Understanding the Thorny Issue of Yahweh’s Commands to Destroy the Canaanites in the Book of Joshua: Framing a way to discuss and apply the issue

Introduction and Review:

In the last post we began exploring what this blogger is calling: “The thorny issue of Yahweh’s commands to destroy the Canaanites in the Book of Joshua.” Skeptics and more particular, the so-called “New Atheists” have attempted to use these texts and a basis for calling into question the moral integrity of the God of the Bible and the character of scripture itself. In the last post seven pre-liminary considerations were listed to aid the reader in knowing how to approach this difficult issue and some issues to look out for that typically appear in broader discussion on this topic. For the reader’s review this author will list in short order those considerations:

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

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

2. Worldview Issues

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.

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

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

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

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

These pre-liminary considerations were 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 goal of today’s post is to suggest a way of “framing” or navigating this “thorny” issue. At the end of today we will draw some final conclusions and suggestions for applying everything that has been considered in these past two posts.

Suggesting a way of framing the discussion regarding Yahweh’s commands to destroy the Canaanites in the Book of Joshua

As this blogger outlines a suggested way to deal both with the text of Joshua and the critics alike, we will work our way back and forth through the last six of the “introductory considerations” outlined above without necessarily listing which particular one is being addressed. Since the above considerations are all interrelated, much of what will be proposed in this “suggested framing” of the discussion will use combinations of the above considerations #2-#6.  This post will then aim to answer the logical argument of the first introductory consideration to see whether or not the New Atheists and critics have a legitimate basis for their virulent attacks on the character of Yahweh and the Bible.

Extra-biblical resources that corroborate the history detailed by Joshua 

To begin, one critic has tried to alledge that when the Bible reports the immoral and spiritual degredation of Canaanite culture, it does so as propaganda and that there is scant to no outside evidence supporting such a notion. Is that true? When we consider the sources outside the Old Testament that refer to the Canaanite culture, it’s practices and the situation of Canaanland during the time of Joshua and the Conquest, we can look at some of the following ancient documents and/or writings:

  1. The Tel El-Amarna corresponsdance between the Canaanite peoples and the Egyptians during the 13th century. In these letters (really tablets) we see the appearance of the Hebrews (called in the tablets the Hapiru).1
  2. The discoveries at Ugarit in Northern Syria unearthed numerous tablets with a language akin to ancient Hebrew called the Ugaritic. Scholars have deciphered this language and have found it helpful in discerning Hebrew idioms in the Old Testament. It is here we get more information about the Canaanites and their religion, being that the peoples of Ugarit were closely related
  3. According to the Archaeological Study Bible, page 182, other Archaeological discoveries in the Phoenecian city of Carthage, Moab, Ur of the Chaldees and the like reveal a centuries old pattern of child sacrifices in the region of Canaan, confirming both the Biblical record and reasons as to why the Israelites would later practice such abominable activities in the latter parts of the Old Testament. They had picked it up from their Canaanite neighbors.2
  4. The Ras Shamra Tablets contain information relating to Canaanite worship practices and deities. Dr. Gleason Archer lists all of the deities and some of the practices described in these tablets which help reconstruct the picture of Canaanite culture that we see most fully revealed in the Book of Joshua.3

The Mercy and Long-suffering of God is displayed right along with God’s Justice and Holiness

The Old Testament teaching about God’s Holy character, Long-suffering mercy and covenant relationship with His people must be considered if correct interpretation of Joshua is to be achieved. Dr. Walt Kaiser make this insightful observation in his work on this very issue:

“Every forecast or prophecy of doom, like any prophetic word about the future except those few promises connected with the Noachic, Abrahamic, Davidic, and new covenants (which were unconditional and dependant soley on God’s work fulfillment), had a suppressed”unless” attached to them. At what moment that nation turns from its evil way repents then at that time the Lord would relent and cease to bring the threatened harm (Jeremiah 18:7-10). The Canannites had, as it were, a final forty-year countdown as they heard of events in Egypt, at the crossing of the Red Sea, and what happened to the kings who opposed Israel along the way.”4

In reading Joshua, there are indications that the Canaanites were aware of Yahweh’s deliverances of Israel from Egypt, as indicated by Rahab’s testimony in Joshua 2. The concept of Holy war is different from the historic practice of genocide. Deuteronomy 20:15-18 depicts the rationale of Yahweh in his instructions to Moses for Joshua and the people. God did not want his people to be influenced by their neighbors.  (Deuteronomy 7:1-5) As a Holy set-apart people, they were to be Holy as He is Holy.

