Question: How can one reconcile scriptures in the Bible that appear to endorse genocide, pillage, and/or plunder?

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Question: How can one reconcile scriptures in the Bible that appear to endorse genocide, pillage, and/or plunder?

There are many lenses that we should view the text through in order to see this picture accurately

This is the hardest moral question to answer about the Bible. Biblical scholars have dealt with the “Canaanite question” for many, many years. It goes back to the early Christian fathers such as Gregory of Nazianus[1] that dealt with reconciling the image of the conquest with the God of the New Testament. This article will attempt to succinctly detail the main points of reconciliation for this criticism. It will be written from the preferred perspective of the author but it will also provide an additional way of viewing the conquest that is consistent with the biblical and archaeological data. It should be considered among all perspectives on supposed “genocide” in the Old Testament. Before reading this article, we recommend readers see our article that addresses reading these passages and particularly the hermeneutic suggested to approaching them. This article will deal with the question in five parts

  1. Cultural – How did the Israelites view these texts when they wrote them? What sort of language would they employ to depict this scene?
  2. Archaeological – What do we see from archaeology as it regards the Canaanites? Were the cities torn down and is there evidence that such large amounts of death occurred?
  3. Moral – Were the Canaanites really that wicked? Does God actually poor out wrath such as this on people? What did the Israelites intend to do? Was what they intended to do correct?
  4. Additional Considerations – Wrapping up with particulars about the Canaanites
  5. Helpful tidbits – little bits of information that usually go unnoticed by critics.

We’ll turn to a wider array of scholars to address this question. Virtually all scholars are agreed on the general considerations of questions 1 and 2. Question 3 is where the real divergency takes place.

What’s the story?

The story that the criticism stems from takes up a major part of the Old Testament. The “Conquest Narrative” has parts that go from Numbers to Judges. The main narrative is summarized in its entirety in Joshua and is explained in this excellent video from the Bible Project. They introduce the general narrative and the concern over “genocide”.


We’ll dive into the points made in the video in a little more detail.

Cultural Lense

War was a cultural reality for Israel and members of the ancient near east. It was a fight or die situation for many of them. Most of Israel's battles were fought on the defensive. It has been pointed out that Israel defended against the Amalekites who attacked them while traveling (Exodus 17:8) and that the Canaanite king of Arad attacked and captured some of the Israelites (Numbers 21:1); Israel countered the efforts of the Midiantes to lead them away from Yahweh through sexual transgression and idolatry (Numbers 25,31) Sihon refused peace offers from Israel and attacked them (Deuteronomy 2, Numbers 21), and so on. By this moment in Israel’s history, they had become a theocratic people-nation that wanted to continue to show their counterparts their faith in Yahweh and his sovereignty as the only true God. The Canaanite command came at this unique part of history where war was their reality. God was giving a specific command for a specific purpose. The picture that we get from the whole of the biblical text tells a story of gradual infiltration, strategizing, victory here and there, and so on.

As initial groundwork for understanding this picture, we need to understand what the Israelites thought of these texts as they wrote them. Did they intend the text to be literal? How would they have understood them? How did God “speak unto them according to their language that they might come to understanding?” (2 Nephi 31:3). Paul Copan and Matthew Flanagan give an answer to this, which summarizes the view of “most scholars generally”—that the Canaanite account contains “hagiographic hyperbole”:

The basic idea is that the accounts of Israel’s early battles in Canaan are narrated in a particular style, which is not intended to be literal in all of its details and contains a lot of hyperbole, formulaic language and literary expressions for rhetorical effect. We argue in our book that the evidence both from within the Bible and from other ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts supports this conclusion.[2]

Paul Copan elaborated more in a different book:

Most Christians read Joshua’s conquest stories with the backdrop of Sunday school lessons via flannel graph or children’s illustrated Bible stories. The impression that’s left is a black-and-white rendition of a literal crush, kill, and destroy mission. A closer look at the biblical text reveals a lot more nuance—and a lot less bloodshed. In short, the conquest of Canaan was far less widespread and harsh than many people assume.


