Why Did God Ordain the Destruction of Women and Children?

Posted on April 26, 2016


By David Ettinger

The Question
It is usually number one on the skeptic’s hit parade of questions concerning the Bible: Why did a loving and compassionate God ordain the destruction of women and children? It’s a fair question. It’s so fair a question that even God-fearing, Bible-believing Christians ask it, and it deserves a sensible reply.

Background and Key Verses
flamesThe command for the annihilation of all men, women, and children of a particular nation is called rem in Hebrew, which comes across in English in the phrase “the ban” and refers to those things devoted exclusively to the Lord. Nothing put under the ban could be claimed as booty, but was to be destroyed. (In Joshua chapter 7, Achan violated the ban and both he and Israel were judged for it.) The act of hērem, or holy war, could be declared by God only, and applied exclusively to the inhabitants of Canaan. This was “holy war” in its original sense, something ordained of God in righteous judgment. God’s original “holy war” is a far cry from what the phrase has come to imply today.

How It Began
In Genesis 12:1-3, God established a covenant with Abraham, consisting of four promises: 1. From Abraham a great nation would descend (v. 2); 2. Abraham’s name would be great (v. 2); 3. God’s blessing would shine upon those who blessed Abraham’s descendants – Israel – and likewise His curses would befall those who cursed Israel (v. 3); and 4. Abraham’s blessings would extend beyond Israel to all the inhabitants of the earth (v. 3).

Some years later God ratified the covenant, adding vital pieces of information. In Genesis 15:13-14; 16, God tells Abraham:

Know for certain that for 400 years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. …  In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure” (italic added).

This passage speaks of Israel being enslaved in Egypt for 400 years. Is this an arbitrary number?

genesisHardly. “Amorite” is the general name for the original inhabitants of Canaan, though not all the inhabitants were of that nationality. It was God’s will to vanquish the Amorites from the land and give it to the Israelites. Wasn’t this unfair? After all, the Amorites had been in the land long before Abraham arrived.

The key to understanding this passage is the phrase, “for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” The Amorites were a depraved people who committed heinous sins, and God would destroy them because of it. Canaan is His chosen portion of real estate and He would not permit it to be drenched in sin. However, in His mercy, God would not destroy the Amorites at once; He would give them a charitable four centuries to mend their ways.

Evil Amorites?
How wicked were the Amorites that God would decree their destruction? During the early days of Israel’s desert wanderings following the Exodus, God told the nation: “You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices” (Leviticus 18:3, emphasis added).

Hmm, just what were the Amorites doing? The answer lies in the practices God commanded Israel to repudiate (from the Book of Leviticus):

* sexual relations with: mother (18:7); stepmother (18:8); sister, stepsister (18:9); granddaughter (18:10); aunt (18:12-14); daughter-in-law (18:15); sister-in-law (18:16); a woman and her daughter (18:17); a woman in the midst of her period (18:10); a neighbor’s wife (18:20); another man (homosexuality, 18:22); and an animal (18:23);
* marrying a wife’s sister’s while the wife is still living (18:18);
* child sacrifice (18:21).

God was adamant about Israel’s total disavowal of such practices: “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.” (18:24-25, italic added). These iniquities were the “normal” practices of the Amorites and the reason God would cast them out of Canaan.

God’s Instructions to Israel
Okay, you may be thinking, I can see why the Amorites needed to be punished, but I’m still not comfortable with the destruction of women and children. Fair enough … for now.

CanaanBy the end of their 40-year wilderness odyssey, the Hebrews were preparing to conquer the land of Canaan, which included destroying its inhabitants. Moses told them: “When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you.” (Deuteronomy 20:10-11). So, if the nation with whom Israel was to engage in battle surrendered, the people would be relegated to forced labor, but their lives would be spared. But what if the nation didn’t surrender? Moses said:

If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies” (vv. 12-14, italic added).

To then, the men had their opportunity, but insisted on fighting. In return for their hostility, they were to die. The women and children, however, could be claimed as booty by the victorious Israelites. They would be uprooted from their homes, but would keep their lives.

Wait a minute. Didn’t we begin this article with those hard-to-digest verses which speak of Israel destroying men, women, and children? What’s with these portions about sparing the women and children? Listen again to Moses: “This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby” (Deuteronomy 20:15, italic added). Aha! The “at a distance” nations are those outside the borders of Canaan, though perhaps within the overall extensive territory promised to Abraham in Genesis 15:18-21. In other words, the further a nation was from “Canaan proper,” the better its chances of avoiding the “holy war” edict. But why were they privileged in this way and not the nearby Canaanites?

