Is God Okay with Genocide? Part 2

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Is God Okay with Genocide? Part 2

Limits to the Conquest

Hopefully we’ve come to an understanding regarding the Conquest: it was a “total war” campaign designed to annihilate any potential future resistance to the Israelites and to eradicate the Canaanite culture, not the people. The people could survive but not as cultural Canaanites. Considering what the goal was, to provide YHWH’s people a place where he could mold them into a society reflective of him and his kingdom, this strategy makes a great deal of sense, even if it is still a bit bloody. But war is always a bloody affair, no matter how you slice it.

All that said, it is important to note that this did not give the Israelites a carte blanche on conducting total war campaigns. Total war for the Israelites was geographically and temporally limited to this particular space at this particular time.

Deuteronomy 20 gives a list of rules for warfare. When fighting, the Israelites are first supposed to offer terms of peace, which if accepted, all is well. If not, then the Israelites are to kill all the males (i.e. soldiers) but spare the women and children (i.e. noncombatants). Whereas with total war, the line between combatant and noncombatant is thin at best, here the Israelites are to make a clear distinction. Verse 15 and 16 are crucial for our discussion: “15Thus you shall do to all the cities that are very far from you, which are not cities of the nations here. 16But in the cities of these peoples that YHWH your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes…”

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Note the geographical distinction. Outside the territory promised to the Israelites, which extended from the borders of the Sinai Peninsula to the Euphrates, the Israelites were to engage in a much more judicious form of warfare.

Another telling passage, also from Deuteronomy, chapter 2 this time, is the interactions between Israel and the Edomites and Moabites. As they were coming up through the Arabian desert, the Israelites requested permission to pass through both those peoples’ territories, both of whom flatly refused. YHWH warned the Israelites, however, to take no action against them because he had granted those lands to the Edomites and Moabites as their inheritance. While neither of these peoples were on the total war list, it is important to note that there were definite geographical limits to what Israel could conquer with YHWH’s blessing.

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This raises the interesting question of what would happen to Canaanites that fled to Edom or Moab or anywhere outside the bounds set for Israel. According to the laws of warfare laid out in the Bible, they would be left alone so long as they did not pick a fight with Israel. Were YHWH really commanding a genocidal campaign, then he would’ve commanded the Israelites to hunt the Canaanites down to the ends of the earth, instead of simply removing them from their borders.

On that note, another piece of language regarding the Conquest needs to be examined. Used more frequently than “totally destroy” or “annihilate” is “drive out” (Hebrew: garash). Now this word means to forcibly remove someone or something from one place and set them in another. Adam and Eve were driven out of Eden, Cain was driven away from Adam and Eve, Moses drove away the evil shepherds from Zipporah, and Jephthah was driven away from his father’s house. None of these people were killed and this same term is used most often describe what was supposed to happen to the Canaanites. YHWH’s plan was to push them out of the land, not wipe them off the earth entirely. They could’ve fled to safety, had they so decided. Most, it seems, did not and stayed to fight, at which point, their blood would be upon their own heads. The point is, the geographical limits tell us that the purpose was not to ethnically cleanse or commit genocide but to push out a contaminating people from a specific geographic region.

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There were also temporal limits to the total war campaign. As mentioned already, the Israelites did not actually destroy the Canaanites. They made peace with them, often enslaving them, and went about more a style one campaign than the total war second style. YHWH’s leeway with them operating total war apparently had limits, as the Israelites found out in Judges 2. “But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.”

What is YHWH saying here? Essentially, the time of driving them out and destroying them is over. The Israelites had opted to try coexisting and their time to course correct was up. From this point on, YHWH would lend them no aid should they decide to do total war on the Canaanites. The implication is that now the remaining Canaanites were under the same protection as anyone else under the Deuteronomy 20 laws of warfare.

Further evidence of the time limit on total war against the Canaanites is the curious story of Saul and the Gibeonites in 2 Samuel 21:1-14. While the Gibeonite situation was a bit unique (more on that in a moment), during his reign, Saul apparently decided that now was the time to wipe them out. What Saul did was genocide, i.e. a systematic wiping out of a particular ethnic group. This did not go over well with YHWH, who punished Israel as a result of this act. Because Saul was dead at this point, the guilt fell on his descendants, seven of which were hanged as punishment for this crime.

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While the punishment raises issues of its own, the point here is that YHWH is clear on two points: first, the systematic execution of a group of people is not okay. Second, YHWH is clearly stating that the time for conducting total war against the people of the land has passed. Any such aggression would not be condoned and would be punished accordingly.

As already established, the Conquest campaign was not a genocidal sweep but rather a precise, total war campaign intended to displace a group of people deemed too toxic to coexist with the Israelites. But even this kind of warfare had definite limits, one of both geography, allowing the possibility of escape for the Canaanites, and time, suggesting that this was a once and once only moment in history. Any use of the Conquest to justify warfare against certain peoples today is a gross misuse of Scripture.

Rahab, the Gibeonites, and the YHWH’s Mercy

In Joshua, there are two poignant exceptions to the command to conduct total war against the Canaanites: Rahab and the Gibeonites. For most, Rahab’s story, found in Joshua 2:1-24, is well-known. Although most focus on Rahab as a “prostitute,” the text is crystal clear that no funny business happened between Rahab and the spies. In truth, Rahab’s “house” was most likely an inn or tavern for travelers, which given that Jericho controlled one of the two major crossings of the Jordan would be a) busy and b) an excellent place to gather intel on the land.[1] Furthermore, the text emphasizes that Rahab is the one who is financially responsible for her family and therefore the one to make major decisions for them.[2]

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At any rate, the two Israelite spies come to her establishment and Rahab takes it upon herself to protect the spies, providing them important information about the state of mind of the people, hiding them from the king’s soldiers, and then helping them escape. As a result of her assistance, she is granted protection for when the Israelites attack Jericho and is thus spared in the assault. She goes on to be an ancestor of both David and Jesus.

Germane to our discussion, there are two obvious takeaways: 1) Rahab was a Canaanite, and therefore under the “ban” and 2) she was granted mercy and thus survived the assault. These two points ought to be contradictory yet here Rahab is.

The key verse to understand Rahab’s story is verse 11, which says, “11And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for YHWH your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath.” Given Rahab’s context as a supposedly polytheistic Canaanite, this is one of the most powerful statements of faith in the entire Bible. Just from the stories she’d heard, she willingly abandoned the gods of her people for YHWH. While she may have been genetically a Canaanite, she’d culturally ditched them for the God of the Hebrews, throwing herself totally at the mercy of YHWH. The result? She was saved.

The Gibeonite story, found in Joshua 9, is a little bit different. As a collection of cities, they seemed to have reached the same conclusion as Rahab and opted for a similar approach. In their case, they achieved their salvation through deception in which they pretended to be from a far country, outside the geographical limits of Israelite total war. Deception or not, listen to why they wanted to make peace with the Israelites in verse 9: “They said to him, ‘From a very distant country your servants have come, because of the name of YHWH your God. For we have heard a report of him, and all that he did…’” Just like Rahab, the Gibeonites had heard of this God of the Israelites and instead of fighting against him, they decided that they wanted to be part of that and whatever this YHWH is about.

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Now, as a result of their deception, they were reduced to servant status. But this was not because they were Canaanites but because they had deceived the Israelites. Yet even then, they were servants at the Tabernacle itself! Think about that. These Canaanites (Hivites, technically), were tasked with serving YHWH himself at his sanctuary and altar. They were closer to YHWH than anyone else except the Levites. And these were a people labeled for destruction! Like Rahab, they had decided to abandon their gods and their culture to join with YHWH and what he was building and, despite rather underhanded tactics, YHWH accepted them in!

The point is that even with total war decreed on the Canaanites, the door for them to receive mercy was always open. They would have to leave their lives as Canaanites, leaving behind their cultural identity, religion, and way of life, but they would come into a much better life, the life YHWH was wanting to create with his people. Rahab and the Gibeonites clearly show that option was clearly always open to the Canaanites; by and large, they simply refused to take it and decided to fight against YHWH instead of surrendering unconditionally to him. The result was destruction but that was their choice, not YHWH’s.

If there is nothing else you take away from this topic, remember this: YHWH’s mercy is always there. The Canaanites had, according to Deuteronomy 9:4 gone too far and yet when they threw themselves on YHWH’s mercy, he always gave it. The point is, you have never, ever gone too far for YHWH. So like Rahab, take a hold of his mercy and welcome to your new and better life in him.

Perhaps the great tragedy of the Conquest is not the violence or bloodshed but that it was wholly unnecessary. One of the Bible’s biggest what-ifs is what if more Canaanites had taken advantage of YHWH’s mercy? What if, like Nineveh in the book of Jonah, they had repented? Alas, they chose to resist and fight against YHWH instead of totally surrendering to him. That is a fight that will not ever end well.

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So did YHWH really command genocide? No, what he commanded was total war, albeit with definite geographic and temporal limits, because it was necessary to preserve his people’s holiness in their new land. This doesn’t mean the conquest wasn’t bloody; it was. But that was not YHWH’s desire or first choice; in the end, it was the choice of the Canaanites to fight back when mercy was so readily available. Just like it is today.

Click here to read the rest of this series on conquest and genocide in the Bible.



[1] Richard S. Hess, Joshua: An Introduction and Commentary, The Tyndale Old Testament Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 91-93.

[2] Trent C. Butler, Joshua 1-12, W.B.C., ed. Nancy L. declaisse-Walford, vol. 7a (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 256.

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About the author

Jonathan Gardner

Jonathan Gardner is a PhD student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School studying archaeology and ancient Near Eastern backgrounds to the Old Testament. Writing is one of his big two passions, along with travel, so he happily contributes to Compass while maintaining his own blog on theology, Have a question about the historical backgrounds of the Bible or Biblical archaeology? Email Jonathan at [email protected] and he would be happy to answer your questions.