Yahweh Wars

Rick Wade provides an expanded discussion of the issues around the Israelites battles against the Canaanites.  He points out how Yahweh Wars, i.e. wars instituted by and fought with the direct help of Yahweh, have a specific, God-designed purpose and are not a call to genocide against non-Christians.  He considers the events and differing views of those events before summarizing a biblical worldview perception of them.

The Charge of Genocide

A common attack today on Christianity has to do with the character of the God of the Old Testament.{1} Especially singled out for censure by critics is the conquest of Canaan, the land promised to Abraham, by Joshua and the Israelites. Through Moses, God gave these instructions:

In the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the LORD your God has commanded” (Deut. 20:16-17).

In obedience to this command, when the Israelites took Jericho, their first conquest after crossing the Jordan River, “they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword” (Josh. 6:21).

Because of such things, biologist and prominent atheist Richard Dawkins describes God as, among other things, “a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”{2}

Dawkins also complains about God’s jealous rage over the worship of other gods. “One cannot help,” he says, “marveling at the extraordinarily draconian view taken of the sin of flirting with rival gods. To our modern sense of values and justice it seems a trifling sin compared to, say, offering your daughter for a gang rape” (referring to Lot offering his daughters in exchange for the angels). “It is yet another example,” he continues, “of the disconnect between scriptural and modern (one is tempted to say civilized) morals. . . . The tragi-farce of God’s maniacal jealousy against alternative gods recurs continually through the Old Testament.”{3}

For an atheist, of course, there is no supernatural, so the gods of all the many religions were, of course, made up; they are merely mythologies devised to give meaning to life. The God invented by the Israelites (and still believed in by Christians) was given a very jealous and mean-spirited personality. What atheists truly dislike is not only that people actually believe in this God but that they think other people should, too!

Of course, it would be illogical to try to argue against the existence of God on the basis of the conquest of Canaan. In fact, the moral values that make what the Israelites did seem so objectionable to atheists are grounded in God. As William Lane Craig notes, “The Bible itself inculcates the values which these stories seem to violate.”{4} But atheists come to the matter already confident that there is no God. They then condemn belief in such a made-up God.

But some Christians also have doubts about the matter. Some believe that a more accurate exegesis reveals that the command to destroy everyone doesn’t mean what it appears to on the surface. Some believe the command wasn’t given by God at all, but was the product of an Ancient Near Eastern mentality; that the people thoughtthey were doing God’s will and put those words in His mouth. Some take the command to be authentic but hyperbolic. I’ll return to this later.

The actions of the Israelites are often called genocide.Is this a legitimate use of the term?

The word genocide was coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew.{5} According to Article II of the United Nation’s Genocide Convention of 1948, the term genocide means a major action “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”{6} Some twentieth-century examples are the massacre of Armenian Christians by Turks in 1915 and 1916, the extermination of six million Jews by the Nazis in the 1940s, and the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda in 1994. Going by this definition alone, the destruction of the Canaanites was genocide.

But there is a major difference between these events and the Israelite conquest of Canaan. The twentieth-century examples were basically people killing people simply because they hated them and/or wanted their land. The Canaanites, by contrast, were destroyed at the direction of God and primarily because of their sin.{7} Because the Canaanites’ destruction was believed to be directed by God, obviously atheists will not find anything acceptable in what happened. If the atheists are correct in their naturalistic understanding of the world—that there is no God, no supernatural; that religion is just a human institution; that all there is is nature; and that people are the products of random evolution—then the Israelites were no different than Hitler or other Ancient Near Eastern people who slaughtered people simply to take their lands.

However, once the biblical doctrines of God and of sin are taken into consideration, the background scenery changes and the picture looks very different. There is only one true God, and that God deserves all honor and worship. Furthermore, justice must respond to the moral failure of sin. The Canaanites were grossly sinful people who were given plenty of time by God to change their ways. They had passed the point of redeemability, and were ripe for judgment. The doctrines of God and of sin put this in a different light.

Because of this, I think the term genocide should be avoided. The completely negative connotations of the word make it hard to look at the biblical events without a jaundiced eye.

Dawkins accuses the biblical God of jealousy as well. If the God of the Bible really does exist, why might He be so jealous? For one thing, being the creator and Lord of all, He ought to be the only one worshiped and served. He has the right to claim that. Second, people worshiping other gods are indeed worshiping gods of their own (or their forebears’) invention. Even Dr. Dawkins should understand why worshiping a god that isn’t real is a problem! Third, since God made the world and the people in it, He knows best how they function. To go against the true God is to lose sight of one’s own nature and of what makes for the good life.

Furthermore, being the creator of the world, God has the authority to move people as He wills. As Paul said much later to the Athenians, God “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26). If God wanted the Israelites in that land, He had every right to put them there.

One more note about the complaints of atheists. Not only do they leave out the key factors of the reality of God and sin, but they think that their own ideas about ethics should have ruled in Joshua’s day and even for all time since clearly their own modern liberal ethical sensibilities are the height of moral evolution! Never mind that such critics, while castigating Israel for killing children, will support a woman’s right to have her unborn child cut to pieces in her womb (an odd ethical system, to my mind). Never mind, too, that the best of modern liberal ethical beliefs were built upon Judeo-Christian ethics.

Yahweh War

To understand what God was doing in Canaan, in addition to having a correct understanding of God’s existence and authority and of the consequences of sin, one must see it within the larger context of redemptive history.

