Mass killings 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)

1. God’s judgement

Deuteronomy 9:4-6
it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is going to drive them out before you
Deuteronomy 18:12
because of these detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you
Leviticus 18:24-25
Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants
God was judging the Canaanites. Without understanding that God must judge sin we cannot understand the wonder of God’s forgiveness and grace or the amazing truth of the cross, where Christ endured the wrath of God for our sin.

Although the ultimate judgement of God against human sin is reserved for the future day “when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed” (Acts 17:31), there are instances in Scripture where God intervenes in judgement during the lifetime of individuals (e.g. Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5), groups of people (e.g. Korah and his followers in Numbers 16) and even, as in the case of the Canaanites, against entire nations.

Faced with another case of annihilation, God’s judgement on Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham said, “will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25). Scripture consistently maintains that God is fair in His judgements, as Paul explains in Romans 2:1-16. The culture of the Canaanites was deeply sinful, to a degree that God decided to act in judgement against them

The extreme sin of the Canaanites was connected with their religious practices. Leviticus 18 gives details of many of the sinful religious practices of the Canaanites, which included child sacrifice to the god Molech, incest, bestiality, homosexuality and cultic prostitution.

We must be careful to say that no individual or church today has the right to condemn an entire culture, although it is important in an age where the prevailing view is that all cultures are equally valid (philosophical pluralism) that we learn to be discerning about the differing values inherent in different cultures (including our own) and to be able to see their deficiencies when judged against the standard of God’s righteousness.

2. God’s desire to preserve Israel from the religions of the Canaanites

When God commands the Israelites to kill everyone in the cities of the Canaanites, the reason He gives is that, “Otherwise they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshipping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God

Sadly, because of the failure of the Israelites to obey God’s command they were indeed influenced to follow the false religions of the Canaanites. This involvement in Canaanite religions is already evident in the book of Judges, but reaches its peak in the period of the kings. Although there were times when Israel was effective as a witness to God’s power and goodness (examples include Rahab in Joshua 2 and the Queen of Sheba in the time of Solomon in 1 Kings 10), they ultimately failed in this responsibility.

We must ensure that we are distinctive but also that we do not retreat into a ‘holy huddle’ in which we are isolated from those who need to know about Christ. Effective mission depends both on distinctiveness and cultural engagement.

Did the Canaanites Have a Chance?

God tells Abraham that his descendants will be slaves in a foreign country for 400 years but that they will return to the land of Canaan after “four generations”. The reason given for this delay is because “the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure”. At the time of Abraham there is evidence that the Canaanites had some knowledge of the true God:

● The judgement of Sodom and Gomorrah, which were close to Canaanite territory, and the deliverance of Lot were evidence of God’s judgement against sin (Genesis 18-19).

● Abraham lived among them and was a wealthy and powerful man (he was even able to rescue Lot from the united forces of four kings according to Genesis 14). His faith in God should have been a witness to the Canaanites.

● The mysterious Melchizedek was king of Jerusalem and also “priest of God Most High” (Genesis 14:18). He must surely have taught his people about the true Creator God (Genesis 14:19).

It seems that over the period from Abraham to Joshua, the Canaanites had gradually rejected what they knew about God and moved deeper into sin. It was only when their sin reached a certain level of severity that God decided to use the Israelites to bring judgement on them. However, even at the time of Joshua, the Canaanites had heard about what God had done for the Israelites in delivering them from Egypt and giving them victory over the Amorite kings east of the Jordan (Joshua 2:8-12), yet they did not repent and turn to God.

There was salvation for those who converted to faith in God.

Rahab the prostitute (whose story is told in Joshua 2) was able to discern that God was giving the land of Canaan to the Israelites and, because of her faith in God demonstrated in her statement and her rescue of the Israelite spies, she was saved from destruction and included in the nation of Israel.

Did God command rampage?

Not really.

God intended to allow the Canaanites to flee first
you will drive them out and annihilate them quickly, as the LORD has promised you”
God’s intention was that the Canaanites would have a possibility of fleeing the land as the Israelites advanced. In the case of those kings and cities that refused to do so, there was no option but annihilation.
God’s judgement was primarily that the Canaanites would lose the land because of their detestable religious practices and in order to preserve the purity of Israel’s worship of Him.

