What about the Canaanite Genocide?

By James M. Rochford

Atheist Richard Dawkins considers the killing of the Canaanites[1] to be one of the most morally atrocious aspects of the OT. In his book The God Delusion, 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.[2]

How do we understand God’s commandment to “utterly destroy” the people of Canaan (Deut. 7:2)? He instructed the king of Israel to “completely destroy the entire Amalekite nation—men, women, children, babies, cattle, sheep, goats, camels, and donkeys” (1 Samuel 15:3 NLT). How could this possibly be compatible with the God who is loving and compassionate to all people?

(1) The Canaanites committed unthinkable acts of evil

If one of your neighbors was acting like a Canaanite, you’d lock your doors and call the cops. Canaanite culture was thoroughly depraved, and was guilty of barbaric acts.

(1) Canaanite sacred prostitution

One such practice was corporate ritualized rape. This is why Moses wrote, “None of the daughters of Israel shall be a cult prostitute, nor shall any of the sons of Israel be a cult prostitute” (Deut. 23:17). Herodotus stated that this was commonplace in Babylon where every woman was compelled “to sit in the temple of Aphrodite and have intercourse with some stranger once in her life.” He continues,

It does not matter what sum the money is; the woman will never refuse, for that would be a sin, the money being by this act made sacred. So she follows the first man who casts it and rejects no one. After their intercourse, having discharged her sacred duty to the goddess, she goes away to her home.[3]

In Canaanite religion, the god Ba’al raped his sister Anath ~80 times while she took the form of a female cow.[4] This is the unholy trinity: incest, rape, and bestiality all rolled into one. Consequently, if the gods raped one another, then so should the worshippers. The Canaanites would commit sacred prostitution to stimulate their fertility gods to bless their crops. Sacred prostitution was “widespread among the fertility cults of the ancient Near Eastern world that saw in its employment a means of achieving productivity of plant, animal, and even human life.”[5]

As we consider this degrading practice, it isn’t surprising that the first person whom the Israelite spies encountered in Canaan was a prostitute named Rahab. And it is also no wonder that she was so eager to align herself with the Israelites (Josh. 2:1-21).

(b) Canaanite infant human sacrifice

The Canaanites also engaged in infant sacrifice. 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.”[6] Likewise, 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.”[7] He adds, “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.”[8]

Even though this practice goes back 3,500 years, several lines of evidence support the claim that the Canaanites practiced infant sacrifice:

First, Scripture refers to the practice of Canaanite infant human sacrifice. Indeed, the Bible plainly tells us the reason for the judgment of the Canaanites: These people were guilty of horrific and reprehensible actions like child sacrifice (Lev. 18:21). As a result, God told the Israelites, “All these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled” (Lev. 18:27). Several passages explicitly state that the nations around Israel sacrificed their children to their gods:

(Lev. 18:21) You shall not give any of your offspring to offer them to Molech.

(Deut. 12:31) They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods.

(Deut. 18:9-12) When you enter the land which the LORD your God gives you, you shall not learn to imitate the detestable things of those nations. 10 There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, 11 or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. 12 For whoever does these things is detestable to the LORD; and because of these detestable things the LORD your God will drive them out before you.

(Ps. 106:37-38) They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to false gods. 38 They shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, and the land was desecrated by their blood.

(2 Kin. 16:3) Ahaz walked in the way of the kings of Israel, and even made his son pass through the fire, according to the abominations of the nations whom the LORD had driven out from before the sons of Israel.

(2 Kin. 21:6) Manasseh made his son pass through the fire, practiced witchcraft and used divination, and dealt with mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the sight of the LORD provoking Him to anger.

(2 Kin. 23:10) Josiah defiled Topheth,[9] which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter pass through the fire for Molech.

(2 Chron. 33:3, 6) Manasseh he also erected altars for the Baals and made Asherim, and worshiped all the host of heaven and served them… 6 He made his sons pass through the fire in the valley of Ben-hinnom; and he practiced witchcraft, used divination, practiced sorcery and dealt with mediums and spiritists.

(Jer 7:30-31 NIV) They have set up their detestable idols in the house that bears my Name and have defiled it. 31 They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire—something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind.

(Jer 19:5 NIV) They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal—something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind.

(Jer. 32:35 NIV) They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molek,[10] though I never commanded—nor did it enter my mind—that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin.

