Robert M. Bowman, Jr.
In a separate article, "Joshua's Conquest: Did It Happen?" I have argued that we have some good reasons to accept the biblical account of the Israelites' conquest of the land of Canaan under Joshua as historically grounded.1 Many critics, however, argue that the idea that God authorized the Israelites to conquer the people of the land and kill not only men but, in some instances, women and children, is immoral, and therefore evidence that the Bible is not inspired. We will focus on this moral objection in this article.
As explained in the other article, the evidence shows that the idea that God wanted the Israelites to wage their war of conquest against Canaan dates from before the Conquest. It was most likely not an after-the-fact theological justification (since the same books portray the conquering Israelites as the children of fearful, rebellious parents who died in the wilderness). The question remains, though: How could such a divine command be morally just?
The Wickedness of the People of Canaan
Critics of the Old Testament's claim that God ordered the killing of whole tribes in Canaan typically neglect the reason expressly stated in the Old Testament: those tribes were depraved beyond redemption (Gen. 15:16; Lev. 18:21-30; 20:2-5; Deut. 12:29-31; etc.). According to the Old Testament, the Canaanites and other tribes in the land widely practiced child sacrifice, incest, bestiality, and other behaviors that almost everyone in history, including today, rightly regard as unspeakably, grossly immoral. If this explanation is even acknowledged, critics often claim that it is a later theological justification for Israel's displacing those peoples from the land. Even many mainstream biblical scholars make this claim.
I have already questioned the conventional wisdom that the wickedness of the peoples of Canaan was an after-the-fact rationalization. However, even if the passages were all composed after the fact, such a response really skirts the issue, which is whether that theological justification was true. If the people of Canaan were akin to the peace-loving, civilized folks of different religions living in our suburban neighborhoods and working in our colleges, hospitals, and fire departments, then the Israelite claim that God had condemned those peoples as hopelessly degenerate would be rightly questioned. On the other hand, if the Canaanites and other peoples in the land were a degenerate society widely practicing bestiality and publicly burning their children to Molech, might not the Old Testament writers have had a point?
In this regard an obvious question to ask is whether these horrifying Old Testament descriptions of Canaanite culture were at all accurate. Not surprisingly, our extra biblical sources of information are still very meager and fragmentary. Archaeology provides much more information about the classical period of antiquity, which corresponds roughly to the biblical postexilic and intertestamental periods, than it does for the second millennium BC. Moreover, the further back in time one goes the more disparate interpretations one gets from the archaeologists themselves. Still, some aspects of the Old Testament descriptions of Canaanite culture, including its religion, have been verified.
One point of special interest is the Canaanite deity Molech, to whom, according to the Old Testament, the local pagan peoples sacrificed their children in burnt offerings. It was fashionable during much of the twentieth century to assert that the Old Testament had this completely wrong. Molech was said not to have been the name of a foreign deity at all, but a ritual term of some sort, and the children were not burned to death but were living participants in harmless rites (perhaps akin to those in modern neopaganism and other forms of nature worship). Several studies in the 1970s and 1980s put this revisionist theory to rest. The scholarly tide began to turn with Morton Smith's 1975 article debunking the fanciful theory that the references to children in the fire were spiritual metaphors.2 John Day's study, published by Cambridge University Press, argued convincingly that Molech was the name given in Canaanite religion to the god of the underworld. He showed that the same deity is mentioned in the Ugaritic writings (MLK), the Mari tablets (Muluk), and in Akkadian records.3
Meanwhile, evidence is trickling in that supports the Old Testament claim that the indigenous peoples of the region were engaged in the practice of child sacrifice. In 1978 an Egyptologist reported that relief pictures on an Egyptian temple showed Canaanite children being sacrificed while their cities were under attack.4 That the Phoenicians, who at one time controlled Canaan, sacrificed children to their gods is well documented. "Archaeologists have recovered the gruesome evidence not only at the great Phoenician city of Carthage (in modern Tunisia), but also in Sicily, Sardonia, and Cyprus" (King and Stager, 361).5 The evidence is not yet a "smoking gun" but is consistent and indirectly supportive of the biblical picture.
Indeed, it is now so clear to biblical scholars that the Old Testament really does refer to child sacrifice and that it really did occur that some liberal scholars are taking a completely different tack. Some are now arguing that child sacrifice was part of the normative religious system of the worship of Yahweh until very late in Old Testament history. The biblical "evidence" for this claim is at best extremely slender and depends on a number of questionable assumptions. The principal text adduced for this dubious theory is Micah 6:6-8.
