Did the God of the Old Testament Command Genocide? Part 4

conquestIn part 3 of this series, we looked at some religious and historical arguments against the claim that the conquest commands in the biblical books of Deuteronomy and Joshua were divine in origin. In this week’s post, I will formulate a moral argument against that claim solely on the basis of the rationale for those commands. To do this, I will reformulate that rationale (below) so that the reader can clearly see which claims the moral argument takes issue with.[1]

Reason A: The salvation of the world hinged on the preservation of Israel

The Abrahamic covenant (see Gen 12:1-3; 13:14-18; 15:1-21; 17:1-22) affirmed the central place of the Jews in Yahweh’s plan for the salvation of the world. That salvation would come through the people of Israel (cf. Deut 7:7-9) meant that their continued existence was essential to the fulfillment of God’s redemptive purposes for the whole of creation. Their persistence as a people required at least three things: (1) protection from the corrupting influence of pagan religious practices, (2) survival in a brutal culture of warfare in which enemy nations threatened their way of life, and (3) provision of land for an Israelite theocracy to flourish. With salvation hanging in the balance, desperate times called for desperate measures. Consequently, the conquest was seen a morally justifiable means of securing requirements (1) to (3).

Reason B: The Canaanites deserved divine punishment

The Pentateuch claims that the Canaanite people were incorrigibly wicked and without excuse for their moral failures. Apparently, God was willing to show these people mercy if they repented (just as he showed mercy to the city of Nineveh in the book of Jonah), and he demonstrated this willingness by delaying punishment until their decline had become incurable (Gen 15:6), but alas God’s forbearance was without effect. Now, as their creator, sovereign, and moral authority, God not only has the right to punish the Canaanites, but he also has the right to authorize those whom he chooses (namely, the Israelites) to punish on his behalf. In light of these considerations, the conquest was viewed as a morally justifiable form of punishment for the Canaanites’ wickedness (Lev 18:24-27). The conquest also served the ancillary role of teaching the Jewish people a sobering lesson about Yahweh’s severity against sin and the need for national holiness.

The Structure of the Moral Argument

This argument against the divine origin of the commands goes as follows: (4) if these commands came from God, then the conquest was a morally justified. (5) The conquest was not morally justified; therefore, (6) the commands did not come from God. In this context, premise (5) is gains support by arguing, contrary to reasons A and B, that the military conquest was not a justifiable means of preserving the nation of Israel and/or punishing the Canaanites.[2] The case for (5) will proceed along seven distinct lines of argument, which I briefly sketch here.

A Defense of the Moral Argument

First, the conquest did not succeed in protecting the Israelites from religious pollution because they intermarried with the Canaanites and lapsed into Baal worship. The Jews were culpable for this failure, but they still continued to dwell in the land as a nation. Even when their national and religious identity was called into serious question by the Babylonian exile, a faithful remnant of Jews persisted afterward. So if, contrary to (1), protection from religious pollution was not a prerequisite for the survival of the Jewish people, then that reason can no longer be used to justify Joshua’ original campaign. Even more troubling is the fact that Yahweh foreknew that Israel’s lapse into idolatry would prevent the campaign from being successful (Deut 31:20), but he commanded the Jews to wage war anyway.

Second, more humane methods would have served Israel better. Yahweh could have commanded to Jews to occupy more hospitable lands that did not require such violent methods of conquest. Instead of killing the women and children who were not evacuated from the battle sites, relocating the non-combatants would have been just as effective in dispossessing the inhabitants of the land.

Third, lessons about divine severity against sin and the need for national holiness could have been taught in better ways than by killing children. As Wes Morriston remarks, “A better way to distinguish the Israelites from their neighbors would surely be to encourage them to be less brutal, more compassionate, and more loving.”[3]

Fourth, it would have been preferable to spare the children because they posed no religious threat. They could have been assimilated into Israelite culture without ill effect and then raised to be Jewish.

Fifth, as Morriston argues, “it would be decidedly counterproductive to command [the Jews] to slaughter innocent children” because such battle tactics would have been psychologically damaging to the Israelite soldiers.[4]

Sixth, punishing the Canaanites was morally arbitrary because there was “nothing uniquely Canaanite” about their so-called abominable practices.[5] Practices which the Mosaic Law deemed reprehensible – such as idolatry, incest, adultery, child sacrifice, homosexuality, and bestiality – were common in the ancient near east, and just as prevalent in the nations outside the perimeter of the land, so why single out the Canaanites for judgement?

