Board index Genocide

Does the God of the Bible command genocide? Are the armies of Israel immorally responsible for the genocide of Canaanite populations at the command of their God? Let's talk.

Why did God command genocide?

Postby Newbie » Thu Nov 20, 2014 6:10 pm

Why did God kill the Canaanites? Is God a murderer? It sure seems, when I read the Bible, that during the Conquest he was the perpetrator of ethnic cleansing. How can a loving God order people killed? How could a loving God tell the Israelites to kill all their enemies—utterly destroy them: men, women, children, babies, and animals. How can you worship such a violent, vicious God?
Posts: 400
Joined: Wed Jan 02, 2013 4:34 pm

Re: Why did God command genocide?

Postby jimwalton » Thu Nov 20, 2014 6:11 pm

We’ve all heard the accusations, and we’ve read the stories themselves. Anybody with a brain would stop to think, “What’s going on here? Is God a murderer? How can a loving God order people killed?”

I hate to just answer briefly, almost as if I’m brushing the question off or not treating it seriously, but I hate to write a book about it, too. I’ll try to strike a balance and be fair about it.

The first challenge is to put ourselves back in the ancient mindset. It was not much of anything like life is now. Survival was a daily concern, warfare a reality of life, and health conditions were fairly poor. We need to look at these texts and this issue through ancient eyes if we really want to understand who God is and how he acts.

What Were the Canaanites Like?

We first hear about them in Genesis 10.18 (12.16; 13.7; 15.21) in the list of nations, with no particular comment. They seem to be no different than any other people group, except that we do hear that the Sodomites, in Canaan, are “wicked and sinning greatly against the Lord” (Gn. 13.13). In Genesis 14 Abraham refuses to align with them, making a statement of his godliness against their ungodliness (Melchizedek of Jerusalem vs. the king of Sodom). In Genesis 18 we find that the sin of the Sodomites (Canaanites) is “grievous”, and a visit to the city in Gen. 19 presents a picture of sinfulness (in many areas of life) in the extreme. There are less than five righteous in the whole city, presented as the “poster child” of Canaanite culture. For many reasons, by the time we get to Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, the Lord removes them from the presence and influence of the Canaanites (Gn. 24.37; 28.1, 6, 8).

During the centuries that the Israelites are in Egypt, the Canaanites continue in their depravity. They worshipped no less than 30 gods and goddesses. Deuteronomy 18.9-2 lists some of their other cultural practices: they sacrificed their own children, and they believed in witchcraft, sorcery and divination. They practiced cult prostitution (both adultery and homosexuality). It has been reported that the Canaanites practiced incest and bestiality (*1). They are also reported to have been bloodthirsty and violent people, delighting in gore and cruelty (*2).

What is the right thing for God to do about this situation?

Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (*3). “If you are neutral on situations of unjustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” (*4). Obviously, evil ignored isn’t justice, it’s abuse. If God was really God, then something needed to be done.

It makes sense to me that before a judge takes any action against a wrong, there should be clear indications of what’s right and warnings of consequences for wrong. Did God do this? Well, the Sodomites had the influence of both Abraham and Lot before God judged them. And the Canaanites obviously knew better than their actions showed (Joshua 2.9-11). The people of Jericho had at least six opportunities to surrender (Josh. 6.3), and all the cities of Canaan were given opportunities to escape battle through surrender (Dt. 20.10).

The Apostle Paul tells us that people have a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong (Rom. 1.19-20). People have consciences. Atheist Kai Nielson adds, “It is more reasonable to believe…things to be evil than to believe any skeptical theory that tell us we cannot know or reasonably believe any of these things to be evil. … I firmly believe that this is bedrock and right and that anyone who does not believe it cannot have probed deeply enough in to the grounds of his moral beliefs” (*5).
Rahab of Jericho proves to us that they knew what they were doing was wrong, they were aware of God and his ways, and the option to repent and convert was always available.

What Was the Objective?

The objective was not to kill off the Canaanites. There are many places in the Old Testament where God expresses his love for the nations (*6), and we know that his plan all along was to bless all the nations of the earth through Abraham (Gn. 12.3) It’s not the Canaanites as people that the Lord hates, but their godless perversions and lying religion. Dt. 7.5-6 is very clear that the point is truth, not genocide.

What Was the Plan?

The plan of God was a three-stepped plan, with each subsequent step only being necessary if the first two failed.

STEP 1: Incorporate the Canaanites into Israel as full members of the community, and worshippers of the true God. There was no reason to wait until the Day of the Lord to have the people worshipping the true God (Zech. 14.16-20; Rev. 22, et al.). The Lord will take any who come to him; the invitation is always open, and no sincere seeker is refused. Any Canaanite who surrendered would become part of the Israelite community.

