Volume 47 - Issue 1

Helpful Distinction or Quarrel over Words? The Conquest as “Genocide” in Evangelical Apologetics

By Caleb Miller


The language of “genocide” as applied to the conquest of Canaan puts pastors, scholars, and apologists in a bind. Employing the term leads to exaggerated claims, but disputing it often leads to equally unhelpful semantic exercises. After surveying four approaches (sober acknowledgement, unqualified affirmation, active resistance, and careful avoidance), I advocate for careful avoidance of the term, starting with considering the specific hermeneutical, historiographical, theological, or ethical concern of a questioner or critic, rather than starting with questions of accuracy or precision.

“Wisdom is recognizing the significant within the factual.” (Bonhoeffer)1

The biblical language associated with the conquest of Canaan is vivid and well-known: “show no mercy” and “save alive nothing” (Deut 7), “devote them to complete destruction” (Deut 20), with the later mention of killing “men and women, young and old,” and “all that breathes” with “the edge of the sword” (Josh 6 and 11). Phrases like this have given most contemporary readers an immediate impression of genocide: a word with a rhetorical charge and a gravitational pull. In the current political context of liberal western democracies, the notion of a divine command to take possession of land and drive out an indigenous population threatens to overwhelm all other considerations. Genocidal language puts it over the top. To say it is controversial does not go far enough.

Most resources from an evangelical perspective approach this daunting reality as a matter of accuracy or precision: either the conquest was genocidal by the Bible’s own admission,2 or there are clues in the text to suggest something less severe or more complex was going on.3 This essay explores the practical implications of the latter. In a more perfect world, perhaps, the tenuous association between the biblical conquest and modern genocide would be seen for what it is and avoided as largely irrelevant by all concerned parties.4 Nuances do not always traverse languages well, and newer words are rarely adequate to replace older concepts as cultural mores develop and technicalities change.

In the meantime, when it comes to the term genocide itself in interpreting the conquest narratives, there are still gaping issues of significance, methodology, and pastoral wisdom. Why does the term genocide seem to matter so much to one author and hardly at all to another? What is at stake? What term could replace it?5 Are the older characterizations like “indiscriminate slaughter” (Calvin),6 “unprovoked, merciless aggression” (Kline),7 “total war” (Younger),8 or “divinely ordered massacres” (Kidner)9 any more advisable? What is to be gained by engaging in debates over the technicalities of what is or is not genocide? Most specifically: is the appropriateness of the genocidal characterization inextricably linked to a particular historical, ethical10 or theological problem? Would problems exist regardless of precise terminology?

Questions of this sort have placed well-meaning pastors, teachers, apologists and theologians in somewhat of a bind, whether they fully realize it or not. We are caught between the potential harm done by an explosive word that is overly suggestive and leads to exaggerations, and the potential harm done with the correction by adding more confusion, offering unnecessary offense, or focusing on trivialities.

On the one hand, Christians are to seek helpful distinctions to do full justice (without any hints of selectivity or apologetic dodging) to all features of the biblical text, even those that cause discomfort or create uncertainty. This is not only part of what it means for the text to be authoritative for the believer, but it is also how the critic demonstrates good faith. To apply a genocidal characterization, especially when done uncritically and haphazardly, leads to a caricature that is either anachronistic or disingenuous.11 It might also give the impression that the Bible oscillates wildly between contradictory extremes (about the extent of the campaign in Canaan, or God’s grace, or the proper treatment of enemies), or amplify a theme beyond its contextual limits. Genocide carries such a rhetorical force it threatens to concede too much, offend unnecessarily, and obscure the truth.

On the other hand, there is also the opposite danger of getting too “in the weeds” with semantics, even where qualifications may technically be correct. Any term, with enough attention, can be scrutinized ad nauseum. “Violence,” for instance, can also be interrogated as it applies to the conquest narratives12—but as Nimni eloquently spells out13 and even the most conservative commentators intuitively realize, it is utterly counterproductive to expect everyone to define violence in a standardized way. Violence is a malleable word. Something similar can be done with the word conquest, but little is gained with the exercise.14 Christians in their eagerness to affirm the basic authority, coherency, reliability, inerrancy or infallibility of the Scriptures might inadvertently descend into a “quarrel over words” in their rebuttals of a genocidal interpretation. The result is too often something equally unhelpful: a meandering list of clarifications, a dry recital of facts or all-too-familiar buzzwords, a profoundly callous or cruel comparison, or a story that is just a little too cleaned up in the retelling. Nuances have a way of turning on those that suggested them in the first place; one false step threatens the whole project. In this essay I will recommend cautiously avoiding the term “genocide” whenever possible with a problem-based approach exemplified by (but to my knowledge nowhere explicitly explained by) Christopher Wright. First, I will outline the approaches in current evangelical scholarship. Second, I will consider how these approaches fare when considering the conquest from various angles: hermeneutics, historiography, theodicy, and ethics. I will conclude with a summary of the approach.

While generally recommending a careful avoidance of the term genocide, and in that sense agreeing with the current swing in evangelical scholarship away from a genocidal characterization, I will outline a few instances in which pushing back against genocidal language is genuinely helpful in hermeneutics or historiography. At the same time, I will maintain that in theological or ethical treatments the results are either mixed or simply counterproductive when the word genocide becomes a focal point of the discussion. It is hoped that these cases will help clarify for evangelical pastors, teachers, apologists, and theologians—perhaps even for critics—when and how to engage in this delicate and complex conversation. Even if my recommendation is rejected, however, at the very least I want to direct attention to the difficulties attending this specific word. If this essay causes anyone to pause before unnecessarily employing the word or engaging in a dispute over its usage elsewhere, it will have achieved its desired effect. The question of the suitability of a term like genocide for the conquest narratives is more than a question of accuracy; a look at the dynamics of the hotly contested controversies involving the conquest is necessary.

