Critics of Christianity often claim that the book of Joshua teaches that God commanded genocide. Raymond Bradley for example states,
In chapters 7 through 12, [the book of Joshua] treats us to a chilling chronicle of the 31 kingdoms, and all the cities therein, that fell victim to Joshua’s, and God’s, genocidal policies. Time and again we read the phrases “he utterly destroyed every person who was in it,” “he left no survivor,” and “there was no one left who breathed.”
Similarly, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong cites passages in Joshua with the same point in mind.
The objection that Bradley and Armstrong raise in highlighting these passages is that Christians are committed to an inconsistent set of propositions.
 Any act that God commands is morally permissible.
 The scriptures are an authoritative revelation of God’s commands.
 It is morally impermissible for anyone to commit genocide.
 According to the book of Joshua, God commanded Israel to commit genocide.
If we are to rationally affirm both  and  then we must give up either  or . So which one should we reject?
Philip Quinn has developed a way of addressing clashes such as this. He suggests that we can draw on a principle whereby “whenever two conflicting claims differ in epistemic status, the claim with the lower epistemic status is to be rejected.”
Given this approach, if a particular interpretation of any passage conflicts with one of our moral intuitions then we should ask whether or not the case for that interpretation is as convincing as the principle that it clashes with. Now, the principle that genocide is wrong is, I think, a highly plausible one. Therefore, if one is to prefer  to  then the case for a literal reading must at least be this plausible, and preferably even more plausible. In this series of posts I will argue, perhaps surprisingly to some, that  is doubtful. While it is true that taken in isolation and interpreted in a strict literal fashion the book of Joshua does appear to state that God commanded Genocide, I contend that when the text is read in its literary and textual context this conclusion is far from evident and is, in fact, rather questionable.
In the tenth chapter of the book of Joshua we read,
They [Joshua and his troops] took the city, its king and its villages, and put them to the sword. Everyone in it they totally destroyed. They left no survivors. They did to Debir and its king as they had done to Libnah and its king and to Hebron. So Joshua subdued the whole region, including the hill country, the Negev, the western foothills and the mountain slopes, together with all their kings. He left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded. Joshua subdued them from Kadesh Barnea to Gaza and from the whole region of Goshen to Gibeon. (Joshua 10:39-41)
This text summarises Joshua’s campaign in southern Canaan. The northern campaign is summarised in a similar fashion in the following chapter,
So Joshua took this entire land: the hill country, all the Negev, the whole region of Goshen, the western foothills, the Arabah and the mountains of Israel with their foothills, from Mount Halak, which rises toward Seir, to Baal Gad in the Valley of Lebanon below Mount Hermon. He captured all their kings and struck them down, putting them to death. Joshua waged war against all these kings for a long time. Except for the Hivites living in Gibeon, not one city made a treaty of peace with the Israelites, who took them all in battle. For it was the LORD himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy, as the LORD had commanded Moses. At that time Joshua came and wiped out the Anakim from the hill country, from Hebron, from Debir, from Anab, and from all the hill country of Judah, and from all the hill country of Israel; Joshua utterly destroyed them with their towns. No Anakites were left in Israelite territory; only in Gaza, Gath and Ashdod did any survive. So Joshua took the entire land, just as the LORD had directed Moses, and he gave it as an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal divisions. Then the land had rest from war. (Joshua 11:16-23)
If these passages are taken in a strict literal fashion and read in isolation from the proceeding narrative they record the divinely authorised commission of genocide. Taken literally these passages state three things.
Firstly, that Joshua conquered and subdued the entire regions of southern and northern Canaan. Verse 11:23 states that “Joshua took the entire land” and then “gave it as an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal divisions.” This suggests that the region in question is the same land that is later divided between the Israelite tribes, which was the entire land of Canaan.
Secondly, the passage repeatedly emphasises that Joshua exterminated all the Canaanites in this region. Verse 11:21 states “Joshua came and wiped out the Anakim from the hill country, from Hebron, from Debir, from Anab, and from all the hill country of Judah.” Verse 11:22 states that no Anakites were left living in Israeli territory after this campaign. Repeatedly it states that Joshua left “no survivors” and “destroyed everything that breathed” in “the entire land.” Alongside these general claims the text goes to identifies several specific places and cities where Joshua exterminated everyone and left no survivors and killed all who breathed. These include Hebron, Debir, the hill country and the Negev.
Thirdly, the text states that God commanded these actions. Verse 23 identifies the commands with those laid down in the Law of Moses, which refers back to passages like Deut 20:16-19 and Deut 7.1-5.
