Did God Command Genocide?
Did God Command Genocide?
(Read Joshua 10:38-42; 15:13-15)
Note: I acknowledge with gratitude my debt to the scholarship of William J. Webb and Gordon K. Oeste, in their work Bloody, Brutal and Barbaric?: Wrestling with Troubling War Texts (IVP Academic, 2019).
“So Joshua subdued the whole region … He left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded.”
Let’s pause and take this in. A person is commanded by God, the God you and I worship, to kill every person in the region—soldiers AND noncombatants, men, women, and children, grampa and the baby?
Imagine you are sitting at Starbucks with a friend, and the conversation comes around to religion. And your friend says, “I could never believe in a god who commands the kind of violence, the genocide! You see in the Bible. It’s repulsive.” How would you respond?
Many Christians kind of avoid this question and hope it doesn’t come up. Or maybe offer, “I don’t know. God said it, so he must have had a reason.”
At one time, that answer may have cut it, but it definitely hasn’t since 9/11. Ever since we in the US tasted what it’s like to have people wage a holy war against us, it’s impossible to think of Yahweh calling for one.
In fact, it was 9/11 that made Sam Harris leave his Ph.D. in neuroscience to write his bestselling book, The End of Faith. And one of his big points is this: Religion is a source of conflict.
That point has registered, and become one reason many young Christians have left behind their faith. As one Christian blogger wrote:
Why would a good God send his people to take land that belongs to another nation? Is this just one more example of people using religion to justify violence and conquest? My god is telling me to take your land, so here I come! If Jesus says to love your enemies, why does God declare war on them in the Old Testament?
We all need to lean into these questions. I want to suggest two things that have been helpful to me, and I hope they’ll be helpful to you, as these questions come up.
Read Joshua as the kind of Literature it is
When we read the Psalms, which are poems, we know to expect some poetic analogies. The Psalm says, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Which doesn’t mean, “God works on a farm.” It’s poetry to say, “God leads and protects me.”
So when we turn to Joshua, what kind of literature are we reading? Ancient Near Eastern battle stories. And across all ANE cultures, when they tell battle stories, they use exaggeration to make a point.
For example, Joshua 11:4 says the enemy troops he went up against were “as numerous as the sand on the seashore.” Did Joshua really go up against more soldiers than the number of every human who was ever born? No. This is just the way ancient battle stories say, “They had a lot more troops than we did.”
We should all be able to understand this, because in sports, we have this thing called trash-talk. A friend of mine worked as a copy editor at The Denver Post. He said his favorite headline while working there was: “St. Francis clobbers cardinals.” Remember that peaceful saint who preached to the birds? Well, not any more.
Go to any tailgate party for NCAA Division 1 football, and you’ll hear: “We crushed them.” Did they put the other team’s players in a trash compactor? No. “We decimated them.” Did they literally count off every 10 players on the other team and kill 1? No. This kind of language means, “We won by a couple touchdowns.”
Now, just as sports-fan language uses exaggeration to make a point, so does ANE battle language. In 830 BC, for example, Mesha, the King of Moab, says this: “Israel has utterly perished for always.” It sounds like, “Whoa! Moab obliterated the entire nation. There is nothing and no one left.” Nope. That just means, Moab won that battle. Israel was still there, and doing just fine for centuries more, thank you.
So all of that background brings us to this point: When the Book of Joshua says, he “completely destroyed” a town, “leaving no survivors.” This is ancient-battle exaggeration to make a point: We won.
Let me show you this from the Bible. Joshua 10:38-39 says, “Then Joshua and the Israelites turned back and attacked Debir. He captured the town, its king, and all of its surrounding villages. He completely destroyed everyone in it, leaving no survivors.”
A little later, though, Joshua gives the captured town of Debir to his old friend Caleb. And the Bible tells us in Joshua 15:15, “From there, [Caleb] went to fight against the people living in the town of Debir.”
Wait?! How can there be any people that Caleb has to fight? Didn’t Joshua wipe out every person in town? No, that was battle-story exaggeration.
Or in Joshua 11, we read, “Joshua destroyed all the descendants of Anak, … he killed them all and completely destroyed their towns.” But we later read in Joshua 15, Xaleb has to drive out the three groups of Anakites.
When we're reading the Book of Joshua, if we don’t know how to read this kind of literature, it won’t make sense. It seems like Joshua conquered the entire land. No Canaanite is left. But instead, at the end of his life, Joshua has to tell the Israelites: “Make sure you do not associate with the other people still remaining in the land.” The Canaanites are still there.
