Did God Commit Genocide In The Old Testament?


By Clarke Bates| In the books of Deuteronomy, chapter 20 and Joshua, chapters 11 and onward, we read that the people of Israel are commanded to go into the land possessed by the Canaanites and “devote them to destruction.”  With varying degrees of success, the Israelites do this very thing.  When engaging with skeptics, this act of extermination is often used to point out the clear immorality of the God of the Old Testament.  God is a genocidal, immoral,  murderer, to paraphrase the eloquence of Richard Dawkins.

As Christians, our pride would have us dismiss such a claim immediately, but we must be honest and consider how passages such as these, sound.  After all, it is also claimed, if God can just arbitrarily command his people to kill another group of people, what’s to say he won’t tell you to do the same thing?  It really sounds no different than the beliefs that caused men to fly airplanes into buildings in 2001 and commit constant acts of mass murder in all the years since.

In response, a few preliminary points should be made.  First, as human beings, we are often guilty of remembering a story differently than it is actually written.  This is especially true when it comes to stories in the Bible.  Second, the large portion of objections against the morality in the Old Testament stem from a reaction to how a particular action is remembered, verses how it is depicted.

This is how Joshua’s campaign against the Canaanites becomes likened to Hitler’s campaign across Europe.  With that in mind, let’s look at the Dawkinsian charge that God is a genocidal murderer, using the destruction of the Canaanites as an example.

What is Genocide?

According to the United Nations, the word “genocide” was first coined by Polish lawyer Raphäel Lemkin in 1944 in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.  It consists of the Greek prefix genos, meaning race or tribe, and the Latin suffix cide, meaning killing.

Lemkin developed the term partly in response to the Nazi policies of systematic murder of Jewish people during the Holocaust, but also in response to previous instances in history of targeted actions aimed at the destruction of particular groups of people.  Later on, Raphäel Lemkin led the campaign to have genocide recognized and codified as an international crime.[1]

Based on Lemkin’s work, the recognized definition of Genocide by the United Nations is as follows:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  1. Killing members of the group;
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Now, for many, if we’re honest, the action against the Canaanites seems to fit some of these definitions.  However, there are some elements that we perceive to fit based on our memory of the incident rather than its actual depiction.

Who were the Canaanites?

Multiple passages from the Old Testament point out that the “Canaanites” as we often refer to them, were actually a conglomeration of various ethnic groups known as the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites.[2]  The name “Canaanites is often used as a type of catch-all for each group, but only for literary purposes.  The campaign of Israel against Canaan was not against a singular ethnic group, but several.

Next, and this is one area that many believers fail to accentuate when responding to the argument at hand, is the reason why the Canaanites were killed.  Popular secular depiction would have you believe that the people groups living in Canaan were peaceful settlers, minding their own business, when the theocratic, warmongering Israelites came through ravaging every city in sight.

But again, if we’re critiquing the morality of this story in the Bible, we can’t critique it on the basis of how we perceive it or even how we might think of it.  It must be critiqued on the basis of how it is depicted and the worldview within which it occurs.

According to the biblical depiction of the events, many centuries prior to the time of Joshua, God told Abraham that the land would belong to his descendants.  However, it would not be immediately.  In fact, the people of Canaan were to be given four hundred years to repent of their wickedness and turn back to God.[3]

The wickedness of these nations has been discussed at length in many places, but it can be summarized by pointing out that a careful examination of the Israelite moral code in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy reveal exactly what these groups were like.  Chief among most is the practice of burning live children on a fiery altar to pagan gods, but to this could be added, the sexual abuse of children, relatives, and animal, as well as the permission to murder those who wrong you in the slightest way and the consistent murder and abuse of servants.  In short, the Canaanites are killed for their sinfulness, not their ethnicity.

The only way the campaign of Joshua could mirror that of Hitler, would be if the Nazis spent centuries, warning the nations they were coming and offering peaceful solutions to the invasion.

Even today, on its very face, we might be less inclined to negatively judge a military campaign against a group if that group were known to be committing unspeakable atrocities against its own people and those around them (consider Syria, Aleppo, the actions of ISIS, etc.).  But one question still remains,

“Could the people of Canaan actually have changed?”

