Does God Command Evil Actions in the Bible? Part II


(The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Joachim Patinir, 1520)

In (Part I) of this question we looked at Deuteronomy 7:1-2 where God calls Israel to “utterly destroy” the nations they will confront in the Promised Land. We know it’s never morally acceptable to intentionally kill innocent persons. We also know that God is all good. So what was God asking Israel to do in this passage? Was he calling them act in an evil way by killing innocent persons? Two other stories in Scripture should help to answer this question.

Abraham, God, and Sodom (Genesis 18-19)

In this story, Abraham is like a defense attorney pleading for clemency on behalf of Sodom (a city with some serious problems, as we learn in Genesis 19). Abraham asks God,

“Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked? … Far be it from you to do such a thing, to kill the righteous with the wickedShould not the judge of all the world do what is just?” (Genesis 18:23-25)

Abraham affirms that God is just, and it’s unjust to kill righteous persons. So Abraham asks God if he would spare Sodom if there were fifty, forty, thirty, or ten righteous people in Sodom. In each instance God says that he “will spare the whole place for their sake.” From this we learn that God is indeed just, and he will not kill the innocent. As the Catechism says, “God is infinitely good and all his works are good” (Catechism No. 385). “God is in no way, directly or indirectly, the cause of moral evil” (Catechism No. 311).

The interesting thing is that God does end up destroying Sodom in Genesis 19. Does that mean there wasn’t a single righteous person among them? Were there no innocent children? Or is there something more to this scene? Let’s look at our next story and see how it can help explain what might be happening.

The Battle of Jericho (Joshua 6)

Jericho was a city within the Promised Land spoken of in Deuteronomy 7; part of a nation that was to be “utterly destroyed.” In the book of Joshua we see Israel besiege and attack Jericho “putting to the sword all living creatures in the city: men and women, young and old, as well as oxen, sheep and donkeys” (Joshua 6: 21).

What is happening here? A literalistic interpretation of this passage brings us back to where we started: It would seem God was commanding the death of the innocent, including the young. But is this the only possible way to interpret this text?

When we read Scripture, it’s important to distinguish between a literal and a literalistic interpretation of a text. The literalist interprets every word of Scripture as literal, historical truth; and does not distinguish among the various types of writing found in Scripture – including poetry and metaphor.

A literal understanding of Scripture recognizes that “truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing” (Catechism No. 110). Is the author of Joshua really intending to say that every single living creature in Jericho was utterly destroyed, including innocent children? The problem with this view is that the story itself has an exception to Jericho’s utter destruction. Rahab and her family are spared (see Joshua 6:25).

Is it possible that in these examples the sense of utter destruction was not meant to be understood literalistically, but was used as an expression? Could this refer to a great – but not total – devastation? We use similar expressions frequently. For example, if I described a comedy I really enjoyed and said it “killed me,” you wouldn’t begin thinking that I literally died and must now be a ghost. You know that’s just an expression for how funny something was. So too, the idea that “every living creature” in Jericho was killed is quite possibly just an expression, perhaps intending to say that it was a complete victory for Israel.

What’s Deuteronomy Calling Israel to Do?

We know from Abraham’s conversation with God that God does not punish the innocent. So it’s not likely Deuteronomy intended to say that God was commanding the death of everyone. In fact, Deuteronomy goes on to say, “You shall not make marriages with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons” (Deuteronomy 7:3). Why would Deuteronomy need to forbid intermarriage with these nations if they were to be utterly destroyed? There would be no one left to marry among them.

It’s more likely that the phrase “utterly destroy” was used as an expression. Perhaps it was intended to describe a complete victory for Israel; a victory that meant separating themselves from anything that might get in the way of their relationship with God. Actually, that’s the reason Deuteronomy gives for this command, “For [the nations] would turn your sons from following me to serving other gods, and then the anger of the LORD would flare up against you and he would quickly destroy you” (Deuteronomy 7:4). This interpretation would mean that God did not command evil. Rather he commanded Israel to avoid evil by removing those temptations that might lead them astray.

Christ uses a similar expression in the New Testament to describe avoiding sin:

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away … And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna” (Matthew 5:29-30).

Christ is not speaking literally. He’s using an expression to illustrate the severity of what he is saying. So the lesson here is, don’t literally cut off your hand, pluck out your eye, or lay waste to a nation. Instead, remove those things in your life that draw you away from the Lord. It’s better to separate yourself from those things than to find yourself separated from God.

Of course, this is just one explanation. There are many other possible interpretations. What do you think?

About the Author

John Harden

Before joining Ascension Press, John served as the marketing assistant for Current USA, in Colorado Springs. John received his bachelors in theology from Benedictine College in Atchison, KS, and his masters in theology from Franciscan University in Steubenville, OH. He enjoys reading the writings of the saints, and regularly volunteers with Habitat for Humanity. John is an active member of St. Michael the Archangel Byzantine Catholic Church in Phoenixville, PA as well as a 4th degree member of the Knights of Columbus. John, his wife, and their four children live in West Chester, PA.

