Does God Kill Children? Calvinist vs. Rabbinic “Literal” Interpretation

A few years ago, well-known pastor John Piper caused a stir when he said: “It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases.” He was responding to the question: “Why was it right for God to slaughter women and children in the Old Testament? How can that ever be right?” Piper was attempting to address difficult passages, primarily in Deuteronomy and Joshua, describing commands for the Israelites to kill the inhabitants of Canaan during conquest. In reaction to Piper statements, some accused him of taking a “hyper-literal” approach to the text. However, the term “literal” is often misunderstood. In fact, as I want to demonstrate below, a literal interpretation can lead to a different conclusion than Piper. Specifically, I will compare a Calvinist hermeneutic with early rabbinic interpretation.

The Old Testament contains some difficult verses such as: “In the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes” (Deut 20:16). Piper takes a Calvinist approach. John Calvin’s biblical hermeneutic employs a doctrinal lens for reading the text. Various doctrines like predestination or the sovereignty of God dictate how a biblical verse is interpreted. In his commentary on Joshua 6:21 (which refers to killing of women and children at Jericho), Calvin writes:

“The indiscriminate and promiscuous slaughter, making no distinction of age or sex, but including alike women and children, the aged and decrepit, might seem an inhuman massacre, had it not been executed by the command of God. But as he, in whose hands are life and death, had justly doomed those nations to destruction, this puts an end to all discussion. We may add, that they had been borne with for four hundred years, until their iniquity was complete. Who will now presume to complain of excessive rigor, after God had so long delayed to execute judgment? If any one object that children, at least, were still free from fault, it is easy to answer, that they perished justly, as the race was accursed and reprobated. Here then it ought always to be remembered, that it would have been barbarous and atrocious cruelty had the Israelites gratified their own lust and rage, in slaughtering mothers and their children, but that they are justly praised for their active piety and holy zeal, in executing the command of God, who was pleased in this way to purge the land of Canaan of the foul and loathsome defilement’s by which it had long been polluted” (emphasis added).

Piper echoes Calvin’s explanation:

“God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die. God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God’s hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs. So God is God! He rules and governs everything. And everything he does is just and right and good. God owes us nothing . . . . Now add to that the fact we’re all sinners and deserve to die and go to hell yesterday, and the reality that we’re even breathing today is sheer common grace from God” (emphasis added).

Calvin and Piper are not cold-hearted, insensitive men who don’t realize how difficult these texts are. Calvin admitted such actions would normally be considered “inhumane.” And Piper wrote his doctoral dissertation on Jesus’ command to love your enemies! I am sure either of them might wish the Bible did not have such difficult statements. But, because they uphold Scripture as inspired by God and authoritative for the Church, they cannot simply throw out the Old Testament like Marcion. For them, the choice seems to be either 1) affirm Scripture as inspired and affirm that God commanded such killings; or 2) disavow Scripture. The only way they believe the problem can be resolved is by admitting such issues are above human reason. God is God. God can govern as God pleases. Thus, as Calvin said “this puts an end to all discussion.”

Notice—and this is really important—how their hermeneutic shuts down further exegesis. There is no conversation to be had. Their literal interpretation is dictated (and truncated) by a pre-envisioned solution: doctrine of God’s sovereignty. God is in charge and so if the text suggests God wanted the Israelites to kill women and children, then no further questions are warranted. In other words, a doctrinal hermeneutic, in this particular case, impeded their curiosity to explore other possible meanings in the text.

Calvin’s and Piper’s interpretation might seem like a straightforward reading—the “literal” reading. However, not all literal interpretation is the same. In contrast to the Calvinist doctrinal lens of reading the text, some early rabbis used literal exegesis to arrive at different conclusions regarding violent commands (specifically, Deuteronomy 13:12-17 [13-18]).[1]How so? Here are a few examples of how “literal” interpretation can mitigate the impact of violence:

BIBLICAL TEXT: Deuteronomy 13:12-13

12 “If you hear in one of your cities, which the LORD your God is giving you to live in, anyone saying that 13 some worthless men have gone out from among you and have seduced the inhabitants of their city, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods’ (whom you have not known) . . . .

