At some point, everyone reading the Old Testament in the 21st century is confronted with a question: What do we do with the stories of Israel’s conquest of Canaan? From our contemporary perspective, these stories just seem wrong. They do not seem morally appropriate nor consistent with the account of God in the New Testament—is not God a God of love (1 John 4:8)? How do we come to a place of peace in light of God’s command for Israel to completely destroy every man, woman, and child in an entire geographic region? The questions raised by these accounts have proved troubling for many Christians and given ample fodder to the attacks of atheists such as Richard Dawkins. “The ethnic cleansing begun in the time of Moses,” writes Dawkins, “is brought to bloody fruition in the book of Joshua, a text remarkable for the bloodthirsty massacres it records and the xenophobic relish with which it does so.”1
As Christians, we cannot simply ignore these questions. To be a Christian is to be submitted to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, to love and follow Him. This means confessing and believing the Scriptures He has given us. We cannot ignore difficult questions raised by the Bible. Instead, we must seek to understand them with the humble posture of servants. We must consider seriously how to understand what is being said in light of our faith in Jesus Christ. But, before we do so, two preliminary points need to be made.
What Actually Happened in the Conquest Accounts?
Some Christians have responded to the troubling texts in the books of Exodus-Joshua by saying that things are not the way they appear. That is, they have said that the conquest was not as extensive as is claimed. Instead of total destruction, it is said that these texts only recount a thorough victory. “He left none remaining, but devoted to destruction all that breathed” (Josh 10:40) means something like “they achieved victory over their enemies and supressed hostility.”2 On the one side, some Christians claim that “total destruction” is “victory” and, on the other, atheists claim that the accounts are xenophobic, bloodthirsty, ethnic cleansings. If we read the texts carefully, however, we see that neither of these claims is true—the truth is somewhere in the middle.3
In Deuteronomy, God commands Israel to destroy completely the inhabitants of Canaan (read Deut 7:1-2). In Joshua, this command receives partial fulfillment (it is fully fulfilled in most areas, but several cities and regions are not conquered; read Josh 8:24-25, 10:40, 17:16-18; Judg 1:27-28). God’s command is for complete conquest, to put to death every man, woman, and child within the promised land and to destroy their belongings.
Yet against the atheistic depiction, we must observe that the Biblical authors are not perverse in their description of the conquest. They recount what happened faithfully and evaluate it positively—this is what God commands—but do not display morbid delight in the events.4 Nor is the conquest an ethnic matter. God ordains the conquest as judgment against sin (Gen 15:16) and several ethnic Canaanites join themselves to God’s people and are spared, including two of Jesus’s ancestors (Matt 1:5). Yet observing that the account is not told with perverse morbidity and that the conquest is not ethnically motivated is hardly a satisfying answer.
Is the conquest not still excessively brutal? How can the slaughter of men, women, and children be just? This gets us to the crux of the problem we encounter with these conquest accounts. They may not be ethnically motivated, they may be commanded by God, but according to our contemporary standards, killing non-combatant men, women, and children is never appropriate or right. On the one hand, we have the record that God commanded the conquest and the full destruction of the Canaanites and, on the other, we have our contemporary moral judgment that such behaviour is never justified. We must then ask, how can we make sense of the conquest?
How Do We Make Sense of the Conquest?5
At the heart of this question, of our struggle with the conquest is the question of man’s relation to God. This is something the Western world struggles with deeply. I want to offer three different perspectives by which we as Christians can submit to God and trust Him when confronted with a tension between God’s revealed will—the destruction of the Canaanites—and our moral sensibilities. We need to understand, first, what theologians have called the Creator-creature distinction; second, the universal sinfulness of man (total depravity); and third, the end for which Yahweh created the world—what is ultimately good. These are themselves huge topics, so all I hope to do is give a brief overview.
The Creator-Creature Distinction
What is man? Many today might define humanity in relationship to other creatures—we are “animals,” “mammals”—or by our function and capabilities—we are intelligent, can communicate complex ideas (have language), and live in relationships. However, no such description arrives at the biblical definition of humankind. The Bible defines humans by their relationship to God first, and only then to creation as an outworking of that first relationship. In the beginning, God formed man from the dust (Gen 2:7), therefore man is fundamentally a creature (cf. Rom 9:20). In comparison to God, humans are also miniscule in every way: “O LORD, what is man that you regard, him, or the son of man that you think of him? Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow” (Ps 144:3-4). We are fundamentally creatures, but we are creatures distinct from all others because God made us in His image and likeness (Gen 2:26-27); because we are created for relationship with Him, to be His people (e.g. Titus 2:14); and because God Himself became a human (John 1:5, 14-18; Gal 4:4-5). For this reason, humanity was given the job of representing God, of having dominion over the earth (Gen 1:26-27; Ps 8:3-9).
