Re-thinking the Genocide: What About the Slaughter Passages?

This series has sought to challenge the idea that God ordered genocide in Canaan. I’ve used Rahab, the Gibeonites, and even Jonah as examples of the fact that God doesn’t need to say He’ll show mercy in order for people to understand that He will.

But now, we need to examine some of the Old Testament passages in which God orders Israel to kill every man, woman, and child, because they appear to directly contradict Israel’s behavior during the campaign in Canaan.

Deuteronomy 7:1-5:

“When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you … 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 with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and chop down their Asherim and burn their carved images with fire.”

Deuteronomy 20:16-18:

“But in the cities of these people 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 … as the Lord your God has commanded, that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God.”

These two passages echo several others, including Exodus 23:23-33 and 34:11-16, Numbers 33:50-56, and Deuteronomy 12:29-32.

The last passage ends with the following:

“Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to or take from it.”

Now these passages sound awful. It’s almost as if the Lord was personally handing people a reason to completely ignore the Bible … as well as Jesus himself. God commands Israel to show no mercy; He even specifies that they were not to add to the commands they’ve received.

Showing mercy to their enemies sounds exactly like that, though. So was Israel sinning against God, based on these passages?

I submit that she was not. Here’s why:

You’ll notice that the common pattern among all of them is that Israel was not to show mercy to the people of Canaan because Israel would be led astray by other gods. She was not even to leave standing the religious relics and worship centers of these gods. That’s how seriously God treated the threat of idolatry.

However, if certain Canaanites opted to abandon these gods and confess Israel’s God as their own, then I think Israel (and God Himself) would have had no problem sparing their lives. In fact, this is what happened.

Rahab not only helped the spies but identified their God as her own.

The Gibeonites lied about who they really were, but this appears to be the only point on which they were untruthful. Twice in Joshua 9, their words bear witness to the fact that they, too, had turned to the living God. They even explained their motivation for lying to Joshua:

They answered Joshua, “Because it was told to your servants for a certainty that the Lord your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you all the land and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you–so we feared greatly for our lives because of you and did this thing.”

Why did the Gibeonites lie?

Because they took God’s commands seriously.

(In some ways, they took God’s words more seriously than Israel’s first batch of spies to Canaan. Most of them returned, convinced that Israel would never be able to take the land because its inhabitants were too powerful.)

These people had turned to God. And God, in turn, turned His mercy toward them.

Genocide? No.

Salvation? Absolutely.

God dealt with Canaan in the exact same way He deals with us all: He is willing to show mercy toward everyone who turns to Christ.

He desires that everyone be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.

All are invited.

Even the worst of His enemies.


Should You Buy ‘Love Wins’? It Depends

This isn’t a critical review of Love Wins. There’s enough of those on the Internet; even Mars Hill has issued a response to some of the questions posed by the book.

Instead, I want to help you decide whether you should invest the time (and money) to read it

  • To answer the question: Rob Bell is not a universalist. At no point does he affirm that everyone will go to heaven, regardless of whether they have faith in Christ. Bell at no point states that everyone will eventually come to faith in Christ, either in this life or the next, and by so doing empty hell of its occupants. Bell’s Calvinist critics owe him an apology, but given their eagerness to bid him “farewell” before the book was even published, I wouldn’t be surprised if one wasn’t forthcoming.
  • If you’ve read C.S. Lewis, then you’ve sort of already read Love Wins. You can almost smell traces of The Great Divorce on this book’s pages. If you’ve read either that classic work by Lewis or even The Last Battle, then you’re not going to be surprised by what Bell has written.
  • This isn’t a full-blown survey of the different views of hell. If you’re looking for an academic resource on how Christians throughout the ages have explained what happens to people after they die, this isn’t it.
  • The second half of the book is better than the first. I didn’t read anything in the first four chapters that I hadn’t read in other (and better written) books. (Again, I’ll point you to Lewis’ The Great Divorce, as well as Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright.) In my opinion, the book picks up steam when Bell explores the meaning of the cross and resurrection. From there, Love Wins is a great read.
  • It’s not worth $22.99. To my everlasting consternation, Bell avoids the usage of paragraphs in his books, which means it looks like a full book but it doesn’t contain the full content as one. If you’re trying to save money but still want to read Love Wins, I’d recommend waiting until you can combine enough coupons at Barnes & Noble. You could also go for the e-reader version, which is usually cheaper than the printed one. Or, you could wait a while for Love Wins to enter the bargain bin.


