Joshua 6:21 – What about the Canaanite Genocide?

Problem: Atheist Richard Dawkins considers the war over Canaan to be one of the most morally atrocious aspects of the OT.[1] 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]

Solution: 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 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 was guilty of barbaric acts such as burning newborn babies alive, corporate rape, and murder. Deuteronomy explains, “They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods” (Deut. 12:31). 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.[3]
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.[4]

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.[5]
Scholar 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.[6]

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.[7]
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, 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)—a reference to weak Jewish people (children or the elderly?). When the Jews were weak, the Canaanites tried to wipe them out (Deut. 23:3-4). John Wenham notes, “Ancient armies in this territory did not hold captives. They defeated them totally.”[8] There would have been no mercy for the Jewish people.

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 exterminated. It was kill or be killed.

Therefore, the war with 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.

  1. 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.[9] 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.”[10]

  2. 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 (Isa. 15:5; 16:9). Even though the Assyrians and Egyptians oppressed the Jews, God refers to them as “my people” (Isa. 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). If 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.

  1. 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 Ninevites, 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). 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; cf. 9:9). Therefore, the Canaanites defiantly ignored these serious warnings.[11]

  1. Diplomacy was the usual method
    When Israel would go to war with another nation, they would usually offer 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. 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” (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), as Deuteronomy 20:16 makes 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). However, 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.[12]

  1. Images in Joshua were mild compared to the ancient Near East
    In the book of Joshua, we read,

(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.

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.[13]
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.

  1. “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 the war, even though Joshua claimed that they were “all” destroyed. Joshua records:

“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” (Josh. 10:40; 11:16).

Repeatedly, Joshua states that he fulfilled the command to utterly destroy the Canaanites “just as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded” (Josh. 11:12, 15, 20). Yet repeatedly, we also 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). Joshua states that he had “utterly destroyed” the Anakim people (Josh. 11:21-22), yet later in the book Caleb asks permission to drive out the Anakim (Josh. 14:12-15; 15:13-19). 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). 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).

Furthermore, 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.”

Take another example. 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.

Even after the war with Canaan, 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.

This provides evidence for the interpretation that the absolute language of this war may not be absolute. Instead, this could be a case of hyperbolic language, whereby the author uses all-encompassing language for effect. We might say, “Everyone has heard the new Kanye West song” or “The whole city was in uproar after the news report.” The Bible uses hyperbolic language when saying that “the whole world” (Rom. 1:8) has heard of Christ, the “world” experienced a famine (Acts 11:28), or “every nation under heaven” came to Jerusalem at Pentecost (Acts 2:5).

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.[14] 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. We shouldn’t consider these statements false; we would consider them hyperbolic.

Third, the focus of this war 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. OT scholar Richard Hess writes, “The stress is upon the leadership, the kings, and not the towns. The ruling elite were opposed to Joshua. Nothing is said of the citizenry of these towns and their attitude.”[15]

Fourth, Moses and Joshua use a variety of words to describe this war. Consider the usage of these terms below:

Dispossess: 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: Moses writes that God will “send My terror ahead of you, and throw into confusion all the people among whom you come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you… I will drive them out before you little by little, until you become fruitful and take possession of the land” (Ex. 23:27, 30). This teaches that the war would be a process—not an overnight event. It also implies that many of the people who left would be left alive. The same language of being “driven out” describes Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:24), Cain (Gen. 4:14), and David (1 Sam. 26:19)—all of whom were left alive.

Perish and destroy: Moses states that God would “make you perish and destroy you; and you will be torn from the land” (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 seems to refer to an absolute destruction of the people. Yet when we see their other usages in the Bible, we discover that these are not absolute expressions.

  1. 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.[16]
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.”[17]

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),[18] 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.

  1. 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). 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.

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

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

Jones, Clay. “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).

[1] The war with Canaan is contained in three premier passages: the Jews 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).

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

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

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

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

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

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

[9] 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).

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

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

[12] In the same way, when Egypt was judged, many Egyptian civilians (“a mixed multitude”) were spared (Ex. 12:38). In fact, even some of Pharaoh’s people believed God and escaped judgment (Ex. 9:19-21).

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

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

[15] Hess, Richard S. Joshua: An Introduction and Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996. 217.

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

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

[18] 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

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I am a born again christian who loves the Lord and I am taking bible classes online