1. Surveying Current Approaches

When taking a survey of the relevant literature, even when limited to a focused exploration of the evangelical perspective, two main challenges present themselves. The first is the relatively recent arrival of the notion of genocide, especially when compared to the age of the biblical texts and their subsequent interpretation. Exactly how theologians or commentators writing before 1944 (when “genocide” was first coined) might have navigated the bind outlined above may never be fully known. They lived in a time when war and destruction on the scale of millions was rarely even conceivable, though severe and chilling acts of war on the scale of hundreds or many thousands have been a sad norm throughout fallen human history.

The second and perhaps greater challenge has to do with determining the available options. These are not clearly defined poles or corners in a debate. Instead, there are several overlapping considerations, and simultaneous conversations underway concerning the conquest (often unhelpfully lumped into one generalized “debate” for the reader to sort out). A great deal of unraveling is in order.

Evangelical scholars of the last few decades vary widely in their willingness to employ, resist, or simply avoid genocidal terminology when commenting on the Israelite campaigns in Canaan. As I survey the literature, I find four broad positions:

  1. Sober acknowledgment: this group reluctantly employs the language of genocide and speak as though this characterization itself signals a theological or ethical problem.
  2. Unqualified affirmation: these scholars emphatically affirm a genocidal characterization but would have a problem with any interpretation or application of the conquest that offers a justification of these acts of war even if another, less striking term were substituted in the place of genocide.
  3. Active resistance: those in this group deny that the conquest was genocidal and assign this clarification great significance in making sense of theological or ethical implications of the conquest.
  4. Careful avoidance: this final group offers little to no comment on whether it was genocide out of a desire to emphasize something else. Whether explicitly or implicitly, these authors suggest that genocide is not tied to the theological point of the conquest.

It can be seen even in these short descriptions that each of these approaches is connected to a perception of a problem the conquest might pose in the first place. Each of these deserves a more detailed treatment.

1.1. Sober Acknowledgement

Those who grant the language of genocide as a matter of sober acknowledgement refuse to pit one portion of Scripture against another or undermine the authority and relevance of the conquest narratives in any way. They do not see another way to characterize indiscriminate killing, and so concede that the conquest was genocidal. They also seem to suggest that this characterization should make a difference in the debates.

The texts of Joshua 6 or 1 Samuel 15, in this view, indicate annihilation of the Canaanites, and are thus unavoidably genocidal. Whether or not anyone can reconcile this with other aspects of Christian doctrine, biblical ethics, or theology proper is beside the point; there is to be no mincing of words or avoiding the hard truths. In this vein Merrill and Gard share the premise of a genocidal characterization, even as they seek to incorporate that difficult reality into biblical theology.15 Pitkämen cites “genocide theology.”16

Those who soberly acknowledge genocide have decided the conquest’s primary problematic feature is its severity, and that it requires something like a theodicy to resolve it. Goldingay rehearses how the ban outlined in Deuteronomy required the Israelite armies to go outside of the conventional rules of war and our intuitions of justice, or because the election of Israel and condemnation of Canaan goes against our intuitions of fairness.17 Just as the problem of evil and suffering pits the Bible’s teaching on God’s goodness against the reality of evil and suffering in the world, this line of thinking pits the Bible’s teaching about God’s mercy or care for the defenseless against God’s own command. How could God command such a thing?

1.2. Unqualified Affirmation

Others like Boyd, Seibert, and Cowles fall into a different camp, which we might call unqualified affirmation. They assert that the conquest was genocide, but this is just one aspect among many problematic aspects of the conquest and could easily be discarded. There is far more leeway in this approach to either criticizing portions of the biblical witness or dramatically reframing them in light of a more “enlightened” or “evolved” ethic. Examples might be Christ’s allegedly non-violent example in the New Testament, or some external moral principle about human rights, or a deeply spiritual-allegorical hermeneutic.

In this approach, a genocidal aspect of Yahweh’s warfare is presupposed rather than argued out in detail. It is treated as something self-evident and applied not only to the events themselves but to any pretext for future genocidal episodes throughout history. This is, at least on a surface level, completely understandable: “How else should reports of killing ‘all that breathes’ in a given city or region be interpreted?” they may ask rhetorically. But this is akin to any argument involving a literalistic hermeneutic built mostly on assertions. To the extent that scholars want to interact with the best available evidence and lines of argument, it forces anyone who takes issue with the characterization to single-handedly conjure up the strongest cases for or against. To his credit, Boyd probably goes the farthest in seeking to refute any who would suggest otherwise,18 and other such as Seibert, Creach, and Cowles generally agree.19

Opposition to the violence of the conquest (and much of the Old Testament) unites pacifist Christians, as well as outspoken critics of Christianity operating in a post-Holocaust20 and post-9/1121 world, liberal theologians,22 and militant atheists.23 All of these groups would affirm without so much as a second thought that Israel’s earliest wars were genocidal, and often denounce such passages as Deuteronomy 7 or 20 in the strongest possible terms. This is true even if they disagree about how that denunciation should impact other theological commitments.

Yet the core problematic feature of the conquest narratives is not its indicators of genocide per se, but the overall theme of violence in the Bible. Simply substituting another roughly equivalent word would not meaningfully alter their concern. Genocide only represents an extreme or perhaps embarrassing case of the greater problem of war in the Old Testament, if not also the apocalyptic language in the New Testament. Scale, rationale, intent, or the interaction between divine and human involvement are secondary considerations, at best.

