God’s Orders Were Not

for Genocide or Ethnic Cleansing

      The new evangelical atheists claim that God is one who commands genocide. However, in this chapter we shall see that this is not true. In fact, according to international law the definition of genocide is that it “consists of the special intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” This may include:

  • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about the group’s physical destruction in whole, or in part.

< > Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group. Forcibly transferring children of the group away from it. The thought of “in part” is shown to refer to a significant enough part to lead to the destruction of the group as a whole. genocide, but of ethnic cleansing. However, with Israel, even this category, i.e., ethnic cleansing is not appropriate because they were reclaiming their God-given land and therefore needed to repossess it. Furthermore, we must understand the genre of language that is used in these biblical accounts.

God’s Actions Before

Israel Begins Military Action in Canaan

     Not only did the Canaanites and other nations hear reports of Yahweh’s miraculous activity in regard to Egypt and Israel, but they could see the miraculous manifestation of Yahweh’s presence as the Israelites camped and then decamped whenever they restarted their march toward the promised land. Further to that Yahweh also stated that:

“I will send the hornet before you, and it will drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites from before you” (Ex. 23:28 LEB).

“And, moreover, Yahweh your God will send the hornets among them until both the survivors and the fugitives are destroyed before you” (Deut. 7:20 LEB).

Here the Hebrew word translated as “hornet” is of uncertain meaning and so some versions have rendered it as “terror.” Either way Moses showed that “Yahweh your Elohim expels these people in front of you” (Deut. 9:4). So, this appears to be a vanguard action on God’s part and so driving out many of the Canaanites from the land even before Israel began their attacks. God later relates the events to the Israelites when He states:

 I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove them out before you – also the two Amorite kings. You did not do it with your own sword and bow” (Josh. 24:12).

This shows that God was not engaged in any form of genocide. Only those who had not fled the land of Canaan would later be killed. Also, the details of Israel’s military actions show that they did not intend genocide, but that the land should be cleansed of wickedness and steadily restored to them. So, the Bible texts state that Israel must destroy the remaining Canaanites after God had driven most of them out. These remaining ones were mainly military forces.

Ancient Near Eastern “Hyperbole of War”


     Close to the end of Joshua’s campaign in Canaan there is a summary statement of his accomplishments with Yahweh’s backing stating that:

 “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” (Josh. 10:40 NIV).

This gives the distinct impression of total control and of a committing of genocide by Israel. However, as noted earlier expressions like these were regularly used in the Ancient Near East. Also, please note that the earlier quoted phrase from Exodus 23 of, “I will wipe them out” has a provably hyperbolic meaning rather than a literalistic one. Similarly, with the phrase, “you shall not leave alive anything that breathes” (Deut. 20:16). We also see this with Moses’ statement in Deuteronomy 7 of, “destroy every one of them.” This is again hyperbole of war language so that Joshua is written in accord with the rhetoric and conventions of the Ancient Near East in regard to conquest accounts along with hyperbole i.e. exaggeration of numbers captured or killed (Num. 31:32, 33). This use of hyperbole is little different than when a modern-day soccer team threatens that they are going to “absolutely slaughter” the opposition team which simply means that they plan on a decisive victory. In fact, if one were to take these Old Testament phrases as meaning an absolutely literal total destruction of everything, one would have a significant contradiction because the sequel story in the book of Judges shows many people from all of these seven Canaanite nations as still living in later times! Furthermore, there are many more phrases which speak of “driving them out” than those which speak of destruction. Indeed, from A Christian Think Tank (website) Glenn Miller states that:

These words group into two categories: dispossession versus destruction. “Dispossession” would include words like drive out, dispossess, take over possession of, thrust out, send away (33 occurrences). “Destruction” words would include annihilate, destroy, perish, and eliminate (11 occurrences). The Dispossession words would indicate that the population “ran away” – migrated out of the Land prior to any encounter with the Israelites…

Clearly, one must not read the “destruction” words in isolation. So, concerning the removal of the Canaanites from the land the goal for these nations was not for them to be entirely destroyed, but that many individuals or groups would be left alive as Yahweh says:

I will put the people living in the land under your control, and you will force them out of your way. Never make a treaty with them and their gods. Never let them live in your land, or they will make you sin against me and trap you into serving their gods” (Ex.23:31-33 GWT).

So, if these peoples are to be put “under Israel’s control” as well as for the Israelites to, “never make a treaty with them” then many will be left alive. This is further balanced when Israel is told to, “Never marry any of them” as indicating that some will be spared. So, the Canaanite tribal kingdoms trespassing upon the land were to be removed as nation states, rather than as individuals.

      Therefore, Israel’s attacks produced no genocide. Such a genocide would have involved the hunting down of every last Canaanite etc. which the Israelites did not do. Certainly, this involved no ethnic cleansing.


     Indeed, Rahab and her entire family were much of the focus in the account in the book of Joshua and were spared. This was also the case with the Gibeonites—a sizable community. A comparison of several texts within the book of Joshua makes it clear that this was no genocide:

“So Joshua and the Israelites defeated them completely, but a few survivors managed to reach their fortified cities” (Josh. 10:20).

“Everyone in it [Debir] they totally destroyed. They left no survivors (Josh. 10:39)Later “Joshua went and destroyed the Anakites: from…Debir (Josh. 11:21).