6Wherewith shall I come before Jehovah,
and bow myself before the high God?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
7Will Jehovah be pleased with thousands of rams,
or with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my first-born for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
8He hath showed thee, O man, what is good;
and what doth Jehovah require of thee,
but to do justly, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with thy God?
The progression here is not merely from a humbler offering to a more impressive one, as some scholars have argued. Rather, Micah moves from a normative offering under Mosaic law (v. 6) to obvious hyperbole (v. 7a) to an extreme that is not hyperbolic but instead demands a negative response (v. 7b). In short, Micah is asking these rhetorical questions in order to present a reductio ad absurdum rebuttal to the notion that unremitting disobedience to God's demand for justice can be compensated by offering sacrifices. The passage therefore presupposes that sacrificing one's child is already understood to be very wrong.
What these liberal scholars are up to is not hard to see. The guiding assumption in their study of Israelite religion in the Old Testament period is that the Israelites, even at their best, could not have been all that different from their neighbors in Canaan. To concede that the religion of Israel's lawgiver and prophets was of a radically superior character to the religions of the larger culture both morally and spiritually would be fatal to the "methodological naturalism" (to borrow a phrase from the philosophy of science) that has been the presupposition of mainstream biblical scholarship for over a century. From the 1930s to the 1970s, the claim was that child sacrifice in the land was a myth and neither the Israelites nor their Canaanite neighbors engaged in the practice. As further study and new evidence overturned that claim in the 1970s and 1980s, liberal scholars decided that if child sacrifice was happening then everyone must have been doing it, and it must have been an accepted and authorized element even in the worship of Yahweh. To make this theory work requires a highly tendentious reading of the Old Testament, to put it mildly.
Those liberal scholars are partially correct, though: some Israelites sometimes did practice human sacrifice, including the sacrifice of their children. At least two kings are reported to have done so (2 Kings 16:3; 21:6). According to the book of Isaiah, the Lord condemned Israel for sacrificing children to their idols (Is. 57:5-9). Jeremiah accused the Jews in Jerusalem of setting up idols in the temple and sacrificing their children in a nearby valley (Jer. 7:30-32; 19:5-6; 32:35). Ezekiel cited the practice as one of the reasons that Judah was plunged into the Babylonian exile (Ezek. 16:20-21; 23:36-39).
Again, the criterion of embarrassment militates against any speculation to the effect that the Israelites never did any such thing as these various biblical authors accused them of doing. We may regard it as historically a given that they did. That being established, we can hardly deny the unanimous testimony of all of these authors that the practice derived from the idolatrous customs of the indigenous peoples of Canaan. Ahaz, we are told, "even sacrificed his son in the fire, following the detestable ways of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites" (2 Kings 16:3). According to Jeremiah, the Jews sacrificed their children to idols—particularly Baal and Molech (Jer. 7:30-32; 19:5-6; 32:35).
The lesson is surely not hard to discern. Although the Israelites under Joshua gained a measure of dominant control over much of the land of Canaan, they did not eliminate the peoples of Canaan completely and did not cleanse the land thoroughly of the corrupt religious and social practices of the Canaanites. Throughout the periods of the judges, the united monarchy, and the divided monarchy, Baal worship in particular continued to be a problem. One can only imagine how much more difficult it would have been to maintain with integrity any religion of the worship of Yahweh had the Israelites not been as aggressive as they were under Joshua. Elijah's infamously overstated lament that all Israel had abandoned the worship of Yahweh for Baal illustrates just how close Israel came at times to doing just that.
One final point regarding the wickedness of the peoples of Canaan: Moses warned Israel that they were not to claim that God drove out the pagans because Israel was righteous, but must acknowledge that he did so because the pagan nations were so wicked (Deut. 9:4-6). Throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites are told repeatedly that they were not righteous and did not deserve the land and other blessings that God was giving them. They may have been not so far gone as the Canaanites, but they had nothing to brag about as far as their own righteousness was concerned. This consistent denial of the worthiness of Israel really undermines the claim that the Old Testament was expressing some kind of "triumphalism" in attributing the defeat of Israel's enemies to God.
But the Children?
The sharpest criticism of the morality of the Conquest focuses on the Israelites' killing of the youngest children of the indigenous peoples. This is certainly the most difficult aspect of the account for us to understand. Oddly enough, there is no focus on this point at all in the Old Testament. It seems to be clearly enough implied by the statements that Israel left alive nothing that breathed in various cities, no survivors (Deut. 20:16; Josh. 10:29-40; 11:10-15). The book of Joshua states that Israel destroyed the people of Jericho, "both man and woman, young and old, and ox and sheep and donkey" (6:21), which may imply the killing of the babies, depending on how "young and old" is interpreted. So, it does seem that Israel killed young Canaanite children in these battles, though little or no attention is given to that aspect, assuming that is the correct understanding of the above passages.