Seventh, it was wrong to punish the children because they were innocent of the misdeeds committed by their parents and their surrounding culture. They were too young to make moral choices for themselves.

Concluding Questions

What do you, the reader, think about these seven lines of argument? Do they effectively refute the claim that the conquest was a morally justifiable way of preserving the Jews and/or punishing the Canaanites?

[1] Note: my reformulation is intended as a tool for understanding, not as a detailed exegesis of what the biblical authors actually had in mind.

[2] This is not to deny that there are other ways, aside from considering the textual justification for the conquest, to argue for the truth of premise (5).

[3] Wesley Morriston, “Did God Command Genocide? A Challenge to the Biblical InerrantistPhilosophia Christi Vol. 11, No. 1, (2009), p.23.

[4] Ibid, p.23. Bold text added.

[5] Ibid, p.16.

5 thoughts on “Did the God of the Old Testament Command Genocide? Part 4”

  1. Thomas,

    Thanks for a great post. It has been busy these past few months (end of school year grading, my wife and I had our second little girl, Fiona Belle, etc.), so I have not been able to follow all your posts carefully. But thanks for keeping me in on what you are doing, it is great work.

    A few thoughts (I apologize if you have dealt with these already)

    Have you looked at the exegetical claims that the idea of total annihilation is a kind of ANE military bravado? So while it is a serious war act that YHWH is asking of the Israelites, we tend to misunderstand its rhetorical intent. We interpret it too literally.

    Along these line, have you discussed the idea that cities in these contexts do not mean cities as we might understand cities, e.g., LA or Toronto but military outposts? Also, people did not live in these “cities”, military did, but outside them? With the implication that the inhabitants had time to flee before war ensued? Which has the implication that women and children were not annihilated or at least given the chance to escape?

    I need to think a bit more about your reasons for defending the moral argument. I will get back to you.

    Hope all is well with you,


  2. Thanks, indeed, Thomas, for this great series of posts dealing carefully and thoroughly with one of the most difficult issues.

    I must actually say that I find this moral argument quite convincing.

    (A further moral objection to these Genocide stories is that they probably were helpful for brutal regimes (in regions of the world with influence by the Abrahamic religions) down the history of humanity for justifying violent actions. This is in contrast to Jesus’ anti-violent messages that make it difficult (rather than doing a service) for brutal regimes to justify their actions)

    One could of course object to the moral argument as follows: “if our human mind were less limited, if we didn’t lack imagination to such an extent, and if we were aware of just how holy, sovereign, and *different* (compared to us little humans) God is , then we wouldn’t so confidently make the moral argument.” However, while I find such an objection to some extent convincing I am worried by its implications: It can only fend off the moral argument by simultaneously making God completely mysterious and incomprehensible. It presupposes that our judgement of God can easily be completely off the mark. If our limited, human judgement of God should be so much off the mark in the context of our moral indignation at the conquest narratives, why shouldn’t it be any more reliable on any other divine matters?
    While I agree with this imagined objection that God’s nature and the moral laws that apply to him as well as the ANE context *could* be completely alien to my 21st century liberal western way of seeing the world, I still think the bible should be interpreted as not containing stories that are only (in a radical sense of “only”) comprehensible to certain cultures.

    Here are two general thoughts that I had on your post series:

    (1) Yes, the considerations brought up by Copan, Wolterstorff, etc. do make these stories less repugnant than they would otherwise be. But: Even if these considerations do make them *less* repugnant, the bottomline is that they still remain repugnant.
    Also, while I cannot judge whether (though I do trust that) the linguistic, historical, etc. considerations that Copan etc. bring up, are reliable, I can’t help but sometimes feel that their arguments seems quite “laboured”. It just seems *so* hard to defend these genocide stories that any actual defense of these stories arouses suspicion in me: Haven’t they just tried the “impossible” by trying to make sense of these stories? And does the fact that they can actually adduce some considerations to make these stories look more plausible *really* prove something —- given that *some* kind of argument can be made to support any position whatsoever (however absurd that position may be)?

