Ai is taken by Joshua, depicted by James Tissot[^tissot-ai]

Ancient Israel: Morality of the Conquest of Canaan | Berean Archive


This is a summary of key points from the rest of this article.

In the Old Testament are the military campaigns of Israel inconsistent with being led by a just and loving God, and inconsistent with his own commands?  This article makes the case for consistency and justness.

  1. The nations of Canaan were evil, harming others, and needed to be stopped. They had carried out incest with children/grandchildren and sacrificed their children alive in raging fires. (Lev 18:6-30, Deut 12:31, Deut 18:9-10, Psalm 106:35, 37-38, 2 Chron 28:3)  They launched unprovoked attacks on Israel (Ex 17:8-9, Num 21:1, Num 21:2-23, 33).  The nation of Amalek " struck down all who lagged behind you." (Deut 25:18)
  2. Some warfare language may have been rhetorical.  There are four reasons to think warfare language such as "completely destroy" (Hebrew תחרימו, literally "ban") in verses like Deut 20:17 is rhetorical.  The phrase likely meant a destruction of armed soldiers, buildings, and religious icons while driving out the people themselves.
    1. The "utterly destroyed" populations still exist afterward.  We see phrases like "left no one remaining" and "utterly destroyed all who breathed" (Joshua 10:40).  But in Joshua 23:12-13 the author has no problem telling us these people still remained: "if you turn back, and join the survivors of these nations left here among you...  the Lord your God will not continue to drive out these nations before you."  In 1 Sam 15:3-4 Israel was to "attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey."  In 15:8 Saul "utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword" and Agag himself was killed in 15:33.  But later in 1 Sam 27:8-9 once again they left "neither man nor woman alive".  Yet hundreds of years later in Esther 3:1 we're told Haman was an Agagite, a descendant of the Amalekite king Agag.
    2. Most verses on the subject speak of "driving out" and "dispossessing" the land rather than language suggestive of killing everyone.  E.g. Num 33:52-53, "you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, destroy all their figured stones, destroy all their cast images, and demolish all their high places. You shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess."  The same pattern is seen in Lev 18:25, Num 23:31-32, Deut 6:19, 9:4, 18:12, Joshua 3:10, and 23:9.
    3. Jer 4:29 suggests inhabitants fled before armies arrived:  "At the noise of horseman and archer every town takes to flight; they enter thickets; they climb among rocks; all the towns are forsaken."
    4. Deut 7:22 specifically says that Israel was forbidden to "you will not be able to make a quick end of them" and instead they would be expelled "little by little".
    5. Jewish to Christian convert Stephen likewise interpreted this to mean his ancestors "dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our ancestors." (Acts 7:45)
    So either some of these verses contradict one another, or the conquest language was rhetorical.  Semitic language professor and NIV, NAB, and ESV bible translator Richard Hess argues that the Hebrew here is "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"[^hess-2008c] and "need not require that there really were children, senior citizens, or women there who were put to death" even when followed by the terms "men and women" (Joshua 8:25) or "young and old"[^hess-2009] (Joshua 8:25). 
  3. Many of the "cities" were likely military outposts.  For example with Jericho and Ai, Richard Hess argues there are no references to noncombatants (apart from Rahab), no archaeological evidence of non-military use, the term melek (Hebrew מלכי)  for "king" of the cities often meant mean a military leader in Canaan (e.g. in Joshua 2:2), they were located at defensive positions, and Jericho and Ai weren't described as large cities as Gibeon and Hazor explicitly were.
  4. A just God requires wrath.  It's not possible to have a God who is just but not wrathful--otherwise wrongdoers continue unabated.

These four points are outlined in greater detail in four corresponding sections below, followed by a review of the more "troublesome" passages with conquest language.

Perspectives of Critics

Christopher Hitchens
Journalist and atheist

One mutters a few sympathetic words for the forgotten and obliterated Hivitites, Canaanites, and Hittites, also presumably part of the Lord's original creation, who are to be pitilessly driven out of their homes to make room for the ungrateful and mutinous children of Israel.[^hitchens-2008]

Richard Dawkins

The book of Numbers tells how God incited Moses to attack the Midianites. His army made short work of slaying all the men, and they burned all the Midianite cities, but they didn't kill the women and children. This merciful restraint by his soldiers infuriated Moses, and he gave orders that all the boy children should be killed, and all the women who were not virgins. "But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves" (Numbers 31: 18). No, Moses was not a great role model for modern moralists.[^dawkins-2006]

the invasion of the Promised Land in general, is morally indistinguishable from Hitler's invasion of Poland, or Saddam Hussein's massacres of the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs.[^dawkins-2006b]

Randal Rauser
Christian theologian.  Rauser is not a critic of Christianity, but as a Christian he argues "if Yahweh is God then Yahweh did not command the Canaanite genocide" and it is something "which everybody knows cannot be true."

