Violence in Joshua (redux)

Luke posted a summary of Mikey’s sermon on the Canaanite genocide. I haven’t listened to it. But I did finish the essay I mentioned in my previous post. This is an experiment in posting essays with footnotes on WordPress. Feel free to tell me why my apologetic for God’s violence is heinous and inappropriate, or to just skip this post. It’s long (I went over the 1,500 word word limit).  Does anybody know if there are rules against posting such things before they are marked? I hope my esteemed lecturer reads this before running my text through a plagiarism checker and finds this page online. It is all my own work…

Violence, Joshua and the Christian


The question of violence in the Old Testament is a source of consternation for many – from the rabid “New Atheists” to Christians seeking to synergise the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, with God’s actions and commands in the Old Testament.

We will explore the violence in Joshua, engaging with scholarly and theological interpretations of the Canaanite “genocide,” and its moral and ethical implications for the Christian.

Concluding that violence described in Joshua was not genocide, but the destruction, largely through dispossession, of an immoral culture, and there is no conflict in this issue for the Christian.


Understanding Biblical violence, especially in Joshua’s conquest narrative, is a difficult task. Some use it to dismiss the notion of God altogether. Richard Dawkins describes the God depicted in the Old Testament as “the most unpleasant character in all of fiction.”[1]

As readers struggle to reconcile the “Yahweh of Armies” in the Old Testament with Jesus the lamb in the New Testament, they apply different interpretive schemas to the Joshua narrative. Some assume intertestamental discontinuity, others read violent rhetoric as a boundary defining sociological device,[2] others use it to derive a “Just War” doctrine.[3] Calvin did not see Joshua as a paradigm for “Christian” warfare, suggesting if not for the “command of God” it was an atrocity.[4]

While acknowledging the work of scholars who argue for an ahistorical interpretation of the conquest account,[5] this piece considers the violence as written, that it occurred as described against the backdrop of Deuteronomic commands to occupy the Promised Land. The question of historical veracity is secondary to this discussion[6] and will only be discussed as it relates to the interpretation of violence in the narrative. This seems the most pastorally valuable approach, as the narrative’s affirmation of violence presents a moral dilemma for the Christian. If we can reconcile ourselves to the notion of actual violence, it becomes easier to justify its use as literary or sociological tool.

Violence in (and around) Joshua

The violent events in Joshua, including the conquest of Jericho (Joshua 6:20-21), Ai (Joshua 8:21-26), and Southern and Northern Canaan (Joshua 10-11), are the culmination of God’s promises to Abraham (Genesis 12, 15), and subsequent commands regarding the land throughout the Pentateuch (eg Exodus 23:23-30; Deuteronomy 6:10-19; 7:1-6, 20). The Joshua narrative is framed as a sequel to the Pentateuch through the repetition of the Deuteronomic account of Joshua taking over from Moses (Deuteronomy 31:23, 34:9, Joshua 1).

We read disturbing accounts of Israelites exterminating cities (Joshua 8:24-26, Joshua 11:10-11), with the Lord hardening Canaanite hearts to prevent their retreat (Joshua 11:20). Yahweh participates in warfare, toppling city walls (Joshua 6) and hurling hailstones from the sky (Joshua 10:11).

The mandated annihilation of the Canaanite nations (Deuteronomy 20:16-18) contrasted the way Israel was to treat other conquered people (Deuteronomy 20:1-16). Israel was to practice חרם (herem).[7]

The “completely destruction” of the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 20:17) was not without reason. They were wicked. Leviticus 18 instructs Israel not to behave like the Canaanites. The list of prohibitions includes child sacrifice, incest, and bestiality, finds a corollary in Canaanite culture. If Israel failed to stamp the Canaanites out they would be led astray (Deuteronomy 20:18), and would face their own cursed expulsion from the land (Deuteronomy 28:25-68). The Canaanites were forewarned of Israel’s impending arrival, and some chose to “melt away” (Joshua 2:9, 24), Millar argues that the “whole world” was watching Israel’s journey with God (Deuteronomy 2:25)[8] – the nomadic occupants of the land had ample time to escape.

