Why was God so cruel in the old Testament?

I have been reading the old testament account of the Israelites taking over the promised land. I was surprised to learn that God ordered the Israelites numerous times to kill every man women and child when they would do battle with the enemy.

How can we square that God with Jesus who teaches us to love our enemies? After all Jesus is the same God.

There are lots of threads on this subject, you might want to search on “cruel” to see the volumes that have been written on this.

There may be better answers and undoubtedly are, but I think God reveals Himself as a God of both love and justice. If we did not see God judging people and meting out punishment, then we wouldn’t KNOW that was part of the definition of God.

In fact, the word for God in the first chapter of the Bible, in Hebrew, is elohim, which is plural, by the way. Now, this is a general word in the Bible for spirits, but here it refers to God. and, there’s a particular meaning to elohim as God as Judge.

And, so you read that when God creates such and such, He sees, that is,** judges** that it is good. (Genesis 1)

So, judgment and justice and punishment are part of the revelation of who God is in scripture.

Now, we should not judge God, we have no right to do so. So, calling God “cruel” is across the line, so to speak. Undoubtedly you mean to ask, why is God so “harsh”? Well, the complete answer comes from studying the whole scripture and putting it all together, instead of looking at just a part of it, in isolation from everything else that it teaches us about God.

So, perhaps a little closer to your question, why does God tell the Israelites to kill all the inhabitants of the promised land, as they go in, to conquer it. The best we might be able to say from the way that is presented, is that this is God’s judgment for the idolatrous practices of those resident people and to teach the Israelites how much they should judge and eliminate idolatry from their own lives. So, in a particular instance, with some close study, you might be able to discern the reason for it. Here there is no room for idolatry in a Jew or a non-Jew.

Throughout most of the OT, God has promised punishment to the Israelites for their infidelity through idolatry and other sins, turning their backs on how gracious God has been to them in the past and with respect to His promises of fidelity to them in the future.

Excellent question! :popcorn:

He was defending His people from evil.

I think the best answer is that God will punish the people for sins of the leaders. We have seen this repeatedly in history, but you need look no further than to jump past Joshua and read in 2Kings where God destroys Judah including the women and children for the sons of their leaders. The same thing happened to the Northern Kingdom when Assyria destroyed them. If God, who is just and holy, did not spare His own people when they fell into idolatry then why should we expect the Canaanites to be spared?

God is sovereign over human death.

Remember that everybody involved in the Conquest of Canaan would have died in any case.


Did he not create all people?

I used to wonder about this as well; not anymore.
They way I see it now is that God was protecting the Israelites. He did not want them to mix with the Canaanites because these people were idolaters.

From Matthew Chapter 18 we read:

"Woe to the world because of things that cause sin! Such things must come, but woe to the one through whom they come!
If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life maimed or crippled than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into eternal fire.
And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into fiery Gehenna.”
Matthew 18: 6-9
In the same vein:
If your television or your computer causes you to sin, take it out and throw it away. It is better for you to be without a TV set or a computer than to be thrown into eternal fire!
Something like that. :slight_smile:
God wants us to be drastic when dealing with sin and its causes.
I wounder sometimes what the world would be like today if the Israelites had obeyed God’s instructions.

Cruelty is a human trait. We are God’s creation and human morality does not apply to the Creator. “Cruelty” cannot be said of a God Who is all good. Notice that all who were slaughtered either attacked God’s chosen people, refused the God of Israel and/or made their own false gods to worship. Justice demanded that they forfeit their lives - which were not their own, just as ours are not. We got our life from God and it is called back to Him at His pleasure, and by the means that He decrees.

I think it is very helpful to interpret the Bible with the mind of the Church and by comparing other passages that help enlighten us about the meaning of more difficult passages. These verses, for example, show that God does not like violence: Eze. 33:11, 2 Pet. 3:9, Eze. 18:23, Lam. 3:33, Eze. 18:32, Wis. 1:13, Matt. 18:14

These verses tell us some of the things that God wants to teach us through the violent passages of the Bible: 1 Corinthians 10:5-11, Deuteronomy 9:4, Jeremiah 18:7-8, Leviticus 18:25-28

These verses show that it is not immoral for God to take someone’s life: Job 1:21, 1 Samuel 2:6, 2 Kings 5:7, Deuteronomy 32:39

And these verses show that the violence of the Old Testament doesn’t perfectly reflect the will of God: John 8:2-11, Jeremiah 31:28-33, Isaiah 9:5-6, Isaiah 42:1-4

One thing we can conclude from all this Scripture is that the penalties and wars in the Bible are there to teach us the consequences of sin. I don’t think the Bible wants us to see violence and death as a good thing. I think it wants us to see violence and death as a terrible consequence of sin, and sometimes God makes this clear by inflicting a swift and/or violent death on sinners. Which is something only God can morally do, because only He has absolute rights over life and death.

You mention that in some parts of the Bible God takes the lives of children. Even that, I think, is meant to show us how horrible sin is. One of the worst things about sin is, it always harms the innocent. I think God may have shown us that by having the Israelites kill the innocent along with the guilty, which, again, He alone can morally do.

The Church has occasionally spoken about the violent passages of Scripture in authoritative documents. An example is the document Verbum Domini by Pope Benedict XVI. It says:

Verbum Domini 42 - “[Some] passages in the Bible [contain] violence and immorality [and can] prove obscure and difficult. Here it must be remembered first and foremost that biblical revelation is deeply rooted in history. God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance. God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them.”