Christians have often treated the Old Testament like [historian Samual Eliot] Morison treated Columbus. That is, they acknowledge the violent acts of Yahweh and the Israelites, but they do so with “a certain infectious calm,” as if the stories did not offend our deepest moral sensibilities. Not surprisingly, such behavior from “family values” Christians strikes the new atheists as positively perverse, and they have not shied away from making their incredulity known... Whatever one thinks of the new atheists, surely they have a point: how does one explain these horrors?[^rauser-2009]

When they are not busy defending moral atrocities in the Old Testament, virtually every Christian will express an unqualified and absolute condemnation of horrors like the vicious execution of children in war.[^rauser-2009]

Canaanite children would still scream, beg for mercy, cry, and bleed just like Israelite children... Imagine the psychological agony of an Israelite soldier divinely commanded to hack up a Canaanite toddler one day only to bounce his Israelite toddler on his knee the next.[^rauser-2009]

The Guilt of the Canaanites

Canaanite Immorality

In Gen 18:23-32, before God destroyed Sodom, he agreed he would spare the city if there were even ten innocent people within its walls, but not even ten could be found. This may imply Canaan was worse, and in several instances we're told about their immorality:

  1. The Amalekites "struck down all who lagged behind you" on Israel's migration out of Egypt. (Deut 25:18)
  2. Lev 18:24-30 informs us the inhabitants of Canaan "have defiled themselves" with incest of immediate family including children and grandchildren (verse 6-18), adultery (v20), human child sacrifice to the Amorite God Molech (v21), and bestiality (v23).
  3. Deut 12:31, "They [nations of Canaan] would even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods"
  4. Deut 18:9-10, "you must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations.  No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire."
  5. Psalm 106:35, 37-38, "they [Israel] mingled with the nations and learned to do as they did... They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons;  they poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan"
  6. Deut 9:4, "because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is dispossessing them before you."  (this verse does not list specific immorality)
  7. 2 Chron 28:3 explains that King Ahaz sacrificed his children by fire "according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel."
  8. Gen 15:16, "the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete."  This was about 400 years prior to the conquest of Canaan, indicating they had been committing evil for a long time.

Oxford Old Testament historian John Day likewise attests:

We have independent evidence that child sacrifice was practiced in the Canaanite (Carthaginian and Phoenician) world from many classical sources, Punic inscriptions and archaeological evidence, as well as Egyptian depictions of the ritual occurring in Syria-Palestine, and from a recently discovered Phoenician inscription in Turkey. There is therefore no reason to doubt the biblical testimony to Canaanite child sacrifice.[^day-2002]

Unprovoked Attacks on Israel

The nations of Canaan attacked Israel first:

  1. The Amalekites attached Israel (Ex 17:8-9):  "Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim.  Moses said to Joshua, 'Choose some men for us and go out, fight with Amalek.'”  This was the first time the nation of Amalek is mentioned in the bible, indicating an unprovoked attack.
  2. So did king Arad of Canaan (Num 21:1):  "When the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who lived in the Negeb, heard that Israel was coming by the way of Atharim, he fought against Israel and took some of them captive."
  3. And King Sihon of the Amorites (Num 21:21-23):  "Israel sent messengers to King Sihon of the Amorites, saying, 'Let me pass through your land; we will not turn aside into field or vineyard; we will not drink the water of any well; we will go by the King’s Highway until we have passed through your territory.'  But Sihon would not allow Israel to pass through his territory. Sihon gathered all his people together, and went out against Israel to the wilderness; he came to Jahaz, and fought against Israel."
  4. As well as King Og of Bashan, an Amorite (Num 21:33):  "King Og of Bashan came out against them, he and all his people, to battle at Edrei."
  5. The Moabites and Midianites hired Balaam to pronounce a curse on Israel in hopes "to defeat them and drive them from the land" (Num 22:6).  When that didn't work, Balaam sent the Moabite women to seduce the Israelite men so they would violate the moral covenant they had entered with God. (Num 25:1, 31:16)