RABBINIC INTERPRETATION: Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10:4ff (c. 200-220 C.E.):

“The members of a beguiled city . . . these are not slain unless the beguilers are from the same town, and unless the majority are beguiled. Also, the beguilers must be men. If they be women or children, or come from outside of the town, those who have been beguiled must be regarded as single offenders needing two witnesses, and every offender must receive the legal warning” (emphasis added).

In this literal reading several qualifiers are drawn from the text. The text says the worthless men (or beguilers) have seduced the “inhabitants of their city.” Since it says “their” city it must mean the punishment can only apply if the worthless men are from the same city. Similarly since the text says “inhabitants of the city” it means a whole lot of people. The whole city—or at least the majority—must have gone astray. Otherwise the law does not apply and the city cannot be destroyed. Similarly, the city has to have been seduced by men, since the text says “men” and not women or children. If a woman seduces the city then only individuals, and not everyone, is subject to the punishment.

BIBLICAL TEXT Deuteronomy 13:15:

15 you shall surely strike the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying it and all that is in it and its cattle with the edge of the sword.

RABBINIC INTERPRETATION: Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10:5:

“THOU SHALT SMITE THE PEOPLE OF THAT CITY WITH THE SWORD; but an ass or camel caravan passing through from place to place—can deliver the city (or may be delivered). UTTERLY DESTROY IT, AND ALL THAT IS IN IT, AND ITS BEASTS, WITH THE SWORD; therefore they have said that the goods of the righteous in it are lost, but what is outside is saved; whereas that of the wicked, inside or outside, is lost” (emphasis added).

Here the rabbis consider: what if there are people in the city who don’t actually live there? Can they be killed too? The text says “the inhabitants [or people] of that city.” Thus, no, travelers are not residents of that city and cannot be killed. The Babylonian Talmud expands on this to define what constitutes a traveler and how long a person must be in town to qualify as a resident. This comment in the Mishnah could also be interpreted as saying the travelers “can deliver the city.” In other words, they can tip the percentage scale such that there is no longer a majority that is beguiled and thus the city is spared. Finally, the rabbis suggest that certain items outside the city belonging to the righteous are not destroyed since the text refers to what is “in it.” Since the righteous are spared, logically their possessions outside the city would be spared too.

The rationale for sparing the righteous and some of their possessions comes from an intertextual reading. The rabbis looked for similar situations in the biblical text for help with interpreting Deuteronomy 13. The destruction of Jericho (Joshua 6) is virtually an exact parallel.[2]Since Rahab (and her family) was spared at Jericho, the rabbis understood that a command–which initially seemed universal–is actually qualified. The righteous (and their families) in such cities are delivered and not killed. Similarly, when the problem of killing children was debated by the rabbis, the writer of Sifre on Deuteronomy (c. 300 C.E.) searched to see what else Scripture had to say, concluding:

“Hence the Sages have said: Even children may not be spared. Abba H̩anan, however, says: ‘The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers’—this verse refers to the condemned city” (Pisk̩a 92ff).

In Sifre on Deuteronomy the problem of killing children is resolved by applying Deuteronomy 24:16: “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.” Thus the children are spared because they cannot be held accountable for what their adult parents do. Hypothetically, sinful children could still be put to death. But the assumption made by this rabbi is that the children are likely innocent, especially if they had not reached any age of accountability, and thus the children of the apostate city are spared. Since Deuteronomic law clearly puts limits on punishment, laws commanding the destruction of a city must be read in conjunction with these other biblical laws.

The rabbis certainly believed in God’s sovereignty just like Calvin and Piper, but they did not interpret the text through a doctrinal lens in such a way that it shut down any further conversation or exegesis. Instead, they asked the text all kinds of questions and sought to find the answers within it. They had a conversation with the text. As a result, their literal interpretation (and one could argue “hyper-literal” approach) led to some of the following interpretive conclusions. The command to kill “all” the inhabitants:

  • excludes anyone who is righteous (so not everyone is killed).
  • excludes children since they cannot be killed for the sins of the fathers per Deuteronomic law.
  • excludes travelers temporarily in the city.
  • can only occur if the majority of the city has been led astray.
  • can only occur if the city is led astray by residents of that same city, and not outsiders.
  • can only occur if the city is seduced by adult males and not women or children.

What tips can we derive for how to read Scripture after considering these two “literal” interpretations of difficult texts?

