Did the God of the Old Testament Command Genocide? Part 2

What exactly was commanded?
What exactly was commanded?

In last week’s post, we reviewed some of the bibilical passages in which the God of the Old Testament commands the Israelites to destroy the Canaanite people. We considered an interpretation of those passages (namely, scenario 1) according to which women and children were not targeted by Joshua’s military campaign. In this post, we will consider the evidence for a different interpretation (namely, scenario 2), the view that they were targeted.

1. Cities and the General Population

When we read Moses’ instructions in Deuteronomy 20:10-18, we find specific directions given to Israel about how to conquer the cities of other nations – both near and far. If cities in distant lands refused to make peace, the Israelite solders were command to kill all the men inside, and take the women, children and livestock as plunder (v.13-14). However, when laying siege to nearby cities in the promised land, the Israelites were told to “not leave alive anything that breathes” (v.16).

This passage is germane for two reasons. First, verses 13-14 assume that women and children would be present in those cities, even if the majority had been evacuated before the attacks. Second, the command to “not leave anything alive that breathes” is expressed in contrast with the instruction to spare the women and children in distant lands. The contrast between killing everything in nearby cities and sparing certain people in distant ones lends support to Scenario 2 – the view that Israel was told to target every living thing (including women and children) when they conquered cities inside the promised land.

Moreover, it is likely that the Israelites interpreted the “totally destroy” language to mean that every inhabitant that remained in a city was to be killed, without exception. For example, in 1 Samuel 15, King Saul directs his army to ambush the city of Amalek upon being commanded by God to “totally destroy” the Amalekites – their women, children and livestock included (v.3). Saul returns from the attack believing himself to be successful, but the prophet Samuel chides him for sparing the life of Agag, the Amalekite king, along with the prized livestock. When Saul is confronted with his disobedience, he confesses his failure to follow through with God’s instructions, and Samuel finishes the job by executing King Agag himself!

Clearly, the decree to “totally destroy” the Amalekites did not require that they be annihilated as a race. Why? Because they show up again later in 1 Samuel 30! But the story does indicate that the Israelites, in particular Saul, believed that “totally destroying” a city inside the promised land was a thorough task, along the lines of Scenario 2.[1]

In addition to conquering cities, numerous references in the book of Joshua are made to “sparing nothing” in the villages, fields, and hill country where the general population was residing (e.g. 10:39, 40; 11:16). However, it is apparent in these cases that civilian women, children, and seniors would have also been evacuated prior to a confrontation with the Israelites.[2] These places were emptied of the general population and served as battle sites or temporary havens for retreating enemy soldiers. But it was still true that any civilians who remained in these places would have been killed, as indicated by scenario 2.

2. What Exactly Was Commanded?

When the conquest narrative says that Joshua took the “entire land” (11:23), it meant that he defeated the armies that opposed him in various locales – whether in cities, villages, fields, or the countryside – by killing everything that remained in those places during battle, whether civilians or combatants. In doing so, Joshua’s main goal was to drive the nations out of the promised land by attacking strategic locales. His goal was not to exterminate these people, but to drive them out gradually (Josh 15:63; 16:10; 17:13; 23:12–13; Judg 2:10–13).

[1] The question of how thorough the city attacks were supposed to be gets complicated by exceptional cases in which livestock are taken as plunder, in spite of the injunction not to leave anything that breathes (e.g. Josh 8:27; 11:14).

[2] As Paul Copan (2009) writes, “when a foreign army might pose a threat in the ANE, women and children would be the first to remove themselves from harm’s way–not to mention the population at large: ‘When a city is in danger of falling,’ observes Goldingay, ‘people do not simply wait there to be killed; they get out. . . . Only people who do not get out, such as the city’s defenders, get killed’” (p.7). See his “Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites: Divinely Mandated Genocide or Corporate Capital Punishment?” Retrieved April 6th, 2013.

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