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  • tcd

    I am so confused…what is the difference between literal and literalistic??? Aren’t they the same word with different grammatical uses? Are we to interpret the Bible literally, but not literalistically?

  • Theresa

    Makes a lot of sense, the way you explain it. I know that God would not destroy innocent children.

  • pas

    This might help you understand the difference-

  • Christian 12 Steps

    I still am having a problem with the question “does God command evil”? Since I have always known that God is Love, God is Good, God is all Knowing, God is all Powerful, etc. I have never questioned His Authority to do anything. Therefore, in my mind, no, God would never command anyone to do evil. If the question is meant to imply that God would never kill the innocent then I agree. There are sins that God says He hates in Scripture and the killing of the innocent is one of them. (as the unborn). I used to believe in Capital Punishment because in Genesis God gave many reasons for it, but the courts in the U.S. are no longer trustworthy because they have become too political and thus many innocent are being executed for the sake of political and not necessary just reasons.
    And I know there is much debate about the use of the terms ‘Kill” vs “Murder”, I left the debating society decades ago so I won’t even go there, I just believe we are all God’s creation and as such He can do with us He pleases.

  • Debra L

    Well in my case, my husband is not anywhere’s near where God would like him to be. He always tries to convince me not to go to Mass, I am boring, and always doing my Church stuff…….But I think that God does not want me giving up on him either. So I suffer, learning to offer up, until that day comes when my husband joins me in serving our LORD…..I stand firm on this until God shows me different. Loving what you are doing here enabling us to participate in these studies.

  • Christian 12 Steps

    God bless you. The power of prayer changes hearts and lives in God’s time and His time is always perfect.

  • John Harden

    It is confusing, because our interpretation of the Bible should be based on the “literal sense” of Scripture. But the literal sense does not mean that we take each and every word “literally.” “The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation” (Catechism No. 115). The Church teaches that to “interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm, and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words” (Catechism No. 109). We know that Christ was not affirming by his words that we should literally cut off our hands, or pluck out our eyes. Rather, he is using that as a “literal” expression. So too, I think in these instances the concept of “utter destruction” is an expression similar to that used by Christ. It’s an expression that conveys a sense of complete separation from those things that separate us from God.

  • Christian 12 Steps

    Unfortunately, some Protestants gave the term “literal” a bad name because it became as they interpreted the Bible. In reality, a literal translation takes into account everything John mentioned, metaphors, tradition, context, languages, historical meaning, etc. It is my understanding that the literalistics only see the Bible in a historical way ( I may be wrong).

  • Martha

    It might help if you read the Catechism No. 115 through 119 which explains more than just #115.

  • pnkyB4brain

    During these times, life was very hard for any people to exist. For instance, medicine to heal wounds and ailments came from herbs and plants. In the desert, I often wonder how many plants survived the extreme temperatures. In using this simple example, I also wonder if God spoke to the chosen people with that same “harshness” that desert dwellers are so used to in order to exist day after day. Could it be that showing anger was allowed during that time and God used this channel of communication to broadcast His messages to the chosen people so that they could complete the long journey to the promised land?
    God had a plan for these people. I honestly think that His course of action was that good must conquer evil. Hasn’t that been God’s plan all along? He has utilized different means throughout history from the Old Testament to present day. The devil occasionally gets a few points on the board, but in the end good will conquer evil.
    God does not command evil actions, He is our Father who is saving us and all civilizations past, present and future from evil!

  • Kh

    How do we explain current wars and past wars such as the crusades?

  • Bfm

    Then again, didn’t God punish some men after the battle for sparing some animals so they can use them? That would mean that God did intend for them to destroy everyone and every animal.

  • John Harden

    Right, I think this actually supports the idea that God wanted them to “separate” themselves entirely from these nations. He doesn’t want them to plunder their goods and use them for their own pleasure. Rather, they are to offer these things up to God. Taking these things would mean Israel might acquire an attachment to the lifestyle of these nations. By rejecting them completely, and offering them to God, Israel would be free from that temptation.

  • John Harden

    That’s a very good question. Not all wars are just. And even if a war was declared for just reasons, few wars are ever carried out in a just way. Still, there is a case to be made for a just war. Here’s how the Catechism explains this:

    “The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. ‘The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor. . . . The one is intended, the other is not’ … The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

    - the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

    - all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

    - there must be serious prospects of success;

    - the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition” (Catechism Nos. 2263, 2309).

  • John Harden

    God can do with us as he pleases, and evil does not please him, so he will not do evil things to us. He will therefore not command us to do evil to others.

  • John Harden

    Right, the literal sense takes into account metaphors, expressions, modes of speaking, etc, but it is not the same as “literalism.” This is how Pope Benedict explained it:

    “The ‘literalism’ championed by the fundamentalist approach actually represents a betrayal of both the literal and the spiritual sense … It fails to recognize that the word of God has been formulated in language and expression conditioned by various periods’” (Verbum Domini, 44).

