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God’s and Joshua’s genocide?

January 25, 2013

My apologies for being quiet on the blog here, and my apologies in advance for likely having to be away again for an extended period. It’s another busy time for me in matters elsewhere.

Yesterday, nonetheless, a conversation began in the blogosphere that I feel BLT readers may be interested in. It’s the question of whether the Hebrew Bible makes God the perpetrator of genocide. It was Rachel Held Evans who pointed out the supposed problem with the book of Joshua as history to be ethically puzzled about. In a post that’s got people talking, she wrote:

I encountered this [emotionless evangelical Christian theology] recently after I spoke to a group of youth about doubt. In the presentation, I mentioned that upon reading the story of Joshua and the Battle of Jericho for myself, I realized it was a story about genocide, with God commanding Joshua to kill every man, woman, and child in the city for the sole purpose of acquiring land. I explained that this seemed contrary to what Jesus taught about loving our enemies.

Afterwards, a youth leader informed me that when it came to Joshua and Jericho, I had nothing to worry about…and had no business getting his students worried either.

“I don’t know why you had to bring up the Jericho thing,” he said.

“Doesn’t that story bother you?” I asked. “Don’t you find the slaughter of men, women, and children horrific?”

“Not if it’s in the Bible.”

“Genocide doesn’t bother you if it’s in the Bible?”


He crossed his arms and a self-satisfied smile spread across his face. He was proud of his detachment, I realized. He seemed to think it represented some kind of spiritual strength.

“But genocide always bothers me,” I finally said, “especially when it’s in the Bible. And I get the idea that maybe it’s supposed to. I get the idea that maybe God created me to be bothered by evil like that, even when it’s said to have been orchestrated by God.”

Held Evans actually started her blogpost by quoting John Piper from one of his own:

“It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.” 

– John Piper

She didn’t link to his post, but you can find it here.  With a cool head (but, Held Evans claims, with no heart), Piper reasons:

“My answer to that is that there is a point in history, a season in history, where God is the immediate king of a people, Israel, different than the way he is the king over the [non-Jewish, Christian] church, which is from all the peoples of Israel and does not have a political, ethnic dimension to it.”

Not long after Piper asked, and definitively answered, his question, blogger Dr. Claude Mariottini, Professor of Old Testament at Northern Baptist Seminary, encountered something similar.  Mariottini had been to SBL where the conference theme was actually the question, “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?”  In his own blogpost, Mariottini recaps a session he attended, and he discusses in the post some of the passages from Joshua, to conclude the following:

“These texts and many others clearly show that there was no genocide.”

The question for Held Evans and for Piper and for Mariottini is not at all whether the literature of these narratives of the Bible is really history or not.  The question is how they must reflect on God in real life and in actual genocide.  Held Evans is led to doubt.  Piper is led to make God different in the Old Testament for Israel than he now is in the New Testament for the church.  Mariottini’s SBL fellows want to know if Yahweh is a moral monster; while the blogger himself reads Joshua and other such biblical texts as descriptions of war, presumably of just war, not of genocide.

So what must we do with such scriptures?  Are they for faith vs doubt, heart vs head?  Are they for rationalizing and proving dispensational ethics?  Are they for understanding dimensions of human violence among peoples of God and of godlessness?  Are there other understandings and responses and questions that we would do well to ask?

11 Comments leave one →
  1. January 25, 2013 8:45 pm

    Peter Craigie has a little book on this: The Problem of War in the Old Testament. Unfortunately I can’t find my copy. But there is no ‘answer’. Mariotini is right in one sense since the commanded slaughter never took place. I don’t think about these things most of the time. The Japanese Tsunami bothers me more. It is not right for the judge of all the earth not to do right. Abraham would say as much. But humans do such things to each other – and these gods equally act in a not right fashion. It is I suspect equally not right to justify human or God’s actions – though Milton tried ‘to justify the ways of God to man’.

    Clearly Joshua can be read allegorically. We can learn to refuse the objectivization of the ‘enemy’. What we have got also to deal with is the real life torture that humans inflict on each other – including ‘evangelicals’ tied up in cultural self-justification.

    The problem of ‘God’ is using the term rightly in a sentence. What if we explore the music of the book of Joshua – would it teach us something? I don’t yet know – haven’t tried it. I do know that human beings can care for each other in beautiful ways – this too is inexplicable but lovely. I was at the receiving end of such care at the cancer centre yesterday. It was almost worth getting sick.

