It is a universal moral concept in the Christian era that the family members of a criminal are not responsible for his crime (unless they participated in that crime), and that the subordinates are not responsible for the personal crimes committed by their superior (unless they participated in his crime). This morality now is characteristic of any Christian group and no Christian group would argue against it.

However, if we look into the Old Testament, we will see cases, in which God Himself put to death or was ready to put to death relatives or subordinates for the sins committed by one of their relatives or by their superior, respectively. For example,

But God came to Abimelek in a dream one night and said to him, “You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.” Now Abimelek had not gone near her, so he said, “Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation? Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister,’ and didn’t she also say, ‘He is my brother’? I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands.” Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her. Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all who belong to you will die.” (Genesis 20:3-7, NIV)

On one hand, we can see in this chapter that God did not eventually kill Abimelek and even prevented Abimelek from sin. However, God did tell him that if he didn't return Sarah to Abraham, He would most definitely kill Abimelek and all those who belonged to him.

Another passage that puzzles me is this:

Then he sent to Elijah a captain with his company of fifty men. The captain went up to Elijah, who was sitting on the top of a hill, and said to him, “Man of God, the king says, ‘Come down!’ ” Elijah answered the captain, “If I am a man of God, may fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty men!” Then fire fell from heaven and consumed the captain and his men. At this the king sent to Elijah another captain with his fifty men. The captain said to him, “Man of God, this is what the king says, ‘Come down at once!’ ” “If I am a man of God,” Elijah replied, “may fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty men!” Then the fire of God fell from heaven and consumed him and his fifty men. (2Kings 1:9-12, NIV)

Even if one can argue that the first two captains here were too bold and disrespectful toward Elijah and, therefore, might have also been involved in the sinful behavior of their sinful king Ahaziah (barely), the soldiers that were under those two captains, were definitely innocent – they simply had no word in it and didn't decide anything. However, we don't see any hint in this chapter that what was done by Elijah (and, therefore, allowed by God, too) was in any way wrong.

So, does this mean that God's moral principles have changed with the change of OT times to NT times? Or is there any other explanation to this in the major Christianity?

(By major Christianity I mean Oriental Orthodox Churches, Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, and all the Protestant Churches that pray to Jesus in their prayers)

  • 1
    I'm not sure why the second passage would be so puzzling, nor how it is related to the rest of the question (the soldiers were apparently sent to apprehend Elijah, and deliver him to the king for imprisonment or execution).
    – user46876
    May 20, 2021 at 10:44
  • @Lucian - "the soldiers were apparently sent to apprehend Elijah, and deliver him to the king" - How do we know that?
    – brilliant
    May 20, 2021 at 12:05
  • From the preceding context, and because the same also happened with Herod and John the Baptist.
    – user46876
    May 20, 2021 at 12:10
  • @Lucian - "From the preceding context" - Context doesn't prove that, as well as the story with Herod and John the Baptist. If Elijah had the power of bringing fire from the heavens on men, he would have definitely been able to use his power to stop anyone's attempt to imprison and execute him after his return to the king - without the need of previously burning two groups of soldiers, 50 men in each.
    – brilliant
    May 20, 2021 at 12:20
  • 3

2 Answers 2


While I understand why we would question God for killing seemingly innocent people in those 2 stories, I think we need to remember that the primary focus of those 2 stories is to demonstrate God's protection of His prophets: Abraham and Elijah. In the narration of the stories then, we shouldn't expect God to explain the morality of His actions, keeping in mind the following factors:

  1. How this is similar to how God told Joshua to kill everyone (including women and children) when taking Canaanite cities in the promised land or in the (possible) innocence among some of the firstborns in Egypt killed in the 10th plague. Most commentators are very uncomfortable with God's action in Canaan, in what seem to look like genocide, but try to mitigate this in terms of Gen 15:16: God's giving them time.

  2. That out of His foreknowledge and omniscience God could have taken into account His personal dealings with each of the 50 men in the Elijah story. This is maybe similar to how Abraham asked God whether He would destroy Sodom if there are more than 50, 40, 30, 20, 10 righteous people (Gen 18:16-33).

