But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded.” (Deut 20:16-17)

“Joshua left none remaining, but devoted to destruction all that breathed, just as the Lord God of Israel commanded.” (Josh 10:40)

As Christians, we all have our favourite Bible passages, don’t we? The ones we turn to for comfort, encouragement, and guidance in how to live our lives. And we all have our ‘least favourite’ passages as well – the ones that make us uncomfortable, that we wish weren’t there, and that we prefer not to think about if we can avoid it.

But focusing only on our ‘preferred’ bits of the Bible can distort our spirituality, making us over-emphasise some aspects of being Christian at the cost of others. In fact, the parts of the Bible that make us most uncomfortable are probably the ones we can grow most from. The difficult passages deserve our attention precisely because they challenge us more. They reveal the places where our own theology is lacking.

One of the most troubling parts of the Bible for Christians today is the set of stories in the book of Joshua known as the “Canaanite Genocides” in which God commands the people of Israel to invade the land of Canaan and kill everyone who lives there. Richard Dawkins calls this story “morally indistinguishable from Hitler’s invasion of Poland, or Saddam Hussein’s massacres of the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs.”[1] Why is this Bible passage particularly disturbing? I think it is for four reasons:

  1. It is commanded by God. Many Bible stories talk about Israel going to war, but in most of them God neither approves nor commands Israel’s violence. In this story it cannot be avoided: God wants Israel to do this.
  2. It seems excessively bloodthirsty. Josh 10:40 says that the Israelites destroyed “everything that breathed.” Does that include women, children, and others unable to defend themselves?
  3. It is aggressive. Most of the other times when God helps Israel in battle, it is to protect her from destruction by invading forces, which seems less morally problematic than an offensive campaign to wipe out another race.
  4. It seems to show favouritism, which the Bible elsewhere says God does not show (Deut 10:17; Rom 2:11). God appears to be giving special treatment to Israel, allowing them to invade and conquer another race in order to have their own land. But what about the poor Canaanites whose land it is? Does God not care about them? In short, is God racist?

In what follows, I’m going to start by looking at some common ways of responding to this verse. These help us understand what’s at stake, although I think they’re ultimately inadequate. Then I will end with my suggestion of how to understand it. 


Option 1: The Bible is Wrong

According to this first view, the Bible falsely claims that God commanded the Canaanite conquest. Actually, God never wanted Israel to do anything of the sort.

How do we know God would never command such a thing? People give three answers to this.

Option 1a: Genocide is self-evidently wrong. It violates basic moral principles shared by all human beings. We don’t need to argue why it was wrong; we can see clearly that it is. Let’s give up trying to justify every verse in the Bible and frankly admit that it contains some mistakes.

However, if you’ve spent enough time reading history or exploring other cultures around the world, you probably know that there aren’t any self-evident moral principles. What is clear to you isn’t clear to someone else, and vice versa. When we criticise someone’s behaviour, it is always on the basis of our moral framework, and we got that moral framework from the culture and age in which we live. Other cultures and ages had different moral frameworks. (To be more precise, there are some universally recognised moral principles, like not stealing or lying, as it says in Rom 1:32. But the things everyone agrees on are not enough to build a complete moral system, which is why there is still so much difference between cultures.) At least one culture didn’t think the Canaanite genocide was self-evidently wrong: the one that produced the book of Joshua. In fact nobody in Bible times would have thought this kind of thing was wrong. Genocides, invasions, conquests – they happened all the time.

Sure, but we’ve learnt a lot since then, some might say. We have made huge moral progress and understand right and wrong so much better now. This is a popular idea because it makes us able to criticise the stupidity of other ages as if we know better. The trouble is that this viewpoint simply isn’t Christian. It uses our existing moral principles to judge the Bible, rather than the other way around. If we trust our moral principles so much, then we don’t need the Bible anyway, at least not as an authoritative guide to our actions. To become a Christian means to recognise that one’s own moral compass is flawed. The purpose of scripture is to correct and shape our imperfect consciences, training us in a God-centred, rather than a self-centred morality. Nobody truly converts to Christianity without a self-displacement, a willingness to subject their own moral standards to a higher judge. That judge is Jesus, the true measure of moral understanding. 

It is not a Christian attitude to say that Jesus got some things right and some things wrong. If we disagree with Jesus, then as true followers of Jesus, we assume that the flaw lies with us, not him.

