Q. Is it true that the Talmud says something about killing idolaters?
A. In a number of versions there is a statement that reads in Hebrew tov sheba’akum harog, usually translated “Kill the best of the idolators”. Instead of “idolaters” other versions say mitzrim (Egyptians), k’na’anim (Canaanites), and goyim (gentiles). Why there are so many versions is because rabbinic references to gentiles were repeatedly subjected to censorship and the original reading is not always easy to ascertain. It may be that the nearest we can come is mitzrim, in view of the context in which the saying comes in Rashi’s comment on Exodus 14:7, quoting the Mechilta, an ancient Midrash.
Though the statement as usually translated seems ethically offensive, it is severely limited by the sages to killing in wartime. But it may be that the common translation is wrong and that there is no command about killing idolaters or anyone else. The Hebrew word harog may not be an imperative after all (“kill!”) but a verbal noun meaning “a killer”, in which case the saying is a bitter reflection on Jewish experience with outsiders – “The best of the idolaters is a killer”.