Did God Really Order a Genocide?

Every once in a while a detractor of the Christian faith objects that Christianity is ethically bankrupt because Christians worship a deity who ordered a genocide of all the inhabitants of Canaan when the Israelites entered the land under the leadership of Joshua. They can certainly quote enough texts in arguing their case. Deuteronomy 20:16-17 says, “In the cities of the nations that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Utterly destroy them” [literally, “place them under the ban”]. Thus also Joshua 10:30: Joshua “captured [Debir] and its king and all its cities and they struck them with the edge of the sword and utterly destroyed [literally “put under the ban”] every person who was in it. He left no survivor.” More such texts could be cited, and our detractors are happy to cite them. What are we to say to all this?

Some people (spiritual descendants of Marcion) simply throw in the apologetic towel, admit that such a genocide happened, but say that God commanded no such thing. The ancient Israelites were simply blood-thirsty wretches, and they projected their blood-thirstiness onto their God, suggesting that their genocide had divine sanction when it had no such thing. Best therefore to throw away these texts and concentrate on the Sermon on the Mount. For those who take Scripture’s authority at all seriously, this will hardly do. The Church kicked out Marcion and his kids a long time ago.

Others say that God did order such a genocide, but that it was justified because the Canaanites in question were intrinsically evil, and that killing them was both just and comparatively merciful. This view puts the genocide within the context of a cosmic battle between good and evil, and asserts that Canaan was home to clans of giants which came into being because people were in communion with demons and were engaging in demonic fornication rituals in order to produce demonized human beings who had supernatural abilities. Given this situation, the mandated genocide was simply a part of the ongoing cosmic battle against evil, and against demonized human beings. It is even suggested that such demonized people may become actual demons after they die.

This also will hardly do. People do not become demons after they die, even if they were evil while they lived (Chrysostom explicitly speaks against such a notion), and sex between two people, even very evil and messed up ones, does not produce demonized babies. That is not how evil works. A person becomes evil through their own choice—although being the child of sociopathic parents would certainly set the child upon a wrong path very early. Evil remains something you voluntarily choose, and is not the result of the weird stuff your parents were into before you were born. All human beings are ontologically the same.

So then, what are we to make of the Biblical commands to put under the ban of destruction everything that breathes in the Canaanite cities? We must begin by putting the Old Testament in its cultural context. Here later literature like the Book of Enoch and other Second Temple Jewish literature will not be of any use. It is much too late to help us situate the invasion of Canaan in the culture of its time.

We begin by reading the texts from Deuteronomy, Joshua and Judges a little more closely. The language that predominates in these texts is the language of expulsion, not of annihilation. Many texts speak of Israel driving the Canaanites out of the land, rather than killing them, by a ratio of about three to one (see Did God Really Command Genocide, by Copan and Flannagan, p. 80). In these texts we find God commanding Israel not to kill the Canaanites, but to drive them from the territory. Thus in Numbers 33:51-55 we read of the command, “When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you. Take possession of the land and settle in it. But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes.”

Note: “drive out”, not “destroy”. It seems as if Israel was commanded by Moses to dispossess the inhabitants of the holy land through war gradually. In the coming invasion the Canaanites were to be utterly destroyed from the land, but the aim was to drive them away, not to annihilate them. And this destruction would occur gradually.

Thus for example, Deuteronomy 7:22 declares that God will “clear away these nations before you little by little; you will not be able to put an end to them quickly”. This presupposes that the Canaanites will not be suddenly annihilated under Joshua, but gradually reduced—a picture confirmed in the Book of Judges (compare Judges 2:21-23). The warfare conducted by Joshua resulted in victories over the Canaanites resulting in their eventual defeat, not in their immediate and complete slaughter.

This would explain otherwise contradictory accounts in the Joshua narratives themselves. For example, in Joshua 10:39 we read that Joshua “captured [Debir] and its king and they struck them with the edge of he sword and utterly destroyed [literally “put under the ban”] every person who was in it. He left no survivor.” Yet later we read in Joshua 11:21 that Joshua “cut off the Anakim from the hill country, from Hebron, from Debir”. Again we note the contradiction between the texts if read literally: if Joshua slew everyone in Debir, how were there still Anakim living there afterward? Obviously the slaughter of Debir could not have been total, regardless of what Joshua 10:39 said.