Option 1b: The New Testament proves it’s wrong. Many Christians would agree with everything I’ve just said and yet still dismiss the Canaanite Genocide as a mistake. Why? Not because of some arrogant belief in our own moral superiority, but because the New Testament condemns violence done in God’s name, and Christians must read the Old Testament through a New Testament lens. This is how one theologian puts it:

“the starting point in forming a truly Christian theology is not what the Bible teaches about God in general but what Jesus reveals about God in particular. [Therefore] we must resist all efforts to defend Old Testament genocidal commands as reflective of the will and character of God. Since Jesus has come, we are under no obligation to justify that which cannot be justified, but can only be described as pre-Christ, sub-Christ, and anti-Christ.”[2]

Other theologians use the “progressive revelation” hermeneutic to show that God conceded certain things to ancient Israel that were never part of his perfect plan. Just as God condescended to allow the Israelites a king (1 Sam 8), and just as God condescended to allow divorce, we know that these things were less than God’s perfect ideal (Mark 10:5-6). Another theologian writes that “When Jesus told Peter to put away the sword [Matt 26:52], he was telling the church that would follow that physical violence could not be used to further his cause.”[3]

This view is better than the last, and it is correct that Jesus is the moral framework by which everything else should be judged. But it still has a problem. The Old Testament is not part of “everything else” but the scripture that Jesus himself submitted to without compromise (John 10:35; Matt 5:18; Matt 26:54). Christians should read the Old Testament in light of the New Testament. But we should equally read the New Testament in light of the Old. Jesus may be the interpretive key to the Old Testament, but the Old Testament is also the interpretive key to Jesus – otherwise we wouldn’t need the Old Testament any more, and could get along fine reading only the New Testament.

Option 1c: The Old Testament itself proves it’s wrong. But maybe we can submit to the Old Testament and still discount the Canaanite genocides? After all, there are plenty of verses in the Old Testament which talk about God being a God of justice, about him not showing favouritism, and about him having created everything and having compassion on all he has made (Deut 32:4; Ps 11:7; Deut 10:17; Ps 145:9). The justice of God is one of the strongest themes in the Old Testament, and surely we should have greater emphasis on this than on this or that minor verse that seems to contradict it?

The answer is: yes, we should, but not if that means ignoring the minor themes completely. They are there for a reason. If we trust that the Bible is a unity, then there must be a way of holding the seemingly contradictory passages in a tension, where each part contributes to our overall understanding.

We must be careful when playing the “progressive revelation” card. It can too easily become an excuse to ignore parts of the Bible we don’t like. When the Christian tradition chose to keep the Old Testament as sacred scripture, it implied that the God of the Old Testament is the same God as the one revealed in Jesus Christ. God is not schizophrenic, nor does he change his strategy, even if he does concede to our current understanding. If he once commanded his people to go to war, that must be consistent with his character and the moral principles he wants us to live by.


Option 2: We Must Read it Allegorically

It may be encouraging to hear that we’re not the first Christians to be troubled by the Canaanite Genocides. Already in the third century, the great theologian, Origen, is troubled by what he sees in the book of Joshua. Origen suggests a “spiritual reading” of these passages. This suggestion has been popular throughout history and many Evangelicals today still follow it.

The idea runs like this: We can draw inspiration from Joshua for our personal spiritual struggles against sin. It is the inner battle that we must win with God’s help. We must have no mercy and leave no survivors of our old sinful way of life. Origen puts it like this:

“If we understand these things spiritually and manage wars of this type spiritually, and if we drive out all those spiritual iniquities from heaven, then we shall be able at last to receive from Jesus … a share of the inheritance.”[4]

Or alternatively, it’s a battle against Satan. We must remember that our battle is not against flesh and blood (Eph 6:12). The real war we are fighting is a heavenly one, of angels and demons, and the battlefield is our own heart.

Now, for reasons I’ve explained elsewhere, there’s nothing wrong with Christians reading the Bible in this way. But however valuable this approach might be to our spiritual lives, it doesn’t solve the problem. It seems to ignore the fact that, according to the book of Joshua, this genocidal conquest actually happened in history. It is not just a “spiritual” event. Joshua 10:40 claims that God really did command the Israelites to physically kill real people.


Option 3 (My Choice): Taking the Passage Seriously

So what do we learn if, instead of finding reasons to ignore it or forget about it, we take the passage seriously and try our best to understand it?


Was it Really a Genocide?

The first thing we must understand is that there was a genre of “conquest narrative” in the Ancient Near East, and many kings wrote similar accounts of how they victoriously invaded other nations and subjugated them. Conquest narratives have their own rhetoric, and they use a lot of hyperbole to make the conquest sound immensely successful and grand. Sports commentators today will say that a team “annihilated the opponents” or “destroyed the other team.” Everyone knows this isn’t literal because everyone knows the genre of sports commentary. Similarly, when Josh 10:40 says that Joshua left “nothing alive that breathed,” it means only that he had a successful military campaign, and he won using the normal methods of military combat in the Ancient Near East. There was nobody left to resist him, to challenge his military dominance. He subdued the entire land. It doesn’t mean he killed all the women and children, animals and insects.