Re-thinking the Genocide: Answering a Possible Objection

The last few posts have explored the idea that Israel showed mercy to Canaanites who sought it because they understood her God’s glory to consist of mercy.

In a recent conversation in which I raised some of these points, someone pointed out that not everybody would have had the same opportunities as people like Rahab.

Here’s what they said: children wouldn’t have had the chance to seek peace with Israel because they would probably have been prohibited from doing so by their parents. So if their parents were looking to fight instead of surrender, then their children, whether they agreed or not, would have been forced to go along with that plan. And so the children would suffer with everybody else when Israel came marching through.

It’s a good objection, and I had to think about it for a while before I suggested a possible answer. And that’s exactly what the following is, speculation on my part. I’m not here to answer every objection to the Joshua account, but I do hope to shed new light on it.

That being said, here’s how I would respond:

The remaining people of Canaan knew about the Exodus and Israel’s military successes. Both Rahab and the Gibeonites confirmed that Israel’s reputation was well known in Canaan. And now, these former slaves of Egypt had conquered first Jericho and then Ai.

At this point, Canaanites had two choices: they could pursue peace with Israel and try to save themselves … or they could stand and fight, all the while hoping that the military success that had evaded Egypt, Jericho, and Ai would somehow remain with them.

So if certain Canaanites were going to stand their ground and fight, possibly with the knowledge that the next battle could be their last stand, then they might be inclined to enlist everyone to fight–including children.

Israel’s leadership might have recognized this as a possibility. They were already in the habit of making deals with people who sought them, so they might have reasoned that any Canaanite who didn’t take this option was willing to fight to the death. Anyone left in the cities, then, could be considered a soldier and a threat, regardless of their age.

So who was really responsible for the death of children here: Israel, who was willing to show mercy to her enemies, or the Canaanite parents, who knew of Israel’s miraculous successes but still refused to realize that their cause was hopeless and put their children in jeopardy as a result?

That being said, I’m still uncomfortable with Joshua and Israel’s wars in Canaan. I’m disturbed the notion that children would be affected by war and even more so by the ideas that they might be forced to fight in one or perish in a battle.

But I do hope this post contributes to the conversation.

Why Can’t We Care About Both Hell and Social Justice?

Here’s a question I’ve had for a long time:

Why do so many popular Christian leaders today insist that we either have to be focused on either this life or heaven and hell?

This post isn’t about the Rob Bell controversy. Long before Love Wins was released, you could easily two find two sets of Christians arguing about which life–this one or the next–we should give our attention to as a church.

One group insists that we cannot, ever, downplay the importance of heaven and the threat of hell and instead talk about social justice. This group might argue that people who focus on social justice do so at the expense of the Gospel, and maybe they even do it because they’d rather not talk about unpleasant topics, like God’s wrath toward sin.

The other group tends to argue that thinking about the afterlife takes away our time and energy from addressing the problems of this world. Sometimes they’ll go so far as to accuse heaven-minded Christians of letting their post-mortem expectations render them emotionally dull to the concerns of this world.

This is always presented as either/or. Either you think about heaven and hell or you can actually give a damn about the “hells” of this world.

My question is simple:

Why can’t we do both?

If God so loves the world and calls us to do the same, then can we not care about both how people live right now and be concerned with what awaits them in the life to come?

Why can’t we care about how the poor are treated at this moment and with whether they’ll inherit the kingdom to come?

The early church had all things in common and looked forward to the coming Resurrection. Why can’t we do the same?

Have a happy discussion.

Re-thinking the Genocide: How Mercy Made a Prophet Angry

The last two posts have shown examples of how Israel spared Canaanites during her wars in that land and thus cast doubt on the notion that God’s intention was genocide and utter destruction.

God was not motivated by a desire for racial purity. His hope was not to saturate the land with the blood of its inhabitants. I’ve argued that in both cases, Israel did not need a specific command from God to show mercy to the Canaanites. On more than one occasion, the Lord had revealed that His glory was expressed in mercy, and these episodes in turn influenced Israel’s military policy.

Israelites understood that God would show mercy to people who repented, even if He didn’t specifically say so. He hadn’t specifically said this to Moses or Joshua, yet the latter, as well as Israel, seemed to understand that He required them to be merciful toward people who sought refuge.