Repentance Preferred over Death

Despite the Canaanite's immorality, elsewhere God indicates he prefers repentance to death:

  1. Ezekiel 18:31-32, "Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel?  For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live."
  2. Ezekiel 33:11, "As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live"

Some conquest language was likely rhetorical

Meaning of the Hebrew Word "ban"

The word translated as "destroy" or "annihilate" is Hebrew תחרימו (ban).  Some scholars argue that the use of this word in ancient Israel's conquest language is non-literal.  Richard Hess is a professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages and worked on the translation committees for the NIV, NAB, and ESV.  He states:

The above-mentioned herem ‘ban’ appears in Deut 20:10-18 as a guideline for Israel’s engagement with enemies on the territory that God had given to the nation. This “ban” required the total destruction of all warriors in the battle and (in some way) the consecration to Yahweh of everything that was captured. Niditch goes to some length to portray this activity as initially related to a sacrifice to God, part of a larger picture of human sacrifice.  However, she writes that this changed: “The dominant voice in the Hebrew Bible treats the ban not as sacrifice in exchange for victory but as just and deserved punishment for idolaters, sinners, and those who lead Israel astray or commit direct injustice against Israel.”[^hess-2008]

And that Hebrew תחרימו (ban):

means of describing something by detailing a "checklist" of what it could include (but not necessarily must include in every case). So the terms (and these are the only ones in Joshua) ‘men and women' (6:21; 8:25) and "young and old" (6:21) need not require that there really were children, senior citizens, or women there who were put to death.[^hess-2009]

Hess also comments specifically on Joshua 6:21 "They annihilated with the sword... men and women, young and old:"

This text appears to include women, children, and the aged in this mass destruction. However, is this really the case? The actual expression is translated, “men and women,” literally, “from man (and) unto woman... Except for Saul’s extermination of the inhabitants of Nob in 1 Sam 22:19, where children are specifically mentioned (unlike the texts about Jericho, Ai, and elsewhere), all other appearances of the phrase precede or follow the Hebrew kol “all, everyone.” Thus, the phrase appears 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. It is synonymous with “all, everyone.”  If Jericho was a fort, then the “all” who were slain in the Israelite attack would have been warriors.[^hess-2008c]

Theologian Christopher J. H. Wright makes the same argument:

We do need to allow for the exaggerated language of warfare.  Israel, like other nations of the ancient Near East whose documents we posses, had a rhetoric of war that often exceeded reality on the ground.  Even in the Old Testament itself this phenomenon is recognized and accepted.  It is well known, for example, that the book of Joshua describes the conquest in rhetorically total terms--all the land is captured, all the kings are defeated, all the people without survivors are destroyed (e.g. Josh 10:40-42; 11:16-20).  Yet the book of Judges (whose final editor must have been aware of these accounts in Joshua) sees no contradiction in telling us that the process of subduing the inhabitants of the land was far from completed and went on for some considerable time.  So even in the Old Testament itself, rhetorical generalization is recognized for what it is.  We need, therefore, in reading some of the more graphic descriptions, either of what was commanded to be done, or recorded as accomplished, to allow for this rhetorical element.  This is not to accuse the biblical writers of falsehood, but to recognize the literary conventions of writing about warfare.[^wright-2004]

Our own English phrase "wipe the floor with them" doesn't mean to literally use people as mops.  Should a non-native English speaker demand of us that a "baker's dozen" must be literally twelve?

It may be ethnocentric to require the same in the conquest narratives, and the following sections show how the positions of Hess and Wright find support in the text itself.

Driving Out

The conquest narratives describe how people of the Canaanite nations were completely destroyed, but also how they were forced to flee and live elsewhere. It's obviously not possible for a people group to be killed and also forced to move, which requires the annihilation language to be non-literal.  Some examples:

  1. Exodus 23:28-21:  "I will send the pestilence in front of 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, or the land would become desolate... Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land... I will hand over to you the inhabitants of the land, and you shall drive them out before you."
  2. Exodus 33:2:  "I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites."
  3. Exodus 34:11:  I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites."
  4. Leviticus 18:24 says the nations will be driven out: "Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, for by all these practices the nations I am casting out before you have defiled themselves."
  5. Numbers 21:32-32 talks of dispossession: "Israel settled in the land of the Amorites. Moses sent to spy out Jazer; and they captured its villages, and dispossessed the Amorites who were there."
  6. In Numbers 33:51-53 God told Moses: "When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan,  you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, destroy all their figured stones, destroy all their cast images, and demolish all their high places.  You shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess."
  7. Deut 6:18-19: "Do what is right... so that you may go in and occupy the good land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give you, thrusting out all your enemies from before you, as the Lord has promised."  Many other translations use "drive out."
  8. Deut 7:2 says to "utterly destroy" the seven nations of Canaan, and most other translations say to utterly or completely destroy them.  But verse 5 gives more detail as to what this means:  "break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire."
  9. Deut 7:22 specifically says that Israel was forbidden to "make a quick end of them" and instead they would be expelled "little by little."
  10. Deut 9:4 tells us the goal was to dispossess:  "it is rather because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is dispossessing them before you."
  11. Deut 11:23: "the Lord will drive out all these nations before you"
  12. Deut 18:12, "whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord; it is because of such abhorrent practices that the Lord your God is driving them out before you."
  13. In Joshua 3:10, Joshua says "God who without fail will drive out from before you" the seven nations of Canaan.
  14. Joshua 23:9, "the Lord has driven out before you great and strong nations; and as for you, no one has been able to withstand you to this day.  One of you puts to flight a thousand"
  15. 1 Kings 21:26 speaks of "the Amorites... the Lord drove out before the Israelites."
  16. Jewish to Christian convert Stephen likewise interpreted that Joshua "dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our ancestors." (Acts 7:45)

These are same nations that previously were "utterly destroyed" (Deut 7:2) but their inhabitants still existed to be driven out.

In support, Jeremiah 4:29 suggests the inhabitants ancient near east cities fled when armies approached: "At the noise of horseman and archer every town takes to flight; they enter thickets; they climb among rocks; all the towns are forsaken, and no one lives in them."

Other Ancient Rhetoric

Egyptian Pharoah Rameses III used similar language:

"I slew the Denyon in their islands, while the Tjekker and Philistines were made ashes. The Sherden and the Washesh of the sea were made non-existent, captured all together and brought on captivity to Egypt like the sands of the shore."[^barako-2013]

If the Sherden and the Washesh were litereally made "nonexistent" they couldn't then be taken to Egypt in captivity.

Likewise Jesus used overstatement in Luke 14:26, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple."

Do not interact with those who were "destroyed"

If the Canaanites were completely destroyed, there would be no need for subsequent commands forbidding specific types of interactions with them:

Deut 12:29-31, "When the Lord your God has cut off before you the nations whom you are about to enter to dispossess them, when you have dispossessed them and live in their land, take care that you are not snared into imitating them, after they have been destroyed before you...  They would even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods."

Either the author of Deuteronomy was blind even to contradictions within a single sentence, or commands for total destruction were understood rhetorically.

Annihilation is Contradictory

Several times after a people group is "completely destroyed", "put to the sword", and even every "man, woman, child, infant" put to death, they show up again later (surprise!) seemingly unaware that they no longer exist.  If we interpreted this destruction literally, it creates immediate contradictions in the text.  Thus a non-literal interpretation makes sense:

  1. Judges 1:8, "the people of Judah fought against Jerusalem and took it. They put it to the sword and set the city on fire.", but verse 21 says that afterward some were still living there: "The Benjaminites did not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem; so the Jebusites have lived in Jerusalem among the Benjaminites to this day." 
  2. Joshua 23:12-13: "if you turn back, and join the survivors of these nations left here among you, and intermarry with them, so that you marry their women and they yours, know assuredly that the Lord your God will not continue to drive out these nations before you; but they shall be a snare and a trap for you..."
  3. In 1 Sam 15:2-4 we read, "‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt.  Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey."  In 15:8 we read that Saul "utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword" and in 15:33 "Samuel hewed Agag in pieces."  However the Amalekites show up again later in 1 Sam 27:8 and King David leaves "neither man nor woman alive."  But they're alive again in 30:1-18, in 1 Chron 4:43 during the reign of Hezekiah, and even 500 years later in Esther 3:1 (Haman was an Agagite, a descendant of the Amalekite king Agag). This means Agag's people were not literally "utterly destroyed" and the language must be non-literal.

Finally, consider that the Canaanites were condemned for killing their children by fire for sacrifices. (Lev 18:24-30, Deut 12:31, Deut 18:9-10, 2 Chron 28:3)  It would be inconsistent if Israel was then commanded to prevent and avenge child sacrifice by killing the children who were to be sacrificed.


