Is God an ethnic cleanser? Can God be accused of hating certain people groups? Does God not value human life, even that of children? If you ask Richard Dawkins, he would probably point you to his remarks in The God Delusion,
“…the ethnic cleansing begun in the time of Moses is brought to bloody fruition in the book of Joshua, a text remarkable for the blood thirsty massacres it records and the xenophobic relish with which it does so.”
Quotes such as these, common on atheist websites and literature, reveal remarkable ignorance of the content of the Bible and of the general principles of hermeneutics. These principles of interpretation are not only applicable to the Bible, but to all of literature. If one intends to uncover the precise meaning of any ancient passage in any ancient document, it is obvious that certain rules of interpretation must be applied. Foremost among these principles is a proper consideration of the CONTEXT. One must resist the temptation of interpreting ancient literature as if it were written in our modern times. The conquest passages are an excellent example of the need for sound interpretation principles. These passages are more than 3,500 years old. The world in 1450BC was quite different from our world. A careful consideration of the context along with other key issues goes a long way in dissipating the criticism of contemporary atheists. A case study on the conquest of Canaan will make it abundantly clear that the God of the Old Testament cannot be accused of being a xenophobic ethnic cleanser.
We begin by affirming the obvious; you can’t separate a story from its narrative context. You cannot select a story, regardless of its content, without also accepting the explanation provided in the narrative itself. That is unacceptable in any academic field engaged in interpretation of the narrative genre. This consideration alone does not completely resolve the problem, but it allows the passage to be considered with a framework that facilitates understanding. In the case of the conquest of Canaan, the narrative context provides a completely different perspective than that of Mr. Dawkins.
Dose the narrative context leave room for the notion of ethnic cleansing? When we consider the relevant context in the book of Joshua, it becomes obvious that ethnicity was irrelevant. What we observe is quite contrary. If we consider Joshua 5—on the eve of the conquest—we find a repudiation of the normal understanding of a tribal conflict. God goes out of His way to make it clear to the Jews that He is judging the nations and Israel is just an instrument. In an episode that is quite fascinating, Joshua encounters the Angel of the Lord,
13 Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” 14 “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?” 15 The commander of the Lord’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so. (NIV)
In other words, the Angel of the Lord is saying: “I’m in charge, and I’m not here to take sides.” Joshua needed to understand that it was God who was judging these nations. Interestingly, Israel would later find itself at the receiving end of God’s judgment. What becomes blatantly clear is that God judged sin—wherever it was found.
This is not the only passage where such truth is made abundantly clear. Even prior to crossing the Jordan River, Moses lays out the parameters of the conquest. Consider Deuteronomy 9:4-6 as a framework to the conquest. Notice the repetition,
4 “Do not think in your heart, after the Lord your God has cast them out before you, saying, ‘Because of my righteousness the Lord has brought me in to possess this land’; but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out from before you. 5 It is not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart that you go in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord your God drives them out from before you, and that He may fulfill the word which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 6 Therefore understand that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stiff-necked people.” [emphasis added].
The Canaanites were judged because of their sin like the Israelites were also judged because of their sin. All you have to do is read the book of Lamentations and you will see all that the Jews went through because of their rebellion and sin against God. This is extraordinary in an ancient context—when you read ancient literature—this is not the sort of thing you get. This is actually a critique of the notion of ethnic cleansing. It is also contrary to the notion of tribal warfare. Thus, the narrative explanation makes it clear that it has nothing to do with genocide. God is simply exercising his right to judge sin and wickedness wherever it is found. It isn’t long after the conquest that God has to judge the Jews for their sin as well. God has no favorites.
When we consider the nature of God’s judgment within the biblical context, the questionable content begins to dissipate. We begin to see that God is not capricious or vindictive, but rather a just and loving God. This turns out to be consistent throughout the Old Testament. God continually expresses His desire to forgive and restore, rather than judge and destroy. Take for example Ezekiel 33:11,
“Say to them: ‘As I live,’ says the Lord God, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel?’”