At the heart of moral objections to God’s command of “genocide” is the assumption they involved the murder of innocents. The commands themselves are Biblically framed as God’s judgment on the wicked. Canaanite culture was seeped in immorality (Deuteronomy 9:4, Deuteronomy 18:12, Leviticus 18:24-25), the people “hate God” (Deuteronomy 7:10). God’s promise to Abraham came with a four-generation caveat on the basis that the iniquity of the occupants had not yet reached its full measure (Genesis 15:13).

Two seemingly contradictory notions operate regarding the occupants of the land. Israel is to devote those they find to destruction, but the occupants will be driven out (Exodus 23:27-33, 24:34, 33:2, 33:52, Leviticus 18:24, 20:23 Numbers 21:32, 33:52, Deuteronomy 4:38, 6:19, 9:3-5, 11:23, 12:29, 18:12, 33:27). Removal from homelands was a common method of destroying ancient cultures.[9]

This apparent paradox is resolved for us in the case of the Anakites, who were totally destroyed in the Promised Land, but survived in other nations (Joshua 11:21-22). This is not genocide.

The potential injustice is not the punishment of the Canaanites, but the mercy shown to Israel, whose continued occupation of the land depends on obedience (Leviticus 18:28, Deuteronomy 28:36, 63-64, 29:27-28, 30:17-18), they too faced חרם for disobedience (Joshua 7:11).

Understanding חרם in the Promised Land

The interpretation of חרם is controversial. Von Rad (1965) identified it as an integral part of “holy war.”[10] Longman (2003) calls it the climactic aspect of divine warfare.[11] He ties obedience with success in battle against strong enemies, and failure against weak – citing victory in Jericho (Joshua 6:21), and failure in Ai (after Achan’s sin) as didactic moments.[12] Crouch (2009) interprets the command as a socio-rhetorical device brought about as a response to foreign threats.[13]

Rowlett (1996) frames the discussion on חרם and “holy war” at length, concluding that there is nothing culturally unique in Bible’s presentation of divine participation in written accounts of warfare.[14] Lilley (1983) argues that for theocratic Israel all war was “holy,” as was the case for many ancient societies.[15]

Millar (1998) argues for a theological understanding of חרם,[16] he interprets commands to violently dispossess the Canaanites as rabbinic hyperbole,[17] not about warfare, but the need to remove their influence,[18] dismantling the nation.[19] He acknowledges that the command (Deuteronomy 20) is “startlingly literal” – but suggests that the instructions are not simply about military victory but the annihilation of a culture.[20]

A study of Deuteronomy 7 leads to this conclusion. God says he will drive the nations out ahead of them (Deuteronomy 7:1), that the Israelites are to “completely destroy them” (Deuteronomy 7:2), but then provides instructions for living with survivors (Deuteronomy 7:3-5). This would suggest genocide is not the intention, but rather a destruction of Canaanite identity.[21]

Violence in Joshua: A question of discontinuity

In order to reconcile the “immoral” commands and actions God justifies in the Old Testament some scholars, like Seibert (2009), require a separation of the “textual God” and the “actual God”.[22] Cowles (2003) suggests the חרם order came from Satan and was mistakenly applied to Yahweh through Israel’s primitive theology.[23]

These arguments suggest a discontinuity between Yahweh’s Old Testament commands, and Jesus’ words in the New (Matthew 5-7). Death is the punishment for sin (Romans 6:23). It is not out of character for God to be acting as judge over the Canaanites.

Craigie (1978) argues that the violent account was not produced by “barbarous times.”[24] He argues this narrative is pivotal to the Old Testament,[25] and that New Testament writers affirm the Old Testament’s authority.[26]

Violence in Joshua: A question of sociology

Rowlett (1996) and the “German school” require a sociological reading of Joshua’s violent rhetoric at the expense of historical truth, comparing Joshua to Shakespeare.[27] Von Rad (1957) suggests that commands to avoid Canaanite cultic practices follow a long history of Israel “going to school with Canaan.”[28]

Brueggemann (2009) argues against a historical-critical study of Joshua, suggesting that its picture of history is subjective[29] and that the story should be considered sociologically and literarily.[30] His view is that Joshua was both identity building for an oppressed people,[31] and the divine sanction of a new social possibility.[32] Brueggemann accepts that God mandated actual historical violence as “a tightly circumscribed in the interest of a serious social experiment” to end dominion and foster an egalitarian society.[33]

Rowlett’s reading of Joshua in the light of a “thinly veiled Josiah provides” insight into the use of conquest rhetoric similar to surrounding nations in order to develop Israel’s national identity.[34] One may dismiss Rowlett’s conclusions on historical veracity while recognising that the narrative had an identity developing function.