They’re still there in the next book, Judges. And hundreds of years later, during the reign of King David, they’re still there. Archaeology confirms this, as Britannica.com says: “… archaeological evidence indicates that the process of conquering the land was lengthy.”
Based on all this evidence, writer Luke Cawley concludes: “Despite the appearance of horrific genocide, then, this was no such thing. It was a limited military move ….”
Scholars William Webb and Gordon Oeste agree: “Only the key leaders of that city—
the king and a sufficient number of the fighting force to remove the military threat—were defeated and killed by the Israelites in battle.”
So was it a battle? Yes. Was it genocide? Nope. It all makes sense when we read Joshua as the kind of literature it is.
Read the Entire Bible
The Bible is a big, big book, so understandably, most people dip in and out. They don’t read cover to cover. But doing that, they may get this impression, “That Old Testament god is mean and angry, but the New Testament Jesus, he’s nice.” But when you read the entire Bible, in its cultural context, a different picture will emerge.
Start in Genesis, where God creates the world. In the Babylonian story of how this happens, the god Marduk goes into combat with a female god, Tiamat, and shoots her with an arrow. This causes her insides to spill out, which Marduk then picks up and uses to make the sky and the earth. In other words, god is violent, and the world starts in battle and gore.
Meanwhile, how does the God of the Bible cCreate the world in Genesis? By speaking his creative word. No violence. At all.
Fast forward in the Bible to when the Israelites want a king. Why does God not want to give them one? One of the biggest reasons is that a human king will build a war machine. That’s what a king always does.
He sends the prophet Samuel to warn them: “This is how a king will reign over you. The king will draft your sons and assign them to his chariots and his charioteers … and some will make his weapons and chariot equipment.” God does not want that.
But the people go ahead anyway, and the king builds his army. But even here, God challenges the usual. The ancient world counted warhorses like we count missiles and planes. You want more and more so you can feel safe. But God instructs his kings not to get into an arms race: “The king must not build up a large stable of horses for himself or send his people to Egypt to buy horses.”
Move forward to King David. In that day, all rulers would, in one scholar’s words, “Battle, build, and brag.” First, you battle your enemies, then you take some of the loot you steal from them. Second, you build a temple or monument to your god. Finally, you brag: You adorn that temple with pictures of your best fighters and your biggest war victories.
The pharaohs in Egypt do this; so do the governors of Mesopotamia; a Hittite king, and others. But when it’s time for King David to build a temple to Yahweh, here’s what God says: “You must not build a Temple to honor MY name.” Why not? “for you are a warrior and have shed much blood.”
God’s a different sort of god. Unlike all the other gods, his temple will not include scenes of warfare or battle. Not one. How does the real God want his Temple adorned? With scenes of palm trees, lilies, flowers, pomegranates, animals. Creation, not destruction. Beauty, not violence.
Then move from King David to the Prophets. What do we find there? Verses like this one from Isaiah, where God cries out: “My heart’s cry for Moab is like a lament on a harp. I am filled with anguish for Kir-hareseth.” God’s not crying for his own people here, but for the people who hate them.
Finally, the Psalm writer sums up God’s heart this way: “He causes wars to end throughout the earth. He breaks the bow and snaps the spear; he burns the shields with fire.”
This heart is exactly what you find in Jesus. When Jesus comes and says, “I and the Father are one,” he means it. He tells Peter, “Put away your sword.” He tells all of his followers, “Turn the other cheek.” “Love your enemies.” Jesus converts one of his 12 apostles—Simon the Zealot—OUT of a worldview where war and religion go hand in hand, then he converts Paul out of a worldview where violence and religion work together. Pretty soon, Paul is saying, the way you can tell God is at work is that there’s peace and gentleness.
In his death, Jesus is treated like a captured war enemy. He’s stripped naked, tortured, he absorbs the horrifying violence of the world. He dies for people from ALL people groups. Not just one.
Then we reach the final book of the Bible, Revelation. You say, “Well, isn’t Jesus shown there as a conqueror on a white horse?” Yes. But this holy war is against our sinful nature, against evil and unjust oppressors, and against death. And Jesus wins that war not with armies or weapons, but by himself, by the death he endured, and by the words from his mouth.
When we read the entire Bible, we will still find much to distress us. I cannot and will not defend many things that God’s people have done, including way too many wars. We need to be honest about that.
But we will also meet a God who is internally consistent, who is constantly limiting weapons, and stopping wars. If “The Lord is sometimes a warrior; he’s the most reluctant warrior there has ever been or ever will be.” Amen.
Kevin Miller is pastor of Church of the Savior in Wheaton, Illinois,