After all, if they couldn’t have repented, then four hundred years of patience on the part of God is really nothing more than lip service.  The answer is, yes, they could have.  We know this from the example of the woman named Rahab.[4]  When Joshua sent spies into the land of Canaan, a local woman hides them from her own people because, according to her,

“I know 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 came into Egypt. . .”[5]

The end result of Rahab’s decision to follow the God of Israel is her and her family being spared the destruction that befalls the rest of the community.  If this were possible for her, it must have been possible for others.

Lastly, we know once more that this campaign against the Canaanites was not ethnically or racially motivated, as is the case with genocide.  This is demonstrated God’s treatment of the Israelites themselves.  The Israelites are warned to not follow in the ways and practices of the people in Canaan, and when they do, the judgment that befell Canaan through the Israelites, also falls upon Israel through the nations of Assyria, Babylon and Persia.

How do we know the Canaanite judgment wasn’t genocide?  Because the Jews are punished in the same way when they start acting like the Canaanites.  The punishment of Canaan was a result of moral behavior, not ethnicity, and therefore not genocide.

Is God a Murderer?

Ok, well maybe God didn’t commit genocide in the strictest sense, but certainly he’s guilty of murder.  Here again though, as with genocide, we must consider the definition of murder.  I will concede that if I were critiquing this story from a naturalistic worldview it could be construed as murder, because it is nothing more than one group of people acting autonomously against another.  But this narrative is not related within a naturalistic worldview, but a theistic worldview, and therefore its continuity must be judged on its own worldview.

Murder, in the context of taking a life, according to Merriam-Webster dictionary, is the crime of unlawfully killing a person especially with malice aforethought.  From this, the key values of murder are:

  1. Taking a human life unlawfully
  2. With premediated malice

The difficulty with applying this definition to the actions taken by God on the Canaanites, or any people for that matter, is that it cannot logically follow.  The second point requires that the perpetrator be acting with malice, which is defined as a desire to do evil.  The biblical depiction of God is one that cannot do evil, for his very nature is good.

But in tandem with this is the first point, that murder requires the unlawful taking of a human life.  The biblical worldview also teaches that God is the ultimate creator and source for all human life.  It is his possession.  If all of human life is his possession, it logically follows that he cannot unlawfully take it.

Don’t believe me?  Try this exercise.  Steal your own wallet.  Be as crafty as you like.  Devise any complicated set of plans that you desire, and attempt to steal your wallet.  You might be able to trick yourself into believing it was stolen by another, but ultimately if it is taken by you, it cannot be stolen.  Why?  Because you cannot unlawfully take that which already belongs to you.

In the same way, all life belongs to God and therefore to accuse him of committing murder is a category error on par with accusing me of stealing my own wallet.  This may not be an appealing thought for a secularist, but they must object on naturalistic grounds, not theistic grounds, and this would be applying a foreign worldview onto the text in question, something they would likely reject immediately if the roles were reversed.

When we read stories like Harry Potter, we must believe that magic is real for the story to make sense.  If we read The Lord of the Rings, we must believe in Elves and Dwarves and the like for the story to make sense.  Likewise, if we are to read the biblical story, we must accept that in the story God exists, and this determines the moral outlook of the actions that take place.

Can God make the Immoral, Moral?

We are then left with the very natural question of morality.  How can something that would be immoral on naturalistic grounds, somehow become moral on theistic grounds?  The answer involves authority.  Take for example, a CFO of a corporation.  A CFO is in the position to determine where money is sent and to whom checks are made out.

However, the CFO doesn’t normally write the checks themselves, they have a secretary do that for them.  The secretary is then given authority, by the CFO to write these checks and disperse the money appropriately.

When acting within their capacity as secretary, following the instructions of the CFO, the secretary is acting morally by assigning the money properly.  However, if that same secretary were to decide to start writing checks on their own, using the money of the CFO, but giving it to themselves or family members, they’ve moved from acting morally to immorally.

But what has changed?  In both instances, the secretary is writing checks and dispersing money?  What’s changed is the authority from which they are acting.  It’s the CFO’s authority over the money that allows him to prescribe where it goes, therefore a moral action can become immoral when it ceases to operate under the necessary authority.