One of the categories scholars use for such events as the battles in the conquest of Canaan is Yahweh war. Yahweh wars are battles recorded in Scripture that are prompted by God for His purposes and won by His power.{8} Old Testament scholar Eugene Merrill describes Yahweh war this way: “God initiated the process by singling out those destined to destruction, empowering an agent (usually his chosen people Israel) to accomplish it, and guaranteeing its successful conclusion once the proper conditions were met.”{9} These wars were “a constituent part of the covenant relationship” between Yahweh and Israel. “Israel . . . would not just witness God’s mighty deeds as heavenly warrior but would be engaged in bringing them to pass.”{10}

There are numerous examples of Yahweh war in Scripture. In some of them, God fights the battle alone. Think of the Israelites caught between the Egyptian army behind them and the sea in front. God told them, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. . . . The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent” (Exodus 14:13-14). They walked through the parted waters and watched them close down around the Egyptians behind them.

Another example is found in 2 Kings 18 and 19. When the Assyrians were about to attack Judah, King Sennacherib’s representative threw down a challenge to Judah’s God:

Do not listen to Hezekiah when he misleads you by saying, The LORD will deliver us. Has any of the gods of the nations ever delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivvah? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? Who among all the gods of the lands have delivered their lands out of my hand, that the LORD should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand (2 Kings 18:32-35)?

Unfortunately for the Assyrians, Yahweh decided to take them up on that challenge. Hezekiah prayed, and God answered through Isaiah:

“I will defend this city to save it,” He said, “for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.” And that night the angel of the LORD went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies (2 Kings 19:34, 35).

Most of the time God had the Israelites help in the battle. So at Jericho, for example, God made the wall fall, and then the Israelites moved in and took the city. Numerous examples are given in Joshua and Numbers of the Israelites fighting the battle, with God making them victorious.

The involvement of God is a key point in the whole matter of the conquest of Canaan. It wasn’t just the Israelites moving in to take over like any other tribal people. It was commanded by God and accomplished by God. Merrill says this:

It is clear that the land was considered Israel’s by divine right and that the nations who occupied it were little better than squatters. Yahweh, as owner of the land, would therefore undertake measures to destroy and/or expel the illegitimate inhabitants, and he would do so largely through his people Israel and by means of Yahweh war.{11}

The Israelites were not at heart a warrior tribe. There was no way they could have conquered the land of Canaan if they didn’t have divine help. They escaped the Egyptians and moved into their new land by the power of Yahweh (Judges 6:9; Joshua 24:13).

Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman sees five phases of Yahweh war in the Bible. In phase one, God fought the flesh-and-blood enemies of Israel. In phase two, God fought against Israel when it broke its side of its covenant with God (cf. Deuteronomy 28:7, 25). In phase three, when Israel and Judah were in exile, God promised to come in the future as a warrior to rescue them from their oppressors (cf. Daniel 7).

In phase four there was a major change. When Jesus came, he shifted the battle to the spiritual realm; He fought spiritual powers and authorities, not earthly ones.

This change might explain a rather odd question asked by John the Baptist. When he was in prison, John had his disciples go and ask Jesus if he was the expected one (Matthew 11:2). Why would John have asked that? Didn’t he baptize Jesus and understand then who he was? He did, but it could be that John was still looking for a conquering Messiah. Matthew 3 records John’s harsh words to the Pharisees: “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10). Was he thinking this was imminent? Perhaps later when he was in prison John was still looking for an exercise of power against earthly rulers on Jesus’ part. Notice how Jesus responded to John’s disciples in Matthew 11. He told them about his miracles, his exercises of power in the spiritual realm. Then he made this curious comment: “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” or does not “stumble over” me (v.6). He may simply have been thinking of people stumbling over him saying the he was the one who fulfilled Old Testament prophecies (see Isaiah 29:18; think also of Nichodemus’ comment: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” [John 3:2].). It could be, however, that Jesus was urging John (and others) not to fall away on account of His actual program of fighting the battle at that time in the spiritual realm rather than militarily. Jesus conducted Yahweh war on spiritual powers in His healings and exorcisms and preeminently in His victory in the heavenlies by His death and resurrection (see Colossians 2:13-15).

Christians today are engaged in warfare on this level. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against . . . the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). We do not (or ought not!) advance the kingdom by the sword.

Phase five of Yahweh war will be the final battle of history when Jesus returns and will once again be military in nature. In Mark 13:26 and Revelation 1:7 we’re presented with the imagery of Christ coming on a cloud, an imagery seen in the prophecy of Daniel: “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him” (Daniel 7:13). The cloud represents a war chariot.{12}

Summing up, Longman writes, “The war against the Canaanites was simply an earlier phase of the battle that comes to its climax on the cross and its completion at the final judgment.”{13}

There are several aspects of Yahweh war, not all of which are seen in every battle narrative. Merrill names, among other aspects, the mustering of the people, the consecration of the soldiers, an oracle of God, and, at the end, the return to their homes or tents.{14}

The part that concerns us here—the real culmination of Yahweh war—is called ḥerem. Ḥerem literally means “ban” or “banned.” It means to ban from human use and to give over completely to God. The ESV and NIV give a fuller understanding of the term by translating it “devote to destruction” (the NASB renders it “set apart”). Exodus 22:20 reads, “Whoever sacrifices to any god, other than the LORD alone, shall be devoted to destruction.” Deuteronomy 7:2, speaking of the conquest of the land, says, “and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.” Tremper Longman writes that “ḥerem refers to the climactic aspect of divine warfare: the offering of the conquered people and their possessions to the Lord.”{15}

Old Testament scholars Keil and Delitsch give a fuller understanding of the meaning of ḥerem in their discussion of Lev. 27:29. They write,

Nothing put under the ban, nothing that a man had devoted (banned) to the Lord of his property, of man, beast, or the field of his possession, was to be sold or redeemed, because it was most holy. . . . [Ḥerem], judging from the cognate words in Arabic . . . , has the primary signification ‘to cut off,’ and denotes that which is taken away from use and abuse on the part of men, and surrendered to God in an irrevocable and unredeemable manner, viz. human beings by being put to death, cattle and inanimate objects by being either given up to the sanctuary for ever or destroyed for the glory of the Lord. . . . [T]here can be no doubt that the idea which lay at the foundation of the ban was that of a compulsory dedication of something which resisted or impeded sanctification; . . . it was an act of the judicial holiness of God manifesting itself in righteousness and judgment.{16}

The word used to translate ḥerem in the Greek translation of the Old Testament—the Septuagint—is anathema, a word we encounter in the New Testament as well. There it is translated “accursed”. The same underlying meaning is seen in Gal. 1:8 and 9 where Paul says that anyone who preaches a gospel contrary to what he preaches is to be accursed. About this the Dictionary of New Testament Theology says:

He who preaches a false gospel is delivered to destruction by God. . . . The curse exposes the culprits to the judicial wrath of God.

In this act of being handed over to God lies the theological meaning of the . . . ban curse. . . . [T]he person sentenced by the anathema is immediately delivered up to the judgment of God.{17}

A major difference, of course, is that, in the New Testament, the “sentence” isn’t carried out by people but by God.

Canaan, because of its sin, was to be devoted to destruction. And Israel was to be the instrument of God for the carrying out of judgment.

The Conquest of Canaan

Let’s turn now to look at the goals of the conquest of Canaan by Israel.

In this conquest, three things were being accomplished: the fulfillment of the promise of land, the judgment of the Canaanites, and the protection of the Israelites.

Possession of the Land

First, the movement of the Israelites into Canaan was the fruition of God’s promises to Abram. We read in Genesis 12 where God promised Abram that He would produce a great nation through him (vv. 1, 2). When Abraham and his family reached Canaan, Yahweh appeared to him and said, “To your offspring I will give this land” (v.7). This promise was repeated to the people of Israel in the years following (cf. Exodus 33:1; Numbers 32:1). When Joshua led the people across the Jordan River into Canaan, he was fulfilling the promise. Since the land wasn’t empty, they could only take possession of it by driving the Canaanites out.

Judgment of the Canaanites

The second goal of the conquest was the judgment of the Canaanites. Driving them out wasn’t simply a way of making room for Israel. The Canaanites were an evil, depraved people who had to be judged to fulfill the demands of justice. What about these people prompted such a harsh judgment?

For one thing, the Canaanites worshiped other gods. In our pluralistic age, it’s easy to forget what an offense that is to the true God. This sounds almost trivial today. As noted previously, Richard Dawkins mocks this “jealous” God. But since Yahweh is the true God who created us, He is the one who ought to be worshiped.

In the worship of their gods, the Canaanites committed other evils. They engaged in temple prostitution which was thought to be a re-enactment of the sexual unions of the gods and goddesses. Writes Bernhard Anderson:

The cooperation with the powers of fertility involved the dramatization in the temples of the story of Baal’s loves and wars. Besides the rehearsal of this mythology, a prominent feature of the Canaanite cult was sacred prostitution (see Deut. 23:18). In the act of temple prostitution the man identified himself with Baal, the woman with Ashtart [or Ashtoreth, the mother goddess]. It was believed that human pairs, by imitating the action of Baal and his partner, could bring the divine pair together in fertilizing union.{18}

Although the worship of other gods and temple prostitution might not be sufficient grounds for the overthrow of the Canaanites in the eyes of contemporary atheists, another of their practices should be. In their worship of their gods, Canaanites engaged in the detestable practice of child sacrifice.

The people of Canaan were viciously cruel. Christopher Hitchens speaks of the “Hivites, Canaanites, and Hittites” who were “pitilessly driven out of their homes to make room for the ungrateful and mutinous children of Israel.”{19} (“Ungrateful” and “mutinous” are silly charges in themselves. Ungrateful to whom? I don’t recall the Canaanites issuing an open invitation for the Israelites to move in. And mutinous? Did the Canaanites have some kind of inherent rights to the land? They had taken it from other peoples earlier.) One might get the impression from Hitchens that these were good people (maybe in the mold of good modern Westerners of liberal persuasion) who were just minding their business when out of the blue came this ferocious band of peace-hating Israelites who murdered them and robbed them of their just possession! To speak of the Israelites being “pitiless” with respect to the Canaanites is worse than the pot calling the kettle black. Apparently Mr. Hitchens hasn’t bothered to read up on these people! If he had, he wouldn’t feel so sentimental about their demise. Writes Paul Copan,

The aftermath of Joshua’s victories are featherweight descriptions in comparison to those found in the annals of the major empires of the ANE [Ancient Near East]–whether Hittite and Egyptian (second millennium), Aramaean, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, or Greek (first millennium). Unlike Joshua’s brief, four-verse description of the treatment of the five kings (10:24–27), the Neo-Assyrian annals of Asshurnasirpal (tenth century) take pleasure in describing the atrocities which gruesomely describe the flaying of live victims, the impaling of others on poles, and the heaping up of bodies for display.{20}

In addition to the Old Testament claims about child sacrifice by the Canaanites, there is extra-biblical evidence found by archaeologists as well.