Violence in Joshua: A question of history

Questions have been raised regarding the historicity of events in Joshua and the manner in which the Israelite nation emerged. Noth (1960) argues that Old Testament historical accounts are vieldeutig (capable of more than one meaning).[35] Gard (2003) highlights the divergent interpretations of this violence – after Von Rad (1965) suggested that “holy war” was a product of late theological interpretation of history.[36]

Conversely, Gard’s study of ancient warfare led him to interpret the violence is representative of historical events.[37] Craigie (1978) argues that the violence is historical and essential for establishing a nation in a hostile environment. Goetz (1975) suggests a Utopian vision required a clean slate.[38] Establishing a nation was the purpose of Yahweh’s intervention in history.[39]

Violence in Joshua: A question of theology

Woudstra (1981), like Millar, argues the purpose of the violence in Joshua is theological, suggesting “all dualism between faith and history, and between theology and exegesis should be avoided,” and interpretation should flow from a base of Christian theism, not literature, objective history,[40] or sociology (as advocated by Brueggemann[41]).

Woudstra identifies a schism between those who construct hypothesis on the assumption that God’s intervention in history, and those who assume none.[42] Historical interpretations derived through the latter category will inevitably produce theologically anemic results.

Violence and God: A question of morality

“Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”- Socrates, Euthyphro, 399BC

This Euthyphro dilemma is significant moral question for Christians responding to God’s violent actions. Divine special pleading is not required to justify these actions. The Biblical account leaves no room to question the morality of God’s actions, they are affirmed throughout as just. While one might dismiss the text, one cannot argue that God’s actions are immoral on the basis of the written account.

Goetz (1975) suggests the framework that all deserve death, with mercy an act of grace allowed Calvin to dismiss any analysis of God’s morality vis-à-vis the Canaanite situation “out of order.”[43] Calvin argues it is God’s decision who deserves death, and at what point.[44]

Wright (2004) argues the conquest was a limited event,[45] employing conventional warfare rhetoric, described as an act of God’s punishment, with a promise of equal treatment for Israel in response to disobedience, and that the conquest anticipated the final judgment.[46]

The utilitarian use of violence is not morally normative for the Christian. Neither is all violence necessarily evil.[47] Joshua’s violence serves to fulfill God’s promise to establish a nation. The atonement pivots on an act of violence, which has implications in determining the permissibility of violence.[48] Goetz suggests that the cross should be understood as the focal point of rage between humanity and God.[49] Mouw (2003) concludes Christians are to suffer violence, not enact it.[50]

Rowlett, while arguing for a non-interventionist understanding of Joshua identifies a conundrum for the Christian pacifist – “placing emphasis on divine involvement in conquest stories, rather than human agency, involves the deity in complicity with violence.[51] Syllogistically, if Yahweh is perfect and just (Deuteronomy 32:4), and complicit with violence, then violence can be just. Furthermore, Jesus simultaneously affirms peacemakers, and the Old Testament (Matthew 5:9,17). Questioning the morality of God’s dispensation of justice in the Old Testament must also raise questions about the morality of his right to judge.

We have rejected both the views of those who see discontinuity between the God who destroyed nations and humbled himself to a violent death, and non-interventionist views of violent accounts. So far as the New Atheists are concerned, interpreting the “God of the Old Testament” without the external criterion of the teaching of Jesus may indeed prove troubling,[52] but in this light Christians can rightly affirm instead the “God of the whole Bible” as perfect, just, faithful and upright (Deuteronomy 32:4).

[1] Dawkins, R, The God Delusion, (London:Bantam), 2006, p 31, “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.”

