(Josh. 6:21) Is this a case of religious genocide?

CLAIM: The Conquest of Canaan is contained in three premier passages in the OT:

1. The Jews departed from Sinai (Numbers 20-22).

2. The Jews crossed the river and took over parts of southern Canaan (Josh. 6-10).

3. The Jews took over northern Canaan (Josh. 11).

Atheist Richard Dawkins considers the Canaanite genocide one of the most morally atrocious aspects of the OT. He writes,

The Bible story of Joshua’s destruction of Jericho, and the invasion of the Promised Land in general, is morally indistinguishable from Hitler’s invasion of Poland, or Saddam Hussein’s massacres of the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs. The Bible may be an arresting and poetic work of fiction, but it is not the sort of book you should give your children to form their morals. As it happens, the story of Joshua in Jericho is the subject of an interesting experiment in child morality.[1]

How do we understand God’s commandment to “utterly destroy” the people of Canaan (Deut. 7:2 NASB)? How could this possibly be compatible with the God, who is loving and compassionate to all people?

1. The Canaanites were sadistic and depraved

If one of your neighbors was acting like a Canaanite, you’d lock your door and call the cops! Canaanite culture was thoroughly depraved, and it was guilty of barbaric acts such as burning newborn babies alive, corporate rape, and murder. Harvard scholar G. Earnest Wright explains,

Worship of these gods [Baalism] carried with it some of the most demoralizing practices then in existence. Among them were child sacrifice, a practice long since discarded in Egypt and Babylonia, sacred prostitution, and snake-worship on a scale un­known among other peoples.[2]

John Wenham writes,

Molech sacrifices were offered especially in con­nection with vows and solemn promises, and children were sacrificed as the harshest and most binding pledge of the sanctity of a promise.[3]

It is not surprising that the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna), where Molech worship was practised in the days of Manasseh, should have provided the Jewish image of hell.[4]

The Bible tells us that the destruction of the Canaanites was not a racial judgment. God explicitly stated that these people were to be executed, because of their horrific and sadistic actions (Lev. 18:20-30). If the Jewish people did the same things, God promised the same punishment for them (Lev. 18:29). If they were allowed to coexist, God explained that the Canaanite culture would eventually ruin them, if they intermingled with it (Ex. 23:20-33).

In addition to this, the Canaanites were the ones who first attacked the straggling Jews, rather than the other way around. One of the Canaanite people groups (the Amalekites) attacked the Jews, while they were travelling in the wilderness (Ex. 17:8-13). In fact, they repeatedly attacked the Israelites, trying to pick off the “faint and weary” stragglers (Num. 14:45; Deut. 25:17-19). This is most likely a reference to weak Jews –such as the children or the elderly. When the Jews were weak, the Canaanites tried to utterly wipe them out (Deut. 23:3-4). John Wenham notes, “Ancient armies in this territory did not hold captives. They defeated them totally.”[5] There would have been no mercy for the Jews.

When the Nazis tried to wipe out the Jewish race in the 20th century, no one batted an eye at counter-measures. And yet, clearly, these nations were trying to do exactly the same thing –albeit over three millennia earlier. Instead of using gas chambers and furnaces, the Canaanites would’ve used swords and spears, but the result would have been the same. If God hadn’t commanded war, the Jews would have been utterly wiped out. It was kill or be killed.

2. The Jews usually didn’t fight offensive wars –only defensive

The Jews were not permitted to conquer anyone they wanted. In fact, when they tried to conquer people without divine approval, they were utterly defeated (1 Sam. 4; Num. 14:41-45; Josh. 7). God was clearly calling the shots on the destruction of Canaan –not the Jews. The king was beneath God –not above him.[6] Moreover, after the conquest of Canaan, God did not command any other offensive wars in Israel. Even during this time, Israel’s wars were usually defensive (see Ex. 17:8; Num. 21:1; Deut. 3:1; Josh. 10:4; Num. 31:2-3). Copan writes,

All sanctioned Yahweh battles beyond the time of Joshua were defensive ones, including Joshua’s battle to defend Gibeon (Josh. 10-11). Of course, while certain offensive battles took place during the time of the Judges and under David and beyond, these are not commended as ideal or exemplary.[7]

Therefore, the conquest of the Canaanites was not the destruction of an innocent group of people. It was the corporate capital punishment of a sick, twisted, and barbaric culture. If a modern man was caught perpetrating any of these acts, few would bat an eye at his death sentence. While the destruction of the Canaanites was a severe judgment, their sin was equally severe.

3. God wasn’t playing favorites

Throughout the Bible, we see that God cares about all people. Even though the Moabites were utterly evil, God shows compassion on them (Is. 15:5; 16:9). Even though the Assyrians and Egyptians oppressed the Jews, God refers to them as “my people” (Is. 19:25). Repeatedly, throughout the OT, we see that God loves the foreigner (Lev. 19:33-34; Deut. 10:18-19), and he doesn’t show preferential treatment. Even in predicting the destruction of the Canaanites, we see the same impartiality in God’s character. In Deuteronomy 9:1-6, we read:

Hear, O Israel! You are crossing over the Jordan today to go in to dispossess nations greater and mightier than you, great cities fortified to heaven, 2 a people great and tall… 4 “Do not say in your heart when the LORD your God has driven them out before you, ‘Because of my righteousness the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,’ but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is dispossessing them before you. 5 It is not for your righteousness or for the uprightness of your heart that you are going to possess their land, but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD your God is driving them out before you, in order to confirm the oath which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 6 “Know, then, it is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stubborn people.

God acknowledged that the Jews were “a stubborn people.” And yet, he wanted to use the nation of Israel to bring a blessing to the world (Gen. 12:2-3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14; Ex. 9:16; Josh. 4:24; 1 Kings 8:41-43; Ps. 72:17; Jer. 4:2; Zech. 8:13; Ezek. 36:22-23; Is. 19:24-25; 37:20; 45:22-23; 52:10; 66:18-19). Ultimately, God brought a “blessing” to all people through Jesus. If the nation of Israel had been destroyed, this would have disrupted God’s plan for bringing blessing through the messiah. Therefore, God chose the Jewish people –not to suppress others –but ultimately to bless others.

4. God gave the Canaanites an opportunity to change

God waits patiently for all people to turn to him, and he remains slow to anger (Ex. 34:6-7; Ps. 103:8). God had compassion on the Ninevehites, relenting from judgment, because they did “not know the difference between their right and left hand” (Jon. 4:11 NLT). In Ezekiel, we read that God takes no pleasure in the judgment of the wicked (Ezek. 33:11). In Jeremiah, God says that he will relent from judgment, if the wicked will merely change their minds: “At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; 8 if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it” (Jer. 18:7-8 NASB). If these men would have changed, God would not have judged them.

In fact, God allowed the Jews to rot in slavery for 400 years, so that the Canaanites could have an opportunity to change. He didn’t judge them immediately, because the sins of the Canaanites did “not yet warrant their destruction” (Gen. 15:13; 16 NLT). That is, they were not past the point of no return. However, by the time the Jews came for battle, they were.

During this 400 year period, the Canaanites knew that God was coming for them. God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, which were cities filled with Canaanites. By the time the Jews stood at the border, ready to fight, Rahab told them that they had heard of God’s judgment of Egypt (Josh. 2:10; see also Josh. 9:9). Therefore, the Canaanites defiantly ignored these serious warnings.[8]

5. Diplomacy was the usual method

When Israel would go to war with another nation, they would usually give a peace treaty first. Deuteronomy 20:10 states: “When you approach a city to fight against it, you shall offer it terms of peace.” If the people surrendered, they were not to be harmed. However, they would become laborers in Israel. This might seem harsh, but don’t forget the ancient Near Eastern context (see principle four). When the Ammonites surrounded one of the cities of Israel, they required every citizen to gouge out one of their eyes, as a term of peace and surrender (1 Sam. 11:1-2)! This is why the neighboring nations considered the Hebrew kings to be “merciful kings” by comparison (1 Kings 20:31).

This peace treaty was most likely not offered to these seven people groups in Canaan (e.g. Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jubusites), because Deuteronomy 20:16 makes this explicit. This was probably because the Jews originally came to King Sihon (of the Amorites) with “words of peace” (Deut. 2:26), but the king was “not willing” to let them even pass through his land (Deut. 2:30).

Those willing to abandon Canaan were probably spared. For instance, Rahab’s entire family was spared from judgment (Josh. 2:13), because she surrendered to the Jews. The remaining Canaanites were killed because they chose to stay.[9]

6. Images in Joshua were mild compared to the ancient Near East

In the book of Joshua, we read,

(Josh. 10:24-27 NASB) When they brought these kings out to Joshua, Joshua called for all the men of Israel, and said to the chiefs of the men of war who had gone with him, “Come near, put your feet on the necks of these kings.” So they came near and put their feet on their necks. 25 Joshua then said to them, “Do not fear or be dismayed! Be strong and courageous, for thus the LORD will do to all your enemies with whom you fight.” 26 So afterward Joshua struck them and put them to death, and he hanged them on five trees; and they hung on the trees until evening. 27 It came about at sunset that Joshua gave a command, and they took them down from the trees and threw them into the cave where they had hidden themselves, and put large stones over the mouth of the cave, to this very day.