Like his ancient Near Eastern contemporaries[3], Joshua used the language of conventional warfare rhetoric. This language sounds like bragging and exaggeration to our ears. Notice first the sweeping language in Joshua 10:40: “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.” Joshua used the rhetorical bravado language of his day, asserting that all the land was captured, all the kings defeated, and all the Canaanites destroyed (cf. 10:40–42; 11:16–23: “Joshua took the whole land . . . and gave . . . it for an inheritance to Israel”). Yet, as we will see, Joshua himself acknowledged that this wasn’t literally so.
Scholars readily agree that Judges is literarily linked to Joshua. Yet the early chapters of Judges (which, incidentally, repeat the death of Joshua) show that the task of taking over the land was far from complete. In Judges 2:3, God says, “I will not drive them out before you.” Earlier, Judges 1:21“21, 27–28 asserted that “[they] did not drive out the Jebusites”; “[they] did not take possession”; “they did not drive them out completely.” These nations remained “to this day” (Judg. 1:21). The peoples who had apparently been wiped out reappear in the story. Many Canaanite inhabitants simply stuck around. Some might accuse Joshua of being misleading or of getting it wrong. Not at all. He was speaking the language that everyone in his day would have understood. Rather than trying to deceive, Joshua was just saying he had fairly well trounced the enemy. On the one hand, Joshua says, “There were no Anakim left in the land” (Josh. 11:22); indeed, they were “utterly destroyed [haram]” in the hill country (11:21). Literally? Not according to the very same Joshua! In fact, Caleb later asked permission to drive out the Anakites from the hill country (14:12–15; cf. 15:13–19). Again, Joshua wasn’t being deceptive. Given the use of ancient Near Eastern hyperbole, he could say without contradiction that nations “remain among you”; he went on to warn Israel not to mention, swear by, serve, or bow down to their gods (Josh. 23:7, 12–13; cf. 15:63; 16:10; 17:13; Judg. 2:10–13). Again, though the land “had rest from war” (Josh. 11:23), chapters 13 and beyond tell us that much territory remained unpossessed (13:1). Tribe upon tribe failed to drive out the Canaanites (13:13; 15:63; 16:10; 17:12–13, 18), and Joshua tells seven of the tribes, “How long will you put off entering to take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given you?” (18:3). Furthermore, God told the Israelites that the process of driving out the Canaanites would be a gradual one, as Deuteronomy 7:22 anticipated and as Judges 2:20–23 reaffirmed. Whatever the reason behind Israel’s failure to drive them out—whether disobedience and/or God’s slow-but-sure approach—we’re still told by Joshua in sweeping terms that Israel wiped out all of the Canaanites. Just as we might say that a sports team “blew their opponents away” or “slaughtered” or “annihilated” them, the author (editor) likewise followed the rhetoric of his day.
Joshua’s conventional warfare rhetoric was common in many other ancient Near Eastern military accounts in the second and first millennia BC. The language is typically exaggerated and full of bravado, depicting total devastation. The knowing ancient Near Eastern reader recognized this as hyperbole; the accounts weren’t understood to be literally true.[4] This language, Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen observes, has misled many Old Testament scholars in their assessments of the book of Joshua; some have concluded that the language of wholesale slaughter and total occupation—which didn’t (from all other indications) actually take place—proves that these accounts are falsehoods. But ancient Near Eastern accounts readily used “utterly/completely destroy” and other obliteration language even when the event didn’t literally happen that way. Let’s now return to the Old Testament text to press this point further. It’s true that Joshua 9–12 utilizes the typical ancient Near Eastern literary devices for warfare. But at the book’s end, Joshua matter-of-factly assumes the continued existence of Canaanite peoples that could pose a threat to Israel. He warns Israel against idolatry and getting entangled in their ways: “For if you ever go back and cling to the rest of these nations, these which remain among you, and intermarry with them, so that you associate with them and they with you, know with certainty that the Lord your God will not continue to drive these nations out from before you” (Josh. 23:12–13). You get the idea.
Earlier in Deuteronomy 7:2–5, we find a similar tension. On the one hand, God tells Israel that they should “defeat” and “utterly destroy [haram]” the Canaanites (v. 2)—a holy consecration to destruction. On the other hand, he immediately goes on to say in the very next verses:

Furthermore, you shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor shall you take their daughters for your sons. For they will turn your sons away “from following Me to serve other gods; then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you and He will quickly destroy you. But thus, you shall do to them: you shall tear down their altars, and smash their sacred pillars, and hew down their Asherim [figures of Asherah, who was the Canaanite goddess of sexuality/sensuality], and burn their graven images with fire. (vv. 3–5)

If the Canaanites were to be completely obliterated, why this discussion about intermarriage or treaties? The final verse emphasizes that the ultimate issue was religious: Israel was to destroy altars, images, and sacred pillars. In other words, destroying Canaanite religion was more important than destroying Canaanite people.[5] This point was made earlier in Exodus 34:12–13: “Watch yourself that you make no covenant with the inhabitants of the land into which you are going, or it will become a snare in your midst. But rather, you are to tear down their altars and smash their sacred pillars and cut down their Asherim.” In Deuteronomy 12:2–3, we read the same emphasis on destroying Canaanite religion: “You shall utterly destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess serve their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. You shall tear down their altars and smash their sacred pillars and burn their Asherim with fire, and you shall cut down the engraved images of their gods and obliterate their name from that place. As Gary Millar writes, the concern of this destruction (herem) was “to see Israel established in a land purged of Canaanite idolatry as painlessly as possible.” The goal was to “remove what is subject to [herem] laws (the idols).” The root of the dilemma Israel faced wasn’t “the people themselves, but their idolatrous way of life.” Failure to remove the idolatry would put Israel in the position of the Canaanites and their idols before God. Israel would risk being consecrated to destruction. [6]

