Why did God ask the Israelites to kill their enemies?

When you draw near a city to attack it, offer it terms of peace. 11If it agrees to your terms of peace and lets you in, all the people to be found in it shall serve you in forced labor. 12f But if it refuses to make peace with you and instead joins battle with you, lay siege to it, 13and when the LORD, your God, delivers it into your power, put every male in it to the sword; 14but the women and children and livestock and anything else in the city—all its spoil—you may take as plunder for yourselves, and you may enjoy this spoil of your enemies, which the LORD, your God, has given you.

15* That is how you shall deal with any city at a considerable distance from you, which does not belong to these nations here. 16g But in the cities of these peoples that the LORD, your God, is giving you as a heritage, you shall not leave a single soul alive. 17You must put them all under the ban—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites—just as the LORD, your God, has commanded you, 18so that they do not teach you to do all the abominations that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the LORD, your God. Deuteronomy 20:10-18

So, this is very different from Jesus, where Jesus allowed his enemies to kill him. Why? Is it because Jesus was perfect and thus was under no danger of being “taught to do all the abominations that they do for their gods”, but the Israelites were at a time when God was only very vaguely/weakly known and were scarcely differentiable from the other nations, i.e. Canaanites, Hittities, and thus were at great danger of having their faith corrupted?

Or is it because when God was more fully known and revealed to the world, the judgment became harder against sinners. In this case, the other nations - Canaanites, Hittities, etc. might have been killed by the Israelites but escaped eternal damnation due to “invincible ignorance”, which would not have existed to the same amount once Jesus was revealed?

Why did God not act towards these other nations, the way he acted when he asked Abraham to kill Isaac but then later sent an angel to save Isaac? Why didn’t he send an angel to save the other nations? Does it have to do with the fact that we will all eventually die (according to Genesis) and so there isn’t a whole lot of difference between dying in this world versus the next?

The one thing I would look at more closely (and as I recall, the Old Testament doesn’t provide much detail) is if these tribes and nations were attacking the Jews and if it was self-defense. I have my doubts that they were all these peaceful people who got along until the big bad Israelites ame along.

People often do not realize that is how the Crusades started: with more local skirmishes due to credible external threats.

In truth a lot of these tribes had some cruel practices.

Also, keep in mind that when Isreal betrayed God enough, he allowed the Jewish enemies to ransack even their holiest places.

I think it was necessary. And that pretty well sums it up.

IMHO it is for the following reasons:

God made a commitment to give the Israelites the promised land. Those that were in it and in the near vicinity were not going to vacate it without a fight or a potentially lengthy struggle. Moreover, these were extremely primitive and war like peoples that generally did not yield to anyone. Furthermore, they only really appreciated and understood the meaning of victory/defeat. They believed in the power of their “false gods/idols” and their own might. When they prevailed they believed it to be a product of their god/idol prevailing over the gods/idols and army of their enemy.

Even the Israelites would fall into idol worship after having been freed from Pharoah. God’s plan met all of these peoples within the parameters of what they understood. It would be the only way to deal with the enemies of God and his chosen people, and perhaps the only way to even convince the Israelites that they worshiped the one true God.

I hope that helps and God bless.

This issue was recently discussed as part of the Apologetics series we do at my church. Attached is the handout we used with helpful Bible passages, texts from the Magisterium, and resources for further study. Let me know if you find it helpful.

God bless!

I would say that God’s covenant with His people was what makes Him choose this land for them, and He is the highest authority over everyone and everything, so He essentially offered the people there life or death. The whole living under His people part seems harsh, but God also made rules on slavery too, and though still harsh by our standards the slaves would have been protected from worse, if they were ruled by people not listening to God.

That’s my take.

I actually had a conversation a few weeks ago on this topic. First, it is important to note that the Old Testament was frequently less than literal. This was the literary style of the time. Second, the Old Covenant was made imperfect because the hearts of the people were so hard. Jesus illustrated this fact when he was pressed about divorce, before revealing the eternal nature of God’s Law.

Mark 10:5

But Jesus told them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts he (Moses) wrote you this commandment.”

It is also important to note that God himself did not give the imperfect laws. He spoke directly with Moses, who gave certain concessions to his people, having seen their hardness.

As mentioned in earlier posts, the people who were killed were not good people. Symbolically, to kill them all meant to reject all of their culture, as it was quite sinful. They were not to retain any of the wickedness of those peoples. On a literal level, Moses had seen how the Jewish people had fallen back into sinful ways (right before he broke the tablets), and would have ordered his people to literally combat these cultures so it would not happen again. Of course, we see later on that this was not the answer. You cannot combat sin this way.

Why such harsh treatment of the enemies of Israel in the Old Testament?

