Israelite Conquest: Genocide or Judgment

Many ask the question did God really command the Israelites to kill the children of Canaan? The simple answer is yes, the Israelites were told to destroy the culture of Canaan entirely. Notice they weren’t told to destroy literally all Canaanites since they clearly spared Rahab the prostitute and her family because she submitted to the God of Israel. Besides Rahab, the Gibeonites gave themselves to Israel as slaves in Joshua 9, so they were spared. Lastly, Joshua and Caleb led the charge against Canaan after Moses died. Ever notice, that Caleb’s father was a Kenizzite (Num 32:12, Joshua 14:14), which means he is a Canaanite (Gen 15:18-21), yet God used him to fight for Israel against the Canaanites. This shows that not all Canaanites were destroyed, which means God isn’t “racist” as some may say. Everyone has a choice between repentance and pride, and only a few were repentant. The Israelite’s goal was to get rid of the Canaanite’s sinful culture which was manipulated by spiritual darkness, not absolute genocide but a cleansing of the sin from the land.

The first thing to understand is linguistic context. A lot of ancient conquest literature including those in the bible uses idioms to describe the downfall of another nation. So it is not that these people were literally deleted from existence but rather their community and cultural identity were destroyed. Like when people say “it’s raining cats and dogs”. In the bible, there are exaggerations that involve saying things like “and they were completely destroyed”, even though there were many survivors of these sieges, some of whom were taken as slaves. Duet 28:7 says Israel’s enemies “will scatter from them in seven directions” Verse 25 has the opposite (the curse) saying that Israel will flee from their enemies in seven directions. It doesn’t mean literally every battle ends with the loser fleeing in seven specific directions. More examples: Lev 26:7-8 when God promises victory in battles, he says, “5 of you will chase 100, and 100 of you will chase 10,000!” This does not mean five people will literally always chase 100 people, or 100 will chase 10,000. When Peter asks Jesus how often we must forgive others Jesus says 70×7 times (Matt 18:21-35). That doesn’t mean count to 490 and then you can stop forgiving. In fact, Jesus said in verse 35 as well as Matt 6:15 and Mark 11:25-26 that if we don’t forgive others God won’t forgive us. In scriptures like Ex 23:27-30, and Deut 9:1 we see the terms “driving out” rather than extermination. That means their death didn’t was not absolutely required but rather they had to be removed from the land. Many Canaanites were alive in cities like Hebron and Debir (Joshua 10:36-39, and Joshua 15:35-15), but fortresses like Jericho, Ai, and Hazor were destroyed.

Ultimately God used the Israelites to execute judgment against the Canaanites as a society, much like he used a flood to wipe out all the world and know his days, so children will die in the process. Just like firstborn sons in Egypt died during Passover (Exodus 12). We can see this explanation in Deuteronomy 9:4-6. A lot of God’s laws in the Torah are warning Israel not to be like Egypt or Canaan (Lev 18:1-5, Lev 20:22-24), so their sins warranted their destruction. Furthermore, the Canaanites were sacrificing their children to idols like Molech, so many of those children were as good as dead anyway. If you look back at Genesis 15:16 it mentions, how God delayed punishment for Canaan because the sins of the Amorites didn’t warrant their destruction. The Amorites actually helped Abraham rescue Lot in Genesis 14. This means at the time of Abraham, Canaan wasn’t as bad but it got worse over time. God foresaw all of this and planned to use the Israelites to judge them. It is clear throughout scripture that Canaan is being destroyed because of their sins. Sodom and Gomorrah were the worst so they got taken out first by God himself in Genesis 19. This is the same thing that happens to Israel when they break the covenant, and God punishes them with Assyria and Babylon, only preserving the righteous in exile. It’s only fair that God uses external nations to judge them since used them to judge the Canaanites. In Numbers 33:55-56, God even promised to exile the Israelites if they didn’t drive out the Canaanites.

