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Did God command genocide and approve of it in the Scriptures which state that every man, woman, and child in a city was to be killed? How does such violence fit with the God of love and compassion we see in the face of Jesus Christ? Some atheists like to use these Scriptures to mock God and call Him a moral monster.
Before we look at these Bible verses, we need to point out the hypocrisy of many, if not most, of those making these charges. They support the cold-blooded murder of an average of 125,000 babies per day. In one week [maybe even one day!] this is likely more than the number of people killed in the entire Canaanite War.
Nevertheless, these verses are in the Bible, and we need to look at them to answer our question: Did God Command Genocide? To begin with, we need to understand what genocide is. Genocide is the killing [or the attempt to kill] all members of a racial, ethnic, religious, or national group of people.
As we have said many times, the Bible is an honest Book. Just because it records people’s actions does not mean that God commanded the actions or approved of them. There are verses where God commanded mass killing, as we will look at below, but let’s first clear out of the way the verses which represent commands NOT given by God.
So the assembly sent twelve thousand fighting men with instructions to go to Jabesh Gilead and put to the sword those living there, including the women and children. Judges 21:10, NIV
This occurred during the ‘Dark Ages’ of Israel during a civil war. The majority of the Israelites had fought against the rebellious tribe of Benjamin. After the battle, they discovered that no one from the city of Jabesh Gilead had come to aid in the battle. So they responded with the above verse. There is no record that God approved of their actions.
He also put to the sword Nob, the town of the priests, with its men and women, its children and infants, and its cattle, donkeys and sheep. 1 Sam. 22:19, NIV
A priest, in the priest town of Nob, innocently helped David escape from King Saul. Saul’s revenge was to wipe out the entire town. God did not sanctioned this.
The vast majority of Scriptures that mention the killing of men, women, and children are found in Numbers, Deuteronomy, and especially Joshua. They have to do with the Israelite invasion of the land of Canaan. The land of Canaan was promised to Abraham by God over 400 years before it happened.
“…In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” Gen. 15:16, NIV
No Scripture can be understood in isolation. We need context. We need to understand what was happening and why. Before we look at the specific verses, we need to understand the following things.
1. God is God.
I am the Lord, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God. Is. 45:5, NIV
2. God owns all people and property.
“…Although the whole earth is mine…” Ex. 19:5, NIV
“If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it.” Ps. 50:12
As the Creator of all that is, God has the right to do what He wants with His property…and that includes you and I. [Rom. 9:20-21]
3. God is righteous.
He rules the world in righteousness and judges the peoples with equity. Ps. 9:8, NIV
Since God is the Creator and Definer of all, He determines what is good and evil. He can do no wrong. In fact, He is the Standard of what is right. Adam and Eve fell because they tried to take God’s position and determine for themselves was what right and wrong. If we think God has done something wrong, we either misunderstand the situation or misunderstand what righteousness is.
He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he. Deut. 32:4, NIV
4. Jesus is the perfect image of God.
The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being… Heb. 1:3, NIV
Jesus is the perfect picture of what God is really like. If our image of God does not match the revelation given by the life of Jesus, then we are misunderstanding God. God does not change. When we look at Jesus, we see God. So we need to look at these events in the light of what Jesus showed us of the Father.
5. As mentioned above, God gave the Canaanites over 400 years to change their ways.
Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. Rom. 2:4-5, NIV
400 years! That’s a lot of patience with rebellious and treasonous people. That’s longer than the United States or Canada have been nations. God waited to see if they would repent of their evil ways and come to Him for forgiveness and amnesty. They only got worse.
6. The Canaanites had three options, only one of which would result in their deaths:
A. They could accept their eviction notice and leave.
Before the spies lay down for the night, she went up on the roof and said to them, “I know that the Lord has given you this land 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. 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. When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below. Josh. 2:8-11, NIV
Now when all the Amorite kings west of the Jordan and all the Canaanite kings along the coast heard how the Lord had dried up the Jordan before the Israelites until they had crossed over, their hearts melted in fear and they no longer had the courage to face the Israelites. Josh. 5:1, NIV
They were well aware in advance of how God had worked in Egypt and that the Israelites were coming. They had plenty of time [40 years!] to leave. I am not aware of any who took this option, but it was there.
B. They could have converted.
Rahab and her family did and were spared.
Joshua said to the two men who had spied out the land, “Go into the prostitute’s house and bring her out and all who belong to her, in accordance with your oath to her.” Josh. 6:22, NIV
Even one of the heroes of Israel descended from people living in Canaan.
On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates— the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.” Gen. 15:18-21, NIV
…not one except Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite and Joshua son of Nun, for they followed the Lord wholeheartedly.’ Nu. 32:12, NIV
There may have been others. Conversion was definitely an option.