[2] Rowlett, L.L, Joshua and the Rhetoric of Violence: A new historicist analysis, (Sheffield:Sheffield Academic Press), 1996, pg 181

[3] Boettner, L, ‘What the Old Testament Teaches Concerning War,’ The Christian Attitude Towards War, (New Jersey:Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company), 3rd Edition, 1985, pp 12-17

[4] Goetz, R, ‘Joshua, Calvin and Genocide,’ Theology Today - Vol 32, No. 3 - October 1975, p 264

[5] Dever, W.G, Who Were the Israelites and Where Did They Come From, (WmB Eerdmans:Michigan), 2003, pp 37-48

[6] Wright, C.J.H, ‘What about the Canaanites?,’ Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, (Leicester:InterVarsity Press), 2004 pp 472-473

[7] חרם (herem) : To devote or consecrate to destruction.

[8] Millar, J.G, Now Choose Life: Theology and Ethics in Deuteronomy, (Leicester:Apollos), p 149

[9] Ahlstrom, G.W, The History of Ancient Palestine (Minneapolis: Ahlstrom, G. (1993). The History of Ancient Palestine. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.Fortress Press), 1993, p 601

[10] Von Rad, G. Der Heilige Krieg im alten Israel, (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht), 1965

[11] Longman III, T, ‘The Case for Spiritual Continuity,’ Show Them No Mercy: 4 views on God and the Canaanite Genocide, (Michigan:Grand Rapids) 2003, pg 172

[12] ibid, pg 173

[13] Crouch, C.L, War and Ethics in the Ancient Near East: Military Violence in the Light of Cosmology and History, (Berlin:Walter De Gruyter GmbH and Co), 2009, pg 183

[14] Rowlett, ‘Divine Warfare,’ Joshua and the Rhetoric of Violence, pg 65

[15] Lilley, J.P.U, ‘Understanding the Herem’, Tyndale Bulletin, 44 no 1 My 1993, p 169-177, cf Crouch, C.L, War and Ethics in the Ancient Near East, pg 189

[16] Millar, J.G, Now Choose Life: Theology and Ethics in Deuteronomy, p 156

[17] ibid

[18] ibid, p 158

[19] ibid, p 159, “This is theological preaching, urging Israel on to wholehearted obedience. In this context we should expect some hyperbole, at least,”

[20] ibid, p 159

[21] ibid, “Throughout this chapter, it is clear that the Mosaic Preaching is concerned to bring the Israelites to the conviction that shattering the structures of Canaanite society is a theological necessity. This is expressed not in terms of driving out or dispossessing the Canaanites, but of destroying them.”

[22] Seibert, E.A, Disturbing Divine Behaviour: Troubling Old Testament Images of God, (Minneapolis:Fortress Press), 2009, pp 169-182

[23] Cowles, C.S, ‘The Case for Radical Discontinuity,’ Show Them No Mercy, 2003, p 40.

[24] Craigie, The Problem of War in the Old Testament (Oregon:Wipf and Stock), 2002 [orig. 1978], pp 34-35

[25] ibid, pp 36-37

[26] ibid, pp  37-38

[27] Rowlett, op. cit, p 163

[28] Von Rad, G, Old Testament Theology: The Theology of Israel’s historical traditions, (Louisville:Westminster John Knox Press, 2001 edition), 1957, pp 24-25

[29] Brueggemann, W, Divine Presence Amid Violence: Contextualising the Book of Joshua, (Colorado Springs:Paternoster Press) p. X

[30] ibid p. 4

[31] ibid, p. 26

[32] ibid, p. 30

[33] ibid, p. 39

[34] Rowlett, op. cit, p 181-182

[35] Noth, M, The History of Israel, translated by Stanley Godman, (New York: Harper & Row) 1960, pp. 48-49

[36] Von Rad, G. Der Heilige Krieg im alten Israel, (Gottingen:Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht), 1965, pg 18, cf. Gard, D.L, ‘The Case for Eschatological Continuity,’ Show Them No Mercy, 2003, p 119

[37] Gard, D.L, op cit, p. 119

[38] Goetz, op. cit. p 273, “Utopian revolution without extermination must degenerate into mere reform-and mere reform compromises with the evil it seeks to redress.”

