The Violence of the Bible

I have been virtually absent from my blog since I began seminary. I have toyed around with the idea of posting some of my papers I have written on here, but have always been certain that no one would probably want to read them. However, below is a paper I wrote for my Ethics class on a subject that has long bothered me personally. When discussing this with other people I have found it to be a similar issue, so I thought it might be helpful to post it online as a resource for others. I hope it helps.

The depictions of violence in the Old Testament (OT) have long troubled readers of the Bible. Particularly in our modern era, the Canaanite conquest as depicted in the OT seems not only difficult to understand, but morally reprehensible, “But 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,” (Deut 20:16-17a, emphasis added). This has become a popular whipping boy for the “New Atheists” today, who enjoy criticizing the OT for its violence,

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” [1]

How are Christians to respond to such a charge? Many critics of the Bible believe that the narrative itself is not only reprehensible, but that it provides a justification for zealous adherents to repeat similar actions today, “The Bible may, indeed does, contain a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre.” [2] Many liberal scholars view these OT passages as necessarily recommending ethnic cleansing, but they see it as merely a product of ancient Israel’s own cultural conditioning, not God’s commands. The brutality is thus airbrushed away by later redactors who attributed the barbaric acts to God’s commands. [3] In this paper I will argue that the violence of the OT, and the Canaanite conquest in particular, does not provide a warrant for anyone to perform genocide or ethnic cleansing today. I will do this by first clearing away common misconceptions about the Canaanite conquest, and then by showing how the progressive revelation of redemptive history demonstrates that what occurred in the conquest of Canaan was a unique event and ought not to be repeated by God’s people again.

Clearing Away Misconceptions

“The deliberate and systematic extermination of an ethnic or national group.” [4] This is the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry on “genocide.” Is this what is to be found in the narratives we find in the OT? In order to properly understand whether or not the war narratives of the OT would ever condone someone committing genocide or ethnic cleansing “in God’s name,” one must first understand precisely what was happening in the Canaanite conquest and what wasn’t.

Hermeneutical Principles

Before looking at the context of the Canaanite conquest, one must first establish a basic hermeneutical principle when reading OT narrative: just because something is described in Scripture does not mean that it is something prescribed by God. Many who read the Bible often, tragically, neglect this principle. Scripture has many genres contained within it: law, poetry, parable, epistle, apocalyptic, biography, and narrative. Each genre must be interpreted and read according to its particular genre—thus to interpret narrative (a descriptive genre) like law (a prescriptive genre) leads to some serious dilemmas. [5] For example, in Genesis we are told that Lot offers up his two virgin daughters to be sexually exploited by the men of Sodom and Gomorrah in exchange for leaving the two angels alone (19:8). Does this mean that the Bible is endorsing offering up our daughters to be raped by violent gangs? Of course not. Not anymore than it is endorsing Lot getting drunk and committing incest with those same two daughters a few verses later (19:30-38). How do we know this? Because it clearly violates what God has prescribed in his Law (Deut 22:23-29; Lev 18:6). So too, when, for example, Gideon goes to war with Midian, he has received explicit divine mandate to do so (Judges 6-7). However, when Succoth and Penuel do not offer him aid in his pursuit and he returns and tortures the men of Succoth and kills the men of Peneul, we have no reason for thinking this was divinely ordained (Judges 8:4-17), particularly in light of the idolatry that Gideon commits immediately afterwards (8:22-35).

The Bible is utterly realistic in its understanding of human sin and all of the “heroes” (except Jesus alone) are a mixed bag of good and bad. Often the narratives of Scripture will portray these “heroes” with a brutal honesty without pedantically offering commentary on the goodness or badness of their deeds—the authors of Scripture generally expect the reader to be able to discern that on their own. Therefore, one needs to be able to determine when an act being carried out in the Bible is something that has clear divine permission, or when something is actually violating God’s commands, especially when studying the Canaanite conquest.

Not Based on Ethnicity

But how is one to deal with the texts that are explicit commands from God like the command to exterminate the Amalekites, “Thus says the Lord of hosts…Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey,” (1 Sam 15:2-3)? Surely, when a command comes straight from the mouth of God, one can be confident that this is something that God has divinely mandated. To begin to understand this we need to understand who the Canaanites were, and who Israel was.

