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.


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.

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.

Re-thinking the Genocide: Who Israel Was

In the previous post, I wrote of how God had revealed Himself to Moses and that His emphasis was on His love and mercy. How the Israelites understood this glory to play out during their wars in Canaan is something we’ll see soon enough.

Today, I want to briefly address this question:

Who was Israel?

Most of us can give a simple answer: the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who were freed from slavery in Egypt by Moses, who lead them to the edge of the Promised Land. Under the leadership of Joshua, they undertook a military campaign that led to their settling there.

One of the problems people might have with the Old Testament in general and the Canaanite wars in particular is that it seems to pit one bloodline against the others and so endorse ethnic cleansing. And most of us wouldn’t be as disturbed by this if this campaign weren’t endorsed by the God of Jesus.

So as we ask who God is, we also have to ask who Israel was. Is this really a case where God favors a particular race over others?

We start from Exodus, as the people are leaving Egypt:

And the people of Israel journeyed from Ramses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. A mixed multitude also went up with them, and very much livestock, both flocks and herds. … And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “This is the statute of the Passover: no foreigner shall eat of it, but every slave that is bought for money may eat of it after you have circumcised him. No foreigner or hired servant may eat of it. … If a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised. Then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it.”

When Pharaoh’s grip is finally broken and the people of Israel leave, they don’t go alone. A “mixed multitude” joins them on their way out the door. This multitude, whoever they are, aren’t Abraham’s descendants. They weren’t circumcised and so they weren’t permitted to keep the Passover–at first.

If they were excluded from the great feast, it’s not because the option was closed to them. They excluded themselves based on which god they chose to serve.

That’s crucial to understanding what happens in the Canaanite wars.

God’s people were not and have never been defined by whose blood they carry.

Other Old Testament passages bear out that God is not committed to one ethnicity.

In Genesis, Pharaoh (a different one) takes Abram’s wife, thinking Sarai is his sister. This isn’t a mistake on his part; this is the actual lie Abram made Sarai commit to in an effort to save his own skin. When the lie is revealed (because God threatened Pharaoh for taking another man’s wife,) it’s the pagan ruler who rebukes Abram, that great example of faith, for his deceit.

It’s an intriguing story that happens not long after the Lord initially called Abram and promised to make him a blessing. The king who doesn’t know God at all is suddenly more righteous than God’s chosen instrument.

When Moses takes a foreign wife, Aaron and Miriam speak against him–and incur divine wrath. Note who doesn’t utter one word in opposition to the marriage: God Himself.

Before the Canaanite wars, God constantly orders Israel not to make a covenant with the peoples there because Israel will be led astray by foreign gods. That’s a far cry from destroying someone because of their race. When Israel makes treaties with certain people in Canaan, she’s not rebuked or punished for it, which suggests that God’s primary reason for the no-compromise policy is the threat of idolatry and not making friends with other races.

In Deuteronomy, God prohibits the Moabites from entering the assembly of the Lord because they acted against Israel, not because they’re Moabites. Indeed, later in the Bible, Ruth, a Moabite woman, marries an Israelite and has an entire OT book devoted to her story. (The great King David would later be descended from her.)

The prophet Isaiah promised that one day, Assyria and Egypt, two classic enemies of Israel, would find favor with God.

The prophet Amos insists that what God had done for Israel in the Exodus, He had also done something similar for other nations, including the Philistines, another regular opponent of the chosen people.

Jonah is sent to preach to the Ninivites and hopes they won’t repent so God will destroy them. Much to the prophet’s dismay, the city relents of its evil and the Lord stays His hand … and has to rebuke His prophet for not having mercy on the city’s inhabitants.

Oh, and there’s that whole deal where God promises Abram that through him, all the nations of the world would be blessed. (I think you can argue that this promise was fulfilled, in part, when the “mixed multitude” left Egypt with Israel.)

Those are just examples from the Old Testament.

