In Joshua 8:2, Yahweh seems to command the indiscriminate killing of the inhabitants of the city of Ai: “And you shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho and its king. Only its spoil and its livestock you shall take as plunder for yourselves. Lay an ambush against the city, behind it.” If this were said today, it would widely be regarded as a command to commit genocide. The severity of the command seems validated by what Joshua records about the battle (vv. 24-25):
24 When Israel had finished killing all the inhabitants of Ai in the open wilderness where they pursued them, and all of them to the very last had fallen by the edge of the sword, all Israel returned to Ai and struck it down with the edge of the sword. 25 And all who fell that day, both men and women, were 12,000, all the people of Ai.
This account—and others like it in the Old Testament—are often viewed as problematic for contemporary Christians. How can a God of love command murder? How can the God who says “love your enemies” have ordered their destruction? These are, in my estimation, entirely legitimate questions worth wrestling with.
In what follows, I hope to breakdown some of the key aspects of thinking through the question of whether or not God commanded genocide and (some of) what that means for Christians today.
How Was the Bible Written?
As the accounts we are considering occur in the Bible, we must first begin to answer two important questions: How was the Bible written? And how do we read the Bible?
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.”
I 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 (Jesus), 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.
How Do We Read the Bible? The Importance of Context
Many Protestant Christians talk about reading the Bible “literally.” But I often don’t understand exactly what that means. Webster’s defines “literally” as “in a literal manner or sense; exactly.” When applied to the interpretation of a written text, this type of reading would seem to indicate that you take the text at its simple face value. But there are many portions of the Bible that even those advocating a “literal” reading of the Bible do not suggest should be interpreted woodenly. Consider, for example, the parables of Jesus. Is it possible that the Parable of the Sower or the Good Samaritan were actual events that Jesus was merely repeating for his followers? Possibly. But most people who have read or heard these stories have understood them as parables–stories that Jesus told to make a point and teach a truth–and not as historical narrative. But parables are not the only parts of scripture that should caution our desire to read the Bible “literally.” The Wisdom literature of the Old Testament (the central portion of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes) and the Psalms are two additional chunks of Christian scripture that most people are hesitant to interpret “literally.”
If we shouldn’t read every part of the Bible literally, then how should we read the Bible? I would suggest that we seek to read the Bible contextually. What does that mean? In short, to read the Bible on the Bible’s terms. That means that when we read the various types of literature found in the Old and New Testaments we should read them according to their historical and theological genres. For example, when contextually reading a parable of Jesus, you might need to do some research to better understand what a talent was, how economic transactions occurred in Jesus’ time, learn something about the general economic climate of the Roman Empire and Palestine, and pay attention to any literary features of the text which may or may not be immediately obvious when reading a translation. Reading a parable contextually also means considering the theological and social implications of the text and noting any meaning(s) that has typically been taken from the passage.
Another important component in seeking to read the Bible contextually is attempting to understand how a message would have been heard by its original audience. When Jesus delivered a message, he was speaking to a real live audience full of human beings who would have been expected (at least in most circumstances) to understand something about what he was saying. On this note, I sometimes hear people say, “Well, God says that he speaks in riddles and Jesus says that he speaks in parables so that people don’t understand. So can’t just assume that Jesus would have spoken in such a way that a first century Jew living in Palestine would have understood him.” And while I’m willing to grant that at times God’s messages are not clear, this type of thinking doesn’t really persuade me for a couple of reasons. First, if you believe that the Bible is important/scripture/the Word of God/inspired/etc. then you’re already assuming that something is being communicated, no matter how wrong the occasional interpretation might be. Second, if you read the gospels (especially Luke), it’s pretty clear that Jesus was a popular fellow in his time. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know many people who are excitedly following someone who only speaks in unintelligible riddles. So it seems likely that, while clearly not everyone understood everything Jesus said (even the disciples), the things that he was saying made enough sense in their original context to warrant our being interested in how they would have been understood. All that to say: understanding what a message meant in its original context is an important component of understanding the context of a passage.
Ancient Near East Warfare Terminology
However, most important for our purposes is considering the language of the conquest narratives in Deuteronomy and Joshua, especially in light of other passages which can be interpreted as a command to wipe out everything that breathes. When reading passages such as this, I would argue that it is especially important to situate oneself in the context of the original audience. As Copan argues in numerous places, it is of the utmost importance to recognize that in the Ancient Near East context, especially when discussing war and military conquest, language of total domination was the norm. For example, there are ancient military records that, if not read in the milieu of ANE warfare language, would suggest that after a conquest no one was living and no brick stood on top of another, whereas historical and archeological records suggest that this was not at all the case, that people were left alive in these locations and cities remained. A good analogy is contemporary sports smack talk.