We see the same thing in Hebron. Joshua “cut off the Anakim from Hebron. There were no Anakim left in the land of the sons of Israel” (Joshua 11:21-22). Yet later on we learn that Caleb drove out from Hebron the three sons of Anak (Joshua 15:13-14). How could this be if none of the Anakim were left alive?

I suggest that the term “utterly destroyed” is an example of oriental hyperbole such as we often find in the culture of the time. The term means “completely defeated on the battlefield”, not “slaughtered along with the rest of the general population”.

This is consistent with the rhetoric of kings in the ancient Near East. Thus for example when the king of Moab gained a victory over the Israelite army he inscribed the event on his monument, saying “Israel has utterly perished forever”, suggesting complete and total annihilation, when obviously Israel survived and their army had simply experienced a defeat.

Similarly when the Egyptian Pharaoh memorialized his victory over “the numerous army of Mitanni” he said that it was “totally annihilated, like those non-existent”, whereas they in fact lived to fight another day. This hyperbole was part of the royal assertion of sovereignty of the time (today called “trash talk”). In terms of the Biblical narrative, it meant that the defeated Canaanite armies would be utterly put down, with no hope of return. This hyperbole would explain the otherwise odd contradiction between the assertion of Joshua’s annihilation of all the Canaanite population in Joshua 10:40 and the record that much of the Canaanite population remained to be conquered and driven out in Joshua 23:5 and Judges 1:1. Complete genocide was never envisioned by Moses or Joshua; complete subjugation was. It was understood that defeat on the battlefield would result in the population fleeing before Israel and leaving their towns vulnerable and vacant.

The Canaanites were to be driven out not because they were part of a cosmic war of light against darkness or because they were the fruit of demonic fornication. The Biblical text is quite clear: they were to be driven out because they were idolatrous, and if they remained in the land Israel would surely be assimilated and learn their idolatrous ways (Deuteronomy 7:1-6). The danger was not cosmic or demonic, but local and cultural. Intermarriage would inevitably result in syncretism. The people of Canaan were not subhuman or demonic, just idolatrous, and therefore constituted a threat to Israel, fresh from the idolatry of Egypt.

God’s programme for Israel when they came out of Egypt and entered Canaan involved cultural and religious exclusivism, but not genocide. They were told to drive out the original inhabitants of the land lest they learn their sinful and idolatrous ways. The warfare against Canaan involved merciless victory on the battlefield, but the final goal was not wholesale slaughter of populations, but displacement. The ultimate goal was what today is called “ethnic cleansing”. This displacement of population was the only way that Israel could remain pure and secure. This may not sit well with modern sensibilities, but it was not genocide.

It was also the only sensible policy at the time. Cultural coexistence was sure to result in assimilation and religious syncretism (as later events graphically and tragically proved), and if Israel was to remain purely monotheistic and devoted to Yahweh alone, such peaceful coexistence with their neighbours was not an option. One also wonders how welcome Israel would have been made anyway, since they were coming to claim as the land God had promised them territory which was already occupied.

The whole issue depends upon whether or not God had really given Israel the Land of Canaan. If He did not give them that Land, then driving out the occupants of Canaan was wrong. But if God did in fact give them the Land, such a policy was a harsh necessity if Israel were to survive and live as the covenant People of God. Our own modern politics and sentiments about ethnic cleansing are based on the conviction that one group driving another group from their land is always wrong, because we believe (correctly) that no group now has land title in the way that Israel once claimed to have it, and that cultural mixing and religious syncretism are never wrong.

But we must not let these modern presuppositions of ours direct our understanding of the text. The Bible assumes that the land of Canaan belonged not to the Canaanites, but to God, and God could evict the current tenants any time He chose and settle new tenants there if He wanted to, in the same way as a landlord can evict criminal and rowdy tenants from his place and rent to someone else. And it is significant that God did not evict the Canaanites until they indeed became criminal and rowdy: God told Abraham that possession of Canaan would have to wait until the iniquity of the Amorite [i.e. the inhabitants of Canaan] was complete (Genesis 15:16). Even in the invasion of Canaan, God refused to act unjustly or arbitrarily.

So, in short, God did not order the genocide of everyone in Canaan. And the invasion of Canaan, to be properly understood, must be read according to the cultural and literary conventions of its time.





  1. This is certainly a topic that causes much consternation among not only non-Christian detractors but among the faithful as well. In addition to the various ways you state that Christians deal with Joshua wiping out Canaanite populations, I know an Orthodox priest who just denies any such thing happened and that God never gave any such instructions to Joshua – the story is just a complete fiction.

    But (as I think you allude to) there is recent discussion hosted and published by Ancient Faith about this, and which seems to support the idea that this “cleansing” was done to remove demonic giant clans from Canaan. The book “The Religion of the Apostles”, pages 94 and 95, is specifically about this. I’d be really interested in hearing this topic discussed further between you and Father De Young. Getting some clarity and agreement about this topic would certainly be helpful for those of us (I suppose there are many) who don’t know what to think about it, and would, as the priest I mentioned earlier, rather just assign it to fiction. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s a valid option.

    1. I quite agree that relegating it to fiction (as is done by many) is not an option for those who take Scripture’s authority seriously. I am reluctant to engage in public debate about details like this with other clergy. Here I will only say that the relevant texts say nothing about demonic giant clans needing to be wiped out. They are quite explicit that the problem with leaving the inhabitants of Canaan in place was the temptation to syncretism and idolatry.

      1. I wasn’t thinking so much of a “debate” per se, but rather a friendly discussion among brothers, but I can understand your reluctance. No one wants a heated argument about this (not me anyway). That said, I very much appreciate your own perspective on the topic and your understanding of the Old Testament Scriptures. This is truly helpful to me, and I’m sure it is to others as well. Thank you Father!

  2. First of all this assumes that we are dealing with a historical account, but history in the modern sense didn’t exist at the time. It moreover assumes a history in the loose sense that may also not be true – it is possible, even likely, that the ancient proto Hebrew tribes were indigenous Canaanites themselves.

    Putting that aside, punishment for “idolatry” when the people almost certainly had no concept of an alternative seems unjust, especially as the proto Hebrews were not monotheistic in the modern understanding, as is the case with much of the Old Testament itself. Reading these texts literally (not ad literum, but in the modern sense of literally), will simply drive you bonkers. As per Gregory of Nyssa, if something morally heinous is ascribed to God the only choice we have as Christians is to “not imagine this actually happened” (Life of Moses).

    1. What Israel did know was that at Mount Sinai they agreed to worship no other deity but Yahweh. They were punished later because they broke the covenant they had entered into by worshipping other gods–which is why they were continually called to account by the prophets for this sin. Israel didn’t need to be monotheistic as we now understand the term, only faithful to the covenant to serve Yahweh alone. The prophets would have found incomprehensible the notion that God was “morally heinous” by holding Israel accountable for their covenant betrayal. Rather they consistently praised such judgment as a manifestation of His righteousness.

      1. I’m pretty sure Greg is speaking of the punishment of the Canaanites for their “idolatry” that you imply in your article. I think Gregory of Nyssa was right, and I will take his approach with all its problems over a literal reading, because if read literally God is a monster, and the revelation of Christ, not to mention general revelation, convinces me that he is not.

  3. Some of the apparent contradictions between Numbers and Deuteronomy are fairly easy to explain if one supposes that those texts were written or redacted by authors who had different ideas about the past and/or different ideas about how Israel should deal with the religious and cultural conflicts of the times in which those texts were written.

    At any rate, whatever we make of the Canaanite situation, we cannot deny that God commands genocide in the case of the Amalekites — and, what’s more, that he appears to order this genocide (in Saul’s day) as a sort of delayed response to what the ancestors of the Amalekties did generations earlier (in Moses’ day). And this, in turn, underscores another contradiction within the text — because the condemnation of one generation for the failings of an earlier generation would seem to be at odds with those passages in the Law which stipulate that parents and children are to be punished for their own sins and not for each other’s.

  4. Personally, I think the topic, while intellectually interesting, is a red herring. I know Jesus Christ and His mercy. Our incarnate Lord and Savior. I met Him in person before I had heard if the Orthodox Church. I found the Church through His guidance and He was here to welcome me when I arrived welcoming me to participate in His life more fully through the true Sacraments. We are all called to repentance. If I do not repent, I suffer the consequences one way or another.
    The details of what those consequences might be for others is supremely unimportant to me and in fact dangerous for my soul. The quote from St. Gregory Nyssa sums it up. Why engage in doubtful disputation?
    There are far more important things to which we all should attend, and I do not me politics.
    Our Lord has been amazingly kind and generous to me and those closest to me from the day I first consciously met Him on a hill in northern Illinois in 1968 to the present. He has, in fact, poured out His mercy on me in remarkable ways even as I remain deeply unworthy. He takes on the burden of my sin, passions and disobedience and sets me free from them all. As a aged monk friend of mine said the other day, “I hope I live longer so that I might have time to repent more. ”
    Matthew 3:2 ” Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. ” Right now. In its fullness. That is both a command and a promise.
    Everything in Holy Scripture that I have read, heard or had preached to me points in that direction. Speculation on anything else is futile.

