddened to hear that you have abandoned Trinitarian faith, as I don’t believe that is the only possible conclusion. Instead I would encourage you to follow Dr. Dave Dorsey’s advice. Did you get a chance to listen to the podcast interview of Brian Zahnd? See what you think of his perspective.

      1. I very much sensed your discomfort with these passages, Joel. I was not in any way criticizing you. What I am trying to do is get you to open your eyes to the truth, my friend. Please hear me out. I have been where you are and understand your thinking.

        No, I have not listened to the podcast. However, continuing my hypothetical with Hitler and his hypothetical son: Would you listen to a podcast in which Hitler’s very compassionate, kind, generous son explains why his father’s genocidal slaughter of millions of Jews and other people was somehow justified??

        I doubt it. What possible justification could he give to justify the killing of so many fathers, mothers, teenagers, grandparents, and, yes, little children and babies, in the Holocaust?

        Since there is no justification, I would bet you would not waste your time listening to Hitler’s son’s podcast. And that is why I have no interest in listening to a podcast in which a Christian attempts to justify a similar immoral act of human slaughter. The targeted killing of children is EVIL AND IMMORAL, Joel. There is NEVER a justification for it.

        It makes me sad that so many good people such as yourself have been brainwashed to believe that something that is so evil and so immoral is somehow just, moral, and even “good”.

        I didn’t just leave Trinitarian Christianity, I left Christianity and ALL forms of supernatural belief. I believe that the belief in supernatural powers and the existence of supernatural invisible beings is probably one of the greatest sources of suffering in our world. I believe it is time for modern, educated people to see our supernatural beliefs for what they really are: superstitions.

      2. Thanks for this. I appreciate the dialogue. I would ask you to consider the possibility that you are assuming too much. On one hand, I agree with you that I would not listen to Hitler’s son’s podcast, if the message of the podcast was clearly known ahead of time as you described, which is a continuation of justification for genocide. But what if the message of the podcast was different? What if the message of the podcast was saying “Genocide is wrong”? Then I might listen. Did you assume that the message of the Brian Zahnd podcast was “genocide is okay” or somehow justified? It is not that at all. I think you might appreciate what Zahnd has to say. Am I brainwashed? I have to consider that it is possible. I strive to remain teachable. I know I am far from perfect in that regard. Thus I hope that my comments about wrestling and struggling with difficult biblical passages show that I am questioning a lot more that you seem to insinuate about me. Your approach leaves me feeling like I don’t want what you have found.

      3. I will consider listening to the podcast if you can assure me that at the end of the podcast the speaker condemns the stories of child slaughter in the Bible. Some Christians say that the stories are fictional, but if that is true, why is there no mention of condemnation of such behavior?

        I am not promoting any “-ism”, Joel. I only seek the truth. However, sometime the truth is not pretty. That is why people create make-believe.

      4. Good question…does the speaker condemn the stories? I can’t remember. I think his take on interpreting the stories is that God is good and loving, and thus we need to read the passages differently. I think he would say, if he doesn’t explicitly condemn child slaughter, that a different interpretation implicitly does so. And that is how I would respond to your question about the lack of condemnation of such behavior from those who call the stories fictional. But that is my take. In discussions like these, I find it quite hard for any side to pull themselves away from their precommitments. It is so hard to remove, because we are so strongly colored by our disagreement. Driving to lunch today, I was listening to an NPR interview with professsional fact-checkers. It was really interesting. One person talked about people in Florida hearing a conservative talk radio host suggest that the media hyped up hurricanes because they want to promote their agenda supporting global warming. So the Florida resident did not evacuate. They chose to ignore the scientific reports from the National Weather Service, in favor of believing a talk show host. It happens all the time. Our precommitments color us. I am afraid that mine color my way of seeing the world too much. I think you will appreciate Zahnd. But obviously that is because of the position of biblical theism that I come from. I think Zahnd is being honest, humble and genuinely seeking to understand a terribly difficult issue. You might think otherwise. I’d be interested in your perspective. I believe that you are seeking truth. Me too.

      5. Ok, I will listen to the podcast.

        I have discussed this issue with many Christians of various persuasions. Fundamentalist Christians typically excuse the barbaric actions described in these passages with the excuses you mention above, such as that the Canaanites practiced child sacrifice and that killing a few children now was better than the killing of many children later (in human sacrifice rituals) over a period of hundreds of years.

        Like me, it sounds like you have a hard time with that justification, and understandably so.

        Another explanation I have heard from fundamentalist Christians is that if the heathen children were killed prior to the Age of Accountability, they would die and go to heaven. An eternity in heaven is surely worth being chopped to pieces in this life (and avoiding Hell in the next). However, if you ask the same Christians if they would support abortion for all fetuses of non-Christian parents today, they then are not so eager to support this “act of mercy” even though the same issues apply.

        Moderate and liberal Christians have come up with the best justification for these passages that I have seen. They believe that these stories are fictional. They never happened. They are simply folk-tales. The stories describe the attitudes and behaviors of ancient, primitive peoples. The Christian God had nothing to do with these alleged acts.