Under the sanctuary in the ancient city of Gezer, urns containing the burnt bones of children have been found that are dated to somewhere between 2000 and 1500 BC, between the time of Abraham and the Exodus.{21} The practice continued among the Canaanites (and sometimes even among the Israelites) even up to the time Israel was deported to Assyria in the late eighth century BC. Jon D. Levenson, professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard, reports that thousands of urns containing human and animal bones were found in Carthage. “These human bones are invariably of children, and almost all of them contain the remains of not one but two children, usually from the same family, one often a newborn and the other 2-4 years of age.” It is highly doubtful the urns represent a funerary custom, he says. “The frequency with which the urns were deposited makes it unlikely that natural death could account for all such double deaths in families in a city of such size.”{22}

The Canaanites were so evil that God wanted their very name to perish from the earth. Moses said, “But the LORD your God will give them over to you and throw them into great confusion, until they are destroyed. And he will give their kings into your hand, and you shall make their name perish from under heaven. No one shall be able to stand against you until you have destroyed them” (Deuteronomy 7:23-24; see also 9:3).

Now, a critic today might be happier with a God who simply showed Himself to the Canaanites and invited them to discuss the situation with Him, to negotiate. Wouldn’t that be a more civilized way to deal with them? Of course, any criticism from an atheist will have behind it the belief that there is no God behind such events at all. But just to play along, we have to try to put ourselves in the mindset of people in the Ancient Near East to understand God’s way of dealing with them. Philosophical reasoning wasn’t the order of the day. God showed Himself to the Canaanites in a way they understood, just as He did earlier with the Egyptians. It might better suit the sensibilities of twentieth-century people for Yahweh to have convinced the Canaanites by rational argument of His existence and rightful place as Lord of the land, but it would have accomplished nothing then (and it doesn’t work very well with a lot of people today, either!).

It was typical in ancient times for nations to see the power of gods in military victories. Recall the Rabshakeh’s taunt in 2 Kings 18 that the gods of the other peoples they’d conquered hadn’t done them any good. There is evidence of this understanding outside Scripture as well. For example, an ancient document with the title “Hymn of Victory of Mer-ne-Ptah” is from a thirteenth-century BC Egyptian ruler who gives praise to Ba-en-Re Meri-Amon, son of the god Re, for victory over Ashkelon, Gezer, and other lands.{23} In the ninth century BC, Mesha, a king of Moab, built a high place for the god Chemosh, “because he saved me from all the kings and caused me to triumph over all my adversaries.”{24}

When the Israelites were about to attack Jericho, the prostitute Rahab helped the Israelite spies and offered this explanation for her help:

I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (Joshua 2:9-11).

God showed Himself through acts of power, and some people recognized it.

The Protection of Israel

The third goal of removing the Canaanites was the protection of Israel. God said that the Canaanites had grown so evil that “the land vomited out its inhabitants” (Leviticus 18:25). And He was concerned that, if they remained in the land, they would draw the Israelites into their evil practices and they, too, would be vomited out (v. 28).

How could the Canaanites have that much influence over the Israelites?

It might be thought that simply being the dominant power in the land would be sufficient to prevent a strong influence by inferior powers. However, the shift from the life of the nomad to the life of the farmer marked a major change in the life of the Israelites. The people of Israel hadn’t been settled in one place for over forty years. The generation that entered the promised land knew only a nomadic life. They might easily have become enamored with the established cultural practices of the Canaanites. This happened with other nations in history. Anderson points out that the Akkadians who overcame the Sumerians were strongly influenced by Sumerian culture. Centuries later, Rome conquered the Greeks, but was greatly influenced by Greek culture.{25}

The most important danger for the Israelites was turning to the Canaanite gods. Today the way people have of dropping religion from their lives in favor of no religion isn’t a model that would have been understood in the Ancient Near East. The option of atheism or secularism was unknown then. People would serve one god or another or even many gods. If the Israelites turned away from Yahweh, they wouldn’t slip into the complacent secular attitude that is so common today; they would transfer their allegiance to another god or gods.

God knew that, unless they kept the boundaries drawn very clearly, the Israelites would intermarry with the Canaanites who would bring their gods into the marriage and set the stage for compromise.

In Exodus 34, we see this connection:

Take care, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you go, lest it become a snare in your midst. You shall tear down their altars and break their pillars and cut down their Asherim (for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God), lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and when they whore after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and you are invited, you eat of his sacrifice, and you take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters whore after their gods and make your sons whore after their gods (vv. 12-16).

In addition, the Israelites would be tempted to imitate Canaanite religious rituals because of their close connection to Canaanite agricultural rhythms. Whether or not each year’s crop was successful was of major importance to the Israelites. It would have been very tempting to act out Canaanite religious rituals as a way of insuring a good harvest. To do this didn’t necessarily mean abandoning Yahweh. They tried to merge the two religions by adopting Canaanite methods in their worship of Yahweh. God had warned them not to do that (Deuteronomy 12:4, 30, 31). They couldn’t straddle the fence for long.

The Israelites had much earlier shown how quickly they would look for a substitute for the true God when Moses went up on the mountain to hear from God, recorded in Exodus 20-31. Moses took too long to come down for the people, so they demanded that Aaron make them some new gods to go before them. Aaron made a golden calf that the people could see and worship (Exodus 32:1-4). Worshiping gods that were visible in the form of statues was a central part of the religions of their day. It was what everyone did, so the Israelites fell into that way of thinking, too.

The book of Judges is witness to what happened by being in such close proximity to people who worshiped other gods. Repeatedly the Israelites turned away from Yahweh to other gods and were given over by God to their enemies.

And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals. And they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the LORD to anger. They abandoned the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth. So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers, who plundered them. And he sold them into the hand of their surrounding enemies, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. Whenever they marched out, the hand of the LORD was against them for harm, as the LORD had warned, and as the LORD had sworn to them. And they were in terrible distress (Jdg. 2:11-15).