For the Christians represented in this group, it is unimaginable and even blasphemous that God (as revealed in Christ) would ever command or participate in violence in any form for any reason, and this contradiction between the Testaments or conceptions of God must be somehow resolved. The conquest is no more problematic than the flood narratives, or the plagues, or the idea of eternal conscious torment in hell, except perhaps that in this case there were human actors. In this view, the lessons of a book like Joshua must be extracted from their deadly and dangerous immediate context, and a prior commitment to non-violence overshadows the commitment to the inerrancy of any portrayal of God as an active warrior.

1.3. Active Resistance

Those actively resisting the term genocide lately seem to be defined by three actions: (a) to affirm a just war approach to war, (b) to argue decidedly against the genocidal characterization, and (c) to assign this denial great significance. The lengths to which authors will go to resist the term “genocide” vary, of course, as do the reasons offered. Zehnder bases his opposition to the term on exegetical observations, though he is careful to point out that it ultimately depends on definitions.24 Hess does not belabor his resistance to the term either, but argues that the campaigns focused primarily on military objectives rather than civilian populations.25 Despite this, he still in his earlier commentary speaks of “wholesale extermination of nations” in setting up the ethical question.26

The most outspoken recent commentators who fall into this category are Flannagan and Copan, who devote a book-length treatment to the question “did God really command genocide?” and answer emphatically and rigorously in the negative. They speak of the conquest not as sweeping destruction of everyone and everything in the land (this is dismissed as Sunday school distortion) but as a series of severe, disabling, localized raids.27 Of all the authors I have so far encountered, Copan and Flannagan seem to assign the greatest significance to the distinction between “genocide” and something else.

Those who take this approach tend to see the problems associated with the conquest as a series of misconceptions—at worst a clash of sensibilities, or a body of data and cultural mores that has been lost to us. There is no required solution; one need only launch an investigation.

1.4. Careful Avoidance

The position closest to that advocated in this essay is careful avoidance. It neither embraces a genocidal characterization outright, nor goes out of its way to comment on or dispute its use unless the context specifically warrants it. It borrows and at times blends insights from those in other camps. This approach simply looks for better terminology with less baggage.

Different authors will, of course, have different motivations. Walton and Walton briefly caution that genocide is anachronistic, though this feeds into their larger point that readers throughout church history and particularly in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have expected Deuteronomy and Joshua to address ethical or theological questions that the original readers would have found utterly strange.28 They do not seem interested in delving deep into the legal intricacies of the difference between genocide on the one hand and, say, massacres or ethnic cleansing on the other. Though Heiser states that genocide or indiscriminate slaughter was “not the point of the conquest” and seems to heavily discourage that focus, he does not dispute that it occurred. He makes his own robust case for something functionally equivalent: “the urgency to eliminate the Nephilim [giant] bloodlines.”29 In his advocacy for a more symbolic and less historically grounded reading of the book of Joshua, Earl nevertheless acknowledges the many allegations of genocide.30

Another subset of this “avoidance” group contains authors who seem to avoid or de-emphasize altogether. Longman, who is far more interested in the contemporary theological and ethical debates, neither disputes nor emphasizes genocide in his discussion of “holy war” and does not go out of his way to explain his rationale for doing so.31 Similarly Kline cites “unprovoked, merciless aggression,”32 held in tension with the principles of modern international law. The term is also notably absent from the discussions of Kidner,33 Kitchen,34 and Kaiser,35 who each write of invasions, massacres, battles, raids and generalized destruction. Younger speaks (contra Hess) of the “destruction” or “elimination” of the populations of enemy cities, as well as “calculated frightfulness.”36

Wright seeks to offer some correction to the many caricatures that would unnecessarily portray God as bloodthirsty or Moses as a vengeful mass murderer, but at the same time he tacitly concedes that the distinction between genocide and something else often makes little difference. He gently resists the language of genocide due to popular associations with ethnic cleansing but otherwise shares a lot with the sober acknowledgment approach, admitting plainly that he often wonders why God would use such methods as conquest for his eternal purposes.37 Taking a more holistic approach to the conquest, Wright is able to offer layers of nuance. His outlining of the potential problems tends to include rich elements of historiography, ethics, biblical theology, and historical theology. He sees many connection points between these fields and seeks not just a solution to a given problem set but more of a unified theory. He thus perceives a need to juggle multiple priorities at once and senses the need only on certain occasions to mention the disputes about genocide.

2. Weighing Current Approaches

The various ways evangelical Christian scholars have approached the genocidal characterization in recent years are each tied to their dialogue partners’ concerns and ultimately, the unique problems they are trying to solve. But more specificity is possible and needed. The main problems posed by the conquest involve history, biblical/systematic theology, and ethics, yet the word genocide has a different connotation in each—and these connotations have so far not lined up well with the four outlined approaches.

For the sake of focused coherency, I will briefly consider the Bible’s account of the conquest through four lenses: historiography, hermeneutics, theodicy, and ethics. These subjects certainly overlap in many respects, even as they either lurk in the background or dominate the emphases of sermons, lessons, books, articles, and apologetic exercises. Drawing together observations from each of these lenses will be crucial, however, in comparing the merits of the four postures toward genocidal terminology outlined above. I will argue that a type of careful avoidance is most successful in doing justice to all four aspects without contradiction, redundancy, or a lack of pastoral sensitivity.