Lastly, they were only told to wipe out the Canaanites, not every gentile nation in the world. In Deuteronomy 20:17 seven specific groups are named, the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. In Deut 20:10-18, they were told not to make peace with these local Canaanite nations and to wipe them out in order to avoid copying their practices. Meanwhile, for non-Canaanite nations that were further away, they could offer peace and subjection and only were to fight if that nation refused to submit. When fighting faraway nations, they were told to kill only the men and they could keep the plunder and livestock, as well as the women and children as captives. However, they were to kill everyone among the local Canaanites (that didn’t flee and leave the land), both humans and livestock (the livestock was likely defiled because they were dedicated to false gods). The Canaanites were explicitly being judged by God through Israel’s actions and those that didn’t flee from the land would have been executed. The children themselves were learning these disturbing practices so they were killed off as well, plus the boys would have grown up and revolted to avenge their families. There are some special exemptions made to God’s rules regarding non-Canaanite nations’ where the Israelites were told to take out women and children, but even those are limited in their destruction. In Numbers 31:9-20 Moses scolds the Israelites for letting all of the women live after defeating the Midianites and then he told them to take out the children and only leave virgins alive as captives. In Numbers 22-24 Balaam was hired to curse Israel the Moabite King Balak. Balaam cannot curse or bless without God’s permission and God made it so that he could only bless the Israelites. He explained to King Balak of Moab that no one can curse whom God has already blessed, but Balaam came up with a way around it. He knew that God’s covenant was conditional, so if they commit a sin like idolatry they would break the covenant and be vulnerable. So Balaam told the Moabites to use Midianite women to seduce the Israelite men as shrine prostitutes which caused them to worship pagan sex gods. This caused a plague that killed 24,000 Israelites.

In Numbers Chapter 31 God is condemning Balaam and the Midianites. Only virgins are spared because the non-virgins had pagan religious sex practices that would have turned the Israelite men away from God again. The virgin women were most likely little girls who had not learned the idolatrous sex practices of the culture yet. God showed some mercy to the Midianite virgins likely because Midian is one of the sons of Abraham, so the Midianites are descendants of Abraham from his second wife Keturah (Gen 25:1-4). Moses’ first wife Zipporah was actually a Midianite, he married her when taking refuge in Midian for 40 years after he fled Egypt. However, the Midianites (along with the prophet Balaam) are being judged in this chapter for what happened in Numbers 25. This meant the virgin women were likely allowed to live and be taken captive just like most non-Canaanite nations (Deut 20:10-18), in order to preserve God’s blessing on Midian as one of Abraham’s descendants. As a whole God is judging them at the same level as the Canaanite nations for their seduction of his people. The virgin captives became wives for the Israelite men, so they ended up preserving the lineage of Midian by merging with the nation from the promised seed Isaac. Meanwhile, the non-virgin women would die along with their children for their part to play in the idolatry in Israel. If they hadn’t done what they did, they would live like any other non-Canaanite nation, especially since they are related to Abraham. The Moabites and Ammonites hired the Midianites to seduce Israel and the seduction of Israel got all three nations in serious trouble with God. The punishment for the temptation of God’s people is worse than simply attacking them and this is evident in Deut 23:3-8. Here God says that Moabites and Ammonites have to wait for 10 generations to intermarry with Israel because of their temptation with the Midianites. Meanwhile, Egypt and Edom have to wait for three generations since they actually did treat Israel well at one point and only sinned against them later with slavery and war. Causing God’s people to sin is considered very grievous, so the Midianites, Moabites, and Ammonites got a harsher punishment than Edom and Egypt. Jesus says in Matthew 18:6-7 and Luke 17:1-3, that anyone that causes the children (of Israel) to sin should have a millstone tied around their neck and cast into the sea. The Midianites did the dirty work so there were to be treated like Canaanites and nearly wiped out, but the remnant of virgin women was spared for the sake of preserving the promise to Abraham for all of his children. Furthermore, this event is clearly targeted at a certain faction of Midianites that was involved with the temptation of Israel’s men, since there were plenty of Midianites left to challenge Israel in Judges chapters 6-7, which is many years later, so not all Midianites in the whole world were targeted, plenty of the men escaped or there was a remnant of men that were living apart in a different location.