God had been extremely patient with the Canaanites. He waited over 400 years for them to repent and avoid judgment, but they did not. God reveals to Abraham that the conquest would be the direct result of unrepentant sin. Consider Genesis 15:16, “But in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” In other words, God waited patiently for them to repent and proceeded to judge the nations when it was obvious they would never do so. As William Lane Craig points out,
By the time of their destruction, Canaanite culture was, in fact, debauched and cruel, embracing such practices as ritual prostitution and even child sacrifice. The Canaanites are to be destroyed “that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God” (Deut. 20.18). God had morally sufficient reasons for His judgment upon Canaan, and Israel was merely the instrument of His justice, just as centuries later God would use the pagan nations of Assyria and Babylon to judge Israel.
Particularity of the Conquest
Another fact established by a careful consideration of the narrative context is the particularity of the conquest of Canaan. This is a particular moment in history. It is a particular action in a particular time, for a particular situation—it is not repeated. Unlike Israel’s neighbors, there is no evidence (internal or external) that Israel ever tried to extend its borders from beyond the promised land. The Jews were not a conquesting people. They understood themselves to be a divine instrument of exacting judgment on a people that were profoundly wicked. The Canaanites were a people who engaged regularly in child sacrifice among other horrific practices. God’s intervention should be seen as nothing except justice dispensed by He who has the responsibility and the role of Judge over His creation.
God’s Law vs. Near Eastern Culture
Israelite Laws about warfare, social ethics and punishments are infinitely more just and compassionate than those of their near eastern neighbors. As Paul Copan explains,
For certain crimes, Hammurabi mandated that tongue, breast, hand, or ear be cut off (192, 194, 195, 205). One punishment involved the accused’s being dragged around a field by cattle.
There was a sharp contrast between these Near Eastern laws and the Law that God passed down to the Jews. While similarities are abundant in those areas where moral absolutes stand out, the differences are notable with regards to the compassion and mercy of God that comes through in the latter.
Commenting on the brutal and harsh Code of Hammurabi, historian Paul Johnson observes: “These dreadful laws are notable for the ferocity of their physical punishments, in contrast to the restraint of the Mosaic Code and the enactments of Deuteronomy and Leviticus.”
Regarding the warfare, it is also notable that it would never have been justified for the Jews to attack any of the inhabitants of the Promised Land without the direct command of God to do so. Furthermore, God was more concerned with wiping out the religion of the Canaanites than the people themselves. When we read the narrative context we find obvious references to the Canaanites surviving the conquest. For example in Deuteronomy 7:2-5 we read,
2 and when the Lord your God delivers them over to you, you shall conquer them and utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them nor show mercy to them. 3 Nor shall you make marriages with them. You shall not give your daughter to their son, nor take their daughter for your son. 4 For they will turn your sons away from following Me, to serve other gods; so the anger of the Lord will be aroused against you and destroy you suddenly. 5 But thus you shall deal with them: you shall destroy their altars, and break down their sacred pillars, and cut down their wooden images, and burn their carved images with fire.
The clear emphasis is on the annihilation of the religion as opposed to the people group. This passage is of utmost hermeneutical importance, for it provides an expanded explanation in verse 5 of what God meant in verse 2 when he instructs them to “conquer them and utterly destroy them.”
When one considers fundamental hermeneutical principles that apply to these Old Testament passages such as narrative context, the nature of God’s judgment, the particularity of the conquest and the contrast between the laws of Near Eastern cultures of the time and the law of the Jewish people, the attacks on God’s character turn out to be unfounded. Furthermore, the attacks demonstrate widespread ignorance of the Old Testament. Next week we will engage in a case study of the Amalekites and the charge of infanticide.
 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 248.
 William Lane Craig. The Slaughter of the Canaanites, Q&A. http://www.reasonablefaith.org/slaughter-of-the-canaanites#ixzz2MrSxwQbk Accessed 3/1/13.
 Paul Copan. “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?” Philosophia Christi, Vol. 10, No.1 2008.
Dr. Juan Valdes is a bi-lingual speaker for Reasons for Hope (English and Spanish) and the senior pastor of a Spanish-speaking congregation in Miami, Florida. He has taught Theology, Bible and Apologetics at the seminary level in both English and Spanish and speaks regularly across the country and internationally at Pastor’s Conferences, Youth Conferences, Apologetics Conferences and local church events. Juan, his wife Daisy and their children, Juan Elias and Jessica serve in multiple areas of ministry in Miami, Florida.