2.1. Hermeneutics

If the concern of a preacher, teacher, or apologist is to paint as accurate a picture as possible of the original Late Bronze Age context, it is wise to avoid the term genocide. If someone insists the conquest was tantamount to genocide, it is productive to dispute this characterization insofar as the word genocide has misleading connotations and is an anachronism. The distinction between genocide and something else may give us a clearer picture of the frame of reference in the original context. Resisting reading contemporary jargon into the ancient original sources helps us conceptualize better. Consider Beard’s comments on the scale of war in early Rome:

Despite the style in which they are recounted, as if they were mini-versions of Rome against Hannibal, they were probably something closer, in our terms, to cattle raids.… In most early communities, it took a long time before the various forms of private violence, from rough justice and vendetta to guerrilla warfare, came fully under public control. Conflict of all sorts was regularly in the hands of individuals with their own following, the ancient equivalents of what we might call private warlords; and there was a blurry distinction between what was conducted on behalf of the “state” and what on behalf of some powerful leader.38

Or this is how Gabrieli describes the Battle of Badr, recounted in the Quran:

With hardly a dozen dead among the Muslims and a few dozen among the Meccans, among whom was Abu Jahl himself, in an encounter which in military terms was hardly more than a brawl.39

Complaining about stylized, exaggerated and distorted accounts of historical events in film or the popular imagination is common among historians. It is in this same spirit that Hess, in his analysis of Joshua’s account, theorizes based on contemporaneous requests for reinforcements in the region that “it would not seem preposterous if the number of men defending Jericho was about 100 or fewer.”40 Ai, according to a similar theory, was at most a village with nearby ruins partially explaining why the spies thought so few Israelites were required to take it (Josh 7:3).41 Hazor was a larger settlement, given a place of prominence in the lists of conquered northern cities (11:10–11).42 Of course, ancient acts of war were no less brutal by virtue of their smaller scale or remoteness in the past, but the numbers justifying a genocidal designation are absent. Thus, to soberly acknowledge or affirm genocide in some unqualified sense is misleading.

The issue plums deeper than a question of historical accuracy as opposed to anachronism, however. Connotations reach beyond the mere facts on the ground and affect our view of the character of God and his people. As Walton and Walton have noted, “when we hear words such as genocide we interpret them as ‘a thing that should never be done.’ But the text does not depict the conquest event in terms of a thing that should never be done.”43 The earliest readers of Numbers, Joshua, or 1 Samuel, and those who presumably carried out the divine commands, were not thinking in the same categories we might today. The connotations that accompany the word genocide are an awkward fit in the ancient context. A contemporary example might be the cultural gap between a western individualism where sin and injustice are primarily found in private decision making, and an eastern communalism, where sin and injustice can be private but are also embedded in societies and structures as corruption takes its toll on a whole community. A biblical example indicating a similar cultural gap might be the plea of Abraham in Genesis 18:25. He is apparently less concerned with the deaths of women, children, the elderly, sick, or defenseless (as we might be in a society dominated by the categories of the Geneva Conventions, and as we might often imagine Abraham to be), and much more concerned that God would violate his justice by putting the “righteous” ones to death along with the wicked.44

Another prominent theme evident in the biblical witness (absent from modern analyses of genocide or reappropriations of conquest narratives) is the promise of Yahweh intervening by bringing judgment or fighting on behalf of his people (Gen 15:16; Exod 23:23).45 It is possible, perhaps, to dismiss these as redactions, exaggerations, or expressions of nationalistic fervor. Even so, to take the Old Testament on its own terms is to acknowledge that it was not merely a human endeavor. The conquest involved human instruments acting on orders with a divine origin. God’s direct involvement is part of the Bible’s way of accounting for a lack of post-traumatic stress or moral injury on the behalf of the Israelite invaders.46 The Bible does not lack elsewhere in this regard; yet the agonizing poetic and prophetic laments that accompany the events leading to the devastating siege of Samaria and Jerusalem and the exile simply have no parallel expression of regret in the accounts of the conquest beyond the remarkable admission that the conquest was incomplete (Judg 1–2). In neither Testament do we find any expression of remorse or direct commentary on the conquest that would even hint that it could have been wrong. This should temper any evangelical approach to the text.

2.2. Historiography

If the concern of a preacher, teacher, or apologist is historiography of the conquest (the act of recording casualty counts, modelling the destruction, harmonizing victorious optimism with reports of setbacks), again it is wise to avoid the language of genocide. If someone insists that the Bible depicts genocide, it is productive to dispute this characterization. Where “total war,” “slaughter,” “aggression,” or “massacre” are more accurate designations, they are also more helpful in this historiographical context.

The distinction between genocide and something else is relevant, even crucial, in explaining the unusually large numbers in censuses or casualty counts and the apparent contradictions between victories and setbacks internal to Joshua and/or between Joshua and Judges.47 If the references to “killing all that breathes” are hyperbolic, as Kitchen and Kidner argue,48 and as Fouts echoes with regard to casualty counts (which would then be far lower than the “thousands” represented in hyperbolic language and English translations),49 the likelihood of a contradiction in the narrative of Joshua or Judges is greatly lessened.

To affirm that the conquest was genocide as if it were a binary choice (whether soberly or in an unqualified way) misses these important distinctions and concedes too much. It is no secret that because of the scant extra-biblical textual evidence and conflicting archaeological evidence, the conquest is difficult to date, model, and chronicle. This has led to a host of questions about terminology to define or describe the biblical portrayal of Israel’s campaigns in and around the land of Canaan. But if indeed genocide is a misnomer, the need to explain the lack of archaeological evidence for widespread devastation in the Late Bronze Age is less pressing. If we conceive of the conquest more as a series of localized, disabling raids on military objectives, not a sweeping annihilation of everyone caught somewhere between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea, the notion of genocide on the scale of a regional conflict fades, and is replaced with something far more appropriate to the ancient Near Eastern context.

2.3. Theodicy

If the concern is a biblical or theological theme tied to genocide in the Bible, before deciding how or whether to push back on terminology, it is best to consider what distinguishes a given objection from other similar objections to the flood in Genesis or the reality of hell. Unless a specific tension tied to war is in view (and in most cases becomes a question of ethics or morals), the distinction between genocide and available substitutes probably does not matter. Whether posed in the form of a theodicy or variation on the Euthyphro Dilemma, or a more a straightforward approach of weighing God’s wrath against his mercy, genocide becomes a stand in for “that which should not be done,” and it can easily be switched out for other equivalents without any change in the logical structure of the argument.

There are of course instances in the Bible, in recorded history, and in our lives where God allows evil people to do horrendous things to other human beings. Yet from the vantage point of a believer, God’s acts in Scripture stand as a unified whole, and God has the right to do what he will without satisfying human curiosity or removing pain. This was one of the clear lessons of Job’s suffering, David’s expressions of pain in the Psalms, Habakkuk’s prophecy, or Paul’s agony over the Jewish rejection of Jesus—all of which end with unanswered questions of “why?”

From the standpoint of biblical theology, God did not reveal himself to be particularly vengeful or severe on Canaan in a way that is alien to the rest of the biblical storyline, even if genocide is in view. This insight is perhaps why many evangelical commentators have soberly acknowledged the genocidal designation in the case of the conquest without much hesitation. Had God destroyed the Canaanites and their cities by any other means (plagues, fire from heaven, a flood, etc.), the conquest would not exactly be the firebrand it has become today. It would fade somewhat into the background of other issues. A cursory reading of either Testament reveals countless passages where God himself displays his wrath and kills people (Sodom and Gomorrah, or Ananias and Sapphira), or God commands or allows humans to kill other humans but not in an indiscriminate way (the death penalty or wars with far-off nations). There are plenty of occasions where God’s commands are counter-intuitive and seem to require a suspension of what someone in a particular cultural context “knows” to be true (the binding of Isaac, or in another context, the declaration that all foods are clean).

2.4. Morality and Ethics

The conquest was not merely a human endeavor, but it was nonetheless a human endeavor. This complicates the picture by involving even more than characterizations and biblical theology. For all that might be gained from the helpful distinctions rehearsed above, unfortunately there are other instances of counterproductive posturing. Sometimes going out of one’s way to apply or resist a genocidal characterization does very little for the argument at hand.

If someone wants to dispute an ethical dilemma tied to the kind of warfare in reported in Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, or 1 Samuel, clarifying that this was not technically genocide is at best irrelevant, and at worst profoundly insensitive.

Through this lens, it makes little difference whether we call the conquest “genocide,” “slaughter,” “aggression,” or “massacre,” the moral or ethical dilemmas remain. This much is intuitive to any who have truly struggled with the dilemmas either as a combatant themselves or as someone who is contemplating the implications of being not only an object of God’s wrath, but the vessel through which that wrath is poured on someone else. There need only be one example of killing a particularly innocent or defenseless person to cause concern—as evidenced by the controversies surrounding the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22, or the harrowing reference to the violent deaths of infants in Psalm 137. From the standpoint of the critic, whether of the New Atheist or neo-Anabaptist variety, their argument does not rest on such a characterization. Even Copan and Flannagan, who go the farthest of all the authors surveyed to argue against a genocidal characterization, acknowledge that strictly speaking most of the ethical objections raised do not need a notion like genocide in order to function.50 Texts such as Numbers 31 perplexed and greatly challenged Jewish and Christian exegetes51 along moral or ethical lines long before genocide was a standardized term or even a conceivable reality. It did not seem to matter to Calvin that the genocidal characterization was downgraded to something localized and temporal; his writing still reveals a wrestling with the implications.52

It is worth noting that Kitchen and Younger, two of the most-cited authors in the evangelical scholarly world by those actively resisting the term genocide in this context, do not offer commentary on the term genocide or on the moral ethical implications of their approach in the works commonly cited. They steadfastly limit themselves to questions of historical investigation; they are trying to persuade readers not to dismiss the Old Testament accounts as groundless myth and to do this they appeal to parallels between the biblical historical narratives and their ancient Near Eastern counterparts. They nowhere suggest that this somehow removes the possibility that any of the women, children, elderly, sick or otherwise defenseless people in the land of Canaan were painfully killed by the edge of the sword, and in considerable numbers. To the contrary, Younger (in comparing Joshua’s exploits to those of the ruthless Ashurnasirpal II) notes that “the concept of total war (i.e., the destruction of the population as well as the military) was a practice which one encounters on numerous occasions in the ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts.”53 At best we have shaken the common comparison to the Holocaust, only to be confronted with other unsettling comparisons like the bombing of Dresden (total war) or removal of Native Americans from what is now the United States (expulsion). The scale may be smaller, the context may be quite different, but these are hardly more comfortable parallels.

Nor does genocide necessarily indicate complete eradication; in most historical examples genocide is marked more by intent than result. Copan and Flannagan, for instance, conclude their lengthy case against a notion of genocide by citing an “abundance of survivors who could not be driven out” on the second-to-last page.54 Setting aside that the reason for this abundance probably has more to do with Israel’s failure to adequately drive the Canaanites from the land as instructed than it does with any merciful exception to the ban, and regardless of the fact that this is a largely unnecessary exercise, irrelevant to their original stated concern on the first page (the moral argument cited in the introduction makes no mention of the word or concept of genocide, and by their own admission functions perfectly well without it),55 there is a deeper issue: the enduring presence of surviving Canaanites as a people group does not in and of itself demonstrate Copan and Flannagan’s case. It no more negates the possibility of genocidal acts during the conquest than the presence of surviving Jews, Armenians, and Tutsis in Rwanda negate their respective claims. Unless the premises can be set up in the correct order and with perfect accuracy, this line of argument backfires.

