Did God Command Genocide? (Part I)

Fall of JerichoThe Rock Church of Saint Louis–our church home–is in the midst of reading through the entire Bible narrative as a church community. The past two weeks we have been reading the book of Joshua, which is all about Israel’s conquest of the promised land of Canaan. One feature of this conquest that contemporary Christians are often hesitant to discuss (or that they are curious about) is whether or not Yahweh commanded the people of Israel to commit genocide as they entered the land. This question often rears its head after reading passages like Exodus 23:23, Deuteronomy 20:16-18, and Joshua 6:17-18. Over the next couple of weeks, I will be running a series reflecting on whether or not God commanded Israel to commit genocide as they took possession of the Promised Land. But before considering whether or not Yahweh commanded genocide, we must first begin to answer two important questions: How was the Bible written? And how do we read the Bible?

How Was the Bible Written? : Fully Human and Fully Divine

Writing on the topic of whether or not God commanded the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites, in Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan argue that the words of the Old Testament are not the result of mechanical dictation. That is, there is a human side to scripture and God does not always affirm what a human author affirms (or at least, He does not always affirm it in the same way). Thus, we must contemplate whether or not the “human side” of Scripture is what God wants to say to us today through Scripture. As Karen R. Keen summarizes, “God might want to appropriate the words of Scripture for an intention different than the original authors. The original meaning might have been important only for the Israelites’ time and place, and now we have to draw a general principle from the text.”[1]

Sacred ScriptureI think a helpful approach is to view the Written Words of God in a similar manner to how we view the Incarnate Word of God, namely, as fully human and fully divine. This is not to deny the inspiration or sufficiency of Scripture, only to recognize the possibility that in certain places a human author may be speaking more for themselves than for God. Of course, even in such instances the totality of the Scriptures (i.e., the canon) will make things clear. Thus, while there may be accounts in the Old Testament of Israel being commanded to destroy nations, those of us living under the New Covenant have a better picture of who God is and the way that we should treat our enemies, namely, to love them and pray for them.


[1] Keen also writes that, “At the same time, Copan and Flannagan reject Peter Enns’ dichotomy between the Old and New Testament God (war God vs. loving God), as well as Seibert’s distinction between the “textual” God (how the Israelites imagined God to be) and the “real” God (who is not always like the Israelites portrayed God to be.)” See Copan and Flannagan, 39-44.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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