C. They could stay and fight.
This was the option that the majority took, and they paid the price for it.
[The Gibeonites took a fourth option which was illegitimate but worked. They deceived the Israelites into making a covenant with them.]
7. This was a one-time event lasting about seven years.
It is also important to realize that this was a one-time event. This was not the way the Israelites were normally to conduct war. Israel was not designed to have a standing army at all. Any battles/wars after the conquest of Canaan were supposed to be defensive, not aggressive. God’s specific command in normal warfare was to allow the city an opportunity to surrender and live. Even if they refused, the women and children were to be spared. [Deut. 20:10-15]. Of course, with sinful human nature, we know that things didn’t work out that way, but that doesn’t mean God wanted it that way.
While, as we will look at below, in this one short period of time, God commanded men, women, and children to be killed, this was not genocide. The Canaanites were not marked for destruction because of their race or because they belonged to a specific group of people. As we saw above, God gave them plenty of time to repent and stay, convert, or just leave peaceably.
1. A Judicial Sentence
God did not command genocide here. This wasn’t about their race or even their religion - as every nation worshipped false gods. This was a judicial judgment in the Courts of Heaven by the Righteous Judge against nations that had so corrupted themselves in the pursuit of evil that they were no longer redeemable. They had moved into total sexual perversity and other acts of evil to the extent that they even offered their children as burnt sacrifices to demonic powers. This was not just a vocal minority but the entire society and culture.
After the Lord your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, “The Lord has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.” No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is going to drive them out before you. It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people. Deut. 9:4-6, NIV
God emphasized to the Israelites that it wasn’t because they were good that they were getting the land, but because of the total wickedness of the people living in it. The sentence of death had been passed in the Courts of Heaven and the Israelites were charged with carrying out the sentence on earth.
God is a righteous judge, a God who displays his wrath every day. Ps. 7-11, NIV
God can and does judge evil not only in individuals but also in nations and cultures.
Because the Israelites were the people God had chosen, He revealed to them why they were carrying out this judicial death sentence. God only allows evil to grow so much in a culture and society, then He passes judgment as the Just Judge and cuts it off. Often it is done through plague, famine or war. Most often the people carrying out the judgment are unaware of what they are really doing. This is not to say that every plague, famine or war is a result of God’s judgment. Many times it is a result of the actions of selfish, evil people or an attack against God Himself.
They were a people strong and numerous, and as tall as the Anakites. The Lord destroyed them from before the Ammonites, who drove them out and settled in their place. The Lord had done the same for the descendants of Esau, who lived in Seir, when he destroyed the Horites from before them. They drove them out and have lived in their place to this day. Deut. 2:21-22, NIV
Note: There were nations that the Israelites passed through on the way to Canaan that God specifically forbade them from attacking or inciting to war. These nations were not under the death sentence of the Court of Heaven and so had to be left alone. In fact, the Israelites were ordered to pay for their food and water as they passed through. They were not even to try to take advantage of them. [See Deut. 2:2-6, Deut. 2:9, Deut. 2:19]
2. To Prevent Corruption From Spreading
The Lord your God will cut off before you the nations you are about to invade and dispossess. But when you have driven them out and settled in their land, and after they have been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.” You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods. Deut. 12:29-31, NIV
God knew that if the Israelites simply moved into the land, without destroying the current inhabitants, it would not be long before they also followed evil and became corrupt.
When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. Deut. 7:1-6, NIV
The images of their gods you are to burn in the fire. Do not covet the silver and gold on them, and do not take it for yourselves, or you will be ensnared by it, for it is detestable to the Lord your God. Do not bring a detestable thing into your house or you, like it, will be set apart for destruction. Regard it as vile and utterly detest it, for it is set apart for destruction. Deut. 7:25-26, NIV [Also, Deut. 16:18]
“‘But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live. And then I will do to you what I plan to do to them.’” Num. 33:55-56, NIV
These verses answer our question: Did God Command Genocide? It was not because of their race or religion that God ordered the Canaanites wiped out, but because of their total commitment to evil. The same judicial sentence would fall on anyone who followed in their footsteps regardless of race, religion, or anything else. If you know your Biblical history, you will know that eventually, Israel did follow their example. God did send down the judgment against them in the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities and, finally, in the national destruction caused by the Romans.
3. The Allies
Shilon and Og could have escaped destruction. They refused the offer of peace and cooperation. Instead, they attacked. They allied themselves with the Canaanites and so met the same destiny. [Deut. 2:34, Deut. 3:6] Basically, unless you were in the land of Canaan, you were left alone unless you attacked the Israelites. In that case, you declared your allegiance to the Canaanites and met with their destiny. [Nu. 25:16-16]
Christian writers and scholars who have studied these events have also offered these considerations. This does not mean that a lot of killing did not take place. It did, as explained above, but it does give us additional things to think about.