First, it is important to distinguish who the Canaanites were. Scripture does not paint the Canaanites as a group of innocent by-standers who are taken advantage of by the colonizing Israelites. Rather, Scripture describes them as a morally perverse nation that had spurned God, turned to idols, and were entrenched in abominable practices. In Genesis 15 when God promises the land of Canaan to Abraham we are told that this will not happen until the “iniquity of the Amorites” reaches a certain level of severity (15:16). As an aside, it is significant to note that even though the Jews then had a divine right to the land, they were not permitted to forcibly expel the Canaanites on that basis alone, but had to wait until the Canaanite’s sin became so heinous that God could permit the nation of Israel to judge them. We are told in Deuteronomy that one particular practice that was predominant in the Canaanite culture was child sacrifice to their deity, Molech or Baal (Deut 12:29-31). Leviticus 18 explains that incest, adultery, bestiality, ritual prostitution, homosexuality, and child sacrifices were common practices in the Canaanite culture. Deuteronomy 9:4-5 explains it plainly,

“Do not say in your heart, after the Lord your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out before you. Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you.” [emphasis added].

Second, it is important to understand who Israel was. Israel was the special covenant people of God who played a central role in the redemptive history of the OT. God calls Israel into creation through the call of Abraham. When God calls Abraham he tells him that a nation will come from him through whom all of the nations of the world will be blessed (Gen 12:1-3), and that blessing will be connected through the possession of the land of Canaan (12:1; 17:8). This means that Israel’s conquest of the land of Canaan is a unique event in redemptive history that is peculiar to the OT nation of Israel alone. It in no way serves as a blueprint for a nation or group (not even the Church) to justify any form of ethnically or religiously motivated violence or conquest today.

Also, it is important to remember that despite Israel being the special covenant people of God, Scripture also demonstrates that they are in no way ontologically superior or less sinful than the Canaanites. Deuteronomy 9:6 explains, “Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people,” and then for the rest of the chapter Moses explains how Israel turned their back on God, sinned against God, and worshipped the golden calf. The entire narrative of the Canaanite conquest, from Exodus all the way through 1-2 Kings, demonstrates the perpetual folly, sinfulness, and idolatry of the Israelites. In fact, just as the Canaanites are thrust from the land because of their sinfulness, God warns that he will do the same to Israel if they turn from Him (Deut 8:19-20; Lev 18:26-28). A warning that sadly comes to pass. The book of Judges ends with the Israelites behaving exactly like the men of Sodom and Gomorrah, only worse(!) (Judges 19-21).

So, the text of Scripture itself sweeps away many simplistic caricatures. Were the Israelites the special people of God? Yes. Were the Canaanites a particularly wicked people who deserved judgment? Yes. However, the Bible is not portraying the Canaanites as sub-human or the Israelites as essentially superior. It is much more nuanced than that. Take, as an excellent summary of all that has been said above, the story of Rahab and Jericho. The first battle of the Canaanite conquest begins with Joshua meeting an angel of the Lord and asking him if he is on their side or their enemy’s side. The angel simply responds, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come,” (Josh 5:14)—essentially, “I’m not on either of your sides; I’m on God’s side. It’s up to you to choose whether you’re on His side.” Earlier on, spies infiltrate Jericho and meet Rahab, a local prostitute who harbors them and hides them from the searching authorities. Though she is a Canaanite, she exhibits the faith of one who truly believes in God, and thus after the attack she and her whole family are spared when the city falls (Josh 2; 6:22-23; cf. Heb 11:31). After the battle, despite all of the Israelites being told that everything in the city of Jericho must be totally devoted to the Lord, an Israelite named Achan steals some of the treasure for himself, violating God’s command, and is therefore sentenced to death (Josh 7). Notice the structure of the story: the angel of the Lord explains that it is not about who is on the Israelite team or the Canaanite team, but who is on God’s team. Then there is a Canaanite who displays the faith of an Israelite, and then an Israelite who displays the behavior of a Canaanite. The structure of the story is intentional. This is not merely an issue of one ethnic group against another, let alone one ethnic group being superior to another, but is about individuals who exhibit faithfulness to God. Therefore, anyone who claims that they can justify ethnic-based violence from these texts (Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazis, etc.) are failing to see the very meaning of the story.