[39] Craigie, P, The Problem of War in the Old Testament, pp 69-74

[40] Woudstra, M.H, The Book of Joshua, (Grand Rapids:Wm B Eerdmans), 1981, p. 21

[41] Brueggemann, op. cit, p. 3

[42] Woudstra, M.H, op. cit, p. 19

[43] Goetz, R, ‘Joshua, Calvin and Genocide,’ Theology Today, Vol 32. No 3, October, 1975, p 266

[44] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Book of Joshua. Trans. Beveridge, H (Grand Rapids:Wm B Eerdmans), 1949, p 163, “There is no more ground for obloquy against him than there is against those who pronounce sentence on criminals. Even though in our judgment, children and many women were without blame, let us remember that the judgment-seat of heaven is not subject to our laws… Certainly any man who will thoroughly examine himself, will find that he is deserving of a hundred deaths. Why, then, should not the Lord perceive just ground for one death in any infant which has passed from its mother’s womb? In vain shall we murmur or make noisy complaint, that he has doomed the whole offspring of an accursed race to the same destruction; the potter will nevertheless have absolute power over his own vessels, or rather over his own clay.”

[45] ie. they were not normative of the Old Testament or Israel’s approach to its neighbours

[46] Wright, C.J.H, ‘What about the Canaanites?,’ Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, (Leicester:InterVarsity Press), 2004

[47] As Christian pacifists are wont to do – for example Millbank, J, ‘Violence: Double Passivity,’ Must Christianity Be Violent? Reflections on History, Practice and Theology, edited by Chase, K.R and Jacobs, A. (Michigan: Brazos Press), 2003, p 183

[48] Mouw, R.J, ‘Violence and the Atonement,’ Must Christianity Be Violent?, 2003, p 163
“If it is true, as reformed theology has put it, that the transaction of the cross necessarily required that Christ experience the wrath of the Father, then Reformed thought does indeed insist that violence is an essential feature of the atoning sacrifice of Christ – an insistence, they might go on to point out that has clear implications for questions about the permissibility of violent activity.”

[49] Goetz, op. cit. pg 274, “The cross not only is the focal point of divine wrath against us; it is also the focal point of human rage against God. The human comedy has stored up a reciprocity of outrage that only the trial and death of one who was both the son of God and the son of man can suffice.”

[50] ibid, pp 165-166

[51] Rowlett, Joshua and the Rhetoric of Violence, pg 67

[52] McGrath, A, The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, (London: SPCK), 2007, pp 58-59


Nathan Campbell says:

This may not be my final version – it’s the one that is saved on my lap top though. Feel free to point out typos…

jon says:

This represents hours of painstaking research. Seems a shame to critique it an I’m hardly up to the task having not studied in in the depth you have. However, since I find it very disturbing I will make a few comments.

“This would suggest genocide is not the intention, but rather a destruction of Canaanite identity.”

That is in fact what genocide is. I don’t think any amount of wriggling will get you away from the fact that God is portrayed in this story as commanding genocide, and indeed as punishing the Israelites when they are less than ruthless in this regard.

“Furthermore, Jesus simultaneously affirms peacemakers, and the Old Testament (Matthew 5:9,17).”

Jesus affirms the Old Testament in this verse in a rather unique way – “I have not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfil them”. In the examples that follow in the Sermon on the Mount he turns the law on its head. Mt 5:38-48 are particularly relevant to this issue and represent the polar opposite to the way God is shown as acting in Joshua. This is, in fact, a striking discontinuity.

“Death is the punishment for sin (Romans 6:23). It is not out of character for God to be acting as judge over the Canaanites.”

‘…but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’ is the finish to Rom 6:23. This is the fundamental difference. God is shown in the New testament as showing mercy, and as being characterised by love. This mercy encompasses even those who commit the worst sins, including Jesus on the cross saying “forgive them, Father, because they don’t know what they are doing”. I’m finding it hard to be convinced that this is consistent with a God who orders genocide.