  • John Harden

    Debra, you are in my prayers. Please know that this article is not saying in any way that we are forbidden from intermarriage with non-Catholics. In fact, in a future lesson we’ll talk about why we are no longer required to follow some Old Testament Laws like that one.

  • DMH

    I have always struggled with how to reconcile the “loving” God I know as an adult with the “vengeful” God I heard about as a child. But, this lesson has reminded me of something that helps. I do not consider myself a “fundamentalist” meaning I believe in the bible “literally” but for some reason I was forgetting about this when I read the Old Testament which I think is what lead to my confusion. I do believe in “literalistic interpretation” and must remember to apply it to everything I read in the bible. I am going to go back and read the scripture that has bothered me in the past with new eyes :-)

  • Ben @ 2CM

    How would you interpret the flood in Genesis? If literal, many must have drowned to death including innocent children/babies. Not a pleasant way to die.

  • Christian 12 Steps

    If I was Bill Clinton, I would say; “now that depends on what your interpretation of evil is”. LOL

  • Christian 12 Steps

    But why did God not prevent the first man from sinning? St. Leo the Great responds, “Christ’s inexpressible grace gave us blessings better than those the demon’s envy had taken away. And St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “There is nothing to prevent human nature’s being raised up to something greater, even after sin; God permits evil in order to draw forth some greater good. Thus St. Paul says, ‘Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more’; and the Exsultet sings, ‘O happy fault,. . . which gained for us so great a Redeemer!”.(Catechism No. 412)

  • John Harden

    I would say of the flood that what the Church says of the Fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. There Scripture “uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man” (Catechism No. 390). I don’t think the author of Genesis intended that story to be read with a strict “literalistic” interpretation. What the story teaches us is that even if God did wipe out all “evil” men from the earth, evil would still exist, because we are “prone to evil” (Exodus 32:22). Even after all evil men die in that story, Ham still does evil. So the flood shows figuratively that while you can destroy evil men, that won’t destroy the evil in men. This is why it prefigures baptism which does the opposite. Without destroying evil men, baptism destroys the evil in men.

    “The waters of the great flood you made a sign of the waters of Baptism, that make an end of sin and a new beginning of goodness” (Catechism No. 1219).

  • Barry Wright

    Your explanation is very helpful. Perhaps it is possible that the phrase ”utterly destroy” is being used in Deuteronomy as a figure of speech meaning a great victory. I Think that if we read this difficult passage in light of Abraham’s conversation with God, then we can see that God clearly would not destroy the righteous. My only question would be: Can we apply this metaphorical lnterpretation to 1 Sam 15:1-3 which specifically states that King Saul is to destroy even the infants and sucklings?

    “And Samuel said to Saul, “The LORD sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the LORD. 2 Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘I will punish what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way, when they came up out of Egypt. 3 Now go and strike Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’ ”

    The Holy Bible. (2006). (Revised Standard Version; Second Catholic Edition., 1 Sa 15:1–3). San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

  • Christian 12 Steps

    We are God’s creation and God commands us not to kill His creation. However, I do believe, God being God He can do whatever He wills with His creation. Is all killing evil? That is the question. If we kill in self defense or try to protect our family from harm is that evil? As someone said; “where the Crusades evil”? Was our first Pope committing evil when the husband and wife in the Book of Acts were slain for lying to the Holy Spirit? Was Jesus being evil when He said; “woe to you, you brood of vipers”, in response to the Pharisees? Maybe what we perceive as being evil sometimes here on earth as humans is really sometimes the justice of God.

  • Carole

    Excellent clarification. I was raised as a Protestant and converted to Catholicism in my teens. I was raised on literal translations from the Bible, and it has always bothered me that a loving God would destroy innocent people. Thank you for providing Scriptural evidence and reason to point out that we sometimes need to understand things in the literary sense. I am much relieved!

  • simple

    Deuteronomy 7:16 says “You must destroy all the peoples the Lord your God gives over to you. Do not look on them with pity and do not serve their gods, for that will be a snare to you.” It clearly says to me not to look on them with pity which is what we all try to do (i.e. the attempt to try to say that God would not kill innocent children). I think that God is “all knowing” and understands far more than we could ever attempt to. All we know is our life on earth and we cling to it. So the thought of taking a child is horrific to us. But I think if God said to do it, He knew and understood more of “why” than we can attempt to. Looking on them with pity could be a snare to even us today as it is causing the questioning of who God is – I will trust in Him. The first sons killed in Egypt also sounds horrific, but served a purpose. Somewhere it says that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom or something to that affect. I think fear of God is a healthy thing. We shouldn’t cling to what is here on earth, we should cling to Him.