Since the accounts give so little attention to the issue and no direct explanation for the inclusion of young children in the extermination order, we are left to surmise an explanation indirectly from what information we have. I have two suggestions on this point.
First, after generations of the sort of moral degeneracy that characterized these peoples, it may be that even the smallest children were beyond civilizing. Apparently even they were abused and forced to participate in obscene conduct, such that they would have grown up psychologically and spiritually scarred-and perhaps threatened to perpetuate the cycle.
Second, the STDs and other infectious diseases that must have pervaded those cities may well have been carried by the smallest children, and if so, they may have posed a grave danger to the physical health of the Israelites. Imagine some of the nations today most ravaged by AIDS, but living more than three thousand years ago, with no access to even the most basic medical resources. It may be that infectious diseases were also ravaging the domestic animals in these cities, which would also explain why they were destroyed.
It's horrible to contemplate that things were so bad that it was actually necessary for even the youngest members of that society to be killed in order to stop the generational cycle of degeneracy and disease. But something along these lines seems likely to be the reason for God's order to leave alive nothing that breathed.
Israel's Rules of Engagement
One of the evidences supporting the Old Testament's claim that God had ordered the Israelites to exterminate some of the peoples in the land is that the "rules of engagement" for these conquests did not give the Israelites carte blanche to do whatever they wished. The rules restrained the greed and lust typically exhibited by victors in ancient warfare (and in far too much modern warfare as well) in ways that were far ahead of their time.
God's law in the Pentateuch actually distinguished at least four different categories of non-Israelites and required Israel to act in markedly different ways toward each group. We may call these four categories indigenous peoples, border peoples, protected peoples, and sojourners.
By indigenous peoples I mean the people groups that inhabited the land of Canaan, specified in various texts as the Amorites, Hittites, Girgashites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites, and Jebusites (Gen. 15:19-21; Ex. 3:8, 17; 13:5; 23:23, 28; 34:11; Num. 13:29; Deut. 7:1; 20:17; Josh. 3:10; 9:1; 11:3; 12:8; 24:11; Judg. 1:3-5; 3:5;1 Kings 9:20-21; Ezra 9:1; Neh. 9:8). The dominant tribe or nation among these peoples was the Canaanite people, which is why the land was called Canaan and why the Canaanites are mentioned more than any of the others. Israel was required to exterminate the peoples of these tribes, men, women, and children—and in most cases, livestock as well (Num. 21:33-35; Deut. 2:32-34; 3:1-7; 20:16-18; Josh. 6:21; cf. Josh. 8:22-29). The Israelites were explicitly forbidden to take wives from any of these peoples (Deut. 7:1-4). Now, if Israel's claim that God commanded them to conquer Canaan was merely a theological pretext for their own wars of aggression, why did they not allow themselves to take women from those peoples? Why, in most cases, were they not allowed to take and keep livestock? The best explanation for their restraint in these matters was that they believed that God had forbidden them to take women or livestock from the peoples they conquered in the land. Such restraint—remarkable in that ancient culture—is evidence that their belief that God had ordered the conquest was quite sincere.
We might note that the command to wipe out these peoples did allow for exceptions. The obvious example is that of Rahab and her family, who were residents of Jericho. In return for her help, and in response to her plea for mercy, Joshua's two spies promised Rahab that she and her whole family would be spared when the Israelites destroyed Jericho (Josh. 2:8-21), a promise Joshua honored (6:17, 22-23, 25).
Border peoples lived in cities and villages on the outer edges of Canaan, who were not part of the seven or so indigenous tribes of Canaan. Cities outside the region inhabited by the Canaanites and other condemned peoples, but within the land designated as belonging to Israel, were first to be offered terms of peace, in which its people would become forced labor and serve the Israelites. If a city refused, Israel was to make war against it, kill all its men, and allow the women and children to live (Deut. 20:10-15). The distinction drawn between the outlying cities of the land and the cities of the Canaanites and other peoples clustered within the land reflects the belief that the indigenous peoples were too far gone to be shown any mercy, while other people groups were not deemed similarly degenerate.