When moderners read this passage, many are horrified. This looks more like a scene out of the movie Braveheart, rather than a passage from the Bible! And yet, when we compare this with the ancient Near East, we see that this was actually quite tame. Copan writes,

The Neo-Assyrian annals of Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) take pleasure in describing the flaying of live victims, the impaling of others on poles, and the heaped up bodies for show. They boast of how the king mounded bodies and placed heads into piles; the king bragged of gouging out troops’ eyes and cutting off their ears and limbs, followed by his displaying their heads all around a city.[10]

War was a bloody part of the ancient Near East. The Jews weren’t fighting merely for their faith; they were fighting for their survival. It was kill or be killed. In Joshua 10, we read that these kings were not tortured or humiliated. Instead, they were given a quick, military execution. By hanging their bodies, Joshua was giving an object lesson for the people that these evil men were going to be judged by God for their cruelty (Deut. 21:23). That is, he was emphasizing that this was not human judgment –but divine judgment.

7. “Utterly destroy” might not be absolute language

When God gave the command to “utterly destroy” the Canaanites, it is possible that this was akin to ancient Near Eastern war-rhetoric or hyperbolic language. There are several reasons for believing this.

First, some Canaanites survived this conquest, even though Joshua claimed that they were “all” destroyed. Compare these two passages. How could it be possible for the author to say that Joshua left no survivors, and yet, later on there were survivors (see also Josh. 11:21-22 and Josh. 14:12-15; 15:13-19)?

(Josh. 10:40; 11:16 NASB) Thus Joshua struck all the land, the hill country and the Negev and the lowland and the slopes and all their kings. He left no survivor, but he utterly destroyed all who breathed, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded… Thus Joshua took all that land: the hill country and all the Negev, all that land of Goshen, the lowland, the Arabah, the hill country of Israel and its lowland.

Clearly, these passages teach that Joshua had “left no survivor.” However, in the book of Judges, we find Canaanites still in the land. How can we read that Joshua “left nothing undone of all that the Lord had commanded Moses” (Josh. 11:15), if some Canaanites still lived in the land?

(Judg. 1:21, 27-28 NASB) But the sons of Benjamin did not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem; so the Jebusites have lived with the sons of Benjamin in Jerusalem to this day… so the Canaanites persisted in living in that land. 28 It came about when Israel became strong, that they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but they did not drive them out completely.

Even after the conquest, the Jews were still warned about intermarriage and following after these people (Josh. 23:12-13; Deut. 7:2-5). These warnings would be useless, unless there were still survivors. In the same way, when Luke writes that the “whole city” was aroused by Paul’s teaching, commentators usually take this as hyperbolic language –not literal (see also Acts 2:5). This language in Joshua could be similar for these reasons.

Second, war-rhetoric was common in the ANE. Copan cites usages in Egypt’s Tuthmosis III, Hittite king Mursilli II, Ramses II, the Merneptah Stele, Moab’s king Mesha, and the Assyrian ruler Sennacherib.[11] Each of these kings uses language that is similar to Joshua. While the king claimed that “all” were killed, some still survived. Put another way, this war-rhetoric was used to describe utter destruction of the nation, rather than of each individual person. It might be similar to saying, “The Browns slaughtered the Bengals last night!” or “They annihilated them!” We wouldn’t consider these statements false; we would consider them hyperbolic.

Third, the focus of the conquest was to destroy the religious life of the Canaanites and their military strongholds (Deut. 12:2-3). This is why Achan was killed for pilfering goods from the city of Ai (Josh. 7:20-26), but no one was killed for sparing civilian life –even though there were clearly survivors.

8. What about the women and kids?

As we have already seen, the command to “utterly destroy” could have been hyperbolic language, which was consistent with ancient Near Eastern war-rhetoric. However, a few more points can be made about women and children.

First, these cities were military fortresses. They were not for civilians. That is, these cities may not have contained a lot of women and children. Copan writes,

There is no archaeological evidence of civilian populations at Jericho or Ai. Given what we know about Canaanite life in the Bronze Age, Jericho and Ai were military strongholds… The use of ‘women’ and ‘young and old’ was merely stock ancient Near Eastern language that could be used even if women and young and old weren’t living there. The language of ‘all’ (“men and women”) at Jericho and Ai is a ‘stereotypical expression for the destruction of all human life in the fort, presumably composed entirely of combatants.’ The text doesn’t require that women and young and old must have been in these cities.[12]

The only example of a woman in one of these cities is Rahab, and she was spared (Josh. 2). Therefore, it is possible that women and children weren’t there, or if they were there, the innocent life was spared.