In some cases enemies were assimilated into Israel.

  1. More distant cities were to be given an option for surrender and assimilation.  Deut 20:10-11, "When you draw near to a town to fight against it, offer it terms of peace. If it accepts your terms of peace and surrenders to you, then all the people in it shall serve you at forced labor."  If they refused, only the men were to be killed. (verse 14)
  2. Joshua 6:17 tells us that Rahab was given a choice to join Israel even though her city was marked for destruction: "The city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall live because she hid the messengers we sent."
  3. Leviticus 19:34 goes even further to suggest how instances of integration should proceed: "the alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself."
  4. Although written perhaps 400 years later, Zechariah 9:6-7 also describes an instance of foreigners being integrated into Israel: "a mongrel people shall settle in Ashdod, and I will make an end of the pride of Philistia.  I will take away its blood from its mouth, and its abominations from between its teeth; it too shall be a remnant for our God; it shall be like a clan in Judah."

Dishonest Embellishment or Historical Revisionism?

Was conquest language embellishment in order to impress readers?  This is unlikely, considering how much the same text records Israel failing miserably and God no longer supporting them due to their own morality.  Any historical revisionist with this goal would surely also remove embarrassing verses like Numbers 14:43:

For the Amalekites and the Canaanites are there before you, and you will fall by the sword. Because you have turned away from the Lord, the Lord will not be with you.

Or Jeremiah 25:9 where the "utterly destroy" language was used against Israel itself:

I will utterly destroy them [Israel], and make them an object of horror and of hissing, and an everlasting disgrace.

Yet in verse 11 we see the people themselves are not destroyed but will "serve the king of Babylon seventy years." And not all were even taken: "Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard left in the land of Judah some of the poor people who owned nothing, and gave them vineyards and fields at the same time." (Jer 39:10)

Most conquered cities were likely military outposts

In the book of Joshua, the destruction of Jericho is described in more detail than any other city, so it is fruitful to examine it in detail.  Richard Hess provides several lines of evidence that most cities ordered to be destroyed were likely military bases rather than populated cities:

Jericho and Ai, the initial two sites of conquest, instead of being towns or cities, may have been military forts guarding the routes from the Jordan Valley up to population centers in the hill country such as Bethel and Jerusalem. Evidence for this conclusion includes:

  1. the complete absence of references to specific noncombatants such as women and children with the exception of Rahab and her family, who are not killed;
  2. the lack of evidence for settlement at Jericho and Ai during the time of Israel’s emergence in Canaan, suggesting that these were not cities but military forts;
  3. the use of the term melek ‘king’ [Joshua 2:2, Hebrew מלכי] to mean a military leader in Canaan at this time;
  4. the lack of indication in the biblical text that these were large cities (unlike Gibeon and Hazor, which are thus described); and
  5. the meaning of the name Ai ‘ruin’, which suggests the reuse of earlier fortifications to serve as a temporary fort instead of a more permanent site of habitation.

The other two major battles, which were against the northern and southern coalitions, are represented in the biblical text as defensive wars (Joshua 10–11).  In both cases, they begin as the coalitions assemble against Israel or its ally and therefore force the people of God into battle (Josh 10:3–5, 11:1–5). Note, furthermore, that the eight or more references to complete destruction of the cities represented by these coalitions (in which nothing was left alive) could plausibly be stereotypical descriptions for the purpose of demonstrating obedience to the command to drive out the Canaanites (Josh 10:28, 30, 32, 35, 37, 39; 11:11, 14).  It is possible that, after the defeat of the army, the populations fled rather than remaining in a relatively defenseless city. Furthermore, we know that many of these “cities” were used primarily for government buildings, and the common people lived in the surrounding countryside.  Therefore, it is not certain that there was a population remaining in these cities to be destroyed. There is no indication in the text of any specific noncombatants who were put to death. In any case, there is clear evidence that there were Canaanites remaining in the areas where Israel settled (Judges 2:10–13)....

Does this mean that biblical Israel never killed anyone unjustly? Certainly not. The wars recorded in Judges become increasingly brutal, until the final chapters depict a civil war with killing that resembles a massacre. However, as in other descriptions of battles in the Bible, there is no suggestion in Judges that these wars and atrocities reflected the ideal that Israel was expected to follow in obedience to its God, the true warrior. The same can be said of later battles, including the campaigns of David (especially after he became king); they are not held up as an ideal to emulate.