Here’s the point: membership to Israel, the chosen people of God, was not based on race. The Lord Himself had chosen Israel, but it wasn’t because she had earned His election or because the Israelites were a great and mighty people. He did it to be faithful to Israel’s ancestors.

As such, there’s no good reason to assume that God had ordered Israel to “cleanse” Canaan of its inhabitants. Not even Israel was ethnically “pure” according to the standards that some readers want to impose on the text.

So where does that leave us?

When Moses saw the glory of God, what he saw was love and mercy. Yes, the Lord punishes sin. But He is also compassionate.

And this God had chosen for Himself a people whose membership was not restricted based on somebody’s blood. The great majority of Israelites were Abraham’s descendants; there’s no denying that. But the doors were open to other people, as well.

Based on these two things, it’s not surprising that Israel would have seen fit to show mercy to Canaanites if any of them ever asked for it.

And as we’ll see in the next post, that’s exactly what happened.

Re-thinking the Genocide: Who God Is

This new series is devoted to shedding some light on the so-called genocide passages of the Old Testament, among which Joshua stands out. As I’ve written before, my point isn’t to explain away every passage that disturbs us, but I do hope to help us wrestle with them in new ways.

So I think the best place to start is with the underlying concern that these books give to readers today:

What the hell kind of God would order genocide? Is this really who Jesus worshiped?

Normally, it’d be easy to ignore this God. This is the Lord of suicide bombers. But given that Jesus called this God “Father” and even identified himself with Him, it’s a question we can’t ignore.

Who is this God?

There are a lot of answers to that question. This is the God who called out to Abram, promising his descendants and a role in bringing blessing to the whole world. This is the God who took a barren woman and made her conceive a son named Isaac, who wrestled with Jacob, who used the circumstances in Joseph’s life to make him a power-holder in Egypt and deliver people from a famine.

This is also the God of the Exodus, who hears the cry of slaves and judges empires and their gods. And this is the same God to whom Moses asked to see His glory, and here was the divine response:

The Lord passed before [Moses] and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

This is the God who led Joshua into Canaan, after promising his forebears that the land they saw would someday be theirs. This God, by His own words, was someone who abounded in steadfast love but punished evil.

And it is this moment in Israel’s history that I think made Israel understand that even though they were going to war, they were to show mercy to Canaanites if they asked for it.

If forgiveness is at the heart of who God is, if love and mercy and grace is a manifestation of His glory, then it follows that such things would be something He wants from Israel–including her mightiest warriors, from Joshua all the way down to the grunts.

Love was the commandment above commandments and fiercely connected to Israel’s monotheism. We often think of the Law as a series of strict rules, as opposed to Jesus’ sense of grace. But that is, frankly, a sloppy interpretation that fails to take into account passages such as this:

“Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

This new nation’s sense of monotheism was to be forever tied to her calling to love her one God. And when Israel failed to do that, time after time, as we today continue to fail, He is gracious and merciful to her and to us.

I don’t intend to push aside the instances in Scripture where He acts against people who go after other gods or commit injustice. Some of those moments are difficult to process. However, the writers of the books, and the early church that eventually assembled the holy canon, saw no contradiction between God forgiving sin and punishing it. (If tension exists here, I think we’re meant to live in it, not ignore it.)

I would argue, though, that dealing out punishment is not what God wants. It’s what He does, to be sure, but it’s not His ultimate desire. His purpose seems to be reconciliation, as is evident by the fact that when He speaks to Moses, His love and mercy come first. I think that’s something that Moses would have remembered.

I also think it’s a lesson he passed on to his people who, years later, carried it with them into battle. No, you don’t see God in Joshua calling out from heaven, telling Israel to stay her hand. At this point in her history, though, I don’t think Israel would’ve needed that.

Moses had been there when God revealed who He is.

And what Moses saw was mercy.

How this plays out during Israel’s wars with Canaan is something we’ll explore soon enough. But before we do that, there’s another topic that we should address:

If this is God, who, then, is Israel?