Second, the Canaanite women were far from innocent. In Numbers 25:1-2, we read that the Midianite women were culpable for seducing the Israelite men. This act was more than simply sleeping around. These men were seduced into Baal worship, as a result (Num. 31:16-18). Remember, Baal worship was not an innocent or innocuous religion; it was a child-sacrificing abomination! Atheist Richard Dawkins criticizes, “This merciful restraint by his soldiers infuriated Moses, and he gave orders that all the boy children should be killed, and all the women who were not virgins… Moses was not a great role model for modern moralists.”[13]

At first glance, this story seems barbaric. Dawkins apparently misses the point. The virgin women were spared, because they hadn’t seduced the men (remember Num. 25:1-2). Therefore, the culpable ones were killed, and the innocent ones were spared.

Third, what about the Canaanite children? Why did God kill the kids? As we have already pointed out, children were most likely outside of the judgment on Canaan. Joshua may have been using military war-rhetoric, and these attack sites were military fortresses –not civilian cities. However, even if children were killed, this may have been an act of God’s mercy. If these Canaanite children had grown up in this society, they could have become forced-prostitutes, murderers, or even child sacrifices, roasting on burning altars to Baal! Moreover, they would have most likely been separated from God eternally after death –given their surroundings. Because these Canaanite children died before the age of accountability (and the Bible teaches infant salvation),[14] they were taken to be directly with God at death. Therefore, while the immediate action may seem barbaric, these children would have been sent into the immediate presence of God –rather than their horrific and barbaric surroundings.

9. God has the right to judge –as the Author and Sustainer of life

All people are going to die at some point. The question is not that they will die; instead, the question is when they will die. God takes every life in the end. This is called death. Since God is the author and sustainer of life, he has rights over human life that we do not. Job said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, And naked I shall return there. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away…” (Job 1:21 NASB). It is God’s business how and when he decides to end our life –not ours. We live here on Earth –not as a right –but by the mercy of God. We have a sense of this, when we say that a doctor was “playing God” by reviving a patient in a hospital. Therefore, God wasn’t evil by ordering the destruction of the Canaanites. He was merely acting on the prerogatives that rightly belong to him as the author and sustainer of life.

[1] Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 280.

[2] Wright, G. Ernest, and Floyd V. Filson. The Westminster Historical Atlas to the Bible. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1945. 36.

[3] Wenham, John William. The Goodness of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1974. 126.

[4] Wenham, John William. The Goodness of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1974. 127.

[5] Wenham, John William. The Goodness of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1974. 124.

[6] Note, also, the relationship between the King and the Law in Israel. In the Pagan world, the king was the lawgiver and the commander-in-chief, who could break or revise the law at any time. When we look at OT narrative, however, we see that the king was not above the law of God; rather, he was beneath it. This concept of lex rex (“the Law is King) was utterly unknown to the Ancient Near East, which practiced rex lex (“the King is law”). For instance, Nathan confronted David about his murder and adultery on the basis of God’s law (2 Samuel 12). Elijah challenged Ahab’s murder of Naboth based on the law (1 Kings 21). Uzziah got leprosy for taking over the priestly role, which was outside of his legal jurisdiction (2 Chronicles 26).

[7] Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011. 178.

[8] Even after this great and terrible judgment, the Canaanites continued to persecute the Jews (Judg. 3:13; 6:3; 7:12; 1 Sam. 15).

[9] In the same way, when Egypt was judged, many Egyptian civilians (“a mixed multitude”) were spared (Ex. 12:38).

[10] Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011. 179.

[11] Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011. 172.

[12] Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011. 175-176.

[13] Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 275.

[14] Isaiah writes that there is an age before a child is able to “know to refuse the evil and choose the good” (Is. 7:16 NASB). The children of Israel were not held responsible for the sins of their parents during the Wandering, because they had “no knowledge of good or evil” (Deut. 1:39 NASB). David believed in an afterlife, and he thought that he was going to be with God after death (Ps. 16:10-11; see also Rom. 4:6-8). Knowing this, it is interesting to point out that David said that he would go to be with his infant baby, who had died (2 Sam. 12:23). This demonstrates that his infant must be in heaven, too (see also Jesus’ teaching on the subject in Mk. 10:14; Mt. 18:3; 19:14; Jn. 9:41).