The Bible contains several disturbing accounts of infanticide and the murder of children. For those seeking to understand how many babies were killed in the biblical text, finding an exact number poses challenges.
However, a close examination of key passages reveals many tragic stories of children meeting violent ends.
If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Based on a thorough review, at least 25 specific incidents are described in the Bible involving the slaughter of children and infants. The true number is likely higher given summary references to large-scale atrocities against civilians, including children.
Infanticide and Child Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East
Infanticide and child sacrifice were unfortunately prevalent practices in the ancient Near East, including among the Canaanites and Phoenicians. These practices involved the intentional killing of babies and young children for various reasons, often with religious or cultural motivations.
Canaanite and Phoenician practices
The Canaanites and Phoenicians were known to engage in rituals involving the sacrifice of children. These practices were often associated with their religious beliefs and were aimed at appeasing their gods or gaining favor.
Historical accounts and archaeological evidence suggest that infants and young children were sacrificed in sacred places or altars as part of these rituals.
Various ancient texts, including those found in the Bible, mention these practices. For instance, in the book of Leviticus, it is mentioned that the Canaanites offered their children as burnt offerings to their gods.
Additionally, the prophet Jeremiah condemned the Israelites for adopting these abhorrent practices, stating that they had built high places of Baal to burn their sons and daughters in the fire.
Archaeological excavations have also unearthed evidence of child sacrifice. For example, at the ancient Canaanite city of Carthage, modern-day Tunisia, a cemetery known as the Tophet was discovered. This site contained thousands of urns containing the remains of infants and young children, suggesting that child sacrifice was a widespread and systematic practice in this culture.
Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac
One of the most well-known stories involving child sacrifice in the Bible is the account of Abraham and his son Isaac. According to the Book of Genesis, God tested Abraham’s faith by instructing him to offer Isaac as a burnt offering.
Abraham obediently prepared to sacrifice his son, but at the last moment, an angel intervened and provided a ram as a substitute.
This story is often seen as a demonstration of Abraham’s unwavering faith and obedience to God. It is important to note, however, that this event was a test and not a condoned practice. The story serves as a contrast to the pagan practices of the surrounding cultures, highlighting the difference between the true worship of God and the idolatrous rituals of the Canaanites and Phoenicians.
It is crucial to approach these ancient practices with sensitivity and understanding of the cultural context in which they occurred. While these practices may seem shocking to us today, they were unfortunately a reality in the ancient world.
The Bible, along with other historical sources and archaeological evidence, provides us with valuable insights into the practices of the ancient Near East, helping us to better understand the complexities of human history.
Israelite Campaigns Against Canaanites and Amalekites
The conquest of Canaan
According to the Bible, after the Exodus from Egypt, God commanded the Israelites to conquer the land of Canaan, which was inhabited at the time by Canaanite tribes. The Book of Joshua describes the bloody military campaigns waged by the Israelites against the Canaanite cities under the leadership of Joshua.
The Canaanites were massacred and their cities burned during the conquest (Joshua 6:20-21). The complete extermination of the Canaanites was justified by religious reasons – they worshiped other gods and practiced pagan rituals like child sacrifice.
According to biblical scholar Raymund Schwager’s Must There Be Scapegoats?, these holy wars sanctioned by God accounted for the killing of approximately 120,000 Canaanites.
Modern archaeological evidence indicates that the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites was gradual rather than swift, taking place over centuries. Some scholars believe the biblical account is exaggerated, and the Canaanites were not completely annihilated.
However, the scriptural justification for divinely ordained genocide remains problematic. Some argue these biblical accounts should be understood symbolically, not literally. The main point is the Israelites believed God ordered them to completely destroy idolatrous tribes.
Saul’s war against the Amalekites
The Amalekites were a nomadic tribe that attacked the Israelites after the Exodus from Egypt. They were regarded as wicked and subject to destruction by divine command. In 1 Samuel 15, God orders King Saul through the prophet Samuel to attack the Amalekites and spare no one: “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” (1 Samuel 15:3).
After defeating the Amalekites, Saul disobeyed God by sparing their king Agag and keeping the best livestock. This disobedience resulted in God rejecting Saul as king. The prophet Samuel then killed Agag by hacking him to pieces (1 Samuel 15:32-33).
As with the Canaanites, here God commanded and approved of the total slaughter of another tribe including women, children and infants.
While the text presents this genocide as obedience to God’s command, many modern readers find such violence deeply disturbing. Some argue that these accounts should not be taken literally today, but be understood in their ancient Near Eastern context.
The literary purpose was to condemn the idolatry of rival tribes. Nonetheless, these passages have historically been used to justify violence and even genocide against various groups labeled as “enemies” throughout history.
Royal Orders to Massacre Babies
Pharaoh commands the drowning of Hebrew boys
In the book of Exodus, the pharaoh of Egypt gave a horrific order to kill all newborn Hebrew boys by drowning them in the Nile river. He was afraid that the growing Hebrew population would threaten his power, so he commanded the midwives to kill the boys (Exodus 1:15-16).
When the midwives refused, Pharaoh ordered all his people to drown every Hebrew boy in the Nile (Exodus 1:22). This devastating edict led to the deaths of countless innocent infants simply because of their race.
Some scholars estimate that given the size of the Hebrew population, Pharaoh’s order could have resulted in thousands of dead babies. The grief and anguish of Hebrew mothers mourning their slain infants must have been unimaginable.
Yet through this cruelty, the baby Moses was spared and went on to eventually lead the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt. Still, the murder of so many defenseless babies remains one of the Bible’s most appalling accounts of inhumanity.