The Canaanites superheated the statues of their deities, and then toss their children onto the searing hands of their “gods.” Clay Jones explains, “Molech was a Canaanite underworld deity represented as an upright, bull-headed idol with human body in whose belly a fire was stoked and in whose outstretched arms a child was placed that would be burned to death…. And it was not just infants; children as old as four were sacrificed.”[11] He continues, “A bronze image of Kronos was set up among them, stretching out its cupped hands above a bronze cauldron, which would burn the child. As the flame burning the child surrounded the body, the limbs would shrivel up and the mouth would appear to grin as if laughing, until it was shrunk enough to slip into the cauldron.”[12]

Second, extrabiblical texts refer to the practice of Canaanite infant human sacrifice. Human sacrifice is “abundantly shown in the Canaanite literary texts,”[13] and Greco-Roman authors describe this Canaanite practice in vivid detail.[14] Plutarch (1st century AD Greek historian) wrote,

With full knowledge and understanding they themselves offered up their own children, and those who had no children would buy little ones from poor people and cut their throats as if they were so many lambs or young birds; meanwhile the mother stood by without a tear or moan; but should she utter a single moan or let fall a single tear, she had to forfeit the money, and her child was sacrificed nevertheless; and the whole area before the statue was filled with a loud noise of flutes and drums so that the cries of wailing should not reach the ears of the people.[15]

When the Carthaginians (Canaanites) were besieged in 310 BC, they sacrificed hundreds of children. Diodorus Siculus (1st century BC Greek historian) writes,

In their zeal to make amends for the omission, they selected two hundred of the noblest children and sacrificed them publicly; and others who were under suspicion sacrificed themselves voluntarily, in number not less than three hundred. There was in the city a bronze image of Kronos, extending its hands, palms up and sloping towards the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire.[16]

Third, Egyptian temple drawings refer to the practice of Canaanite infant human sacrifice. One Egyptologist from Yale detailed drawings from Egyptian temples from the 2nd millennium BC that depict Canaanite infant sacrifice—specifically during the reigns of Seti I, Ramesses II, and Ramesses III (1290-1155 BC).[17] In one drawing, two children are being sacrificed as the Pharaoh attacks the city. As the two children are being sacrificed, the Canaanites pray with uplifted hands to their deities.[18]

In the temple of Beit el-Wali in Nubia, we have a drawing of Ramesses II attacking a Canaanite city. The inscription on the artwork states, “Said by the vile prince in extolling the Lord of the Two Lands: ‘(I) believe that there is no other like Ba’al, (and) and the ruler is his true son forever.’”[19] The ruler of the city is equating Ba’al with Ramesses. In these scenes there is “little doubt that Canaanites are represented.”[20]

Fourth, archaeological discoveries confirm the practice of Canaanite infant human sacrifice. The Phoenicians controlled the land of Canaan, and there is abundant evidence that they performed child sacrifice in Carthage (modern-day Tunisia) at least as far back as the 8th century BC. Archaeologists have discovered what is called the “Carthage Tophet”[21] or the “Precinct of Tanit.”

This massive graveyard is 6,000 square yards with nine descending levels. It contains 20,000 funerary urns, and in the urns, archaeologists found the charred bones of little children and animals. Indeed, 80% of the human remains are from newborns, and the other human sacrifices go up to ages 3-4. The lamb bones were only months old, which suggests that these were sacrifices.[22]

Lawrence E. Stager (professor of the archaeology of Israel at Harvard) excavated the precinct of the goddess Tanit at Carthage. He writes, “Artifacts (urns, cremated remains, and grave goods), combined with inscriptions on stelae indicating that the vows made by the offerants were being fulfilled, attest that child sacrifice took place at Carthage… Archaeologists have recovered the gruesome evidence not only at the great Phoenician city of Carthage (in modern Tunisia), but also in Sicily, Sardinia, and Cyprus.”[23] These tophets occur throughout the Phoenician colonies. According to The World Encyclopedia, the sacrifices included incinerating newborns:

According to the ancient historians Clitarch and Diodorus, a hearth was set before a bronze statue of the god Baal (or El) who had outstretched arms on which the victim was placed before falling into the fire. They also mention the victims wearing a smiling mask to hide their tears from the god to whom they were being offered. The victim’s ashes were then placed in an urn and buried in tombs placed within a dedicated sacred open space surrounded by walls, the tophet…. From the 6th century BCE, stelae were dedicated to Baal or Tanit and placed on top of the urns instead of stones. Many stelae have an inscription which describes a human blood sacrifice or the substitution of a sheep for a child.[24]

One of the urns contains this inscription: “To Lady Tanit, face of Baal, and to Lord Baal Hammon: [that] which Arisham son of Bodashtart, son of Bodeshmun vowed (ndr); because he (the god) heard his (Arisham’s) voice, he blessed him.”[25] Tanit was a Canaanite goddess and the lover of Ba’al. So, this was an offering to this god. Interestingly, the dead child is never mentioned.