C.S. Cowles, a theology professor in San Diego, writes, “Moses was the first in known history…to engage in campaigns of “ethnic cleansing.” [6] This is simply not true. Not because some other predecessor practiced “ethnic cleansing” first (though, this is likely), but because “ethnic cleansing” was not what Moses and Joshua were engaging in. Cultic and immoral practices, not ethnicity, are what are leading to the expulsion of the Canaanites from the land. This is why throughout the narrative of the OT there are many non-Israelites who suddenly appear in the life of Israel, such as Rahab, or Caleb, (Num 32:12; Josh 14:6, 14), why there are specific laws that command Israel to welcome non-natives into the nation (Ex 22:21; 23:9; Lev 19:33-34; Deut 10:19), prophetic teaching and covenantal blessings that promise Israel will be a “blessing to the nations” (e.g. Gen 12:1-3; Isa 42:6; 49:6, 55:5; Zech 8:22), and, significantly, many non-Israelites who participate with native Israelites in the same covenant renewal ceremony (Deut 31:12; Josh 8:30-35). Moses’ wife, Zipporah, is not even an Israelite herself, but a Midianite who is later slurred as a “Cushite woman,” perhaps for her darker skin (Ex 2:21; Num 12:1).

The Nature of the Conquest

Though what is written above clears away much of what troubles modern readers (not all acts recorded in the OT have explicit permission given by God; Israel’s conquest of the Land was a unique event in redemptive history never to be repeated again; the conquest was not built on the superiority of one ethnicity or race over the other), one may say, That’s fine, but what about God’s commands to kill ‘everything that breathes’ in a city? How can that be morally justifiable? John Calvin admits,

“The indiscriminate and promiscuous slaughter of the Canaanites, making no distinction of age or sex, but including alike women and children, the aged and decrepit, might seem an inhuman massacre, had it not been executed by the command of God. But as he, in whose hands are life and death, had justly doomed those nations to destruction, thus puts an end to all discussion.” [7]

Is Calvin’s explanation sufficient? More will be said about this below, but first further clarification on the nature of Canaanite conquest is needed. In Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan’s comprehensive volume Did God Really Command Genocide? [8] they provide an extensive exegetical, theological, historical, ethical, philosophical, hermeneutical, and legal argument with a definitive “No” in response to the question. One of their strongest points they put forward in the book rests on a constellation of three arguments: (1) the Lord’s preemptive “pushing out” of the Canaanites before the Israelites arrive, (2) the typical hyperbolic war language employed, and (3) the targeting of military outposts.

Driving Out

The authors draw attention to particular language that is used prior to the Israelites entrance into the Promised Land.

“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 not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply against you. Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land. And I will set your border from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates, for I will give the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you shall drive them out before you.” (Ex 23:27-31) [emphasis added].

The emphasis here is not on extermination but on dispossession. Similar language of “driving out” is found in Exodus 33:2, Leviticus 18:24-28, 20:22-23, Numbers 21:32, 33:51-56, and is, in fact, the predominant language used to describe the conquest in Deuteronomy (4:37-38; 6:18-19; 7:1-23; 9:1, 4-5; 11:23; 18:12-14; 19:1). After hundreds of years of the Canaanites dwelling on a land that was not their own and after God has patiently waited for them to turn back from their wicked practices, he sends Israel in to dispossess the Canaanites from their land as a judgment upon them—but not to annihilate them. The term “drive out” is not synonymous with “exterminate” or the concept of “genocide” we are familiar with today. Copan and Flannagan note that the same language in the Hebrew of “driving out” and “casting out” is used elsewhere to refer to Adam and Eve being driven from Eden (Gen 3:24), Cain being “driven” into the wilderness (Gen 4:14), David being “driven out” by Saul (1 Sam 26:19), and Israel being “driven out” of Egypt by Pharaoh. “In all of these cases, the meaning precludes literal extermination.” [9] Most surprising of all, after doing an analysis of the exact language used, they discover that when the language of dispossession is stacked against the language of destruction, in regards to the Canaanite conquest alone, the dispossession language outnumbers the destruction language 3-1. [10]

Therefore, it seems that the primary means of the Israelites taking over the land of Canaan was not through brutal warfare, but was through God supernaturally going before his people and pushing the Canaanites out to be resettled elsewhere. This is seen in the inaugural battle of the Canaanite conquest: Jericho. Rahab tells the spies, “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,” (Josh 2:9). How does she know this? She has heard about God’s miraculous deliverance of Israel in the Exodus and it has led to a supernaturally charged, ominous fear (2:10-11). Thus, the only persons who would be killed were those who had received the preemptory warning, but refused to respond to it. William Lane Craig summarily comments, “I have come to appreciate as a result of a closer reading of the biblical text that God’s command to Israel was not primarily to exterminate the Canaanites but to drive them out of the land…If the Canaanite tribes, seeing the armies of Israel, had simply chosen to flee, no one would have been killed at all.” [11]

Lastly, it is significant to note that the Canaanites being pushed from their land coincides with the mission to destroy the Canaanite religion rather than the Canaanite people. In an ancient near eastern culture with its predominant polytheism, it was common to ascribe deities to localities or lands. This is demonstrated in the Syrian war-officials’ advice to Ben-hadad after being defeated by Israel, “Their gods are gods of the hills, and so they were stronger than we. But let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they,” (1 Kings 20:23). Therefore, for Israel to push the Canaanites out of their land was to demonstrate in that culture not merely a superior military might, but to demonstrate a superior God. This makes Rahab’s confession that Yahweh is God over all the “heavens above and the earth beneath” (Josh 2:11b) so significant.

Hyperbolic War Language

But how is one to make sense of the graphic language used to describe the battles themselves? We are told repeatedly in Joshua that he “utterly destroyed everything in the city, both man and woman, young and old” (Josh 6:21; cf. 10:28; 11:11). Copan and Flannagan argue that it is best to interpret these descriptions under the rubric of hyperbolic war-language. [12] They argue that the use of exaggerative language—in reference to military size and extent of victory—was common in all military reporting in the second and first millennia. This would be comparable to today’s exaggerative language used in sports and competition, where a winner might say, “We killed those guys!” They argue that the use of specific ritualized syntagms, or “transmission codes”, such as “leave alive nothing that breathes” or “kill every man and woman, young and old,” are stylized hyperbole meant to convey “total victory,” rather than a literal description of what is actually taking place. [13]

“The expression ‘men and women’ or similar phrases appear to be stereotypical for describing all the inhabitants of a town or region without predisposing the reader to assume anything further about their ages or even their genders…The use of “women” and “young and old” was merely stock ancient Near Eastern language that could be used even if women and young and old weren’t living there.” [14]

Simply examining the war narratives alone provide problems for those who think a literal interpretation of the destruction language describes “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing.” Rather, they tell us that the victims who were “utterly destroyed” often are later described as still existing. On a large scale, for example, the book of Joshua tells us that Joshua, “took the whole land, according to the all that the Lord had spoken to Moses,” (Josh 11:23), but only two chapters later we are told that God explains to Joshua, “there remains yet very much land to possess,” (13:1). On a smaller scale, we are told in Joshua 10:39 that he exterminates every Anakite in the city of Debir, “he left none remaining,” but then we discover that in 11:21 Joshua is fighting Anakites in Debir once more, and are again “devoted to destruction” and that “there was no Anakim left in the land of the people of Israel,” (11:22). But, again, later in 15:13-14 Caleb is fighting against Anakites in Hebron once more. These Anakites just don’t give up! If we are to interpret the destruction language literally, then that means that every single Anakite is totally exterminated a total of three times—how could that be possible? There are numerous examples of this.