A review of the broader semantic range of genocide reveals just how thorny and potentially embarrassing this quarrel over words will become if the point is pressed. Even from a strictly legal or secular standpoint the term is not as straightforward as one might suppose. Curthoys and Docker, for instance, ask,

Are there forms of genocide which do not involve mass killing? What are the criteria for assessing intention in genocidal events and processes? Do genocides necessarily involve state action or leadership? Should mass killing based on political categories be called genocide? What is meant by cultural genocide? To what extent must historical examples conform to the legal definition?56

As the definition of the term expands or contracts, this complicates its application even to classic case studies in history (Myanmar, Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, Nazi Germany, the Crusades, etc.), let alone reading the term back into an ancient conquest account like the book of Joshua.

In fact, even Lemkin’s original legal definition encapsulates far more than deliberate killing, and need not have a component of ethnic hostility. It includes “causing serious bodily or mental harm,” “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part,” “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group,” “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”57 Copan and Flannagan respond with an appeal to international court rulings involving the Kosovo crisis and how genocide is tied to physical destruction and a demonstrated intent to eradicate a people group from the planet.58 Yet, even ignoring for the moment the incredibly uncomfortable position of attempting to clarify the conquest of Canaan in the Late Bronze Age through such a painful recent example, this fails to account for the range of potential meanings of genocide; not everyone has an intricate legal definition in mind.

Here the more measured language of Zehnder’s conclusion is instructive:

Whether one finds “genocidal” traits in the pentateuchal (sic) passages dealing with the occupation of the promised land or the descriptions of the conquest in Joshua and Judges depends on the definition of the term “genocidal.” Using a relatively narrow definition … one can hardly speak of a genocide. It is, however, clear that lethal actions are prescribed in Deuteronomy and described in Joshua, related mainly to the concept of herem.59

3. Conclusions

Until critics can be persuaded to abandon the term, or apologists can work out a graceful way to reframe the debate, genocide will remain a word that is simultaneously to be avoided yet unavoidable when it comes to discussions of the conquest. As outlined above, the term genocide can lead to profound misunderstanding and pain. Yet despite the many disputes and distractions, it is for the most part not a crucial term for the arguments involving ethics or theology. To the extent that pastors, teachers, and theologians are persuaded by the arguments of Zehnder or Wright they would do well to avoid the term, if possible, but can also make preparations to articulate why they avoid it.

Of the four approaches that have gained traction either explicitly or implicitly in evangelical circles, I have made a case for careful avoidance. It is selective to soberly acknowledge God’s severity in the conquest without also acknowledging his severity elsewhere in the Bible. It is redundant to protest the conquest in some unqualified way if the general principle of war or violence itself is the root cause of offense. It is usually counterproductive and awkward to delve into the technicalities of what is or is not genocide to evade an ethical or theological dilemma. Yet it is simply not feasible to avoid a notorious term like genocide in all situations, silently hoping no one listening to our sermons or engaging our apologetic efforts concerning the conquest will challenge that avoidance.

Hermeneutical and historiographical considerations get in the way of a consistent posture of sober acknowledgement or unqualified affirmation of genocide. Any attempt at a theodicy of the conquest does not ultimately depend on the term genocide; it can be substituted out with little to no effect. when it comes to disputes over morality and ethics, actively resisting the term genocide results in a quarrel over words.

A better approach, in my view, is to first work backward from a proposed hermeneutical, historical, theological or ethical problem, keeping in mind that genocide is itself not a fixed term and its importance will naturally vary depending on the issue at hand. Before making judgments about accuracy or precision, or determining whether it is worth a dispute, it is more productive to ask how the term genocide functions in the overall argument. Useful clarifications are tied not only to the veracity of a claim but to the point one is trying to make and the person one is trying to answer.

To summarize, I propose the following courses of action:

First, if the concern of a preacher, teacher or apologist is to paint as accurate a picture as possible of the original Late Bronze Age context, it is wise to avoid the term. If someone insists the conquest was tantamount to genocide, it is productive to dispute this characterization insofar as the word genocide has misleading connotations and is an anachronism. Second, if the concern of a preacher, teacher, or apologist is historiography of the conquest (the act of recording casualty counts, modelling the destruction, harmonizing victorious optimism with reports of setbacks), again it is wise to avoid the language of genocide. If someone insists that the Bible depicts genocide, it is productive to dispute this characterization. Where “total war,” “slaughter,” “aggression,” or “massacre” are more accurate designations, they are also more helpful in this historiographical context. Third, if the concern is a biblical or theological theme tied to genocide in the Bible, before deciding how or whether to push back on terminology, it is best to consider what distinguishes a given objection from other similar objections to the flood in Genesis or the reality of hell. Unless a specific tension tied to war is in view (and in most cases becomes a question of ethics or morals), the distinction between genocide and available substitutes probably does not matter.

Fourth, if someone wants to dispute an ethical dilemma tied to the kind of warfare in reported in Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, or 1 Samuel, clarifying that this was not technically genocide is at best irrelevant, and at worst profoundly insensitive.

In this way we avoid the twin dangers of either minimizing the severity and pain of the conquest or painting God and his representatives as exaggerated monsters on the other. If these observations hold true, in most cases substituting genocide for older characterizations like “indiscriminate slaughter” (emphasizing the act of killing), “unprovoked, merciless aggression” (highlighting the motive), “total war” (establishing the scope), or “divinely ordered massacres” (underlining the theological aspect) is advisable. These substitutions provide helpful distinctions to account for ancient Near Eastern conventions and the original context. They already preserve and better specify various aspects of what pacifists and other critics have identified as most problematic about the conquest, and so do not “whitewash” the text. They allow dialogue partners on all sides to maintain helpful distinctions while avoiding at least one treacherous quarrel over words.60

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, trans. Reinhard Krauss and Charles West (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), 81.