Verbum Domini 42 - “Revelation is suited to the cultural and moral level of distant times and thus describes facts and customs, such as cheating and trickery, and acts of violence and massacre, without explicitly denouncing the immorality of such things. This can be explained by the historical context, yet it can cause the modern reader to be taken aback.”

Verbum Domini 42 - “[It] would be a mistake to neglect those passages of Scripture that strike us as problematic. Rather, we should be aware that the correct interpretation of these passages requires a degree of expertise, acquired through a training that interprets the texts in their historical-literary context and within the Christian perspective which has [the Gospel] as its ultimate hermeneutical key.”

See also the Catechism:

CCC 1964 - “under the…Old Covenant [there were] people who possessed the charity and grace of the Holy Spirit…[and] there exist [wicked] men under the New Covenant [who are] still distanced from the perfection of the New Law: the fear of punishment and certain temporal promises have been necessary, even under the New Covenant, to incite them to [virtue].”

CCC 1008 - “Death is a consequence of sin. The Church’s Magisterium, as authentic interpreter of the affirmations of Scripture and Tradition, teaches that death entered the world on account of man’s sin. … Death was therefore contrary to the plans of God the Creator and entered the world as a consequence of sin.”

Let me know if any of that is helpful. God bless!

So if this is all true…and by the way I am a practicing cradle Catholic who has wondered the same thing…what are we to say in response to the Muslim Jihadists, who in effect, are only doing the same thing? Are we just to say that their religion is wrong, and ours is correct?

Killing the Canaanites: A Response to the New Atheism’s “Divine Genocide” Claims
By: Clay Jones


Pretty much. :coffeeread:

The Israelites didn’t blow up people in random attacks merely because they wanted to push their beliefs on others. The pagan societies of those times sacrificed their own children to their gods. Their religions were cruel and inhuman. Besides this, all the lands the Israelites took from them were their own lands given to Abraham and ratified by treaties with other peoples. They were merely retaking what was theirs by right. We to understand more than a quick reading of the battle texts give us. We need to understand who was who and what was what and why God ordered them to destroy those societies.

The Israelites had a covenant with God, which truly means that God adopted them as a people, and had a family relationship with them, with both blessings and curses (discipline). They were set apart so that God might “raise” them, break them from paganism, and, in the fulness of time, bring a covenant to all peoples.

On some level, I do think the description in the Bible is harsher than reality. Compare Joshua (which focuses on the total triumph in short order of the Israelites working together) to Chronicles, which implies a longer, less complete conquest, and is probably more accurate. God is the author of all things, and the Israelites may have seen his direct hand in everything, but perhaps he didn’t strictly command such happenings as is implied in some of the older books, but the Israelites understood what happened as being God’s will and wrote about it as such.

At the same time, we can’t hand waive this away. God is the author of life and death. He sustains all creation. He is capable of proper justice and mercy towards all. We can’t rule out the possibility that young children of the Canaanites were not held responsible for the idolatry of the culture they were born in, and God is perfectly capable of providing rewards that make all the sufferings in this life understandable and, in hindsight, be seen as worthwhile character building (those who insist otherwise are making emotional appeals).

Today the focus is also all on the individual. This is relatively new. Certainly the biblical people understood that a community as a whole could sin and incur justice. That doesn’t jive well with modern liberalism, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

God is also not just some greater human, and our standards and limits are not his. There are punishments and discipline we can administer as parents to our children that we know our children do not have the authority to carry out on us or their siblings, due to immaturity and age. How much greater the difference between God and us?

The same “Old Testament God” who is “The Lord…gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in mercy”?

That’s from Psalm 148, and Old Testament book.

My friend, your question is precisely WHY I recommend new Bible readers Read the NT before getting into the Old. After ALL, it’s the One Same God:)

The events you reference must be taken in the broad-view of context. In every instance what you speak of is not credulity, BUT Divine Justice being melted out. Our forefathers were obstinate, hardheaded, hardhearted on a regular basis.

Yahweh was the God of the “School of the Carrot & the Stick.”

Do bad; GET BAD!

Do god and get VERY Good:thumbsup:

From this perspective go back and reread what you missed.

Easter Blessings,


Sounds familiar doesn’t it:D

Actually, what the Israelites did was much WORSE than what the Muslims are doing…the Israelites did not even give them an option to convert…at least in SOME cases, the Muslims do give that choice.

Not much different than Islam today, is it?
Please understand, I am not defending Islam by any means, nor am I condeming the actions in the Old Testament, I am just playing Devil’s Advocate, because I sometimes wonder if the Muslim Jihadists really and truly believe they are doing God’s Will.

Well, why wouldnt God try to protect people today from the same things, surely he does not want any of his ‘flock’ to mingle and/or follow idolaters?

It wasn’t a matter of conversion, as we understand it. The pagan cultures knew of the God of Israel. After all, he had just delivered them from the clutches of the greatest power of that time–the Egyptians. The pagans had no intention of following God, no more than the Egyptians. Through all the warnings God gave to pharaoh, the other cultures had been warned. Through the judgments God exacted of Egypt, the others knew they were under judgment, as well. They were without excuse, as are moderns who deny God’s existence or think he doesn’t matter. But, at their own judgment, they will learn otherwise.

Not much different than Islam today, is it?
Please understand, I am not defending Islam by any means, nor am I condeming the actions in the Old Testament, I am just playing Devil’s Advocate, because I sometimes wonder if the Muslim Jihadists really and truly believe they are doing God’s Will.

Many in Islam today are using the idea of holy war to justify their actions, but they have no mandate from God–only their own lust for power.

As I wrote before, we cannot judge these matters with a cursory reading. We need to understand the times, what God had demanded of all people, and why he ordered their judgment be carried out.

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