Understanding the Thorny Issue of Yahweh’s Commands to Destroy the Canaanites in the Book of Joshua: Preliminary Considerations


Recently this blogger has been engaging off and on with skeptics who have great issue with the texts of the Old Testament Book of Joshua wherein Yahweh commands Joshua and the Hebrews to destroy the Canaanites. Whenever one reads material written by the “New Atheists”, this same issue appears often in an attempt by people such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins to discredit God’s character and the integrity of scripture. Admittedly the issues they raise are difficult to navigate, however with proper attention to the wider context of Joshua, the Old Testament and relevant Ancient Near Eastern literature (ancient extra-biblical texts composed in the same era as Joshua), such understanding is not impossible.

The point of today’s post is to arrive at a better understanding of the Biblical texts that speak on the subject of Yahweh commanding the Israelites to exercise Holy War on the Canaanites in the Book of Joshua. We will split this exploration into two posts, with today’s post featuring introductory observations that can give the reader a strategy for approaching this difficult issue. After listing out the introductory observations, we will then take the next post to suggest a way of framing the issue to make it not only approachable and solvable, but applicable to today’s 21st century world.

Seven Introductory Considerations for Approaching the Destruction of the Canaanites in the Book of Joshua

The below seven thoughts will aim to clarify what is going on in the Biblical texts of Joshua and the Holy War literature of the Old Testament.

1. Diffusing the logical arguments that attack the character of the Biblical text and Yahweh.

First, there is a recent podcast on this very topic that involves a panel of Biblical scholars from Dallas Theological Seminary discussing the accounts of the book of Joshua and the accounts of the Israelites holy wars with the Canaanites.1 In the podcast, Dr. Darrell Bock outlines the typical logical argument made by the New Atheists and Skeptics against the character of God and the Biblical text:

a. Yahweh is portrayed as a Good and Just God                                                                               b. Any form of human genocide is evil and unacceptable and morally monstrous                   c. The Bible records Yahweh issuing commands to Joshua and the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites in holy war so as to take up residence in the land of Canaan                                     d. The Bible avows the character of Yahweh and the actions of the Israelites, and therefore the Bible and Yahweh are morally monstrous

If it can be shown that Yahweh’s command of holy war is different from genocide and if it can be explained why the Bible avows Yahweh’s character and the Israelite’s actions, then the above typical logical argument will be shown to be of no affect. This writer will contend that such an effort is not only possible but realitistic.

2. Worldview Issues

Second, the issue about Yahweh commanding Joshua and the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites or in other cases subjugating them is certainly not to be swept away. This blogger does not minimize the difficulties raised by the texts. With that said, there are differences between genocide committed by one group of human beings against another versus the concept of Holy war. Those that criticize the God of the Bible and the text of Joshua do so from a particular worldview. Oftentimes that worldview will be an Agnostic or so-called secular worldview that prizes rationalism, the scientific method and a materialistic view of the universe. To attempt to understand the Holy War texts apart from Yahweh as a Holy, Just and merciful God renders the Book of Joshua indecipherable. Whenever God is no longer regarded as Holy, and whenever the dual concept of the holy vs the profane is taken out of the picture, texts such as the Book of Joshua will not make sense.

3. The Book of Joshua and the wider Biblical context portrays God’s incredible mercy and longsuffering just as much as His justice and Holiness.

Thirdly, we must take into consideration not only the narratives of Joshua, but also how much space God gave to the Canaanites to repent and amend their ways. In reading through Joshua we find at least two occasions where it was clear that the Canaanites (the people of Jericho in those instances) were aware of what God did in Egypt. There was even a wave of fear that spread through the culture. Rahab the prostitute was the only one who responded in faith to God, and she was spared. The point being that the people had at least 40 years to amend their evil practices of child sacrifice and senseless killings. To say God gave them no warning nor time to repent is simply inaccurate.

