Did God Really Command Genocide?

If you’ve been a regular reader of this blog, you’ve seen this Bible passage before:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess … you must destroy [the inhabitants] totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. (Deuteronomy 7:1-2)

Or this:

…in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them … as the Lord your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 20:16-18)

Do those sound like commands to commit genocide?

Even most Christians would say they do. In fact, during my church-going days I heard more than one sermon that spiritualized these passages by saying, “Just as God commanded Israel to completely wipe out the Canaanites, so we must completely remove sin from our lives. Just as any Canaanites that were allowed to live might one day tempt Israel to idolatry, so any sin that we tolerate in our lives could one day prove to be our undoing.”

Paul Copan, in his book Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God, offers a different take.

He says passages like these employ “stock expressions” that should not be taken literally. “Just as we might say that a sports team ‘blew their opponents away’ or ‘slaughtered’ or ‘annihilated’ them, [the Bible author] followed the rhetoric of his day.”

If that sounds like too convenient an out, Dr. Copan marshals several examples not just from the Bible but also from other ancient Near Eastern sources. He devotes Chapter 16 of his book to this argument, and I think he makes a good case.

In fact, he says, what sound to us like commands to commit genocide are really just commands to vanquish military outposts. Otherwise, how can we explain how Joshua “left no survivor, but he utterly destroyed all who breathed, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded” yet later in the same book of Joshua those annihilated people were still around?

According to Dr. Copan, the historically informed interpretation is that God only wanted Israel to destroy the Canaanites’ religion, not the people themselves (at least not the non-combatants). He approvingly quotes Gary Millar who said God’s concern was “to see Israel established in a land purged of Canaanite idolatry as painlessly as possible.”

There’s much more to Dr. Copan’s argument than I have space for here, but if the subject interests you I do recommend his book. It contains ideas you won’t hear from the average evangelical pulpit.

I say so because during my 40 years in the evangelical church the only interpretation I heard was the fundamentalist “plain meaning of the text.”

For example, well-known apologist William Lane Craig says,

The destruction was to be complete: every man, woman, and child was to be killed. The book of Joshua tells the story of Israel’s carrying out God’s command in city after city throughout Canaan.

More-liberal Christians have a third take: that the Bible contradicts itself (with people being “utterly destroyed” in one chapter but still around in another) because it “speaks with more than one voice.”

Peter Enns has an intriguing blog post titled, The best way of getting out of the whole Canaanite genocide thing, and it comes right from the Bible (but you may not like it). He observes that the Bible records several “traditions” of how Israel came to possess Canaan:

  • God drove the Canaanites out little by little, using pestilence such as hornets (Exodus 23:27-31).
  • God caused the Promised Land to “vomit out” its inhabitants even before Israel moved in (Leviticus 18:24-28).
  • God commanded the Israelites to drive out the inhabitants of the land, but not to annihilate them (Numbers 33:53-56).
  • God commanded the Israelites to totally destroy the inhabitants (Deuteronomy 7:1-2).

The last interpretation is classic genocide; the others are more palatable. Enns wryly concludes:

On the one hand, this is good news if you want to think of Israel’s settlement of Canaan in biblical terms that also takes the edge of the violence. On the other hand, this is bad news if you want to follow the Bible, since the Bible explains how the Canaanites ceased living in their land in two mutually exclusive ways–i.e., the Bible does not speak with “one voice,” which I know for some is more troubling than the thought of God killing off a population.

For the record, Dr. Enns is troubled by the voice in the Bible that seems to command genocide. If you’re not equally troubled, I recommend his post, John Piper on Why “It’s Right for God to Slaughter Women and Children Anytime He Pleases” and Why I Have Some Major Problems with That.

So which interpretation is correct: merely military conquest, the plain meaning of the text to modern readers, or multiple voices?

I tend to go with Dr. Enns’ multiple voices. God’s specific commands for how to conduct war in passages like Numbers 31 are just too chilling for me to believe that the conquest of the Promised Land was merely a campaign “to see Israel established in a land purged of Canaanite idolatry as painlessly as possible.” However, Dr. Copan’s arguments are persuasive on many points, and well worth considering.