STEP 2: Lacking surrender, the object of the army was to drive the Canaanites from the land, not slaughter them (Ex. 23.30-31; 33.2; 34.11, 24; etc.). Let them go somewhere else to live, and let Israel have the land that was theirs to possess. Anyone who would leave was free to go.

STEP: If they won’t surrender, don’t want to join you, and refuse to leave, the only option is to engage them in battle. The land belonged to Israel, not the Canaanites.

God's Command

But the engagement has certain characteristics that we must now discuss. You have certainly heard (and it’s possibly why you’re asking the question), that God commanded his army to kill everyone and everything: man, woman and child, babies, animals—if it breathes, kill it. Thoughts of genocide run through our heads, and we think of God as a monster. But this is not at all what was really happening, and how God’s command is to be understood.

First, you must understand that in the agrarian society of the Canaanite city-states, more than 90% of the people lived in the countryside as farmers, and less than 10% of the population lived in the cities (*7). The cities were mostly fortresses and governmental centers. Almost exclusively, when a city was attacked, it was military action against military personnel and the rulers of the region, not against the general (and innocent) population. It was impossible, without nuclear weaponry, to wipe out all the citizenry.

Secondly, the “kill ‘em all” speeches of the ancient Near East were a case of customary warfare bravado, and people in those days didn’t take it literally. What it meant was: “Secure a total victory.” The language is used in Josh. 10.40-42; 11.16-23; yet they readily acknowledge that it wasn’t literally true (Judges 1.21, 27-28). On the one hand, Joshua says he utterly destroyed the Anakim (Josh. 11.21-22), but then he gives Caleb permission to drive them out of the land (Josh. 14.12-15; cf. 15.13-19). What it proves it that “kill them all” was an idiom of warfare that meant “We won a decisive victory.” No people groups were being wiped out. This was pretty typical of the whole region in this era. (*8)
• Egypt’s Tuthmosis III (later 15th c.) boasted that “the numerous army of Mitanni was overthrown within the hour, annihilated totally, like those (now) not existent.” In fact, Mitanni’s forces lived on to fight in the 15th and 14th centuries BC.
• Hittite king Mursilli II (who ruled from 1322-1295 BC) recorded making “Mt. Asharpaya empty (of humanity)” and the “mountains of Tarikarimu empty (of humanity).”
• The “Bulletin” of Ramses II tells of Egypt’s less-than-spectacular victories in Syria (1274 BC). Nevertheless, he announces that he slew “the entire force” of the Hittites, indeed “all the chiefs of all the countries,” disregarding the “millions of foreigners,” which he considered “chaff.”
• In the Merneptah Stele (ca. 1230 BC), Rameses II’s son Merneptah announced, “Israel is wasted, his seed is not,” another premature declaration.
• Moab’s king Mesha (840/830 BC) bragged that the Northern Kingdom of “Israel has utterly perished for always,” which was over a century premature. The Assyrians devastated Israel in 722 BC.
• The Assyrian ruler Sennacherib (701-681 BC) used similar hyperbole: “The soldiers of Hirimme, dangerous enemies, I cut down with the sword; and not one escaped.”

In addition, we know that the people groups that Joshua claims were “utterly destroyed from the earth” continued on, such as the Anakim I have already mentioned. The same is true of the Amalekites of 1 Sam. 15 (the Amalekites were a people group for about 1000 years after being “totally destroyed”), and all of the Canaanite groups. The point was not to kill them all in a genocidal frenzy, but to win a decisive military victory over their armies and politicians, drive all rebels from the land, assimilate those who were willing, and to destroy the false religious practices that would corrupt the people of God.

The ultimate goal was that God would have a people, set aside for relationship with Himself, that he could covenant with to reveal Himself to and redeem them from sin. All comers, Israeli and foreign, man and woman, slave and free, were welcome. All rebellious, wicked, and deceivers were not.

As you can see, the label “genocide” misleads. The call to “kill ‘em all” was language of victory, not genocide. “The moral of the story,” as Copan says, “is not to stop at a surface reading of these terms and assume God’s immorality.”

*1: ... an-books-2, also Paul Copan, Is God A Moral Monster?, Baker Books, 2011, p. 159
*2: Paul Copan, Is God A Moral Monster?, Baker Books, 2011, p. 159
*3: Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
*4: Desmond Tutu
*5: Kai Nielson, Ethics Without God, Prometheus Books, 1990, pp. 10-11
*6: Zech. 9; Dt. 7 + 1 Chr. 21.15, 18, 28; Ps. 87; Isa. 19.23-25; Mt. 28.19-20; Eph. 3.11; Acts 15.16-17, and many others
*7: Paul Copan, Is God A Moral Monster? pp. 170-172, 175-177
*8: This list comes from Paul Copan, Is God A Moral Monster? pp. 170-172, 175-177
Site Admin
Posts: 9026
Joined: Mon Sep 17, 2012 2:28 pm

Return to Genocide

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 1 guest