Why did God sanction killing everything that breathes against the 7 nations?

Why did God sanction such a thing? How is every single person of these nations to blame?

Deuteronomy 20:16 "However, of these peoples' cities, which the Lord, your God, gives you as an inheritance, you shall not allow any soul to live."

Deuteronomy 7:2 "And the Lord, your God, will deliver them to you, and you shall smite them. You shall utterly destroy them; neither shall you make a covenant with them, nor be gracious to them."

These injunctions encompass every single living person, regardless of age, even little children. Does this not contradict the very basic sense of objective human morality, not to murder? (and even one of the ten commandments)

Does this also not contradict the biblical notion that a person is not liable of his son's sins or his father's sins?

Also, the following instance speaks about Midianites, yet Moses ordered little children to be killed. Why was he allowed to carry this out? (When you go to war you kill the men, but if the war pertains to the 7 nations you kill everyone. The men of Midian were killed, but also some of the women due to the incident of Peor, not because they were apart of the 7 nations. But then the little male children of Midian were also ordered to be killed by Moses, so then I also ask, besides the ethical problem, what biblical justification is there to kill the little children of Midian? they weren't apart of the 7 nations after all, and there was no reason to have put them to death), Why then did God not rebuke him for it?

Numbers 31:17 "So now kill every male child, and every woman who can lie intimately with a man you shall kill."

Finally, why not incorporate them into the Israelite nation and raise them as Israelites?

  • @msh210 this is not a dupe! Random user is asking specifically about the ethical nature of such a commandment and how a moral god can permit such cruelty, while the other is asking about the practical dinim of a Milchama (if there is a general rule to kill males or not). They are not related in any way. You should take off your marking!
    – Bach
    Jun 2, 2017 at 1:52
  • 1
    Deuteronomy 24:16 "Fathers shall not be put to death because of sons, nor shall sons be put to death because of fathers; each man shall be put to death for his own transgression"
    – RandomUser
    Jun 2, 2017 at 9:13
  • 3
    I don't understand how this violates the 10 commandments any more than capital punishment does. God commands us not to murder and then commands us who yes to kill.
    – Double AA
    Jun 2, 2017 at 17:12
  • 1
    "why not incorporate them into the Israelite nation and raise them as Israelites?" They would need to convert voluntarily. See judaism.stackexchange.com/q/52891/759
    – Double AA
    Jun 2, 2017 at 17:13

1 Answer 1


I don't think there's any good answer to your questions. But i will cite a few Jewish sources that deal with few of your issues.

Your problem with how the Torah can command to kill "all that breathes" is already dealt with by the Rishonim. In the letters of the Remah (26-27) we find that he asked his Rabbis in Lunel how the Torah can command us to kill all the inhabitants of the Ir hanidachas, even the little ones that are innocent? The answer they give is,

לרדות הגדולים בהריגתן שהן חביבין עליהן

it is done in order to threaten the adults with their execution, for they cherish them

another answer is given there by R Aharon of Lunel

חומר הוא שהחמיר הקב"ה בע"ז ושבועה וחילול ה', להחרים ולהשמיד הכל למען ישמעו ויראו הנשארים

All of these explanations have their own difficulties, but i will not elaborate on them. The Rambam seems to offer a different explanation in his Moreh (1:54)

ודע, כי אמרו, 'פוקד עון אבות על בנים' - אמנם חטא בחטא של 'עבודה זרה' לבד, לא בחטא אחר ... וזאת המצוה, מצאנוה נמשך ב'תורה' בכל מקום, כמו שצותה ב'עיר הנדחת' החרם אותה את כל אשר בה" - כל זה למחות הרושם ההוא המביא להפסד הגדול,

Over here the Rambam suggests that it is the verse 'פוקד עון אבות על בנים' that allows us to punish people who worship idols so severely, and to make an exception to the rule. However, it is not clear if we can apply this to pagans as well, since they never accepted the covenant at Sinai. In any case, we can infer from from this Rambam that when it comes to the sin - of worshiping idols - there are exceptions to the rule. This might be the answer to your question regarding the biblical contradiction. (Note also that the biblical prohibition not to kill sons for the sins of their fathers was said only regarding the killing of the Israelite's not Canaanites).

