Old Testament Mass Killings

by Paul Coulter

Introduction: The problem

A number of cases of mass killings of people, apparently at God’s behest, are recorded in the Old Testament:

1. The Flood (Genesis 6-8)
2. The cities of the plain, including Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18-19)
3. The Egyptian firstborn sons during the Passover (Exodus 11-12)
4. The Canaanites under Moses and Joshua (Numbers 21:2-3; Deuteronomy 20:17; Joshua 6:17, 21)
5. The Amalekites annihilated by Saul (1 Samuel 15)

The first three examples are similar in that there was no human agent involved – in each case it was God, or an angel of God, who carried out the mass killings directly. The mass killing of the Canaanites is the first of two cases in which the text claims that God’s people, the nation of Israel, were commanded by Him to attack other nations. For this reason, this case will be the focus of this study.

The problem many people have with these stories of mass killings is that they do not seem to fit the popular conception of the Christian God. In particular, the question is asked how a God of love could allow or even command such brutality. Furthermore, it is suggested that the God described in these Old Testament books is a different character from the God described in the New Testament. The former is supposedly angry, vindictive and ruthless, the latter loving, patient and forgiving. Even for people who are convinced that the Bible is true and represents God’s revelation of Himself these accounts can be deeply troubling, especially when one thinks about the death of innocent children.

Did God command the mass killing of the Canaanites?

One way in which biblical scholars have attempted to resolve the problem of the mass killing of the Canaanites is to suggest that God never commanded it. This argument is advanced in one of two ways…

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