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Jewish Genocide - Extermination - Slaughter of Cannanites

Atheist Richard Dawkins considers the war over Canaan to be one of the most morally atrocious aspects of the OT.[1] In his book The God Delusion, he writes,

The Bible story of Joshua’s destruction of Jericho, and the invasion of the Promised Land in general, is morally indistinguishable from Hitler’s invasion of Poland, or Saddam Hussein’s massacres of the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs. The Bible may be an arresting and poetic work of fiction, but it is not the sort of book you should give your children to form their morals. As it happens, the story of Joshua in Jericho is the subject of an interesting experiment in child morality.[2]

According to the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), when God called forth his people out of slavery in Egypt and back to the land of their forefathers, he directed them to kill all the Canaanite clans who were living in the land (Deut. 7.1-2; 20.16-18).  The destruction was to be complete: every man, woman, and child was to be killed.  The book of Joshua tells the story of Israel’s carrying out God’s command in city after city throughout Canaan.

These stories offend our moral sensibilities.  Ironically, however, our moral sensibilities in the West have been largely, and for many people unconsciously, shaped by our Judaeo-Christian heritage, which has taught us the intrinsic value of human beings, the importance of dealing justly rather than capriciously, and the necessity of the punishment’s fitting the crime.  The Bible itself inculcates the values which these stories seem to violate.

The command to kill all the Canaanite peoples is jarring precisely because it seems so at odds with the portrait of Yahweh, Israel’s God, which is painted in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Contrary to the vituperative rhetoric of someone like Richard Dawkins, the God of the Hebrew Bible is a never a God of justice, long-suffering, and compassion.  





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In past posts (here, then followed up here,herehere, and here) I’ve talked quite a bit about the little problem we have in the Old Testament: God orders the armies of Joshua to kill every single Canaanite so the Israelites can live in their land. Deuteronomy 20 lays this out, and the deed is done in Joshua 7-12.

Most Christians are at least a little bothered by this, and various solutions are regularly put forward to reconcile a good and loving God with the idea of God as a killing machine in the OT—such as:

  • the Canaanites were very wicked and deserved it;
  • killing Canaanites is the good and loving thing to do for all concerned;
  • it wasn’t really that bad;
  • God doesn’t always kill foreigners;
  • don’t worry, God sometimes kills Israelites, too;
  • this is all part of God’s mysterious ways and we shouldn’t question it.

I go through these sorts of explanations in the links above.

My own approach is simply to acknowledge that the Israelites were an ancient tribal people and thought of God the way other ancient tribal peoples did–as a fierce warrior who goes to battle with his people, assured of victory if they are on good terms with the deity but suffering defeat if not. This biblical portrait of God is already critiqued to a certain extent in Israel’s own writings (e.g., the book of Jonah) and is put to rest in the gospel, where Jesus says we don’t kill people to take their land anymore.

I realize, of course, that not everyone will warm up to that approach because it appears to “not take the Bible seriously.” I would protest that I am in fact taking it quite seriously by allowing the text to speak in its historical context rather than bringing to the text my own agenda or twisting to text to ease theological discomfort.

But I digress. For those seeking a more “biblical” way out of having to accept that Israel’s God was an ancient version of Megatron, these passages, straight out of the Bible, may suggest a way forward.

Exod 23:27-31

27 I will send my terror in front of you, and will throw into confusion all the people against whom you shall come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. 28 And I will send the pestilence in front of you, which shall drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites from before you. 29 I will not drive them out from before you in one year, or the land would become desolate and the wild animals would multiply against you. 30 Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land. 31 

Lev 18:24-28

24 Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, for by all these practices the nations I am casting out before you have defiled themselves. 25 Thus the land became defiled; and I punished it for its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants26 But you shall keep my statutes and my ordinances and commit none of these abominations, either the citizen or the alien who resides among you 27 (for the inhabitants of the land, who were before you, committed all of these abominations, and the land became defiled); 28 otherwise the land will vomit you out for defiling it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. 