Perhaps a critical reader may say that this is just evidence of the unreliability of the narrative of Joshua, nothing more than a stitching together of fictitious folk-tales. However, even if one takes the most cynical view of the reliability of the history of the book, a final redactor would have had to compile it together and would have obviously seen the apparent contradictions within the text. Sometimes, as in Joshua 10:20, the contradiction is present in the very same verse, “When Joshua and the sons of Israel had finished striking them with a great blow until they were wiped out, and when the remnant that remained of them had entered into the fortified cities…” [emphasis added]. Thus it seems more likely that author employed an extremely common style of exaggerative military language to describe Joshua’s victories rather than believing that the redactor was simply an idiot.

Copan and Flannagan, after citing numerous similarities between other Near Eastern military accounts and Joshua, determine that

  1. Such [Near Eastern military] accounts are highly hyperbolic, hagiographic, and figurative, and follow a common transmission code [a common phrase of words, such as, “left alive none that breathed”].
  2. Comparisons between these accounts and the early chapters of Joshua suggest Joshua is written according to the same literary conventions and transmission code.
  3. Part of this transmission code is to hyperbolically portray a victory in absolute terms of totally destroying the enemy or in terms of miraculous divine intervention: such statements are rhetoric indicative of military victory, not literal descriptions of what occurred.
  4. The same language and phraseology has a well-attested hyperbolic use in Joshua and elsewhere throughout Scripture. [15]

Thus it would appear that it is unlikely that the wars of Joshua necessarily meant the indiscriminate slaughter of every person present. Again, if Rahab and her whole extended family are saved from Jericho, then that alone demonstrates that a city and all its inhabitants can be “utterly devoted to destruction, both men and women, young and old” (Josh 6:21) but it not literally mean that every person be killed.

Military Outposts

Lastly, Copan draws attention to the possibility that Jericho, Ai, and other Canaanite cities that are attacked are more like military outposts and less like cities, as we know them today. He begins by saying that there is no archeological evidence for Jericho and Ai housing any civilian populations, but instead seemed to be military strongholds. As military strongholds, their primary population would have been soldiers, political leaders, and religious leaders, though there would have been exceptions, as Rahab and her family demonstrates. [16] Further, he comments that many of the Canaanite conquests involve attacking cities with kings and that, “This word [melek, “king”] was commonly used in Canaan during this time for a military leader who was responsible to a higher ruler off-site.” [17] The connection between a melek and a military leader seems to be founded in Israel’s initial outcry for a king, “But there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles,” (1 Sam 8:19-20; cf. 2 Sam 11:1).

The Conquest in the New Testament

Nonetheless, with everything laid out above, many today will still find it difficult to come to grips with God commanding his people to carry out such a severe judgment. How are we to reconcile the God of justice we find in the Canaanite conquest with the God of love we find in Jesus Christ? Space will not allow for a sufficient explanation, but a few summary comments can be made.

First, the all-too-common contrast that is made between the justice of God in the Old Testament and the love of God in the New is over-stated. For it is in the OT that we find some of the Bible’s most tender and affectionate descriptions of God’s love (Hos 11; Isa 40-66; Zech 3:17), and it is in the New that we find some of the most fierce and bracing depictions of his wrath—it is Jesus himself, after all, who destroys all the wicked in the battle of Armageddon (Rev 19-20).

Second, it is important to remember that the Bible teaches us that all human beings, without exception, are sinners by nature and by choice (Gen 6:5; Rom 3:23), and therefore are deserving of death (Gen 2:17; Rom 6:23). Anything we receive that isn’t that is only due to his mercy. “A more pertinent question than why God commanded such brutal practice as the [Canaanite conquest] is why he did not command the destruction of the entire human race in time and history.” [18] This makes the forgiveness that is offered through the death of Jesus that much more staggering in its sheer graciousness.

Third, dovetailing off the last point, the Canaanite conquest and the judgment on the Canaanite people was an example of what theologian Meredith Kline has labeled as “intrusion ethics.” [19] He explains that this was an example of the eschatological judgment—where every man, woman, and child will be judged—intruding in upon the OT era. Thus, the Canaanite conquest serves as a sort of preview of the judgment that is to come; a judgment that uses many militaristic images that echo the wars of the OT (esp. Rev 16:12-14; 18; 19:11-21; 20:7-10).