On the subject of soldiers taking slave women and such, these were not things God told them they must do but rather things that were allowed to do. In the ancient world, it was common for women to actually dress up and look their best when they were being conquered in order to make lovers out of their conquers. The purpose was survival so that they and their children could be protected from living in a desolate wasteland with no army or men to do the typical male task like building structures and using heavy tools. Women in those days would rather marry their conquers than live as widows in poverty, so this allowance actually would have benefited the women, and Israel was allowed to do this because it was better than the alternative. Otherwise, these single mothers are responsible for their normal duties as mothers as well as protecting their families from the elements, poverty, and wild animals, all with no societal infrastructure, military protection, or economic security

Imagine being a single widow in a city with no men. There is no modern construction equipment to close the gap in physical prowess between the sexes, so it would be difficult to rebuild the city’s walls, not to mention how dangerous it is. In addition, one would have to fight lions and bears to defend your family which is normally the men’s job. Likewise, you aren’t trained in men’s jobs like metallurgy, lumberjacking, or sailing/fishing in order to keep special exports going for the local economy. Even if you could sail, who will watch the children while you are at sea? You are the last line of defense for your children. If you have teenagers then there is a better chance of survival without you because they are old enough to adapt and take care of their younger siblings, but if you have young children then they will likely die without you so you must live so they can live. That means avoiding risky behaviors like fighting predators, sailing, and building massive structures. Men did these things because men are more expendable, and this is because of sexeconomics. If there is at least one man society can more easily repopulate, even if that man dies, as long as he gets some women pregnant with sons beforehand. It makes sense in this scenario to marry your conquerors. Most women wanted to live a soft life, and the best way to guarantee that was to marry a man so they could take the brunt of the hardship in life, even if marrying their conquerors.

Check out this insight into God’s judgment from Ezekiel 18:23-24. Ezekiel 18:23 says, “Do you think that I like to see wicked people die? says the Sovereign Lord. Of course not! I want them to turn from their wicked ways and live. 24 However, if righteous people turn from their righteous behavior and start doing sinful things and acting like other sinners, should they be allowed to live? No, of course not! All their righteous acts will be forgotten, and they will die for their sins.”

One thing to keep in mind with God’s judgment on sinners is that we must remember the victims crying out from the grave asking for vengeance and justice. Like Abel (Gen 4:10) who was killed by Cain, the murder victims from the violence in Genesis 6:11, or all the rape and murder victims from Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:20). God is doing what he’s doing for them because he’s the God of justice. We see this with the tribulation martyrs in Revelation 6:9-11, as they call out for justice and God asks them to be patient a little longer. The perpetrators will be shown mercy in the beginning, so he will allow their violence for a time so that they can repent. This is why God sent Jonah to Nineveh, to warn them of judgment (Jonah 1:2), and when he did they repented (Jonah 3:10) to Jonah’s disappointment (because he hated them). Lastly, Isa 57:1-2 makes an interesting point, it says that the righteous who die early are being spared the suffering from a coming evil. This could apply to innocent children and righteous elderly people that die in mass before or at beginning of a major judgment, they are being spared early from a harsher punishment on their nation.

This is one of those issues where the Bible skeptics call the God of the Bible an ultra-violent murderous psychopath. However we have to keep in mind that in context, these cultures are pretty savage and they’re sacrificing their children and doing all kinds of disturbing things, so God responded to their injustice and corruption in kind. In Genesis 4:19-24, Cain’s descendant Lamach started the “Murder Olympics”, and people start competing over who can kill the most people to get the “Mark of Cain” as a blessing, this likely included killing women and children. This is why God flooded the world because it was filled with so much violence according to Gen 6:11. Later on, Europeans used the stories of Israel’s conquests out of context to justify colonization and enslavement. The conquest of Canaan is the ONLY command to conquer in the bible. Jesus said in Matt 28:18-20 that we were to teach all nations, not conquer them. The way Christianity was spread was not always the best way nor did it follow Jesus’ actual instructions properly in many cases. Teaching means some people will receive and some others won’t (Mark 4:1-20), those people are free to reject the gospel without being murdered (Luke 9:4-5). After all, you can’t threaten someone with good news, if they reject, then they lose. Jesus experienced violence in order to save the world from violent tendencies and sinful nature, therefore as Christians we are supposed to continue what he started. Self-defense is allowed since even Jesus told his disciples to arm themselves (Luke 22:36-38), but overall, we are called to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9).