1. When encountering a difficult passage in Scripture, use clearer passages to help illuminate the text. Even the Calvinist Westminster Confession of Faith states: “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all . . . .The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.” This is precisely what the rabbis did by employing intertextual exegesis, but what Calvin and Piper neglected to do.

2. Be curious! Ask the text a lot of questions. Then look to the text to “hear” the answer. In other words, have a conversation with Scripture. The Holy Spirit’s illumination is obviously part of this dialogue and facilitates our understanding.

3. Read Scripture holistically. Don’t pull one verse out of the text and try to make sense of it as an independent unit. This is especially true for troubling texts. Read the verse in the whole context of the book in which it is found. Then read the book within the whole canon of Scripture. John 1:18 says that Jesus has “explained” God. If we want to know what God looks like we look at Jesus. How does Jesus help us to interpret the Old Testament? For example, how does Jesus’ command to love our enemies help us to make sense of difficult passages? Keep in mind Jesus preached from “Old Testament” texts. And the Old Testament itself has perspectives that can mitigate the more violent texts (see, for example, my discussion on Abraham).

4. Toss out a false understanding of “literal” interpretation. Many biblical interpreters throughout history (both Christian and Jewish) have used various forms of literal interpretation. As discussed above, there isn’t one form of literal exegesis. Furthermore, when people say, “Don’t take the Bible literally” what they really mean to say is “Don’t take it woodenly.” If Scripture is the Word of God it should be taken literally. The literal meaning is the meaning God intends for us to glean from the text. This could include more than one meaning in the same way poetry can evoke different understandings. Along these lines it’s helpful to remember that Scripture has diverse genres. Often we can fail to grasp a literal meaning of the text because we misinterpret genre. For example, if I interpret the statement “The Lord is my rock” as meaning God is a hard object on the ground, I have not interpreted it literally because I have misunderstood the metaphor.

Of course this all begs the question: what hermeneutic should we use to interpret the text literally, and therefore, accurately? Should we interpret it like Calvin or the rabbis? I would suggest Calvin and Piper have not taken Scripture literally enough. As a result, they have missed meaning that can be found in the text. However, this does not mean we can never read Scripture from a doctrinal perspective. For example, I have suggested a Christological lens is important for understanding God in the Old Testament. The crucial thing is that we are mindful about what lens we are using and how it shapes our interpretation. Similarly, I am not advocating that rabbinic interpretation is superior. But, there is much we can learn from the rabbis, especially their willingness to dialogue with the text and with each other. Here, I use them as an example to stimulate our minds regarding interpretive possibilities.

Have I resolved all the problems of violent texts in Scripture? No. There is a lot more that can be said and pondered. However, I hope I have complicated the simplistic conclusions we can sometimes arrive at. And I hope I have provided a few helpful suggestions for how we might engage such texts.


[1] Rabbinic interpretation is diverse. What I present here cannot be construed as what all the early rabbis believed. I am using specific examples that I feel are pertinent and helpful to this discussion. The Tosefta (c. 250 C.E.), for example, falls on the side that children are not spared. This is why the author of Sifre on Deuteronomy, writing later, says “The sages have said even the children are not spared.” The Tosefta and Sifre on Deuteronomy demonstrate that debate occurred. In the Tosefta the dissenters are overruled, but Sifre on Deuteronomy puts the verdict back in the hands of the earlier dissenters by rejecting the killing of children.  Thus, by late 3rd or early 4th century C.E. we see signs of an increasing rejection of an interpretation that affirms violence. It should also be pointed out that in early rabbinic texts there is an opinion that such an apostate city never existed. In other words the laws that command such violence were not actually enforced but rather have been put in Scripture for pedagogical reasons. For example, the Tosefta which seems to affirm violence, also includes the opinion:  “‘A beguiled city’: there never was, and never will be such; then why is it contained in Scripture? To teach, ‘Study and receive the reward.'”

[2] There are significant parallels between the Israelite apostate city and non-Israelite cities devoted to destruction, especially Jericho. Similarities include: 1) both cities were placed under the ban (herem); thus every man, woman, and child was to be killed by the sword (Josh 6:21; Deut 13:16); 2) Animals were also to be destroyed (6:21; 13:16); 3) All plunder and the entire city was to be burned (one exception was made for Jericho—precious metals were given to the Lord’s treasury; Josh 6:24; Deut 13:17); and 4) The city was never to be rebuilt again (Josh 6:26; Deut 13:17). The early Rabbis recognized the similarities between these two cities and used the Jericho narrative as an intertextual lens through which to interpret the apostate city. Since the Jericho narrative includes the deliverance of Rahab, the sages assumed that there are righteous people living in the Apostate City. And if there are righteous people in the Apostate City, then not everyone is killed.