  • Christian 12 Steps

    I have to say I believe in the flood and the story of Noah. In religion class in high school we never talked about God, Jesus or religion. The sexual revolution in the 60′s hit my school like a hurricane. All of the nuns and priests are gone except for one priest (still one of my best friends) and one nun. The rest left by stating they were either gay or going to get married to each other or whoever. One of those priests when asked the question about Noah and the flood (the only question I remember ever asked about the Bible) he said it was a fairy tale. And this same priest soon left declaring his homosexuality. I will never forget how his statement and his subsequent leaving the priesthood effected me. And for this reason, I don’t care what anyone says, I believe in Noah and the flood!

  • Ben @ 2CM

    Thanks John,
    I see what you are saying, but a sense a bit of “picking & choosing”. Bible stories we are comfortable with can be interpreted literally. Bible stories we are uncomfortable with should be interpreted figuratively.

    The way I see it God, simply in his role as creator, is perfectly within his rights to create and destroy his works. Every atom in the universe is his “stuff”. He created each one out of nothing and by all common sense has the right to do with it as he sees best.

  • bill1944

    I think the Bible is quite explicit in that God literally commanded the total destruction of the Caananite cities.

    He (and we for that matter) have no problem with his total destruction of Sodom, Gomorrah, the other nearby cities, and their inhabitants because they were very evil.

    The Caananites & Co. were also full of perversions, worshiped demon gods, and engaged in nasty rutuals including orgies, fertility rites, temple prostitutes, bodily mutilaton, and child and even human sacrifice.

    I think the Bible got it right with the total annihiliation of the Cannanites etc. The alternative would have been (and was, as we know) the seduction of the Israelites by these pagan practices.

  • pnkyB4brain

    Very well put. Thank you, Christian 12 steps

  • Christian 12 Steps

    I love your website. You guys really know how to have a good time with it.

  • John Harden

    simple, I would say that God would not directly kill innocent children. The conversation Abraham has with God about Sodom affirms this. He does not punish the righteous. The Church affirms it as well. He is not the direct or indirect cause of evil (see Catechism no. 311 quoted above). Also, “why” something is done is no excuse for doing evil. The purpose of an action does not justify an action that is in itself evil. God is good. God has revealed that he hates evil. He does not do it, and he does not command it.

  • John Harden


    I agree that commanded the Israelites war with the Caananites, and I have no doubt it was because of the vile activities you mention. The only thing I reject is the idea that God would ask for the intentional killing of innocent children, as this is contrary to what God has revealed about himself.

  • jjg

    John is from Chester County, I see. That is where I lived prior to Hilton Head SC, my present address.
    Myself and another Catholic attended the CBS (Community bible Study) for a few years and finally decided to form a Catholic bible study with assistance and guidance from Little Rock Scripture Studies. We have studied Genesis and Exodus and now for the first time, Isaiah. Having studied it under CBS, I have given the attendees fair warning that this is “heavy stuff”. The Torah is just that in my opinion and although the test of scripture is other scripture (plus the magisterium), I think that this explanation of God doing evil or not is a “tough sell”; i.e., not one that you would approach someone in RCIA with!
    I would have to study more on this to come to a rational understanding of what the passage means without doing injustice to the language itself. When you compare it to the passages about your eye(lust), You have to do the act; here the act WAS DONE.


  • John Harden

    Excellent point. We have to be careful of Biblical “eisegesis,” or reading our own personal interpretations into the text. I am certainly not saying we should gloss over uncomfortable Bible stories. Some pretty horrible things did happen in Biblical history. I am saying that God is not the direct or indirect cause of evil. He allows it to happen, this is true, but he does not cause it. And while he does have the “right” to do as he wills, he has revealed that he hates evil and loves righteousness. He will not cause evil, and he will not ask us to commit it.

  • John Harden

    It’s possible that Samuel is speaking figuratively there, and there are some clues to this in Scripture. If you read the rest of Samuel 15, you’ll see that Saul spared the flocks as well as Agag, the Amelekite king. So the Amalekites are all wiped out save one man. Yet during David’s time and for many years afterward the Israelites continued to war with the Amalekites. They war with each other all the way up to 1 Chronicles 4. It seems unlikely that Agag, the sole surviving Amalekite, would have been able of producing enough descendants of fighting age within a few years to be able to war with David. No, it’s more likely that the term “utter destruction” here again refers to complete separation, a ban on any Amalekite influence upon Israel. And the idea of killing infants could be a part of this expression. Like if someone said, “I’ll punch you so hard your grandkids will feel it.”

  • John Harden

    I too believe in the flood and I am NOT saying the it is a fairy tale. Figurative, maybe. False, absolutely not.

  • Christian 12 Steps

    Thanks John.

  • Christian 12 Steps

    Now we know why this is called “Tough” Bible questions!

  • Ben @ 2CM

    You mean “Two Catholic Men & a Blog”? We like to share the stuff we learn. We have fun, like “happy warriors”.

