Richard Dawkins’ famous quote just about sums up how skeptics view the God of the Old Testament. He retorts:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.1
Whew. Other than his obvious thesaurus skills, we notice that Dawkins takes great offense at God’s behavior in the Old Testament. He scorns Scripture’s portrayal of slavery and the poor treatment of women, but it’s the Canaanite invasion that attracts most of his contempt. For example, he uses words such as bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser, racist, infanticidal, and genocidal to make his point loud and clear.
But this raises an obvious question. Did God really command genocide? Did he really order Israel to wipe the Canaanites from the face of the earth? Some texts seem to suggest this:
“So Joshua struck the whole land, the hill country and the Negev and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings. He left none remaining, but devoted to destruction all that breathed, just as the LORD God of Israel commanded.” — Joshua 10:40
“Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword.” — Joshua 6:21
It certainly looks like genocide. But as I’ll argue in a minute, I’m persuaded something other than genocide is going on here.
Joshua’s Claims vs. Reality
I’m persuaded something else is going on because several times Joshua makes claims that they “utterly destroyed” the Canaanites and “left none alive,” yet we read shortly thereafter that several survivors remain. Let me give you a few examples:
Joshua’s Claim: In Joshua 10, he says they left “no survivors” and “destroyed everything that breathed” in “the entire land” and “put all the inhabitants to the sword.”
Reality: Judges 1 states several times that Israel had failed to conquer the entire land of Canaan and couldn’t drive out all the inhabitants.
On the one hand, Joshua tells us that they left “no survivors.” On the other hand, Judges 1 tells us multiple times that Israel failed to drive out all the Canaanites.
Joshua’s Claim: Josh 10:39 says “every person” in Debir was “utterly destroyed.”
Reality: Josh 11:21 states that later, Joshua “utterly destroyed” Anakites in Debir.
Again, Joshua says they “utterly destroyed every person” in Debir. But the very next chapter, we read of survivors in Debir who Joshua “utterly destroyed” again.
Joshua’s Claims: In Joshua 11:21, he tells us the Anakites were “cut off” and “utterly destroyed” in Hebron.
Reality: A few chapters later in Joshua 15:13-14, we read that “Caleb “drove out” the Anakites from Hebron.
Once again, Joshua claims utter destruction while a few chapters later, he tells us that Caleb drove out the same people group he just “utterly destroyed.”
Just as the LORD had commanded
Certainly, Joshua’s claims and reality appear to contradict one another. Yet we read on multiple occasions that Joshua did just as God had commanded. Consider these two examples:
Joshua captured all the cities of these kings, and all their kings, and he struck them with the edge of the sword, and utterly destroyed them; just as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded. — Joshua 11:12
They struck every man with the edge of the sword, until they had destroyed them. They left no one who breathed. Just as the LORD had commanded Moses his servant… he left nothing undone of all that the LORD had commanded Moses. — Joshua 11:14-15
I’ve listed several examples where God commanded Joshua to “utterly destroy” the Canaanites. We’ve also seen that Joshua was faithful to do just as the LORD had commanded. Yet, we read several instances where survivors remain.
What is going on here?
God didn’t Mean Literal Genocide
As a quick caveat, I’m a biblical inerrantist. I’m not someone to play “fast and loose” with the text. Yet I’m persuaded that Joshua didn’t intend for us to interpret the “utterly destroy” language literally.
How could he if in Joshua 11 he tells us that they “utterly destroyed” the Anakites in Hebron, and then just a few chapters later in Joshua 15, he tells us that Caleb “drove out” those same Anakites in the same Hebron?
Would Joshua really be that irresponsible with his reporting? It’s doubtful. After all, God made it clear elsewhere that “utterly destroy” didn’t mean complete annihilation.
Consider Deuteronomy 7:2-4:
And when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction…you shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. You shall not intermarry them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for they will turn away your sons from following me to serve other gods.
Now, wait a second. God ordered them to devote the Canaanites to complete destruction, but then he forbids them from intermarrying with them. How could they intermarry with people they had completely obliterated?
It seems obvious that whatever “utterly destroy” means, it doesn’t mean genocide.
“Utterly Destroy” was Common Hyperbolic Rhetoric
Just recently, the Golden State Warriors defeated the Portland Trail Blazers by 22 points. As I read various ESPN articles and listened to different radio shows, I heard commentators say things like the Warriors “annihilated” or “killed” the Trail Blazers. And shockingly, nobody called them out for lying. You see, this is how people talk nowadays with respect to athletic competitions. We speak in hyperbolic terms.
