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Why did God order the killing of people in the Old Testament?

God order killing

From the beginning, God assigned exceedingly great value to human life: “So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27, NLT). God told Noah that He would “demand an accounting for the life of another human being” because “in the image of God has God made mankind” (Genesis 9:5–6).

In Exodus 20:1–21, God issued the Ten Commandments, the heart of Hebrew law. Here, God outlined the absolutes of moral and spiritual living for His people. His intentions could not have been more clear: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13; see also Deuteronomy 5:17). Murder is the unlawful, intentional taking of a life. New Testament Bible verses further affirm the sacredness of human life (Matthew 5:21; Romans 13:9; 1 Timothy 1:9; 1 John 3:15; James 2:11–12).

If God places such high worth on the life of every human, then why did He intentionally order the killing of many people in the Old Testament? In the Great Flood (Genesis 6:1—8:22), God destroyed all land-dwelling life on earth except for a remnant. Other significant examples of God killing people include the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:1–29) and the drowning of the Egyptian army at sea (Exodus 14:26–31). God instructed Israel to execute everyone in Jericho except for Rahab and her family (Joshua 6:17, 21). In a lesser-known account, God sent lions to kill some Assyrian ex-patriots (2 Kings 17:25–26).

Bible skeptics often ask, why is it acceptable for God to kill or command the slaughter of people? The answer is not complicated: God as Creator of the Universe is the Author of life (Acts 3:15). He alone possesses the right and authority to give life and to take it away (Genesis 2:7; Job 1:21; 12:10; Acts 3:15; 17:25). God is also the only just Judge of sin (Isaiah 13:11; 26:21; Psalm 99:8; Proverbs 11:21; Amos 3:14; Zephaniah 1:12; Romans 2:12; 1 Thessalonians 4:6). When people commit evil, God has the right and authority to carry out His punishment, and sometimes the only fitting punishment for the crime is death (Genesis 2:17; Leviticus 20:1–17; Proverbs 11:19; Romans 1:32; 1 Corinthians 11:29–30).

The Bible clearly states that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). God told Adam and Eve that, if they disobeyed His orders, they would die (Genesis 2:17). By the time of Noah’s Flood, humans had grossly violated their place in God’s order, once again stepping far beyond the limits God had marked out for them (Genesis 6:1–4). The flood was God’s divine punishment upon wicked people. Sin had become so widespread that God needed to reassert His lordship and give humanity a fresh start and another chance to obey Him.

Because we are not God, we do not have the right to end a human life except on certain exceedingly rare occasions permitted by God. The Lord told Israel to wipe out the Canaanite nations and to kill everyone, including women and children. Only He has the right to do this; the Israelites could not pick and choose whom to destroy on their own. The destruction of the Canaanites in the book of Joshua was God’s divine punishment against wicked people. God used Israel as the means of meting out that punishment, as He explained: “Recognize today that the Lord your God is the one who will cross over ahead of you like a devouring fire to destroy them. He will subdue them so that you will quickly conquer them and drive them out, just as the Lord has promised. After the Lord your God has done this for you, don’t say in your hearts, ‘The Lord has given us this land because we are such good people!’ No, it is because of the wickedness of the other nations that he is pushing them out of your way. It is not because you are so good or have such integrity that you are about to occupy their land. The Lord your God will drive these nations out ahead of you only because of their wickedness, and to fulfill the oath he swore to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Deuteronomy 9:3–5, NLT). God also warned His people not to get caught up in the Canaanites’ idolatrous and detestable practices (Deuteronomy 12:29—13:18).

After the flood, God established a covenant with Noah to never again destroy the earth by water. He also gave this command: “And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. ‘Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind’” (Genesis 9:5–6). Here, God explains that anyone who kills another person will be held accountable by God. God’s punishment involved having the murderer executed by another human agent of justice working on God’s behalf.

Humanity was still corrupted by sin after the flood. But instead of periodically eradicating evildoers from the face of the earth, God handed over the task of carrying out His justice on earth to humans (Romans 13:4; Jeremiah 51:20). Sometimes, that job involves ending another human life as the penalty for murder. However, individuals are not to independently carry out justice or revenge. God has reserved that authority for governmental powers (Romans 13:1–14).

According to Mosaic Law, God sometimes prescribed the death penalty for crimes other than murder (Exodus 22:18–20; 35:2; Deuteronomy 21:18–21). Although these stipulations of capital punishment may seem harsh by today’s standards, in context, they helped keep the Israelites pure and set them apart from neighboring pagan peoples. God’s holy standard contrasts sharply against the depravity of sin and the degree of its destructiveness on society. Like the rest of the law, those regulations were fulfilled in Jesus Christ and are no longer legalistic obligations for God’s people (Matthew 5:17; John 1:17; Romans 10:4). Today, the only morally justifiable conditions for killing another person involve matters of self-defense, the death penalty for the crime of murder, and killing in wartime. However, even in these situations, Christians don’t always agree.

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Why did God order the killing of people in the Old Testament?
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This page last updated: February 13, 2024