  • osakarose

    I think there is a danger when we try to decide which portions of the Bible we will accept as literal & which are merely literary expressions. I believe that this is “cafeteria Christianity” where we pick & choose what we want to believe. God gave instructions for total destruction in order to preserve his chosen people. Just as you would not leave a single cancer cell within a body (due to fear of recurrence), so I believe you cannot leave a cancer within a population that can corrupt that population. The people being destroyed were pagans who worshipped other gods. They did not accept God & were not of his chosen people. Everyone did not fall under the “umbrella” of salvation until after Jesus’ sacrifice upon the cross. So I, for one, will continue to believe that God did order the destruction of entire races in order to perfect His plan for His chosen people. Who are we to question His ultimate wisdom?

  • Nan

    Does God favor innocent children over innocent adults? Is it possible that it isn’t a metaphor, and that children did indeed die? And if they did, is it possible that through death they were given eternal life instead of eternal damnation? That to me would seem a great act of love.

    What is a moment’s anguish in exchange for a place in the kingdom? Could it be He granted them the grace of purity that, had they continued to live, would be stained?

    ALso, I have read that in translation the commandment is ‘Thou shalt not murder’ which is different than killing. Killing, as evidenced in the CCC, can be justified, murder is not.

    Is it possible that in this instance, God, after hundreds of years, was justified?

    Perhaps to me your argument would be stronger if you said, “innocent infants and toddler” because some children are not innocent at all. Look at the many children indoctrinated with hate at a young age.

    God wants more for us than we want for ourselves. This I know is true. So it does not seem a contradiction (to me) that He may have killed innocent children because I believe He has provided for them in love unimaginable to most of us.

    I love your heart John, and it is entirely possible that you are right,
    but it is also entirely possible that you (and myself as well) are

  • Christian 12 Steps

    If you have followed the discussion and what the Church believes you will know that the “literal” translation is the only right translation. However, the “literal” takes into account everything, and yes even the “merely (which I believe nothing in the Bible is “merely”) literary expressions at times are true and warranted. I haven’t heard anyone here picking and choosing what they want to believe. All I see here is a search and honest discussion for the truth. As I have posted elsewhere, I believe God commanded them to take the land He promised them and anyone with common sense knows that would not happen without a fight. For us to think that God only wanted them to take the land because the people were evil brings us into a fantasy land that does not and never has existed. The only time all evil will be eradicated from the face of the earth will be when Jesus Christ returns and establishes His kingdom.

  • Marianne

    Wow, I’m jumping in late today and I’m reading some wonderful comments!

    My two cents:
    One of the great things about doing bible studies is studying what the Scriptures meant to the audience for whom it was intended. For example, when we translate from Hebrew or Greek to English, we have
    to learn what those words meant to either the ancient Israelites or the first century audience Jews. Just as we have modern day slang, different translations can mean different things. And the Hebrew language has words that can have different meanings. This can alter the translation quite a bit, and that’s why we are cautioned that some things are not to be taken literally. For example, the Hebrew word for “work” can actually mean work, or it could mean serve, or even worship!

    Another example of confusion in interpretation is one we all know… to fear God. But the word for fear does not only mean “be afraid of”. It can also mean reverence, awe, respect; e. g. Psalm 112:1 “Blessed the man who fears the LORD, who
    greatly delights in his commands.”

    The more we delve into the Scriptures and learn what they meant to their original audience, the better we can understand and effectively answer those tough questions.

  • Sandi

    As a former Methodist, I was never taught to question or “study” the Bible and it’s meaning. We were told to memorize verses and read stories but never research them. To me it was a very cold church. Sunday school was just memorization and singing. Youth groups were just coming into being in the early 60′s. Research was just for the pastor to relate in his sermons…always over my head. In ’75, my husband and I joined the Catholic church with a 3-month study from the parish priests. It wasn’t until the late 90′s–early 2000′s I learned to research the Bible, and a whole new world opened to me. When the internet came along, I was in research “heaven.” I love what you’re doing on this website.
    As for what you’re discussing right now, I truly believe God is totally good. He cannot do evil because he detests it. He allows it because a greater good will come from it. Original sin was never wiped away until Christ died on the cross for us. This was all in God’s plan. (In the beginning was the Word….). Man had original sin in him because of the sin of Adam and Eve with the serpent. God already had in mind to send his son to save mankind from original sin. He will come again to judge us for all our other sins later.
    Also, we cannot know good if we don’t experience evil. Bishop Fulton J. Sheen said you cannot know heaven if there is no hell and vice/versa. As humans we are meant to make the wrong choice so we can LEARN from the consequences. God allows evil so we can learn from it and hopefully not do evil again. But man is man. He has a hard head and God is a patient God. God knows the outcome. It’s all in his plan. Thanks be to God. Amen!

  • Marianne

    As Catholics, we have to beware not to fall into the trap of merely reciting memorized verses. The Creed is a perfect example. When we go to mass this Sunday and recite the Creed, delve into it and really THINK about what you’re saying and how much the words mean to you. It’s a declaration of our faith!