It’s this particular expression of His glory that provokes Jonah to run as far away as possible from the city of Niniveh.

A quick recap of that story: God told Jonah to preach to the city and tell it that it would be overthrown. Jonah flees from his mission but, following a rather traumatic ordeal involving a large fish, ends up doing what God commanded him to do. The city repents, and Jonah mopes, because he had been afraid that God would spare His enemies.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he woulddo to them, and he did not do it. But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.”

Here’s the thing: where did Jonah get that idea in the first place?

In the message he was told to preach, there was no mention of or even a hint of mercy-through-repentance. God never even broached the subject. But somehow, this reluctant prophet understood that God was willing to save Niniveh–and that’s why he fled in the first place.

This episode reinforces what we’ve seen in the stories of Rahab and the Gibeonites.

Even when He doesn’t specifically say He’ll do it, God is a God of mercy and is willing to save any and all who seek Him.

The spies understood this and spared Rahab. The people of Israel understood this when they spared the Gibeonites. And that revelation of God’s glory stood true throughout the ages.

It was powerful enough to make even prophets tremble with anger.

Re-thinking the Genocide: The Odd Story of the Gibeonites

In the last post, I wanted to show how the story of Rahab revealed that the Canaanite wars, as disturbing as they might be to us today, clearly were not God’s attempt to “purge” a land of her people. If it was, then why would Israel feel authorized to make a deal with their enemies in the first place?

Thankfully, Rahab and her family weren’t the only ones who survived these wars. Another group, the Gibeonites, also found their lives but through odd circumstances.

Here’s what happened:

After Jericho and Ai fell, the people of Gibeon sent a group to the Israelites to sue for peace. These representatives disguised themselves as a poor and downtrodden lot, most likely to generate sympathy for themselves, who lived far away and not in Canaan. They made a deal with Joshua and Israel’s leadership.

Three days later, Israel figures out that these strangers were actually neighbors and marched to their cities but did not attack. The Israelites grumble against the leadership and Joshua, angered by their deception, confronts the Gibeonites. The Gibeonites tell Joshua that they acted as they did because it was certain that Israel’s God had commanded Moses to destroy all the inhabitants of the land.

In the end, Joshua and the leadership let the Gibeonites live, being bound by oath to not attack them. But the Gibeonites are cursed to be Israel’s servants as punishment for their lies.

Despite these rather unusual circumstances, I still think this story, like Rahab’s, reveals that it was neither God’s nor Israel’s intention to commit genocide in Canaan.

Some people might argue that Israel spared the Gibeonites only because they thought they were dealing with a group who lived far away and not their neighbors in Canaan. Would Israel have killed them if they had known the truth?

It’s possible. It’s also possible that Israel would have agreed to a deal to spare the Gibeonites, knowing who they really were. They had already done so with Rahab and her family. Israel already had precedent for sparing Canaanites. Is it so far-fetched to suggest they’d be open to doing it again?

It’s also worth noting that when the Gibeonites’ lie is exposed, Joshua doesn’t seem upset over the fact that Israel would not be allowed to destroy this group. What provokes Joshua’s ire and his cursing of the Gibeonites is that they lied to Israel in order to get mercy.

Joshua summoned them, and he said to them, “Why did you deceive us, saying, ‘We are very far from you,’ when you dwell among us? Now therefore, you are cursed, and some of you shall never be anything but servants, cutters of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God.”

Joshua curses them because they lied, not because they’re Canaanites and Israel couldn’t stand the existence of Canaanites, let alone having to honestly deal with one of them.

What’s more, no one in Israel feels compelled to offer a sacrifice to God because of her sin. Leviticus, for example, made provision for anyone who made a rash vow and only later realized that the consequences of their commitment would lead to evil. If it was a sin to spare Canaanites, then why doesn’t anyone in Israel think to offer a sacrifice before God punishes them for their wickedness?

And speaking of God … where is He in all of this?

If sparing the Gibeonites was a violation of His will, then wouldn’t you expect Him to say something, especially if He is actually the petty and vengeful deity that some enemies of the faith accuse Him of being?

I think the answer is simple: it was not sinful to let live Canaanites who sought the mercy of Israel and God.

(As we’ll explore in a future post, the primary motivation for God’s zero-mercy policy appears to have been preventing Israel from falling into idolatry. If this threat was neutralized, then I think God would bless any deal to spare a Canaanite.)