The first thing I want to note is that the text should not be read in isolation from the narrative in which this occurs. This hermeneutical point may seem rather obvious but when it is taken seriously immediate and obvious problems occur with a strictly literal reading of the ‘genocide passages’ I mention above. The most glaringly obvious issue relates to the opening of the book of Judges. In the first chapter of Judges we read of events that occurred after the death of Joshua (and, hence, after the campaigns mentioned in Josh 10 and 11). Here it is explicitly stated that Canaanites are living in the land which had been allotted to various Israeli tribes, the land that Joshua is said to have conquered and “left no survivors” in. Note that this was not a small remnant. They existed in such numbers that each of the tribes of Israel needed to fight in order to dislodge them from the land. Several of the tribes were unable to do so and so Israel failed to dislodge them.
Of particular interest, however, are the several cities and regions mentioned. In the first chapter we are told that the Canaanites lived Gaza (Judg 1:18), the Negev (1:9), in the hill country (Judg 1:9) in Debir (Judg 1:11), in Hebron (Judg 1:10) and in the the western foothills (Judg 1:9). Moreover, they did so in such numbers and strength that they had to be driven out by force. These are the same cities that Joshua 10 tells us Joshua had annihilated and left no survivors in. Moreover, the text explicitly states that Anakites are in Hebron, yet Joshua 11:22 tells us that “No Anakites were left in Israelite territory.” This seems rather odd if Joshua had exterminated everyone there and left no survivors. It is also odd given that Joshua is said, in the genocide passages, to have conquered and subdued the entire region.
Moreover, the account of what God commanded also differs in Judges 2:1. Here no mention of genocide or annihilation is made, instead we hear of how God had promised to drive them out and has commanded the Israelites to not to make treaties with them and to destroy their shrines. Taken in a straight-forward literal manner then, Joshua’s actions are at odds with the first two chapters of Judges.
It is not just Judges that this problem occurs in. There are numerous places within the book of Joshua itself where the same picture is presented. As noted, Joshua 11 ends by stating that “the entire land, just as the LORD had directed Moses” was given “as an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal divisions.” When the text turns to giving an account of these tribal divisions it is evident that the Israelites do not actually occupy it, but living, breathing, Canaanites do.
The allotments begin with God telling Joshua, “You are very old, and there are still very large areas of land to be taken over” (Josh 13:1). Moreover, when one examines the allotment given to Judah we see Caleb asking permission to drive the Anakites (Josh14: 11) from the hill countries and we also hear how Caleb has to defeat Anakites living in Hebron and, after this, marches against the people “living in Debir” (Josh 15:13-19). Similarly it is evident with several of the other allotments that the people have yet to drive Canaanites entrenched in the area and that Israelites were not always successful in doing so.
We read, for example, that Ephraimites and Manassites “did not dislodge the Canaanites living in Gezer; to this day the Canaanites live among the people of Ephraim” (Josh 16:10). Similarly, in Chapter 17 it states “Yet the Manassites were not able to occupy these towns, for the Canaanites were determined to live in that region. However, when the Israelites grew stronger, they subjected the Canaanites to forced labor but did not drive them out completely” (Joshua 17:12-13). We hear that “Danites had difficulty taking possession of their territory, so they went up and attacked Leshem, took it, put it to the sword and occupied it. They settled in Leshem and named it Dan after their forefather” (Joshua 19:47). Here, we see the same land said to be subdued and conquered by Joshua in battles where he exterminated and left alive nothing that breathed. This land is yet to be occupied by the tribes of Israel and is occupied by Canaanites, often heavily armed and deeply entrenched (17:17-18).
Brevard Childs notes the apparent contradiction,
Critical scholars have long since pointed out the tension – usually it is called a contradiction – in the portrayal of the conquest of the land. On the one hand, the conquest is pictured in the main source of Josh. 1-12 as a unified assault against the inhabitants of the land under the leadership of Joshua which succeeded in conquering the entire land. On the other hand, there is a conflicting view of the conquest represented by Judges 1 and its parallels in Joshua which appears to picture the conquest as undertaken by individual tribes, extending over a long period beyond the age of Joshua, and unsuccessful in driving out the Canaanites from much of the land.
More recently Kenneth Kitchen has taken issue with Childs’ picture of Joshua 1-12. He notes that, apart from the passages cited at the beginning of this post, a careful reading of Joshua 1-12 makes it clear that Israel did not actually occupy or conquer the areas mentioned at all. Kitchen notes that after crossing the Jordan the Israelites set up camp in Gilgal “on the east border of Jericho” (Joshua 4:19). He notes that after every battle in the next six chapters the text explicitly states that they returned to Gilgal,
The conflict with Canaanite city-state rulers in the southern part of Canaan is worth close examination. After the battle for Gibeon, we see the Hebrews advancing upon six towns in order, attacking and capturing them, killing their local kings and such inhabitants that had not gotten clear, and moving on, not holding on to those places. Twice over (10:15, 43), it is clearly stated that their strike force returned to base camp at Gilgal. So there was no sweeping take over and occupation of this region at this point. And no total destruction of the towns attacked.