Even so, the Israelites didn’t do an effective job removing the snare of idolatry from the land (Ps. 106:34–35). Many of the Canaanites, as already noted, were still around “until this day,” and many of them became forced laborers in Israel (Josh. 15:63; 16:10; 17:12–13; Judg. 1:19, 21, 27–35).[7]

So the first points that we can make are that

  • The language is not literally tied to all men, women, and children as can be seen by simply reading the entire narrative holistically.
  • The language is aimed at getting Canaanite religion and driving the people out. Evidence of this is the command to not intermarry or make treaties with the Canaanites after the battles. This is reinforced by the “sending of the wasp before you to drive them out”. Indeed, by the time that the Israelites arrived, most people would have fled before the judgement of God.
  • Large populations are left alive as is made clear by the end of the Book of Joshua and the beginning of the Book of Judges.
  • The language is typical of other ancient near eastern cultures

This general pattern of “incapacitation” and “driving out” is reinforced by the narrative of Judah later on in the Bible. An additional note on language is that the Hebrew term “haram” usually translated as “utterly destroy” is better translated as “remove completely. This reinforces the theme of “driving them out”, including their religion, and not “extermination”. That seems to be how Nephi interprets the story (more below).

Archaeology

We started with Culture and Language because it informs the archaeology on the issue. Indeed, there is a paucity of archaeological evidence to support the widespread, instantaneous, crush, kill, destroy, massacre that some critics and other uninformed people make. This should not be troubling though as the science should inform our theology (D&C 88: 77-79). Peter Enns summarized:

As I argue (along with biblical scholars in general) in The Bible Tells Me So, the hyperbolic nature of Israel’s accounts combined with the extremely unfavorable archaeological evidence for a conquest of any sort suggests that “the conquest” didn’t happen. The biblical accounts reflect later storytelling of perhaps ancient battles and tribal tensions (which may or may not have involved early Israelites.)[8]

The only point of disagreement for the author here is that the conquest “didn’t happen”. There is indeed evidence of destruction at this time in Israel’s history. Just not a lot.[9] Latter-day Saint Biblical Scholars David Rolph Seely, Dana Pike, and Richard Holzapfel summarized the theories that have stemmed from the paucity of archaeological evidence and also offer some valid pushback on them.Their rejections of the theories are disregarded but their summary of some of the archaeological evidence in favor of the conquest is informative:

It has become common among biblical scholars to downplay, if not eliminate all together, the biblical account of a large number of Israelite “outsiders” conquering Canaan as the explanations for the origins of the Israelites. Those who accept that at least a small group of people managed to escape Egyptian bondage and flee to Canaan see this groups’ experience as becoming normative for a much larger and diverse population that eventually became known as “Israel.” More extreme views deny that any outsiders from Egypt played a role in the formation of Israel in Canaan. Such view denies the historical value of the Old Testament, a position that is not warranted.

Based on archaeological evidence, the most common alternative theories explaining Israelite origins in Canaan are the “infiltration” theory, that mitigating pastoralists peacefully and gradually coalesced in the highlands of Canaan, and the theory of “internal emergence,” that the Israelites were really displaced Canaanites who, for various reasons, broke off from the city-state system and established themselves in the highlands. But neither of these latter theories explains the unique national account of Egyptian bondage contained in the Bible. Nor do scholars with such views generally accept the biblical depiction of Israelites as a covenant people in some ways distinct from others in the region. Rather, they propose a development of Israelite identify and practices that eventually differentiated them from others in the region. While there may well be portions of the Israelite population that arose in ways other than what the Bible depicts, the general biblical account is given primacy in this volume… One major reason for these alternative proposals is the challenge of matching the biblical account of the conquest with the current results of archaeological excavations in Israel. For example, most archaeologists accept the existence of a walled city at Jericho in the Middle Bronze II period (ending about 1550 B.C.), but suggest there were no walls and little or no population at Jericho during the 1200s, the period in which we think the Bible places Joshua’s conquest (a few archaeologists do suggest the Middle Bronze Age walls were standing in the 1200s). If one accepts that situation, then how does one interpret the narrative about conquering Jericho?