4. The Canaanites were not an innocent people but were a culture that disregarded Yahweh’s repeated warnings to repent.

Fourthly, as one continues reading the wider Biblical context, we discover in Genesis 15:16 that God told Abraham that Abram’s descendants would not return to Canaanland until the sins of the Amorites (another Canaanite people group) had reached the point of needing to be judged. Contrary to the “New Atheists” and other skeptics, the Canaanites were not an innocent, hapless culture of poor defenseless people. The Biblical chronology indicates God had given the immoral and violent Canaanite culture multiple centuries to amend their ways. The wider context suggests that God’s actions of holy war against the Canaanites was not a capricious, random act of violence but rather a moral purging of the land as result of the land itself being polluted by the extreme sin of the people. If anything, God’s Holy justice is balanced by the enormous amount of space and mercy He gave to a culture that en toto ignored what they heard about Him through the centuries.

5. Ancient Near Eastern Literature outside the Bible helps us understand why the Biblical text asserted the moral and spiritual degredation of the Canaanites.

Fifthly, God had given ample warning, and the Canaanites ignored the warnings of societal, moral and spiritual degadation. Ancient Near Eastern literature records all the atrocities done by the Canaanites. God devoted the land to be destroyed. There are those occasions where human beings commit such atrocities that the area in a sense becomes unfit to ever be inhabited again. In the above mentioned podcast, a modern example that is referenced is Auschwitz Germany. The evil perpetrated was so severe that it has been render a permanent memorial. In other words, it has been “devoted” or “set aside” as being no longer identifiable as a place anyone would want to live.

6. Yahweh is depicted in other Biblical texts, including Joshua, of sparing people devoted to judgment who repented.

Sixthly, do we have evidence in the Bible of cultures such as the Canaanites being devoted to destruction and yet spared as a result of their repentance? Yes. The Book of Jonah records the response of the Ninevites to Jonah’s preaching. Even back in the Joshua accounts, we see God permitting the Gibeonites to live among the Israelites due to the Israelites themselves not treating the Gibeonites rightly. As one scholar points out, in a much later text when King David conquered the Jebusites (another Canaanite people group), some of the Jebusites were allowed to remain alive due to their submissiveness. If  someone is going to criticize the God of the Bible, they must include the whole testimony of scripture.

7. Understanding the difference between Holy War and Genocide avoids misinterpreting the texts of Joshua and application of the text to today’s world.

Seventhly, whenever we consider the details of what constitutes holy war and compare it to genocide, it is comparing apples to oranges. Genocide is a merciless, random act of ethnic purging by another people group for political purposes. Holy war in the Bible was moral purging and included an extended pre-history of God giving space for the culture to turn from their extreme wicked practices. Genocide does not include possible mercy. Holy War can be reversed if the culture repents of its ways. Jeremiah 18:8 states – “if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it.”

These pre-liminary considerations are intended to give “hooks” upon which the reader can hang some thoughts in approaching the thorny issue of Yahweh’s commands to destroy the Canaanites. In surveying the literature and listening to scholars discuss and debate this issue, the above considerations appear repeatedly and are necessary for approaching the issue before discussing it with those who attempt to discredit Yahweh and the text of scripture. The next post will be a proposal for taking the implications of the above considerations and mapping out a strategy for dialogue about this difficult issue. The goal of the next post will be to arrive at some final thoughts and applications of this issue to daily life.


1. The podcast is found at http://s3.amazonaws.com/dtsfeeds/thetable/mp3/thetable_201411_genocideinot_01.mp3.


About pastormahlon

By the grace of God I was converted to saving faith in Jesus Christ at the age of 10 and called into the Gospel ministry by age 17. Through the Lord's grace I completed a Bachelors in Bible at Lancaster Bible College in 1996 and have been married to my beautiful wife since that same year. We have been blessed with four children, ranging from 7-18 years of age. In 2002 the Lord enabled me to complete a Master of Arts in Christian Thought at Biblical Theological Seminary, Hatfield PA. For nearly 25 years I have been preaching and teaching God's Word and have been studying the original languages since 1994. In 2016 God called my family and me to move to begin a pastorate at a wonderful Southern Baptist Congregation here in Northern New York.
This entry was posted in Biblical Interpretation, Biblical Theology, Contemporary Issues, Exegesis. Bookmark the permalink.

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