    (2) This relates to your very first post in the series (“Is the God of the Old Testament a Moral Monster?”). In some sense I very much agree with the 5 points of Copan regarding interpretation, e.g. the point about developmental purposes. These 5 interpretative points seem to me the only way to somehow live with the genocide stories. However, I am struck by *how far away* these 5 points are of “folk theology”. Large and broad currents in current Christianity have no coherent picture at all of the Old Testament that could make sense of these genocide stories along Copan’s lines (eg acknowledging the developmental aspect and the time-relativity of commands). There is no coherent theology preached on these topics in *very large* sections of Christianity (this is in contrast to, for example, the evolution debate where Christians, even conservative and evangelical ones, work hard to coherently accomodate evolutionary theory withing their firm adherence to the bible). The 5 points stand in contradiction with very much of what is preached from our pulpits, even semi-liberal ones…

    (BTW, this might not all have been very coherent; feel free to ask back if it’s incomprehensible)

  3. Hi Thomas,

    I’d like to play devil’s advocate with your seven points. My counterpoints are a bit hastily drawn up, so they’ll have to be modulated with ensuing discussion, either in person or on the blog. Here’s my take:

    Point #1: Yes, the mission failed because it was not fully executed, and this was the fault of the Hebrews. However, I think it is going too far to suggest that the failure of the mission was of no real consequence because the “nation” endured nonetheless. The fact is, it didn’t. What was originally intended to be the consolidated nation of Israel deteriorated into a fissiparous confederation almost from the beginning of its history, precisely due to the religious syncretism of its successive generations of nationals. Israel suffered a succession of occupations, civil war, and eventually the entire annihilation of the ten northern tribes, leaving nothing but Jews. All of this was brought on by Israel’s flagrant flirtation with paganism. This made a joke out of Israel’s original purpose to be a light to the Gentiles:

    “Then will I cut off Israel out of the land which I have given them; and this house, which I have hallowed for my name, will I cast out of my sight; and Israel shall be a proverb and a byword among all people: And at this house, which is high, every one that passeth by it shall be astonished, and shall hiss; and they shall say, Why hath the Lord done thus unto this land, and to this house? And they shall answer, Because they forsook the Lord their God, who brought forth their fathers out of the land of Egypt, and have taken hold upon other gods, and have worshipped them, and served them: therefore hath the Lord brought upon them all this evil.” (1 Kings 9:7-9)

    Is it not reasonable, therefore, in a revisionist moment, to consider whether history would have unfolded differently had the Hebrews, in fact, fully exterminated paganism from their midst?
    Your point about God’s foreknowledge of the failure of the mission is well taken. However, this could be said for a multitude of commands in the Old Testament. Animal sacrifices could never have satiated God’s wrath; He still commanded them. Their ostensible ineffectiveness still served a purpose in that they signified the need for a Messiah. A case could be made that the order to exterminate the Canaanites had to be given, and its failure to be implemented had to be tolerated, in order to demonstrate the ultimate need for a Saviour.

    Point #2: If by “occupy more hospitable lands,” you mean land other than Canaan, that would not be possible, as the Israelites already possessed the promise of Abraham’s inheritance. They had to be settled in that particular country. Moreover, the suggestion that Israel simply “relocate” the Canaanites presumes a kind of logistical capability that Israel – peripatetic indigents, really – did not possess. Moreover, if history is a reliable indicator, “relocation” almost invariably results in death (I’m thinking here of the Armenians of 1916, or the Trail of Tears of the 19th century). The point is, “relocation” is not as cut and dried as is being assumed here, especially if we’re talking about the relocation of women and children, devoid of male protection and provision. Their independent survival in the ANE would be virtually impossible.

    Point #3: How, exactly, would the pagans have been “encouraged” to be “good”? I think Moriston’s suggestion is a bit facile.

    Point #4: This is probably the strongest argument. I think here we would have to be certain whether by “children,” it is meant simply, ‘young people,’ or frankly, ‘babies in mangers’. This question is more complex than you might think. For example, we are accustomed to assume that Isaac, when he was being sacrificed by Abraham, was just a young ‘boy’. However, Hebrew scholarship indicates that Isaac was easily in his 20s at the time, greatly modifying our perspective on the passage. You may find this post on 2 Kings 2:23 somewhat informative in this regard: http://ronyan.org/aaronk1994/aaronsblog/20100717is-2-kings-223-24-immoral/

    If, indeed, the ‘baby in the manger’ is intended in these passages (as certainly seems the case in 1 Samuel 15:3, see point #7.

    Point #5: This seems to be drawing from contemporary experience with PTSD, and is a bit speculative in my opinion. Regardless of whether children were killed or not in the conflict over Canaan, psychological damage to the Hebrew troops would have invariably happened simply as a consequence of WAR, no matter how ‘clean’ it was. Our troops return from the front today, not having committed any massacres, and are still not infrequently psychologically damaged.