Thus, God’s judgment wasn’t reserved just for the Canaanites. This was the second phase of Yahweh war. The Israelites had been warned (Deuteronomy 4:26; 7:4). By disobeying God, the Israelites experienced the same judgment meted out through them on the Canaanites.

“Save nothing alive that breathes” – Part 1

In Deuteronomy 20:16, Moses said the Israelites were to “save alive nothing that breathes” in the cities in their new land. The question has been raised whether God really intended the Israelites to kill all the people in the land. I’ll address three views on this which deny that the commands and/or reports about the battles are to be taken literally. The first is that the presence of such commands and reports are evidence that the Bible isn’t inerrant. The second is that the commands are clearly antithetical to the character of Jesus and so couldn’t have come from God. The third is that the commands are authentic but not intended to be taken literally. These three views are ones that are held by people who believe in God and take the Bible seriously.

Untrustworthy Records

Wesley Morriston, a Christian philosopher, believes the conquest narratives which tell of the slaughter of children are strong evidence against the inerrancy of Scripture. I won’t go into a defense of inerrancy here, nor will I present a detailed rebuttal, but it might be helpful to take a brief look at the basic framework of Morriston’s argument.{26} He writes:

Here is a more careful formulation of the argument that I wish to discuss.

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.

I believe that this argument constitutes quite a strong prima facie case against inerrancy. Unless a better argument can be found for rejecting its conclusion, then anyone who thinks that God is perfectly good should acknowledge that there are mistakes in some of the books of the OT.{27}

In response, I wonder how the argument might look if we presuppose inerrancy on other bases. Let premises 1 to 3 stand. Then add these premises:

4. Everything the OT says about God is true.

5. God, being perfectly holy, always has morally sufficient reasons for everything He does (acting in keeping with His morally perfect nature).

6. Therefore, God must have had morally sufficient reasons for exterminating the people.

When it has been decided on other bases that the Bible is without error, that itself becomes a foundational part of our consideration of the conquest narratives. We might not understand why God does some things, but we don’t always need to. There are secret things that belong only to God (Deuteronomy 29:29).

A second view which casts doubt on the reliability of the conquest narratives is based on the character of Jesus. Theologian C. S. Cowles, for example, believes that, since Jesus is the best and fullest revelation of God, any characterizations of God that run counter to the character of Christ are wrong. “Jesus made it crystal clear,” he writes, “that the ‘kind of spirit’ that would exterminate”{28} To show Jesus’ attitude toward children, Cowles points to Matt. 18:5,6: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” When the disciples tried to send people away who were bringing their children to Jesus to be blessed by him, he said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14). Surely Jesus would have nothing to do with the wholesale slaughter of innocent children, and thus it couldn’t have been commanded by God.

As Eugene Merrill points out, in his insistence on separating God from violence, Cowles doesn’t take seriously descriptions of God as a warrior elsewhere in Scripture.{29} Tremper Longman notes the connection of Jesus as divine warrior in the book of the Revelation with God as warrior in the book of Isaiah. In Revelation Jesus is described as wearing a robe dipped in blood (Revelation 19:13 / Isaiah 63:2, 3); he has a rod in his mouth (Revelation 19:15 / Isaiah 11:4b); he treads the winepress of his wrath (Revelation 19:15 / Isaiah 63:3).

To distance God from the stories of slaughter in the Old Testament, Cowles calls for a distinction between the parts of the Old Testament that Jesus endorsed and all the rest which must be rejected as an authentic witness of God.{30} As with Morriston, the recognition of both Testaments as equally inspired (and true) prior to an examination of particular parts will mean that such a distinction cannot be maintained.{31}

A Non-Literal Interpretation

Philosopher and apologist Paul Copan offers a detailed discussion of this issue in his article “Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites.” He sets forth two scenarios, one of which takes the commands as being typical of Ancient Near Eastern warfare hyperbole (Scenario 1), and the other of which takes the commands at face value (Scenario 2). He says “we have excellent reason for thinking that Scenario 1 is correct and that we do not need to resort to the default position [Scenario 2].”{32} He believes that God didn’t really intend the Israelites to literally kill everyone in the cities they attacked. In his article “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?” Copan writes,

The “obliteration language” in Joshua (for example, “he left no survivor” and “utterly destroyed all who breathed” [10:40]) is clearly hyperbolic. Consider how, despite such language, the text of Joshua itself assumes Canaanites still inhabit the land: “For if you ever go back and cling to the rest of these nations, these which remain among you, and intermarry with them, so that you associate with them and they with you, know with certainty that the Lord your God will not continue to drive these nations out from before you” (23:12-13). Joshua 9-12 utilizes the typical ANE [Ancient Near Eastern] literary conventions of warfare.{33}

How could there be anyone left to marry if everyone was put to death?

In addition to this, drawing on the work of Richard Hess, Copan thinks that the cities which were attacked were primarily military fortresses occupied by soldiers and military leaders, Rahab of Jericho being an exception. Thus, the targets of the Israelites’ attacks were soldiers, not the citizens of the land.{34}

Hess makes the curious comment that “there is no indication in the text of any specific noncombatants who were put to death.”{35} This is so with respect to the accounts of the battles following the crossing of the Jordan. But one wonders what he makes of the vengeance taken on the Midianites recorded in Numbers 31. When the soldiers returned from defeating the Midianites, Moses was angry because they had allowed the women to live. He commanded them, “Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him” (v. 17).

In addition, consider the instructions given in Deuteronomy 20 about warfare. Regarding cities far away, only the males were to be put to the sword; “the women and little ones” were to be taken as plunder (along with everything else; v.14). However, in the cities in the areas they would inhabit, the instruction was to “save alive nothing that breathes, but [to] devote them to complete devotion” (vv. 16, 17). If the distinction isn’t between sparing women and children and killing them, what is it? Hess says that Rahab and her family were the exceptions, but, given the instructions in Deuteronomy 20, perhaps she should be seen as further evidence that there were indeed civilians in these cities.

The distinction just noted along with what Israel did with the Midianites and the clear statement in Leviticus 27:29 that every person devoted to destruction was to be killed lead me to conclude that women and children were indeed put to death as Israel cleared the land of the Canaanites. If God didn’t mean to kill everyone when it was commanded to “save alive nothing that breathes” (Dt. 20:16), how would He have said it if He did?

One further note. Even if we should conclude that the treatment of the Midianites was a unique event and that the army of Israel didn’t kill women and children in their battles, God still won’t be off the hook with critics. Women and children were surely killed in the Flood and in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

“Save nothing alive that breathes” Pt. 2


But this still leaves unanswered the matter of intermarriage. Who would be left to marry if everyone was put to death?

Glen Miller explains how some would have remained. As he observes, the Israelites didn’t sneak up on the Canaanites.{36} People had heard about the Israelites and their God Yahweh, and they had plenty of time to get out of town. Before ever crossing the Jordan River, the Israelites took a whole swath of land from the middle of the Salt Sea on the east side up to the Sea of Chennerith, or the Sea of Galilee as it came to be known later (accounts can be read from Numbers 21 through 31). Recall Rahab’s claim that the people of Jericho had heard about the victories given the Israelites by Yahweh. Likewise, Amorite kings heard about the Jordan River drying up for the Israelites to cross over and “their hearts melted and there was no longer any spirit in them because of the people of Israel” (Joshua 5:1). The inhabitants of Gibeon heard about what happened at Jericho and Ai and were so afraid they devised a deceptive scheme to protect themselves (Joshua 9).

Because of that advance warning, it is quite possible that some people abandoned their cities. Copan agrees:

When a foreign army might pose a threat in the ANE, women and children would be the first to remove themselves from harm’s way—not to mention the population at large: “When a city is in danger of falling,” observes Goldingay, “people do not simply wait there to be killed; they get out. . . . Only people who do not get out, such as the city’s defenders, get killed.”{37}

There is no indication that the Israelites pursued people who escaped. Those who stayed, however, showed their obstinate determination to continue in their ways, and they were to be destroyed. (Joshua 2:9-11). Goldingay supposes that only the cities’ defenders remained and were killed, but Moses clearly believed those who remained could include women and children.

Why wouldn’t the Israelites have pursued those who escaped? To answer that we must determine what God’s main purpose was in this series of events. Earlier I gave three reasons for the destruction of the Canaanites: possession of the land by the Israelites, judgment on the Canaanites, and the protection of Israel. All these worked together. Yahweh wanted to move the Israelites into a land of their own, but knew that for them to thrive and remain faithful to Him, they would have to be free of the influence of the Canaanites. The Canaanites were also ripe for judgment. Clearing the land, by whatever means, seems to have been the foremost goal.

Glen Miller points out that two kinds of words are used to describe what was to be done with the Canaanites: “dispossession” words and “destruction” words. He notes that the former are used by a three-to-one margin over the latter.{38} Here’s an example of the former:

I will send my terror before you and will throw into confusion all the people against whom you shall come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. And I will send hornets before you, which shall drive out the Hivites the Canaanites, and the Hittites from before you. . . . I will give the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you shall drive them out before you” (Exodus 23:27, 28, 31).

Unlike the people in Ninevah who repented at the preaching of Jonah (Jonah 3:6-10), the people of Canaan resisted. Because of that, they had to be moved out by force. But their presence wasn’t the only problem. Theirs was a debased culture, and it had to be destroyed. Thus, the Old Testament also speaks of the destruction of the Canaanites. Miller believes it was the nations that God intended to destroy more than the individual persons.{39} The cities represented the real power centers of the land, so to move the inhabitants out by terror or by destruction would have seriously weakened the nations.

If it’s true that people escaped before the Israelites attacked, then it is possible that the Israelites would marry some of them.

Secondly (and more obviously), the Israelites could marry Canaanites who were not removed from the cities because of their (the Israelites’) disobedience. As it turned out, Moses’ warning in Deutonomy 4:25-28 became prophetic. Starting in Judges 1:27 we read that tribe after tribe of Israelites did not drive out all the inhabitants of the cities they inhabited. Verse 28, for example, tells us that “it came about when Israel became strong, that they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but they did not drive them out completely.”

With all this as background, I think we can understand why Moses both commanded that literally everyone was to be destroyed in the cities taken and warned the Israelites against intermarriage. The cities, the power centers of Canaanite wicked and idolatrous culture, were to be destroyed along with everyone who obstinately refused to leave. People who escaped could possibly have intermarried with the Israelites. And when the various tribes failed to deal appropriately with the Canaanites, they eventually mixed with them in marriage and in the broader society as well.

The Children

The most disturbing part of the conquest of Canaan for most people is the killing of children. After the defeats of both Heshbon and Bashan, Moses noted that they had “devoted to destruction every city, men, women, and children” (Deuteronomy 2:34; 3:3, 6). Why would God have ordered that?

No matter what explanation of the death of children is given, no one except the most cold hearted will find joy in it. God didn’t. He gets no pleasure in the death of anyone. In Ezekiel 18:23 we read, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (see also Ezekiel 33:11). When God told Abraham He was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham pleaded for them, and God agreed in His mercy that if but only ten righteous people were found, He wouldn’t do it. Long after the conquest of the land, when God decided He would have to destroy Moab, according to Isaiah God “wept bitterly” over her cities (Isaiah 16:9; cf. 15:5).

