Why do Israelites kill women and children in the Bible?
Many people prefer to believe that every event and law mentioned in the Bible is true, perfect, and the highest level of morality, since it is divine. Moses Maimonides taught the opposite: the Torah had to deal with the often primitive mind-set of the people during the time when it was given to them, and had to contain many laws and descriptions of behavior that are far from ideal. Three of the many non-ideal behaviors are sacrifices, the command to murder misbehaving children, and the practice of killing every inhabitant of a condemned and a captured town, including women and children.
The Ancient Israelite Mindset
Historians, social scientists, and thinkers such as Maimonides, recognized that the early Israelites existed in a hostile world filled with superstitions, absorbed the primitive notions of the surrounding people, suffered prolonged periods of educational neglect because of centuries of enslavement, desert wanderings, and constant battles after they entered and conquered Canaan.
Maimonides felt that the earlier generations were not only intellectually, scientifically, and morally inferior, but they had undeveloped ideas about God and what is required of them than their society. He wrote in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:32 that the Israelites accepted “the customs that existed in those days generally among all men, and the mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up.” The Torah recognized, Maimonides wrote, that it was impossible to wean the people suddenly from ancient heathen notions. “It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God … that God did not command us to give up and discontinue all these kinds of service, for to obey such a commandment would have been contrary to human nature, for people generally cleaves to that to which they are accustomed.” In 3:51, he states that people will ultimately improve and come to understand true worship for while allowing the continuance of non-ideal practices, the Torah modified them somewhat and showed that they should be modified further. Thus, it should surprise no one that there are remnants of many pagan practices in the Bible and that the rabbis attempted to change, elevate, sublimate, and rationalize them.
Maimonides states in 3:32 that the primitive mind-set of the early Israelites prompted the Torah to “allow” sacrifices. This concession was made only because the Israelites were so accustomed to sacrifices that it would have been psychologically impossible to wean them away from sacrifices at the early stage of their development as a nation.
The fact that sacrifices are mentioned in the Torah does not suggest that the Torah approved it. Maimonides wrote in3:32 that God opposed sacrifices, and the prophets expressed God’s opposition. According to Maimonides, the prophets frequently rebuked “their fellow-men for being over-zealous and exerting themselves too much in bringing sacrifices. The prophets distinctly declared that the object of sacrifices is not very essential, and that God does not require them.”
Many people think that the Torah’s elaborate laws concerning sacrifices show its pleasure of the sacrificial system. Maimonides explains that the opposite is true: many details are given to help wean the people from the practice. Laws restricted the sacrifices: they allowed only some kinds of animals to be sacrificed and only in certain times and places. The Torah even instituted “purity” laws whose goal was to minimize the attendance of people in the sanctuary.
The rabbis understood that sacrifices were only a concession to the primitive nature of unsophisticated humanity. Thus when the temple was destroyed in 70 CE and although many Jews felt, as did the Samaritans, that sacrifices could continue outside the temple even as sacrifices were offered outside a central sanctuary in many places in the past Israelite history, the rabbis saw this as a good time to stop the practice. They replaced it with a higher level of devotion to God, study and prayer.
Killing misbehaving children
Deuteronomy 21:18-21 is another example. It contains the law of the ben sore umore, the stubborn and rebellious son: “If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, that will not hearken to the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and though they chasten him, will not hearken unto them; then his father and mother lay hold of him, and bring him out unto the elders of the city, and unto the gate of his place, and they shall say unto the elders of the city: ’This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he doth not hearken to our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.’ And all the men of the city shall stone him with stones, that he die; so shall thou put away the evil from the midst of thee; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.”
This law reflected the practice of the ancient brutal paternalistic society of the time where a father had supreme control over his wife and children and could kill his child if he wanted to do so. The Torah mitigated the practice somewhat, in a manner that the ancient Israelites could accept, although it is still too harsh by modern standards. For example, the Torah took total control from the father; he had to bring the case to the elders (a court) for an objective decision. He must take his wife along, whose views were listened to. Parents had to warn the child to behave. Fathers could not kill their son; this was done by the community which, presumably, did not kill children without some thought. Yet, children grow, mature, and change, gluttony and drunkenness are not grounds for capital punishment, and people should not be killed for what may happen to them in the future.
Thus, like many other biblical practices, the rabbis stated that this law should no longer be implemented. The Talmud read into the passage a multitude of preconditions that made capital punishment impossible. Among much else, they said the law only applied if the boy’s father and mother were physically identical in appearance and stature and their tone of voices, which was impossible.
