Did God command killings in the Old Testament or was that a misunderstanding?


Arguments rage about the Bible and how we should interpret it, especially about the Old Testament. Conservative christians are often critical of those who take a “liberal” view, which conservatives see as destructive and unfaithful, while sceptics tend to see the conservatives as not following the evidence.

Is there any way to break through on this question? Are there any clues in the Bible itself?

It turns out that there is much food for thought.

Clues in the Old Testament

I have previously discussed parts of the Old Testament that suggest that the Bible cannot be seen as an inerrant textbook of God’s character and the behaviour he requires of us:

I concluded then that the Bible God has given us must be a little different from what our theology might tell us, and some sections are corrected by other sections (mostly the New Testament corrects the Old).

Today, courtesy of Peter Enns, I came across another example.

Jehu, the mad chariot driver

2 Kings 9 tells the story of a mad chariot driver, the devious and murderous Jehu. The year is 841 BCE, and Jehu is the army commander of Israel under king Jehoram (or Joram), and they are fighting the Syrians. The king is wounded and retires from the battle. The prophet Elisha chooses this time to secretly anoint Jehu as king, to replace Joram, confirming a previous anointing by the Prophet Elijah. Elisha tells Jehu to kill all the family of the line of Ahab – Joram, Jezebel and all their relatives – because of their evil in worshipping Baal and in killing prophets.

Jehu is up to the challenge, and in his chariot leads a force of troops to Jezreel where king Joram is meeting with Ahaziah, king of Judah. The lookout recognises Jehu because he “drives like a maniac”. The two kings foolishly go out to meet him, and Jehu kills them both. He duly continues the purge and brutally kills Jezebel, and arranges for more than seventy other descendants to be gruesomely murdered, and his coup is complete.

Jehu went on to reign as king of Israel for 27 years and establish one of the longer dynasties of that turbulent period (5 kings in all reigning for 102 years).

It is easy to gloss over the horror of these events (and so many others like them), but they were brutal times and life was cheap – 4 kings of Israel were assassinated in 2 decades. Yet this murderous coup is said to have been commanded by God through the prophets Elijah and Elisha.

Hosea has a different idea

Hosea was a prophet in Israel at this time, and appears to have been an educated and informed man – perhaps a member of a well-to-do family. At the beginning of the book of Hosea (1:4), he records a message given to him by God:

“I will soon punish the house of Jehu for the massacre at Jezreel”

Who was right?

Did Elisha and Elijah get it right and Hosea somehow misunderstood God? Or was it the other way round? Or did God change his mind? It is hard to be happy with any of these “explanations”.

Conservative christian commentators say that God truly commanded the destruction of the house of Ahab, but Jehu went too far and so was himself condemned, but it is hard to accept this too, for Jehu seems to have done exactly as he was supposedly commanded.

Peter Enns suggests that the truth is that the Old Testament isn’t an accurate and consistent record of God’s commands, but rather a record of the varying viewpoints as the Jews struggled to understand God.

Perhaps the prophets Elijah and Elisha did hear from God on some occasions, but at other times fell into the trap of using their authority as God’s spokespersons to justify their own political assessments and the brutal standards of the day.

Two ways to respond

How should we respond?

One way is to keep hold of our dogmatic view of scripture as consistent, authoritative and without error, and find a way to explain and justify God’s behaviour, as if it is immoral for us to murder but OK for God to command us to murder.

I am deeply troubled by such an approach for it preserves a view of scripture that isn’t taught there, at the cost of impugning God’s loving character revealed most completely in Jesus.

I think it is more honest, more in accordance with the evidence, and a better understanding of God’s character, to see the Old Testament as a record of God’s interaction with humans, who started with many misunderstandings that were slowly corrected until God sent Jesus.

I don’t pretend to understand all this, but I think that is as close to the truth as I can get, just now at any rate.

What do you think?