The moral and spiritual conditions in Canaan had deteriorated to such a level as to cross the line where God hands them over to their own base desires and to be set apart for judgment.  Whenever one reads the texts that speaks of God devoting or dedicating something to destruction, Romans 1:18-31 can be used as an interpretive lens for assessing the downward spiral of moral and spiritual degredation. Typically in the Hebrew Old Testament, a specific word “haram” (חרמ) is used to describe the particular judgment God declares on a specific culture that has “crossed the line” so to speak. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) expounds on this particular term:

“Usually haram means a ban for utter destruction, the compulsory dedication of something which impedes or resists God’s work, which is considered accursed to God. The idea first appears in Numbers 21:2-3, where the Israelites vowed that , if God would enable them to defeat a southern Canaanite king, they would ‘utterly destroy’ (i.e consider as devoted and accordingly utterly destroy) his cities. This word is used regarding almost all the cities which Joshua’s troops destroyed (e.g Jericho, Josh 6:21; Ai Josh 8:26; Makkedah, Josh 10:28; Hazor, Josh 11:11), thus indicating the rationale for their destruction.”5

Understanding the Concept of “Holy War” in the Bible and How Yahweh Could Still Show Mercy 

The stark contrast between Holy and Profane is central to the Biblical concept of God’s Holiness. The Wrath of God, which is God’s Holiness in action, describes what God hates and is really His love and goodness expressed in relationship to that which is profane and contrary to His character. To love sin or to embrace injustice would make God not a good God. If God were not Holy and did not express His wrath, then He could not be good and be loving. This idea may seem repugnant to a secularized view of reality that denies the God of the Bible or any worldview that does not view God as Holy. God declared Holy War only on those nations and cities who had crossed the line on two main fronts:

a). They ignored previous warnings that came through a prophet or prior judgments God enacted on nearby cultures and

b). were engaging in practices that polluted the land spiritually and posed significant moral and spiritual contamination of other cultures.

This judgment of Divine Holy War was a judgment of “last resort” that stood at the end of the line in God’s dealings with nations and cultures. Having noted this pattern, the reader must also realize that God was more than willing to reverse such a judgment if the nation in question exhibited repentance. 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.” Two most prominent examples are Rahab in Joshua 2 and the Ninevites in the Book of Jonah.

It must be recognized that when God dealt with a wicked culture, He did what was called “dedicating it to destruction”, meaning that because of its persistent refusal to heed His Revelation and clear directives to repent, judgment was all that would be left (see above discussion on the Hebrew word behind this concept, Haram or חרמ). However it must also be equally recognized that whenever an individual (such as Rahab) or a city (like Ninevah) did repent and respond to God’s revelation, God would relent His anger and based upon His equally balanced characteristics of love and mercy spare that individual or city.

Why the Context of Joshua Must Be Considered to Demonstrate that Yahweh is not a “Moral Monster”

Authors who regularly criticize the Old Testament narratives and call God a blood-thirsty monster never mention the times God spared those who did repent. When one studies the narratives of Joshua and the wider context of the Pentateuch prefacing the conquest of Canaan, it is clear that the Canaanite culture had went beyond the point of no return and a God who had given it centuries of time to repent. (compare Deuteronomy 7; 20) Justice was all that was left. However against the backdrop of judgment stood out those multiplied instances where God showed mercy to those who humbled themselves to Him.

The wiping out of the Canaanites in certain instances was practiced and though it is hard for 21st century people to grasp, yet when set in the context of God’s Covenant community and Holy character, represents justice. The wider context of the Biblical narrative suggests that this practice was commanded by God as a last resort in the most extreme cases and in many more instances, not all the people were wiped out and quite a few times we do see Canaanites folded into the Covenant community (i.e the Gibeonites) in Joshua and the Jebusites in the days of David centuries later.

In recent years some Bible scholars have attempted to take the wider canonical context surrounding Joshua and the ancient extra-biblical documents of the Ancient Near East (ANE) to show that the “Holy War” narratives of Joshua are written in hyperbolic language. Matthew Flannegan points to a scholar by the name of Nicholas Wolterstorff who has advanced the thesis that phrases such as “do not leave alive anything that breathes” are hyperbolic statements that are part of the genre of “Holy War” literature.6  Wolterstorff’s efforts attempts to harminize statements made in Judges that suggest that the cities and areas conquered by Joshua and the Hebrews, even those “wiped out” so-to-speak, had inhabitants and rulers who were still alive. In his way of thinking, if one reads Yahweh’s directives for “harem” (read above) in Numbers and Deuteronomy and the actually warfare carried out in Joshua in light of Judges; and if it is kept in mind that the texts of Joshua were written in hyperbole, then the issue of people being “wiped out” by the Israelites greatly lessens.

This blogger won’t go into the full detail of the argument, being that it appeals to parallel ANE texts to bolster it’s claims. As impressive as Wolterstorff’s proposal is, there are huge trade-offs in accepting his reading of Joshua 1-11. For one thing, if Joshua 1-11 includes “hyperbole” and “symbolic language”, then one must assume that the miraculous signs of the “sun standing still” and the raining down of large hailstones in Joshua 10:1-15 are also “hyperbole” and “symbolic” in nature, which is where Wolserstorff lands. Admittedly, more research would need to be done in assessing the full scope of this proposal, however it seems that more is given up in trying to harmonize something that may not need to be harmonized. Granted the tensions of the issue of Joshua and the Israelites wiping out some of the Canaanite cities must not ever be dismissed. However, if the reader keeps in mind all that has been outlined in this post, the texts in question can be dealt with in an honest and straightforward way.

Why The New Atheists’ Attempts to Show Yahweh and the Scriptures as Untrustworthy fail

As was noted at the beginning, 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

In the above considerations and proposed framing of this issue, the third proposition, “point ‘c'” has been shown to be invalid, since Holy War and Genocide are not identical. This blogger has contended that 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. When the wider context surrounding Joshua (not just a few isolated statements as typically proposed by the skeptics) is considered, coupled with the even wider ANE context, the New Atheists criticisms lose traction and the character of Yahweh and His Word remains intact. By diffusing one part of the argument, the whole argument falls to the ground.

Closing thoughts:

We have spent the past couple of posts wading through the thorny issue of Yahweh’s commands to destroy the Canaanites. We began by considering seven introductory considerations for approach this issue. The post then proceeded to regard a way of framing a discussion that can aid people in navigating through the Book of Joshua and answering critics who attempt to discount God and His word. What remains is the responsibility to explain the “Holy War” texts of Joshua and to understand their application to today’s 21st century world.

When God’s justice and wrath are no longer believed, the concept of deity no longer resembles the God of the Bible and the deity that is left is a god of popular culture that is not holy, not just and impersonal. The consequences for such a denial lead to either a diminishing of sin or a denial of its reality. This two fold process renders a culture susceptible to decreased vigilance in defending the sanctity of human life and denial of absolute morality/ethics which is essential for a culture to continue enriched in the practice of freedom and equity for its citizenry. History has shown that over time, the slide towards socialism, communism, tyranny and anarchy will ensue. The hope and prayer of this blogger has been that this post can aid towards shedding light on a subject that though difficult, yet is not impossible to understand. Thankfully the Holy Spirit of God ever stands to aid the Christian and the church at large in expounding and defending the scriptures and character of God in this cynical and unbelieving age.