[2] Rannfred Thelle, “The Biblical Conquest Account and Its Modern Hermeneutical Challenges,” ST 61 (2007): 61. Cf. Shawn Kelly, “Genocide, the Bible, and Biblical Scholarship,” Brill Research Perspectives in Biblical Interpretation 1.3 (2016): 1–17.

[3] For example, the language of “driving out” in Exod 23:28; Lev 18:24; Num 33:52; Deut 6:19; 7:1; 9:4; 18:12; Josh 10:28, 30, 32, 35, 37, 39; 11:11, 14.

[4] Markus Zehnder, “The Annihilation of the Canaanites: Reassessing the Brutality of the Biblical Witness,” in Encountering Violence in the Bible, ed. Markus Zehnder and Hallvard Hagelia (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011), 263–91.

[5] Many have been proposed: aggression, hostility, severity, force, violence, brutality, expulsion, infiltration, invasion, conquest, holy war, herem, religious extremism, slaughter, massacre, total war, atrocity, crimes against humanity, elimination, extermination, annihilation, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing.

[6] John Calvin, Commentary on Joshua, trans. Henry Beveridge, Christian Classics Ethereal Library (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1855), 97.

[7] Meredith G. Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 163.

[8] Total war is further clarified to be “the destruction of the population as well as the military.” K. Lawson Younger, Jr., Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical Historical Writing, JSOTSup 98 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990), 235.

[9] Derek Kidner, “Old Testament Perspectives on War,” EvQ 57 (1985): 102.

[10] Though scholars continue to contrast “ethics” and “morality” in various ways, I use these terms interchangeably throughout this essay, both in a general sense to mean the basis and standards of notions of right and wrong.

[11] To summarize, observations offered against a genocidal characterization include: (a) that the conquest was not ethnically motivated (even as there was an “us” versus “them” mentality), instead the warfare aimed at idolatrous practices, (b) that there was likely hyperbole in the accounts of casualties, (c) that there is frequent use of the language of “driving out” alongside what appears to be annihilation, (d) that the biblical examples of Rahab (or later Nineveh or the Syrophoenician woman) show repentance was possible, and (e) that Jericho, Ai, Hazor were military strongholds and not population centers.

[12] If used in its legal sense, implying not only physical aggression or harm but a measurable violation of some right or the unlawful exercise of force, then this comes into direct conflict with the notion of God’s righteousness, that he “acts as a relationship morally requires or allows” and “gives every creature his due.” Graham Cole, God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom, NSBT 25 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 38.

[13] “There is a pronounced tendency on the right to blur the distinction between ‘property destruction’ and ‘violence.’ This flows logically from certain strands of libertarian philosophy, which view a person’s property as an extension of the self, and therefore see acts of aggression against property as being indistinguishable from acts of aggression against persons. (This also conveniently justifies using physical force to defend one’s property, rather than just defending one’s body.) … On the left, many things other than direct bodily harm are often labeled a form of violence. In fact, it can be hard to know what isn’t violence. Gentrification is violence. Cultural appropriation is violence. Even charter schools have been labeled a form of violence.” Oren Nimni, “Defining Violence: The Counterproductive Consequences of Calling Every Bad Thing ‘Violence,’” Current Affairs, 17 September 2017,

[14] Younger, Ancient Conquest Accounts, 243–44: “The terms ‘conquer’ and ‘conquest’ can have a number of nuances which are not always present in every context in which they are used. When, for example, one speaks of ‘the conquest of France’ during World War II, or says that ‘Germany conquered France,’ the meaning is something like ‘the German army defeated the French army in battle and occupied France.’ But it did not subjugate the French people, nor did it bring about the colonization of France by Germany.” Yet Younger still employs the term; characterizing Israel’s campaign in Canaan as a conquest is practically unavoidable if the biblical portrayal is adequately accounted for. How else can the allotment of territory, the killing of kings, and the burning of key cities be described?

[15] Eugene Merrill, “The Case for Moderate Discontinuity,” and Daniel Gard, “The Case for Eschatological Continuity,” in Show them No Mercy: Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide, ed. Stanley N. Gundry, Counterpoints (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 61–96; 111–44.

[16] Pekka Pitkämen, Joshua, ApOTC (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 60, 88.

[17] John Goldingay, “Is Election Fair?,” in Reading the Hebrew Bible for a New Millennium, ed. Wonil Kim et al. (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity, 2000), 169–87.

[18] Gregory A. Boyd, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross, 2 vols. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2017), 1:23, 140, 294, 300–302, 469.

[19] Eric Seibert, The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012); Jerome Creach, Violence in Scripture, Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2013), C. S. Cowles, “The Case for Radical Discontinuity,” in Show them No Mercy: Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide, ed. Stanley N. Gundry, Counterpoints (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 11–46.

[20] Gerd Lüdemann, The Unholy in Holy Scripture: The Darks Side of the Bible, trans. John Bowden (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996), 33–75; Menachem Kellner, “And Yet, the Texts Remain: The Problem of the Command to Destroy the Canaanites,” in The Gift of the Land and the Fate of the Canaanites in Jewish Thought, ed. Katell Berthelot, Joseph E. David, and Marc Hirschman (New York: Oxford, 2014), 153–79.

[21] Philip Jenkins, Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses (New York: Harper Collins, 2011).