Photo: Assyrian chariot with charioteer and archer protected from enemy attack by shield bearers – not the same as the Israelite chariots mentioned in this post, but close enough. Wikipedia (Wikimedia Commons).


50 thoughts on “Did God command killings in the Old Testament or was that a misunderstanding?

  1. unkleE says:

    Hi Thomas, thanks for the encouragement. I’m sorry your comments don’t appear straight away – WordPress is keeping you on moderation, I don’t know why, and I will try to fix it up. Thanks for your interest.


  2. Thomas says:

    That’s ok 🙂

    Can I send you a comment on your website using the form, where I give you my email-adress – without my email-adress appearing on the website?



  3. Thomas says:

    Dear Unkle

    Talking about the olivet discourse you said earlier:
    “Yes, I am sure much of it is symbolic, but probably not all of it.”

    Do you think that any part of the Olivet Discourse was meant to be applied to the end times (in our future)?

    Also I have some questions that plagues me … maybe it plages me especially much because I have begun reading the whole bible.

    1) The Petrine Epistles seem to be NOT written by Peter. But by someone who appearently doesn’t even knew Jesus.

    2) There are a lot of talking about the end times being very near in the apostles writings. Paul even says that he will be alive – and changed bodily – when Jesus returns.

    I have a hard time sailing smooth through these “doubting questions”.



  4. unkleE says:

    Hi Thomas,

    There are several views that some people seem to hold about this passage that I question – I don’t necessarily disagree, but I do question.

    One is that they assume we can and should be able to decipher cryptic references Jesus made and get definite historical/prophetic information out of it – like some sort of timeline of events. I doubt that. I don’t think Jesus was giving us any firm prediction of events (the same is often true, I believe, for the OT prophets) but rather a picture of the sorts of things that could happen.

    So trying to assign sections of this passage to different time periods seems questionable to me. One interpretation of the book of Revelation is that it teaches theological truths but not a historical or literal timeline of events, and I think that could be true here also.

    So I think that different ones of Jesus’ sayings here may apply to back then, or the so-called end times, or somewhere in between, or even two at once.

    I also think we cannot be clear how to interpret “the end times”. In many respects, we are in the end times now, but in other respects they are still to come.

    So I think the whole thing is muddy.

    I think many of the sayings apply right through this age – e.g. wars and rumours of wars. I think some parts applied most particularly back then – e.g. the abomination of desolation.I think the sun and moon darkening are metaphorical (Peter quoted Joel to this effect in Acts 2). I think not knowing the day and hour applies right through from then until the very end. So I’m not sure if there are any sayings that apply to the very end only, but plenty that apply then, and now as well.

    I am a little sceptical about the claims, on the basis of style, that certain books weren’t written by the named author. I think authors can change their style, and I haven’t seen anyone do detailed analysis of other authors to test their method. But it remains true that 2 Peter is doubted by many (1 Peter not so much).

    I don’t worry all that much. If I believed that the Bible was inerrant and everything had to have apostolic authority, then it would matter. But I trust the gospels and Acts as history, and I accept the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of the epistles etc on faith without necessarily thinking they are perfect. I don’t believe we should follow any teaching slavishly and pedantically – Paul says in Romans 7:4-6 and 2 Corinthians 3:6 that we live by the Spirit and not by rules (see also Galatians 5:13-26, Luke 16:16-17, Romans 13:8-10 & Romans 14:23).

    Despite what anyone says, I believe all christians filter the Bible’s teaching through their own understanding, and all reject some parts and emphasise other parts. I think the only thing wrong with this is that they ought to be more strongly praying for the Holy Spirit’s guidance before they do it, and they should recognise explicitly they do it rather than try to pretend that they don’t.

    I don’t worry too much about the early church expecting the end times real soon. Maybe they were mistaken, who cares? But if the end times started with the coming of Jesus, they weren’t mistaken in their expectation, only in how they understood what would happen in the end times.

