Question: Did God command Joshua and the Israelites to kill all the Canaanites, or is this a deliberate misrepresentation by God's critics? Some even accuse God of genocide! How do we respond?
Answer: This objection to God’s morality as portrayed in the Bible comes up quite a bit — and most thoughtful Christians have asked themselves, how could God do these things?... and you can probably tell already that there can be no simple answer to a question with such complex roots and with such grave implications. But before we begin, I need to clean up the question a bit. As it stands, the question could be seen as inflammatory, and it contains a false dichotomy.
The word genocide is inflammatory. It does not describe God’s actions in this history, and I repudiate that inference. God did indeed command the destruction of certain people and cities, but he did this very few times and for specific reasons; it would be a mistake to equate this to genocide in today’s world. As for the false dichotomy, your question presents an “either/or” situation where none actually exists. What we have is an “either/and” situation, because all of the elements of your question can (and do) exist simultaneously: People do indeed use this history to misrepresent God; God did indeed order the destruction of many in Canaan; the biblical God is perfectly moral and just… by definition… but therefore, by action, too.
Questions like these that challenge God’s moral veracity are ironic. Think about this: when we human beings — who have a God-given moral centering, and who have worked for millennia to develop this morality with prayer, contemplation of the universe, communion with God and service to man (and have raised civilization by these efforts) — have the chutzpah to say that our own morality is now developed to a point superior to God’s, then we have lost perspective… and that’s what we have here. We have an idea… which is more of a feeling, actually… of what moral behavior should be. But we forget its source! Our sense of justice came from God in the first place — and he defines what is moral; our sensibilities do not.
Therefore, when God commands something — even something that affronts our personal sensibilities, like killing those Canaanites (… and I doubt that I could have done this personally) — obeying his command is the moral thing to do, while disobeying it is the immoral thing to do… this, by definition! Therefore, if a moral God is indeed in charge of the world, then those ancient Israeli soldiers behaved morally by killing the Canaanites, and refusing to kill them would have been immoral.
Now, this account is indeed hard to read, hard to imagine and hard to digest. But our discomfort does not redefine God. Since these killings were morally appropriate, both God and the soldiers were congruent in these acts. But today’s critics see this as incongruent… which tips their hand. Critics of the divine morality are disconnected from the root of truth — God himself. And it is God himself who mollies every care (1 Pet. 5:7)
William Lane Craig of Reasonable Faith Ministries calls this bold and congruent behavior "the Divine Command Theory of Ethics." If you can overcome your “civilized” sensibilities long enough to step inside God’s command, there is nothing further to explain.
Before we move on, let us take a moment to clarify just what is at stake here. To do so, let us (for the sake of argument only) agree that, if a perfectly good and moral God exists, then such a being could not have issued that command to destroy those people… but the Scripture said that he did. What would logically follow?
Would any of that change the fact that there was a historical Jesus? A historical Peter? Would the writings of Paul suddenly disappear or become nonsensical? Would it logically follow that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead — or that God does not exist? No – none of those would follow. So what is the problem under that scenario?
The problem would be that those particular biblical accounts would be false, that is, either the incidents never really happened (but are folklore), or if they did happen, then Israel “invented” God’s command to destroy these people, when in fact, he had not commanded them to do so. Either scenario would generate a localized falsehood in the Scripture. So, would this be the defeat of God? Hardly… but God’s critics think that it would! The most such a problem would impact would be the doctrine of biblical inerrancy — that’s all.
That’s all? Isn’t biblical inerrancy worth fighting for? Indeed it is… and I personally subscribe to it! — but many Christians don’t… and one does not have to subscribe to inerrancy to be an orthodox believer. In fact, a believer can even subscribe to biblical inspiration without subscribing to its inerrancy! So, not much would be lost at all — even if the objections of these critics were true… and the implications of this are critical for both believers and critics:
Scripture is not strong like granite — because granite can break under a point-attack or under flexion. Scripture is strong like an archer’s bow — it simply lives for tension, testing and truth. God’s word would not crumble nor would God’s program for redemption shut down over an isolated problem like the one we just invented. If there were a legitimate problem somewhere, then that’s where the problem would lie. God’s critics wrongly think that if they somehow defeated God’s word at one point that he and his kingdom would crumble. But that would be beyond the power of argument over an isolated issue.
Too many Christians err here — confounding brittleness for strength, and flexion for weakness. God’s word is tough; it can handle the assaults. Do not allow the critics to infect you with a wrong idea: God’s word would not crumble even under a successful point-attack — but remember, we are not calling this one successful.
It is also important to mention that this is how God behaved at a point in time (during the conquest of Canaan) — and that this is not how he behaves generally. God purposed to establish his people in a land that was inhabited by a notoriously godless people — and he limited the destruction by naming names in Deuteronomy 20:17. “….Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites….” Therefore, both the time of the destruction and the people of the destruction were limited. This was an encapsulated event that occurred at a critical moment in the nation’s development — it was a time of the separation.
Did you ever wonder why God set up those odd kinds of rules where his people could not eat certain animals (Lev. 11) that he later allowed! (Acts 10:9-16), or that they could not wear a garment made out of mixed fibers (Deut. 22:11), could not plow with dissimilar animals (Deut.22:10) and could not mix their crops (Deut. 22:9)? Doing these things causes no real harm… I mean — who doesn’t like a nice wool blend? But God had to continually emphasize that his people should keep themselves separate from all the other peoples in the world — and he reinforced this through symbolism. Separation was a unique requirement for the Jewish people — and it pressed upon Israel all throughout the conquests.
You see, God was going to start a brand-new work in the land, and it was critical that this people, who were set apart for his name (Duet. 7:6-11), were set apart indeed — so they could not mix with the population. This is why God ordered the land to be cleared out… under (what appears to us today as) the most draconian methodology ever! But this was not his “forever methodology.”
For example, in the New Testament, God killed the believers Ananias and Sapphira to make a point about lying to him (Acts 5:1-10)… but he did this only once — and the lesson stands for all time. Establishing his people in the Promised Land was like that. He needed to make his point by cleansing the land once. But (— and this might be the sorriest “but” ever penned) the people did it imperfectly… and in fits and starts… and they suffered the effects of that failure for centuries. One of the effects of that failure was the extra warfare that their initial failures engendered. This makes it seem like God was pushing them into further slaughters — but he was not. He was just mopping-up after the people who failed to perform his initial command.
For persons who are not sympathetic with God, with his program — or with his work among his chosen people, Israel — it is nearly impossible to reconcile these God-ordained slaughters with 21st century sensibilities. Indeed, it is difficult even for us believers! We do “get it” though… academically, at least — even if we do not “get it” emotionally… and I will readily admit that this is one of the hardest things explain in Scripture. Perhaps this is why we leave it out of the brochure.
That being said, there are many issues involved in justifying the conquest of Canaan, the killing of its people — including woman and children! — that are outside of your question’s scope, but which are also too many and too complex to do justice to in this venue. So, let me give you a few links for further study.
Got Questions Ministries has a good overview of these issues at:
Reasonable Faith Ministries has a good section concerning the killing of the children. See point three of Dr. Craig’s answer at: