Perhaps the hardest question I’ve personally asked about the Bible is, “Why does God kill babies in the Old Testament?” I’ve never doubted God’s goodness, but if I’m being honest, seeing God command the death of children in the Old Testament has been very difficult to grapple with.
We are taught from a young age at church that God is love. We are told he is the kindest being who has or ever could exist. But then as we grow older we begin to read books of Scripture like Hosea and we read that God condones “little ones” being dashed against the rocks and pregnant women being torn open. If people don’t fully reject God because they find these things repulsive, often times people come to the conclusion that the Old Testament and the New Testament are divided. The Old Testament is about the God of anger but in the New Testament God changes and becomes a God of love.
There is a better way, however, to interpret these difficult passages. Everything in the Bible becomes much clearer when we have Jesus and the Gospel in mind. Jesus said that all of Scripture is actually about him (Matthew 24:27, John 5:39). Therefore when we read about children dying in the Old Testament we must think, “How does this point to Jesus and the Gospel?”
Everything in the Bible points to Jesus Christ, even the death of babies.
Why Does God Kill Babies in the Old Testament? Answer: Man’s Sin
There are many places in the Old Testament where God commands people to wipe out other people, including women, children, and even infants. Common examples include the death of the first born babies in Egypt when Pharaoh refused to release the Israelites (Exodus 11:1-10), the total annihilation of Sodom and Gomora which included the children (Genesis 19:23-29), God’s command to Saul to destroy Amalek including “both man and woman, child and infant” (1 Samuel 15:3), and throughout Deuteronomy God commands the people to destroy the people in the lands they will be invading (Deuteronomy 2:34; 3:6; 20:16-18).
Why does he do this? Why does God kill babies throughout the Old Testament? When Moses receives the 10 Commandments, God said:
You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:4-6)
The simple answer to why God killed babies in the Old Testament is because of their parents’ sin. When we do not understand the scope of sin and the punishment a holy God requires of those who transgress against him, we will not understand how God could command the Israelites to destroy whole nations, including their children and infants.
The Death of Babies Does Not Mean God’s Love Is Lower Than We Thought. It Means Man’s Sin Is Greater Than We Thought
We get upset and confused when we read about God commanding the Israelites to wipe out groups of people, including children and infants, because we think this is not fair. By “not fair” we mean those children did not deserve to be killed. The Bible affirms this. It never says God punished the children for the children’s’ sins. In fact, all those children who died all went to heaven.
2 Samuel 12 gives us some good context here. David and Bathsheba sinned in adultery. They had a child through that affair. It states:
13 Then David confessed to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
Nathan replied, “Yes, but the Lord has forgiven you, and you won’t die for this sin. 14 Nevertheless, because you have shown utter contempt for the word of the Lord by doing this, your child will die.”
15 After Nathan returned to his home, the Lord sent a deadly illness to the child of David and Uriah’s wife. . . .
22 David replied, “I fasted and wept while the child was alive, for I said, ‘Perhaps the Lord will be gracious to me and let the child live.’ 23 But why should I fast when he is dead? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him one day, but he cannot return to me.”
24 Then David comforted Bathsheba, his wife, and slept with her. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son, and David named him Solomon. The Lord loved the child 25 and sent word through Nathan the prophet that they should name him Jedidiah (which means “beloved of the Lord”), as the Lord had commanded. (2 Samuel 12:13-15, 22-25).
The child dies because of David’s sin, not its own sin. But the child does go to heaven as we see in 2 Samuel 12:23. As we will talk about later in this article, all of this seems to foreshadow the death of Jesus. The first born died, which is a theme we see throughout Scripture. Surely this points to Jesus, who is the ultimate atoning sacrifice. When God chooses Solomon, David and Bathsheba’s second child, this shows God’s desire to restore what was lost because of sin, just as he restores those who put their faith in Jesus.
God “punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate [him]” (Exodus 20:5) is the law that was enforced when God commanded the death of babies in the Old Testament. This law does not cast a shadow on the love of God but a light on the sin of man. When we read about the deaths of babies in the Old Testament, the response should not be, “Wow, God’s love is so small.” Rather, we should say, “Man’s sin is so bad. Thank God Jesus came to pay this price so we do not have to.” When we read about the punishment of sin, we should say, “That’s why Jesus had to come.”