1. Dr. Gleason Archer. A Survey of the Old Testament Introduction. Moody Press. 1985. Pages 271-279

2. The Archaeological Study Bible. Zondervan. 2005. Page 182

3. Dr. Gleason Archer. A Survey of the Old Testament Introduction. Moody Press. 1985. Pages 271-279

4. Walt C. Kaiser Jr. Toward Old Testament Ethics. Zondervan. 1991. Page 268.

5. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Bruce K. Waltke. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Moody Publishers. 1980. Page 741.

6. Paul Copan and William Lane Craig., General Editors. Come Let us Reason – New Essays on Christian Apologetics. Article by Matthew Flannegan: Did God Command the Genocide of the Canaanites? Broadman and Holman Publishers. 2012. Pages 226-249

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 Apologetics, Biblical Interpretation, Hebrew Text/Translation. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Understanding the Thorny Issue of Yahweh’s Commands to Destroy the Canaanites in the Book of Joshua: Framing a way to discuss and apply the issue

  1. john says:

    On the ANE parallel and the rhetoric of hyperbole, whether you agree or disagree with those making the parallel here, it might be noted that authors have also pointed out apparent instances by comparing Joshua with Joshua… Josh 10:40-42;11:16-23 v. other info in Josh andJudg concerning those that remained. Compare Josh 11:21-22 with Josh 14:12-15; 15:13-19.This is one of the reasons why Kitchen, Wolterstorff, and others believe the connection with ANE parallels are valid.

    • pastormahlon says:

      Hi John:

      Thanks for interracting on the post today. Wolsterstorff’s thesis is remarkable and insightful and in many ways an appealing solution to the problems raised by this topic. As I stated in my post, how does one hold to it without making the other miracles recorded in Joshua a series of hyperbolous statements? This was what I observed in reading his argument and those who advocated his views. I won’t say it is completely off the table for me, however if I were to embrace it fully, someone would have to show how the miracle accounts can still be retained as literal.

      In the podcast from DTS that came out on this topic a couple of weeks ago, I never heard Wolsterstorff’s thesis included in the discussion. Granted, the podcast had only 30 minutes to do an overview of this difficult subject. With that said, I wonder if the thesis is a minority report among Old Testament scholarship of Joshua? Definitely further food for thought. Blessings!

  2. john says:

    I don’t actually see that it has any bearing upon miracle stories. The issue seems to be whether phraseology related to military campaigns in a variety of surrounding nations that appear to have been rhetorical and idiomatic rather than literal could have been understood and used in the same way by Israelites when we see similar statements to or from the Hebrews, given verses that seem to imply total annihilation and then later seem to imply a lack of having been annihilated. (I realize that a common alternate explanation is the previous statements of total annihilation were summaries of the total activity -including the stuff that follows – rather than being strictly chronological, and that they did in fact totally annihilate them at a later date.) Maybe yes, maybe no, but I don’t see any necessary bearing on miracles. Perhaps subbstitute in your mind “idiomatic expressions, developed from common rhetorical usage in the past” in place of “hyperbolic language of exaggeration, common among nations”.

  3. pastormahlon says:

    Hi John:

    The only reason I suggested that the thesis of Wolsterstorff could lead to a different take on the miracle stories is because the author advocating his theories alluded to it, as well as Wolsterstorff himself. In the ANE parallels cited by Wolsterstorff, the are alleged details of cosmic and meteorlogical phenomena that serve to heighten the the narrative featuring a conquering king in the midst of battle. For Wolsterstorff at least, the parallels are overwhelmingly suggestive that what we see in Joshua is heightened language, both in the commands to exterminate the Canaanites and the attending miracles. I don’t get from Wolsterstorff that he is denying the miraculous in the Bible, rather in the text of Joshua he sees near apocalyptic language intermixed with the narratives. I do like your suggestion John of “idiomatic expressions, developed from common rhetorical usage in the past”, rather than the other phrase, which is used in the literature.

    Undoubtedly these sections in Joshua are far more profound than we give them credit. I so appreciate your interraction on this post. I for one would like to do fresh research into the Hebrew text of Joshua 1-11 and compare it to the opening chapters of Judges. Blessings!

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