Exterminate them without mercy: The problem of Joshua, genocide, and the character of God

Exterminate Them All
Author note: A couple of years ago, I wrote the following blog post about an approach to the most difficult text when it comes to understanding God’s character. Although I think my view has / is evolv(ed/ing), I think that this article is a good conversation starter. In the next year or so I plan to revisit Old Testament violence. Particularly, I’m looking forward to reading more OT scholars and utilizing Greg Boyd’s forthcoming book, “The Crucifixion of the Warrior God.” What I’m particularly interested in is your thoughts on how to approach these OT passages…

What is different about Israel compared to other nations?  From their beginnings they are a community that is devoted to God and are a people on the move.  They are nomads in search of a land where they can govern themselves under the love of their Creator.  Remember that at this time, their only king is God himself.  In fact, later on in the storyline, Israel will ask for a king so that they can be just like all the other nations.  You can read this story in 1 Samuel 8.4-12.

God wanted to be their only king.  He wanted to govern them to be a nation that looks different than all the nations of the world that use domination as a means to victory.  Notice the warning that was given: “He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses…” (v.11)  In the ancient world, the image of “chariots and horses” represented a system of government that was fueled by accumulating “surplus and wealth.”  In other words, the “chariots and horses” are an image of conquest and social domination.  And under such a system in the ancient world, poverty and suffering was prevalent.

In God’s economy this was never the plan.  He didn’t desire for such a system to be put in place, for he didn’t want anyone to be a victim in Israel.  His special people, his Israel, was called to be a light to the rest of the world… and to be such, they needed to be a community that was characterized by the love of God and love of people.  Notice Joshua 11.4 and following…

4 They came out with all their troops and a large number of horses and chariots—a huge army, as numerous as the sand on the seashore. 5 All these kings joined forces and made camp together at the Waters of Merom, to fight against Israel. 6 The LORD said to Joshua, “Do not be afraid of them, because by this time tomorrow I will hand all of them over to Israel, slain. You are to hamstring their horses and burn their chariots.”  Joshua 11.4-6

Notice here the same kind of language is used to describe the powerful nations in Canaan.  They have might and want to dominate the world by use of violence, even if some people are left in poverty as a result.  And here we find that Israel, who at this time are a large group of nomads who have lived in the desert for several years.

In comparison to other nations, they are a large group of peasants who compared to the Canaanites, are lowly.  So what is the point of the violence in Joshua?  Consider Joshua 11.20…

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.  Joshua 11:20

“exterminating them without mercy”

How does this fit with the God of love we see revealed throughout the whole of the Bible and particularly in Jesus Christ?  Let me read you a quote that helped me make more sense of this difficult story of genocide…

Does God mandate violence?  Properly contextualized, this narrative answers yes, but of a specific kind: tightly circumscribed, in the interest of a serious social experiment, in the interest of ending domination.  The revelation is not really act, but warrant or permit.  The narrative requires us to conclude that this community was utterly persuaded that the God of the tradition is passionately against domination and is passionately for an egalitarian community. (Walter Brueggemann, Divine Presence Amid Violence, 39.)

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So, in this circumstance we see that God saw it fit to destroy entire nations that were utterly opposed to his way of operating in the world.  God, in order to carry forward his redemptive mission, had to use violence to purge the land of all influences that had the potential to corrupt his way of ordering society.

Now the question remains: would Jesus participate in such violence in our day?

In other words: Does the church have the same kind of divine license to kill others who oppose our way of ordering society?  Notice a key difference in the storyline of redemption that takes place after Jesus comes.  No longer is God working through one nation, but he is working in every nation to gather a people to himself. God no longer has a holy nation that represents him on the earth, the multiethnic church is now his representative.  We no longer can hate other nations, because these are the very places God is drawing his multiethnic family from.  What worked under God’s command for the greater good of establishing a special nation that didn’t give into the desire for “chariots and horses” no longer works under the new revelation of Jesus.  Jesus shows us God!  And God is operating through a different means in this part of the story of redemption.  He is operating by offering peace rather than the sword of violence.

In Joshua’s days he operated in Joshua’s ways…

In Jesus’ day he operated in Jesus’ ways…

And in our day he is at work in our ways… continuing the work of grace, love and peace in our world.

What I have offered is a reading that attempts to contextualize genocidal act of Joshua.  What other theories / theologies / explanations have you heard?  What do you think about the perspective offered here?  Would Jesus EVER sanction such an act in our day?