“The commands themselves are Biblically framed as God’s judgment on the wicked. Canaanite culture was seeped (sic) in immorality…”

Yet Paul says ‘all have sinned…’. We see here a very different version of how God punsihes sin. I don’t really buy the argument that the Canaanites were warned. How did this warning take place? Did God send Moses to the Canaanites and free them from their oppressors with acts of power? Did he give them the Law on stone tablets? How were they given the knowledge that their way of life was wrong? And does the fact that some of them were so frightened that they ran off, while others were more courageous and stayed to defend their homes, equate to a moral sifting process to ensure only the most sinful were killed?

I could go on but I won’t. I think I’m arguing myself towards the discontinuity point of view although I didn’t set out to do that and haven’t properly thought through its implications.

One final point, however. It’s fine to argue that this is a special case and I’m relieved that you do. But how do you hold that line? Once you accept that God is the God who orders genocide, how can you stand firmly against genocide in our time? It’s a little seed of violence which only needs the water of fear and anger and the fertiliser of innocence to grow and bloom.

jon says:

Sorry of course I meant to say “ignorance”.

Nathan Campbell says:

That is in fact what genocide is. I don’t think any amount of wriggling will get you away from the fact that God is portrayed in this story as commanding genocide, and indeed as punishing the Israelites when they are less than ruthless in this regard.

That’s an interesting definition of genocide. My point is that he’s not actually saying “chase people of Canaan to the ends of the earth and exterminate them.” He’s saying “any people that are still in the land after I have driven them out will need to be removed in order for you to take it”…

In the examples that follow in the Sermon on the Mount he turns the law on its head. Mt 5:38-48 are particularly relevant to this issue and represent the polar opposite to the way God is shown as acting in Joshua. This is, in fact, a striking discontinuity.

Not really. God is as merciful in Joshua (via the Israelites) as he is in the New Testament. Probably moreso. I can’t see the discontinuity between the testaments the way the happy God/angry God people do – the doctrine of Hell as eternal punishment really ramps up in the New Testament, most of Israel were unsure about an afterlife (theologically speaking) until Daniel.

For me it’s entirely consistent that God would condemn wicked people who refuse his warnings to death in the Old Testament and condemn wicked people who refuse his warnings to death in the New.

What it really boils down to, for me, is a question of God showing mercy to Israel (and Christians) rather than him being wrong to punish people. Favouritism seems immoral.

“I don’t really buy the argument that the Canaanites were warned. How did this warning take place? Did God send Moses to the Canaanites and free them from their oppressors with acts of power? Did he give them the Law on stone tablets? How were they given the knowledge that their way of life was wrong”

Some quick reflections. In point form.

1. Israel did not emerge in a vacuum – not in the narrative anyway. They emerged as a power in Egypt, who Canaan was allied with (there are stone tablets that attest to this relationship).
2. Canaan would have known very quickly that the Israelites had left Egypt, and that they were heading their way. Assuming they had some knowledge of Israel’s history via their common roots. They were surrounded by relatives of Abraham (descendants of Lot, and of Esau, and of Ishmael). God’s promises to Abraham (Genesis 12) as mentioned above came with a time frame, I think it’s reasonable to assume that some account of those promises existed prior to the Pentateuch being completed.
3. We don’t have to “guess” that they knew. Rahab’s words are a first person account of Canaanite knowledge (Joshua 2):

“I know that the LORD has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. 10 We have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. 11 When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.”

And the words of the Gibeonites (though given in the context of deception) (Joshua 9)…

“Your servants have come from a very distant country because of the fame of the LORD your God. For we have heard reports of him: all that he did in Egypt, 10 and all that he did to the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan—Sihon king of Heshbon, and Og king of Bashan, who reigned in Ashtaroth.”

Nathan Campbell says:

Having just looked up the UN’s definition of genocide (I was guilty perhaps of a narrow understanding involving the extermination of a group or class of people):

“Article 2 of this convention defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

I’m wondering if you think genocide is ever justified?

jon says:

Short answer – no. Paul says “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. On the other hand, genocide classifies people according to the accident of their heritage – they are born Jews, or Aboriginal, or Armenian, or Canannite, and therefore should die. Christ has broken down the dividing wall between people and offers everyone free grace, and so we are invited to see each person as a person, beyond their ethnic identity.