Lev 20:22-23

22 You shall keep all my statutes and all my ordinances, and observe them, so that the land to which I bring you to settle in may not vomit you out. 23 You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you. Because they did all these things, I abhorred them. 

You see it?

In Exodus 23, it looks like a pestilence of some sort (famine? locusts?) by God’s hand is what will drive out the Canaanites: it will throw them into confusion and so they will turn their backs on the Israelites. This process, we are told, will happen gradually. But note there is no word of annihilating the Canaanites by war.

In Leviticus, we see another side to all this. Note the use of the past tense in these passages. Even though these words from God are spoken on Mt. Sinai, i.e., before Israel entered Canaan 40 years later, the expulsion of the inhabitants of Canaan issomething God did. The Canaanites are vomited out of the land already.

These passages present an alternate view on how the Canaanites were ousted from the land (expulsion, either already or in the future) than what we find on Deuteronomy and Joshua (annihilation). The Bible carries with it multiple traditions of how the Israelites came into the land. (see also Numbers 33:50-56, which speaks only of “displacing” the Canaanites, not annihilating them).

Note, too, that the gradual displacement of the Canaanites in Exodus 23 coheres somewhat with the picture given in Judges as opposed to the rapid Blitzkrieg victory tour depicted in Joshua 7-12 (e.g., Joshua 11:23, “So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the Lord had spoken to Moses; and Joshua gave it for an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal allotments. And the land had rest from war.”).

On the one hand, this is good news if you want to think of Israel’s settlement of Canaan in biblical terms that also takes the edge of the violence. On the other hand, this is bad news if you want to follow the Bible, since the Bible explains how the Canaanites ceased living in their land in two mutually exclusive ways–i.e., the Bible does not speak with “one voice,” which I know for some is more troubling than the thought of God killing off a population.

You can’t have everything.

If you want to read more about this, see Baruch J. Schwartz, “Reexamining the Fate of the ‘Canaanites’ in the Torah Traditions (pp. 151-70, Sefer Moshe: The Moshe Weinfeld Jubilee Volume : Studies in the Bible and the Ancient Near East, Qumran, and Post-Biblical Judaism, Eisenbrauns, 2004).



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 Passover law in Exodus 12:8, which says the lamb is to be roasted rather than boiled, and Deut 16:7, which says to boil it (English translations won't help here)


It is pretty depressing that so many Evangelicals hold fast on condoning an atrocity because they are persuaded their whole faith hinges on it.
A young reformed pastor told me once that if I deny the slaughter of the babies there, I might as well deny the resurrection. 
He was entirely serious. Words failed me...

Atrocities in the book of Joshua

In the books of Joshua and Samuel it is reported that God ordered  Israelite soldiers to annihilate an entire people whereby it was expressively said that women, children and old men should also be killed.


Now there are several possibilities:

1) the literal interpretation of our European Bibles is correct and historical and

1.a) God has really organized a bloodshed

1.b) God didn’t want that at all. Actually the ancient Israelites projected their murderous nationalism on Him.

2)  the literal interpretation of our European Bibles is wrong, we should view the extermination order as a complete military defeat of the enemies

3) the conquest of Canaan and the related genocides actually never occurred. The books attributed to Moses and Joshua were written only much later on by several unknown authors

3.a) the authors really thought that the genocides happened and approved of them. However they employed many false data and oral traditions.

3.b) the authors wanted to write down a mythological or symbolic history of their origins and had absolutely not the intention to be careful historians

There are probably also other possibilities I did not envisage.

Strategies of conservative Evangelicals and fundamentalists

I would not describe Paul Copan as a fundamentalist but as a conservative Evangelical who wants to defend the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. He told me that he views such commands as not good but terrible, but that they had to be carried out owing to the dire circumstances.

Since he also doesn’t want to give up his faith in the goodness of God he has mainly tried in his book to defend 2).

I think he is right that the reported extermination orders in the Ancient Near East could be sometimes hyperbolic or symbolic. That said, there are many cases where we can assume that they were meant seriously, as Thom Stark described in his book.