Were these really human sacrifices or just graves?

Some scholars think that these were just mass graves used for postmortem disposal of infant stillbirths. Yet, there’s several problems with this view. First, why are only the infants buried in this way? Why not teenagers or adults? Second, why are animal bones mixed with the infants’ bones? This implies that both were being sacrificed—not simply buried. Finally, the bones are all found to be burned. Why go through the trouble of burning the infant and animal bodies, rather than just burying them like other adults?

Does God have the right to judge or not?

We wholeheartedly agree with the skeptic that genocide is immoral. But can the skeptic agree with us that child sacrifice and ritual rape warrants judgment? If a modern man was barbecuing his child on a grill and ritually raping his wife, few would bat an eye at his death sentence. If anyone deserves death, surely such a man would qualify. But the judgment of the Canaanites was this exact scenario—only writ large: This was a corporate capital punishment on a sick, twisted, and barbaric culture. Truly the destruction of the Canaanites was a severe judgment, but this was because their sin was equally severe. God didn’t judge these people because the Israelites were so righteous, but “because of the wickedness of these nations” (Deut. 9:4, 5).

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. 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.

(2) The judgment of the Canaanites was ethical—not ethnic

The title of the “Canaanite Genocide” is really a misnomer. The term “genocide” comes from the words “race” (gene) and “killing” (cide). But this war was not a war of ethnic cleansing, but of ethical cleansing.

First, the Canaanites were the same race as the Israelites. These two people groups were “virtually indistinguishable” from one another. Indeed, “a genetic test would reveal they came from the same ‘pool’—even if the Canaanites and Israelites weren’t an identical genetic match.”[26] Geneticists have demonstrated that modern Lebanese people are the descendants of the ancient Canaanites.[27] Scripture itself teaches that the Israelites were related to the Amalekites through Abraham’s son Esau (Gen. 36:12). How then can we call this genocide if these people were the same race and ethnicity.

Second, God judged the Israelites for committing these same sins. Leviticus warns, “All these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. 28 And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you. 29 Everyone who does any of these detestable things—such persons must be cut off from their people” (Lev. 18:27-29 NIV). Many more passages could be cited,[28] but the point is clear: The reason for the judgment was the flagrant immorality of the people—not their ethnic identity. Otherwise, God owes the Israelites an apology for exiling them to the Babylonians in 586 BC.

Third, God spared non-Israelites who turned to him. The rescue of Rahab and her family shows that this judgment was not an ethnic cleansing. Moreover, when the Israelites renewed their covenant with God, we read that “Both resident foreigners and native Israelites were there” (Josh. 8:33 NET). How can we claim that this war was genocide when Canaanites were spared for turning to God?

(3) The Canaanites rejected peace and wanted war

God waits patiently for people to turn to him, and he is slow to anger (Ex. 34:6-7; Ps. 103:8). God had compassion on the Ninevites, relenting from judgment, because they did “not know the difference between their right and left hand” (Jon. 4:11 NLT). 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). If these men would have changed, God would not have judged them.

In fact, God allowed the Israelites 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 Israelites arrived for battle under Joshua, they were.

During this 400-year period, the Canaanites knew that God was coming for them. God had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, which were cities filled with Canaanites. By the time the Israelites stood at the border, ready to fight, Rahab told them that they had heard of God’s judgment of Egypt (Josh. 2:10; cf. 9:9). Therefore, the Canaanites defiantly ignored these serious warnings.[29] Joshua records, “Now it came about when all the kings… heard how the LORD had dried up the waters of the Jordan before the sons of Israel until they had crossed, that their hearts melted, and there was no spirit in them any longer because of the sons of Israel” (Josh. 5:1).  Yet, they still refused to surrender! They united against the Israelites (Josh. 11:1-5).

Why didn’t the Israelites try diplomacy? When Israel would go to war with another nation, they usually did offer a peace treaty. God told the people, “When you approach a city to fight against it, you shall offer it terms of peace” (Deut. 20:10). 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. When the Ammonites surrounded one of the cities of Israel, they required every citizen to gouge out one of their eyes as their term of surrender (1 Sam. 11:1-2)! This is why the neighboring nations considered the Hebrew kings to be “merciful kings” (1 Kings 20:31).

This peace treaty was not offered to these seven people groups in Canaan (e.g. Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jubusites; see Deut. 20:15-18). Why not? Three reasons:

First, the Israelites already offered 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). That is, the terms of peace were already rejected.

Second, the Canaanites had already initiated war. When the Israelites were travelling through the desert, one of the Canaanite people groups (the Amalekites) attacked these weary and straggling people as they were travelling in the wilderness (Ex. 17:8-13). Specifically, the Amalekites attacked non-combatants that were “faint and weary” stragglers (Deut. 25:17-19). When the Jews were weak, the Canaanites tried to wipe them out (Deut. 23:3-4).

Third, if the Canaanites were allowed to coexist with the Israelites, God predicted that the Canaanite culture would eventually corrupt them (Ex. 23:20-33).

(4) This is the only offensive war that God ever commanded

The Israelites may have fought offensive wars, but God never commanded them to do so. He only supported them when they were defending themselves. In fact, when the Israelites tried to conquer people on their own initiative, 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.[30] Moreover, after the war with 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.”[31]

(5) Joshua didn’t engage in cruel and unusual practices

(Josh. 10:24-27) 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.

Many modern people express horror at the killing of the Canaanite leaders. Yet, these swift military executions are categorically different from the surrounding nations. 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.[32]

War was a bloody part of the ancient Near East. Yet 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.

(6) “Utterly destroy” might not be absolute language

When God gave the command to “utterly destroy” the Canaanites, it is possible that this was hyperbolic language. The Bible often uses hyperbolic language. For instance, Paul wrote that the “whole world” heard about Christ (Rom. 1:8). Luke writes that the “world” experienced a famine (Acts 11:28), and he writes that “every nation under heaven” came to Jerusalem at Pentecost (Acts 2:5). Likewise, God states that he would “cut off all Judah,” and “both small and great will die by the sword and famine.” Consequently, “there will be no refugees or survivors for the remnant of Judah.” However, then we read, “None will return except a few refugees” (Jer. 44:11-14).

But is the language of “utterly destroy” a case of hyperbole? We believe so for several reasons:

First, the text repeatedly states that “all” the Canaanites were destroyed, but later, many survived. For instance, Joshua records:

(Josh. 10:40; 11:16) 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.

It sounds like Joshua killed everyone, right? Indeed, Joshua fulfilled the command to utterly destroy the Canaanites “just as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded” (Josh. 11:12, 15, 20). But keep reading. Later, we read that Joshua did not take all of the land (Josh. 13:1-5), and he did not dispossess all of the people (Josh. 13:13).

Likewise, Joshua states that he had “utterly destroyed” the Anakim people (Josh. 11:21-22), yet later, Caleb asks permission to drive out the Anakim (Josh. 14:12-15; 15:13-19). Furthermore, Judges records that “the Canaanites persisted in living in that land” (Judg. 1:21) and “they did not drive [the Canaanites] out completely” (Judg. 1:28). Far later, in Solomon’s day, we read that the “Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites” still existed in the land, because “the sons of Israel were unable to destroy utterly [them]” (1 Kings 9:20-21).

God commanded King Saul, “Go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (1 Sam. 15:3). Of course, Saul complies with this command, and he “utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword” (1 Sam. 15:8). Yet later in the same book, David’s men fought against a number of tribes, including the “utterly destroyed” Amalekites (1 Sam. 28:8; cf. 1 Chron. 4:43). These are not errors in the text. Instead, we may be misinterpreting the text when we hold that these are absolute statements.

Second, the language of being “utterly destroyed” is also used to describe God’s judgment against the Israelites. Moses writes that a future generation of Israelites “will be utterly destroyed” (Deut. 4:26). Of course, the nation of Israel survived being “utterly destroyed.”

Third, textual clues indicate that this language is hyperbole. God warned the Israelites not to intermarry with the Canaanites (Josh. 23:12-13; Deut. 7:2-5). But why would God command this if all of the Canaanites were dead? Surely these warnings would be useless unless the Canaanites were not utterly destroyed.

