Did the Israelites Have to Kill Everyone in the Promised Land?

By Daniel DeWitt

If we read the Old Testament carefully, at times, it can be quite shocking. I recently discussed my son’s Bible reading while walking our dog Dorothy. My son had taken it upon himself to devise a Bible reading plan by taking the total number of pages in his Bible and dividing it by the days of the year. But he told me he felt like it might be best not to keep moving through Old Testament. It was raising too many questions and he felt some of the topics might not be “age-appropriate.”

I have to admit, I’m thrilled about both things in my son’s life. I’m excited about his initiative in Bible reading, and I’m also thankful for his awareness of the nature of some of the sensitive and, at times, perplexing, passages in the Old Testament. Though I don’t fear him reading through the Bible cover to cover, I did suggest that he might diversify things and include the New Testament. And, I should add, I committed to talking through any questions or troubling passages he might encounter.

A particular point of struggle for many Bible readers is the commands that seem to be about annihilating entire people groups. When we read about the flood in the Bible, we may feel a deep and reverential sense of God’s holiness and his hatred of sin. But when we read about God commanding the Israelite soldiers to kill men, women, and children, we may have less clear, even mixed feelings. The difference is that in the case of the flood, it is God who is directly killing people. In the case of Old Testament military conquests, it is humans who are told to take up the sword.

Here are a couple of examples:

“However, you must not let any living thing survive among the cities of these people the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance. You must completely destroy them – the Hethite, Amorite, Canaanite, Perizzite, Hivite, and Jebusite ….” (Deut. 20:16-18)

“Now go and attack the Amalekites and completely destroy everything they have. Do not spare them. Kill men and women, infants and nursing babies, oxen and sheep, camels and donkeys.” (1 Sam 15:3)

How can we make sense of this? Were the people so evil that even nursing babies had to be killed? How can we reconcile this with the biblical teaching of God’s grace and love?

As Bible-believing, God-loving, followers of Jesus, our posture should be one of trust.

It’s OK to have questions about these passages, but our impulse should not be to reject them. We’ll talk more in the next post about different ways to consider this topic. In this post, we will consider the question of whether or not the Israelites were indeed commanded to kill everyone in the Promised Land.

What does the evidence in the Bible show?

When we face a difficult text, we will do well to further search Scripture to find clarity. In the case of the commands to kill entire people groups, we find another theme in God’s provision of the Promised Land for the people of Israel. The theme of driving out the people groups arguably is more pronounced than the commands to kill everyone. How might this inform our understanding? Here are a few examples:

“I will send [panic] in front of you, and they will drive out the Hivites, Canaanites, and Hethites away from you.” (Ex. 23:29)

“Do not defile yourselves by any of these practices, for the nations I am driving out before you have defiled themselves by all these things.” (Lev. 18:24)

“You must drive out all the inhabitants of the land ….” (Num. 33:52)

When you hold these commands in tension — the commands to drive out the people and the command to completely destroy — you see that what is going with Israel obtaining the Promised Land isn’t as straightforward as some skeptics make it sound. There seem to be places, specific cities, likely military outposts, where there was sweeping victory and destruction. But the bigger picture is of the people groups being driven out and not eradicated.

Furthermore, it’s clear all the people groups the Israelites were commanded to completely destroy were, well, not destroyed. They show up later in Scripture. For example, Rahab and her entire family were spared from the destruction of Jericho (Joshua 2). She even made it into the “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11. Also, consider other non-Israelites who are welcomed into the nation of Israel: people like Jethro the Midianite (Ex.s 18) and Ruth, a Moabite (Ruth 1), just to name a couple of examples.

In fact, if you read the first book in the New Testament, Matthew’s gospel, you see that its opening chapter — an outline of the genealogy of Jesus — includes Gentiles: Tamar the Canaanite, Rahab the Midianite, and Ruth the Moabite. We see that God’s plan with the Promised Land was not about eradicating specific ethnic groups, but about God’s judgment on false religion and his provision of a land for a people through whom he would offer salvation to all.

Did the Israelites have to kill everyone in the Promised Land? The evidence from the Bible leads us to answer “no.”

Published July 29, 2019

Daniel DeWitt

Daniel DeWitt (Ph.D., Southern Seminary) is the director of the Center for Biblical Apologetics & Public Christianity at Cedarville University. He is the author of multiple books and posts regularly at his blog, Theolatte.com.