    BTW, as we listen to the first reading this weekend, we can appreciate its implications, in light of our present discussion. God promised Abraham that He would not destroy Sodom if he finds ten innocent people in the

  • John Harden

    I agree, there is a danger of that. That’s why we shouldn’t “decide” which portions are literary expressions. Instead we should look for clues in Scripture that might make that clear. In this case, the fact that God commands Israel not to marry any inhabitants after he asks them to “utterly destroy” them, is a clue. If they were utterly destroyed, there’d be no one left to marry. It appears that is probably an expression of some sort then.

  • John Harden

    Thanks Nan! I love your heart too.

    I am not saying that killing is never justified. There is a case to be made for legitimate self defense, and that includes national defense. So war is not intrinsically evil. The only thing I am rejecting is the idea that God would command for the innocent to be intentionally killed. As the story of Abraham’s conversation with God shows us, he will not kill the righteous.

  • Barry Wright

    Yea but the text says that God was angry that he spared agag and the sheep! The only reason Amalekites survived was because Saul was disobedient and didn’t carry out the ban correctly! In fact. Saul ends up losing his kingship because he kept the king and sheep alive. Samuel has to hack Agag to pieces because Saul didn’t do it.

  • John Harden

    Right, so if Agag was hacked to pieces, and a literalistic interpretation would make him the last surviving Amalekite, how did Israel continue to war with them during the reign of David? It seems that idea of “utter destruction” did not mean literally the death to the last man woman and child.

  • Nan

    Thank you for your clear reply. I will ponder and pray. :^)

  • Jody

    Well, I can say, this has certainly been enlightening to me. My take on this is it is certainly not in God’s character to command the killing of innocent people. So it makes more sense to me that this is an expression, as explained by John. If one looks at the whole picture in light of this passage, and the other passages quoted here, the principle meaning is we are to separate ourselves from sin or evil, and just to continually draw near to God.

  • Tracy

    Can you comment on how God killed all the first born children of Egypt? And how Pharoah’s army was completely destroyed at the Red Sea?

  • John Harden

    The second part of your question is easier to answer, so I’ll start there :-) Pharaoh and his army were not innocent or righteous. They had enslaved Israel for 400 years, and they refused to let Israel leave, and had even murdered their infants. They were pursuing the Israelites, and were struck down in their pursuit to kill the innocent. So that would be justified killing.

    The first part of your question is much harder to answer, but the details of that incident are also not entirely clear. This is what the text says, ” … the LORD struck down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner in the dungeon” (Exodus 12:29).

    What is unclear is “how” the Lord struck the firstborn. This little details is important. I still contend that God is not the direct or indirect cause of evil (see Catechism No. 311). But this does not mean he does not allow it. And in allowing evil to happen, we sometimes figuratively ascribe it to God. For example, natural disasters are called, “acts of God,” even though he is not necessary the direct cause of them.

    That seems to be what is happening here, for it says: “seeing the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over that door and not let the destroyer come into your houses to strike you down” (Exodus 12:23). So a “destroyer,” which is sometimes translated “angel of death,” was the cause of these deaths. God, while not stopping the destroyer from taking the lives of the Egyptians, did stop it from taking the lives of the Israelites. So I would say that God allowed this evil to happen, and because of that we figuratively say he caused it. But that is not to say he did it by his own hand or even commanded it to happen.

    We see God allow something similar to happen to Job and his family. In that story God allows the devil to inflict suffering and death upon Job’s family. God didn’t ask the devil to do what he did to Job, but he did allow it. So that is possibly what’s happening here in Egypt.

  • Tracy

    I agree that that God is not the direct or indirect cause of evil. Even if it was not his own hand, though, was it not he who sent the “destroyer”?

    The Job question has always been hard for me too. Job’s story is an incredible lesson for all of us, but what about his poor first family that all had to die?
    And as for Pharoah’s army, I just think about the individual soldiers. . . doing their “jobs”.
    When I was in college, I roomed with a German girl whose father had been a Nazi. He died in the war. She and I were good friends. My father was a pilot who was shot down by the Germans and spent two years in a German prison camp. Soldiers are individuals who may or may not be following God’s will.

  • Barry Wright

    Thanks for responding. I don’t claim to have a satisfactory answer to this and most of the Scholars I have read admit that this issue is difficult. I dont think i’ve heard anyone say that it is a metaphor yet?

    ”if Agag was hacked to pieces, and a literalistic interpretation would make him the last surviving Amalekite….

    A literalistic interpretation here does not rule out the possibilty of surviving Amalekites because the very fact that Saul spared the king and the best of the animals shows that he was not interested in carrying out the command properly, therefore, he may have left many Amalekites alive. So after Samuel hacked Agag to pieces, there could still have been other Amalekites alive. I think the point that an Amalekite finishes off Saul’s life (or claims too) is supposed to be ironic. Saul left some alive and he ends up being killed by an Amalekite.

    how did Israel continue to war with them during the reign of David?

    Saul did not kill them all as he was supposed to, that’s why the Israelites continue to war with the Amalekites. If Saul had obeyed the command then there would have been no Amalekites to war with. Saul claimed to have utterly destroyed them but he was obviously lying.