The Talmud asks: If as we now understand the law, it is impossible to implement, “Why then was the law written? (And it answers) That you may study it and receive reward.” The Talmud contends that this law was never implemented in the past, but includes a report of a sage who stated that he saw the grave of such a son. How should we understand these talmudic statements?
The first – about study it and receive a reward – denotes, to my mind, that we should study and realize that the rabbis understood that the Torah law was an improvement over the practices of the time, but it needed further improvement; and the improvement was in the spirit of the Torah, for like the Torah it enhanced the thinking, sensitivity, and behavior of people. Once this development is understood, further growth could be implemented and individuals and society will be rewarded.
The second – the conflict between the statement that the law was never implemented and the testimony that it was implemented – suggests that although such a son was killed in the past, we should never do so again; we should understand that the Torah is teaching that such an act should never have been done.
Killing all inhabitants of a conquered city
The rabbinical sensitivity is also seen in the law of a conquered city. Ancients, including the Israelites, were convinced that when a city contains evil people, these people pollute the city and the city and all in it must be destroyed, including women and children, because of (1) the pollution will spread, (2) the concept of the time that the group is responsible for the wrongs of individuals, and (3) the non-evil people are guilty because they should have rid/cleansed the city of its evil.
Accordingly, the Pentateuch required the Israelites to kill all the inhabitants of idol worshipping Canaan and there was the law of the condemned city.
Offering peace to the Canaanites
Deuteronomy 20:16-18 states concerning the conquest of Canaan: “the cities of these people that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must save nothing that breaths. You must utterly destroy them….so they do not teach you to do their abominations.”
Many rabbis noted the ethical dilemma of harshly slaying innocent people and proposed a reading of Deuteronomy that required the Israelites to submit peace offers to the Canaanites. The Talmud, for example, contends that, although not stated in the Bible, Joshua was told by Moses to propose peace, and Joshua sent three letters to the Canaanites before entering their country offering peace. This is another of many examples where the rabbis began the amelioration of biblical commands.
This law of killing all the Canaanites was never implemented. Even a cursory reading of the books of Joshua and Judges show that the Israelites lived among the Canaanites.
The condemned city
Deuteronomy 13:13-19 contains the law of the condemned city: If the Israelites hear that in one of their cities base fellows enticed citizens to worship “other gods,” they must “inquire, search, and look diligently.” If they find that the allegations are true: “you must smite all the city inhabitants with a sword, destroying it utterly, everything in it, even cattle.” No spoils may be taken; “they must be burned.”
This, like the biblical laws of sacrifices, the rebellious son, and the conquest of Canaan, was a step above the practices of surrounding nations. A three-fold enquiry was necessary and over-enthusiastic and badly motivated acts were controlled by the rule forbidding the taking of spoil.
As with the law of the son, the rabbis read rules into the biblical mandate that made the practice impossible. They said if the city contained a single mezuzah or if a camel driver passed through the city, the destruction could not take place. The rabbis added, as they did about the son, that the law was never implemented, study and be rewarded, but rabbis saw ruins where it was implemented in the past. These statements should be understood as I explained previously.
Another example of rabbinical sensitivity
The Torah describes three events where Moses saved people thereby showing readers that they too must be sensitive to people. The rabbis added a fourth event.
After Moses grew up in the Egyptian palace, he “went out to his brothers” and saw an Egyptian hitting a Hebrew. He killed the Egyptian and saved the Hebrew.
Later, he saw two Hebrews fighting and interfered trying to stop the two Hebrews from hurting each other. When one said to Moses, do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian, Moses realized that his murder of the Egyptian was known and he escaped to Midian.
In Midian, he saw shepherds driving seven women shepherds from a well. He aided the women and helped them water their flock.
In these three episodes Moses aided the weak in different ways: (1) when a Hebrew was harmed by a non-Hebrew, (2) when two Hebrew fought with each other, and (3) in a conflict between non-Hebrews. The Torah teaches that people should aid others no matter who they are.
The rabbis imagined a fourth instance. Moses was pasturing a flock in Midian when one animal was lost. He went in search of the animal and saved it. God said, this man who showed concern for a flock of animals is the man I need to care for my flock, Israel.
In essence, the rabbis extended the concept of compassion from humans to animals.
 The Jewish Publication Society translation.
 Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 71a.
 Jerusalem Talmud Sheviit 10:5, 16:2. The three offers were: if you are willing to make peace, we are also willing; if you want to leave Canaan, we will let you leave (the Gigashites left); if you want war, make war.
 Moses offered peace to Sihon king of Heshbon in Deuteronomy 2:26.
 Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 71a and 111b-113 b.