This is how the biblical worldview depicts the actions against Canaan, and why it would be inconsistent to claim that God makes the immoral, moral in an unjustified way.  God possesses the authority over life itself, and only when acting under that authority, could what Israel does in the Old Testament be considered moral.  We cannot judge them apart from this authority, for that is not how they are acting, and what results is not the attack of the Old Testament but one’s perceived version of the Old Testament.

How do you know God won’t tell you to kill people again?

Finally, we should respond to the question of whether God would command Christians to arbitrarily kill another people group as Israel did with Canaan.  Putting aside what we’ve already mentioned about it not being arbitrary, the question is still valid.  The first response should be that it’s fairly simple for the average reader of the Bible to see that the nation of Israel in the Old Testament is not functioning in the same position as the church of the New.

This is why we don’t find Christians, en masse killing other people (to bring up the crusades at this point would only demonstrate a lack of awareness regarding their history and purpose, let alone ignoring what has been written up to this point).

In the Old Testament the nation of Israel acted as a sort of judicial representative for God.  This was not because there was anything particularly special about them as a people, but merely because God had chosen them for this function.[6] 

In a court of law, a representative of a judge can issue a sentence upon a convicted person that has been decreed by the judge.  In such a case, the sentence is perfectly lawful.  This is the position of the nation of Israel as depicted in the Old Testament and not once depicted of the church in the New Testament.

Secondly, the commands for Israel to perform this act, were accompanied by great miracles.  The people were spoken to directly by God, both through Moses and on Mount Sinai.  God parted the Red Sea to give them passage.  He fed them with food from heaven while they wandered.

He provided water for them from rocks and granted them victory over those who tried to stop them, even though they were not a race of trained warriors.  This is far different than any one person saying that God spoke to them, or claiming that God is on their side without any epistemic warrant (i.e. reason to believe something is true).

To close, if we examine the action of Israel against the Canaanites from within the context and worldview of the biblical narrative, several points are discovered:

  1. God cannot be accused of genocide given the criteria for genocide and the actual reasons for the destruction of Canaan.
  2. God cannot be accused of murder given the criteria for murder and God’s possession of all life.
  3. The destruction of Canaan was on the basis of morality rather than ethnicity, with centuries of opportunity for the people to change and avoid the destruction.
  4. What would be immoral under naturalism can be moral under theism, given proper authority.
  5. The actions of Israel against Canaan should not be expected to be repeated by the New Testament believers, given the different functions clearly displayed within the Bible.

In the end, what many are quick to jump to as evidence for the immorality of God, is actually evidence of his patience.  If God were a short-tempered God, the story of Canaan would never have arrived, for He would have annihilated them four hundred year earlier!  When God reveals himself to Moses on Mt. Sinai, the first statement he makes is “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…” [7] 

Rather than being immoral, the God of the Old Testament acts more like an over-indulgent parent, providing warning after warning to an obstinate child, until the only option that remains is corporal punishment.  In such a case, we should be grateful for his patience, rather than spiteful over his judgment.

“God could no more unlawfully take a life than you could steal your own wallet.
Because it is impossible to unlawfully take that which already belongs to you.”

[1] http://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/genocide.html

[2] Gen. 10:16; 15:21; Deut. 7:1; Josh. 3:10; 24:11; 1 Chron. 1:14

[3] Gen. 15:12-21.

[4] Josh. 2

[5] Josh. 2:8-10

[6] Deut. 7

[7] Ex. 34:6

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Clark Bates has been serving the local church in various ministries for more than a decade. He has acted as an interim pastor and guest speaker for churches along the Southern Oregon Coast and lectured on apologetics and theology in Oregon, California, Michigan and Illinois. Clark holds a Bachelor’s degree in Religion from Liberty University, graduating magna cum laude, as well as a Master’s of Divinity degree from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a graduate of the Cross Examined Instructor’s Academy, a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and actively involved with the Reasonable Faith St. Louis Chapter. He has appeared on Trinity Channel’s Apologetics Marathon opposite Reason to Believe’s Ken Samples and was recently featured on Ratio Christi TV’s broadcast “Truth Matters” discussing the reliability of the New Testament. Currently, Clark writes and produces videos for his website http://www.exejesus.com and is beginning his second master’s degree with Concordia Seminary, in St. Louis, Mo.