(Note: There is a biblical difference between “kill” and “murder.” Kill is used when you have the right to take a life. Capital punishment, war, and in other such contexts it is never murder since taking life here is appropriate. Murder occurs when you take a life and you do not have that right. God can never murder anyone since he is sovereign over all life. When and how we all die is God ordained. He decides when we will enter into our eternal destination. Whether it be at two weeks old our 102 years old, God is the one who decides when our time on this earth begins and ends.
Also, in the context of when these laws were given, Israel was a theocracy. Thus the commands were given literally by God himself. God lived with them in the tabernacle and the temple and showed himself in visible ways through incredible and miraculous ways (parting the red sea, appearing as a cloud of fire, producing water out of rocks, manna from heaven, etc.). These extreme laws were validated by God’s extreme clarity and manifest presence. As we will discuss next, the New Covenant changes our relationship with these laws. God is not dwelling among us like in a theocracy. Thus any argument to obey or recreate new laws like these old law are unbiblical.)
Children Should No Longer Be Punished for Their Parents Sin Because the New Covenant Replaced the Old Covenant
What makes this whole topic even a bit more confusing at first glance is that in other parts of Scripture God says that children should not be held responsible for the sins of their parents or ancestors. Ezekiel 18:1-4 states:
The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? 3 As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. 4 Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.
So does Exodus 20:5-6 contradict with Ezekiel 18:1-4? No. It is important to realize that the Bible is a progressive narrative outlining God’s redemptive plan for humanity. The Bible has a story line and there are many seasons in the Bible which are different than other seasons. Exodus 20:5-6 is describing the penalty for sin. Ezekiel 18:1-4 is pointing to the ultimate solution for sin in the cross of Jesus Christ. Our children will not need to pay for our sins because our sins are paid for by God’s Son. Look at the movement found in Jeremiah 31:27-33, for example:
27 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man and the seed of beast. 28 And it shall come to pass that as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring harm, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, declares the Lord.29 In those days they shall no longer say:
“‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes,
and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’
30 But everyone shall die for his own iniquity. Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.
31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
Ezekiel 18:3 says “this proverb shall no more be used” and Jeremiah 31:27 says “the days are coming” and Jeremiah 31:29 says, “no longer say.” Why were these proverbs about children being punished for their parents sins once relevant but then we have passages speaking about the day when they will no longer be relevant? Jeremiah 31:31 states, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant . . .” Of course we know this New Covenant is accomplished through Christ. Christ is the reason the punishment of our parents’ sin should no longer affect us. 2 Corinthians 3:7-11 again shows us how the Old Covenant was never meant to last but was to be replaced by the New Covenant ratified by the blood of Christ:
Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, 8 will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? 9 For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory.10 Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. 11 For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory.”
The Old Covenant brought through Moses “was being brought to an end.” In other words, no, the Bible does not contradict itself. When Exodus 20:5-6 says the children will be punished because of their parent’s hatred towards God, this reminds us of the terrible consequence of sin. That was the purpose of the law, to show us how terrible our sin is, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). Human sin was present before the law, but when we are given the law we become aware of how wrong our sin actually is.
While Exodus 20:5-6 and passages about God commanding babies and children to be killed in the Old Testament show us how terrible human sin is, Bible verses like Ezekiel 18:1-4 and Jeremiah 31:27-33 point to the coming solution in Jesus Christ. We are living in the days talked about in those Bible passages. Christ has come. Christ has died for our sins. Therefore no one needs to bear the punishment of sin anymore. Now the only people who will be punished for their own sin are those who refuse to allow Christ, God himself, to take their punishment on himself.
Jesus came to fulfill the law, including the law that children will have to pay the remaining balance on their parent’s sin.
The Death of Babies Mentioned in Hosea Remind Us of the Gospel
Hosea is a beautiful book that contains historical accounts that actually happened. However, this is clearly also a book that points to Jesus. God tells Hosea to marry a prostitute, Gomer. Hosea marries her, has children with her, but despite all his kindness and love towards her she returns to her life of prostitution. Instead of killing her as she deserves for her betrayal, God tells Hosea to purchase her back again (Hosea 3:1-5). Clearly this is a picture of Christ and his church. He saves us from our sin, he gives us good gifts, we still rebel, but he still pays the price of our sin and takes us back again and again because of the work of Christ on our behalf.