I’m struggling to see how God is merciful in Joshua. He’s not merciful to Rahab, he rewards her for services rendered. Your quotes from Rahab and from the Gibeonites are interesting. The Gibeonites, of course, were lying to save their skins, so nothing they say can be taken at face value. The Israelites were mortified when they found out they had been tricked – if they had known the truth they would have killed them out of hand.

As for Rahab, read your quote carefully, and identify the point at which she is aware that this invasion is a punishment for sin. Knowing that the Israelites were coming, and even that they were aided by a powerful and very scary god, is not the same as knowing that they should change their ways.

The question of hell is a vexed one and personally I think I’m a universalist. Be that as it may, the acts are not comparable. An act of genocide is an indiscriminate mass murder based on ethnic identity, irrespective of individual character. The Christian idea of being sent to hell is an individual act of punishment for deliberate sins and for the refusal of mercy. Whatever the extremely confusing Book of Revelation means, there is a great multitiude worshipping God “from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Rev 7:9)

Finally, the point about Jesus and the Law and Prophets. What’s distinctive in the Sermon on the Mount is not that Jesus creates a new Law which is superior to the old one. It’s that he says “the Law is not enough”. Sure, something might be OK under the law. It’s OK under the law to exact retribution, but it’s not OK for one of Jesus followers. It’s OK under the law to have an “in” and “out” group, but for Jesus followers we need to treat the out group with love, even if they hate us. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect” – in other words, what he is saying reflects the character of God. Try to imagine Joshua and the people of Israel conducting the invasion according to this ethic.

Damien Carson says:

Worth noting that the Israelites were second generation desert wanderers who were hardly a military juggernaut. How did they so convincingly smash thirty three established city-states? As your paper notes, Nathan, Yahweh fights for His people, just as He said He would. What He decrees will happen – which, as your paper picks up, is Rahab’s confession. Their hearts have melted because of God who is with the Israelites, not because of Israel themselves.

In each account of Israel destroying cities, Yahweh declares beforehand, “I have given them into your hand”. Yahweh is the commander, not Joshua. Remains the same today: we are subject to our Commander’s orders and absolutely dependent upon Him for the strength to carry them out.

Nathan Campbell says:

I’m struggling to see how God is merciful in Joshua.

Let me frame it according to my understanding which I hope will answer where I come from in comparing it to hell (as I’m not a universalist).

Rahab and the Gibeonites are both shown mercy in that they were said to deserve death and were granted life. This seems to be particularly affirmed in terms of Rahab and her inclusion in the genealogy of Jesus. She clearly theologically became wrapped up in Israel’s redemption narrative.

That all occupants were said to deserve death, or that a God Moses affirms as just and righteous could command their deaths and still be considered such, suggests that those who weren’t killed received mercy.

I think you’re bringing your universalism and a form of cultural imperialism to bear on your reading of the text, and perhaps reading the New Testament into the Old, rather than the Old into the New. This is where I think our positions are at odds.

I see this judgment as internally consistent. God is always judge, and the punishment for being found guilty is always death. Biblically speaking.

Grace is always offered in the light of repentance – which is, I think, what is offered to both Rahab and the Gibeonites who sought out reconciliation with God, both used deception in their “repentance”… I don’t think this speaks negatively of their character, but rather of a recognition that they needed to act in order to be delivered.

An act of genocide is an indiscriminate mass murder based on ethnic identity, irrespective of individual character.

I would argue that the actions in Joshua fail your definition. I don’t think it was indiscriminate, based on ethnic identity or irrespective of character.

To reach that conclusion you must reject every aspect of the narrative that doesn’t conform with your presuppositions. This doesn’t seem like a fair reading, whether it is literal or fictional sociology and after the fact justification – the basic Biblical notion about the Canaanites is that they were getting what they had deserved for several generations on account of their wickedness.

Other nations surrounding Canaan basically used their name interchangably with the concept of evil. They were oppressive, aggressive, and depraved. Independent historical accounts bear this position out.

jon says:

Thanks very much for all this discussion, Nathan. I guess I am reading the NT back into the OT, and it’s because I’m trying to work out how the God I worship (the God of the NT) could order an act of genocide. So far not much success. That’s hardly your fault – I’m using you as a sounding board and you’re a very good one, especially because you disagree with me.