    Point #6: This point assumes that the nations around Israel were not punished by other means, using other agents, at other times in history. The Old Testament is replete with judgments on many nations. Assyria was swallowed up by Babylon, which in turn was swallowed up by Persia. Why can’t we say that Babylon or Persia were also instruments in God’s hands to effect punishment on other societies for their evil deeds? We are informed that God is a God actively involved in human power structures (Romans 13:1). How are we to know that these parallel events, involving other nations in other periods, were not punishments meted out for these very same diabolical practices? The fact that Israel was used to effect the punishment of Canaanite societies simply means that Israel was the instrument of divine retribution for that particular case, which coincided with its need to repossess the land promised to it through Abraham.

    Point #7: This is probably the most involved point in the discussion, one that would require an entire post of its own. It’s reminiscent, Thomas, of our conversations about Original Sin a couple of years ago. If the children were killed without having been guilty of anything, then that is indeed the slaughter of “innocents.” This begs the question, however, of whether the children really are “innocent”. The Bible is replete with examples of children who were killed, or at the very least, disadvantaged due to the crimes of their ancestors. This suggests that they bore some of the guilt of their fathers’ crimes. We have to remember that, particularly in Near Eastern society, the concept of collective guilt/responsibility is very entrenched. We see it even today in the form of honour killings; the misdeeds of a family member are imputed to the entire family, which feels the need to ‘atone’ for it. Even here in the West, I would argue that the notion of collective responsibility/guilt, is not as foreign as we might assume. What is commonly referred to colloquially as “White Guilt,” is an apt example of this. The average liberal would probably deny that they believe in any kind of corporate guilt, and yet unwittingly support such a concept in their support for affirmative action programs. Affirmative action, like it or not, imputes the guilt of past individuals for their crimes to their progeny (usually defined ethnically), and punishes the progeny for the crimes of their ancestors accordingly. What I am trying to demonstrate in this example is that corporate responsibility is not as far from our minds in the 21st century Western world as we would like to believe. I think this is a fair point to make given your remarks to me a couple of weeks ago that our modern ‘ethos’ should and does shed light on our reading of scripture.

    I think the salient point to remember in all of this, is that the killing of men, women and children was never a foregone conclusion in any of these cases. The victims of Israel’s invasion were always given the option of surrender and repentence:

    “If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it” (Jeremiah 18:7-10 ESV).

  4. Thomas,

    As I looked closer to your seven reasons some thoughts came to mind. I wonder if there is a inconsistency between the second and sixth point. On the one hand, (second point) you state that God could have commanded Israel to occupy land that is more hospitable and therefore not requiring such violent methods of warfare ( Do we know of any such land in the ANE?). Moreover, on the other, you state (sixth point) that it was morally arbitrary for God to pick on the Canaanites since practices such as child sacrifice, etc. were common in the ANE. Which would suggest that there wasn’t any such hospitable land for Israel to occupy. So it seems that you are stating that there was hospitable land, on the one hand, and there wasn’t, on the other.

    Am I understanding your two points correctly or have I missed something.

    You bring up some tough questions on a tough subject.

    Thanks again,


  5. Justin, Dominic, and Gregg,

    Thank you for replies to this post about the moral argument. I’m thankful for all the work you’ve put into them! I will work through each of the seven points of the moral argument by presenting my own thoughts and commenting on your replies.

    Objection 1: the Failure of the Conquest

    Justin is correct that the Israelites’ failure was not without devastating consequences, both nationally and religiously. And while the failure to complete the conquest was compatible with the Israelites’ survival, the biblical authors would agree that no attempt at all to drive out the nations would have resulted in the Israelites’ assimilation and eventual extinction as a people. This point explains why God commanded the conquest anyway (Deut 31:20), in spite of his foreknowledge of what would happen.

    Objections 2 and 6: the Charges of Arbitrariness and Other Hospitable Lands

    These objections are fraught with problems. First of all, it is not a requirement for the justification of punishment that others who commit the same crimes be punished immediately. If ex hypothesi Yahweh is authorizing the punishment of the Canaanites, then he (not Israel) is responsible for holding others accountable for their actions in due time. Btw, it is a common theme in the Hebrew Bible that God uses nations to punish other ones – even Assyria and Babylon were said to be God’s tools for judging Israel.

    Second, objection 2 assumes that the other nations weren’t (or won’t be) punished through other means.

    Third, Gregg has found a tension between objections 2 and 6: namely, *if* the nations in surrounding lands were equally culpable or just as wicked as the Canaanites were (according to Mosaic regulations), then surrounding lands would have been no more hospitable for the Israelites to occupy than Canaan. But *if* the other nations weren’t as wicked, then the conquest of Canaan was not arbitrary, because it contained the most wicked people. Note: whether or not these *if* statements are true is another discussion.