        Ok. That seems reasonable and, in fact, I agree with the claim that these stories are fictional. Most archeologists and historians believe these stories are fictional. But this creates an even bigger problem for moderate Christians. The overwhelming majority of archeologists and Near East historians also believe that the entire Exodus Story, Forty Years in the Sinai, and the Conquest of Canaan are fictional folktales. That does not bode well for the claim that Jesus was an all-knowing God: Jesus believed these events were real. And if these stories are fiction, what about the story of the Garden of Eden? If that story is fiction, then there was no Fall, and if there was no Fall, mankind does NOT need a Savior.

        And this points out a very important issue, Joel. Once you find one “crack” in the Christian belief system…it leads to SO many more.

        This is what I found when I started investigating the claims of Christianity with an open mind. I was NOT looking to deconvert. I was not looking for an excuse to abandon my faith. I was VERY happy and content as a Christian. I, my wife, and kids were actively involved in our conservative Christian church. My kids attended Christian school. I was an online Christian blogger. Leaving Christianity was the LAST thought on my mind.

        But one day I was challenged on some of my beliefs by a former conservative Christian pastor turned atheist. It was my goal to convert HIM. Yet after four months of intense study, one “crack” after another appeared in my precious faith until one day I realized I was an unbeliever.

        If your faith is more important to you than the truth, don’t dig any further, Joel. Accept one of the justifications for the murder of heathen children in the Bible, and move on. Focus on the many pleasant, more palatable aspects of modern Christianity.

        But if knowing the truth, the real truth, and nothing but the truth is of utmost importance to you…keep digging. Keep asking questions. Just be prepared: your entire “world” may collapse. Could you handle that? If not. Stop.

      6. Thank you for taking the time to write so much. It seems to me that your motivation is good. I’ll give your comments consideration. Though I will say that I have studied many times previously numerous atheist positions, biblical contradictions, and the cracks you refer to. I don’t ever want to be in a place of concreted faith that is unwilling to keep examining, studying and learning, even if it means taking that hard look at the possibility that my faith could be false. Thus far, my personal study into these matters has continued to lead me to be a biblical theist. Again, thank you so much for your time.

  2. I listened to the podcast. Rev. Zahnd states that in the past he was the typical conservative Christian who supported “just” wars. In fact, he and some friends sat down with a pizza to watch the opening salvos of the First Gulf War on CNN with great enthusiasm (as if it were entertainment). One day, years later, as he was praying, he states that he felt the presence of Jesus and Jesus said to him, “That moment where you enjoyed the commencement of a war was your biggest error”.

    After that point in time he took up the position that war is wrong. He believes that fighting in a war is against the will of Jesus.

    So, how does he reconcile his new-found non-violent view of Jesus (God) with the violence in both the Old and New Testaments? Zahnd chooses to see the Bible as having the same relationship with Jesus (God) as did John the Baptist with Jesus. John the Baptist was the forebearer, the messenger of Jesus, but was not Jesus. What Zahnd is really saying here is that the Bible is not perfect just as John the Baptist was not perfect— but he doesn’t come out and say that in the podcast.

    That is an earth-shattering statement for any evangelical.

    If the Bible is imperfect, what if any passage in the Bible can the lay Christian trust as true? Answer: You can’t. What is Zahnd’s answer to this problem: “Look to Jesus. JESUS is the focus of your faith, not the Bible. Jesus is perfect. Jesus is good. Jesus loves children. Jesus would never kill children.” Therefore, the statements of violence in the Bible do not prove that God (Jesus) is evil. They only prove that humans are evil. Jesus can do no evil nor command evil to be done.

    What is my take on this?

    It is hopefully obvious to anyone reading this comment that Rev. Zahnd is making two very big assumptions: That Jesus is God. And, that Jesus (God) is perfect and can do no evil.

    However, he has just destroyed the credibility of the only source of evidence for these two claims: the Bible! If we can’t trust the Bible to tell us the truth in the stories of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, why should we trust the Bible to tell us the truth in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John about Jesus???

    1. All one can really say, in response to Zahnd’s emotional-psychological passage through various… “impressions” and his interpretation of them is, they are what they are. They reflect something going on inside of him, something unlikely to be either highly self-critical or logically coherent. He certainly hasn’t destroyed “the credibility of the Bible” (you have phrased that quite illogically, for your own part); he has merely obliterated any logical coherence in his OWN position on the Bible. There is a critical difference. After all, we don’t want to accept Zahnd’s pronouncements on “where he’s at” now vis-a-vis the Bible as some sort of…divine pronouncement, do we? Particularly if we are inclined to dismiss the existence of anything divine to begin with?

      1. You are correct, Zahnd has only condemned his OWN explanation. He is not speaking for Christianity as a whole. But Joel is suggesting that Zahnd’s explanation for the violence in the Old Testament is a good one. I don’t agree.

        I think Joel needs to continue looking for a rational explanation for why a “good” God committed so many EVIL deeds.

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