If there was any sin on Israel’s part, then it would appear that her transgression was allowing herself to be fooled and not because she had the audacity to let people live.

And this brings us back to the central point of this series:

Far from ordering genocide, God was perfectly willing to spare anyone who sought mercy. He had done so before with Rahab and her family, and He allowed it to happen again with the Gibeonites.

And He didn’t even need to specifically say so in order for Israel to understand that mercy was what He wanted.

It wouldn’t be the last time an Israelite understood this, either.

Years and years later, long after the Canaanite wars had ceased, a reluctant prophet named Jonah understood this fact about his God …

… and it made him run.

Re-thinking the Genocide: Rahab and the (Un-)Surprising Mercy of God

This series is designed to shed new light on one of the most troubling portions of all Scripture: Israel’s wars in Canaan, in which God commanded them to spare no one, regardless of their age. It’s this understanding of the text that makes Christians doubt their faith and gives our fiercest critics the ammunition they need to attack our beliefs.

I think it’s the wrong picture and over the last couple of posts, I’ve started to set up the argument as to why that is. I’ve tried to show that God’s glory was revealed by His love. And I’ve argued that Israel, His people, was already a multi-ethnic group (although the great majority were still descendants of Abraham) and thus not exactly the ideal candidates to “purge” the land in a fit of divinely inspired rage and ethnic cleansing.

Instead, God was perfectly willing to grant mercy to anyone in Canaan who desired it.

And the story of Rahab is one of our clearest examples of this.

Most people have a general understanding of the story. Israel sends spies into the city of Jericho, and they’re assisted by Rahab, who hides them from the authorities. During their time with her, she confesses to the spies that people in the city have heard of what happened in Egypt and some of Israel’s subsequent military victories. (This is impressive, as the Exodus happened at least 40 years prior to this moment.)

Rahab also confesses Israel’s God as her own and makes a deal with the spies: since she saved their lives, the army of Israel would spare her and her family when they came marching through.

It sounds great for her and her family, but for us, it raises a question: how could Israel spare her life when God had already commanded them to show mercy to no one? “You shall make no covenant with them and you shall show no mercy toward them,” the Lord commanded Israel in Deuteronomy. But that’s exactly what happened. Jericho fell, Rahab and her family were spared, and they eventually joined the community of Israel.

This situation begs the question: why did the spies feel that they were authorized to make this deal?

It certainly wasn’t anything Moses had told them or Joshua after him. The Lord hadn’t spoken from the heavens, commanding Israel to stay their hand in Rahab’s case.

Furthermore, why didn’t God punish the spies for disobeying Him? There’s absolutely nothing in this text that even suggests they had sinned by making this deal with Rahab. Joshua and the rest of the Israelites show no objection to it, either. They’re not surprised by the deal or appear to question it. That’s a curious reaction from a group of people who supposedly saw themselves as the agents of unrelenting Canaanite destruction.

Maybe the people are sinning here and God lets it slide. That’s not likely, given that Achan’s actions in Joshua 8 provoke the divine response that they did. Even as skeptics love pointing out, the God of the Old Testament is not shy in pointing out and condemning sin.

The story of Rahab (and as we’ll see, the Gibeonites) doesn’t make sense if Israel was on a divine mission to destroy every Canaanite, without hesitation or remorse. It does make sense if that was never God’s intention in the first place.

Where did the spies get the idea that they should show mercy to their enemies? I’m guessing it was from encounters with God Himself, like the one between the Lord and Moses, in which the former reveals to the latter that His glory consists of love and mercy and forgiveness.

No, God did not specifically tell the spies to show mercy. At this point, I’d argue three things:

First, they didn’t need a specific command to do so. The God of the spies was a God of mercy. Rahab asked for mercy for her and her family. It shouldn’t surprise us that the spies granted this request or that Israel showed no resistance toward this arrangement.

Second, this isn’t the only time in the Bible where people understand that God is willing to show mercy, even if what He says doesn’t seem to make any room for the possibility of reconciliation. A great example of this is the story of Jonah and the city of Niniveh, which we’ll explore in a future post.

Lastly, it seems the only reason God instituted a no-mercy policy was because the survivors of war would lure Israel into idolatry. (We’ll explore some of these passages in a forthcoming post.) With this in mind, I believe God had no problem sparing Canaanites if they abandoned their false gods.

Rahab is one example of this.

The Gibeonites are another, and we’ll examine their story in the next post.