    1. I take your point about speculation. But, as the Apologists knew, our detractors do make objections to our faith, and we need to provide a response.

      1. Thank you for posting my comment. I agree with you but I would say the best response lies in lives engaged in spiritual struggle in humility and thanksgiving. That is what I see in the lives of the Apostles and even St. Paul. He was the one who could answer similar skeptics of the time in their own vernacular. Yet the majority of his witness was focused on his encounter with the risen Christ. Thus, the transformation if his life that followed.
        We are not required to speak exclusively by their limited rules. We have a bigger story to tell.

  5. Another question has arisen for me as I take a journey through Church History by attending a catechesis class on the subject taught by a supremely qualified fellow parishioner. I went to get back to basics. Komyakov’s work, “The Church is One”. There he makes clear their is both an inside and an outside so we must know the boundaries. The question becomes what to do with those outside the boundaries (assuming I am within them). Komyakov says we are to do nothing to them. Our response is simply to remain the Church -neither following their lead nor “artificially” punishing them.
    If God is consistent, as I know Him to be, in a very large sense, then He would not order a genocide. Those who partially or wholly are not within or of the Church would see it differently though, I think.

  6. Father, I think there is a difficulty with the term “genocide”, in that there is a lack of shared understanding of what the term means. Many people today take the term to mean “mass killing”, and it seems that is the sense in which you take it in this article, especially when you contrast it to “ethnic cleansing”. However, if we go back to the original coining of the word – by the Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in his 1944 book “Axis Crimes in Occupied Europe”, Lemkin actually had a much broader concept of “genocide” than just involving mass killing, including what you call “ethnic cleansing”. To Lemkin, the killing (-cide) in genocide was not necessarily the killing of individuals, but rather than intention to eradicate an identifiable group (whether ethnic or national or racial or religious), whether totally or just from a particular area – it was the group (geno-) which was to be killed (-cide), which may or may not have involved killing its individual members. And, if we look at the concept of genocide that is currently enshrined under international law, in the Genocide Convention of 1948, and the Rome Statute of 1998, it is broader than just mass killing, also including mass deportations, forced sterilization, forced birth control, mass child abduction, mass rape, etc – without however being quite as broad as Lemkin’s original definition was. Although, the matter is still disputed – in contemporary academic genocide scholarship, there are two major camps – one which advocates for a narrower definition for which mass killing is essential, and another for a broader definition which agrees with the breadth of the definition under current international law, and sometimes even reaches beyond the legal definition to reach the full breadth of Lemkin’s original notion. If one accepts the definitions of that later camp, the distinction you draw between “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” becomes very questionable.

    Have you read (or heard of) Randal Rauser’s book “Jesus Loves Canaanites: Biblical Genocide in the Light of Moral Intuition”? He isn’t Orthodox, he’s Protestant, and I cannot imagine you agreeing with his core argument–especially his support for “providential errantism”, the idea that God deliberately inspired errors in the biblical text, but he did so for our moral and spiritual benefit. But I do think his discussion of the issue does demonstrate a laudable awareness of the range of contemporary understandings of “genocide”.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I used the provocative term “genocide” because that is the term used by our detractors. I cannot imagine them being much assured by a reply that focuses upon definitions. The issue of mandated killing in war must be met head on. Rauser’s core idea is as old as Origen, and you are right: I do not agree with it. The authors of Exodus, Deuteronomy, Joshua and Judges clearly meant their readers to regard an Israelite invasion as historical.

  7. Thank you for offering your thoughts on this matter, Fr Farley. This is something I really struggle with, and that I haven’t particularly heard satisfying answers to from Orthodox clergy up to this point.
    I’m curious about how you would deal with texts such as 1 Samuel 15:3, which would appear to quite explicitly record God ordering not the “driving out”, but the wholesale slaughter of Amalekites – explicitly including women, children, and infants.

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