Mass murder in the Old Testament
I hate verses like these in the Bible. I know I’m not the only one. It’s passages like this that make people either reject Scripture or reject God.
A good God couldn’t possibly kill so many people. Or if he really is good, the Bible must misrepresent him, which means it can’t be trusted.
I’ve heard a lot of people voice these questions. I’ve thought them myself.
And, as with every topic I’ve covered so far—it can’t be solved in one blog post. I won’t be able to satisfy myself, or anyone reading this. All I can do is my best, and hope that what I’ve offered here will help a little with your own questions.
There are quite a few instances where God tells the Israelites to annihilate certain people groups. They begin with killing every living thing inside Jericho (Joshua 6:21). The book of Joshua’s primary focus is the conquest of Canaan. People group after people group are subdued and often wiped out by the Israelites. It seems apparent that this is all part of God’s plan.
And yet, this God who commands the mass killing of entire nations is the same God who said, “You shall not murder,” (Exodus 20:13). He makes it clear that anyone who takes a human life will be called to account, since we are made in God’s image (Genesis 9:5-6).
So then, how does God define murder?
According to the Bible, murder involves hate. It is an act of anger targeted against someone for sinful reasons. In the first murder recorded in Scripture, Cain kills his brother Abel and God condemns him for it (Genesis 4:8-12). From what we know, Abel did not provoke the attack; Cain’s own anger and jealousy resulted in violence.
Another good example is the distinction between David’s killing in battle versus when he killed Uriah to cover up the fact that he’d slept with his wife, Bathsheba, and got her pregnant (2 Samuel 11:2-17). The former had to do with following God’s specific justice—the latter had to do with sinful motives. Jesus expands on this further, saying that anger against another person results in the same judgement as murder (Matthew 5:21-22).
God does not kill out of anger. He says himself that he takes no pleasure in the deaths of evil people (Ezekiel 33:11). Moreover, the Lord kills everyone—regardless of what kind of end they receive. He is the King of his creation, and both gives and takes away the breath of every living creature.
He also places such value on human beings that our final breath on earth does not signal the end of our existence. All human bodies will be resurrected to face judgement when Jesus returns (John 5:28-29).
Death was introduced through sin, but God mercifully considers all those who love him as innocent—regardless of how terrible their lives might have been. This means that even sinful acts (like Cain murdering Abel) do not end in injustice.
I want to zero in on Cain for a second, because lineage is extremely important in the Bible. It can help us trace where the nation of Israel came from, as well as the nations that God commands them to destroy.
Cain’s great, great-grandson, Lamech, also killed someone (Genesis 4:23). But Adam and Eve had another son, Seth. From Seth’s family line we see continued faithfulness towards God through the generations until Noah. Noah and his family escaped the flood since they were faithful to the Lord.
After the flood, the earth becomes repopulated by Noah’s three sons and their respective clans—each with a distinct trajectory.
Ham, one of Noah’s sons, sees his father naked and passed out drunk (Genesis 9:20-22). The text says “when Noah found out what his youngest son had done to him,” suggesting that Ham may have carried out some form of sexual misdeed. But even if this were not the case, he clearly did not show his father respect. Instead, he took enough pleasure in seeing Noah naked to brag about it to his brothers.
In shame and anger, Noah curses Canaan, Ham’s son, to be a slave to his brothers (Genesis 9:24-25). For the first time, I noticed a connection I had never made before. In following Canaan’s family line, we see the beginnings of multiple nations who will later be the enemies of Israel (Genesis 10:6-20).
In the line of Ham there are references to cities like Nineveh, Sodom and Gomorrah, which we know later become extremely sinful (although in the case of Nineveh, God brings mercy and salvation). There are also references to nations who fight against Israel, like the Egyptians, Philistines and Amorites.
From the small group of people who came off the ark, the line of Ham becomes deeply marked by sin and sinks into moral decay. In contrast, Shem, another of Noah's sons, has a family line that can be traced to Abram, who became the father of the Jewish race (Genesis 11:10-26).
There is an over-arching narrative of children following in the ways of their parents: some sinned and rejected God, others loved and served him. God’s actions, then, have nothing to do with certain nations being better than others (Deuteronomy 9:4-6). The crux of the matter is the choice of whether or not to serve God.
Did Noah condemn the descendants of Canaan to sin and separation from God? Well, I’m not sure any human has that kind of power. Rather, it seems as though Noah’s words are a prophecy of what is to come if Ham’s descendants continue in the way of their forefather.
More importantly, the Lord does not curse any tribe. In fact, he blesses each of Noah’s sons impartially (Genesis 9:1). Sadly, the nations living in Canaan set themselves up against God and became evil, terrible people. God’s act of justice—employed through human hands—came about after they’d spent four generations moving away from him.
Despite this, we can still see God at work drawing people from these nations to himself. He uses every tool in the book—including suffering and earthly death—to do so. For example, Nimrod, Canaan's son, founded the kingdom of Babylon, which became a pagan empire that oppresses and terrorizes the surrounding lands. God brings the nation of Israel into captivity in Babylon because they refused to listen to warning after warning to return to him.
This action also serves as a way of bringing God's messengers to an evil nation that is directly descended from Canaan. God powerfully pursues two of Babylon's rulers until their hearts are changed (Daniel 4:29-37; Daniel 6:7-27). The conversion of Darius, ruler of Babylon, is especially important since he declares that his entire empire should worship the living God. This shows that despite the sinful trajectory of these nations, God's purposes are for the good of all people, not just a select few.
Even the genealogy of Christ includes Rahab and Ruth, who were both foreigners (Matthew 1:1-16). Rahab was a Canaanite living in Jericho, a city the Israelites destroyed. She chose to trust God’s justice (Joshua 2). I cannot imagine what it would have been like for her, hiding in her house as the Israelites killed her people, knowing it was she who betrayed them. What faith she must have had in God's purposes!
I’ll be honest. I am still working through this issue. I’m not fully satisfied, because I think there is even more goodness, beauty and “hidden glory” in God’s actions here than I’m currently able to see.
I am convinced that he does not have a vendetta against any particular people group. I also know that we cannot make sweeping assumptions about the correlation between earthly judgement and individual salvation. Earthly death is not the ultimate judgement; we don’t know what God has in store when he orchestrates the story of humanity on a larger scale.
Finally, for those of us who are outside of Jewish ancestry, our heritage can be traced back to these sinful, corrupt, pagan nations who hated God and continually rejected him. And yet, the Lord welcomes us back to him through Christ’s sacrifice. He has continued the blessing he gave to Noah’s sons by providing forgiveness to people from any tribe or nation who believe in him (Acts 10:34-35).
If you want to dig deeper, here are a few other voices who’ve weighed in on this topic.