Similarly, archaeologists think the city of Ai was uninhabited in the 1200s. A different situation exists for cities like Lachish, Shechem, and Hazor. For example, the book of Joshua claims the Israelites “burnt Hazor with fire” (Josh 11:11). Excavators did find evidence that Hazor was destroyed about 1230 B.C., including a thick layer of ash resulting from a massive fire. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know from this evidence who was responsible for this destruction, whether Israelites, the Sea Peoples, or some other group. So even when archaeological evidence as is currently available and interpreted matches the basic account of Joshua—sometimes it does, sometimes it does not—the physical evidence alone is not conclusive as a testimony of the validity of biblical claims.

One set of data that indicated change at the end of the Late Bronze Age (1200 B.C.) is the evidence of a large increase in the number of small, unwalled settlements in the central hill country of Canaan that attest several new architectural features Some scholars see this as evidence of the emergence of Israel in the land. While this seems likely, such evidence still only tells us someone arrived, not who. This evidence does correlate well with the biblical depiction of where the Israelites settled and with the Merneptah inscription, which indicates a “people” named Israel lived in the land (see Inscription: The Merneptah Stela, page 150). Also, in a literary vein, the book of Joshua shares similar styles and claims (as well as some differences) with most ancient Near Eastern texts describing military victories.[10]

It should be noted that this volume was published in 2003 and since then archaeological evidence has still not given the amount of support to a literal interpretation of the entire biblical account but the evidence they cite to push against some of the ideas still stand.

Jeffrey Bradshaw makes similar points about archaeology (following the majority of biblical scholars) here.

Other scholars have made some intriguing discoveries regarding archaeology:

Scholar Paul Copan has made similar points about the archaeology as those made by Holzapfel, Seely, and Pike and summarized why it is difficult to pin some things down:

With its mention of gradual infiltration and occupation (Josh. 13:1–7; 16:10; 17:12), the biblical text leads us to expect what archaeology has confirmed—namely, that widespread destruction of cities didn’t take place and that gradual assimilation did.35 Only three cities (citadels or fortresses, as we’ve seen) were burned—Jericho, Ai, and Hazor (Josh. 6:24; 8:28; 11:13). All tangible aspects of the Canaanites’ culture—buildings and homes—would have remained very much intact (cf. Deut. 6:10–11: “cities which you did not build”). This makes a lot of sense if Israel was to settle down in the same region—a lot less clean-up!

Furthermore, if we had lived back in Israel in the Late Bronze Age (1400–1200 BC) and looked at an Israelite and a Canaanite standing next to each other, we wouldn’t have detected any noticeable differences between them; they would have been virtually indistinguishable in dress, homes, tableware, pottery, and even language (cf. 2 Kings 18:26, 28; Isa. 19:18). This shouldn’t be all that surprising, as the Egyptian influence on both these peoples was quite strong.

What’s more, Israel itself wasn’t a pure race. For example, Joseph married an Egyptian woman, Asenath, who gave birth to Manasseh and Ephraim (Gen. 41:50); a “mixed multitude” came out of Egypt with them (Exod. 12:23; Num. 11:4); and other Gentiles like Rahab could be readily incorporated into Israel by intermarrying if they were willing to embrace the God of Israel. So how might Israelites distinguish themselves? Typically, by identifying their tribal or village and regional connections—for example, “Ehud the son of Gera, the Benjamite”(Judg. 3:15), “Izban of Bethlehem” (Judg. 12:8), “Elon the Zebulunite” (Judg. 12:11). On the religious front, again, the Scriptures lead us to expect what archaeology supports. Yes, like the Canaanites, the Israelites sacrificed, had priests, burned incense, and worshiped at a “shrine” (the tabernacle). And though the Israelites were called to remain distinct in their moral behavior, theology, and worship, they were often ensnared by the immorality and idolatry of the Canaanite peoples. For example, Israel mimicked the Phoenicians’ notorious practice of ritual infant sacrifice to the Baals and Asherahs and to Molech (e.g., 2 Kings 23:10; cf. Lev. 18:21; Deut. 18:10). However, archaeologists have discovered that by 1000 BC (during the Iron Age), Canaanites were no longer an identifiable entity in Israel. (I’m assuming that the exodus from Egypt took place sometime in the thirteenth century BC.)36 Around this time also, Israelites were worshiping a national God, whose dominant personal name was Yahweh (“the Lord”). An additional significant change from the Late Bronze to Iron Age was that town shrines in Canaan had been abandoned but not relocated elsewhere—say, to the hill villages. This suggests that a new people with a distinct theological bent had migrated here, had gradually occupied the territory, and had eventually become dominant.