The protected peoples were tribes or nations in the region that Israel was to leave alone. The most significant of these was Edom. When Israel sought to pass through the territory of Edom—even promising to pay for the use of its water—and Edom refused, Israel simply went another way (Num. 20:14-21). Yet when Sihon, the king of the Amorites, refused to grant the Israelites safe passage, Israel conquered and possessed the Amorite cities (Num. 21:21-32), destroying every man, woman, and child (Deut. 2:32-34). The reason for the differing treatments was that Israel considered the Edomites (who were descendants of Jacob's brother Esau) brothers (Num. 20:14).
Sojourners were individuals or families whose tribal origins were from outside the land but who had immigrated into the land of Canaan. The Old Testament refers to such persons as sojourners, aliens, or strangers (the terms are roughly if not entirely synonymous). Israelites were forbidden to wrong a stranger or oppress him (Ex. 22:21; 23:9). Anyone who took the life of any human being was to be executed; this standard applied for the stranger as well as the native (Lev. 24:17-22). Sojourners were to be permitted to offer sacrifices to the Lord; again, the point was made that the law was to be the same for the Israelites and the sojourners (Num. 15:14-16). Israelites were to love the alien, remembering that God loves aliens and that they were aliens in Egypt (Deut. 10:18-19). Israelites were not to pervert justice due to an alien (Deut. 24:17-18). Clearly, the Mosaic Law was not xenophobic (expressing fear or animosity toward people of other races). Since such sojourners were not part of the degenerate culture of Canaan, they were to be welcomed into Israelite society and placed under the same laws as Israelites.
No General Policy of Genocide
Perhaps the most common complaint about the biblical account of the Conquest is that it appears to justify genocide. If we view a particular nation as grossly evil, may we justifiably conquer its land and annihilate its inhabitants?
Of course not. The Old Testament does not teach that genocide has any sort of general justification. There is no teaching here along the lines of saying that if a nation is wicked enough then anyone has the moral justification to go wipe them out, including men, women, and children. Rather, the Old Testament claims that it was necessary to completely wipe out certain indigenous peoples in order to stop the cycle of perversity from repeating generation after generation, in order to protect Israel from succumbing itself to the madness (an apparently accurate description of Canaanite culture). This drastic measure was necessary to create a nation that retained at least some knowledge and worship of the true God alone and some recognition (however limited) of his moral standards.
The fact that Israel often slid at least part of the way into the madness due to its failure to carry out God's orders completely confirms just how bad it was. The fact that it took hundreds of years after Joshua's conquest and several national disasters before Israel finally embraced ethical monotheism (which they finally did after the Babylonian Exile) is further evidence that the degenerate polytheism of the society was indeed very hard to overcome.
No society or government has the right to take it upon itself to conduct a policy of genocide. What Israel did was right, but the only way they could know it was right was that God had revealed it to them. Furthermore, they knew that revelation was authentic because it was dramatically authenticated by signs and wonders of a type still unparalleled in human history.
Let me summarize what I have tried to show. It is incoherent to maintain that biblical writers made up stories about Joshua waging wars of aggression and also that they made up a theological rationale to defend Joshua's fictitious actions. No one makes excuses for doing something they didn't do. The Israelites' reticence to invade Canaan from the wilderness is probably historical, but that means that the belief that God ordered them to invade Canaan originated before the invasion, not centuries after it. The texts claim that the basis for the order was the extreme degenerate condition of Canaanite society; if this claim is true, the belief that God ordered the Conquest becomes that much more plausible. So far the evidence shows that indeed Canaanite culture was highly degenerate; indeed, the Israelites, who never did completely rid the land of its influence, often fell under its spell and engaged in some of the Canaanites' most heinous activities. The "rules of engagement" governing Israel's relations to non-Israelites shows restraint and sensitivity to the differences among non-Israelite peoples, characteristics we would not expect if Israel's claim of divine backing for the Conquest was mere after-the-fact rationalization of their own aggression. Finally, the biblical account of the Conquest emphasizes the unique situation involved and leaves no room for extrapolating from it any generalized principle that would justify genocide.
We have, then, several lines of evidence that support the Old Testament claim that the Israelites engaged in the Conquest under what they had good reason to believe was God's command.
1Robert M. Bowman, Jr., "Joshua's Conquest: Did It Happen?" (Alpharetta, GA: North American Mission Board, 2007), online.
2Morton Smith, "A Note on Burning Babies," Journal of the American Oriental Society 95 (1975): 477-79.
3 John Day, Molech: A God of Human Sacrifice in the Old Testament (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 4-14, 29-71.
4A. Spalinger, "A Canaanite Ritual Found in Egyptian Reliefs," Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities 8 (1978): 47-60.
5Philip J. King and Laurence E. Stager, Life in Biblical Israel, Library of Ancient Israel (Louisville and London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 361.