The problem of Genocide in the Old Testament

We need to start with an honest admission –this is a difficult question.  Some things are tough for us to understand and accept in our culture.  This is both because of

  1. A strong modern reaction to the human cost of war –especially in the light of the full horror of the Second World War
  2. A sense that the command to go and totally destroy a nation doesn’t seem to sit with a Christian understanding of love, mercy and forgiveness

The wider OT picture

The Hebrew word “herem” means either to devote or to destroy.  It sometimes refers to holy wars where God’s people are commanded to “herem” all of the items that would normally be treated as plunder.  In other contexts, individuals might choose to devote their own possessions to the Lord.

It is the warfare context that causes the biggest problem.  It appears to portray a violent, vengeful God at complete odds with the God of Love whom Christians claim to worship.


Three mitigating factors have been suggested

  1. It is probably quite rare, we think that the OT is full of instructions to go and attack/destroy whole cities or people groups.  Specifically we find the issue arises with the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites
  2. Herem did not necessarily result in death.  Sometimes it would result in people being devoted to service for God (see e.g. Jepthah’s daughter)
  3. The Israelites lived in a different time/culture where they were threatened on all sides –it was kill or be killed

However these answers don’t provide full solutions.  Rarity does not really mitigate the horror of something that goes against the moral grain and clearly, at least in this context literal death and destruction is intended.  Furthermore, weren’t God’s people, living under God’s rule meant to be different from the people around them?

Some people have suggested that the Old Testament presents a God of wrath and vengeance and we need to focus on the New Testament God of Love.  But this solution doesn’t work either.  There are plenty of Old Testament passages that describe God as loving, merciful and compassionate whilst the New Testament also deals with the subject of wrath.  The Bible is clear that we don’t have two different Gods, the OT one and the NT one.  There is one God.

A suggested way forward

This is by no means a definitive or exhaustive answer –but hopefully the following will help

  1. God’s character –the whole Bible is clear in saying that He is Love.  It also says that he is holy, righteous and just and that these characteristics are complementary not contradictory.  In fact all of these characteristics insist that God must be passionately against evil and idolatry, especially when it manifests itself in cruelty and oppression of the vulnerable.
  2. The people groups subjected to herem were notoriousfor their wickedness and cruelty practicing human and even child sacrifice (Lev 18:24-25; 20:22-24; Deut 9:5; 12:29-31).  If we consider our own reaction to recent news stories including the BBC scandal and recent abductions, we can perhaps get a sense of the righteous anger that God shows towards this wickedness.  This is a message of hope for the vulnerable, the oppressed and the abused.  God is on their side.  God cares and is on their side.  This means that we should be too.  These OT events point forward to a day when God will act to put everything to rights and punish evil.  But this doesn’t mean that we are asked to sit and wait for that day.  Throughout history, Christians have recognised that God has called them to act for what is right in their context.  Our context is different to Saul and Samuel’s, but we have a responsibility to act and speak out for justice.  Christians should take a strong stand against human trafficking, sweatshops, child abuse and cruel and oppressive regimes.
  3. There is a challenge to us as well.  If God is going to deal with sin, then we must remember that the Bible says “All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.” (Romans 3:23) and that “the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).  The good news for Christians is that Jesus has taken the penalty of death on our behalf.


NB These notes form part of our study notes “Deuteronomy studies in Mission and Ethics” available from our publications page.