  3. That in the Abimelech story, it was a threat not carried out, and that Abimelech was dealing with God as either a King or a head of the household where in ancient practice at the time puts the King / head of the household as a rightful representative of the fate of people "belonging" to him. Thus, for the original audience, they wouldn't see God as unjust.

  4. That in the Elijah story, we may see those 50 men as war combatants in God's war against a rebellious king of Israel, just as God became enemy to Samaria when He executed judgment in the Assyrian exile.

  5. That in these 2 stories we are talking about God's actions, not human actions against another, which are regulated by Deut 24:16. Morality rules for human are only a subset of God's justice; thus, we cannot limit evaluation of God's justice from Deut 24:16 alone. See this article for more discussion.

  6. That life on earth is temporary. If we are killed as part of God's greater plan so good can come from evil, God will reward us in the afterlife.

Of course the above factors are not completely satisfactory to answer your good question, but in my mind still gives room to allow consistency with the moral concept you cited in your first paragraph, especially given the narrative perspective of the stories where we should not infer too much from them. I think when it comes to knowing God's moral principles, His direct commandments in the Pentateuch and the Psalmist's teaching about God are a much better source to argue for consistency between OT and NT. Furthermore, as I argued in point #5 above, the two stories are not proper illustrations of Deut 24:16 or of Ez 18:20, which is the basis of the moral principle you cited in your question.

CONCLUSION: Given the larger factors that we have to consider about the morality of God's own acts as opposed to God's moral principles imposed on us humans, the 2 stories you cited are not a valid basis to support the contention that God's moral principles have changed from OT to NT. Deut 24:16 is still applicable for us in both testaments, but is not applicable to God.


Did God's moral principles change with the change of OT times to NT times ?

Doubtful (James 1:17), but our perception of him did, though, through the coming of Christ, God's final revelation to (and in) man (John 14:9; Colossians 1:15; Galatians 1:8). What once was tolerated (Matthew 19:8) will not be endured any further (Acts 17:30). In the latter verse, the apostle speaks of idolatry (as can be easily deduced from context); even though the pious Israelites did not physically worship any such images, their incorrect perception of God, reverberating throughout many passages of the Old Covenant, and influenced by remnants of their own ancestors' pre-Abrahamic paganism (Joshua 24:2), constituted precisely its spiritual equivalent, prohibiting them from either knowing or worshipping the true God (John 4:23-24, 16:3—note that the preceding verse, 16:2, explicitly mentions religious executions). When asked such questions, concerning the various divergences between the two Covenants, Basil of Caesarea, echoing Paul's reasoning from his first letter to the Corinthians (13:10-11), used to reply that, while sucking at breasts may be permitted unto babes, the same courtesy is not, however, extended to grown-ups, and understandably so.

  • I wish you would have addressed the first passage of my question. How is it so that the words "you may be sure that you and all who belong to you will die" are not really what they mean, but merely "our wrong perception"?
    – brilliant
    May 20, 2021 at 12:23
  • @brilliant: The Jewish scriptures were obviously written by the Hebrews, whose pre-monotheistic views or perception of the divine undoubtedly influenced the biblical narration. Christianity sought to reinterpret pre-Christian scriptures, instead of brazenly condemning them (as Gnostics have done) and penning its own (albeit apostolic writings were eventually added to their number, forming the New Testament corpus). As it spread from Israel to Gentile territories, it applied the same policy to pagan and philosophic beliefs, as can be easily glimpsed by browsing patristic writings.
    – user46876
    May 20, 2021 at 14:03
  • So, what's your point here? Do you mean to say that originally instead of the words "you may be sure that you and all who belong to you will die" there were some other words in that place of the Book of Genesis?
    – brilliant
    May 21, 2021 at 13:49
  • @brilliant: My point is that there's a (not so) subtle difference between the sentence the God of the Old Covenant is the Father of Christ, and the sentence the Old Testament, when (re)interpreted in a manner similar to the one employed by Jesus and His apostles, reveals (its God as) the Father of Christ. Compare, for instance, the way Matthew (2:15) or Paul (Galatians 2:22-26) employ the passages they reference (Hosea 11:1, Genesis 21), with the actual passages themselves. The New Testament itself provides examples of non-Christian interpretations (Satan, pre-Christian forms of Judaism).
    – user46876
    May 21, 2021 at 14:44

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