Fourth, other terms also fit with this hyperbolic tendency. Consider a few examples:

  • “Dispossess” (yāraš). Moses had “dispossessed the Amorites” in his day (Num. 21:32). Yet later he writes, “You are crossing over the Jordan today to go in to dispossess nations greater and mightier than you” (Deut. 9:1; 11:23; 18:14; 19:1; etc.).
  • “Drive out” (gāraš). God states, “I will drive them out before you little by little, until you become fruitful and take possession of the land” (Ex. 23:30). In other words, the war would be a process—not an overnight event. It also implies that many of the people who left would be left alive. Many biblical figures were “driven out,” but they were still left alive: Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:24), Cain (Gen. 4:14), and David (1 Sam. 26:19)—all of whom were left alive (Ex. 34:11; Deut. 9:3-4).
  • “Perish and destroy” (ʾābad šāmad). Moses predicted that God will “perish and destroy” the exiled Israelites (Deut. 28:63). Yet when this event occurred, those who fled the city were spared (Jer. 38:2, 17).

At first glance, all of these terms seem to refer to an absolute destruction of the people. Yet when we see their other usages in the Bible, we discover that each can be used hyperbolically.

Fifth, other cultures used similar hyperbolic language to describe wars. 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. 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, nations used this sort of “war rhetoric” to describe utter destruction of the nation, rather than the death of each and every individual person. Consider several examples:[33]

HYPERBOLE: Egypt’s Thutmose III (late fifteenth century BC) proclaimed he had overthrown Mitanni’s “great army” in “the twinkling of an eye.” It had “perished completely, as though they never existed, like the ashes.”

HISTORY: Mitanni’s forces lived to fight beyond this in the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries.

HYPERBOLE: The Bulletin of Rameses II reads: “His majesty slew the entire force… as well as all the chiefs of all the countries that had come with him… His majesty slaughtered and slew them in their places… and his majesty was alone, none other with him.”

HISTORY: Rameses II exaggerated Egypt’s less-than-decisive victory at Kadesh against Syria (1274/3 BC). It was far from an overwhelming victory.

HYPERBOLE: Pharaoh Rameses III boasted about the Battle of the Delta and the invading Sea Peoples (1175 BC): “I slew the Denyen in their islands, while the Tjeker and Philistines were made ashes. The Sherden and the Washesh of the sea were made nonexistent.”

HISTORY: This “victory” actually led to Egypt’s economic devastation and to its eventual decline. In fact, Philistia would later colonize eastern Egypt—despite the pharaoh’s boast.

HYPERBOLE: King Mesha of Moab (840/830 BC) claimed that “Israel has utterly perished for always.”

HISTORY: This was a premature judgment—by one hundred years! The Assyrian invasion in 722 BC devastated the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

What does it mean to “utterly destroy” the enemy? The expression “utterly destroy” can be understood to refer to a “comprehensive victory.”[34] Likewise, the language of “man and woman” or “young and old” is a merism—similar to the “heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1) or “from Dan to Beersheba” (Judg. 20:1).[35]

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. Furthermore, these cities were not for non-combatants like women and kids. Rather, these were military fortresses. A “city” (ʿîr) simply refers to “a permanent settlement without reference to size or claims.” Furthermore, “none of our modern terms such as city, town, or village adequately convey the meaning or the mental picture contained in this word.”[36] The term can be used to describe a small village like Bethlehem (1 Sam. 20:6), an unwalled village (Deut. 3:5), a group of tents (Judg. 10:4), a citadel (2 Sam. 12:26), or a fortress (2 Sam. 5:7, 9).[37] Indeed, archaeologists have uncovered several sites (Tell Balatah, Arad) that were “walled fortresses” and “not habitations in which average persons lived.” The average person lived outside of these “cities,” which contained the royalty, temple taxes, and the soldiers.[38] 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.[39]

No women and children are mentioned throughout Joshua 1-12. The only exception is Rahab and her family, but they were spared. Families didn’t live in these fortress-cities, and anyone who wanted to escape would’ve left far before the battle began. However, even if children did remain in these fortresses, they would’ve died before the age of accountability, and they would’ve been taken to be directly with God at death.[40]

Further Reading

Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011).

Paul Copan, Is God a Vindictive Bully? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2022).

John Wenham, The Goodness of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1974).

Clay Jones, “Why We Don’t Hate Sin so We don’t Understand What Happened to the Canaanites: An Addendum to ‘Divine Genocide’ Arguments,” Philosophia Christi n.s. 11 (2009).

Richard Hess, “Apologetic Issues in the Old Testament.” In Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2022).

Additional books

We cannot vouch for these titles, but they appeared in the literature. So, they could be worth reading.

William J. Webb and Gordon K. Oeste, Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric? Wrestling with Troubling War Texts (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019).

