Did the God of the Old Testament Command Genocide? Part 3


What was the rationale for Joshua's military campaign?
What was the rationale for Joshua’s military campaign?

In parts 1 and 2 of this series, we examined what the God of the Old Testament commanded the Israelites to do to the Canaanites. We discovered that Joshua’s mandate was to defeat 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 plan was to drive the nations out of the land by attacking strategic locales; his goal was not to exterminate these people, but to drive them out gradually.



These conclusions raise some important questions about divinely sanctioned killing – namely, if God exists, could he authorize humans to kill on his behalf? And if so, could humans ever be justified in believing themselves to have that authority?

Clearly, those two questions are too complex to fully address here, though in parts 1 and 2 of Ethical Constraints on Theodicy, I argue that if God exists, he has rights over us which our fellow humans beings do not have with respect to each other, including the right to cause significant harm, and even take life, if he has morally sufficient reasons for doing so. Now, if God has those rights, he may also have the prerogative to authorize some of his creatures to take human life on his behalf, even if their doing so would otherwise be morally wrong.

Similarly, the question of knowing that one has been divinely mandated to kill is much too complex to deal with in this post, but the answer is inextricably tied to the problem of divine action. Why? Because a morally upright person would not be persuaded to carry out such a mandate unless it was confirmed by dramatic act of God, what some would term a “miracle.” In the interest of brevity, this post will assume (for the sake of argument) that it is possible for a person to justifiably believe in a miracle, i.e. an event which is naturally improbable, religiously significant, based on strong evidence, and one which God would have reason to bring about.[1]

Now, at the risk of doing injustice to these moral and epistemological questions, let’s move on and look at the rationale which the biblical texts provide for Joshua’s military campaign.


The Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua present five justifying reasons for attacking strategic locales in the land: (1) to punish an incorrigibly wicked people; (2) to protect the Israelites from the corrupting influence of pagan religious practices; (3) to provide land for the Israelite theocracy to flourish, (4) to preserve the nation of Israel in a brutal culture of warfare in which enemy nations threatened its existence[2]; (5) to exact retribution for previous attacks upon the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt; and (6) to teach the Israelites a sobering lesson about Yahweh’s severity towards wickedness, so that they will learn to guard themselves against it.

With (1)-(6) in mind, let’s explore some historical and religious criticisms of the conquest. [Note: moral and tactical criticisms will be discussed in part 4 of this series]


First, one could point out that because military history is typically written from the biased perspective of its victors, the O.T. conquest narratives should be viewed with great suspicion. When it came to holy wars, it was commonplace for military leaders in the ANE to claim divine sanction for war and to demonize their enemies. Why should we think differently of Moses and Joshua?

Second, claims of divine sanction for military conquest exist in different religious traditions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and others. But these actions cannot all be justified, because each religion makes incompatible claims about the nature of the divine. So what reason is there to think that Moses and Joshua were recipients of a truly divine mandate for war, but not the others?

Third, it is easy to conceive how a divine mandate could have been fabricated by Israel’s military leaders. The Israelites were a nomadic people in desperate need of a homeland with infrastructure such as farms and cities. They were ideally situated near the border of Canaan and possessed the military power to strike at their enemy. Perhaps in a fit of nationalism and religious fervor, the Israelites decided to attack the Canaanites and then appealed to the ‘will of Yahweh’ to justify their long and drawn-out campaign of bloodshed.

Fourth, one could question the biblical sources which tell us that the Canaanites were too wicked to change their ways. The Pentateuch is mostly silent on the matter of Yahweh’s redemptive dealings with the nations occupying the land prior to the conquest, though we have hints in the days of Abraham that a Canaanite priest named ‘Melchizedek’ actually worshiped ʾĒl ʿElyōn, a being who is identified with Yahweh in Genesis 14. But apart from these hints, the covenant text of Genesis 15 suggests that the people of that land had become wicked, and that Yahweh was delaying judgement until their moral decline had become irreparable (v.16).

However, according to Wes Morriston (2009), the Canaanite texts tell a different story than the biblical story. When we examine the tablets of Ugarit, circa 1200 B.C.E., we find no mention of ‘abominable practices’ such as child sacrifice or ritual prostitution, despite the fact that the biblical texts indict the Canaanites for these very practices (e.g. Lev 18:24-27).[3] Clearly, Morriston’s point is an argument from the absence of evidence of wickedness in extra-biblical writings, but his point is still worth consideration.  Apparently, Clay Jones (2009) has countered Morriston’s claims about the paucity of extra-biblical evidence for Canaanite wickedness, but I cannot speak to the merit of Jones’ scholarship on this point.[4]

What do you, the reader, think about these four historical-religious criticisms? How much suspicion of the biblical texts do they warrant? Are there similar criticisms I may have missed?

[1] For a defense of the possibility of believing in a miracle on the basis of good evidence, see John Eerman’s concise book, Hume’s Abject Failure: the Argument against Miracles. University of Oxford Press, 2000. It is worth noting that as an agnostic, Eerman declares that he finds “nothing attractive, either intellectually or emotionally, in the theological doctrines of Christianity” and has no “need of Gods.”

[2] This reason is connected to the promise to Abraham, where Yahweh declares his intention to preserve his descendants (which include Israel) so that all the nations of the earth would be blessed.

[3] Wesley Morriston, “Did God Command Genocide? A Challenge to the Biblical Inerrantist.Philosophia Christi Vol. 11, No. 1, (2009).  

One thought on “Did the God of the Old Testament Command Genocide? Part 3”

  1. “(2) to protect the Israelites from the corrupting influence of pagan religious practices”.
    I’ve always felt that the importance of the “justifying reason #2” posted here cannot be overstated, because this was essential to preserving the FAITH line of Abraham, in a culture where the the Israelites were notorious for falling into Ba’al worship. This seems necessary to prepare the way for the Gospel- to remember their need for a Messiah, they needed to preserve their faith. To punish wickedness seems a much less likely reason, since all over the world there were other terrible practices, but these ones threaten the culture of Israel. God didn’t command them to build a boat and go slay the Aztecs or anything. The practices of Ba’al worshippers were such a threat mainly because of their self-destructiveness. Evidence of child-sacrifice in that day and place might be hard to verify, but not only has it happened in other cultures as well, but remains an important part, even if only symbolically, in other occultic religions based on the old religion of Ba’al. So this wasn’t any relatively “harmless” strain of idolatry, but an extremely self-destructive one. Destroying these armies and their followers were almost like taking out a squadron of death-seeking kamikaze pilots bent on bringing everyone down. That’s just my take on it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *