Violence in the Bible, Part 1

By Paul Copan

The command “you shall utterly destroy [the Canaanites]” (Deut. 20:17) is disconcerting to both atheists as well as many Bible-believers. Atheists find further reason to reject God while believers may be deeply troubled because this apparently conflicts with God’s goodness. Did God commanded genocide?

Theologian John Calvin and New Testament scholar G.K. Beale say “Yes!” It was the one, unique, and unrepeatable instance of it in salvation-history. God did so after waiting patiently for over half a millennium (Gen. 15:16) before he says “That’s enough!” Only then did he punish the Canaanites who engaged in incest, bestiality, infant sacrifice, and ritual prostitution—acts that would be considered criminal in any modern society. They should have known better, but they were “disobedient” (Heb. 11:31).

Others within the church like theologian Greg Boyd maintain that God could not have commanded Israel to drive out the Canaanites; these commands were simply the product of the fallen, barbaric, violence-prone minds of ancient authorities like Moses and Joshua: “thus says Moses”—not “the Lord.”[1]

By contrast, a number of scholars—including me—reject that actual genocide was commanded or took place. Combatant warfare, yes—but not wholesale killing of women and children. Such sweeping language was rhetorical and part of the ancient Near Eastern hyperbolic “trash talk”—much like our sports trash talk (“we totally annihilated that team!”). This becomes evident on closer examination of both the biblical text as well as the ancient Near Eastern war texts, history, and archaeological discovery. I address these questions in my book “trilogy” on difficult Old Testament questions; so please look them up.[2] Here are some nuggets on the Bible and violence.

Jesus and Violence

Both testaments affirm “the kindness and severity of God” (Rom. 11:22; cf. Ex. 34:6-7).  Jesus reveals God’s loving character (John 14:9), but wrath and judgment are not opposed to it but because of God’s love that when humans are violated and dehumanized. In the Old Testament, wicked humans are described as “violent [hamas],” not God (e.g., Gen. 6:11; Ps. 11:5).

Jesus himself is kind (Matt. 12:20) and severe; he will rule the nations with “a rod of iron” (Rev. 12:5). He threatens lethal judgment on the false prophetess Jezebel and her followers; he will “strike [them] dead” (Rev. 2:20-23). Our best Greek manuscripts[3] of Jude 5 use a Christological lens on the Old Testament: “Jesus, having saved the people out of the land of Egypt, later destroyed those who did not believe” (Jude 5 NET). The Lamb of God is wrathful and fierce (Rev. 6:16)—good but not safe.

God had to step into our world at some point, Scripture recounts how God enters into a messy world—a story of divine-human interaction that “tells what this decision costs God.”[4] Whether against Israel or the Canaanites, divine severity “is part of a whole concessionary scheme of operation, an accommodation to the fact of rampant evil which he detests but has not abolished.”[5] The New Testament authorities affirm without apology that God was behind the driving out of the Canaanites (Acts 7:45; 13:19; Heb. 11:30-34; Jas. 2:25).

“Genocide” or “Ethnic-Cleansing”?

Old Testament scholar Kenton Sparks charges that Israel drove out the Canaanites “simply because they were pagans.”[6]But if so why not include the Philistines as well? No, Amos 1-2 makes clear that God brings judgment on any nation that persists in acting wickedly, including God’s people; this applies to relenting from judgment (Jer. 18:7-10). And the Canaanites were God’s enemy—not Israel’s— because of their immoral practices. And God would become Israel’s enemy too if they became “Canaanized”: “I will act with wrathful hostility against you” (Lev. 26:28; cf. 20:23).

The claim that the Old Testament promotes segregation and racism is mistaken.[7]  Old Testament scholar David Firth argues that emotive terms such as “ethnic cleansing” or “genocide” are “inappropriate” because “only combatants are killed and an alternative way was always available.” [8]

God’s prime concern was Canaanite identity (detestable acts, false worship), not Canaanites themselves. John and Harvey Walton use the parallel of the Allies destroying Nazi symbols, leaders, and ideology—even though most of the de-Nazified German people would be left alone. Likewise, God was more concerned with destroying a pernicious identity that could lead Israel into sin and covenant-breaking with him.[9]  Deuteronomy 7’s language of both “destruction” and then not intermarrying with the Canaanites, according to Gordon Wenham, indicates “more rhetoric than literal demand. . . .  It is evident that destruction of Canaanite religion is more important than destroying the people.”[10]

Rahab (Josh. 6:22-23), Canaanite “strangers” from Shechem at a covenant-renewal ceremony (Josh. 8:33, 35), and Israel’s treaty with the Gibeonites (Josh. 9) illustrate grace shown to Canaanites. After having forty years to think about God’s wonders in Egypt (2:9-13), Canaanite cities could have attempted to make peace with Israel, but they refused (Josh. 11:19).

Ethnicity or tribal identity is irrelevant—so, not “genocide.” Indeed, God has long-range saving purposes for the enemies of Israel, though, even if in the short-run God must judge them. (Ps. 87:4; Zech. 9:2–7; cf. Isa. 19:25).Furthermore, the fledgling nation of Israel was highly susceptible to the influences of Canaanite immorality and idolatry; its identity-preservation was essential to keep its mission to bless the nations from being derailed. John Goldingay writes that the strong language of Deuteronomy “was only being realistic in recognizing the power of Canaanite temptation when Israelite faith in Yahweh was a newly budded flower.”[11]

As God’s plan to save the nations through Israel hung in the balance, a kind of spiritual warfare is in place—much like God’s battling against Egypt’s deities through in the plagues (Exod. 12:12). Without God’s severe actions against Egypt, there would have been no exodus, no conquest, no Israel.[12]  So, strange as it seems, the world’s destiny depends on Israel: “As Jesus put it in John 4, salvation is from the Jews. Therefore, no Jews, no salvation—and, further,  “Jesus is Jewish. No Jews, no Jesus.”[13]

War Texts, Hyperbole, and “Extermination” Language

The claim that God commanded Canaanite “extermination” is mistaken; it fails to take ancient Near Eastern war-text rhetoric into consideration. Also, the plain affirmations of the biblical text shows a gradual taking of the land through disabling raids and then retreating to the base camp at Gilgal without holding those places (Josh. 10:15, 43).[14] It wasn’t a massive destruction of Canaanite cities and homes (e.g., Deut. 6:10-11; 7:22; 9:1), and only three cities (Jericho, Ai, and Hazor were burned).

Commonly-used terms—leaving “no survivor” or “anything that breathes”—are called “merisms” (sweeping, totalizing exaggerations). As I point out in my books, Egyptian pharaohs and other rulers used language like “perished completely, as though they never existed, like the ashes”; “were made non-existent”; “has utterly perished for always.” But we know from history that these were exaggerations.

Also, the term haram (sometimes translated “utterly destroy”) can be understood in different ways depending on the context. God’s promises to “utterly destroy” Judah (Jer. 25:9-11) simply means Judah will go into exile. Sometimes it just means comprehensive victory ,not extermination.[15] Sometimes the term could mean “devoted” or “consecrated,” but without involving destruction or death of a servant or animal, but they are set aside for priestly service (Lev. 27:21–28).

As we look at many biblical texts, we see language of “annihilation” and “no annihilation” side by side. Here is a sampling:

  • Joshua 10:33: Joshua “defeated” the king of Gezer and “left him no survivor.”
  • Judges 1:29: “Ephraim did not drive out the Canaanites who were living in Gezer; so the Canaanites lived in Gezer among them.” King Solomon would eventually capture Gezer (1 Kings 9:16).

Compare similar “annihilation-no annihilation” scenarios in Joshua 10:39 with 11:21 (the inhabitants of Debir) or Judges 1:8 with 1:21 (the Jebusites).

Joshua says “the land had rest from war” (Josh. 11:23) and that Joshua had “utterly destroyed” and “left nothing undone” that “Moses commanded” (Josh. 11:12, 15, 20). The same book makes clear that Canaanite nations still remained, that Israel shouldn’t make covenantal alliances with them (Josh. 23:12).

All other cities were left intact rather than “utterly destroyed.” Egyptologist James Hoffmeier notes that this was a “limited conquest of key sites in strategic areas,” adding, “Clearly the Bible does not claim a maximal conquest and demolition of Canaan.”[16] Likewise, Daniel Hawk comments: “To read Joshua as extermination is to misread the text.”[17] A closer look at warring Joshua reveals a different picture than the typical Sunday school rendition.

In Part II of this series on the Bible and violence, we look at specific war texts to see this illustrated more clearly.


[1] Greg Boyd, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2017).

[2] See Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011); Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan, Did God Really Command Genocide? (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014); and Paul Copan, Is God a Vindictive Bully? (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2022).

[3] See the latest (28th) critical edition of the Greek New Testament: Nestle-Aland 28.

[4] L. Daniel Hawk, The Violence of the Biblical God: Canonical Narrative and Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019), xiv.

[5] J. Gordon McConville and Stephen N. Williams, Joshua (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 112.

[6] Kenton Sparks, God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 297, 298.

[7] Philip Jenkins, Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses (New York: HarperOne, 2012).

[8] David G. Firth, The Message of Joshua (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015), 27.

[9] John Walton and Harvey Walton, Lost World of the Israelite Conquest (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), 177.

[10] Gordon Wenham, Exploring the Old Testament, vol. 1, A Guide to the Pentateuch (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003), 137.

[11] John Goldingay, “Justice and Salvation for Israel in Canaan,” in Reading the Hebrew Bible for a New Millennium: Form, Concept, and Theological Perspective, vol. 1, Theological and Hermeneutical Studies, ed. Deborah L. Ellens, et al. (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000), 184. 186.

[12] L. Daniel Hawk, The Violence of the Biblical God: Canonical Narrative and Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019), 165.

[13] John Goldingay, Numbers and Deuteronomy for Everyone (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 85.

[14] Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Historical Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 162

[15] David G. Firth, Joshua (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2021), 207–8.

[16] James K. Hoffmeier, The Archaeology of the Bible (Oxford: Lion, 2008), 67, 68.

[17] L. Daniel Hawk, The Violence of the Biblical God: Canonical Narrative and Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019), 167.

Published September 25, 2023

Paul Copan

Paul Copan (Ph.D., Philosophy, Marquette University) is a Christian theologian, analytic philosopher, apologist, and author. He is currently a professor at the Palm Beach Atlantic University (Florida) and holds the endowed Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics. He is author or editor of over 40 books, including works such as Is God a Moral Monster?, Is God a Vindictive Bully?, The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Religion, The Naturalness of Theistic Belief, Creation out of Nothing, Philosophy of Religion: Classic and Contemporary Issues, A Little Book for New Philosophers, and The Kalām Cosmological Argument (a two-volume anthology). He has also contributed essays to over 50 books, both scholarly and popular, and he has authored a number of articles in professional journals.