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Did God Command Genocide?

The Issue

  • “It is morally wrong to deliberately and mercilessly slaughter men, women, and children who are innocent of any serious wrongdoing.” Raymond Bradley, “A Moral Argument for Atheism,” in The Impossibility of God, ed. Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003).


A Sample “Problem” Passage

  • Deuteronomy 20:16-17 “As for the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is going to give you as an inheritance, you must not allow a single living thing to survive. Instead you must utterly annihilate them – the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites – just as the Lord your God has commanded you” (NET) See also Deut 2:34; 3:6; 7:2; 13:15; Josh 6:21; 10:40, etc.


Word study

  • חרם  herem means to “put under a ban.”  The ESV translates this “devote to complete destruction,” the NASB95 “utterly destroy,” and the LXX ἀνάθεμα. See: Harem. Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, M. E. J. Richardson and Johann Jakob Stamm, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, electronic ed. (Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill, 1999), 353.


Understanding the Biblical Narrative

  • “These words group into two categories: dispossession versus destruction. “Dispossession” would include words like drive out, dispossess, take over possession of, thrust out, send away (33 occurrences). “Destruction” words would include annihilate, destroy, perish, and eliminate (11 occurrences). The Dispossession words would indicate that the population “ran away”—migrated out of the Land prior to any encounter with the Israelites; Destruction words would indicate the consequences for those who stayed behind.” Copan, Paul and Matt Flannagan. Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2014, page 79.


Warfare Rhetoric?

  • Rameses II’s son Merneptah in Merneptah Stele (ca. 1230 BC) announced, “Yanoam is nonexistent; Israel is wasted, his seed is not.” Younger, K. Lawson Jr. Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History Writing. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990, 227.

  • The King of Moab, Mesha (840/830 BC) writes, “Israel has utterly perished for always.” Kitchen, K. A. On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2003), 174.


Hyperbolic Boasting?


Women and Children

  • Deuteronomy 20:13-17 contrasts sparing the women and children in certain cities with killing everything that breathes in others. Though in general women were to be spared (Deut 21:10-14). See: Hess, Richard S. “War in the Hebrew Bible: An Overview,” in War in the Bible and Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Richard S. Hess and Elmer A. Martens. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2008, 29.


The Large Numbers

  • It is difficult to determine the size of the Israelites and their battles. If אֶלֶף is taken to mean 1000 that would place the population of the Israelites at the time of the exodus around two million (Num 1; 26). See: Daniel M. Fouts, ''A Defense of the Hyperbolic Interpretation of Numbers in the Old Testament," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40, no. 3 (1997): 377-87.

  • The issue of the numbers seems indecisive and at best would only reduce the problem not remove it.


Case Study: Jericho

  • In ancient near east cities it was common for the people to live in the valleys and the cities were on hills. It is probable that many of the people, particularly the women and the children would have fled when they heard that the Israelites were coming. See: Richard Hess, “Joshua” in Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. vol. 2. ed. John Walton (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2009), 32-33.


Why the Canaanites?

  • Deuteronomy 9:4 states, “Do not think to yourself after the Lord your God has driven them out before you, “Because of my own righteousness the Lord has brought me here to possess this land.” It is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out ahead of you” (see also v. 5).

  • God was said to be very patient, waiting for these nations to repent but in his omniscience knowing that they would not turn, still God waited for them to reach “the point of no return” before he punished them (Gen 15:16).

  • Some of the wickedness of the Canaanites included sexual perversions including incest and adultery, idolatry, child sacrifice, homosexuality, bestiality and witchcraft (Lev 18:6-28; Deut 18:9-11).


Depravity of the Canaanite Culture

  • “…the blood was so deep that she waded in it up to her knees – nay, up to her neck. Under her feet were human heads, above her, human hands flew like locusts. Her joy at the butchery is renowned. Her liver swelled with laughter, her was full of joy…” William Albright, on the Goddess Anath 1. William F. Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel (John Hopkins, 1968), 77.