But what about Deuteronomy 24:16 which says that children shall not be put to death because of their fathers’ sins? Isn’t there an inconsistency here?

The law given in Deuteronomy provided regulations for the people of Israel. In the course of normal life, children weren’t to be punished for the sins of their fathers. The situation in Canaan was different. Generation after generation of Canaanites continued in the same evil practices. What was to stop it? God knew it would take the destruction of those nations.

Here are a few factors to take into consideration.

First, the sins of parents, just like their successes, have an impact on their children.

Second, if the Canaanite children were allowed to live and remain in the land, they could very well act to avenge their parents when they grew up, or at least to pick up again the practices of their parents.

Third, if one holds that there is an age of accountability for children, and that those younger than that are received into heaven with God when they die, although the means of death were frightful and harsh, the Canaanite children’s experience after death would be better than if they’d continued to live among such a sinful people.{40} How persuasive this thought is will depend on how seriously we take biblical teaching about our future after the grave.

These ideas may provide little consolation. But we must keep in mind that God is not subject to our contemporary sensibilities.{41} If we’re going to find peace with much of the Bible, we will have to accept that. There is much to offend in Scripture: the burden of original sin; that the Israelites were permitted to keep slaves; the gospel itself (1 Corinthians 1:23; Galatians 5:11); the headship of the husband. How about commands about servanthood, suffering for the gospel, and dying to oneself? Such things may still not be as offensive to us as the killing of children, but our sensibilities—especially those of modern individualistic Westerners who haven’t grasped the seriousness of sin and of worshiping other gods—do not raise us to the level of judging God. We cannot evaluate this on the basis of contemporary secular ethical thought.

The only test we can put to God is consistency with His own nature and word. Yahweh is a God of justice as well as mercy. He is also a God who takes no more pleasure in the death of adults than in those of children.

This doesn’t resolve the issue, but I’ll just point out (again) that it’s hard to swallow the revulsion people feel at this who themselves support abortion rights. It’s well known that the unborn feel pain, and that late term abortion methods are abominable practices, ones pro-choicers wouldn’t tolerate if performed on animals. A critic might hastily claim that I am employing a tu quoque argument here, but I’m not (that is the fallacy of defending something on the basis that the other person does it, too). I’m not offering it as a defense of the killing of children in the Old Testament. The purpose of the observation is intended simply to make critics stop and think about the charge they are making. It’s rather like the adage, “One who lives in a glass house shouldn’t throw stones.”

Final Comments

Another term used in place of Yahweh war is holy war. We think of holy war primarily in the context of Islam. Critics may try to paint with a broad brush and claim that what the Israelites did to their neighbors was no different than modern day Islamic jihad. How might we respond?

I noted early in this article that the conquest of Canaan presupposed a particular theological background. The one true God was moving His people into their new home and meting out judgment to the Canaanites at the same time. Such warfare could only be conducted at the command of God. After the Israelites rebelled at the news of the spies that the inhabitants of the land were strong and their cities were large and fortified, God pronounced judgment on them. To try to make it up, the Israelites took it on themselves to go up into the land and fight. Moses pled with them not to, but they did anyway, and they were defeated (Numbers 14). Even having the ark of the covenant with them wasn’t sufficient when they fought against the Philistines apart from the will of God in the time of Samuel (1 Samuel 4:1-11). As Eugene Merrill says, God was the protagonist in Yahweh war. If He was not behind it, it would fail. Since today the battle has shifted to the spiritual level, there is no place for military warfare in the service of the advance of God’s kingdom. Muslims who engage in jihad are not fighting on the side of the true God. Furthermore, for the atheist to criticize Christianity today for what God did a very long time ago is to show a lack of understanding of the progress of revelation and the development of God’s plan. What has Jesus called us to do? That is what matters today.

Apologists have the task of answering challenges to biblical faith. We talk about Christianity being “reasonable,” and we want to show it to be so. But reasonable by whose standards? The laws of logic are valid no matter one’s religious beliefs. But we aren’t here talking about the laws of logic. We’re talking about moral issues. By whose moral standard will we judge God? We can clarify the conflict between the Canaanites and Israelites to non-believers. We can also appeal to the ethical principles we know Western secularists accept (e.g., prohibitions against child sacrifice). But, bottom line, the only way we can appease modern Westerners in this matter is to deny the inspiration of the text or to re-interpret the text and so to distance ourselves from what the Israelites did. We certainly shouldn’t do the former, and we have to be careful with the latter.

One final note. Our own circumstances will weigh heavily in how we read such texts. Not being oppressed ourselves, we view apparent oppressors (in this case the Israelites) with a jaundiced view. What about people who are oppressed?

Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim quotes Walter Brueggemann, another OT scholar. “‘It is likely that the violence assigned to Yahweh is to be understood as counterviolence, which functions primarily as a critical principle in order to undermine and destabilize other violence.’ And so,” Fretheim continues, “God’s violence is ‘not blind or unbridled violence,’ but purposeful in the service of a nonviolent end. In other words, God’s violence, whether in judgment or salvation, is never an end in itself, but is always exercised in the service of God’s more comprehensive salvific purposes for creation: the deliverance of slaves from oppression (Exodus 15:7; Psalm 78:49–50), the righteous from their antagonists (Psalm 7:6–11), the poor and needy from their abusers (Exodus 22:21–24; Isaiah 1:23–24; Jeremiah 21:12), and Israel from its enemies (Isaiah 30:27–33; 34:2; Habakkuk 3:12–13).” Quoting Abraham Heschel, he continues, “‘This is one of the meanings of the anger of God: the end of indifference’ with respect to those who have suffered human cruelty. In so stating the matter, the divine exercise of wrath, which may include violence, is finally a word of good news (for those oppressed) and bad news (for oppressors).”{42}


1. This article is a more detailed version of my “God and the Canaanites” which aired on Probe. That version is available on our Web site as well.
2. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Mariner Books, 2008), 51.
3. Ibid., 278-79.
3. William Lane Craig, “Slaughter of the Canaanites,” Reasonablefaith.org, www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5767.
5. Seymour Rossel, The Holocaust: An End to Innocence, chap. 15, “Genocide,” www.rossel.net/Holocaust15.htm.
From “Convention on the Punishment and Prevention of the Crime of Genocide,” University of the West of England, at: http://www.ess.uwe.ac.uk/.
6. Later I’ll mention the goal of fulfilling the promise of land to Abraham. To fulfill that promise, God needed only to move the Canaanites out.
7. Here I’m talking specifically about the command to destroy them.
8. The phrases “the Lord’s battles” or “battles of the Lord” which make this clear are found in 1 Sam. 18:17 and 25:28. In Deut. 20 one can find the most succinct biblical description of Yahweh war.
9. Eugene H. Merrill, “The Case for Moderate Discontinuity,” in C. S. Cowles, Eugene H. Merrill, Daniel L. Gard, and Tremper Longman III, Show Them No Mercy: Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 65.
10. Ibid., 66.
11. Ibid., 67.
12. Tremper Longman III, “The Case for Spiritual Continuity,” in Cowles et al., Show Them No Mercy, 182.
13. Ibid., 185.
14. Merrill, “The Case for Moderate Discontinuity,” 69.
15. Longman, “The Case for Spiritual Continuity,” 172.
16. C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, trans., James Martin, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 1: The Pentateuch (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), 484-485.
17. Colin Brown, ed., New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978); s.v. “Curse” by H. Aust and D. Müller, I:415.

18. Bernhard Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1957), 98. See also Jack Finegan, Myth and Mystery (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 133.
19. Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2007), 101; quoted in Copan “Is God a Moral Monster?”
20. Paul Copan, “Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites,” Philosophia Christi 11, no. 1 (2009): 73-92; www.epsociety.org/library/articles.asp?pid=63.
21. M.G. Kyle, “Canaan,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 550.
22. Jon D. Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1993), 20-21.
23. “Hymn of Victory of Mer-ne-Ptah,” in James B. Pritchard, ed. The Ancient Near East, vol. 1, An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (Princeton Univ. Press, 1958), 231.
24. “The Moabite Stone,” in Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near East, 209.
25. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 93-94; 96-103.
26. Paul Copan offers an response to Morriston’s argument in his “Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites.”
27. Wesley Morriston, “Did God Command Genocide? A Challenge to the Biblical Inerrantist,” Philosophia Christi, 11, no. 1 (2009): 7-26.
28. C. S. Cowles, “The Case for Radical Discontinuity,” in Cowles et al., Show Them No Mercy, 26.
29. Merrill, “A Response to C. S. Cowles,” in C. S. Cowles, et al, Show Them No Mercy, 49.
30. Cowles, “The Case for Radical Discontinuity,” 33.
31. More detailed responses to this argument are found in the responses to C. S. Cowles in Show Them No Mercy, 47-60.
32. Paul Copan, “Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites,” Philosophia Christi 11, no. 1 (2009): 73-92; www.epsociety.org/library/articles.asp?pid=63.
33. Paul Copan, “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?”, Philosophia Christi 10, no. 1 (2008): 7-37; www.epsociety.org/library/articles.asp?pid=45. Copan also refers to Deut. 7:2-3 as evidence of this. See also his discussion in “Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites.”
34. See Copan, “Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites.”
35. Richard S. Hess, “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, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008), 25; quoted in Copan, “Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites.”
36. Glenn M. Miller, “How could a God of Love order the massacre/annihilation of the Canaanites?” on the web site A Christian Thinktank, christianthinktank.com/qamorite.html.
{37. Copan, “Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites,” quoting John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology, vol. 3 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009), chap. 5.
38. Miller, “How could a God of Love order the massacre/annihilation of the Canaanites?”
39. Copan says similarly that “wiping out Canaanite religion was far more significant than wiping out the Canaanites themselves.” See his “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?”
40. Cf. Paul Copan, “How Could a Loving God Command Genocide,” in That’s Just Your Interpretation (Grand Rapid: Baker, 2001), 165.
41. And I say “contemporary” because children weren’t regarded as highly in the Ancient Near East as they are today. People may not have found this as appalling as we do today (because it so out of keeping with our experience).
42. Terence Fretheim, “God and Violence in the Old Testament,” Word and World, 24, no. 1 (Winter 2004); accessed online at www2.luthersem.edu/word&world/Archives/24-1_Violence/24-1_Fretheim.pdf; quoting Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 244, and Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper&Row, 1962), 284.

© 2010 Probe Ministries

Rick Wade served as a Probe research associate for 17 years. He holds a B.A. in communications (radio broadcasting) from Moody Bible Institute, an M.A. in Christian Thought (theology/philosophy of religion) from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a Master of Humanities (emphasis in philosophy) from the University of Dallas. Rick's interests focus on apologetics, Christianity and culture, and the changing currents in Western thought. Before joining Probe Ministries, Rick worked in the ship repair industry in Norfolk, VA. He can be reached at [email protected].

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