Troubling Bible Passages 2: Genocide

“Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:23-25)

In Part One of this series on Troubling Bible Passages, we looked at the Bible’s teaching about Slavery and the common misconceptions about it. For Part Two, we will ponder the question “Why doesn’t God do anything about the evil in the world?”

This is a question posed by many, believers and unbelievers alike. What they often fail to realize is that such action requires that God take action against those responsible for this same evil. Unfortunately, when He does this, many of these same people still attempt to accuse Him of acting unjustly.

For this article we will be examining such a time. I speak, of course, of the Israelite invasion of Canaan in which God directly orders His people to utterly destroy men, women and children alike:

  • When the Lord your God brings you into the land where you are entering to possess it, and clears away many nations before you…you shall utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them and show no favor to them. Furthermore, you shall not intermarry with them…. For they will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you and He will quickly destroy you. But thus you shall do to them: You shall tear down their altars, and smash their sacred pillars, and hew down their Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire. (Deut. 7:1-5).
  • Only in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 20.16-18).

How do we reconcile events like this with our understanding of God’s love and mercy?

First of all, we must remember that large scale judgements were not unprecedented in the Bible. In fact, God had previously judged and destroyed the entire earth except for Noah and his family (Genesis 6-9). The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were judged for rampant sexual sin and cruelty (Genesis 19:1-29; Ezekiel 16:49-50). It is noteworthy that Jesus, the living embodiment of God’s love and mercy, referred back to both of these events (Luke 17:26–29).

One thing that should be obvious from the outset is that, contrary to the claims of some, the Bible does NOT teach pacifism. There are times when war is specifically ordained by God. Would even the most staunch pacifist deny that stopping Adolf Hitler was a noble endeavor? Indeed, this should be seen as a tremendous act of mercy for the victims of these atrocities. As we shall see, the events we are examining in this article show some definite parallels. First, we will look at some background.

The Canaanites were polytheistic in their religion. They served such gods as:

  • Ashtoreth: Goddess of fertility (1 Kings 11:5)
  • Molech: The name of a pagan deity to whom child sacrifices were made (2 Kings 23:10)
  • Chemosh: The deity of the Moabites (1 Kings 11:7)
  • Baal: Reigning “king of the gods,” who were believed to control heaven and earth and fertility

‭‭I want to talk for a moment about these two principal gods: Baal, who is associated with power and Ashtoreth, who is associated with sensuality. Practically all sin can be traced back to these two things: The lust for power and control or the lust for sensual pleasure. As the New Testament summarizes it, the lust of the flesh the lust of the eyes and the pride of life (1 John 2:16 ). Those were the tactics Satan used against Adam and Eve (Genesis 3) and the ones he unsuccessfully tried to use against Jesus (Matthew 4:1-11). Remember this: All sin is ultimately idolatry.

You might notice throughout the Old Testament when God brings judgement on a nation, He does not usually mention a list of specific sins (although it is certainly understood there were plenty of them). Rather, the main sin God emphasized was that they went after false gods. The other sins were simply a consequence of that.

This is why, contrary to the claims of Bible critics, the conquest of Canaan was neither “genocide” nor “ethnic cleansing.” Rather, it was a righteous act of judgement by a holy God which serves as a solemn warning to us today. Here are just a few of the many sins the Canaanites were guilty of:

  • Human sacrifice, including small children – Leviticus 18:21; 20:2; Deuteronomy 12:31; 18:10; 2 Kings 16:3; Psalm 106:38
  • Sexual immorality–Genesis 34:2; Exodus 22:19; Leviticus 18:6-23; 20:13-16; 1 Kings 14:24; 1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:9-10
  • Occult practices– Deuteronomy 18:10-14
  • Cruelty and selfishness– Deuteronomy 25:17-19

Nonetheless, God had still been extending mercy to the inhabitants of this land during this time. Genesis 15:13 tells us how God had promised Abraham the land of Canaan for his descendants, yet the “iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full” (Genesis 15:16). In other words, God was still dealing with the people who were currently living in that land. Furthermore, God had been leaving memorials that signified that He was the true God in numerous places (Genesis 13:18; 28:18). Just like today, they were “without excuse” (Romans 1:20).

Archeological discoveries further show how wicked these people were. Clay jars have been dug up which contained skeletal remains of infants that had been sacrificed in their rituals. So we can see why God would bring His judgement on them especially after He had given them 400 years to repent of their sins. Even when the Israelites were about to take the Land, God warned them what would happen if they too followed this path:

Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. (Leviticus‬ ‭18:24‭-‬25‬ ‭ESV‬‬)

Even after the invasion began, the door of mercy remained open as we saw people embrace the true God and be spared. Just like God spared Noah (Hebrews 11:7) and Lot (2 Peter 2:7), He also showed His grace to Rahab the prostitute (Joshua 2:9) as well as to the Gibeonites (Joshua 11:19).

The conquest of Canaan involved a total of 13 battles, which are chronicled in Joshua chapters 6-11. We further read that Joshua was completely successful in his endeavors:

Thus Joshua struck all the land, the hill country and the Negev and the lowland and the slopes and all their kings. He left no survivor, but he utterly destroyed all who breathed, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded…. He left nothing undone of all that the Lord had commanded Moses. (Joshua 10:40, 11:15).

So if we understand these actions in a, wooden, literal sense, that would mean that every single Canaanite was wiped off the face of the earth. However, we know that was not the case because Canaanites still existed even after Joshua died (Joshua 23:12-13, Judges 1:21, 27-28). In fact, centuries later Jesus would have a Canaanite named Simon as one of His disciples (Matthew 10:4).

So is this a contradiction? No, it is simply a use of figurative language. First, it is an example of hyperbole, or exaggeration to emphasize a point, such as describing sports teams “slaughtering” their opponents. It would also be an example of a synecdoche, which is to refer to a part of a group as representative of the whole. For example, saying “Kansas City won the Superbowl” would be understood to be referring to Kansas City’s football team, not the entire population of Kansas City. This is an important distinction. Theologian Paul Copan observes:

The sweeping words like “all,” “young and old,” and “man and woman,” …are stock expressions for totality — even if women and children were not present…This stereotypical ancient Near East language of “all” people describes attacks on what turn out to be military forts or garrisons containing combatants — not a general population that includes women and children. ¹

Regardless, these are truths we must handle with a very sober mind. God’s wrath is just as much a part of His nature as His love. Jesus saw no conflict between the love of God and the reality of a literal, eternal Hell for those who reject it. In fact, He talked more about Hell than He did about Heaven. Does that surprise you? The problem is that we westerners have a very shallow, “warm and fuzzy” understanding of the word “love” and when we try to superimpose it onto a holy God it simply does not fit.

So were these people worthy of death? Yes, as we all are. The question is not “Why did God bring judgement on this nation?” Rather, it is “Why has God not yet brought this type of judgement on our nation when we are guilty of many of the same things?” Of course, the answer is the same: His love and mercy. He is giving us, both individually and nationally, the opportunity to turn away from our sin and return to Him. Nonetheless, that door will also close one day and the result will be:

…in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 2 Thessalonians‬ ‭1:8‭-‬9‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Just like those in the days of Joshua, the door of God’s mercy remains open. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, the debt of our sin and rebellion is paid in full for all those who will receive it. If you have not yet walked through it, why not today?

Keep It Real,



1. Copan, Paul. How Could God Command Killing the Canaanites? Enrichment Journal, Fall, 2010.







#jameshboyd #keepitreal #yourfriendjames

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