“The Benjamites, however, did not drive out the Jebusites, who were living in Jerusalem; to this day the Jebusites live there with the Benjamites” (Judges 1:21).

“I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations Joshua left when he died….23 The Lord had allowed those nations to remain; he did not drive them out at once by giving them into the hands of Joshua” (Judges 2:21, 23).

The later books of the Hebrew Scriptures also give instances of individuals who were descendants of these Canaanite survivors. Furthermore, most Canaanites at the time of Israel’s occupation of the land were not innocent people. They were involved in the evils of child sacrifice (a form of murder) and cultic prostitution. So, this removal of them was a spiritual cleansing rather than an ethnic cleansing. This is shown in God’s command to, “tear down their altars, smash their standing-stones, cut down their sacred poles and burn their idols (Deut. 7:5). This is further evidenced by the fact that those Canaanites who were repentant of Canaanite idolatry and wickedness were spared. In fact, the military actions here by Israel were unique in applying only to the very limited geographical area of Canaan and for this one major unique time. This was because the nation of Israel was in a special relationship with God because of the covenant that they were in with Him, so that Yahweh fought for Israel. Certainly, there is no basis in these accounts for modern-day nations to be the aggressor in any war.

Holy War with the Midianites

     Because the elders of Midian had conspired with Balak king of Moab to block Israel’s travels toward the promised land and finally resulting in the stumbling of Israel into sexual immorality and pagan worship Yahweh later required that Israel take revenge upon them. So:

“Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, “Seek vengeance for the Israelites on the Midianites; afterward you will be gathered to your people … And they fought against Midian just as Yahweh commanded Moses, and they killed every male…. The Israelites took captive the women of Midian and their children, and they plundered all their domestic animals and all their livestock and all their wealth. They burned all their cities where they dwelled and all their camps with fire. They took all the plunder and all the war-booty with the humans and domestic animals. They brought the captives, the war-booty, and the plunder to Moses, and to Eleazar the priest, and to the community of the Israelites, to the camp to the desert-plateau of Moab, which was on the Jordan across Jericho. And Moses and Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the community went out to meet them outside the camp. But Moses was angry toward the leaders of the troops, the commanders of the thousands and the commanders of the hundreds, who came from the battle of the war. And Moses said to them, “You have kept alive every female? Behold, these women caused the Israelites, by the word of Balaam, to be in apostasy against Yahweh in the matter of Peor, so that the plague was among the community of Yahweh. Now kill every male among the little children, and kill every woman who has had sexual intercourse with a man.  But all the females who have not had sexual intercourse with a man keep alive for yourselves”

(Num. 31:1-2, 7, 9-18).

Please notice here that Yahweh only required the killing of the Midianite men. However, Moses was the one who took this a step further in requiring the deaths of the non-virgin women and the male children. So once again this was no case of genocide. Furthermore, the term “all” is once again hyperbole of war language.

Holy War with the Amalekites

      Hyperbole of war also applies to Yahweh’s later command to King Saul regarding the Amalekites when He commanded Saul to, “totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys” (1 Sam.15:3). However, at a later time, “David and his men went out on raids against…Amalekites” (1 Sam. 27:8-9), thereby showing that Saul did not completely wipe out all Amalekites. In fact, even later again 1 Samuel 30:17 shows a battle where 400 Amalekites fled. Clearly, 1 Samuel 15 is focused on Ancient Near Eastern ways to express a total victory. Otherwise what would be the benefit to actually killing all the animals?


   According to the authors of the book Did God Really Command Genocide (p.216):

“First, as we have argued above, this text doesn’t portray God as commanding genocide…Nor does this command commit Israel to killing people with the intention of physically destroying the whole or a substantial part of an ethnic group. The text states that the Israelites must totally destroy the Canaanites after God had “drive[n] out” these Canaanite nations. God says he would deliver them over to Israel (v.2) that is the remaining Canaanites who have not been driven out or fled from the field, but remained to fight and would have been subsequently defeated.

All of the above shows that God was no moral monster in regard to any conquests (as the new evangelical atheists have said over this issue). He certainly did not plan any genocide of these illegal inhabitants of the land of Canaan. In fact, God asks: “Would I take pleasure in the death of the wicked and not prefer to see him renounce his wickedness and live” (Ezek. 18:23 NJB). Similarly, in the New Testament we find that: The LORD… doesn’t want anyone to be destroyed. Rather, He wants everyone to turn to Him and change their mindset and life-direction (2 Pet. 3:9). This further shows that God is not different in the Old Testament as compared to the New Testament.

     A further point to consider is that the biblical account of Yahweh wars is in no way comparable to Islamic jihadist concepts as described in the Koran, in the Hadiths, and in the terrorist actions of today. Even in the eleventh century time of the crusades to Jerusalem it was the aggression of the Islamic forces which precipitated a just war on the part of the Christian West in response to the aggression. Although a distorted and misguided history has been presented of the crusades by historians Edward Gibbon and Karen Armstrong along with movies such as Kingdom of Heaven, the crusaders did not, in fact, attempt any kind of genocide or seek to steal wealth from the Islamic world. They also did not justify their actions by any misunderstanding of the unique Yahweh wars in the Bible record. Even though some of the actions of the crusaders were not morally justifiable their main motive was the bringing back of Jerusalem and previously Christian lands into Christian hands and the protection of pilgrims to holy land sites.

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