6 responses to “Did God Really Command Genocide?

  1. Pingback: Is God a Moral Monster? (Book by Paul Copan) | Path of the Beagle

  2. even if they were ‘figurative’, the israelites certainly understood them and carried them out as literal in the stories. i say ‘more apologetics bs’ just trying to explain away the clear reading and implications of the text.

  3. As the Pentateuch is simply historical fiction perhaps this point ought to be mentioned a lot more often when such talk of biblical genocide crops up?
    Failure to do so merely lends unwarranted credibility to headcase evangelical beliefs.

  4. Mr. Spencer, hi, again, from the girl from Maine. Health prevented me from quicker response to your visit. I came away from your visit thinking more than anything, “This poor soul has no hope of anything. And he’s passed on no hope to his vulnerable daughter.”

    You throw out ALL the goodness and hope [not false, by the way] Jesus and His true followers have brought to the world. Because why? 1) You knew a bunch of lukewarm Christians who disappointed you? Surely you know we’re all sinners, and people don’t become more consistently Christ-LIKE unless they abide daily in Him. 2) Your demands for answers weren’t met to your satisfaction? Think of it. You throw it all out because not one answer from some of the world’s greatest minds and achievers can stand up to your apparent intellect and moral rectitude. 3) Because of your MIS-understanding of the Old Testament-era God who would supposedly refuse to accept your beloved disabled child? This was the tipping point for you, as I suspected — a matter of the heart more than the head. And the evolution thing is absolutely laughable — especially in our time with what we know now of the intricacies of life processes.

    Though you have some legitimate questions that rankle a finite mind, there are generally very few unbelievers due to true intellectual issues alone. It’s usually A) an underlying moral and authority issue — ex. “God, don’t tell me I can’t have sex with whom and when I want it.”, etc. or, B) a painful-turned-to-rage issue, as in the case of your daughter.
    Larry, you’ll NEVER find a perfect Christian or church. You’ll NEVER get all your questions answered to your satisfaction. And perhaps you see yourself as morally superior to the God of the Bible. But the God of the O.T. is the same as the God of the New Testament. As with Job, this God will reveal Himself to you – and your true self to you – if you’re HUMBLE enough to accept your limitations. “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble….”

    When you were a “Christian”, what kind of a relationship did you have with Him? Did you ever have that sense of “Abba” – “Daddy” with HIm? That kind of closeness? Did you miss Him after you left? Perhaps your heart was too hardened by that point. Sadly, many, many Christians live with one foot in the world’s system of thinking and the other trying to be with Christ. Or they’re holding out on Him in some way. If so, they can’t possibly experience a real closeness with Him.
    The Bible as long proven to be accurate — historically, archeologically, scientifically, medically, psychologically, textually (any aberrations not essential to the message), experientially…………Well, I’ve had my say. Jesus Christ, His forgiveness, His salvation from sin’s domination, His goodness and wonderful HOPE for the future for those who WANT Him is the best answer to your questions this side of Heaven or Hell. “Christ suffered for our sins once for all time. He never sinned, but he died for sinners to bring you safely home to God.” [1 Peter 3:18, LNT] I pray that for you and your loved ones. — Carole

    • Most of your comment was devoted to casting doubt on my motives, character, and former devotion. To those charges I have nothing to say that I have not already written on this blog.

      There is one small mis-impression that I’d like to correct. You said, “…the Old Testament-era God who would supposedly refuse to accept your beloved disabled child … was the tipping point for you, as I suspected…” I wish to point out that this was not a “tipping point” but a “last straw.” There’s a big difference, if you think about it. Also, for the record, I do not have a “disabled” child, but one who has a congenital condition that would have failed the tests in Leviticus 21:16-23.

  5. I will gladly challenge someone’s motives, character, and former devotion if they deceive others, and deny and denigrate the Bible and the Lord Jesus Christ — no matter how sincere they may see themselves.

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