When you read further in Hosea, God begins to prophesy through Hosea about the sins and consequences of rebellious people. Notice in every passage where there is a promise of severe punishment like the death of children, there is also a very clear explanation that this consequence is due to sin:
. . . as Shalman devastated Beth Arbel on the day of battle, when mothers were dashed to the ground with their children. So will it happen to you, Bethel, because your wickedness is great” (Hosea 10:14-15).
“. . . Even if they bear children, I will slay their cherished offspring.” My God will reject them because they have not obeyed him; they will be wanderers among the nations (Hosea 9:16-17).
Notice that these massive consequences of sin are “because your wickedness is great” and “because they have not obeyed him.”
Sometimes It’s Not About Punishment. Sometimes God Allows Children to Die Because of the Choices of Their Parents
I’ve never heard an atheist or someone who despises God for the death of children in the Old Testament say something like, “God could have taken away the adults freedom and allowed their choices not to matter thus saving the children.” No, they want it both ways. They don’t like the idea of God being God but they also don’t like it when he allows people to feel the weight of freedom. When nations sin, God often removes his favor. When enemies invade, the children suffer because the parents’ actions caused God’s favor to be removed.
In Matthew 18:21-35 Jesus tells a parable where a servant could not pay a great debt owed to his master, “Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt” (Matthew 18:25). Here the Old Testament and the New Testament mirror each other in that it shows the consequences of our sins actually can affect other people, including our children. The wickedness of Nazi Germany brought Allie bombs to the whole country of Germany, killing not just soldiers but many innocent babies. The consequences of sinful adults in war often affect innocent children.
Human sin never happens in a vacuum. Your sin never just affects you. Just read through Joshua 7 and see how Achan’s sin caused God’s favor to be removed from his community. Eventually his sin caused the death of his whole family. Likewise, all humans have been given the weighty gift of real freedom. But real freedom has real consequences. No one could stand living in an existence where our choices really didn’t matter, where human freedom was just a mirage. And yet in our sin we also complain about human consequences.
Consequences are an essential ingredient to true freedom. We are free whether we like it or not, therefore our sin will hurt other people in our lives whether we like this truth or not. When you don’t go to work, your kids don’t have food to eat. When adults go to war with one another, children die. That’s the reality of our world. Likewise, that’s the clear takeaway when we see the how the parent’s sin caused the death of their children in the Old Testament. The parents were given a true choice to protect or not to protect their kids. When they forsook God, they forsook his favor and protection and the children suffered the consequences of the parent’s choices.
As horrible as this reality is, God uses this fact – the fact that our sin is so evil it will affect the innocent in our lives – to reveal to us just how evil our sinfulness really is. Nothing will awaken you more to the atrocity of your sinfulness than when you see it hurting those you love most.
In Matthew 18:27 it adds, “The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.” The way God cancels our debt is through the blood of Christ. The point God is making through the death of innocent children due to the sin of their parents is not to show that God is hateful but to show how great and wicked our sin really is. Only when we realize this will we rely on the sacrifice of Christ as we should.
Why Did God Kill Babies in the Old Testament? He Ultimately Didn’t, Man’s Sin Killed These Innocent Children. Sin Always Produces Death
Everything in the Bible is about Jesus and his Gospel. God even uses the sins of parents which bring great consequences of evil upon innocent children as a means of pointing everyone to our need for Jesus. The death of babies in the Bible is not because of God’s wrath, but because of God’s wrath in response to evil sins committed by people. Man’s sin brings God’s judgment and removes God’s favor, and often the result of this horrible atrocity results in children being affected.
But this is why Jesus came to save us. He came to save us from these awful sins and the consequences of them. So when we read of babies dying at the command of God, we must praise God for the gospel which is able to save us from such divine wrath towards sin. We must reexamine our poor understanding of how awful our sin really is. We mustn’t blame God, we must blame human sin for the death of babies in the Old Testament. This should then awaken in us a greater appreciation and love for the gospel of Jesus Christ which alone can save us from such wrath.
Next time you come to a difficult passage in Scripture, filter it through the lens of Jesus and the Cross and see if it does not become instantly clear. God killed his own son in the New Testament so none of us would have to see the effects of human sin that are so clearly displayed in the Old Testament.