How Could God Command Killing the Canaanites?

by Paul Copan

“Only in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them: the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the Lord your God”(Deuteronomy 20:16–18, NASB).1

Such texts have troubled Bible believers and unbelievers alike. In his book, The God Delusion, atheist Richard Dawkins asserts that Israel engaged in “ethnic cleansing” — those “bloodthirsty massacres” carried out with “xenophobic relish.”

How should we make sense of these kinds of texts? I have written a book on Old Testament ethics (Is God a Moral Monster? — forthcoming with Baker), including four chapters on the Old Testament and violence. I can only here briefly summarize my response to this perennially perplexing question. Keep in mind that I am offering an alternative to the Sunday School version of the Canaanite question.2 First, I will make a few introductory remarks. Then I will sketch out the key points as a preview of the warfare discussion in my forthcoming book.

Introductory Comments

Contrary to what some Bible believers claim, the Canaanites were not the absolute worst specimens of humanity that ever existed — or the worst that existed in the ancient Near East. And what about the critic’s question, “Who is to say that these accounts are just like that of any army in history attacking another people in the name of God?”

The brief reply is, “This was a unique, unrepeatable historical situation, and we could not justify Israel’s attacking the Canaanites unless God had commanded this by special revelation.” Even so, God had patiently waited over 400 years until the Canaanites would be ripe for judgment (Genesis 15:16) — though this would mean Israel’s enslavement in Egypt in the meantime.

By the Israelite attack on Canaan, God accomplished two things. First, He brought righteous judgment on the deserving Canaanites — a kind of corporate capital punishment. God directed this destruction, however, less against Canaanite persons as it was against Canaanite religion (Deuteronomy 7:3–5; 12:2,3; cp. Exodus 34:12,13).2 The Canaanite gods/goddesses engaged in all kinds of sexual acts including incest and bestiality. Not surprisingly, worshipers of these deities engaged in ritual prostitution — not to mention infant sacrifice and other deviant acts.

In our sex-saturated culture, many people do not seem concerned about sexual immorality and the destruction it wreaks on individuals, families, and society. Our anger may flare up about racism or gender discrimination, but today’s society has jaded our moral instincts when it comes to other soul-destroying activities. God’s anger at a society’s moral and spiritual suicide mission — His saying “Enough!” —turns out to be a sign of moral concern.

Second, God was able to prepare a land for His people to create the proper religious setting to make sense of a coming Messiah who would bring redemption to Israelites and Gentiles alike (Genesis 12:3). Who are the intended recipients of this salvation? Jews, yes, but also Israel’s most hostile enemies — Assyria, Egypt, Babylon, and Philistia (Psalm 87:4–6; Isaiah 19:23–25). What is more, God even incorporated the Canaanites into the new Israel, the true people of God (Zechariah 9:7 [the “Jebusite,” who has been assimilated into Israel]; Matthew 15:22). Killing the Canaanites was not racially motivated; rather, it was theologically and morally motivated via divine mandate.

Infiltration, Internal Struggle, and Conquest

The typical Sunday School version of the Canaanite story assumes that military engagement was the only means of taking the land. Many evangelical scholars, however, reject the military-only model. They recognize that the biblical text refers to some type of infiltration (e.g., Judges 1:1–2:5) as well as internal struggle (Judges). After all, the Canaanites continued to live in the land. One Old Testament scholar observes that we see more than “a simple conquest model, but rather a mixed picture of success and failure, sudden victory and slow, compromised progress.”4 Yes, the Israelites entered Canaan, and they did engage militarily, “but without causing extensive material destruction.”5 As we will continue to see, the picture is a bit more complex than simply “conquest.”

Ancient Near East Warfare Rhetoric

Any conquest of Canaan was far less widespread and harsh than many people assume. Consider Joshua 10:40: “Thus Joshua struck all the land, the hill country and the Negev and the lowland and the slopes and all their kings. He left no survivor, but he utterly destroyed all who breathed, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded” (NASB). At first glance, it appears that Joshua captured all the land, defeated all the kings, and destroyed all the Canaanites (cf. 10:40–42; 11:16–20). Total obliteration? Not quite. Joshua used typical ancient Near East rhetorical language that exaggerates what actually took place.