We could point to a well-supported parallel scenario in the ancient Near East. The same kind of gradual infiltration took place by the Amorites, who had moved into Babylonia decades before 2000 BC. (Hammurabi himself was an Amorite who ruled Babylon.) They eventually occupied and controlled key cities and exerted political influence, which is attested by changes in many personal names in the literature and inscriptions. Babylonia’s culture didn’t change in its buildings, clothing, and ceramics, but a significant social shift took place. Likewise, we see the same gradual transition taking place in Canaan based on the same kinds of evidence archaeologists typically utilize. We’re reminded once again to avoid simplistic Sunday school versions of how Canaan came to be occupied by Israel.[11]

Moral Lense

We started with Culture/Language and Archaeology because they both now set the stage for the discussion of the morality of the conquest. This is the real point of divergency amongst scholars. Our summary of the issue so far includes several things:

  • The language is not literally tied to all men, women, and children as can be seen by simply reading the entire narrative holistically.
  • The language is aimed at getting Canaanite religion and driving the people out. Evidence of this is the command to not intermarry or make treaties with the Canaanites after the battles. This is reinforced by the “sending of the wasp before you to drive them out”. Indeed, by the time that the Israelites arrived, most people would have fled before the judgement of God.
  • Large populations are left alive as is made clear by the end of the Book of Joshua and the beginning of the Book of Judges.
  • The language is typical of other ancient near eastern cultures
  • The word translated as “utterly destroy”, Herem, is directed only at cities with combatants like the military encampments of Jericho, Ai, and so forth..
  • There is a general lack of archaeological evidence for the slash and burn type of conquest that is commonly depicted and instead one of gradual infiltration
  • Archaeology confirms what we learn from the biblical record.

But now the question has to be asked, were the Canaanites really that wicked? Does God actually poor out wrath such as this on people? What did the Israelites intend to do? Was what they intended to do correct? These questions are now examined.

We should probably first start with what the scriptures say about God’s wrath. Indeed the scriptures affirm many times that God’s wrath can be pored out on people for their wickedness. But only if they are actually wicked. So, was Canaan actually wicked? Paul Copan summarizes the verses that touch on it within the Bible and the basic history:

Were the Canaanites That Wicked? According to the biblical text, Yahweh was willing to wait about 430 years because the “sin of the Amorite [a Canaanite people group] has not yet reached its limit” (Gen 15:16 NET). In other words, in Abraham’s day, the time wasn’t ripe for judgement on the Canaanites; the moment wasn’t right for them to be driven out and for the land to “vomit them out” (Lev. 18:25 NET). Sodom and Gormorrah, on the other hand, were ready; not even ten righteous people could be found there (Genesis 18-19). Even earlier, at the time of Noah, humans had similarly hit moral rock bottom (Gen 6:11-13). Despite 120 years of Noah’s preaching (Gen 6:3; cf. 5:32; 7:6; 2 Peter 2:5), no one outside his family listened; his contemporaries were also ripe for judgement. But it was only after Israel’s lengthy enslavement in Egypt that the time was finally ripe for the Israelites to enter Canaan—“because of the wickedness of these nations” (Deut 9:4-5). [. . .] What kind of wickedness are we talking about? We’re familiar with the line, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” In the case of the Canaanites, the Canaanites’ moral apples didn’t fall far from the tree of their pantheon of immoral gods and goddesses. So it the Canaanite deites engaged in incest, then it is not surprising that incest wasn’t treated as a serious moral wrong among the Canaanite people. As we’ve seen adultery (temple sex), bestiality, homosexual acts (also temple sex), and child sacrifice were also permitted (cf. Lev, 18:20-30). Humans are “imaging” beings, designed to reflect the likeness and glory of their Creator. If we worship[ the creaturely rather than the Creator, we’ll come to resemble or image the idols of our own devising and that in which we place our security.[12]The sexual acts of the gods and goddesses were imitated by the Canaanites high places, the more this would stimulate the fertility god Baal to have sex with his consort, Anath, which meant more semen (rain) produced to water the earth. Let’s add to this the bloodlust and violence of the Canaanite deities. Anath, the patroness of both sex and war, reminds us of the bloodthirsty goddess Kali of Hinduism, who drank her victim’s blood and sat surrounded by corpses; she is commonly depicted with a garland of skulls around her neck. The late archaeologist William Albright describes the Canaanite deity Anath’s massacre in the following gory scene:

“The blood was so deep that she waded in it up to her knees—nay, up to her heck. Under her feet were human heads, above her human hands flew like locusts. In her sensuous delight she decorated herself with suspended heads while she attached hands to her girdle. Her joy at the butchery is described in even more sadistic language. “Her liver swelled with laughter, her heart was full of joy, the liver of Anath (was full of) exultation(?)” Afterwards Anath “was satisfied and washed her hands in human gore before proceeding to other occupations[13]

Nephi also affirms that the Canaanites were wicked and that they were driven out by the Israelites:

32 And after they had crossed the river Jordan he did make them mighty unto the driving out of the children of the land, yea, unto the scattering them to destruction. 33 And now, do ye suppose that the children of this land, who were in the land of promise, who were driven out by our fathers, do ye suppose that they were righteous? Behold, I say unto you, Nay. 34 Do ye suppose that our fathers would have been more choice than they if they had been righteous? I say unto you, Nay.