So far I think we’ve canvassed (or in some cases skated past)four alternative answers which I’ll summarise here.

1. It was an act of justice and wholly consistent with the picture of a just but merciful god in the NT, since by rights he should wipe all of us out. This explanation is consistent with the most natural reading of Joshua and fits a “salvation or condemnation” interpreation of the NT. I see three key points of conflict between this and the NT, though. First, the Canaanites are condemned as a people en masse, whereas in the New Testament Christ’s followers are called out of all nations. Second, the justice seems to be pretty rough – even if God has the right to wipe all of us out for our sins the fact is he doesn’t – so why them? Finally, God’s people in Joshua are commanded to be merciless, whereas Christ’s followers are commanded to love their enemies and suffer themselves rather than making others suffer. If God was like this I probably would abandon him, because it makes him cruel and arbitrary, not just and merciful.

2. He didn’t order it The Joshua story is a mythical/sociological construct to help outline Israel’s identity as a seperate, godly people and the genocide didn’t really happen. I can live with this one, except that it begs the question of why this identity needed to be described through the means of an act of genocide, fictitious or not.

3. He didn’t, because the god of the NT is a different god from the one in the OT. Jesus and the apostles made creative use of the language and culture of the OT to develop a radically new form of faith with a completely different concept of God. I’m stating this in its extreme form but I could probably live with something like this. However, it badly understates the continuity between the two testaments, and leaves you standing in quicksand as far as biblical interpretation goes.

4. God did order the genocide back then because it was consistent with that time and place, and served his purposes in revealing himself to and through Israel. However, God has since revealed himself more fully through Jesus, so for us now genocide is clearly wrong. I could live with this one for practical purposes, since it doesn’t much matter to me what happened 3000 years ago as long as I can oppose genocide now. However, it begs the question of why God chose to reveal himself in such a clumsy manner, killing thousands of Canaanites along the way, then discovered a better way 1000 years later.

None of these answers seems really satisfactory to me, but then you can’t expect to solve one of the world’s most pressing problems with a little bit of blogging, can you?

Nathan Campbell says:

I think I’m a selection of 1, 2, and 4.

I think there was probably a sociological purpose to the account (and probably more importantly a theological purpose). But like I say in the essay – I think we should try to come at it as though it is history first, the violence is affirmed in the narrative.

I’m curious as to why God being less than your definition of the ideal God would be cause for you to abandon him? That seems a little like making God in our image. I’m intellectually ok with God doing things that I’m not ok with – recognising that I am selfishly sinful, and that I am not responsible for maintaining creation in a way that brings my plans and purposes to fruition.

I am wondering, in all of this thinking about violence, whether we might unhelpfully idolise life (it is all we have, afterall) – even outside of the Joshua narrative God doesn’t seem to have any issue with ending lives. I think I can come to terms with this given that in the scale of infinity, or from an “out of time” perspective – it doesn’t much matter if we live one day or one hundred years. Logically.

I would suggest that again, there’s a theological truth operating alongside that logical one.

Gav says:

Nath, I don’t think the ACT allows blogging of essays.

Gav ;-)

Nathan Campbell says:


That’s funny, because I checked the student policy handbook on their website and it didn’t say I couldn’t…

Andrew says:

I came here to comment on your narrow definition of genocide, only to see you have made the point yourself in the comments. We studied the whole of Joshua in bible study last year and struggled through many of the same issues raised in your essay. One point which sticks with me is how Rahab and the Gibeonites are compared to Achan and the Caananites.
Thanks for posting your essay, even if it may not be allowed.

Damien Carson says:

I’m sorry if I am just paraphrasing what’s already been said, but I thought I’d say it anyway… Does our abhorrence of genocide in the wake of the 20th Century elevate it to a special place on the spectrum of evil? If the Israelites had walked into a land that had been decimated by famine, and the Bible said that YHWH did it, would this debate even take place?

The eternal perspective also needs to be born in mind – Rom 2 says that those who live morally upright lives according to their understanding of right & wrong, will be given eternal life. Those who have breached their conscience will receive wrath & fury.