In the same way, military leaders during Joshua’s day used to speak in exaggerated terms. They would regularly make claims that they “utterly destroyed” their enemies and left “no survivors.” In reality, they defeated their enemies but didn’t commit them to genocide. Yet nobody was calling them liars because this was how military leaders communicated back then. Consider these examples:2
King Mesha of Moab (840 BC) reported that the Northern Kingdom of Israel “has utterly perished for always.” — In truth, Israel was around long enough to be taken into exile one hundred years later.
Tuthmosis III of Egypt (1500 BC) declared that “the numerous army of Mitanni was overthrown within the hour, annihilated totally, like those now not existent.” — Actually, Mitanni continued to fight for another two hundred years.
Merneptah of Egypt (1230 BC) bragged “Israel is wasted, his seed is not.” — Guess who is still around today?
When Moses or Joshua spoke in exaggerated ways, they were simply adopting the common hyperbolic rhetoric that all ancient Near Eastern military leaders used. Everyone reading the accounts would have understood it that way, just like we understand hyperbolic sports language.
Drive them Out, Not Genocide
It seems that God’s desire was for Israel to drive out — or dispossess — the Canaanites from the land, not to commit them to genocide. Truth is, “driving out” language is used far more frequently with respect to the Canaanites than “utterly destroy” language.3
We saw earlier in Deuteronomy 7:2-4 that God ordered Israel to commit the Canaanites to “complete destruction,” and then he ordered them not to intermarry with the Canaanites afterwards. These dual commands only make sense if the “complete destruction” means to drive them out, rather than annihilating them altogether.
On another occasion, God threatens to “destroy” Israel for their disobedience, but this destruction did not mean genocide. It meant driving them away from the promised land. Consider Deuteronomy 28:63-64
And the LORD took delight in doing you good and multiplying you, so the LORD will take delight in destroying you. You shall be plucked off the land… And the LORD will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other.
Here is a clear example where “destroying” really meant driving them out of the land. With this in mind, we can be confident that this was God’s purpose in issuing the “utterly destroy” commands.
Did they Really Commit Women and Children to Genocide?
As I’ve argued above, the stock language of “kill everything that’s alive” was hyperbolic language and really meant “driving out” the Canaanites. This means, the Israelites never slaughtered women or children in their conquests. They simply defeated the various Canaanite armies as they infiltrated the promised land.
After all, God had instructed Israel to always offer peace before attacking anyone (Deut. 20:10) which would have given women and children time to flee before any battle ensued. Unfortunately, almost nobody took them up on the offer (Josh. 11:19).
Furthermore, it appears that most of their battles occurred at military strongholds — like Jericho and AI — away from the populated civilian countrysides. Archeology digs suggest that Jericho housed roughly one hundred soldiers with no civilians,4 which explains how Israel could march around it seven times in one day. Rahab and maybe another female or two worked in the tavern to take care of travelers passing through.
Rahab, who turned from paganism, also serves as a great example that ethnic cleansing is not the goal of these conquests. The goal was to rid the area of the pagan influence that could easily lead Israel astray from worshipping Yahweh.
Why Drive Out the Canaanites?
In Genesis 15:16, God told Abraham that he would give the land to the Israelites after four hundred years of slavery in Egypt because the “sins of the Amorites (Canaanites) was not yet complete. That is, God wouldn’t drive them out yet, because it wouldn’t be justified. But after hundreds of years of wickedness, the Canaanites would be ripe for judgment.
What did they do that prompted this judgment exactly? While they were notorious for temple prostitution, incest, and bestiality, perhaps their worst crime was their practice of child sacrifice. It was their ritual practice to burn their children alive on the god Molech.
Skeptics often ask why God doesn’t stop evil. Well, here is a clear example where he does, but they still find fault nonetheless.
Ultimately, God wanted to establish the nation of Israel in the land free of pagan influence to provide a context for the coming Messiah. Yes, Israel defeated these Canaanite armies, but the ultimate goal was to be a blessing to all the nations (Gen. 12:3). And that blessing would come through the person of Jesus Christ who came to fulfill the law and die as the once for all sacrifice for the sins of the world.
*For more on this topic, check out Paul Copan’s book Is God A Moral Monster?
Ryan Leasure holds an M.A. from Furman University and an M.Div. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He currently serves as a pastor at Grace Bible Church in Moore, SC.
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