We, as creatures, relate to God as our Creator. That is, we are not His equals. We are not on the same level as Him: we do not possess the same rights, powers, or knowledge as God. If we are creatures, then all our thinking must be done as such. We must think about all things in the world as creations of God and must relate to God as those created by him. Being His creatures means that we are His—all the earth is His (Exod 19:5; Ps 24:1)—and so He is able to act towards His creations, us included, in ways that would be wrong for us creatures. He has rights we do not have. In addition, God has also entered into a covenant with us all, making us His servants, or His subjects. As our covenant Lord—our King—and our Creator, He has authority over us. As the Creator, He also has knowledge we do not have; this means that, as a trustworthy witness (He is true, and His words are truth; 2 Sam 7:28, John 17:17), we must trust Him over against our own finite judgments.
This “Creator-creature distinction,” therefore, has profound implications for our life and thinking. As it regards the question we are asking—the justness of the conquest—Paul would caution us against thinking too much of ourselves: “who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay?” (Rom 9:20-21). Furthermore, because God knows all things and is trustworthy, we can trust Him when He says that His commands such as the conquest are compatible with His character as a righteous, good, and loving God—even if we do not quite see how. Finally, we must acknowledge that God has rights no man has. It is well within God’s powers as God to take human life; therefore, what is wrong on human imitative, such as killing other humans (Gen 9:5-6, Exod 20:1), is not wrong for God or for humans when commanded by God to do so (e.g. Deut 7:1-2, 21:22-23, Rom 13:1-4).
The Universal Sinfulness of Man (Total Depravity)
God has the right to take human life, but when He does so we call it “judgment.” God acts in judgment when He acts to hold men and women accountable for their sins. This is important, for the Bible teaches that all humans are guilty of sin. Ultimately, we are identified with Adam under the covenant he transgressed and so are guilty with him of sin (Rom 5:12-21, 1 Cor 15:21-22). But we are all also guilty of continuing to sin in our thoughts and actions: Scripture tells us that “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth”; “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and all the unrighteousness of men”; “none is righteous, no, not one”; “no one does good, not even one”; “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Gen 8:21; Rom 1:18, 3:10, 12, 23). A continual theme throughout the Bible is that humans hate God so much that it takes a supernatural work of God in the heart for a person to even believe (Deut 30:6; John 6:44; Rom 8:7-8).
If all humans are sinful, then it follows that we are all deserving of judgment—of God’s wrath! God has the right, in fact the obligation, to take our lives as punishment for our rebellion against Him. We must then ask, “why has He not?” In Romans 3:25, Paul writes that God has displayed great patience passing over former sins—reserving judgment for a later day—until the incarnation of Jesus. God has displayed mercy towards sinners by not giving them the wrath they deserve. Instead, He poured it out upon Jesus on behalf of all who would believe in Him and will wait until the final judgment to render judgment on all not found in the book of life (Rev 13:8; 20:11-15).
Occasionally though, God brings that future judgment into the present. He acts now in judgment, anticipating the final day of judgment. The very fact that we have breath is, therefore, an act of God’s mercy. It is only by His patient grace and mercy that we have not already died for our sins! The judgment God brought upon the Canaanites would be the norm if it was not for this mercy (Luke 13:1-5).
How does this shape the way we think of the conquest? We can see that all humans are deserving of God’s judgment, the Canaanites no more or less so than the rest of us. Because they are guilty and God is the judge of the guilty, the Canaanites deserved the judgment they received. Because God is free to use whatever tool He may to bring His judgment, the Israelites were in the right to act in obedience and function as tools of judgment. We should not, therefore, be shocked by the judgement God brought upon Canaan; instead we should be shocked that we do not likewise face judgment. If all humanity is deserving of judgment, such as that the Canaanites received, it is only by an act of God’s mercy that we do not all face it now (2 Pet 3:9, Luke 13:1-5).
The End for Which God Created the World
This then brings us to our last consideration, what is “good.” That is, by what standard do we judge the conquest to be good or bad, right or wrong? What basis does Dawkin’s have for his moral outrage towards the conquest? Any moral judgment we make (e.g. stealing is wrong!) assumes a standard of reference: a crime in the Canadian legal system is judged by the various laws governing the land.6 What standard do we use to judge God’s actions? Do we use the laws of America, of Canada—maybe Saudi-Arabia? Though the laws of these nations have commonalities, they are different in significant ways: somethings are considered wrong in one place but right in another. The penalties for wrong doing are also different. If we were to use one over the other, how would we determine which one is right? To do so we need a higher standard.