According to Joshua 11:19, most cities did not want peace with the Israelites except the Hivites of Gibeon. They are Canaanites who pretended to be non-Canaanites and tricked Israel into sparing them and in exchange they became slaves. In the end, God always warns even Gentile nations, through dreams (Genesis 20:3-7, Genesis 40 and 41, Daniel 2) or by sending prophets (1 Kings 18 and 22, Jonah 1). It’s made clear from Rahab’s words in Joshua 2:9-11 and from the Hivites of Gibeon in Joshua 10:24-25, that these nations already knew God was sending Israel to judge them. They were afraid of Israel because they heard what God did for them in Egypt and with the other nations they fought in the wilderness. In Joshua 11:20, God hardened the hearts of the wicked kings like he did Pharaoh so they would experience maximum judgment. How a person or nation responds to the warning will determine if they receive mercy or not. The Canaanites were a brutal group of savages and the rape hazing ritual in Sodom and Gomorrah should be evidence enough, considering they were taken out first. We must look at how they responded to God’s mercy and warnings, only the Gibeonites, Rahab, and possibly a few others were spared because they recognized the true living God’s power and Israel as his people. Judges 1:22-26 tells another story of a man whose family was spared for helping the Israelite spies, that man later moved to live among the Hittites and built a new city of Luz (the old one was replaced as Bethel). This was enough for them to submit to the God of Israel.

Besides, many of the cities the Israelites destroyed were actually military strongholds, not population centers, that is why cities like Jericho had huge walls. Destroying capital cities where the government and military power were centered was enough to topple a nation a make them submissive to Israel’s culture governed by the Torah and God. Why else would God tell the Israelites multiple times not to mistreat foreigners living among them (Ex 22:20-21, and Ex 23:9)? In addition, many of the civil laws were applied to native-born Israelites and foreigners living among them, so obviously, various people groups were allowed to live among them including some Canaanites (as long as they relinquished idolatry). Judges 1:28 mentions some Canaanites that weren’t driven out by the tribe of Manasseh and became slaves to Israel. This same scenario of allowing Canaanites to live and turning them into laborers continues with various tribes of Israel through the rest of Judges chapter 1. So God doesn’t hate every Gentile or even every Canaanite, but he needed to destroy corrupt cultures driven by sin and demonic forces and used the Israelites to do it. The goal was for them to show the world his ways and function as a nation of priests and example to the world (Exodus 19:6). However, they fell short of this and broke God’s commandments and got the same punishment they inflicted on Canaan, just as God promised in the curse of Deuteronomy 28. God couldn’t tell them to destroy one group for some bad behavior and then ignore that same behavior amongst his own people, he held them to a higher standard. So he judged them with exile and conquest, famine and pestilence, war, and death (the four horsemen).

Further reading on the invasion of Jericho specifically:
“God put firm boundaries on the extent of the conquest, and several of the tribes in the region were not to be harmed at all (Deuteronomy 2). God also put a time boundary on the conquest (Deut 7:22). This wasn’t an instant takeover—the conquest was to take a long time. God told them that he would drive the people out slowly over time.”
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Another Article on the subject:
“But one of the promises that God made to Israel in the Conquest was that he would give them “great and good cities that you did not build, and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant” (Deuteronomy 6:10–11). God did not tell them to destroy cities, but to leave them structurally intact. While the Israelites did smite the inhabitants of many cities during their campaigns, there were only three cities that they completely destroyed: Jericho (Joshua 6:24), Ai (8:28), and Hazor (11:1312).”
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On the subject of Conquest and Slavery