Kurt Willems (M.Div., Fresno Pacific) is an Anabaptist writer preparing for a church planting project with the Brethren in Christ. He writes at: the Pangea Blog and is also on Twitter and Facebook.

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About the Author

Kurt Willems

Kurt WillemsKurt Willems (M.Div., Fresno Pacific) is the founding pastor of Pangea Communities - a movement of peace, justice, & hope. The church plant, in partnership with the Brethren in Christ and Urban Expression, is based in Seattle, Wa. Kurt writes at The Pangea Blog and is also on TwitterFacebook, and Google+.View all posts by Kurt Willems →

  • Wes McLean

    For me, “contextualising” genocide is to try to diminish it or explain it away so that it won’t bother our consciences. Today genocide still happens, and there are people (sympathisers) trying to “contextualise” it, giving what they feel are valid reasons why hundreds of humans had to be slaughtered. In your case, “God had to use violence to purge the land of all influences that had e potential to corrupt…”. You could swap God in that sentence for any world dictator (Stalin, Hitler, Mao, …..) but the end never justifies the means. I realise there is a need to explain God’s apparently psychotic Old Testament behaviour, but this argument does no better than “contextualise” e.g. The Holocaust.

    • DrewTwoFish

      I have to agree. From where I sit, this is another example of trying to circle the square by those who seem to equate worship of the Bible with worship of God.

  • guest

    We’re living in a different age where God no longer destroys nations, so nobody who follows Him can justify modern day genocide.
    However, the proper revelation of God’s work in the OT is that when nations were destroyed, that should be understood as such and there was a purpose for those destructions.

    • Wes McLean

      So at which point did divine-directed genocide become unjustifiable? As someone who cares for human rights for the individual I can’t see how it was ever justified.

      • guest

        I’m not exactly sure – but in OT times God only destroyed nations if there were no righteous people living in them. That is no longer the case today.

        • zoe

          i’m pretty sure even back then there were “innocents” and “rightous” in every nation. also, what kind of God is that powerless not to resort to other means to reach the hearts of the people of those nations? i’m with Rob above. premodern societies/cultures had quite a tendency to justify their bloodlust retroactively with divine orders. accepting that many parts of the bible especially the OT are written from that perspective solves the conundrum.

          • guest

            I will trust the accounts in the books of Joshua and Genesis – the latter containing the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, to support my point. We often encounter problems when we project our modern-day understanding onto a different period of history. Remember that earlier God once saw that there were no righteous people anywhere – so He sent the flood and only saved Noah’s family from it. So it’s not that far a stretch to conclude that nations outside of Israel had no righteous people living in them later on.
            See my reply to Rob below, to also understand that Jesus was present during the time of Joshua.

  • Rob

    I’m not sure that trying to reconcile the violent character of Yahweh in the OT with the message of Jesus is a good idea. There are no red letters in Joshua or Samuel. We must consider that the accounts in Joshua are post facto rationalizations of a military conquest. History is full of nomadic tribes laying waste to cities (e.g. the Huns, Visogoths, Mongols). If the ancient Hebrews did the same, there is nothing really unique about them historically. The Yahweh of Joshua is a warrior god fighting other warrior gods. The significance of Israel’s birth as a nation is that it created a cultural setting for the eventual emergence of the Prophets, who laid the foundation for Jesus’ teachings. To use the OT as evidence that God participates in human history is extremely dangerous, as the ongoing conflict in Israel-Palestine shows.

    • guest

      The Red Letters in the gospel of John point to Jesus’ nature as one of the three members of the Godhead. Therefore, it points to Him being there when Joshua followed Yahweh’s orders.

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.p.deberardinis John Paul DeBerardinis

    I’m not sure the comparison
    regarding how we view this act and how God views this act can be made so
    easily. Although Joshua and the Nation of Israel were used by God to bring
    about the total destruction of the Canaanites, nothing happened outside the
    will of God. The question then is posed: Can a God who can just as easily
    create be held liable for an act of destruction? Our worth is somewhat held
    captive by the time and space in which we live. Any act of destruction against
    another is considered evil in that we did not create that life, nor do we have
    the power to restore it. He, who ultimately is good, has assigned worth to that
    life, thus to dismiss that worth is an act of rebellion. However, should God,
    who assigns worth to life, suddenly withdraw that worth, and be held
    accountable in our limited ways and understanding? God specifically cautions us about this
    mindset:

    “For my thoughts are not your
    thoughts,

    neither are your ways my ways,”

    declares the Lord.