What about God? If He is the Creator and Scripture testifies that we have no right to judge our Maker, then the standard by which His actions are measured must not be part of creation. If we say that there is something by which we can judge God’s actions, that “something” is itself god. it would be more powerful than God, able to judge Him. This is of course ridiculous. According to the Bible and by very definition, God is the highest being. Nothing is above Him. Therefore, God Himself must be the standard of right and wrong. Because our God is faithful—always consistent in what He says and does—He is His own standard of right and wrong, and His character becomes our standard of right and wrong. That is, God does not do something good because it is good; He does something good because He is good. Everything He does is good, but that does not lead to the chaos—rape or murder being wrong one day and right another—for God is consistent or faithful. What is good to Him one day is good to Him every day. He is unchanging, the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 13:8). Therefore, if God is the standard of right and wrong, we have no right to accuse Him of wrong doing, for He is incapable of doing wrong.
This last point necessitates a profound shift in our thinking. If God is the ultimate standard of right and wrong—of what is good—and He is independent of creation (He is the Creator) and existed before humanity, then good and bad have as their ultimate reference point God and not humanity. What is good is not necessarily what is good for man, but what is good for God. This is a terrifying thought at first, for it is deeply unsettling and offensive to the way we usually think. Yet, “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” (Rom 9:21). Many theologians have concluded from studying the entire Bible that the end for which God created everything, what is ultimately good, is His glory—the display of His character (e.g. Exod 9:16).
Therefore, what is good is what gives God glory. Yet this is not at the expense of humanity, in fact we are created by God to find our greatest joy and happiness in the enjoyment of Him (e.g. Pss 16, 84). God’s pursuit of His own glory meshes beautifully with His creation of man: for God to pursue His own glory is to bring the greatest joy and fulfillment to His human creations.7
The point is this: no human, no being or thing in the universe, has the authority to look at God’s actions and pronounce them right or wrong. If anyone does so, he or she is claiming to be god, to be higher than and equipped to pronounce judgment over God. This shows us that the whole question of the moral rightness of the conquest gets off to a false start. If morality exists—if something can be right or wrong—then God is the standard of right and wrong. As an act of God, the conquest is by definition right. Yet that does not sit easy for most of us. So we need to take it a step farther. We can trust that this is right and good even when we do not understand it because the God who pronounced this judgment is the same God who acted through Jesus Christ to reconcile the world to Himself. This is the same God that has shown Himself unfailingly good in His acts to save and redeem sinful human beings. Moreover, the very fact that this happened to the Canaanites and not to us reveals a profound truth.
According to the Bible, we all deserve the judgment Canaan received, yet none of us have felt it yet. Why? Because God has acted with profound patience, reserving judgment for the final day in order that every human would have a chance to repent. If we believe in Jesus Christ for salvation, we are delivered from the wrath of God which the Canaanites experienced. If we do not, the same judgment awaits our sins. One way or another, God’s justice will be demonstrated, and it is my prayer that we would cast ourselves on the mercy of God displayed on the cross of Christ and find reconciliation and peace through faith In His accomplished work.
1 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2008), 247.
2 Cf. Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011); Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan, Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014); Matthew Flannagan, “Did God Command the Genocide of the Canaanites?,” in Come Let Us Reason: New Essays In Christian Apologetics, ed. Paul Copan and William Lane Craig (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2012); K. Lawson Younger, Ancient Conquest Accounts, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement 98 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990).
3 I have addressed the more technical aspects of the argument that this text is hyperbolic—not as it appears—in a paper available on Teleioteti.ca. Not A Single Survivor, https://teleioteti.ca/resources/papers/.
4Someone may cite the hanging of corpses on trees as evidence of delight in carnage (Josh 10:26-27), yet this has a symbolic function that is easily explained. From the Biblical context, we can suggest that hanging the defeated kings demonstrates Israel’s victory to themselves and their enemies, demonstrates the victory of the God of Israel over the nations and false gods that oppose Him, and evidences the curse of God that lay upon these nations (Deut 21:22-23). As instructed in the Law, Israel does not leave the bodies hanging indefinitely but proceeds to bury them in a cave after the proscribed time (Deut 21:22-23).
5What follows is adapted from pgs 80-85 of my book, Believe the Unbelievable: A Study in Habakkuk (Teleioteti, 2018).
6 Considering a different sphere, height is measured in centimeters; the standard of reference is some sort of ruler.
7This is unpacked at great length in John Piper’s book, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist.
Photo: John Martin (British, 1789 – 1854), Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon, 1816, oil on canvas, Paul Mellon Fund 2004.64.1.