Kitchen goes on to note,
What happened in the south was repeated up north. Hazor was both leader and famed center for the north Canaanite kinglets. Thus as in the south the Hebrew strike force defeated the opposition; captured their towns, killed rulers and less mobile inhabitants, symbolically burned Hazor and Hazor only to emphasis its end to its local supremacy. Again Israel did not attempt to immediately hold on to Galilee: they remained based at Gilgal (14:6).
Kitchen notes that the first “real indication of a move in occupation beyond Gilgal comes in 18:4.” This is after the first allotment of “lands to be occupied are made” and as we saw above the Israelites did not find occupying these allotments easy. He concludes, “these campaigns were essentially disabling raids: they were not territorial conquests with instant Hebrew occupation. The text is very clear about this.”
So a straight-forward, literal, reading of the passages cited at the beginning of this post does not cohere with the rest of the narrative. The best account I have come across for explaining this apparent contradiction between a literal reading of the “genocide passages” and the rest of Joshua and Judges is one recently defended by Nicholas Wolterstorff. Wolterstorff suggests that the phrases such as, “Everyone in it they totally destroyed,” “They left no survivors,” etc are not intended to be read literally but function as hyperboles. The analogy he gives is of a high school student who, after a baseball game states, “we totally slaughtered the opposition, we annihilated them just as coach told us to.”
Plantinga suggests a similar line as a possibility. That phrases such as, “put to death men women infants and cattle” are to be understood more like a person who in the context of a boxing match states, “knock his block off, hand him his head” or in a football or baseball game where it is stated that the team should “kill the opposition” or that “we totally slaughtered them.” Understood in a non-literal sense the phrases probably meant “something like, attack them, defeat them, drive them out; not literally kill every man, woman, child donkey and the like.” Wolterstorff elaborates,
When a high-school basket ball player says his team slaughtered the other team last night he’s not asserting, literally now, that they slaughter the other team. What is he asserting? Not easy to tell. That they scored a decisive victory? Maybe, but suppose they barely eked out a win? Was he lying? Maybe not. Maybe he was speaking with a wink of the eye hyperbole. High school kids do.
In the same way,
To say Joshua struck down all the inhabitants with the edge of the sword is a way of saying something like Israel scored a decisive victory and once you recognise the presence of hyperbole it is not even clear how decisive the victories were. Joshua did not conquer all the cities in the land nor did he slaughter all the inhabitants in the cities he did conquer. The book of Joshua does not say that he did.
In my next Sunday Study, Sunday Study: Joshua and the Genocide of the Canaanites Part II, I will attempt to defend Wolterstorff’s position.
 Raymond Bradley “A moral Argument for Atheism” Presented at the University of Western Washington, May 27, 1999, and–in a revised form–at the University of Auckland, September 29, 1999.
 Walter Sinnott-Armstrong “Why Traditional Theism Cannot Provide an Adequate Foundation for Morality” in Is Goodness without God Good Enough: A Debate on Faith, Secularism and Ethics eds Robert K Garcia and Nathan L King (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008) 110.
 Philip Quinn “Religion and Politics” in ed William Mann The Blackwell Guide to Philosophy of Religion (Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005) 316.
 Brevard Childs An Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Fortress Press Philadelphia: 1979) 247.
 Kenneth Kitchen On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003) 162.
 See Joshua 11:13 “But Israel burned none of the towns that stood on mounds except Hazor, which Joshua did burn.”
 Kitchen, above n 5.
 Nicholas Wolterstorff “Reading Joshua” a paper presented to “My Ways Are Not Your Ways: The Character of the God of the Hebrew Bible” Conference at the centre for Philosophy of Religion, University of Notre Dame, Saturday 12 September 2009
 Alvin Plantinga “Comments on Evan Fales’ Satanic Versus: Moral Chaos in Holy Writ” a paper presented to “My Ways Are Not Your Ways: The Character of the God of the Hebrew Bible” Conference at the centre for Philosophy of Religion, University of Notre Dame, Friday 11 September 2009.
 Ibid – stated by Plantinga in the Q&A session.
 Nicholas Wolterstorff “Response to Louise Anthony” a paper presented to “My Ways Are Not Your Ways: The Character of the God of the Hebrew Bible” Conference at the centre for Philosophy of Religion, University of Notre Dame. Saturday 12 September 2009.
 Wolterstorff, above n 9.
Tags: Alvin Plantinga · Brevard Childs · Canaanites · Genocide · Hermeneutics · Joshua · Kenneth Kitchen · Nicholas Wolterstorff · Old Testament Ethics · Raymond Bradley · Sunday Study · Theology · Walter Sinnott-Armstrong50 Comments