    I’m sorry if you aren’t having smooth sailing. But this is how we learn and grow sometimes. I think we need to hold firmly to the things we think are well established and important, and not expect certainty in other areas. These things are things where I don’t see why we should expect or need certainty. As CS Lewis said, if we really needed to know, we should hopefully be able to trust that God would reveal the truth. And I think that is happening about many things today where new understandings are replacing old.

    I hope that stimulates your thinking and helps. Best wishes.


  5. Thomas says:

    Dear Unkle

    Yes, it is very stimulating. And it makes me continue searching and exploring 🙂

    In fact, yesterday I read some very old bible commentary. And I was flabbergasted. These commentaries seemed to agree with Wright in his interpretation og The Olivet Discourse (that everything was about back then). Also they helped me view the epistles with more clarity.

    If I may:

    The Olivet Discourse, Adam Clarke (b. 1760–1762, d. August 28, 1832):

    “This chapter contains a prediction of the utter destruction of the city and temple of Jerusalem, and the subversion of the whole political constitution of the Jews; and is one of the most valuable portions of the new covenant Scriptures, with respect to the evidence which it furnishes of the truth of Christianity. Every thing which our Lord foretold should come on the temple, city, and people of the Jews, has been fulfilled in the most correct and astonishing manner; and witnessed by a writer who was present during the whole, who was himself a Jew, and is acknowledged to be an historian of indisputable veracity in all those transactions which concern the destruction of Jerusalem. Without having designed it, he has written a commentary on our Lord’s words, and shown how every tittle was punctually fulfilled, though he knew nothing of the Scripture which contained this remarkable prophecy. His account will be frequently referred to in the course of these notes; as also the admirable work of Bishop Newton on the prophecies.”
    See verse by verse: https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/acc/matthew-24.html

    The Olivet Discourse, John Gill (23 November 1697 – 14 October 1771):

    “Verily I say unto you, this generation shall not pass
    Not the generation of men in general; as if the sense was, that mankind should not cease, until the accomplishment of these things; nor the generation, or people of the Jews, who should continue to be a people, until all were fulfilled; nor the generation of Christians; as if the meaning was, that there should be always a set of Christians, or believers in Christ in the world, until all these events came to pass; but it respects that present age, or generation of men then living in it; and the sense is, that all the men of that age should not die, but some should live till all these things were fulfilled;
    see ( Matthew 16:28 ) as many did, and as there is reason to believe they might, and must, since all these things had their accomplishment, in and about forty years after this: and certain it is, that John, one of the disciples of Christ, outlived the time by many years; and, as Dr. Lightfoot observes, many of the Jewish doctors now living, when Christ spoke these words, lived until the city was destroyed; as Rabban Simeon, who perished with it, R. Jochanan ben Zaccai, who outlived it, R. Zadoch, R. Ishmael, and others: this is a full and clear proof, that not anything that is said before, relates to the second coming of Christ, the day of judgment, and end of the world; but that all belong to the coming of the son of man, in the destruction of Jerusalem, and to the end of the Jewish state.”
    Verse 24:34: http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/gills-exposition-of-the-bible/matthew-24-34.html

    The Olivet Discourse, Thomas Coke (9 September 1747 – 2 May 1814):

    “Commentators generally understand this and what follows, of the end of the world, and of Christ’s coming to judgment; but the words evidently shew that he is not speaking of any distant event, but of something consequent upon the tribulation before-mentioned,and that must be the destruction of Jerusalem. It is true, his figures are very strong; but no stronger than are used by the ancient prophets on similar occasions.”
    Verse 24:29: https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/tcc/matthew-24.html

    And if we look at 1 Thess 4:15-17:
    “According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”

    I thought Paul said that he would be alive at judgement day, but what does the commentators say:

    Adam Clarke:
    “We which are alive, and remain – By the pronoun we the apostle does not intend himself, and the Thessalonians to whom he was then writing; he is speaking of the genuine Christians which shall be found on earth when Christ comes to judgment. From not considering the manner in which the apostle uses this word, some have been led to suppose that he imagined that the day of judgment would take place in that generation, and while he and the then believers at Thessalonica were in life. But it is impossible that a man, under so direct an influence of the Holy Spirit, should be permitted to make such a mistake: nay, no man in the exercise of his sober reason could have formed such an opinion; there was nothing to warrant the supposition; no premises from which it could be fairly deduced; nor indeed any thing in the circumstances of the Church, nor in the constitution of the world, that could have suggested a hint of the kind. The apostle is speaking of the thing indefinitely as to the time when it shall happen, but positively as to the Order that shall be then observed.”

    The next two commentators explain it well, I think:

    John Gill:
    “That we which are alive, and remain unto the coming of the Lord:
    not that the apostle thought that he and the saints then in the flesh should live and continue till the second coming of Christ; for he did not imagine that the coming of Christ was so near, as is manifest from ( 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3 ) though the Thessalonians might take him in this sense, which he there corrects; but he speaks of himself and others in the first person plural, by way of instance and example, for illustration sake; that supposing he and others should be then in being, the following would be the case: and moreover, he might use such a way of speaking with great propriety of other saints, and even of those unborn, and that will be on the spot when Christ shall come a second time; since all the saints make up one body, one family, one church and general assembly; so that the apostle might truly and justly say, “we which are alive”; that is, as many of our body, of our family, of our church or society, that shall be living at the coming of Christ; and he might choose the rather to speak in this form, person, and tense, to awaken the care, circumspection, diligence, and watchfulness of the saints, since it could not be known how soon the Lord would come: however, from hence it appears, that there will be saints alive at Christ’s second coming; he will have a seed to serve him till he comes again; he always had in the worst of times, and will have, and that even in the last days, in the days of the son of man, which are said to be like those of Noah and of Lot: and these are said to “remain”, or to be “left”, these will be a remnant, the residue and remainder of the election of grace, and will be such as have escaped the fury of antichrist and his followers, or of the persecutors of the saints: now these”

    Thomas Coke:
    “That we which are alive, &c.— Because here and elsewhere St. Paul speaks in the first person plural, and thereby seems to join himself with those who should be alive at Christ’s second coming, when the dead are to be raised, and the living transformed,—some have too hastily concluded that he thought the day of the Lord to be just then at hand; and that he, and several of the Christians of that age, should be of the number of those who should (not die and be raised again, but) be transformed: but they are great strangers to St. Paul’s stile and manner, who have not observed in what a latitude he uses the word we; sometimes thereby meaning himself, and at other times himself and his companions; sometimes the Apostles, and at other times the Christians in general;—in some places the Jewish, and in other places the Gentile Christians. Besides, how often are all Christians considered as one church, one family, one kingdom, one city, one building, the members of one and the same body, whether they be in heaven or on earth, in what age or nation soever they live! Further, to confirm this interpretation, it is evident that St. Paul expected not to escape death, but that he should die, and rise again, 2 Corinthians 5:6; 2 Corinthians 5:8. Philippians 1:23; Philippians 3:10-11; Philippians 3:21. And, finally, when the Thessalonians, by the means either of some weak or some designing persons, were led into this mistake, St. Paul himself wrote them a second Epistle, in which he assures them, that he did not design to say any such thing as that the day of the Lord was at hand; for a grand apostacy was first to happen in the Christian church. See the notes on 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12. Dr. Heylin renders the latter part of this verse thus: “That we who remain alive until the coming of the Lord, shall not enter [into bliss] before those who are departed.”

    Interesting how Thomas Coke mentions Philippians 3:10-11:
    “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.”