We can confirm this way of reading the text if we carry on reading the books of Joshua and Judges. For example, in Joshua 13:1-6 we find all kinds of non-Israelites still living in Canaan in a way that would make Joshua self-contradictory unless the above way of interpreting it was correct.


Why Did God Command it?

When we realise it wasn’t a real genocide, it softens the problem but doesn’t remove it entirely. After all, it was still an offensive campaign, an invasion, not a self-defence. The Israelite army attacked and wiped out another army in order to occupy their territory. Is it ever morally acceptable from a Christian point of view to attack and invade another land?

Most Christians actually think that it is morally acceptable under exceptional circumstances, because most Christians support the Allies involvement in the second World War, especially D-Day, which is precisely the story of a military invasion. We tend to be okay with D-Day, because we know that the Nazis were doing such morally abhorrent things that they needed to be stopped. The military conquest was justified as a way of defending those who couldn’t defend themselves – primarily the Jews, who were being systematically slaughtered in the Holocaust, but also disabled people who were similarly being wiped out, and other nations who were being invaded and subjugated by the Nazis.

In other words, most Christians are okay with offensive warfare if it’s done to stop grotesque violations of justice. So the question is: were such grotesque violations being done by the Canaanites? It turns out the answer is yes. Have a look at these three passages from Deuteronomy:

“After the Lord your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, ‘The Lord has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.’ No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is going to drive them out before you. It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (Deut 9:4-5)

“…and after they have been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by enquiring about their gods, saying, ‘How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.’ You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshipping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.” (Deut 12:30-31)

“When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practises divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you.” (Deut 18:9-12)

This is comparable to what the Nazis were doing, which means that the Canaanite conquest is comparable to D-Day in World War II. The Israelites were God’s tool to punish the Canaanites for their wickedness.


Was it Really Favouritism?

Still, this may seem unfair to some people. It seems that the Canaanites were still wiped out in a genocidal way, i.e. they were killed because they were Canaanites without any chance of repentance. And the Israelites were still given special treatment, weren’t they? How can we avoid seeing this as a sort of favouritism of God?

I think a careful reading of the text shows that there was no genocide and no favouritism going on. First of all, Josh 2 tells the story of a Canaanite who converted and was spared because she converted, Rahab. The story is not there only because it happened – lots of things happened – it’s there to make the point that the Canaanites were given the chance to repent and join the Israelites as long as they abandoned their horrific practices and submitted to the Israelite way of life.

Secondly, Joshua 7 is a story of an Israelite who apostatised and was treated just like the Canaanites, i.e. obliterated from among them. There’s no favouritism here: if you behave like the Canaanites, you will be destroyed like them. If, on the other hand, you acknowledge the Israelite God to be the true God, you will join them and be counted among them.

God doesn’t even show favouritism to his chosen people, Israel, as a whole. He told the Israelites that if they did the same sorts of things as the Canaanites, they would be treated the same way:

“When you father children and children’s children, and have grown old in the land, if you act corruptly by making a carved image in the form of anything, and by doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, so as to provoke him to anger, I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that you will soon utterly perish from the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess. You will not live long in it, but will be utterly destroyed.” (Deut 4:25-27)

Sadly, that is just what happened. When Israel descended into moral corruption by following the practices of the surrounding nations, God sent first the Assyrians and then the Babylonians to do to them exactly what they had done to the Canaanites. God is fair: he treats everyone fairly.


What Do We Learn?

So what do we learn from these passages? One takeaway is that pacifism is not a truly biblical ethic. Pacifist theologians are forced to dismiss the book of Joshua in one of the ways I have described: they can’t face it head on and take it seriously as divinely inspired Scripture. If we do take it seriously, we have to conclude that there are very rarely times when violence is what God wants from us. The invasion of Germany in World War II is a modern example of such a time.

Secondly, I think we see here a true picture of God’s hatred of wickedness and his desire to wipe it out from the earth. And if we really see wickedness for what it is, we would hate it just as much as God does. To be sure, most of the time our efforts must go towards wiping out the wickedness in ourselves – that’s why spiritual readings of Joshua are legitimate. But occasionally, just occasionally, there may be a time to act against wickedness in a more physical and external way. 


[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 1st Mariner Books ed (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 2008), 280.

[2] C.S. Cowles, ‘The Case for Radical Discontinuity’ in Show Them No Mercy: Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide, Counterpoints (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Pub. House, 2003), 23.

[3] Tremper Longman III, ‘The Case for Spiritual Continuity’ in Show Them No Mercy: Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide, Counterpoints (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Pub. House, 2003), 181.

[4] Origen, Homilies on Joshua, trans. Barbara J Bruce, 2002, 12.3.

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Barney is the lead editor for the site. A theology fellow at Oxford University, he also hosts a podcast called Faith at the Frontiers.