    I would love to believe that the phrase was only a metaphor but at the minute I don’t think it is, I am open to correction and I would love to be persuaded otherwise. I do believe that God is merciful and would not let the righteous perish with the wicked. God is all knowing and maybe he knew that those who were killed would have grown up evil and never repented anyway. I don’t know. I will have to do more research because I would love to believe it is only a figure of speech. I wouldn’t want to believe something just because it is the easy way out. I think we have to seek the truth no matter what and not just believe what we want.



  • John Harden

    You’re right that not everything is “black and white” in a war. There are good men on both sides. But in this case, the army of Pharaoh, even if they were just doing there job, their job was wrong. Their job was to track down and murder the innocent. So there is no issue with taking defensive measures to stop that from happening.

    With regard to the “destroyer” being sent by God, again, that is likely said figuratively. God created all things, including demons. And while he didn’t create them as evil beings, they did become corrupted. We say God sent them insofar as God created them, and allows them to continue to exist. But God did not cause them to turn away from him. And he does not cause them to continue to do evil.

  • John Harden

    Here’s why I say a literalistic interpretation is problematic: Scripture says Saul “took Agag, king of Amalek, alive, but the rest of the people he destroyed by the sword, putting them under the ban” (1 Samuel 13:8). If Saul really did destroy the rest of the people, and Samuel killed Agag, where did the other Amalekites come from that Israel will eventually fight? No, I think it’s more likely that the idea of the “ban,” the utter destruction is a figurative expression.

  • Barry Wright

    Do you mean 2 Sam 15:8? Yes I see where you’re coming from, 2 Sam 15:8 does seem to support your interpretation. What would you say about verse 3?

    “Now go and strike Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’ ”

    Why specifically mention infants and sucklings?

  • John Harden

    Right, I meant 1 Sam 15:8, not 13:8.

    Concerning v.3, I would say that is likely an expression. Today, we wouldn’t think of using that as an expression. It’s horrific. At the same time, we say things like, “that just killed me, he’s a real ladykiller, I’m bored to death, I’m sick and tired, he’s dressed to kill, etc.” We sometimes cheer on our sports teams saying, “kill em!” I don’t find it hard to believe, considering the many common expressions we have concerning death, that peoples in the ancient world would have used death, even the death of infants, as an expression that is not meant to be taken literally.

    On this subject, my oldest son happens to have high-functioning Autism. Whenever we use common phrases that we take for granted, he is often shocked by them because he takes everything so literally. I think in a way this is like that. We are shocked, (and rightly so!) at the use of this expression. But that’s because, like my son, we are not used to it. And we are used to our history books being void of figurative expressions. We expect them to report cold, hard facts. And that’s not how the ancient people wrote and communicated their history.

  • Tracy

    I agree with what you say about Pharaoh’s army.

    I didn’t think the destroyer or “angel of death” was a demon, but similar to the angels in Revelations that God uses to send judgments on the earth. Looking at Exodus 12, I see that God uses the same language, “I will execute judgments”. My point is the Lord warns in advance that he will smite the first-born and then in Exodus 12:29 it says he does it. It says there was not a house where one was not dead.

    Maybe these judgments or deaths shouldn’t be looked at as “evil” even though at first glance they may seem shocking. God cannot do evil. His justice is beyond our understanding.

  • Barry Wright

    Thanks, I really appreciate your help and this discussion forum is a great idea. I am very glad to see that these difficult passages are being discussed because many today don’t want to talk about them or even read the OT at all because of them and then when challenged by an atheist, they are unable to respond. Hopefully we can all learn something from this topic.

  • Kim

    I am loving all the discussion! But no one seemed to mention “free will”. I believe that God is love and goodness and wants us to live in His Word. But God also gave us free will knowing that this would leave the path to evil open for all of us. It is sad that this path to evil and those who choose it seem to overshadow the overwhelming number of us who choose to follow God!

    I find the Old Testament tough to read. I try to remember that life in those days was a lot harder and survival skills much tougher so what I am reading is very different from the 21st century life I experience. And those who wrote these books were from that time period…..

    Thanks to all of you for giving me some new perspective!

  • 2 cents

    Each author had his own limitations–which can leave the reader confused if the Bible is read book by book. While necessary to understand the meaning from the time period of writing, every word needs to be seen as part of the whole (entire Bible). One can’t read just a chapter from a lengthy novel and expect to understand the full story.

    The Bible taken as a whole is a love story…and needs to be read with that perspective in mind.

  • Maria

    ‘Who am I to judge the gay people’ Pope Francis said recently. His speech will apply to this situation I suppose. We used to read the line literary but its more on to it. I like the way to explain to ‘ avoid sin ‘ at all cost. Intermarriage can cost to worship other gods depend on how strong faith we have as Christians. I believe in prayers and in God as my priority in life. With the grace of God my husband eventually converted as well. Praise God!

