I was reading through the scriptures yesterday and I came across Deuteronomy 20:16-18, where God commands the Israelites to leave nothing that breaths alive, the entire verse says and I quote:

But of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth:

But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee:

That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods; so should ye sin against the Lord your God.

Why does God command such action to be taken and why does he order the death of anything that breathes?

God Bless

  • A lot of overlap with hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/q/21516/2757
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 8, 2021 at 23:22
  • Also, please stop adding irrelevant tags. Don't tag books of the Bible that you don't discuss in the question. Also it's not really necessary to add hebrew-bible unless you're talking about the whole thing.
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 8, 2021 at 23:23
  • 1
    See total war.
    – Lucian
    Jul 9, 2021 at 7:24
  • Do you realize that if God never actually made such a command, then this is slander against God, and the question "why?" becomes meaningless? After all, turtle-doves also breathe.
    – David
    Dec 28, 2021 at 14:13

6 Answers 6


Deuteronomy 20:16

But of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth

There was an even more severe precedence for this in Genesis 7:

17 For forty days the flood kept coming on the earth, and as the waters increased they lifted the ark high above the earth. 18The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. ... 21Every living thing that moved on land perished—birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind. 22Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died.

Why does God command such action to be taken and why does he order the death of anything that breathes?

Deuteronomy 20:18 English Standard Version

that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the LORD your God.

This was God's attempt to preserve a righteous group of people on the planet to worship the one true God.


It expresses God's hatred for sin, because those foreign enemy tribes were evil. It was very foolish to leave a single living being among them, that the prophet even instructs to kill their animals, wipe them out, to deem everything they possess as unclean. These are the instructions or policy of war against the evil tribes they faced; it was for their own self-defense and safe existence. There were strict laws forbidding them to intermix with any of the pagans, to remain pure and clean. To put things into context, you should study the nature of evil groups of present age, from the Native Americans to the Nazi Germany, Japan, ISIS to Palestine. Making peace treaty with the wicked is not a profitable decision; it is basically sleeping with the enemy and feeding them. The Israelites have always failed in obeying those instructions to the letter by falling into compassion and deception by them, only to face the consequences of their sins. To this day, the enemies are kept as a curse, snare and thorn for Israel, for their constant disobedience to the word of God.

  • Deuteronomy 7:2 and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.
  • Deuteronomy 7:16 And you shall consume all the peoples that the LORD your God will give over to you. Your eye shall not pity them, neither shall you serve their gods, for that would be a snare to you.
  • [ESV Ps 106:34-42] They did not destroy the peoples, as the LORD commanded them, but they mixed with the nations and learned to do as they did. They served their idols, which became a snare to them. They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons; they poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, and the land was polluted with blood. Thus they became unclean by their acts, and played the whore in their deeds. Then the anger of the LORD was kindled against his people, and he abhorred his heritage; he gave them into the hand of the nations, so that those who hated them ruled over them. Their enemies oppressed them, and they were brought into subjection under their power.
  • [ESV Judgdes 2:1-4] Now the angel of the LORD went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” As soon as the angel of the LORD spoke these words to all the people of Israel, the people lifted up their voices and wept.
  • [ESV Josh 23:11-16] Be very careful, therefore, to love the LORD your God. For if you turn back and cling to the remnant of these nations remaining among you and make marriages with them, so that you associate with them and they with you, know for certain that the LORD your God will no longer drive out these nations before you, but they shall be a snare and a trap for you, a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good ground that the LORD your God has given you. “And now I am about to go the way of all the earth, and you know in your hearts and souls, all of you, that not one word has failed of all the good things that the LORD your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed. But just as all the good things that the LORD your God promised concerning you have been fulfilled for you, so the LORD will bring upon you all the evil things, until he has destroyed you from off this good land that the LORD your God has given you, if you transgress the covenant of the LORD your God, which he commanded you, and go and serve other gods and bow down to them. Then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you, and you shall perish quickly from off the good land that he has given to you.”

One of the purposes God intended for the Mosaic covenant that the Israelites put themselves ‘under’ was to keep the nation apart, separate and unique. We use the term ‘Holy’, but that’s what ‘Holy’ means. Set apart.

These ‘squatters’ in the land God had allocated for his nation threatened this. Now there is much behind their presence which I will summarise soon, but first a ‘heads up’. There are essentially two answers to your query - the ‘traditional’ apologetic which originates around the time of the reformation - which was built on the views of some well known proponents of that time. This is the predominant ‘explanation’ and has a foundation mostly on the doctrines of ‘sin’ - and there are already some responses based on this traditional view for you to consider.

Then there is a more recent view - which goes back and looks at the way the Jews during the time of the second temple viewed these passages. Based on the ‘writings’ of those times, non canonical, but nevertheless let’s us ‘see’ what they were thinking. There are some scholars who are now presenting these views for consideration.