I must emphasize that we must always preserve the distinction between a record of what happened, or at least a story about it, and a moral evaluation of the account. To highlight this distinction, the biblical writer may stress, for example, the peaceful and defenseless nature of the city of Laish that the tribe of Dan attacks (Judg 18:7–10, 27–29). However, it is wrong to argue that the writer of the account “sees this as divine providence,”... The writer nowhere makes this claim. Instead, it is reported that the tribe of Dan determines that God has given the city into their hands. Whether this is true or not and whether they have any right to murder the innocents in the city are points not discussed. This is characteristic of the writers of Judges who, especially in the final chapters, record events and dialogue but leave moral and theological evaluations to the readers... Like the writers of Judges, the composers of the books of Samuel often reserved judgment and merely described the events. Plenty of criticism of David’s ethics is placed in the mouths of Nathan the prophet and others, but it is part of the narrative and not a task of the narrator.[^hess-2008b]

Elsewhere[^hess-2008d] Hess goes into extensive detail defending the melek "king" being a military leader.

Additional reasons to suspect Jericho may have been a military outpost:

  1. Jericho was small enough that Israel was able to circle it seven times in one day (Joshua 6:4, presumably out of the range of bow and sling) and still do battle with it before dark.
  2. "Jericho is situated at the beginning of several of the main roads that run from the Jordan Valley into the central hill country... this suggests a strategic value for Jericho that would encourage a military presence there."[^hess-2008e]

The Destruction of Ai

It was here that Israel had put the inhabitants of Ai to the sword, "twelve thousand—all the people of Ai." (Joshua 8:24-25)  Ai was more likely a military fort than a city: 

the textual picture of Ai remains surprisingly similar to the picture of Jericho. Like Jericho, the author identifies Ai as an ºîr [as opposed to ºîr gédôlâ, the "great city" as Gibeon is described]. Here as well, it was probably not what modern people would consider to be a city but was more likely a fort... Like Jericho, Ai also had a melek [king], walls, an army, and no specific mention of noncombatants.[^hess-2008f]

And the language is ambiguous as to whether 12,000 were killed:

The Hebrew for “thousand” is aelep. An aelep can refer to a clan or a military unit, as well as 1,000 individuals. In Num 31:5 it is translated by the NIV as “clans” [^hess-2008g]

Gibeon and Hazor were populated cities

However, Gibeon and Hazor seem not to be just military outposts.  "Gibeon is described as 'a great city' (Josh 10:2), and Hazor is placed at 'the head of all these kingdoms' (Josh 11:10)."[^hess-2008e]  Joshua 11:11 records, "they put to the sword all who were in it, utterly destroying them; there was no one left who breathed," but 11:19 tells us that Gibeon made peace with Israel, suggesting that option was available to the others as well.

The Need for Wrathfulness

It's not possible to have a just God without wrath, otherwise those who do wrong receive no punishment.  Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf expounds on this idea:

I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. Isn't God love? Shouldn't divine love be beyond wrath? God is love, and God loves every person and every creature. That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them. My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandparently fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn't God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn't wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn't wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.[^volf-2009]

This highlights an inconsistency among critics of Christianity.  The well-known paranormal investigator and atheist James Randi once wrote in Skeptic Magazine, "I accuse the Christian god of murder by allowing the Holocaust to take place."[^randi-1995]  But in the beginning of this article atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins condemn God's judgment against the Canaanites.

Unapproved warfare and violence is condemned

Much of the Hebrew Old Testament is a history of what is, rather than what ought to be.  Many cases of violence were simply committed by violent men, never condoned, and often condemned by God.  Two examples:

Genesis 34

Genesis 34:2-4, 8, 13-16, and 25-30 describes how in retribution for their raped sister, Simeon and Levi attacked and killed every male in a city, taking their women captive.  Yet in addition to condemnation from their father Jacob (34:30), Joseph also condemned his brothers' actions, cursing them for their violent retribution for their sister Dinah's rape.  Genesis 49:5-7:

Simeon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence are their swords.  May I never come into their council; may I not be joined to their company— for in their anger they killed men, and at their whim they hamstrung oxen.  Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce, and their wrath, for it is cruel!  I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.

2 Kings 10:1-36

2 Kings 10:1-36 describes how Jehu killed the wicked king Ahab's entire family as well as the prophets and priests of Baal.  But Hosea 1:4-5 casts condemnation on Jehu from the Lord:

the Lord said to him, “Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. On that day I will break the bow of Israel in the valley of Jezreel.”