    “As the heavens are higher than the
    earth,

    so are my ways higher than your ways

    and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9

    We term this
    argument in earthly terms and speak of genocide, but how far away are we from
    now declaring God’s justice dispensed at the throne “unjust” in that
    it goes against the grain of human “worth?” Overall, the word of God
    is clear as to what happened in the days of Joshua as well as the commands that
    were given by God. To simply diminish the accuracy of the Word based upon the
    application of human understanding to a eternal God is probably foolish and
    dangerous.

    As to the
    applying of God’s redemptive plan in Jesus’s day, the argument has merit since
    there was a fully developed realization of the plan through Christ. It was how
    God brought salvation into the world through His wisdom of progressive
    revelation. Yet, in the days of Joshua, the plan was not a realization, but
    only a promise. You can’t apply redemption and mercy as spoken by Christ to
    this situation in that God’s revelation in this matter through His church was
    not yet brought before our understanding. Why? Only God knows.

    Thank you for
    the opportunity to respond. I realize
    that this is just a cursory response to a subject that probably dictates a more
    fuller discussion. Praise God for your
    searching out of Him through your writings.

    John DeBerardinis

    Link in the
    Chain Ministries

  • http://www.facebook.com/philip.zylstra Philip Zylstra

    Thanks Kurt, although I’m still
    left with some dilemmas from that explanation. Jesus said that if we love our
    enemies, then we will be sons of God because that is the character of God. This
    is the character he revealed to a nation that believed in the standard
    prototype god who hated and slaughtered the enemies that stood in his way.

    A god that wants his enemies
    slaughtered so that some greater good can be achieved is not the one Jesus
    revealed, and I think the difference between what Jesus revealed and this old
    one viewed through the veil of the law is one of the reasons he was rejected.

    Every old god and their concept
    of justice demanded punishment, this was foundational theology underlying the
    possibility of propitiating the god with some form of sacrifice; but was it
    insight or a projection of human nature? Isaiah prophesied that the sign of
    God’s coming would be “the virgin will be with child”, except he
    didn’t say “virgin” (bethulah) but “young girl”
    (almah). The sign was not the miracle but the scandal. So when Joseph found
    that Mary was pregnant he had clear direction from Moses that she was to be
    taken to the gate of the town and stoned to death. The evidence said she was
    guilty, no angel or dream had said otherwise yet. Crime demands punishment –
    that’s the law and justice as they believed God had revealed it in scripture.
    And the only way that God could come to earth was if someone like Joseph with
    the power of life or death made the decision to directly disobey the law and put
    punishment aside entirely. Joseph had to reject the old concept of God; that
    was the only possible way for God to come because of Isaiah’s sign.
    Thanks Kurt, although I’m still
    left with some dilemmas from that explanation. Jesus said that if we love our
    enemies, then we will be sons of God because that is the character of God. This
    is the character he revealed to a nation that believed in the standard
    prototype god who hated and slaughtered the enemies that stood in his way.

    A god that wants his enemies
    slaughtered so that some greater good can be achieved is not the one Jesus
    revealed, and I think the difference between what Jesus revealed and this old
    one viewed through the veil of the law is one of the reasons he was rejected.

    Every old god and their concept
    of justice demanded punishment, this was foundational theology underlying the
    possibility of propitiating the god with some form of sacrifice; but was it
    insight or a projection of human nature? Isaiah prophesied that the sign of
    God’s coming would be “the virgin will be with child”, except he
    didn’t say “virgin” (bethulah) but “young girl”
    (almah). The sign was not the miracle but the scandal. So when Joseph found
    that Mary was pregnant he had clear direction from Moses that she was to be
    taken to the gate of the town and stoned to death. The evidence said she was
    guilty, no angel or dream had said otherwise yet. Crime demands punishment –
    that’s the law and justice as they believed God had revealed it in scripture.
    And the only way that God could come to earth was if someone like Joseph with
    the power of life or death made the decision to directly disobey the law and put
    punishment aside entirely. Joseph had to reject the old concept of God; that
    was the only possible way for God to come because of Isaiah’s sign.

  • Rob

    How do we know the orders came from God? And what I mean by that is: our text says that is the way it went down… but how can we be sure? Example: woman drowns her baby in the bathtub – turns herself in and during questioning says that God told her to do it. Do we assume she heard divine revelation, or is she a troubled/disturbed woman in need of some psychiatric help? I think the latter is more likely. Further, is there any archaeological evidence that these events literally happened? I’ve not seen/read of any.

    • Kenton

      +1 For both posts, Rob, but I don’t know that the archaeological evidence matters to me. Whether or not they literally happened, this story is the story we’ve been handed down. The question of what do we do with it is still there.