Reason dictates that because these distant nations were a ways off, Israel would be shielded from their cultural and religious influence. The people of these distant nations would pose no spiritual threat to Israel. Furthermore, there is reason to believe that the women and children – recent widows and orphans as result of war – claimed by Israelite soldiers as booty would adapt to Israelite culture and become followers of Yahweh.

The Heart of the Matter
Back to the core issue: Why did God order the destruction of women and children? Deuteronomy 20:16-17:

However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy [rem] them – the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites – as the Lord your God has commanded you.

ancient israelThis is not quite the answer we’re looking for, but it does give us a limitation of sorts. The Israelites were not blood-thirsty savages who were to crush and destroy everything in their path. Rather, they were to limit their “total” destruction – holy war, rem – to the inhabitants of Canaan. Only the Israelites were to possess the land, therefore the slaying of women and children was to be restricted to Canaan, and nowhere else.

Perhaps you are thinking: Granted, the Amorites / Canaanites were horribly sinful, but why couldn’t God allow them to be conquered and live as servants to the Israelites as He allowed the foreign prisoners of war? In Deuteronomy 20:18, Moses gives the answer: “Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God.” The Lord makes clear that if the Canaanites are permitted to live side-by-side with the Israelites they will corrupt the Hebrews and turn them away from the Lord. Deuteronomy 7:1-2 supports this:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations – the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you – and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy [rem] them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.

The above is a “what” passage; verses 3 and 4 tell us why:

Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you (emphasis added).

The Israelites were to be a holy (separated) people. Marriage with the heathens would turn the Hebrews into heathens themselves and prove the end of Israel. If the Israelites married the pagans, they would perish for the same reason God destroyed the Canaanites.

But Still …
So, this is the answer as to why God ordered the extermination of men, women, and children living in the land Israel was to conquer. Yet, we still ask, “Why the children, Lord?”

There can be just one answer: after centuries of rampant sin and idolatry, the Canaanites were regarded as unredeemable by God. Had the children lived, God sovereignly knew they would not turn to Him. They would follow the ways of their ancestors, indulge in the darkest iniquity imaginable, and lead the Israelites to walk in all of their deplorable ways. question markThe 400 years was God’s “grace period” for repentance; beyond this would result in the total surrender to depravity when the Canaanites would reach the point of no return.

If this is difficult to accept, remember that God never destroys the innocent. A vivid example of this is found in Genesis chapter 18, where God told Abraham that He was about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Shocked and disturbed, Abraham in humble boldness asked the Lord, “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it?” (vv. 23-24).

God assured Abraham He would spare those countries for the sake of the fifty. Abraham ventured forth, trying to determine how low God would go regarding the number of righteous people it would take for Him to spare the nations. By the end of the exchange, God told Abraham He would “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it” (v. 32). The reason God went to such lengths to spare evil nations is beautifully summed up by Abraham in verse 25: “Far be it from you to do such a thing – to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

Yes! The Judge of the earth will do right. This has always been the case with God, and it was the case concerning the Canaanite women and children God ordered destroyed. Had righteousness been found in them, God would have spared them.

A Couple of Thoughts
Though difficult to wrap our modern-day minds around, here are a few considerations:

  • Deuteronomy 9:4-5 (please read it) supports the fact that the Canaanites were not driven out solely for the purpose of making room for Israel, but because their depravity was so extensive they left God little option. They had 400 years in which to repent. Like the Ninevites in the book of Jonah, God would have granted them mercy had they repented.
  • Regarding the children, their destruction may have been a blessing in disguise for those who had not yet reached the age of accountability. If we accept the assumption that ALL Canaanite children would have grown into idolatrous and sinful adults deserving of death, then those who died before the age of accountability may have been deemed spiritually acceptable to God and assured their place in Heaven. (We know that for some, this theory involves issues of election, but this is beyond the scope of the article; we simply offer it as a point to ponder.)

Conclusion: What about Today?
In the current “Church Age” God does not ordain “holy war” on people and nations, but neither does God change. His attributes never altered following the institution of the New wooden crossCovenant. God is still the God of love as well as the God of justice; the God of compassion as well as the God of vengeance. The only thing that has changed in this New Covenant Age is the way in which God displays His attributes.

He has given this world 2,000 years to repent of its sins and come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Many have accepted; many more have not. At the end of this age of human history, the Lord will enter into holy war one final time:

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. … Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations (Revelation 19:11, 15).

Yes, the same God whose holiness dictated the slaying of women and children is also the God who will go to war once more at the end of the age.

However, there is another side of the coin. So long as men and women possess the breath of life in them, it is never too late, for God proclaims: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).