    John Gill on verse 11 explains this well, I think:
    “If by any means I, might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. Not in a figurative sense, the resurrection from the death of sin to a life of grace, of which Christ is the efficient cause, for this the apostle had attained to; unless the consummation of that spiritual life, in perfect holiness, should be intended, than which nothing was more desirable by him; nor in a representative sense, for this also he enjoyed in Christ his head, being risen with him, and in him, when he rose from the dead; but in a literal sense and designs not the general resurrection of the just and unjust, which he believed; for he knew that everyone must, and will attain to this, even Pharaoh, Judas, and the worst of men; but the special and particular resurrection of the righteous, the better resurrection, which will be first, and upon the personal coming of Christ, and by virtue of union to him, and in a glorious manner, and to everlasting life and happiness: and when the apostle says, “if by any means” he might attain to this, it is not to be understood as if he doubted of it, which would be inconsistent with his firm persuasion, that nothing should separate him from the love of God, and with his full assurance of faith, as to interest in Jesus Christ; but it denotes the difficulty of attaining it, since through various afflictions and great tribulations a believer must pass, before he comes to it; and also the apostle’s earnest desire of it, and strenuous endeavour for it; not caring what scenes of trouble, or sea of sorrow what fiery trials, severe sufferings, or cruel death he went through, so be it he obtained as he believed he should, the glorious and better resurrection; he counted not his life dear to himself, he loved it not unto death, having in view the blissful and happy state after it.”

    In some other instances where it sounds like the apostles make reference to the second coming of Christ, they are in fact making references to the destruction of the temple! But anyone can make the search if they want using for example the commentators I have mentioned 🙂

    That was a long post with a lot of quotes, sorry.

    By the way, I would love to know what Wright thinks about this Thess. verse 1. Thess 4:15-17. Do you know?

    I think I have read him say, that probably Paul believed in the second coming of Christ in his day. But I can’t find it. Of course I hope that he would agree with the above commentators. I wouldn’t like Paul make a prophecy that’s incorrect.



  6. Thomas says:

    Dear Unkle

    I have found the answer to my question:


    IN NTPG, p. 461, the last paragraph, you said:

    The forth and final aspect of Christian hope is the expectation of the return of Jesus. It is vital to stress both that most of the texts normally drawn on in this connection have nothing to do with the case, and that there are several others which still bear on it directly. Following our exposition in chapter 10, it should be clear that texts which speak of the “coming of the son of man on a cloud” have as their obvious first-century meaning the prediction of vindication for the true Israel.

    According to what you wrote in other places, 1 Thess 4:15 – 17 and 1 Cor 15:51-52 are among “several others which still bear on it directly”.

    Paul uses “we” in 1 Thess 4:15-17. The obvious referent of this pronoun in this context seems to be his readers and himself. When Paul said “we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord”, it seems that he did not think of the possibility that none of his readers and himself would be alive until THN PAROUSIA TOU KYRIOU.

    So, how does Paul’s “we” language does not suggest that “the Lord’s return itself must happen within a generation” (p. 463, NTPG)? Similarly Paul said in 1 Cor 15:51-52, “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed”. The obvious referent of this “we” here is also his readers and himself. So, how can “we shall not all sleep… at the last trumpet” not imply that some of his readers and himself would not sleep at the last trumpet?


    From Paul’s point of view, of course the return of Jesus might have occurred at any time, therefore it could be tomorrow — or today — and he and his readers might still be alive. But by Philippians he has faced the possibility that he may well die first (though he still thinks he may not), and by 2 Corinthians he has concluded that he probably will die first. Certainly from his perspective it remains a clear possibility that some of them will still be alive. But nothing in his theology hinges on that as a prediction which would then be falsified by subsequent generations of church history.



  7. Thomas says:

    Dear Unkle

    Well, I have read some more. I realized that I had only seen the top of the iceberg. Wow, so many commentaries on the bible! I had never seen that coming.

    Well, it seems that I have to acknowledge and come to terms with the fact, that Paul probably did think that Jesus’ second coming would happen in his own lifetime. At least in the beginning of his career.