Herod’s murder of infants in Bethlehem
Another Biblical massacre of babies occurred centuries later around the birth of Jesus Christ. The Gospel of Matthew records that Jesus was born in Bethlehem during the reign of King Herod. When the magi from the east came searching for the newborn “king of the Jews”, the paranoid Herod ordered the slaughter of all boys under two years old in Bethlehem and its vicinity (Matthew 2:16).
Scholars estimate that given Bethlehem’s small size, probably no more than 20 children were murdered. Nevertheless, the evil of Herod’s action still resonates. His ruthless decree to wipe out potential rivals sheds light on the oppressive measures ancient rulers would take to maintain power.
Beyond being a tragic human tragedy, the death of the innocents in Bethlehem also fulfills the prophecy of Jeremiah about Rachel weeping for her children (Jeremiah 31:15). It highlights the darkness and danger surrounding Jesus’ birth.
While the loss of any child’s life is grievous, these two Biblical accounts of massacring babies illustrate humanity’s capacity for great evil. The abuse of power and lack of compassion by Egypt’s pharaoh and Herod the Great led to the cruel murders of the most helpless members of society.
However, God was able to use these evil decrees to protect key figures like Moses and Jesus in carrying out His divine plans for humanity. Still, the Bible rightly depicts these slaughtered infants as innocent victims worthy of mourning.
Wartime Atrocities Against Children
The Babylonian siege of Jerusalem
The Babylonian siege of Jerusalem in 587 BC was a traumatic event that saw horrific atrocities committed against the children of Judah. King Nebuchadnezzar’s army besieged Jerusalem for over a year, eventually breaking through the city walls and destroying the temple.
In the ensuing destruction, countless innocent children were ruthlessly killed as the Babylonians pillaged the city.
The Book of Lamentations gives us a glimpse of the barbarity, stating that babies were dashed against stones and children died of starvation in their mothers’ arms.
Archaeological evidence from the siege, such as child burials and trauma on infant skeletons, support the biblical account. It was a dark period in Judah’s history where the most vulnerable in society were subjected to unimaginable suffering at the hands of an invading army.
Psalm 137 is a lament of the exiles in Babylon after the siege of Jerusalem. In verse 9, the psalmist expresses anger and a desire for revenge against the conquering Babylonians:
“Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” (Psalm 137:9)
This verse reflects the raw emotion of an oppressed people who had likely witnessed similar wartime atrocities against their own children. While shocking to modern sensibilities, in the ancient world violent acts against children were tragically common in war.
As deplorable as this sentiment is, it provides insight into the trauma experienced by the exiles who yearned for justice.
Of course, history has shown time and again that answering violence against innocents with more violence only propagates suffering. While the words of Psalm 137 arise from genuine anguish, most faith traditions today would reject brutality against children as morally unjustifiable under any circumstances.
Divine Judgments Involving the Deaths of Children
The Flood in Genesis
The Flood described in Genesis 6-8 is one of the most well-known stories in the Bible where God brought judgment on humanity that resulted in the deaths of children. According to the account, God was grieved by the wickedness of mankind and decided to send a global flood to wipe out all creatures except for Noah, his family, and the animals brought onto the ark (Gen 6:5-7).
This devastating flood surely included the deaths of countless children along with the rest of humanity, excluding the eight people on the ark.
Though troubling, this story underscores the biblical perspective of God’s utter holiness compared to humanity’s sinfulness. As hard as it is to comprehend, all people apparently merited this judgment from a just and righteous God, including the children.
However, God saved Noah’s family by grace to restart the human race afresh after the Flood subsided. This account displays God’s judgment against sin as well as His mercy in providing an avenue of salvation.
Plagues on Egypt
The well-known plagues on Egypt recorded in Exodus 7-12 also involve divine judgment leading to the deaths of children. These 10 plagues were sent by God as judgment against Pharaoh and the Egyptians for enslaving the Israelites for 400 years.
The final and most severe plague was the death of all the firstborn children in Egypt who did not have lamb’s blood applied to their doorframes per God’s instructions.
This harrowing plague surely resulted in much heartbreak and anguish among Egyptian families as they lost their beloved children. However, it finally compelled Pharaoh to release the Israelite slaves from bondage.
This account underscores God’s love for His people and the severity of His judgment against unrepentant sins. Though troubling, God is the author of life and has the right to require it back according to His divine will.
Killings after the golden calf incident
Another difficult passage involving the death of some children is Exodus 32, when the Israelites engaged in idolatrous worship of a golden calf at the foot of Mount Sinai. When Moses returned from the mountain and saw this, he called for those who were for the Lord to come to him.
The Levites responded and were commanded to go through the camp and kill brothers, friends and neighbors.
Verse 27 notes that about 3,000 people died that day. Scholars believe children were likely part of this number, as idolatry was a sin punishable by death according to the law. This underscores that even God’s “chosen people” were subject to His judgment when they openly rebelled against Him.
However, in His mercy God preserved a remnant through whom He could fulfill His sovereign purposes in human history.
While aspects of these accounts trouble modern sensibilities, they reflect the harsh realities of the ancient world. As repellent as biblical passages about child murder are, glossing over them prevents grappling with the complex morality of the text.
For those troubled by the death toll, focusing on overarching scriptural themes of justice, mercy and protection of the vulnerable may provide guidance. This thorough examination illuminates a dark corner of the Bible that challenges faith yet ultimately underscores the value of young lives.