    Fourth, geographically speaking, perhaps the Israelites could have settled only in the territories of the Transjordan (east of the border into Canaan), just as the three tribes of Menasseh, Gad, and Reuben eventually did (see: http://www.jr.co.il/pictures/israel/maps/map-of-twelve-tribes.jpg, and Num 32), but those territories were not originally part of Israel’s inheritance. They only became so when the Amorite king, Sihon, refused to grant the Israelites peaceful passage through his land and subsequently attacked them (Deut 2: 27-29). Regardless, Justin’s point that other lands were not originally promised to the Israelites still stands, despite king Sihon’s forfeiting the Amorite territories east of Canaan through his unprovoked acts of aggression.

    Objection 3: Lessons about Holiness and Divine Severity

    Here, Morriston’s complaint that these lessons could have been taught in better ways ignores two possibilities: those lessons were ancillary outcomes (or side-effects) of the conquest, not justifying reasons for the conquest itself, OR, they were only conjointly justifying, in combination with Reasons (A) and (B) above.

    Objection 4: Children No Religious Threat

    If, as Justin suggests, the category of “children” is broader than mere infants, then the likelihood of assimilating them into Israelite culture without negative religious consequences decreases. However, the broadened age category would still include infants if they were present, in which case we are back to the original objection.

    Perhaps the infants were targeted because Yahweh knew the vulnerabilities of his people. As a fledgling, nomadic people who had previously flirted with idolatry and immorality, perhaps God had to erase every reminder of pagan religion, including innocent infants, to ensure Israel’s religious integrity. I will not evaluate this possibility here, but it seems like overkill to me.

    Another option is that, when it came to taking infants as spoils of war, their survival was contingent on their mothers who did pose a negative religious influence if they were taken as spoils of war. Let me explain:

    In the ANE, if a conquering army chose to spare the women who remained after battle, their only hope was to be taken as wives, because, as Justin points out, without male protection and provision, their survival would have been virtually impossible. However, intermarriage was forbidden by God, so leaving these women behind would have lead to their deaths anyway. [Also worth considering: in the unlikely event that these women did survive, their male infants would have grown up to be future combatants – not a good prospect for Israel]

    But what about killing the women and assimilating the infants into Israelite culture? Assuming they were innocent and posed no religious threat, couldn’t the Israelite soldiers have taken them as spoils of war? This is doubtful, because the infants would not have survived without their mothers. Invading armies in the ANE were not equipped to transport and care for motherless infants. The exigencies of battle just did not allow for this. So taking the infants along would have benefited no one.

    To summarize: if killing the women was morally justified under the rationale of punishment and religious threat (as is assumed by the conquest commands), then the Israelite soldiers were left with two tragic options: abandon the infants to death by starvation/exposure, or kill them swiftly. Are there other options?

    Objection 5: Soldiers being Traumatized?

    Justin’s insight is well taken, that all warfare methods are liable to result in some psychological damage. But objection 5 trades on the assumption that more brutal methods result in more severe damage. This assumption is weakened by the fact that it depends on 21st century sensitivities. Quite frankly, the ANE circa the first millennium was a brutal culture of warfare and survival. Within the context of battle, women and children were generally regarded as spoils of war, to be kept or disposed of at one’s discretion. It may be hard imagine how, from 21st century perspective, soldiers could be desensitized to this kind of violence, but as graphic as such killing would have been, it is doubtful that they’d be traumatized by it.

    Objection 7: Rejecting Corporate Guilt (CR) as a Moral Justification

    First, rejecting CR as a rationale for killing has far-reaching implications. CR is presupposed elsewhere in the Old Testament – e.g. in killing Achan’s family (Joshua 7), possibly in the Levitical understanding of atonement, and elsewhere. So objection 7 does more than merely attack the rational for the conquest. More is at stake.

    Second, Justin suggests that modern-day analogies for CR can retrain or critique our 21st century individualist sensibilities. Now, the analogy of affirmative action is apt, but it is also limited by the fact that most contemporary advocates of AA (that I have read) justify it along utilitarian lines of maximizing the good of all by redistributing resources to the disadvantaged, not on deontological lines of punishing those who have benefited from the sins of their predecessors.

    Third, perhaps the biblically inclined reader who rejects CR will explain it as a divine accommodation to (rather than an endorsement of) the deeply entrenched worldview of the Israelites. Perhaps by not following the policy of CR, and by sparing the infants, the divine lesson to the Israelites would have been that some wickedness is excusable. But I for one find this logic unconvincing.

    Any thoughts?

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