Joshua was not trying to deceive people; the ancient audience would have readily understood what was going on. In fact, if we read the text closely, we see this is exactly right. Joshua later refers to nations that “remain among you,” and he warns Israel not to mention, swear by, serve, or bow down to their gods (Joshua 23:7,12,13; cp. 15:63; 16:10; 17:13; Judges 2:10–13).

The same is true in Judges (which is literarily connected to Joshua): “[they] did not drive out the Jebusites”; “[they] did not take possession”; “they did not drive them out completely” (1:21–36, NASB); “I will not drive them out before you” (2:3, NASB). In fact, these nations remained “to this day” (1:21, NASB).

Yes, Joshua uses ancient conventional warfare rhetoric. Many other ancient Near East military accounts are full of bravado and exaggeration, depicting total devastation. Ancient Near East readers knew this was massive hyperbole and not literally true.6 Interestingly, Deuteronomy 7:2–5 uses words like “utterly destroy” right next to “you shall not intermarry with them” (NASB). As we have seen, the chief concern is destroying Canaanite religion not the Canaanite people.

The Amalekites

What about 1 Samuel 15 where God commands Israel to “utterly destroy [haram]” and “not spare” the Amalekites? Who were these people? They were Israel’s enemies from day one (Exodus 17:8–16) and across the generations (e.g., Judges 3:13; 6:3–5, 33; 7:12; 10:12; etc.). For nearly 1,000 years, the Amalekites dogged and threatened Israel. So did Saul really wipe them out (except for Agag, whom the prophet Samuel finished off)? Well, there is more going on here. Despite all appearances, the Amalekites show up again in 1 Samuel 27:8 and then in 30:1–18. During Persian King Xerxes’ time (486–465 B.C.), we encounter Haman the Agagite (Esther 3:1). (Agag had been king of the Amalekites.) Haman mounted a campaign to destroy the Jews as a people (3:13). Repeatedly, we see that the Amalekites were resolutely hostile toward Israel.

“Men, women, and children”

When reading the text of 1 Samuel 15:3, we are led to believe that Israel targeted and obliterated Amalekite noncombatants. However, Old Testament scholar Richard Hess argues that we do not actually have indications that this was so — whether toward the Amalekites or the Canaanites. Deuteronomy 2:34 states that “we captured all his cities at that time and utterly destroyed the men, women and children of every city. We left no survivor” (NASB). Again, in the next chapter, we read that Israel “utterly destroyed … the men, women and children of every city” (3:6, NASB).

The sweeping words like “all,” “young and old,” and “man and woman,” however, are stock expressions for totality — even if women and children were not present. The expression “men and women” or similar phrases appear to be stereotypical for describing all the inhabitants of a town or region, “without predisposing the reader to assume anything further about their ages or even their genders.”6

Our understanding of the archaeology/history of Canaan offers some illuminating perspectives that help shed light on this discussion and reinforce this point. So let’s explore this.

Jericho, Ai, and Other Canaanite Cities

This stereotypical ancient Near East language of “all” people describes attacks on what turn out to be military forts or garrisons containing combatants — not a general population that includes women and children. We have no archaeological evidence of civilian populations at Jericho or Ai (6:21; 8:25).8 The word “city [‘ir]” during this time in Canaan was where the (military) king, the army, and the priesthood resided. So for Joshua, mentioning “women” and “young and old” turns out to be stock ancient Near East language that he could have used even if “women” and “young and old” were not living there. The language of “all” (“men and women”) at Jericho and Ai is a “stereotypical expression for the destruction of all human life in the fort, presumably composed entirely of combatants.”9 The text does not require that “women” and “young and old” must have been in these cities — and this same situation could apply to Saul’s battling against the Amalekites.

Furthermore, people in Canaan commonly used the associated term melek (“king”)during this time for a military leader who was responsible to a higher ruler off-site. (The civilian population typically lived in the hill country.) According to the best calculations based on Canaanite inscriptions and other archaeological evidence (i.e., no artifacts or “prestige” ceramics), Jericho was a small settlement of probably 100 or fewer soldiers. This is why all of Israel could circle it seven times and then do battle against it on the same day!10 Also, we should keep in mind that the large numbers used in warfare accounts in the Old Testament are a little tricky; they simply may not be as high as our translations indicate. The Hebrew word ‘eleph (commonly rendered, “thousand”) can also mean “unit” or “squad” without specifying the exact number.