Difficult Verses

Numbers 31

Why was Moses furious they let the women live and ordered any who had slept with a man were killed?  In this passage, critics suggest that the Israelites were taking sex slaves for themselves.

7 They did battle against Midian, as the Lord had commanded Moses, and killed every male. 8 They killed the kings of Midian: Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian, in addition to others who were slain by them; and they also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword.

14 Moses became angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. 15 Moses said to them, “Have you allowed all the women to live? 16 These women here, on Balaam’s advice, made the Israelites act treacherously against the Lord in the affair of Peor, so that the plague came among the congregation of the Lord. 17 Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. 18 But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves.

25 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 26 "...make an inventory of the booty captured, both human and animal. 27 Divide the booty into two parts, between the warriors who went out to battle and all the congregation."

32 The booty remaining from the spoil that the troops had taken totaled six hundred seventy-five thousand sheep, 33 seventy-two thousand oxen, 34 sixty-one thousand donkeys, 35 and thirty-two thousand persons in all, women who had not known a man by sleeping with him.

The backstory is key. The Moabites and Midianites had hired Balaam to say a curse against Israel, so that they may conquer them and drive them away.  Numbers 22:4-6:

Moab said to the elders of Midian, “This horde will now lick up all that is around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field.” Now Balak son of Zippor was king of Moab at that time. He sent messengers to Balaam son of Beor at Pethor, which is on the Euphrates, in the land of Amaw, to summon him, saying, “A people has come out of Egypt; they have spread over the face of the earth, and they have settled next to me.  Come now, curse this people for me, since they are stronger than I; perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land; for I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed.”

In chapters 22-24, God instead forces Balaam to pronounce a blessing on Israel, and Balaam is dismissed without pay by king Balak of Moab.  In Numbers 23:29 Balaam was told God is not "a mortal, that he should change his mind," but perhaps Balaam could change the Israelites instead.  It's possible he even realized that Israel would be cursed if they disobeyed God's commands (Deutt 28:15-68).  Balaam therefore enacted a more effective strategy against Israel--dereliction through the enticement and seduction of women:

  1. Numbers 25:1, "While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people began to have sexual relations with the women of Moab."
  2. Numbers 31:16, "These women here, on Balaam’s advice, made the Israelites act treacherously against the Lord in the affair of Peor, so that the plague came among the congregation of the Lord."

After the Israelites defeated Midian and Moab in battle, this is why Moses was particularly adamant that these women--employed by an enemy nation to seduce and thus compromise the men of Israel--were put to death (Numbers 31). Therefore the women who had "not had sexual intercourse with a man" would be the ones not among the seductionists sent by Midian and Moab.

Additionally, It makes very little sense that the remaining women would have been taken as sex slaves, since Moses had previously ordered the execution of any men who had slept with them in Numbers 25:5.  The idea of prisoners taken as sex slaves is also inconsistent with the many other laws against sexual immorality:

  1. Lev 19:20 commands that if a master has sexual relations with a slave engaged to someone else, he must pay a fine.
  2. Lev 19:29 indicates that fornication in general was frowned upon.  "Do not profane your daughter by making her a prostitute, that the land not become prostituted and full of depravity."  The word for prostitute is Hebrew האבת (zanah), defined as "to commit fornication, be a harlot, play the harlot."[^zanah]
  3. Lev 21:9, "When the daughter of a priest profanes herself through prostitution, she profanes her father; she shall be burned to death."
  4. Deut 22:20-21 calls for the stoning of a woman who has slept around prior to marraige.
  5. Deut 22:25 commands if any man rapes any woman who is engaged to someone else, he will be put to death.
  6. Prov 23:27-28, "For a prostitute is a deep pit; an adulteress is a narrow well.
    She lies in wait like a robber and increases the number of the faithless."
  7. Prov 29:3, "to keep company with prostitutes is to squander one’s substance."

But what to do with the surviving women and children?  They likely could not have survived and defended themselves among the other barbaric nations Canaan. Taking them as servants and integrating them into Israel may have been the best among lousy alternatives.

Deuteronomy 21:10-14

When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God hands them over to you and you take them captive, suppose you see among the captives a beautiful woman whom you desire and want to marry, and so you bring her home to your house: she shall shave her head, pare her nails, discard her captive’s garb, and shall remain in your house a full month, mourning for her father and mother; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. But if you are not satisfied with her, you shall let her go free and not sell her for money. You must not treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.