Because grace is not ordinarily “sensible” but supernatural, it is easy to underestimate the fact that the world is quite different now because of the work of Jesus who is True God taken flesh upon Himself (and thus is also True man).

The Israelites initially were asked to show their enemies “no mercy”.

WHAT was “utterly destroy them” and “no mercy” initially? And WHY were the Israelites to show “no mercy” to their enemies?

“Utterly destroy them” and show them “no mercy” initially merely meant things such as don’t make covenants or intermarry with them or allow pagan worship to be carried out.


Because the grace was not yet afforded to the world from Jesus work on Calvary at that time. Thus for Israel to consort with the pagans, the paganism would . . . . rub off on them.

Case in point with Egypt and the Golden Calf earlier.

Let’s look at this again.

WHAT was (initially) “utterly destroy them” and show “no mercy”? And WHY were the Israelites to show “no mercy” to their enemies?

Initially “no mercy” was:

DEUTERONOMY 7: 1-2a,c 1 "When the LORD your God brings you into the land which you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than yourselves, 2 and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them; then you must utterly destroy them . . . . and show no mercy to them. . .

Well this meant to kill them all right?


What did “utterly destroy them” . . . . and “show no mercy to them” mean at this point in time then?

Fortunately Deuteronomy 7 tells us.

DEUTERONOMY 7:2-3, 5 2 and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them; then you must utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them, and show no mercy to them. 3 You shall not make marriages with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons. . . . 5 But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and hew down their Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire.

**Show no mercy and utterly destroy in this context means . . . **
*]Make no covenant with them
*]Not intermarry with them
*]Dispossess the pagan worship accoutrements

WHY? Why should the Israelites not make Covenant with them or marriages?

Again fortunately Deuteronomy 7 tells us in the very next verse.

DEUTERONOMY 7:4 4 For they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods; then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.

Later as Israel again soaks in paganism (as they had in Egypt) such as having illicit sexual relations with the pagans (i.e. part of Balaam’s error), and eventually sacrificing their own children to phony pagan gods, now the remediation becomes more fatal to the pagans.

Partly because of the pagans sins themselves, but ALSO in part due to Israel’s sins.

This radical action was meant to help preserve at least some of Israel.

Later, the context of “show no mercy” and “utterly destroy” changes.

Not because God changed. But because the Israelites changed (dipped themselves in more sinful pagan practices).

This is part (not all) of what Ezekiel talks of in Ezekiel 16 for example.

EZEKIEL 16:26-37 26 You also played the harlot with the Egyptians, your lustful neighbors, multiplying your harlotry, to provoke me to anger. 27 Behold, therefore, I stretched out my hand against you, and diminished your allotted portion, and delivered you to the greed of your enemies, the daughters of the Philistines, who were ashamed of your lewd behavior. 28 You played the harlot also with the Assyrians, because you were insatiable; yea, you played the harlot with them, and still you were not satisfied. 29 You multiplied your harlotry also with the trading land of Chaldea; and even with this you were not satisfied. 30 "How lovesick is your heart, says the Lord GOD, seeing you did all these things, the deeds of a brazen harlot; 31 building your vaulted chamber at the head of every street, and making your lofty place in every square. Yet you were not like a harlot, because you scorned hire. 32 Adulterous wife, who receives strangers instead of her husband! 33 Men give gifts to all harlots; but you gave your gifts to all your lovers, bribing them to come to you from every side for your harlotries. 34 So you were different from other women in your harlotries: none solicited you to play the harlot; and you gave hire, while no hire was given to you; therefore you were different. 35 "Wherefore, O harlot, hear the word of the LORD: 36 Thus says the Lord GOD, Because your shame was laid bare and your nakedness uncovered in your harlotries with your lovers, and because of all your idols, and because of the blood of your children that you gave to them, 37 therefore, behold, I will gather all your lovers, with whom you took pleasure, all those you loved and all those you loathed; I will gather them against you from every side, and will uncover your nakedness to them, that they may see all your nakedness.

In the New Covenant with the work of Christ, the world (most especially Christians) has graces to rise above sin that were not available in the Old Covenant days. That’s WHY we do not carry out such harsh treatment of enemies in the New Covenant.

The New Covenant standard is Jesus Christ.

Those saying that the killing was figure of speech are incorrect. I suppose stoning people to death in their culture was figurative too? Maybe Jesus’ crucifixion as well?

These were primitive times, the violence was real. It wasnt just Moses who instructed these killings. It says the LORD God commands this and that, not Moses.

Utterly destroy means just that in addition to not intermarrying pagans.

My only question is, why these other tribes as well as the Israelites were not given the free will to worship who they wanted? God doesnt strike down nonbelievers today and His free will has always existed.

