Why does God command so much killing in the Old Testament? Does God condone violence?

God's commands to kill others in the Old Testament are among the most difficult for people to comprehend. Why would God demand the Israelites to kill entire groups of people? Why did God at times approve of genocide?

Perhaps the best way to address this concern is to acknowledge that these commands took place within the context of wars between nations. In times of war, the options are to fight and win or to be defeated. God had promised the Israelites they would be victorious and live in the land of Israel. To do so included defeating the already violent nations living in that land.

In the defeat of an opponent in war during ancient times, the conquering side had to deal with the inevitable issue of the survivors. Would they keep surviving soldiers, women, and children alive and make them servants, or was it better to completely destroy the opposing force? Apparently due to both the violent nature of the Canaanites and neighboring groups as well as their worship of other gods, the Lord declared these enemies were to be completely destroyed.

Again, such a choice seems extreme and unthinkable in today's world. Yet from the Israelite perspective, keeping enemies alive caused the following: First, survivors would have the potential to later oppose the Israelites in war. Second, and more importantly, the survivors could cause spiritual harm through the worship of other gods. God's commands in these situations were to kill everyone in the community instead.

In other parts of the Old Testament, there were opponents of Israel who were defeated but not completely destroyed. Why did God command total destruction in one battle and not in the other? We simply do not have a full answer for these differences.

However, what is clear is that God no longer commands such actions of His people. The Old Testament commands to kill entire enemy peoples were specific and limited to particular events. Such accounts certainly are not to be used in any modern context in such a way.

In the New Testament, Jesus spoke of God's desire for His people to pray for enemies and to love one's neighbor as one's self. Early Christians sought to take the good news of Jesus to all people, including neighbors historically hostile to them. Jesus has commanded believers to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20). Revelation shows that in the end there will be followers in heaven from all nations, tribes, and languages: "After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, 'Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'" (Revelation 7:9-10).

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