Canaanite Idolatry

  • “By the time of the Hebrew Exodus Ba’al had already usurped El’s power in Canaan. When in Canaanite religion El lost the dynamic strength expressed in his name, he lost himself. Most Ugaritic texts describe him as a poor weakling, a coward who abandons justice to save his skin, the contempt of goddesses. One text depicts El as a drunkard plashing ‘in his excrement and his urine’ after a banquet.” Jones, Clay. “We Don’t Hate Sin So We Don’t Understand What Happened to the Canaanites: An Addendum to “Divine Genocide” Arguments,” Philosophia Christi. Vol. 11, no. 1. 2009. Pg 56. Available at


Canaanite Incest

  • “The god El (considered the father of the gods) had seventy children by Asherah. From that union came Baal  and his sister Anat with whom Baal had sexual relations. After Baal reported to his father El that Asherah had tried to seduce him, El encouraged Baal to have sex with her to humiliate her, which Baal did.13 Baal also had as a consort his first daughter Pidray. None of these incestuous acts of the gods is presented pejoratively.” 13 “El, Ashertu and the Storm-god,” trans. Albrecht Goetze, ed. James B. Pritchard, in The Ancient Near East: Supplementary Texts and Pictures Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 519.


Canaanite Adultery

  • “Inanna/Ištar, also known as the Queen of Heaven, “became the woman among the gods, patron of eroticism and sensuality, of conjugal love as well as adultery, of brides and prostitutes, transvestites and pederasts.”21 Gwendolyn Leick, Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature (New York: Routledge, 1994), 57 (emphasis in original).

  • “According to texts from Ugarit, the practice of the cult involved priests drawn from priestly families and also sacred prostitutes, both male and female.”22 Jonathan N. Tubb, The Canaanites (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998), 76.


Canaanite Child Sacrifice

  • “Kleitarchos says the Phoenicians and especially the Carthaginians who honoured Kronos, whenever they wished to succeed in any great enterprise, would vow by one of their children if they achieved the things they longed for, to sacrifice him to a god. A bronze image of Kronos was set up among them, stretching out its cupped hands above a bronze cauldron, which would burn the child. As the flame burning the child surrounded the body, the limbs would shrivel up and the mouth would appear to grin as if laughing, until it was shrunk enough to slip into the cauldron.”36 Kleitarchos, scholia on Plato’s Republic 337a, quoted in John Day, Molech: A God of Human Sacrifice in the Old Testament (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 87. See Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan, 234–44 for a significant discussion of the nature and archaeology pertaining to child sacrifice.


Canaanite Bestiality

  • Hittite Laws 199 states, “If anyone has intercourse with a pig or a dog, he shall die. If a man has intercourse with a horse or a mule, there is no punishment.”46 Hoffner, “Incest, Sodomy and Bestiality in the Ancient Near East,” 82.


So Was It Genocide?

  • The United Nation defines genocide as “any number of acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”

  • I would argue that the UN would at most classify the events in the OT as persecution not genocide, based on the proceedings of cases such as Prosecutor v. Kupreskic (2000). For instance section 751 says “In the present case, according to the Prosecution - and this is a point on which the Trial Chamber agrees - the killing of Muslim civilians was primarily aimed at expelling the group from the village, not at destroying the Muslim group as such. This is therefore a case of persecution, not of genocide.”

  • The same destruction was threatened even on Israelites who followed false Gods (Deut 13:15). So what is ultimately at play is cosmic warfare, the LORD against demons.


The Heart of God

  • 18:7 There are times, Jeremiah, when I threaten to uproot, tear down, and destroy a nation or kingdom. 8 But if that nation I threatened stops doing wrong, I will cancel the destruction I intended to do to it. 9 And there are times when I promise to build up and establish a nation or kingdom. 10 But if that nation does what displeases me and does not obey me, then I will cancel the good I promised to do to it. Jer 18:7–10 (NET).


So Is God Evil?

  • Ezekiel 18:23 states, “Do I actually delight in the death of the wicked, declares the sovereign Lord? Do I not prefer that he turn from his wicked conduct and live?” (also Ezek 33:11).

  • Along these lines there is a sense in which it is wicked to love evil (Rom 12:9, 1 Cor 13:6). God loves his enemies (Rom 5:8), but if they freely choose to not to live in the presence of God, God does not force this upon them.


What is more fundamental?

  • One could object that the Canaanite killings demonstrate that the God of the Bible is not loving. While I have argued that this is not the case, one could admit that based purely upon the conquest texts it may well seem that God is not loving but that would be to consider only one factor. When one considers other factors such as the cross of Christ it is most probable even given the Canaanite killings that God is loving.