Christopher Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (IVP Academic, 2004).

[1] The war with Canaan is contained in three premier passages: the Israelites departed from Sinai (Numbers 20-22), crossed the river and took over parts of southern Canaan (Josh. 6-10), and then took over northern Canaan (Josh. 11). The book of Deuteronomy also speaks about this in various passages as well (Deut. 2, 7-9, 20:16-18).

[2] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 280.

[3] Herodotus, Histories 1.199.

[4] A. Massart, The Leiden Magical Papyrus (Leiden, 1954). Cited in William F. Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan (New York: Doubleday, 1968), 129.

[5] Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy, vol. 4, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 313.

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

[7] John Wenham, The Goodness of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1974), 126.

[8] John Wenham, The Goodness of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1974), 127.

[9] Tophet is a Hebrew word that describes a location in the Valley of Hinnom/Gehenna. Modern people use this term to describe the cemeteries of children who were sacrificed.

[10] Molech was a Canaanite deity. People offered human sacrifices to him (Lev 20:2-5; 2 Kgs 23:10; Lev 18:21; Jer 32:35). Chemosh was the Moabite equivalent of Molech. R. D. Patterson and Hermann J. Austel, “1, 2 Kings,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988), 107.

[11] Clay Jones, “Why We Don’t Hate Sin so We don’t Understand What Happened to the Canaanites: An Addendum to ‘Divine Genocide’ Arguments,” Philosophia Christi n.s. 11 (2009): 61.

[12] Clay Jones, “Why We Don’t Hate Sin so We don’t Understand What Happened to the Canaanites: An Addendum to ‘Divine Genocide’ Arguments,” Philosophia Christi n.s. 11 (2009): 61. See footnote.

[13] R. D. Patterson and Hermann J. Austel, “1, 2 Kings,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988), 245.

[14] Sophocles, Andromeda (fragment 122). Cleitarchus, Fragments (137, F 9). Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca (XX, xiv). Plutarch, “De Superstitione” Moralia. Book 2.13.

[15] Plutarch. “De superstitione”. Moralia. Book 2, chap. 13.

[16] Diodorus Siculus. Bibliotheca. XX, xiv.

[17] Anthony J. Spalinger, “A Canaanite Ritual Found in Egyptian Reliefs,” Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities 8 (1978), p.47ff.

[18] Anthony J. Spalinger, “A Canaanite Ritual Found in Egyptian Reliefs,” Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities 8 (1978), p.50.

[19] Anthony J. Spalinger, “A Canaanite Ritual Found in Egyptian Reliefs,” Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities 8 (1978), p.51.

[20] Anthony J. Spalinger, “A Canaanite Ritual Found in Egyptian Reliefs,” Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities 8 (1978), p.51.

[21] Tophet is a Hebrew word that describes a location in the Valley of Hinnom/Gehenna. Modern people use this term to describe the cemeteries of children who were sacrificed.

[22] I am indebted to Cartwright for this description. Mark Cartwright, “Tophet.” World History Encyclopedia (April 15, 2016).

[23] Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager, Live in Biblical Israel (London: John Knox Press, 2001), 360-361.

[24] Mark Cartwright, “Tophet.” World History Encyclopedia (April 15, 2016).

[25] CIS I.2.511.

[26] Paul Copan, Is God a Vindictive Bully? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2022), 191-192.

[27] Marc Haber et al., “Continuity and Admixture in the Last Five Millennia of Levantine History from Ancient Canaanite and Present-Day Lebanese Genome Sequences,” American Journal of Human Genetics 101, no. 2 (August 3, 2017).

[28] Deuteronomy 18:10; 2 Kings 16:3; 17:17; 21:6; 2 Chronicles 33:6; Psalm 106:35-39.

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

[30] In the ancient Near East, the king was the lawgiver. 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 in 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). In each case, there was a law that stood above the king of Israel to which he was accountable.

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

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

[33] Copan cites from K.A. Kitchen, K. Lawson Younger, and James B. Pritchard. Paul Copan, Is God a Vindictive Bully? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2022), 200-201.

[34] David G. Firth, Joshua (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2021), 207-208.

[35] Paul Copan, Is God a Vindictive Bully? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2022), 205.

[36] Carl Schultz, “1615 עִיר,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 664.

[37] Richard Hess, “Apologetic Issues in the Old Testament.” In Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2022), 728.

[38] Richard Hess, “Apologetic Issues in the Old Testament.” In Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2022), 728.

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

[40] 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). 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). 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).