[22] L. D. Hawk, The Violence of the Biblical God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019). Cf. L. D. Hawk, “The Truth About Conquest: Joshua as History, Narrative, and Scripture,” Int 66 (2012): 129–40; C. J. Sharp, “Are You for Us, or for Our Adversaries? A Feminist and Postcolonial Interrogation of Joshua 2–12 for the Contemporary Church,” Int 66 (2012): 141–52.

[23] One popular characterization: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 31.

[24] Zehnder, “The Annihilation of the Canaanites,” 288–90.

[25] Richard Hess, “War in the Hebrew Bible: An Overview,” in War in the Bible and Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Richard Hess and Elmer Martens, BBRSup 2 (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008), 29–30.

[26] Richard Hess, Joshua, TOTC (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 46–50.

[27] Matthew Flannigan and Paul Copan, Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014), 53–125. They do acknowledge, however, that “even if the texts don’t envisage genocide, they still seem to suggest that a loving and just God did command killing the innocent on a particular occasion” (p. 142).

[28] John Walton and J. Harvey Walton, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest: Covenant, Retribution, and the Fate of the Canaanites (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017), 257.

[29] Michael Heiser, “The Giant Clans and the Conquest,” The Naked Bible, 18 January 2016, Cf. Michael Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2015).

[30] “Joshua is a story set in the context of genocide, but it is not about genocide, either as a description of what happened in the past, or as something that is in any sense a model to be followed or gloried in.” Douglas Earl, The Joshua Delusion? Rethinking Genocide in the Bible (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2010), 123.

[31] Tremper Longman, “The Case for Spiritual Continuity,” in Show them No Mercy: Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide, ed. Stanley N. Gundry, Counterpoints (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 159–90.

[32] Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority, 163.

[33] Kidner, “Old Testament Perspectives,” 99–114.

[34] Kenneth Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 234–39.

[35] Walter Kaiser, A History of Israel (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1998), 143–61.

[36] Younger, Ancient Conquest Accounts, 233–34.

[37] Christopher J. H. Wright, The God I Don’t Understand (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 78, 94.

[38] Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (New York: Liveright, 2015), 99.

[39] Francesco Gabrieli, Mohammad and the Conquests of Islam, trans. Virginia Luling and Rosamund Linell (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973), 69.

[40] Richard Hess, “The Jericho and Ai of the Book of Joshua,” in Critical Issues in Early Israelite History. ed. Richard Hess, Gerald Klingbeil, and Paul Ray Jr. (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008), 42.

[41] Hess, Joshua, 158–59.

[42] Hess, Joshua, 212.

[43] Walton and Walton, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest, 257.

[44] This complaint is echoed throughout biblical history, for example Hab 1:3–14.

[45] I am indebted to Brian Tabb for this reminder in the review process for this publication.

[46] Cf. Xi Li, “Post-traumatic Growth, Belief in a Just World, and Psalm 137:9,” BTB 51 (2021): 175–84.

[47] These are the key apparent contradictions cited in Nili Wazana, “‘Everything was Fulfilled’ vs. ‘The Land that Remains’: Contrasting Conceptions of the Fulfillment of the Promise in the Book of Joshua,” in The Gift of the Land and the Fate of the Canaanites in Jewish Thought, ed. Katell Berthelot, Joseph E. David, and Marc Hirschman (New York: Oxford, 2014), 14; 18–19.

[48] Younger, Ancient Conquest Accounts, 243–46; Kitchen, Reliability of the Old Testament, 173–74. Both Younger and Kitchen argue that a careful reading of Joshua against its ancient Near Eastern background (in which hyperbole was employed to describe military success) shows that there is no great tension within Joshua or between Joshua and Judges.

[49] Daniel M. Fouts, “A Defense of the Hyperbolic Interpretation of Numbers in the Old Testament,” JETS 40 (1997): 377–87.

[50] Copan and Flannagan, Did God Really Command Genocide?, 130: “The accusation of ‘genocide’—whether coming from Old Testament scholars like Eric Seibert or new Atheists like Richard Dawkins – carries a heavy rhetorical punch, which often calls forth echoes of Rwanda or the Holocaust. The more modest claim that at one particular point in history God made an exception to a general rule against killing noncombatants (while still raising moral questions) does not carry that same rhetorical baggage” (italics original).

[51] Katell Berthelot, “Philo of Alexandria and the Conquest of Canaan,” JSJ 38 (2007): 39–56; Hans Boersma, “Joshua as Sacrament” CRUX 48.3 (2012): 23–44.

[52] Calvin, Joshua, 97.

[53] Younger, Ancient Conquest Accounts, 235.

[54] Copan and Flannagan, Did God Really Command Genocide?, 125–36.

[55] Copan and Flannagan, Did God Really Command Genocide?, 17. Copan and Flannagan begin their book with a presentation and critique of an argument formulated by philosopher Raymond Bradley, but Bradley’s “crucial moral principle” (the premise upon which his argument hinges) makes no mention of complete annihilation: “it is morally wrong to deliberately and mercilessly slaughter men, women, and children who are innocent of any serious wrongdoing.”

[56] Ann Curthoys and John Docker, “Defining Genocide,” in The Historiography of Genocide, ed. Dan Stone (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 9.

[57] “Genocide,” United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect,

[58] Copan and Flannagan, Did God Really Command Genocide?, 126–27.

[59] Zehnder, “The Annihilation of the Canaanites,” 289.

[60] The views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the official position of the Presbyterian and Reformed Commission on Chaplains and Military Personnel (PRCC), US Army Chaplain Corps, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

Caleb Miller

Caleb Miller is a chaplain in the United States Army currently stationed at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

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