For example, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Los Angeles Dodgers recently played a four-game series that didn’t go so well for the Cardinals. In response to a series of defeats, it was common in St. Louis to hear things like, “the Cardinals got killed” or “the Dodgers annihilated the Cards.” Of course, the Cardinals are very much alive and in one piece. But that’s the sort of hyperbolic talk that people use when talking about sports—the language of destruction and victory. While not an exact parallel—so far as we can tell, at least some people did die when language of destruction was used in the ANE—this idea begins to demonstrate that the context in which language is used remains integral to understanding its meaning. In the Ancient Near East context of war, there is good reason to interpret language of total destruction and annihilation as a rhetorical device rather than a statement of actual intent.
As Copan and Flannagan note, the Biblical narrative is also one of “driving out” rather than slaughter. People groups that are “wiped out” tend to re-appear later in Israel’s history, indicating that actual genocide never happened even if wars did occur. Even as early as the book of Judges (canonically and literarily immediately following Joshua) it becomes clear that many of the people groups that were either “destroyed” or “driven out” remain threats to the people of Israel. There is also the tendency to destroy a king or figure-head of a nation and then consider that people vanquished (i.e., people without a king are not capable of mounting a credible threat against Israel). A good example of this is Joshua 10:16-28, where five Amorite kings are defeated and their nations presumed to have been utterly defeated in the process.
I now want to turn to the consideration of two biblical passages which at first glance may seem to condone Israel’s massacre of the inhabitants of Canaan: Exodus 23:21-22 and Joshua 8.
The Context of Conquest
In response to the claim that Yahweh did not claim what we think of as genocide in the Old Testament, several texts could be submitted as examples of where Yahweh did command the people of Israel to commit genocide. One such verse is Exodus 23:23, which reads: “When my angel goes before you and brings you to the Amorites and the Hittites and the Perizzites and the Canaanites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, and I blot them out….” Here the implication seems to be that Israel and Yahweh will wipe out these nations. But let’s step back and read the wider context of this passage, beginning in verse 20:
20 “Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. 21 Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him. 22 “But if you carefully obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries. 23 “When my angel goes before you and brings you to the Amorites and the Hittites and the Perizzites and the Canaanites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, and I blot them out, 24 you shall not bow down to their gods nor serve them, nor do as they do, but you shall utterly overthrow them and break their pillars in pieces. 25 You shall serve the Lord your God, and he will bless your bread and your water, and I will take sickness away from among you. 26 None shall miscarry or be barren in your land; I will fulfill the number of your days. 27 I will send my terror before you and will throw into confusion all the people against whom you shall come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. 28 And I will send hornets before you, which shall drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites from before you. 29 I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply against you. 30 Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land. 31 And I will set your border from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates,[c] for I will give the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you shall drive them out before you. 32 You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. 33 They shall not dwell in your land, lest they make you sin against me; for if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you.”
Read contextually, this passage does not condone the utter annihilation of these nations, but rather explains why and how they should be driven out. The Canaanite nations have been living a debauched lifestyle full of idolatry, which Israel must be careful to avoid upon entering the land— (v24f) Do not bow down before their gods or worship them or follow their practices. You must demolish them and break their sacred stones to pieces. As for how Yahweh will give Israel the land, it becomes clear that God is going to “blot out” Israel’s enemies by driving them out of the land. Being dispossessed from your home is certainly a terrible thing, but it’s not really the same as being executed as a non-combatant. This passage goes on to suggest that God will drive out the Canaanites little by little, and then closes again with a warning against idolatry. So contextually, this passage does not seem to indicate that Israel should murder everyone in Canaan (or else evoke God’s wrath). Instead it suggests that obedience to Yahweh involves not worshiping other Gods and progressively taking control of the land (which, not coincidentally, is the pattern that we see in Joshua-Judges).
The Total Destruction of Ai
What about those instances where near-total destruction—including women, children, and non-combatants—does seem to be ordered by Yahweh? As an example of this, let’s consider Joshua 8 and Israel’s battle against the inhabitants of Ai.
2 [Yahweh Speaking to Joshua] “And you shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho and its king. Only its spoil and its livestock you shall take as plunder for yourselves. Lay an ambush against the city, behind it….”