      I’m with you, though, particularly on what you said at the beginning of this post. I think the “God told me to” bit is a justification that Joshua used that doesn’t jibe with the God revealed in Jesus.

  • nobody in particular

    For me it’s extremely problematic to suggest that there are people who are “utterly opposed” to God in such a way that they can never be won over. This says, basically, that some people are beyond hope. And if we have a historical precedent for such a thing, how easy it will be for us to find it again in people who happen to be unlike us.

  • tlmikvs

    I think that this is a converstation that will be difficult to have between biblical literalists and those who take a more interpretive view of scritpure. When you appeal to “thus saith the Lord” you are already committed to harmonizing every word and act, unless you dismiss the past with a dispensationalist view, a kind of, “that was then, this is now, and God does not do that anymore.”
    Having been trained in the literalist tradition I think this question is of utmost importance for all that wish to hold that view.
    If then, you are a literalist, i think there is one logical area of investigation: divine judgement. If the final act of human history is a cleansing of sin from the earth, and not only a blanket forgiving of sin, then there will come a time when those who hold to sin of which they will not repent and be forgiven will be destroyed along with it.
    If this is a future plan then there is no need to try to explain away past acts. If God was trying to give a “fresh start” to a new nation with a different view of what society should be then the socities it displaced would have to be completely dismantled. This would be similar to the story of Noah. In fact, i believe that failure to erradicate oppresive societies later caused a lot of problems.
    I wonder if given a true insight into all the events of history we might find that God did reach out those nations with overatures of grace that were not accepted. I believe that one day when we are able to get the whole story from God’s perspective that we will discover the He was far more gracious, merciful and long suffering that any human would have been. In that case He needs no human defender. I guess that would be a mater of unconfirmed faith. In other words, chosing to believe the best about what we don’t know based on what we do know of God’s character revealed in Christ.
    What this does or does not say about the character of the OT God I will leave to othersto debate, but for the literalist there can only be one God of both old and new testament and that same God will once again cuase or allow the destruction of individuals that refuse forgiveness of sin at the final cleansing of the earth and the restoration of creation.
    Thanks for the thoughtful and polite discussion of a very touchy, but important subject. Be kind with my uniformed thoughts.

  • Kayce

    I do not believe that God had no other options in any of the genocidal accounts in the O.T. where He is given the credit. To believe that I would have to believe in a psychotic God, whose attributes are hate, violence, destruction…..and love….all at the same time. Jesus was and is this same God, as part of the Trinity, and not once demonstrated that kind of violence, hatred, ‘get even’ nature as God in the flesh. God never hated humanity at all, and sin was dealt with before the foundation of the world. My view is that the writers of the O.T. books accurately recorded “their own view” of God. This is called relative truth, as opposed to absolute truth, that God is Love.

  • Adam

    So God is not perfect, he’s made some mistakes in the past, like asking his people to commit genocide, it was OK back then, but in today’s world because of Jesus’ (God) teachings it’s not cool to commit genocide anymore. How could Jesus/New Testament God be the God of the Old Testament? I don’t get it, so God evolved, he was a mindless, warring, jealous caveman during the Old Testament, but with time realized he was wrong and now we should turn the other cheek?

    I’m a Christian, but I can’t stand the Old Testament God, I can only think of two explanations for the Old Testament God, 1. He’s a different God or 2. Man corrupted the Old Testament and turned God into a flawed human, but Christians today think the Bible is the infallible word of God?

  • Stu

    The only explanation that I am happy with is that of progressive revelation. Mankind is learning to understand God. Our understanding of God has been developing throughout history and the Bible records that. Now in Jesus we have a complete revelation of God’s character in a person.

    At the time of Joshua, people understood God as a Warrior God and I am quite happy to accept that “Thus Saith the Lord” may have meant “This is what we believe God is saying”…..

    As Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God’s character I have to start with Him first and work backwards, and Jesus just would not command genocide, or even killing of one…. so I have to ask the question…. “why would Israel have thought God was commanding such things?” The answer that I can personally live with, is that God Himself did not say those things, but rather the people in their poor understanding of God and in the violent context of their day, believed that God said it…. I cannot believe that God actually commanded those things, otherwise I just cannot be a follower of Jesus and the Triune God…

    Additionally, the Bible can remain the inerrant word of God in that it is an accurate record of what people said and believed at the time and we can learn “How not to think” from such passages. I interpret the word “inerrant”, not to mean “verbatim”.

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