This forbids men to rape women during war, and a woman could not be both a slave and subject to sexual relations. Either she became a wife after a waiting period, or she was to be set free.  Cutting hair and nails was likely related to mourning. (2 Sam 19:24)

Further Reading

  1. Paul Copan's Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? and Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites published in Philosophia Christi, which argues that God is not a moral monster.
  2. Randal Rauser, On the Problem of Divinely Commanded Genocide  (Philosophia Christi, 2009).  Rauser criticizes Paul Copan's stance as too problematic, ending with "While this may not yet tell us how we should respond to biblical narratives of divinely sanctioned violence, at the very least it will save Christians from the sorry spectacle of attempting to convince ourselves and others of that which everybody knows cannot be true."
  3. Chapter 2 from Critical Issues in Early Israelite History, by Richard Hess, 2008
  4. The essay, War in the Hebrew Bible, by Richard Hess, 2008
  5. Christian apologist Lydia McGrew's response to Paul Copan and Richard Hess's work, No magic bullet--Copan's insufficient answer to the slaughter of the Canaanites.  She argues that "after looking into Copan's argument, we are left with the unfortunate conclusion that he has not made the problem go away after all. It gives me no pleasure whatsoever to draw this conclusion."  Her work is probably the best counter-argument to what I present in this article, and is worth reading.
  6. Kirk Durston's The incompatibility of God and gratuitous evil: implications for the termination of civilizations (Religious Studies, 2015).  Durston argues a morally good God must terminate a civilization when the net evil becomes greater than the net good.
  7. Bob Deffinbaugh's commentary, Balaam Part 3.

While Copan and Rauser offered valid points, perhaps both carry their arguments too far and often talked past one another.  Richard Hess is somewhat more balanced and primarily presents the historical context rather than taking a philosophical angle.  Lydia McGrew's article is the best rebuttal to the stance of Hess and especially Copan, and is also the best rebuttal to the position I take in this article.


  1. [^tissot-ai]:Tissot, James.  Ai is Taken by Joshua.  Posterized for effect.
  2. [^hitchens-2008]:Hitchens, Christopher.  "God is Not Great."  2008. Page 101.
  3. [^dawkins-2006]:Dawkins, Richard.  "The God Delusion."  2006.  Page 245.
  4. [^dawkins-2006b]:Dawkins, Richard.  "The God Delusion."  2006.  Page 247.
  5. [^rauser-2009]:Rauser, Randal.  "On the Problem of Divinely Commanded Genocide."  Philosophia Christi.  2009.
  6. [^wright-2004]:Wright, Christopher J. H. "Old Testament Ethics for the People of God." Intervarsity Press Academic.  2004.  Pages 424-475.
  7. [^hess-2008]:Hess, Richard.  "War in the Bible and Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century."  2008.  Page 25.
  8. [^hess-2008b]:Hess, Richard.  "War in the Bible and Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century."  2008. Pages 29-31.
  9. [^hess-2008c]:Hess, Richard.  "Critical Issues in Early Israelite History."  2008.  Page 39.
  10. [^hess-2008d]:Hess, Richard.  "Critical Issues in Early Israelite History."  2008.  Pages 39-41.
  11. [^hess-2008e]:Hess, Richard.  "Critical Issues in Early Israelite History."  2008.  Page 36.
  12. [^hess-2008f]:Hess, Richard.  "Critical Issues in Early Israelite History."  2008.  Page 45.
  13. [^hess-2008g]:Hess, Richard.  "Critical Issues in Early Israelite History."  2008.  Page 46.
  14. [^hess-2009]:Hess, Richard.  Personal correspondence with Paul Copan.  2009.
  15. [^volf-2009]:Volf, Miroslav.  "Free of Charge."  2008.  Page 139.
  16. [^randi-1995]:Randi, James.  Skeptic Magazine.  1995.
  17. [^zanah]:Strong's Concordance - zanah.
  18. [^barako-2013]:Barako, Tristan J.  "Philistines and Egyptians in Southern Coastal Canaan during the Early Iron Age." in "The Philistines and Other "Sea Peoples in Text and Archaeology."  Society of Biblical Literature.  2013. Mirrors:  Local screenshot
  19. [^day-2002]:Day, John.  "Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan."  Sheffield Academic Press.  2002. Mirrors:  Local screenshot

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