The Rambam also writes in that chapter,

הלא תסתכל בכתובי ה'תורה' כאשר צוה לאבד 'שבעה עממים' ואמר, "לא תחיה כל נשמה", סמך לו מיד, "למען אשר לא ילמדו אתכם לעשות ככל תועבותם אשר עשו לאלוהיהם, וחטאתם ליי אלוהיכם". יאמר, לא תחשוב שזו אכזריות או בקשת גאולת דם, אבל הוא פועל שיגזור אותו הדעת האנושי, שיוסר כל מי שיטה מדרך האמת ויורחקו המונעים כולם אשר ימנעו מן השלמות אשר הוא השגתו ית

You have, no doubt, noticed in the Torah how the commandment to annihilate the seven nations, and "to save alive nothing that breatheth" (Deut. xx. 16) is followed immediately by the words, "That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods: so should you sin against the Lord your God" (ib. 18); that is to say, you shall not think that this commandment implies an act of cruelty or of retaliation; it is an act demanded by the tendency of man to remove everything that might turn him away from the right path, and to clear away all obstacles in the road to perfection, that is, to the knowledge of God.

Maimonides, Moses. The Guide for the Perplexed (p. 57).

Regarding the war against the Midianites, it seems that the object of the war was to take revenge of the Midianites for luring the Israelites into their trap. Perhaps this is the reason for their harsh treatment. We find a similar attitude towards the Amalekites, in which we are commanded to kill all of them (even little ones) and to blot out their names and to avenge the blood of the innocents that were attacked for no obvious reason. See also Ramban bamidbar 31:6, who also makes this obvious connection.

  • Thank you for compiling various sources, I upvoted your response but unfortunately I do not have enough reputation for it to show up. Indeed unfortunately as you yourself mentioned, there aren't any compelling answers to the problem. I find the Rambam's answer particularly insufficient, considering little children would not have had the impact to influence the Israelites to such an extent, nor grow up to fully remember their parents and their deeds so to end up seeking vengeance. Therefore is it nonetheless justified to rid ourselves of all of them?
    – RandomUser
    Jun 5, 2017 at 9:07
  • Thanx for trying though. I agree with you that all of the answers above are not very compelling. The way i look at it, is that the Torah was given in a specific culture (barbaric) and timeline, when such ruthless behavior was fairly common in all societies. The Torah was merely dealing with them the same way they dealt with us and all their surrounding neighbors. Indeed, it is hard for us in a modern culture to understand how the Torah was able to allow such brutal behavior, but if we put things in perspective, i think , the force of this question weakens.
    – Bach
    Jun 5, 2017 at 13:47
  • I disagree with @Bach in that the Torah is supposed to show us the correct way and we are not supposed to act like other nations. These questions bug me more than anything else and I will never find a satisfactory answer. That every D'var Torah I will hear on this week's sedra (Matot-Masei) will completely overlook the genocide that takes place shows they have nothing to say and if anything just ignore it hoping we won't notice.
    – CashCow
    Jul 10, 2018 at 16:06
  • @CashCow if you think that there is no satisfactory answer, maybe its time for you to rethink your premise that the Torah is only about teaching mercy and passion. Obviously it contains some element of cruelty and revenge as well.
    – Bach
    Jul 10, 2018 at 19:15
  • So let's say in the modern world that a lot of prostitutes come from a specific country, maybe Romania, and that some Jews transgress and visit them. Does that give us authority to go and mass-slaughter all Romanian adult men, male children and non-virgin women? Except it wasn't like that: it's like most of them were Polish but the one the key member went with was Romanian and descended from a prominent member of the government there... (swap Polish there for Moabite and Romanian for Midianite).
    – CashCow
    Jul 16, 2018 at 8:35

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