35 Behold, the Lord esteemeth all flesh in one; he that is righteous is favored of God. But behold, this people had rejected every word of God, and they were ripe in iniquity; and the fulness of the wrath of God was upon them; and the Lord did curse the land against them, and bless it unto our fathers; yea, he did curse it against them unto their destruction, and he did bless it unto our fathers unto their obtaining power over it.

The next question is about the purpose of the conquest. What does it actually accomplish then? Why the command in the first place? We’ve already established their wickedness. But the conquest narrative goes a bit deeper. The narrative is about taking possession of the land so that God’s people obtain their promise from him and rule as his people. It is this war over who holds reign in the common cosmological vision. Thus the need, in the view of Matthew Flanagan, John Walton, Paul Copan, John Goldingay, and others to destroy Canaanite religion instead of Canaanite people. If the Israelites could begin and end a cosmic war, then Israel could prepare the way for the Gospel to come to that land. The conquest also had the benefit of preventing oppression of the Israelites by Canaan after they had spent several years under the autocratic slavery of the Egyptians.

Does God command us to destroy the religion of others?

It is a common question, does God, then, want us to destroy the religion of others? The answer is an emphatic no! As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the command came at a specific time in Israel’s history, with a specific purpose, that was unique to the entire history of Israel. Richard Mouw:

We must also insist that not all commandments which are found in the Bible are to be obeyed by contemporary Christians. For example, God commanded Abram to leave Ur of the Chaldees, and commanded Jonah to preach in Nineveh; it would be silly to suppose that it is part of every Christian’s duty to obey these commandments[14]

What if innocents were actually killed during the conquest?

If non-combatants and/or other innocents were killed during the conquest, then this would be condemnable as it is murder and such was against Israel’s law (Exodus 20:13). If innocents were killed, they were taken to the God that gave them life (Job 1:21) and the perpetrator would likely be punished (whether by God and/or Israel). In summary on morality

  • God does pour out wrath on people if they are wicked and he has sufficient moral reason to do so
  • God did not intend to kill the Canaanites but “drive them out”.
  • God gave these commands at a very particular part of Israelite history and with a specific purpose. Thus, God limits this command to the Israelites and it is not extended to us.
  • The conquest sought to begin and end the cosmic warfare that would have happened.
  • The conquest sought also to prevent the oppression of Israel by Canaan after they had already been oppressed for a number of years under the Egyptians.
  • If any innocents were killed, this would have been a violation of Israel’s law and thus condemnable.

Specific Considerations About Canaan

The Midianites (Numbers 25, 31)

Some have misinterpreted a few aspects of the Midianites. Specifically, they claim that Israel defeated the Midianites because of racism and that they raped their women. We have addressed these in other articles

Jericho, Ai, Other Canaanite Cities

With regard to these polities, it is important to know:

  • There is no archaeological evidence of non-combatants living in this region during the time of the conquest.
  • The original language is stock for attacks against military outposts. Thus, when it says “men and women, young and old…”(Josh 6:21; 8:25) they are not referring to innocents. This is further evidenced by the Rahab pericope. Even more evidence is the story of the Amalekites (who also receive attention in criticism of killing in the bible) who receive the same language yet are spared as is evidenced by the end of the book of 1 Samuel where the story is recounted and even beyond that point (1 Samuel 27:8; 30:1; 1 Chron 4:43).

Helpful Tidbits

Rahab

The story of Rahab (Joshua 2) is telling of the intent of destroying Canaanite religion. Here is a Canaanite woman that is actually an aid to two of Israel’s spies before the conquest. She was not killed, thus reinforcing the narrative of driving out and incapacitation.

The Gibeonites

The Gibeonites should be mentioned. They turned unto Israel’s God and were made entirely free of an sort of harm or action.

Potential For Peace Treaties Before Attack

We already mentioned Sihon who attacked Israel after they had already offered peace. Following instructions in Deuteronomy 20, the Israelites may have done this for other Canaanite cities. This is a minority view among scholars. But there are examples of this like the Gibeonites and there are other insinuations to offers of peace among the Canaanites. Joshua 11:19 reads, for example, “There was not a city that made peace with the children of Israel, save the Hivites the inhabitants of Gibeon: all other they took in battle.”

