Did God Command Genocide In The Old Testament?
My oldest child was born in 2010. Sometimes I think about how different the world is from the one in which I grew up. None of my children, for example, will ever remember a time when there was no Internet. On the other hand, I remember a day when there was no Internet, when libraries had paper card catalogs, and when you actually had to walk into brick-and-mortar stores to make most purchases. Right now, my children are barely aware of the Internet, but that will change in a few years as they grow up and start going online for research and other purposes. I am sure they will eventually come across one of the many websites that highlight supposed problems in the Bible. And when they do, I have little doubt that one of the “problems” they will find is the invasion of Canaan and the destruction of the Canaanites recorded in the book of Joshua. In fact, when I did just a brief amount of online research for this article, it did not take me long to find an atheist website that listed the destruction of the Canaanites as one of the top twenty most evil stories in the Bible.
As part of our responsibility to give an answer for the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15–16), we must respond intelligently and graciously to such claims. Enemies of the faith frequently refer to the destruction of the Canaanites as a form of genocide and then reject the God of the Bible as evil. Sadly enough, in recent years, some Christians of a more liberal theological persuasion have effectively conceded this point to those who reject the Bible altogether and have responded in one of three ways. First, they may reject the book of Joshua as inspired, saying that the Israelites got it wrong and that God did not approve of what they did. Second, they may accuse the biblical writers of exaggeration. Or, third, they may say that the revelation of God in Christ is contrary to such violence.
In our response to arguments about the destruction of the Canaanites, we must note, as we did in our first post in this series, that whatever else we may say about the invasion of Canaan, the New Testament certainly does not frown upon what Joshua and the Israelites did. But in addressing objections to what Joshua did, we should also consider the accusation of genocide itself. The claim of genocide is clearly designed to prejudice the discussion, to put believers in God’s Word on the defensive and to force them implicitly to cede the moral high ground to the objectors. After all, who but the vilest people are in favor of genocide? But when we look just a little deeper at the claim that God commanded genocide, we find that it cannot stand. Simply put, the invasion of Canaan does not meet the definition of genocide.
Merriam-Webster defines genocide as “the deliberate killing of people who belong to a particular racial, political, or cultural group.” Other definitions include the destruction of people on account of religion. In any case, genocide defined in this way is the intentional destruction of a people group because of their race, politics, culture, or religion.
DESTRUCTION BASED ON RACE
Over the next few articles, we will look at this definition in relation to the conquest of Canaan in more detail. We will finish this article by considering whether God commanded the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites for racial reasons. And when we consider the stated reasons for the destruction of the Canaanites, we find that the issue of race is irrelevant to the order given to Joshua. Consider, for example, Genesis 15, where God, in an oath, confirms His promise to give the land of Canaan to Abraham. The Lord promises to give Abraham and his descendants the land of Canaan, but He says that there will be a delay of four hundred years because “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Gen 15:16). God could not yet hand over Canaan to the Israelites because the Amorites had not yet reached the point of wickedness at which the Lord determined that they should lose their territory. If God hated the Amorites and the other peoples of the land simply for racial reasons, this delay makes no sense. No, the reason why the Israelites were to invade Canaan and conquer its inhabitants was due to the sin of the Canaanites, not their racial background.
We find confirmation of this point in Leviticus 18. This chapter lists the wicked sexual practices that God’s people must not engage in, including incest, homosexuality, and bestiality. After identifying forbidden sexual relationships, the text reads, “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants” (Lev 18:24–25). What is the reason that the Canaanites would be punished by the Israelites? It was the sinful practices of the peoples who lived in Canaan, not their race or ethnic background. In fact, the Canaanites would lose the land not only on account of God’s direct judgment but because the peoples had become so wicked that even the land itself rejected them.
In addition, the preservation of some of the Canaanites is also evidence that God’s command to destroy them was not racially motivated. Rahab and her family as well as the Gibeonites were Canaanites, not ethnic Israelites. Yet, they survived the invasion of Canaan (Josh. 2:9). If God’s intent in the invasion of Canaan was to wipe out particular ethnic groups on account of their race, the preservation of any Canaanites would be impossible. But when Rahab bowed her knee to the God of Israel and when the Gibeonites entered into a treaty to serve Israel, they were spared even though they were ethnic Canaanites.
CONCLUSION: NOT RACIALLY OR ETHNICALLY MOTIVATED
We could multiply biblical evidence to make our point, but this sampling of passages should be sufficient to show that the invasion of Canaan does not fit the definition of genocide based on race. The ethnic background of the Canaanite peoples was irrelevant to why they were to be destroyed; rather, their deep wickedness was the cause of their loss of land and life. And, we must add, it was their impenitent wickedness that was the problem, for when Rahab turned from idolatry and prostitution to serve God, she, an ethnic Canaanite, was spared. And not only was she spared, but she also came to occupy a remarkable place in the history of salvation (Matt 1:1–14).
Credit: Robert Rothwell for TableTalk, 22 November 2017.