  2. January 27, 2013 4:09 pm

    Kurk – you get re thinking. – I decided to ponder this passage. So what is attributed to God in the Scripture? Is God anywhere called moral? The adjective sets up a duality. Moral is an insufficient adjective for the Holy One. This is in accordance with the theme of the One in Scripture – the Shema and Psalm 133, and Romans, and John 17.

    I discovered why I do not like adjectives. God is One; God is holy; God is light; God is love. That’s enough.

  3. January 27, 2013 6:01 pm

    Thank you for your comments. You’ve inspired me to blog more (though I hardly have the time, just now very much the inclination) – I’ve posted, “The Meanings of Joshua and of Jesus.”

    When you said, “Clearly Joshua can be read allegorically,” I say Yes. Neither you nor I nor many more of us would want not to read Joshua historically; but it’s what readers can take from it, the midrash if we must, that is of value.

    When you asked, “Is God anywhere called moral?” I also Wonder. Does it matter? Couldn’t God be moral without being called moral? How about Joshua? How about Jesus?

    Thanks again. Hope my longer post makes sense.

  4. January 28, 2013 1:43 pm

    Hmm, I commented on your later post; but maybe I should have put that comment here. In any case, here is a link.

  5. June 18, 2013 10:11 am

    When God decides to stop wicked people by killing them, this is justifiable genocide. But let’s be clear, death is not the end, there still is the judgement (see Revelation), where the dead are raised and then judged.

    Nevertheless, genocide was not God’s intent, and Israel did not commit genocide. There are many verses before the book of Joshua where God said, “Drive them out.” I think only one or two verses say to kill them all. The best way of reconciling these verses is to take them all together. Israel was to drive them out, and kill those who resisted.

    Isaiah 17:9 tells us the cities of the Canaanites were deserted. This was all in God’s plan. Think of him as a master strategist. What happened at Jericho (it was an earthquake) destroyed any hopes the Canaanites had of holding their cities. What happened at Ai destroyed any hopes of armed resistance. The intent was to convince Canaanites to run away. This is what Isaiah 17:9 says.

    Consider this:
    1. Only 3 major battles are mentioned: Ai (only one with a casualty figure), a battle vs the southern alliance, and a battle vs the northern alliance. (If genocide was the object, why weren’t there more battles or more casualty figures?)

    2. Joshua took some cities in only 1 or 2 days (Joshua 10:28, 32, 35).

    3. No miracles were mentioned. No siege tactics were described.

    4. Canaanite cities had 40ft walls.

    5. 37 men at Harlech Castle withstood the entire Welsh army in 1294AD.

    Joshua’s lightning seizure of cities was only possible if the Canaanite cities were severely undermanned. They were undermanned because God’s plan worked. After Jericho, cities were viewed as deathtraps. After Ai, no one in their right minds stayed and fought. Only the most fanatical Canaanite, the one with the most to lose, the one most responsible for their wicked culture stayed. These were the ones who perished to face God’s judgement. God spared everyone else who ran away.

    Thutmose III claimed over 350 Canaanite cities paid him tribute. Joshua 12:24 lists only 31 kings defeated. That’s just 10.3% (and Israel never took the plains/coastal areas). Assuming most of the population was rural, then at most Israel destroyed only 5% or less of the Canaanites. Hardly genocide.


  6. oron61 permalink
    September 16, 2019 1:23 am

    Another question is to consider: was the writing of Joshua, which could simply be the Hebrews’ equivalent to a toddler bragging on his Air Force Hero Dad (who was actually part of the ground crew) shooting down 20 MiGs, or if it was actually as written.
    Was this scripture God-breathed, God-inspired, or God-allowed? We protestants have no say in what part is what since our faith puts the cart before the horse. What does a Jewish Rabbi or an Orthodox Priest say on the matter? They know biblical context, which is just as important as its content, though infinitely more important than tradition.
    The argument I heard and am presenting (The Bible tells me so by Peter Enns) now is that Joshua is a product of its time, and understanding its time might light up scripture around it.

  7. October 5, 2019 2:43 pm

    Since you mention Enns, please do look at my post (mentioned to Bob MacDonald here in comments), “The Meanings of Joshua and of Jesus.”


  1. The Meanings of Joshua and of Jesus « BLT
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  3. Wonderland Spirituality and the Canaanite Genocide - Sansblogue
  4. Grant Green – Joshua Fit De Battle of Jericho « mostly music

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