Biblical envisioning of the Canaanite Future

The Bible envisions that all the nations of the earth will be blessed through the Israelites (Genesis 12:3). Zechariah 9 offers the envisioning of redemption and salvation for the Jebusite, a Canaanite nation. A list of Israel’s enemies is given in Psalm 87: Egypt, Babylon, and Philistia. Their redemption is also envisioned. Isaiah prophesied that Egypt and Assyria would be incorporated into Israel (Isaiah 19:23-25). In the New Testament, Jesus reaches to a Canaanite woman in Tyre and Sidon (Matt 15:22).

A Moral/Philosophical Note for Consideration from the Latter-day Saint Soteriological Point of View

Many people are-- very understandably-- troubled with the portrayal of many people losing their lives in the scriptures and other pericopes that appear to condone some form of murder. When taken from their mortal sojourn, it may be that God is showing mercy to people by allowing them not to make any more bad choices. That may allow us to see the scriptures in a new light. God is the creator of the universe including our spirits and bodies (2 Nephi 2:13) and it is his right to act upon us according to his will since he is the author of our life. When he causes destruction, he is acting in mercy by not allowing a person to sin more. Consider what Christ spoke to the Nephites before his appearance to them at Bountiful (3 Nephi 9:5-11):

5 And behold, that great city Moronihah have I covered with earth, and the inhabitants thereof, to hide their iniquities and their abominations from before my face, that the blood of the prophets and the saints shall not come any more unto me against them.

6 And behold, the city of Gilgal have I caused to be sunk, and the inhabitants thereof to be buried up in the depths of the earth;

7 Yea, and the city of Onihah and the inhabitants thereof, and the city of Mocum and the inhabitants thereof, and the city of Jerusalem and the inhabitants thereof; and waters have I caused to come up in the stead thereof, to hide their wickedness and abominations from before my face, that the blood of the prophets and the saints shall not come up any more unto me against them.

8 And behold, the city of Gadiandi, and the city of Gadiomnah, and the city of Jacob, and the city of Gimgimno, all these have I caused to be sunk, and made hills and valleys in the places thereof; and the inhabitants thereof have I buried up in the depths of the earth, to hide their wickedness and abominations from before my face, that the blood of the prophets and the saints should not come up any more unto me against them.

9 And behold, that great city Jacobugath, which was inhabited by the people of king Jacob, have I caused to be burned with fire because of their sins and their wickedness, which was above all the wickedness of the whole earth, because of their secret murders and combinations; for it was they that did destroy the peace of my people and the government of the land; therefore I did cause them to be burned, to destroy them from before my face, that the blood of the prophets and the saints should not come up unto me any more against them.

10 And behold, the city of Laman, and the city of Josh, and the city of Gad, and the city of Kishkumen, have I caused to be burned with fire, and the inhabitants thereof, because of their wickedness in casting out the prophets, and stoning those whom I did send to declare unto them concerning their wickedness and their abominations.

11 And because they did cast them all out, that there were none righteous among them, I did send down fire and destroy them, that their wickedness and abominations might be hid from before my face, that the blood of the prophets and the saints whom I sent among them might not cry unto me from the ground against them.

This ethic is much, much more palatable from a Latter-day Saint’s soteriological point of view where no one is damned to hell (or in the Latter-day Saints' case: "outer darkness") unless under very, very harsh and unique circumstances and instead receive differing levels of glory based upon our works, the desires of our hearts, and our potential (or future potential) to receive the Gospel. Under this view, the Canaanite Conquest becomes much more reconcilable. Of course, the knowledge of the Three Kingdoms would have been anachronistic to the Israelites who fought against Canaan. That wouldn't come (even in seed) until New Testament times[15]. They would have been under the understanding of Sheol, which is similar to the Restored Gospel's concept of the Spirit World. However, the concept would obviously not be unknown to God who, in theory, had not revelaed the entire Plan of Salvation—including knowledge of the three degrees of glory—in its fullness.

Another Viable Perspective

It should be mentioned that these are not the only perspectives that have been taken on the conquest narratives. There is another viable perspective for Latter-day Saints. Perspectives are limited since few accord with the biblical and archaeological data and these should inform our theology (D&C 88:77-79). Some scholars take the view of the conquest being the result of “accommodation”. As a very general summary, these men and women define that term as God accommodating and allowing the view point of the Canaanites instead of inspiring. To them, the conquest narrative came without inspiration of God but allowance from God for their preservation in the scriptural text. This, they argue, is something that God allows to teach us from negative examples of behavior today. Among the most popular of these individuals are people such as Peter Enns, Kenton Spaks, and Gregory Boyd. These scholars have laid out their viewpoints in great detail to tease the nuance in it.