And, lastly, Jesus’ life and death brings the climactic inauguration of the New Covenant, thus fulfilling the types and shadows of the Promised Land, making any further conquest of the land obsolete. This is not, to be clear, saying that Jesus’ arrival demonstrates a break with the OT’s ethics or the next evolutionary step in ethics from the crude barbarism of the OT. Many have attempted to say that is precisely what Jesus is doing. [20] However, Jesus not only affirms the teaching of the OT and frequently cites the Torah, but also claims that he has come to “fulfill” the whole of the OT (Matt 5:17-20). “Fulfillment” implies both continuity and discontinuity; Jesus’ fulfillment of the OT simultaneously affirms the teaching of the OT, and implies that He is now bringing into reality what was once only in a shadowy, typological form (cf. Col 2:17). It is like the difference between the experience of a soldier staring at a picture of his wife away at war and the experience when he comes home and wraps his arms around her. The fulfillment is different than what it is fulfilling in the sense that it is a heightened, more substantial fulfillment of what was promised; but it is also similar in the sense that it is a heightened experience of the same object. Continuity and discontinuity.

As Jesus inaugurates the New Covenant and Gentiles are now included into God’s covenant family to a degree that had never been before, the mission of God’s people does not change from the OT in the way one might switch from plan A to plan B. But the mission changes in the way a plan might change as it unfolds according to its original design. God’s blessing of all nations through Israel was always God’s plan (Gen 12:3). Part of the early process of that plan was to establish Israel as a theocratic entity and to possess the land of Canaan. That phase of the plan has now passed; it served as a shadow and type and is now fulfilled in the first coming of Christ, and will be fully fulfilled at his second coming.

This is clearly demonstrated by Jesus’ life, teaching, and death. Jesus never intimates that his followers are to pick up the sword, and to overcome the pagan religion surrounding them by force—quite the opposite. He teaches that Christians are to have a new kind of conquest, a conquest that is fueled by our own suffering and serving, not by our victory and domination. When some of Jesus’ disciples are rejected in a town of Samaritans and ask whether or not to call down fire from heaven to consume them, Jesus rebukes them (Luke 9:51-56). When Jesus is arrested and is being taken to be crucified, Peter strikes one of the officers with the sword, but Jesus rebukes him (Matt 26:52). The language of battle and warfare is still used for Christians, but now our battle is described as a spiritual battle, not a battle against flesh and blood (Eph 6; 2 Cor 10:4-6). Our goal is no longer to control a small plot of land in the Middle East through military might, but to go forth and make disciples of the whole world through the proclamation of the Word, the “sword of the Spirit” (Matt 28:18-20; Eph 6:17). In fact, Jesus’ own work is described thus, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him,” (Col 2:15). But how was the victorious conquest achieved? Through his own shameful death on the cross for the sins of the world (Col 2:13-14). Tremper Longman III explains, “Jesus defeated the powers and authorities, not by killing but by dying!” [21] Christ’s own self-sacrifice now provides the blueprint for Christians to follow, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps,” (1 Pet 2:21).


What has the above demonstrated? First, that just because an action or event takes place in the Bible—even if it is committed by one of the “heroes”—that does not mean it necessarily is condoned by God. Second, the Canaanite conquest was a unique event tied to the theocratic nation-state of Israel and does not provide a blueprint for anyone else to emulate. Third, the Canaanite conquest was not ethnically motivated nor predicated on the ontological superiority of the Israelites, but was motivated by the destruction of the wicked and idolatrous religion of the Canaanites, thus Canaanites who repented and trusted in Yahweh could be spared. Fourth, the primary means for Israel taking over the land of Canaan was not exterminating all Canaanites, but to progressively disposes them of their land primarily through God’s supernatural means, and only secondarily through battle. Fifth, the hyperbolic nature of the language used in the conquest should make us hesitant to interpret the language of the total destruction of all persons literally. Sixth, the possibility that the cities attacked by the Israelites were military strongholds, like Jericho and Ai, not civilian centers. Seventh, the New Testament reveals that the next step in God’s plan did not involve a continuing of the Canaanite conquest of military might, but of a new whole-world conquest of spiritual disciple-making, following the example of Jesus Christ who overcame the spiritual powers of darkness through his own suffering and death.