Rahab the Tavern-keeper

As an aside, some people have wondered if the two spies coming to Jericho sought out Rahab for sexual favors. That is not the case here. Biblical writers elsewhere do not shrink from mentioning such liaisons (think of Judah and Samson). Apart from the fact of Rahab’s genuine faith in Israel’s God, the language in the text forbids this perspective. The spies “came into the house of Rahab” (2:1, NASB) — not, “they went into Rahab” (cp. Judges 16:1, NASB).

Furthermore, Rahab was in charge of what was likely the fortress tavern or hostel — not a brothel — even if prostitutes sometimes ran these taverns.11 Traveling caravans and royal messengers would commonly overnight at such places during this period.12 These reconnaissance missions were common in the ancient Near East. An innkeeper’s home would have been an ideal meeting place for spies and conspirators — a public place where they could learn about the practical and military dispositions of the area and could solicit a possible “fifth column” of support.13

The Canaanites’ Refusal To Acknowledge the One True God

Rahab and her family were living demonstrations that a mission of killing Canaanites was not absolute and irreversible. The Canaanites were aware of God’s power (Joshua 2:10,11; 9:9), and they could have repented. Indeed, Israel’s sevenfold march around Jericho reveals an opportunity for its king, soldiers, and priests to relent. The Hebrew word “circle, march around[naqaph]” (Joshua 6:3) involves various ceremonial aspects — including rams’ horns, sacred procession, and shouting (cp. 2 Samuel 6:15,16; cp. Psalm 48:12,13). The word contains the idea of an inspection; in Jericho’s case, it was to see if the city would open its gates to evade the ban.14

The text suggests that Joshua gave a genuine opportunity for Jericho to relent and trust in the one true God. Furthermore, Israel is not engaged in “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing.” Israel took in Rahab and her family (just as it would accept Ruth). God regularly reminded Israel to look out for the alien in their midst. Why? Because Israelites had once been aliens in the land of Egypt (Leviticus 19:34). Furthermore, God regularly threatened to judge Israel — and He did just that — as He had the Canaanites. In fact, we have seen that Israel’s enemies are eventual objects of God’s salvation. No ethnic hatred here.

Israel’s Warfare Methods

We need to consider three relevant points here. First, the aftermath of Joshua’s victories are featherweight descriptions in comparison to those found in the annals of the ancient Near East’s major empires — whether Hittite and Egyptian (second millennium), Aramaean, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, or Greek (first millennium).15 Unlike Joshua’s brief, four-verse description of the treatment of the five kings (10:24–27), Assyrians were experts at rape and pillage.

The Neo-Assyrian annals of Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 B.C.) take pleasure in describing the atrocities and gruesomely describe flaying live victims, impaling others on poles, and the heaped up of bodies for display.16 They boast about how the king mounded bodies and heads into piles; he bragged of gouging out troops’ eyes and cutting off their ears and limbs, followed by hanging their heads on posts around a city.17 Israel’s battle accounts are quite tame in comparison.

Second, a number of battles that Israel fought on the way to and within Canaan were defensive. This is clear in texts such as Exodus 17:8; Numbers 21:1,3,21–32; Deuteronomy 2:26–37; 3:1; Joshua 10:4 (cp. also Numbers 31:2,3 with Numbers 25; 31:16). Beside this, God prohibited Israel from conquering other neighboring nations — Moab and Ammon (Deuteronomy 2:9,19) as well as Edom (Deuteronomy 2:4; 23:7) — despite the fact Edom had earlier refused to assist the Israelites (Numbers 20:14–21; cp. Deuteronomy 2:6–8). So, God did not permit land grabbing, and Israel had no right to conquer beyond what God had sanctioned.

Third, all sanctioned “Yahweh battles” beyond the time of Joshua were defensive ones. Warfare was a way of life in the ancient Near East, and Israel often had to defend itself from Midianites, Amalekites, and Philistines. That said, God did not sanction all the battles mentioned in the Old Testament.What “is” in the Bible does not mean it “ought” to be carried out. (In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul mentions various negative moral examples in the life of national Israel.) While certain offensive battles take place in Judges and under David and beyond, the Bible does not necessarily commend as ideal or exemplary.18

“Driving Them Out”

What adds further interest is the language of “driving out” and “thrusting out” the Canaanites (Exodus 23:28; Leviticus 18:24; Numbers 33:52: Deuteronomy 6:19; 7:1; 9:4; 18:12; Joshua 10:28,30,32,35,37,39; 11:11,14). The Old Testament also uses the language of “dispossessing” the Canaanites of their land (Numbers 21:32; Deuteronomy 9:1; 11:23; 18:14; 19:1; etc.). “Driving out” or “dispossessing” is different from “wiping out” or “destroying.” This provides yet further indication that utter annihilation was not intended.

“I will send My terror ahead of you, and throw into confusion all the people among whom you come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. I will send hornets ahead of you so that they will drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites before you. I will not drive them out before you in a single year, that the land may not become desolate and the beasts of the field become too numerous for you. I will drive them out before you little by little, until you become fruitful and take possession of the land” (Exodus 23:27–30, NASB).

Expulsion is in view, not annihilation.19 And after examination, the “driving out” references are much more numerous than the “destroying” ones. How does this dispossessing or driving out work? It is not hard to imagine. The threat of a foreign army in the ancient Near East prompted women and children to remove themselves from harm’s way — not to mention the population at large. They would be the first to flee. As John Goldingay writes, an attacked population would not wait around for the enemy to kill them. Only the defenders, who do not get out, are the ones who would get killed.20 Jeremiah 4:29 suggests such a scenario:

“At the sound of the horseman and bowman every city flees;
They go into the thickets and climb among the rocks;
Every city is forsaken, and no man dwells in them” (NASB).

Again, we have no indication from the biblical text that the “justified wars” of Joshua “were against noncombatants.”21 We read in Joshua (and Judges) that, despite the “obliteration” language, there were plenty of Canaanite inhabitants who Israel did not “drive out”; rather, they lived in the areas where Israel had settled.

“Joshua Utterly Destroyed Them Just as Moses Commanded”?

In the following texts, Joshua’s “utter destruction” of the Canaanites is exactly what “Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded”:

  • “Joshua captured all the cities of these kings, and all their kings, and he struck them with the edge of the sword, andutterly destroyed them; just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded” (Joshua 11:12, NASB).
  • “All the spoil of these cities and the cattle, the sons of Israel took as their plunder; but they struck every man with the edge of the sword, until they had destroyed them. They left no one who breathed. Just as the Lord had commanded Moses his servant, so Moses commanded Joshua, and so Joshua did; he left nothing undone of all that the Lord had commanded Moses” (Joshua 11:14,15, NASB).
  • “that he might destroy them, just as the Lord had commanded Moses” (Joshua 11:20, NASB).

Remember Moses’ sweeping commands to “consume” and “utterly destroy” the Canaanites, not to “leave alive anything that breathes”? Joshua’s comprehensive language echoes that of Moses. Scripture clearly indicates that Joshua fulfilled Moses’ charge to him. So if Joshua did just as Moses commanded, and if Joshua’s described destruction was really massive hyperbole common in ancient Near East warfare language and familiar to Moses, then clearly Moses himself did not intend a literal, comprehensive Canaanite destruction. He, like Joshua, was merely following the literary convention of the day.22

Final Reflections

What if the brief sketch above turns out not to be correct in that Israel also targeted noncombatants? We should remember that the non-Sunday School response above takes a good deal of the sting out of the Canaanite problem. But let us pursue the question of noncombatants being targeted as well. What other considerations are there?

First,just because Canaanite women did not fight did not mean they were morally innocent (note the seductive Midianite women in Numbers 25). Second, if Israel targeted children, we must remember that this act was unique and unrepeatable in Israel’s history — and that God’s ultimate intentions were to bring salvation. Consider the parallel of Abraham and Isaac. God promised Abraham that Isaac would be the child of promise to bring blessing to the nations. So Abraham was convinced that God would keep His promise — even if this meant raising Isaac from the dead: “We will worship and then we will come back to you” (Genesis 22:5). Likewise, the Canaanite question has as its backdrop the promise of blessing and salvation to all peoples — including Canaanites.