See also:

  • Peter Enns, “The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It” (San Francisco, CA: HarperOne Publishing, 2015)
  • For Dr. Sparks’ viewpoints see “Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture” (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Publishing, 2012); “God’s Words in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship”(Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2008)
  • Gregory Boyd, “The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Volumes 1 & 2” (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017)

Additional Reading and Video Content

Below is a list of resources that were consulted for the creation of this article and other potentially helpful miscellany. Also included are links to other articles addressing other supposed instances of “genocide” in the Bible.

  • Paul Copan, Matthew Flanagan, “Did God Command Genocide?” (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014)
  • Paul Copan, “Is God a Moral Monster?” (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011)
  • Jeff Chadwick, “Did Joshua ‘Utterly Destroy’ the Canaanites?” <https://interpreterfoundation.org/knowhy-otl18a-did-joshua-utterly-destroy-the-canaanites/> Interpreter Foundation, May 10, 2018 (accessed 13 February 2019)
  • Richard Holzapfel, Dana Pike, David Rolph Seely “Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament” (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company, 2009)
  • Kenton Sparks, “Sacred Word Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture” (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012)
  • Kenton Sparks, “God’s Words in Human Words” (Ada, MI: Baker Books, 2008)
  • Peter Enns, “The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It” (San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2015)
  • Christopher J.H. Wright, “Old Testament Ethics for the People of God” (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic Press, 2004)
  • The Bible Project, <https://www.youtube.com/user/jointhebibleproject>
  • Net Bible, <https://netbible.org/bible/Matthew+1>
  • Adelle Berlin, Marc Zvi Brettler, “The Jewish Study Bible, 2nd Ed.” (New York City, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014)
  • Michael Coogan, Marc Z. Brettler, Carol A Newsom, Pheme Perkins (ed.) “The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 4th ed” (New York City, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010).

See also:

Notes

  1. Kenton Sparks, “Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture” (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Publishing, 2012) Kindle Loc 558
  2. Matthew Flanagan, Paul Copan Interview with Jonathan Merrit “Did God command genocide in the Bible?”< https://religionnews.com/2015/01/12/god-command-genocide-bible/> (accessed 5 January 2019). See also Pete Enns, “The Canaanites weren’t the “worst sinners ever”: engaging Copan and Flannagan on Canaanite extermination” <https://peteenns.com/the-canaanites-werent-the-worst-sinners-ever-engaging-copan-and-flannagan-on-canaanite-> (accessed 5 January 2019) extermination/
  3. Copan lists many of those that used this type of rhetoric on page 328 of “Is God a Moral Monster?” This list includes Egypt’s Tuthmosis III, Hittite king Mursilly II, the “Bulletin” of Ramses II, the Merneptah Stele, Mesha of Moab, and Sennacherib the Assyrian Ruler.
  4. Christopher J. H. Wright, “Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), 474-75; and Iain Provan, V. Phillips Long, and Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 149.
  5. Gordon J. Wenham, “Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Pentateuch (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003) 137.
  6. R. Gary Miller, “Now Choose Life: Theology and Ethics in Deuteronomy” (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), 157.
  7. Copan, Paul “Is God a Moral Monster?” (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011) Ebook
  8. Pete Enns “Canaanite genocide: it’s OK because it wasn’t THAT bad (was it?)” <https://peteenns.com/canaanite-genocide-its-ok-because-it-wasnt-that-bad-was-it/> (accessed 3 December 2018)
  9. Marc Brettler “The New Oxford Annotated Study Bible”.
  10. Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, Dana M. Pike, David Rolph Seely “Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament” (Deseret Book Company: Salt Lake City, UT 2003) 160
  11. Paul Copan “Is God a Moral Monster?” (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011) 351-52
  12. See G.K. Beale, “We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008)
  13. William F. Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1968), 77. See also Richard M. Davidson, “Footsteps of Joshua” (Hagerstown, PA: Review and Herald, 1995), 95.
  14. Richard Mouw, “Biblical Revelation and Medical Decisions,” in On Moral Medicine, ed. Stephen E. Lammers and Allen Verhey (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 56. As cited in Paul Copan, Matthew Flanagan Did God Really Command Genocide? (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014) 53
  15. Cheryl A. Kirk-Douglas, "Heaven" in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible ed., David Noel Freedman (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000) 564. "In the NT...Heaven, the seat of redemption and reconciliation, is beyond time; it may appear as a series (three or seven); and is foundational for this world where on experiences happiness, praise, and service."