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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

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  • A lot of overlap with hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/q/21516/2757
    – curiousdannii
    Commented 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
    Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 23:23
  • 1
    See total war.
    – Lucian
    Commented 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
    Commented Dec 28, 2021 at 14:13

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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I often wondered why myself for a long time. Why would Elohim want the Israelites to destroy the whole nation utterly? Once I started studying why Elohim was mad at this population of people, it helped me understand the perspective of Elohim. In the Bible and the book of Enoch in the days of Noah the son of God (the fallen angel) mated with the son of man and produced an offspring that was a hybrid part human and angel.

Genesis 6:1-4

1 When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. 3 Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” 4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.

Enoch 6:1-8

1 And it came to pass, when the sons of men had increased, that in those days there were born to them fair and beautiful daughters. 2 And the Angels, the sons of Heaven, saw them and desired them. And they said to one another: “Come, let us choose for ourselves wives, from the children of men, and let us beget, for ourselves, children.” (Genesis 6:1-4), (Numbers 13:33), (Baruch 3:24-28) 3 And Semyaza, who was their leader, said to them: “I fear that you may not wish this deed to be done and that I alone will pay for this great sin.” 4 And they all answered him, and said: “Let us all swear an oath, and bind one-another with curses, so not to alter this plan, but to carry out this plan effectively.” 5 Then they all swore together and all bound one another with curses to it. 6 And they were, in all, two hundred and they came down on Ardis, which is the summit of Mount Hermon. And they called the mountain Hermon because on it they swore and bound one another with curses. 7 And these are the names of their leaders: Semyaza, who was their leader, Urakiba, Ramiel, Kokabiel, Tamiel, Ramiel, Daniel, Ezeqiel, Baraqiel, Asael, Armaros, Ananel, Zaqiel, Samsiel, Satael, Turiel, Yomiel, Araziel. 8 These are the leaders of the two hundred Angels and all the others with them.

I listed these two books, but other places in the bible talk about the hybrid (giant).

The reason he destroyed the whole world was because the fallien angel had contaminated the human race. For the Messiah to be born, He must come through a human lineage. So, therefore, when Elohim said to destroy them utterly. He was not destroying the human race; he was destroying the Nephilim (giant) (Demons), the hybrid. Elohim wanted them to destroy the enemy of humanity. If they had obeyed, we would have destroyed one of the devil's plots against mankind.

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Perhaps ethnic cleansing was required in the days of the Nephilim, where men were part angel, part human, and in other times, before Christ and the Holy Spirit were poured out freely for EVERYONE WHO BELIEVED and joined themselves to Yahweh. But throughout Isaiah and other books in the OT and in the NT, such ethnic cleansing is no longer necessary. Yahweh accepts all who accept Him, in their own language. I wonder if modern-day people from a specific region are abusing their label and catering to their own demonic influences by citing Duet, Josh, Judges, Ps as above. There are no more favorites. There are remnants in every country, of all races. Egypt his people, Assyria, the work of his hands, and then Isreal, what was given to him as an inheritance.

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    Commented Oct 27, 2023 at 15:57
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Important Reasons There were several important Reasons for the giving of this Command to the Israelites. Michael16 listed some of those in his answer:

Tendency to Make Covenant If the Israelites shared the land ,they would eventually have made Covenants with the Canaanites. Perhaps starting with "economic" expediency. But later they might have compromised some of the holy principles unique to God's in the process. (Deuteronomy 7:2, Judges 2:1-4)

Idolatry Worse, intercourse with the Canaanites would have exposes them to the worship of false gods and gross idolatry. God is a "jealous God" and He would not have let the Israelites go unpunished if they started worshipping other gods. (Deuteronomy 7:16, Psalm 106:34-43)

Intermarriages Close cultural ties with the pagan Canaanites would have resulted in the Israelite young men falling for the beauty and attractiveness of the young pagan girls who had been raised in a corrupt culture. After marriage the girls would have, with their winsome ways, seduced the men to follow evil practices and pagan folkways. Recall the propensity of King Solomon to cave in to the whims of his pagan wives to the detriment of the whole nation. (Joshua 23:11-16)

Abominable Practices Most importantly socially, though, the Israelites would have been infected with all the diseases that were rampant throughout the land of Canaan! The immoral conduct with all the staph infections, the unclean hygiene (which was in contrast to the hygienic laws of Moses), and the lack of quarantine laws would have allowed diseases to spread unchecked. Four hundred years of "sin" would have allowed sicknesses to proliferate beyond remedy.

Remember that this was an era before Modern Medicine...before antibiotics, before vaccinations. And from the Egyptian Books of Medicine, which departments of archaeology and anthropology have unearthed, the ancient medicine often did more harm than good. Doctors today would be aghast at the remedies prescribed by the ancient doctors!

The Israelites would have been infected with venereal diseases for which there was no cure. The whole nation would have ben polluted. Other contagious diseases would have been a threat as well.

Grace and Mercy But what about the character of Jehovah God? How could a God of love order the genocide of a whole people group?

The answer lies in a comprehensive understanding of the character of the Almighty. True, sone of the attributes of God are love and compassion. But so are holiness and justice. God is merciful---and He gave the Canaanites the span of 400 years to "get their act together." He patiently showed them mercy. But their sins had come to a full measure.

The holiness and justice of God requires eventual Judgment for sins. The wrath of God is just as essential as the love of God in order for this to be a Just universe. And this is a Just Universe in which all people will face the Bar and give account for their conduct...and face the same potential fate as the Canaanites!

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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 age1. 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 Judges 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.”
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  • @ Moderator - The statement herein that the American Indians are in the same category as the Nazis is wholly offensive! As well, that the Palestinian people are equal to the ISIS (or Hamas) is inaccurate and derogatory. These allegations should be deleted. Many of the ancient Indian tribes were quite civil and some were Christianized. That others tried to fight for their land which was confiscated does not classify them as evil. And that they were shuttled off to a Reservation without hunting rights, etc. was horrific! They were not as the Nazis. The same could be said of the Palestinian.
    – ray grant
    Commented Oct 30, 2023 at 19:26
  • I don't mind the edit. The Bible passages are sufficient to put forth the point.
    – Michael16
    Commented Oct 31, 2023 at 2:42
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Because the Canaanites planned to spiritually corrupt them in doing evil misdeeds, such as child sacrifice.

"so that they will not teach you to do all the same detestable practices of theirs which they have done for their gods, by which you would sin against the LORD your God."- Deuteronomy 20:18

Spiritual destruction was equally as deadly as physical destruction in the Biblical worldview. As such, defensive measures were needed.

That said, the Canaanites also tried to physically destroy them too.

"For the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land will hear about it, and they will surround us and eliminate our name from the earth. And what will You do for Your great name?”- Joshua 7:9

"You crossed the Jordan and came to Jericho; and the citizens of Jericho fought against you, and the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Girgashite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite. Therefore I handed them over to you."- Joshua 24:11

However, it should be stressed that the "leave nothing alive" command specifically applied to the cities of Canaan.

"Only in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave anything that breathes alive."- Deuteronomy 20:16

"Cities" in Hebrew (i.e. עִיר) can refer to military encampments, which makes everything I said above more plausible.

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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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