The Book of Deuteronomy begins innocently enough—we are treated to long summation of the Israelites’ wandering through the desert by Moses, the first of the three long sermons that make up the book. The Israelites are about to enter the promised land, and are, apparently, in a bit of a reflective mood. Moses begins to extol all of the travails and difficulties that they encountered, reminding them that the “LORD God” has been with them all the way. It’s filled with a lot of references to many tribes, groups, and kings, which can be a bit daunting to read through. But on the whole it seems, mostly, like an staid, monotone reflection on a long journey.
That is, until we hit the part about massacring.
I think it is just best to directly quote the text for this. We will pick up at the part where Moses gets to the battles:
When Sihon and all his army came out to meet us in battle at Jahaz, the LORD our God delivered him over to us and we struck him down, together with his sons and his whole army. At that time we took all his towns and completely destroyed them—men, women and children. We left no survivors. But the livestock and the plunder from the towns we had captured we carried off for ourselves. From Aroer on the rim of the Arnon Gorge, and from the town in the gorge, even as far as Gilead, not one town was too strong for us. The LORD our God gave us all of them. (Deut. 2:32-36).
But that’s not all:
So the LORD our God also gave into our hands Og king of Bashan and all his army. We struck them down, leaving no survivors. … 6 We completely destroy them, as we had done with Sihon king of Heshbon, destroying every city—men, women and children (Deut. 3; Deut. 6).
Quaint passages, no? This, among other notorious sections of the Old Testament, is one of the areas that has caused Christians much concern—and continues to cause many pacifist or (at least) liberal Jews/Christians pause now: How could God condone such horrible violence?* Supporting the army of his chosen people may be one thing, but the killing of women and children too? What kind of God would be pushing this?
The first option would generally be to figure Moses as a liar, a charlatan, or, at the very least, not inspired by God in this particular case. Moses and his followers may have thought God was commanding them to kill all of the women and children, but because we know God could not really want that, they must have been wrong. This is probably the best of way of taking this passage—at least from the perspective of a believer. Logically, however, it also should make us conclude that we cannot possibly believe everything we read in scripture. A literalist must believe Moses was speaking from divine inspiration, which—it is clear—the book holds he was. And morally, that’s a difficult position to maintain.
Other, perhaps more traditional faith-based answers, have been varied—and probably too numerous to mention. Most Christians note that the God of the Old Testament was strikingly different from the God of the New Testament, but dismiss the older as, for better or worse, old case law: the new precedent of an all-loving and peaceful God is the one that should take root. This, rather, was an artifact of its time. (Some, including most Gnostics, went much further.) That perspective may be all well and good; and it does, indeed, explain away the issues here, but we’re still left to conclude that we can’t take this literally and therefore there must be something wrong with Moses, and/or the writer of the book, and/or its inspiration.
The secular viewpoint would hold this was just a bunch of political pandering on behalf of Moses, or at least a later scribe’s attribution to God historical victories of the Israelite people.
Whatever perspective you take on this, it should be impossible to conclude that divine killing of men, women and children—the killing of innocents—would be what God wants. At least any God that would be worth believing in.
*I anticipate the argument that a strict reading of the text here would not directly attribute the killings of innocents to God, but I think that’s overly technical and missing the broad point of these passages in context. Without quoting the entire book, if you disagree with me, I’d encourage you read the first three chapters again, and see the sermon in context. It’s clear that this is all God-provided, and God-inspired.