  • Ultimately, what conclusion will be drawn depends somewhat on what one accepts. For instance if it was the case that the Canaanite culture was wicked and that the Canaanites having been given a chance to repent were so ingrained in their ways that they needed to be disciplined through their removal, then one is going to accept the Biblical account.


Even if conceded… God still exists

  • Even if one rejects all this, and states that the Canaanite killings are a travesty. It needs to be pointed out that this does not prove that God does not exist or Christianity is false. In fact as odd as it might sound, the fact that one thinks the Canaanite killings is an example of evil points to the existence of God.  The moral argument for God’s existence states: (1) If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist. (2) Objective moral values do exist. (3) Therefore, God exists.  So the objector in stating that the Canaanite killings are an example of evil is affirming premise (2). Unless such an objector is willing to say that they are a moral subjectivists, in which case they undermine their own complaint and so no longer have a basis for affirming that the Bible has any problems.


At most an error

  • So at most the objector would just be demonstrating that the Bible has errors.

  1. God exists and is morally perfect.

  2. So God would not command one nation to exterminate the people of another unless He had a morally sufficient reason for doing so.

  3. According to various OT texts, God sometimes commanded the Israelites to exterminate the people of other nations.

  4. It is highly unlikely that God had a morally sufficient reason for issuing these alleged commands.

  5. So it is highly unlikely that everything every book of the OT says about God is true.

Wesley Morriston, "Did God Command Genocide? A Challenge to the Biblical Inerrantist,"Philosophia Christi, 11, no. 1 (2009): 7-26.


How Does this Apply Today?

  • Take Deut 20:16-18 in which God commands the annihilation of the Canaanites. Note that in the book of Deuteronomy, the ten commandments are listed in Deut 5:7-21; and Deut 6:1-26:19 gives cases expounding how then ten commands apply. So Deut 20:16-18 explains prohibitions concerning murder so the Christian either must say that Deut 20:16-18 was a sub-section that is only applicable to Israel or that it correlates to the theme of just war.


Just War

  • The Just War Theory is an attempt to translate Biblical notions of love and justice into the complicated arena of warfare without endorsing either no war (pacifism) or total war. Just war theory has some of the following guidelines: (1) Jus Ad Bellum proper recourse to war (for the right end). A just authority for a just cause with just intent initiates the war. (2) Jus In Bello proper conduct in war (with the right means).


Reconciling Judgment and Love

  • “I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath? God is love and God loves every person and every creature. That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them. My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3 million were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did god react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’ evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because of God is love.” Miroslav Volf. Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. pp 138-139.



  • “Rahab hides (taman, 2:6) the spies—also called messengers (malakim)—sent by Joshua, an action leading to her escaping from destruction (6:25). Achan hides (taman, 7:21) the contraband from Joshua which the messengers (malakim, 7:22) from Joshua discover, leading to Achan’s destruction. The juxtaposing of these episodes with their similar language and linguistic parallels leads many commentators to conclude that the author here is making an explicit point: it is faithfulness to God’s commands—not one’s ethnicity—that makes one a true Israelite. And it is disobedience—not ethnicity—that makes one subject to destruction.” Douglas Earl, The Joshua Delusion? Rethinking Genocide in the Bible (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2010), 76 23.



  • “Caleb, though from the tribe of Judah, has a Canaanite background! The text refers to him as “Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite” (Num. 32:12; Josh. 14:6, 14). Who were the Kenizzites? They were one of the seven nations in Canaan and were listed along with the Hittites and the Perizzites who lived on the land God would be giving to Abram (Gen. 15:18–20).”

Copan, Paul and Matt Flannagan. Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2014. page 72.


Luke 13:1-5

“Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish”.


Objection: The Euthyphro Dilemma

  1. Does God will something because it is good,

  2. or is something good because God wills it?

If A) then the good is independent of God and, in fact then, moral values are not based in God.

If B) then good is arbitrary and God could have commanded deception.

  1. God wills something because he is good.



Rick Wade, “Yahweh War and the Conquest of Canaan”. Probe Ministries, Plano TX. 2010. 16 pages. Available at: (accessed April 11, 2015).


Copan, Paul and Matt Flannagan. Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2014. (352 pages)


William Lane Craig. Reasonable Faith:

Question 16 Slaughter of the Canaanites

Question 225 The “Slaughter” of the Canaanites Re-visited

Question 331 Once More: The Slaughter of the Canaanites

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