In Deuteronomy 20 God makes it very clear that annihilation is only to be used in the case of inhabitants of the ‘Promised Land’ of Canaan. God gave the Israelites strict rules about proper conduct in war against other enemies who did not live in Canaan, including:

● That the priests were to bless the army before the battle (verse 3)
● That they were to trust God for victory (verse 4)
● That soldiers were to be excused for personal reasons if they had new land, a new house or a new fiancée, or if they were afraid (verses 5-8)
● That enemy cities must be offered the chance to make peace before being besieged (verses 10-12)
● That when a city was captured only the men were to be executed – the women and children were to be absorbed into Israel and the possessions to be kept (verses 13-15)
● That they were not to use a ’scorched earth’ policy in siege warfare. They must leave the fruit trees belonging to the city standing (verses 19-20)

God also later judged the Israelites in the same way

When the Israelites adopted the religious practices of the Canaanites, God judged them just as He had done the Canaanites. He exiled them from the land to purify them, so that those who returned under Zerubabbel, Ezra and Nehemiah would be a remnant of people who would worship only Him.

There is absolutely no Scriptural basis for any justification of similar actions today. Christians are not promised an earthly kingdom or a land and Christ commanded mission to all nations rather than judgement on some.

How can God have used sinful people to judge other sinful people and expect people to carry out acts of brutality, especially against innocent children?

God makes it absolutely clear that the Israelites are not being used because they are better than the Canaanites or morally superior, but simply as agents of His judgement. In fact, He repeats twice that it is “not because of your righteousness”.

Some of the Canaanites were innocent victims since they were not involved in the detestable practices of the Canaanite religions. In particular, the thought of young children being killed is troubling. One thing we must remember is that death is not the end. In fact, the judgement faced after death (Hebrews 9:27) is much more serious than any judgement resulting in physical death because it determines the eternal destiny of the person. We have to trust God to deal fairly with the innocent children who died in the invasion of Canaan, who could not be held responsible for the sin of their culture or religion.

The Old Testament God vs the New Testament God

To suggest that God’s love is unknown in the Old Testament would be completely false. In fact, God’s love to Israel is a major theme of the Old Testament and His judgement of their enemies can even be seen as an expression of this love. Likewise, it would be equally wrong to suggest that the God of the New Testament is not capable of righteous judgement.
Even in the accounts of mass killings in the Old Testament we see both the justice and grace of God as His judgement falls on the rebellious but those who have faith are saved.

Judgement (agent) Time to repent God’s witness Salvation through faith
Flood Genesis 6:5-7 (the Flood) While the ark was being built (1 Peter 3:20) Noah   Noah and family built and entered the ark (Genesis 6:9; 7:8)
Sodom & Gomorrah Genesis 18:20-21 (fire from heaven) Abraham pleads with God (Genesis 18) Righteous Lot (2 Peter 2:7) and Abraham Lot and family fled Sodom (Genesis 19:12-13)
Egyptian firstborn Exodus 12:12 (angel) Previous plagues, Moses speaking to Pharaoh (Exodus 7-10) Moses and Aaron Israelites marked by the lamb’s blood (Exodus 12:12-13)
Canaanites Deuteronomy 9:4-6, 18:12; Leviticus 18:24-25 (Israelite armies under Joshua) Israel’s 40 years in the desert (news reached Canaanites – Joshua 2:10) Israel led by Moses and Joshua Rahab and family – she tied a scarlet thread outside window (Joshua 2)
Amalekites 1 Samuel 15:2-3 (Saul’s armies) c.350 years since their sin against Israel (Exodus 17) Nation of Israel NONE RECORDED

These same principles also apply to what the New Testament says about the final judgement:

a. God will judge fairly – once again God initiates the judgement, but in this case the outcome will be more than physical death. The consequences will be either eternal punishment or eternal blessing (Revelation 20:11-15).
b. Time to repent – God is now patiently waiting, giving people an opportunity to repent (2 Peter 3:9). When Christ returns, God’s judgement will come and no one will be able to escape from it.
c. God’s witness – Christians are present now in the world as witnesses to God’s truth and love (2 Corinthians 2:14-16).
d. Salvation through faith – There is salvation for any who will repent and trust in Christ for salvation (Acts 2:21).


So, then, the ultimate challenge of the Old Testament mass killings is to realise that God’s judgement on sin is a reality, and that we are now in a period where the opportunity to repent and be saved is open to us. God’s salvation has been made ready – Christ accomplished it on the cross and He rose again and is alive to save people. We would do well to heed the warning of the writer of Hebrews:

How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?
(Hebrews 2:3)

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