    That was hard for me to swallow. I thought that having the Holy Spirit was something like being “enlightened”. Now, if Paul simply DID NOT KNEW, it would be a lot easier to swallow. Especially because that would be part of what Jesus himself said in Acts 1:6-7:

    Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.”

    But Paul is stating very explicit that Jesus in fact WILL come when he/they are still alive. For instance:

    Thess 4:15-17

    “According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”

    (So it seems to be part of his revelation that Jesus would come soon!)

    Somehow I have to understand that Paul mingled the words of the Holy Spirit (or was it from the Lord’s apostles?)/The Doctrine of ressurection with his own carnal convictions.

    It seems to be ok with a lot of commentators – including Wright – who do acknowledge that Paul really believed in the Jesus’ soon coming. He doesn’t think it compromises his teaching on doctrine. Hmm, why does it not?! How to separate?

    Do you have any thoughts on this?

    You know what – I have tried myself to have another man convince me that he was soaked in Jesus’ spirit. And he too said, that Jesus would return in his lifetime! (Even though he didn’t knew the day and the hour). AND I BELIEVED HIM FOR MANY YEARS. So, you see, I do have some kind of problem with that …

    Well, I think I’m only a few clicks away from ordering Wright’s The New Testament for Everyone with his commentaries. My intuition tells me he has a deep understanding.

    Thanks! Our convesation really helps me sailing when the waves are high and threatening!



  8. unkleE says:

    Hi Thomas, these are deep matters and I don’t have all the answers. Here are a few thoughts.

    1. God gave us free will and that means people think in widely different ways – in politics, in ethics, in religion too. So there will always be different views, even among the experts. For a start, non-believers will likely think differently to believers about many things, and not all writers of commentaries are believers.

    2. I think we need to distinguish between Jesus coming back and the kingdom coming. Many people, including many early christians, thought they were the same thing, but I don’t. The kingdom, I believe, came with Jesus, and came with power when the Holy Spirit came in Acts 2. It will be consummated when Jesus returns.

    Some statements about Jesus “coming on the clouds” seem to refer to Daniel 7:13, which pictures the Son of Man returning to God, not to earth. If we apply it to Jesus, it describes him returning to God after his first time on earth.

    3. As you mentioned in a previous comment, the “we” doesn’t have to include Paul personally (though that is the most normal meaning), but can simply mean “those of us who are alive” – and the wording suggests uncertainty and some time away from when he wrote.

    I often use “we” often in a similar way, such as when I say “we have now discovered that the universe began 14 billion years ago”. I didn’t discover it, I just mean that we, the human race, discovered it. So that reference doesn’t bother me at all.

    4. I think a key is how we understand the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I think there are 3 basic concepts:

    (i) God so controlled the Bible writers that they didn’t make any significant mistakes in teaching or in scientific & historical facts.
    (ii) Ditto, but God only ensured the teaching was correct, allowing the writers to speak in the language and understanding of the day on science and history.
    (iii) Inspiration means God prompted people to write but didn’t control what they wrote, but still uses the scriptures to for his purposes.

    A key passage here is 2 Timothy 3:16, which uses the Greek word which we translate as “God-breathed”. Some say this means God “breathed out” the scriptures and so they must be perfect, but perhaps a more accurate meaning is that God breathed into the scriptures to graciously give life to these otherwise human writings.

    In the end, we have to choose what seems right. Many christians prefer (i) or (ii) because they feel it gives greater certainty, but in fact it just pushes back the uncertainty to the question of whether we can believe the scriptures are without error.

    My view is closer to (iii), because that seems to be true to the scriptures themselves. I have learnt to accept the Bible for what it apparently is rather than what I think it ought to be.

    That being the case, I accept on evidential grounds the gospels as historical but not infallible, and accept on faith the epistles as guidance but not infallible. The scriptures (Paul) teach us that we shouldn’t regard the written scriptures as “law”, but rather trust the Holy Spirit to guide us in understanding them – see Romans 7:6, 2 Corinthians 3:6, Romans 14:23.

    I hope that helps.


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