They present a very different picture - that these groups (the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites), originating from the Raphaim, due to their genetic makeup, proved a real threat threat to the ‘human’ qualities required for the ‘line’ through which the Messiah was to come. Summarising - they were not ‘fully’ human, that by their intent, they had intentionally (that is, evil intentions.) corrupted their ‘makeup’. Therefore the Israelites were charged, on behalf of God, to ‘clean things up’. Bottom line, it was an act of Love. God loved man, and for man’s ‘good’, this ‘cleansing’ was the humane action.

Impossible to fully outline this view, or even do it justice so I recommend looking into the work of Dr Michael Heiser, (Reversing Hermon) or Dr Douglas Hamp (Corrupting the Image 2), or searching YouTube for these names. Highly recommend - because (IMO) the traditional ‘view’ or answer to your query simply doesn’t satisfy - where as this one will, and as well, will help make sense of some other [traditionally] difficult parts of the Old Testament.

Interestingly these views are also receiving support from very recent archaeological findings, including the Dead Sea Scrolls - but they also confront the traditional views so are meeting some resistance. Nevertheless this post presents this alternative view for you to consider.


The evil is in the details. When the passage is read properly, one cannot but identify in it God's infinite wisdom and compassion. I will explain:

In this passage, God poses a series of pre-conditions for genocide:

  1. When the Lord brings you into the land: The people of Israel will only commit genocide if absolutely sure that their arrival to the land was by direct divine intervention. The Lord must have been revealed to them shortly prior to, or during the invasion. Let's not forget that the Israelites had wandered for a generation in the desert. Many did not experience God's revelations and just lived mundane lives within their community.
  2. Israel must face specific nations, all greater than her. How likely it was to know with absolute certainty the sizes of each one of these nations?
  3. When "the Lord gives them over to you". This condition precludes situations of normal battle. Instead, the Israelites must witness a direct divine intervention, a sort of opening of the seas during the battle.

So basically, God establishes a series of conditions that must concomitantly occur, none of which is controllable by man, in order for the Israelites to commit genocide. Since God is in full control of these conditions, he is basically saying to the Israelites: Only I can commit genocide. He is doing so while preserving that which is most precious to him: mans' free will. This is a TREMENDOUS moral advancement in times when genocide was probably common practice among people.


God's command to "kill" was not the important point of this story; it was man's failure, once again, to follow God's explicit instructions and thereby seal their fate to a future of mediocrity and suffering. Even after God told them to add nothing to it and subtract nothing from it, but to do as he commanded-- even after he had delivered them, preserved them and shown them he was delivering on his promise-- they lacked faith, they lacked courage. They hesitated and failed to show up for God. And here we still are. He who hesitates is lost. It should be remembered what happened to the guy from Ur who was told to sacrifice his only son.

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Holy righteous people would not murder other people.

Paul says ephesians 6:12 we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against spiritual wickedness.

Also - John 1 says God is ONLY light in Him there is no darkness.

John 4:24 (KJV) God [is] a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship [him] in spirit and in truth.

1 John 4:1 Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.

Psalm 78:2 (KJV) I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old:

Proverbs 26:7 (KJV) The legs of the lame are not equal: so [is] a parable in the mouth of fools.

Considering these scriptures, and many talking about the love and mercy of God, The scriptures seem to be speaking these types of things in parable form and the enemy of Israel, of ANYONE, is SIN. NOT OTHER PEOPLE and certainly not whole nations of people.

Acts 10:34 34 ¶ Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons.

2 Corinthians 3:6 (KJV) Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.

Reading scripture according to the letter =death. Understanding it literally, according to the letter will always lead you to death. Either having a good reason to kill someone else or there being a good reason that you should be killed.

But Paul gave us understanding that there is such a thing as reading it "spiritually".

Reading it spiritually is almost like another language.

It's full of symbolisms, metaphors, types, shadows of things.

The first rule of learning to read it spiritually is : That God is a spirit and concerned with things of the Spirit. There is no confidence in the flesh. This world is not his realm. The 'country' he told Abraham to go to was the kingdom of God In his heart. That kingdom comes with no observation. It is within. In other words..the Spirit.

So you can see that commanding people to kill other nations in the flesh on earth, isn't likely.

I read that comparable to what you could say to an addict. "Kill off EVERY PART of the bad habits. Do not leave 'occasional usage' as an option. Do not leave 'weekend drinking' as an option. Do not leave 'special occasion usage' as an option. You have to know EVERY bit of those habits are killed in you. Or it will come back to clobber you over the head."

It's metaphorically talking about having dominion over sin. Sin is crouching at the door ready to devour you so do not leave a single part of it left breathing.

Edited to add : John 3:16 for God so loved THE WORLD that he gave his son.

It is his will that ALL be saved.

There were no whole nations of people that He hated. God hates sin not people. We all have the opportunity to repent a thousand times a thousand times and be forgiven.

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