One of the wonderful things about the Bible is that it never skips over difficult situations or avoids ethical dilemmas. The fact that the Bible is also historically accurate causes some interesting questions to arise for a thoughtful reader, and can give ammunition for the skeptic to attack the reliability of God’s Word. Two such questions are, “How can the God of the Bible, Who is supposed to be characterized by love and mercy, allow and even command the slaughter of innocent children in a number of places in the Old Testament? Is this not proof that God’s judgment is indiscriminate, condemning the innocent with the guilty?”
But how are we to define an “innocent” child? We understand from Scripture that every human being is a sinner from the womb (Psa 51:5; 58:3; Isa 48:8) but there comes an age (known only to God) where a child is held responsible for his actions (see Prov 20:11). Before this age a number of Scriptures show that God takes into His eternal care children who die at a very young age (for example Jer 31:15-17; 2Sam 12:23). Also, the actions of Christ in His walk on earth show God’s loving attitude toward little children (Matt 18:2-4, 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16 [adds the lovely detail, He took them up in His arms]). So we will define an “innocent” child as one who is too young to make major, moral decisions.
Our big mistake is that we assume that we can judge God’s actions like a jury who has viewed the evidence, heard the arguments, and has a right to render a verdict. This assumption has two major problems. First, God has a right no human being has ever possessed, a sovereign right to give and take life as He sees fit. “Behold, God is exalted in His power … Who has prescribed for Him His way, or who can say, ‘You have done wrong’?” (Job 36:22-23 ESV). But this is balanced by God’s righteousness, and so He never acts with wanton cruelty as Satan does when, for example, he motivated Herod to slaughter the innocent children of Bethlehem. Second, every society whether past or present is guilty of perpetrating the deaths of innocent children through erosion of family values, abortion, child pornography, war, and an ever present lust for material things in the western world while children are dying from lack of food and medicine in other parts of the world. As we now look into God’s Word for answers, let us understand that our ability to judge God is skewed by our own guilt, and that He functions in a realm so far beyond human jurisdiction that our verdict on God’s actions is of no consequence.
There are a number of times in the Bible when children died as a result of God’s judgment: from the flood that happened in Noah’s day, to the stoning of Achan and his family, to God’s command for the Canaanites to be annihilated by the invading Israelite nation. Note that students of Hebrew have explained that the oft-quoted example of the “little children” who mocked the man of God and met divine judgment (2Kings 2:23-25) were in fact responsible youths. But we will look at two stories in particular, for in understanding them the other stories will become clear.
The remarkable story of how God delivered the nation of Israel from slavery in Egypt tells of the Passover and the protection of the firstborn child from certain death. Exodus 12:29 tells us that “at midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt,” and so many children died. This was the culmination of repeated warnings and opportunities for repentance. It is safe to assume that there would be “little ones” in Egyptian, as well as Israelite, households. As outlined earlier, any innocent Egyptian firstborn who died would be taken safe into a just God’s care.
In 1 Samuel 15:3 we read God’s instruction through the prophet Samuel to Saul: “Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (ESV). We need to examine the background of the nation of Amalek to understand why God made this edict. Amalek had attacked and fought against Israel not long after the Israelites had escaped slavery in Egypt, and, at that time God promised their destruction (Exo 17:14). This was 400 years before God’s specific command to Saul. God gave ample opportunity for the Amalekites to turn aside from their persistent animosity to God’s people and when they did not, God carried out the promised judgment. Again, in His righteousness and mercy, innocent little ones would be safe in eternity.
So, why does God allow or command the slaughter of innocent children? First of all, He has the right to do so, and the Old Testament record shows that He only does so in special circumstances where a nation proves it will not repent of its hatred to God and His people. Secondly, at such times of judgment the children who are truly innocent are provided for in the work of Christ. God’s Word can withstand any scrutiny we put it under, and we can be confident in His justice. If you would like more resources to answer questions such as this, Lee Strobel’s book The Case for Faith is an easy to understand book; for an authoritative, scholarly resource look at writings by Norman Geisler.