The Jews acting in self-defense only matters if the conflict wasn’t directed by God. God directing the Jews to slay X group doesn’t violate morality since God is the source of morality and is incapable by His nature of commanding or doing something immoral.

The punishments in the OT were figures of what Jesus revealed. Sins that led to death, like idolatry, etc. are generally sins that lead to damnation. Sins are no longer punished with the pedagogical punishments, since the real consequences have been revealed.

St. Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue explains another reason why under the New Law, sins are not punished like they were under Moses:

[quote=St. Catherine of Siena, Dialogue]The old law was the law of fear, that was given by Me to Moses, by which law they who committed sin suffered the penalty of it. The new law is the law of love, given by the Word of My only-begotten Son, and is founded in love alone. The new law does not break the old law, but rather fulfills it, as said My Truth, ‘I come not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it.’ And He united the law of fear with that of love. Through love was taken away the imperfection of the fear of the penalty, and the perfection of holy fear remained, that is, the fear of offending, not on account of one’s own damnation, but of offending Me, who am Supreme Good. So that the imperfect law was made perfect with the law of love. Wherefore, after the car of the fire of My only-begotten Son came and brought the fire of My charity into your humanity with abundance of mercy, the penalty of the sins committed by humanity was taken away, that is, he who offended was no longer punished suddenly, as was of old given and ordained in the law of Moses.

“There is, therefore, no need for servile fear; and this does not mean that sin is not punished, but that the punishment is reserved, unless, that is to say, the person punish himself in this life with perfect contrition. For, in the other life, the soul is separated from the body, wherefore while man lives is his time for mercy, but when he is dead comes the time of justice. He ought, then, to arise from servile fear, and arrive at love and holy fear of Me, otherwise there is no remedy against his falling back again into the river, and reaching the waters of tribulation, and seeking the thorns of consolation, for all consolations are thorns that pierce the soul who loves them disordinately.”

God is unchanging and outside of time. This sounds like God changed after Jesus came.

But it doesnt sound like the question was answered. Did people not have free will at that time in the OT? Did God value their souls as being less, since if they died in their sin they would surely be damned as opposed to praying for their conversion?

Thanks a lot! Very helpful - the truth is that everytime that we are sick, or someone dies of cancer, God has allowed that to happen and allowed it to be part of his divine plan.

Thanks for this. Not sure I completely understand - do you think that this passage is the same idea as this: “Or is it because when God was more fully known and revealed to the world, the judgment became harder against sinners. In this case, the other nations - Canaanites, Hittities, etc. might have been killed by the Israelites but escaped eternal damnation due to “invincible ignorance”, which would not have existed to the same amount once Jesus was revealed?” So the “pedagological” punishments, pedagological meaning “teaching” are no longer necessary, because since people have been “taught”, they no longer have “invincible ignorance”?

Thanks to all others who contributed in this thread!

Thanks for this. Not sure I completely understand - do you think that this passage is the same idea as this: “Or is it because when God was more fully known and revealed to the world, the judgment became harder against sinners. In this case, the other nations - Canaanites, Hittities, etc. might have been killed by the Israelites but escaped eternal damnation due to “invincible ignorance”, which would not have existed to the same amount once Jesus was revealed?”

Thanks to all others who contributed in this thread!

From my understanding, from something that St. Catherine of Siena once wrote, the punishments for those who died in the Old Testament are less not more, than what they are today. There’s a difference between the places where people go when they die. Sheol (Old Testament) vs. Gehenna (New Testament). Sheol is a “neutral” place while Gehenna is for the wicked. For example, some people who go to Sheol will later go to Heaven, or “Abraham’s bosom”. Not sure how it all relates to the resurrection/Ascension/death of Jesus where Jesus liberated people from Hell and the final resurrection though.

Reasons for destruction is given in the following site. A little long but quite good.


Thanks for posting this. It is really helpful that it pointed out that the Israelites under their own laws would have suffered the death penalty for many things that they judged other nations for.

Yes, the Taliban and Al Qaeda sentence their own members to death pretty much for similar reasons that they kill foreigners, infidels, idolaters, educators of women.

It is really, really helpful to know that they hand out the same justice to their own people that they give to their enemies.

God Himself doesn’t change, but that doesn’t mean He can’t use a variety of ways to teach us or that He hasn’t revealed truth progressively,rather than all at once. God is outside of time, but He has entered into time in various ways to interact with His creation. The idea of Old Testament events and laws pre-figuring those finally revealed by Jesus is a very important theme of Scriptural interpretation which the Fathers employ a great deal.

Those are good points; God cannot immoral. I hope my message wasn’t being interpreted otherwise :eek:

I will say at this point in the conversation then that the Bible just tells God’s will and what happened, not really reasons why. If God commands something, the only correct result is obedience.

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