Despite our remaining questions, we need to look at God’s clear revelation in Jesus Christ — especially His incarnation and atoning death. A concerned, relational God — who made himself known to ancient Israel — showed up on the scene in flesh and blood. He entered into first-century life in Palestine, stooping to share our lot to enduring life’s temptations, injustices, sufferings, cruelties, and humiliations. However we view the Canaanite question, God’s heart is concerned with redemption. Christ’s dying naked on a barbaric cross reveals how very low God is willing to go for our salvation. As Michael Card sang about those who scorned and spurned God’s salvation in Jesus of Nazareth:

They mocked His true calling
And laughed at His fate,
So glad to see the Gentle One
Consumed by their hate—
Unaware of the wind and the darkening sky,
So blind to the fact that it was God limping by.23

Since God was willing to go through all of this for our salvation, the Christian can reply to the critic, “While I cannot tidily solve the problem of the Canaanites, I can trust a God who has proven His willingness to go to such excruciating lengths — and depths — to offer rebellious humans reconciliation and friendship.”

However we interpret and respond to some of the baffling questions raised by the Old Testament, we should not stop with the Old Testament if we want a clearer revelation of the heart and character of God. In fact, the New Testament clearly reveals a God who redeems His enemies through Christ’s substitutionary, self-sacrificial, shame-bearing act of love (Romans 5:10). Though a Canaanite-punishing God strikes us as incompatible with graciousness and compassion, God is also light (1 John 1:5) — a God who is both good and severe (Romans 11:22). Yet this righteous God loves His enemies, not simply His friends (Matthew 5:43–48). Indeed, He allows himself to be crucified by His enemies in hopes of redeeming them: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34, NASB).


1. Scripture quotations marked NASB are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission (

2. See Paul Copan, “Yahweh Wars: Divinely Mandated Genocide or Corporate Capital Punishment?” Philosophia Christ n.s. 11/1 (2009): 73–90. Available online at (Accessed 1:19/2010.)

3. Gordon J. Wenham, Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Pentateuch (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 2003),137.

4. Gordon McConville, “Joshua” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, ed. J. Barton and J. Muddiman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 159.

5. David M. Howard, Jr., Joshua 5, New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1998), 39,40.

6. Christopher C.J. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 2004), 474–75; Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 149.

7. Richard S. Hess, “The Jericho and Ai of the Book of Joshua,” in Critical Issues in Early Israelite History, eds. Richard S. Hess, Gerald A. Klingbeil, and Paul J. Ray, Jr. (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2008), 39.

8. On the exaggeration of numbers in the ancient Near East/Old Testament, see Daniel M. Fouts, “A Defense of the Hyperbolic Interpretation of Numbers in the Old Testament, “Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40/3 (1997): 377–87.

9. Hess, “The Jericho and Ai of the Book of Joshua,” 46.

10. Ibid., 35,42.

11. Hess, personal correspondence (January 28, 2009).

12. Hess, Joshua, 91,92. Note the laws of Eshnunna regarding the role of innkeepers (§15, §41). See D.J. Wiseman, “Rahab of Jericho,”Tyndale Bulletin 14 (1964): 8–11.

13. Hess, Joshua, 91,92.

14. Hess, Joshua, 142,143.

15. Hess, “War in the Hebrew Bible: An Overview,” in War in the Bible and Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century. Richard S. Hess and Elmer A. Martens, eds. (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2008), 29.

16. Ibid.

17. Ian Morris and Walter Scheidel,The Dynamics of Ancient Empires: State Power from Assyria to Byzantium (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 62.

18. Hess, “War,” 30.

19. Jeffrey H. Tigay, Deuteronomy, Torah Commentary Series (Jerusalem: Jewish Publication Society, 2003), 470.

20. John Goldingay, “City and Nation” from his forthcoming third volume, Old Testament Theology, vol. 3 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 2009); also Hess, “War,” 30.

21. Hess, “War,” 30.

22. From Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Reading Joshua,” presented atMy Ways Are Not Your Ways” conference, University of Notre Dame, September 2009.

23. Michael Card, “This Must Be the Lamb,” Legacy album, Benson Productions, 1983.

Further reading

Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster? The New Atheists and the Strange World of Old Testament Ethics. Grand Rapids: Baker, forthcoming.

_______. 2009. “Yahweh Wars: Divinely-Mandated Genocide or Corporate Capital Punishment?” Philosophia Christn.s. 11/1: 73-90. Available online at (Accessed 1/19/2010.)

Hess, Richard S.1996. Joshua, Tyndale Old Testament Commentary 6. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity,.

Hess, Richard S. and Elmer A. Martens, eds. 2008. “War in the Hebrew Bible: An Overview,” in War in the Bible and Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns.

Wright, Christopher. 2008.The God I Don’t Understand. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.