In the midst of the Rwandan genocide, a group of Seven Day Adventist Tutsis appealed to their SDA district president—himself a Hutu—asking for him to intervene. He coldly replied, “You must be eliminated. God no longer wants you.” [22] As Nazi soldiers carried out their systematic extermination of the Jews, they all wore a belt buckle with Gott Mit Uns emblazoned upon it, “God is with us.” [23] The deliberate extermination of an entire race is a brutal, chilling thing to behold—let alone one that claims to have divine approval. The aim of this paper has been to show that the Bible does not provide any justification for ethnic cleansing or genocide in any way. The argument presented has been two-pronged: (1) an accurate analysis of the historical context clearly demonstrates that “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” were not what was happening in the Canaanite conquest, and (2) with the coming of Christ the Canaanite conquest itself becomes a relic of the past, no longer to be repeated, and in its place a model of non-violent service is to be followed. When one clears away the numerous misconceptions and caricatures and places the Canaanite conquest in its proper redemptive historical setting, the charges that the Bible provides warrant for ethnic cleansing and genocide ring hollow. To take the data of Scripture and employ it to justify something like the slaughter of Jews in concentration camps or the Tutsis by machete-wielding Hutus is not to follow the Bible’s teaching; it is to abandon its teaching.

[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Reprint edition (Boston: Mariner Books, 2008), 51.

[2] Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York, NY: Twelve, 2009), 102.

[3] Eryl W. Davies, The Immoral Bible: Approaches to Biblical Ethics, 1 edition (London ; New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 45-61.

[4] “Genocide, N.,” OED Online (Oxford University Press), accessed July 27, 2018,

[5] Paul Copan and Matt Flannagan, Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2014), 131-32.

[6] Stanley N. Gundry et al., Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2003), 16-17.

[7] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Book of Joshua (Pinnacle Press, 2017), 97.

[8] Copan and Flannagan, Did God Really Command Genocide?

[9] Copan and Flannagan, 80.

[10] Copan and Flannagan, 80.

[11] William Lane Craig, “The ‘Slaughter’ of the Canaanites Re-Visited | Reasonable Faith,” accessed July 27, 2018,

[12] Copan and Flannagan, Did God Really Command Genocide?, 84-124

[13] Copan and Flannagan, 96-97.

[14] Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2011), 175-76.

[15] Copan and Flannagan, 103.

[16] Copan, 175.

[17] Copan, 176.

[18] Gundry et al., Show Them No Mercy.

[19] Meredith G Kline, “The Intrusion and the Decalogue,” n.d.,

[20] Eryl W. Davies, The Immoral Bible: Approaches to Biblical Ethics, 1 edition (London ; New York: T&T Clark, 2010), this volume presents four possible interpretations of the Canaanite conquest, all of which assume that Jesus’ ethic radically differs from the OT’s ethic; See also C.S. Cowles chapter “Radical Discontinuity” in Gundry et al., Show Them No Mercy.

[21] Gundry et al., Show Them No Mercy, 181.

[22] Philip Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, First Edition edition (New York: Picador, 1999), 42.

[23] Michael Jinkins, “God Is with Us?: Bonhoeffer’s Germany II,” Huffington Post, May 5, 2016,

2 thoughts on “The Violence of the Bible

  1. Great paper that answered some questions about the OT violence for me. Thanks. Two points: I would have focused more on how the critics use this to question God’s righteousness to judge sin. Also, the part about hyperbolic language is interesting, (and not without merit), but it makes me uncomfortable to lower the Bible to the understandings of writings from the same period. Then there is were Saul is told (1 Samuel 15:3 (ASV))
    [3] Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.
    But then at 1 Samuel 15:14 (ASV)
    [14] And Samuel said, What meaneth then this bleating of the sheep in mine ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?
    This passage makes clear that God had indeed meant what He said and held it against Saul for not obeying.

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