1. Military Targets
The cities mentioned in Joshua as being annihilated were military targets, not civilian population centres. This was not an attack against unarmed, defenceless villages. With his band of ex-slaves, Joshua was going against the best military machines and equipment of his day. From a natural point of view, the advantage was all on the side of the Canaanites. The Israelites should have been the ones being wiped out. The only explanation for their victory is God’s supernatural support.
2. Not A Large Population
Some feel that Canaan did not have a large population, so that the total number of people killed was low. I am not sure about this one. The ‘small’ city of Ai was said to have a population of 12,000 [Josh. 8:25].
3. Battle Language
The Bible was not written in English but in ancient Hebrew. Every culture and time in history has its own way of recording things and its own idioms. We misunderstand many things because we assume our Western way of thinking and expressing ourselves when we read the Bible. From many cultures at that time of history, we know expressions like ‘left no survivors’ were idioms of total victory not necessarily literal statements. For example,
Then Joshua and all Israel with him returned to Debir, and they fought against it. He captured it and its king and all its cities, and they struck them with the edge of the sword, and utterly destroyed every person who was in it. He left no survivor. Just as he had done to Hebron, so he did to Debir and its king, as he had also done to Libnah and its king. Josh. 10:36-39
Yet we know, five chapters later, that there were still people living in Debir. Evidently, although the city had been captured once, some inhabitants were still living there and it had to be recaptured.
Now he gave to Caleb the son of Jephunneh a portion among the sons of Judah, according to the command of the Lord to Joshua, namely, Kiriath-arba, Arba being the father of Anak (that is, Hebron). Caleb drove out from there the three sons of Anak: Sheshai and Ahiman and Talmai, the children of Anak. Then he went up from there against the inhabitants of Debir; now the name of Debir formerly was Kiriath-sepher. Josh 15:13-15
So the Lord gave Israel all the land he had sworn to give their ancestors, and they took possession of it and settled there. Josh. 21:43
We know this is a general statement that overall the land was under Israelite control, but it certainly does not mean that all the Canaanites were destroyed. Even Joshua records many who were still living in the land. It wasn’t until the time of David - 500 years later - that Jerusalem was finally conquered [2 Sam. 5:6-10].
4. Drive Them Out
In multiple places, God speaks of driving the Canaanites out. This indicates more of an expulsion than an annihilation. It shows that both were probably taking place: some Canaanites choose to flee, and some choose to stay and fight [and be destroyed].
“I will establish your borders from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, and from the desert to the Euphrates River. I will give into your hands the people who live in the land, and you will drive them out before you. Ex. 23:31, NIV
The Lord your God will cut off before you the nations you are about to invade and dispossess. But when you have driven them out and settled in their land… Deut 12:29, NIV
The Lord your God himself will push them out for your sake. He will drive them out before you, and you will take possession of their land, as the Lord your God promised you. Josh. 23:5, NIV
The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim. Ex. 17:8, NIV
He said, “Because hands were lifted up against the throne of the Lord, the Lord will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation.” Ex. 17:16, NIV
Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’” 1 Sam. 15:3, NIV
The Bible doesn’t give us the details, but in some way, the Amalekites had attacked Israel in an attempt to war against God. Some feel that they had captured tired stragglers and sexually mutilated them in mockery of the circumcision ritual. Whatever the case, they had acted incredibly offensive to God, and God had responded to their declaration of war with His own. It is not wise to go to war against God!
Did God command genocide? No. The Canaanites and the Amalekites were not ordered killed because of their race, religion, etc. In the case of the Canaanites, they had been given ample time to repent, convert or flee before the invasion began. It is also important to remember that this was a one-time historical event, not the usual way of operating. The Amalekites had initiated war with God, and God does not fight limited-action wars.
While we may explore this more in future articles, let me say that God does not commission Christians or Christian nations [if there were any] to carry out this kind of war in the New Testament era [i.e. from the death of Christ until His return]. In the Old Testament, God worked with the physical nation of Israel to bring about the physical birth of Christ. In the New Testament God works with the new spiritual nation, the Church, to establish the spiritual Kingdom of God. The Church’s mission is not violence but by love and self-sacrifice, bringing individuals, nations and cultures into reconciliation and peace with the true God Who loves them and gave Himself for them.
These battles of the Old Testament picture the spiritual battles and struggles that the Church engages in today.
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood [i.e. human beings], but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Eph. 6:12, NIV
This is no weekend war that we’ll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels. Eph. 6:12, The Message
For our fight is not against any physical enemy: it is against organizations and powers that are spiritual. We are up against the unseen power that controls this dark world, and spiritual agents from the very headquarters of evil. Eph. 6:12, J.B. Phillips