2 thoughts on “Does God Kill Children? Calvinist vs. Rabbinic “Literal” Interpretation

  1. This was really good. Thanks. Genre, cultural context, literary context, the context of the whole story (intertextual readings) and even the trajectory of Scripture (including recognizing that God often starts where people are and tries to bring them in a better direction), as well as a constant openness to hearing texts afresh (I find it especially helpful to listen to those outside my own ‘location’ – as you are doing with the Rabbinic interpretations) are all vitally important. Among many others, observations of J.P. Fokkelman, Richard Bauckham, and Ellen F. Davis – though not specifically addressing the above issue – have been very helpful to me:

    “In our spontaneity, in our desire to know, or because of our need for certainty, we constantly run the risk – whether during our first or thirtieth reading of the story – of thinking: I’ve got it! So this is what the story is about! In our naivety we fancy we have recognized what the text says, but what took place inside us is rather something like: we picked up a number of signals from the text and in our minds grouped these into a theme or point, without keeping an open mind for various signals not yet perceived. In this way, we have formed a picture of the whole which tends to become fixed. Such a reading, however, is only partial. The theme or point that we think we have seen the first few times we read the story, threatens to harden and petrify, and then to control and above all limit all our later readings. We often inflict the same fatal process of partial observation and premature interpretation on our fellow human beings … Moreover, right from the start we are unconsciously subject to the influence of our expectations, prejudices and religious beliefs – a series of temptations which together make up pitfall no. 2. A lot of Bible exegesis is little more than a confirmation of the writer’s [or reader’s] long-established convictions. With some twisting and pushing our loquacious mind usually manages to fit the text to our pre-formed mental patterns or even unconscious desires, and then maintain with the best of intentions that our ideas are straight out of the Holy Scriptures.”

    “The Bible simply does not – however hard the interpreters try to make it – speak with a single, clear voice. On war and peace, on the relationships of men and women, on slavery, on ethics of material possessions, and a host of other issues of great importance for living in obedience to God, the Bible contains a disturbing diversity of statements and approaches, including various commands and instructions as well as narrative examples and wisdom reflections. Unless we are to pick and choose arbitrarily among these relevant biblical materials, we need a perspective in which the diversity acquires an intelligible shape, in which, one might say, a direction of biblical teaching becomes apparent and the texts can be read dynamically, as pointing us in that direction, even though some go less far in that direction than others. Such an approach makes sense in the context of our recognition that it is as a metanarrative that the Bible is authoritative, not exclusively but primarily. A biblical approach to an issue may then be expected to emerge in the course of the story, taking shape as we observe different aspects of such an approach appearing in different contexts, and even as we take account of a variety of approaches that, on an obvious reading, might seem contradictory. What may seem, when one text is read alone, to be that text’s straightforward answer to a question we are asking may have to be relativized by other perspectives on the matter given us by other texts. All this may seem a frustratingly oblique way of providing us with the teaching we seek to live by, but we can come to appreciate its advantages when we read the Bible in such a way as to let it involve us in its story and in the dynamism of the way God’s will for his people and for the world comes to be known. In discerning the direction in the diversity we come to a richer understanding of an issue and its outworking in the diversity of historical human life than a single straightforward pronouncement could afford us.”

    “We must read with Openness to Repentance … If we are reading from a confessional perspective – then it is well to begin by suspecting our own interpretations. Most of them have probably not been reconsidered in a long time – years in our own lives, perhaps generations in the church. Whenever we pick up the Bible, read it, put it down, and say, ‘That’s just what I thought,’ we are probably in trouble. The technical term for that kind of reading is ‘proof-texting.’ Using the text to confirm our presuppositions is sinful; it is an act of resistance against God’s fresh speaking to us, an effective denial that the Bible is the word of the living God. The only alternative to proof-texting is reading with a view to what the NT calls repentance – literally, a ‘change of mind.’”


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