  • Nan

    I have prayed and researched others’ opinions and continue to politely disagree. :^D

    As I currently see it, the death of those innocent children may have been an eternal blessing for them to have been spared the evil that was to come. This is difficult for us to imagine because we are to uphold the sanctity of life. However, the rules God has laid down for us are not the same as His own. He, the totality of love and omniscience, operates in ways inconceivable to us.

    Too, for me, this opens up the wonderful discussion of what righteousness is. Can infants be righteous? And if they are, are they not then in the perfect state to enter heaven?

    Still, your point is not lost on me, and though unsure if it applies in this instance, I find value in it. I pray that if it is true as applied in the way you assert, that the HS will reveal it to me, and I hope you might consider reciprocating.

    Too, I wish to say what a pleasure it has been to read the thoughtful replies.

  • John Harden

    Thanks Nan. I appreciate your prayers. Please know that you are in mine as well.

    I still think as Catholics and Christians we must affirm that God does not command evil. The only way I could see the death of infants as a mercy on the part of God would be for him to “allow,” their deaths, but not to “command” them. As the Church teaches, “One may not do evil so that good may result from it” (Catechism No. 1756). So it would not be merciful to intentionally commit evil against those innocent children. We as Catholics and Christians should affirm that God would not command such a thing.

  • Nan

    Oh yay, I always have need of prayer! Thank you!

    In my previous post I should have clarified that I have been praying but that I did not receive any divine revelation. Obviously I am still trying to work this through.

    Your last reply had, for my mind, a finer point (I love the CCC) so I will take that into prayer/study/contemplation.

  • patertmg

    Interesting point. I think we don’t have to forget – as I understand Nan – biological death is evil only to us now, but not to God. He is the donor of life, he is Life himself. So dying – as weird as this may sound to us – is not necessarily a bad thing…

  • S

    I had the same questions and thoughts about these Bible passages. I had no problem reconciling the fact that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, even if there were some innocent children there because God is the creator and it is not wrong for him to take the lives of His creations.

    What I found hard to believe was that God would command people in the Old Testament to kill the innocent, even if it is in war. But what i realized was that I can’t hold the people in the Old Testament to the same moral laws that Jesus has imposed upon us in the New Testament. We know, now that God’s law had been fulfilled and perfected, God does not allow humans to ever take the lives of the innocent and even the lives of the guilty must be protected, unless it is at the expense of the safety of the general public.

    Anyway, while it may have been possible that God commanded the Isrealites to completely distroy cities in the OT, this would not be in contradiction of the law imposed at the time “thou shalt not murder” (i.e. kill unjustly) because a God-commanded killing would have been just at the time. (God will not do this now due to His new and Perfect law).

    So, regardless of whether God actually commanded this or not in the OT, neither scenarios would have violated God’s Law.

  • veritasetgratia

    John, that is a just wonderful explanation of the mercy and justice of God. Just fantastic. Us catechists were just discussing the other day after school how important it is to have a good response to this question. If you can tell me how I can read Part I which seems to have been removed, would be most grateful. Thank you thank you once again. God bless you!

  • bill
  • brendan
  • Gary

    So you believe that the targeted killing of children and babies is, sometimes, under some circumstances, justifiable??

    Even in war, the targeted killing of children is considered a war crime. Killing children as “collateral damage” in the act of war is not a war crime, but deliberately targeting children for killing; hunting them down; looking for their hiding places and then running them down as they scream in terror as they see you raise your sword or knife, IS a war crime.

    Your god would be arrested, tried, and convicted of the most heinous war crimes if he were put on trial today. He is a monster. How can you teach your children this barbaric nonsense? How can you call yourself a “moral” person and believe this?

    There is NEVER any justifiable reason to target children for killing. Never. Ever.

  • Anthony Puccetti

    Apparently, “the rest of the people” means only those Amalekites in the places where that Saul conquered, not the total sum of the people wherever they existed. Since scripture later mentions other Amalekites, the literal reading does not require that all of them everywhere were killed. The ban is not figurative in itself, someone invented the figurative reading.

  • Anthony Puccetti

    No one is a literalist by the definition you gave of the word. No one takes every word of the Bible in the literal, historical sense. That is practically impossible. Everyone who reads scripture considers for himself what is possible or impossible, likely or unlikely. When they read a passage that is unacceptable to them at face value, they think that it must have some other meaning and try to figure out what it may be, just as people figure out figures of speech that they hear from other people. People read words with the same understanding that they hear words.

  • Sarah W

    Just so you know, I cried in joy and relief after reading this article, because I had been worrying so much about how God could be good if He ordered the destruction of the Amalekites, etc. I was tempted to think He was a monster, because the only other explanations I’d seen for those passages were, “Well, before the Incarnation, God had to meet the Israelites halfway – the same reason He allowed them to divorce is the same reason He ordered them to commit genocide.” Never mind that *allowing* isn’t the same as *ordering*.

    Thank you so much – I blessed God for you. I’ll have to confess these doubts tomorrow.