22 And the others came out from the city against them, so they were in the midst of Israel, some on this side, and some on that side. And Israel struck them down, until there was left none that survived or escaped. 23 But the king of Ai they took alive, and brought him near to Joshua. 24 When Israel had finished killing all the inhabitants of Ai in the open wilderness where they pursued them, and all of them to the very last had fallen by the edge of the sword, all Israel returned to Ai and struck it down with the edge of the sword. 25 And all who fell that day, both men and women, were 12,000, all the people of Ai. 26 But Joshua did not draw back his hand with which he stretched out the javelin until he had devoted all the inhabitants of Ai to destruction.27 Only the livestock and the spoil of that city Israel took as their plunder, according to the word of the Lord that he commanded Joshua.
Some commentators suggest that much of the violence recorded in the Old Testament is descriptive and not prescriptive. That is, people are violent and the Bible records that reality without affirming that our actions should be violent as well. The descriptive/prescriptive paradigm does not work with Ai’s destruction, however, because in this passage Yahweh Himself ordered the destruction of every living thing. This leads to two vital questions:
- How should we respond to God’s order to kill everyone—women and children included—in this passage?
- Can God morally command the killing of innocents?
The account of Ai (along with much of Joshua 1-12) stands as an example of Ancient Near Eastern warfare rhetoric. Nicholas Wolterstorff calls this “hagiographic hyperbole,” where ritualistic, stylized language is used to convey the totally victory of Yahweh over peoples powerless to stop Israel’s march into the Promised Land. As Copan and Flannagan argue, these conquest accounts “are highly hyperbolic, hagiographic, and figurative, and follow a common transmission code.” Thus, the destruction of Ai is one instance where a strong case could be made for rhetorical/hyperbolic language on God’s behalf. This seems to be supported by the “which stands there until this day” language of Joshua 8.29 (which is often an indicator of the “total destruction” motif), as well as the symbolic number of 12,000 inhabitants (reflective of Israel’s twelve tribes). This doesn’t mean that Israel did not defeat the people of Ai or that there wasn’t a battle with fighting, destruction, and death. But the historical and theological takeaways from this passage should be a) Israel’s need to obey Yahweh, b) Yahweh’s power over Canaanite deities, and c) Israel’s military victory over Ai.
A Way Forward
Given ANE warfare terminology, “driving out” language, and an emphasis on the destruction of the heads of state, it seems that the vast majority of Israel’s wars recorded in Joshua are non-genocidal wars against the wicked tribes of Canaan who are being punished in order to stop their crimes. This is not to suggest that God did not command the people of Israel to fight against the Canaanites. Nor is it to advocate that God did not use language of total destruction when telling the people of Israel how to conquer the land. Nor does it mean that the people of Israel always appropriately followed God’s commands during the conquest. And finally, it does not mean that it is not possible that God actually deemed total destruction appropriate in some instances. What I really want to emphasis from this study is that when trying to understand the Israelite Conquest of Canaan, we must consider the warring context of the Ancient Near East and carefully examine the biblical record before coming to conclusions about the possibility of genocide recorded in Joshua.
To close, I want to make three suggestions for approaching passages that may be taken to indicate that God commanded genocide in the Old Testament:
- Read Contextually: Just what we’ve been doing here. Make sure that you understand the wider scope of what is going on before rushing to judgments about what God commanded or the Israelites did when conquering Canaan. Look for hyperbole and rhetoric and don’t just take stories at face value.
- Read Canonically: Read stories of Old Testament conquest in the light of the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament, where we are warned of the ills of trusting in armies more than God and are given a greater commandment, to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
- Look for Spiritual Applications: That is, focus on the deeper messages of God’s power, faithfulness, and ability to conquer all evil—that in reality and that in the spiritual realm—rather than trying to concoct how God might be telling you (or your country) how to destroy certain people groups. When it comes to ethics (i.e., how to treat our enemies, other people groups), look at large swaths of scripture (again, think canonically) rather than focusing on specific passages (remember, verses are a relatively new thing to the Bible—don’t assume that God’s message shouldn’t come from a whole book of the Bible).
I don’t mean to presume that this treatment addresses every possible line of inquiry about this complex and difficult question. But I do think these considerations offer a way forward, an approach that allows us to better understand what was going on in the conquest accounts of the Old Testament so that we may better understand the character of the God of both the Old and New Testaments.
 Genocide is defined as “the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation.”
 See also Exodus 23:23, Deuteronomy 20:16-18, and Joshua 6:17-18, for example.
 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.
 Including Is God a Moral Monster? And Did God Really Command Genocide?
 Did God Really Command Genocide?, 103.
This post original appeared as a series on Pursuing Veritas. It has been slightly updated and modified here.