In this context, I find it really remarkable that Copan’s response only included 4 pages whereas Stark’s book includes several hundreds of pages and that he no longer interacted with him and his book after that.

I strongly doubt that this only lies in the aggressive and disrespectful tone of Thom Stark in the first version of his book. Afterwards he apologized for his rudeness.

Since Copan is aware that 2) could be dubious, he also wrote that a divinely ordered genocide could have been actually justified.

The most popular Evangelical apologist William Lane Craig has also tried several times to whitewash the genocides and I went into his last attempt.

But now one must also consider the fact that the conquest of Canaan is actually historically extremely unlikely and that the massacres written in the Bible never occurred.

Frankly speaking, I don’t know if 3a) or 3b) is true. Maybe the authors truly wanted to document the historical origins of their people but were mistaken.

But it is also possible that the authors intended to write a symbolic tale which was later misinterpreted as being historical.

In both cases I believe these are human and culturally conditioned thoughts about God and I see the canonical Biblical books in the same way I see books outside the Canon.

And Biblical authors can be wrong in the same manner that modern Christian writers make mistakes.

The foundation of my faith is God’s perfection which should always be the norm according to which each religious text has to be evaluated.

And now I want to describe how a healthy moral indignation concerning such texts should look like.

Evangelicals have a strong tendency to only consider the nice pages of the Bible whereas they ignore or explain away the odious texts.

And they then say: the Bible depicts us in a consistent way God as being perfectly good.

This is undoubtedly a kind of self-deception.

But militant atheists make the very same mistake when they assert that the Bible depicts us in a consistent manner a God who is a moral monster.

As Thom Stark described in his book “The Human Faces of God“, the different Biblical authors had not by any mean the same conception of God with respect to his moral nature.

If 1a) or 3a) are true,  then there is a great contrast between the order not to spare any living thing in Canaanite cities and the preaching of the prophet Ezechiel that children are never punished for the sins of their parents.

Now I have the following advice for intellectually honest atheists:

instead of asserting that “the God of the Old Testament is a psychopathic monster” it would be better to say what follows:

“The Old Testament shows us contradictory portraits of God. In some passages he is described as being compassionate and loving whereas in other texts he is depicted as being a psychopathic monster.

This shows us that Judaism, Christianity and Islam cannot be revealed religions for one cannot deduce a portrait of God free of contradictions out of them. “

This would be much more honest and efficacious than the assertion that the whole Old Testament is wicked for this can be easily refuted.



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“the God of the Old Testament is a psychopathic monster” 

God’s Just Destruction of the Canaanites

by Eric Lyons, M.Min.


In the 1930s and 40s, the Nazi regime committed state-sponsored genocide of so-called “inferior races.” Of the approximately nine million Jews who lived in Europe at the beginning of the 1930s, some six million of them were exterminated. The Nazis murdered approximately one million Jewish children, two million Jewish women, and three million Jewish men. The Jews were starved, gassed, and experimented on like animals. In addition, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime slaughtered another three million Poles, Soviets, gypsies, and people with disabilities (see “Holocaust,” 2011 for more information). Most sane people, including Christians and many atheists (e.g., Antony Flew, Wallace Matson), have interpreted the Nazis’ actions for what they were—cruel, callous, and nefarious. 

Some 3,400 years before the Holocaust, the God of the Bible commanded the Israelites to “destroy all the inhabitants of the land” of Canaan (Joshua 9:24). They were to conquer, kill, and cast out the Hittites, Girga****es, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites (Exodus 23:23; Deuteronomy 7:1-2; Joshua 3:10). After crossing the Jordan River, we learn in the book of Joshua that the Israelites “utterly destroyed all that was in the city [of Jericho], both man and woman, young and old, ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword…. [T]hey burned the city and all that was in it with fire” (Joshua 6:21,24). They also “utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai” (Joshua 8:26), killing 12,000 men and women and hanging their king (8:25,29). In Makkedah and Libnah, the Israelites “let none remain” (Joshua 10:28,30). They struck Lachish “and all the people who were in it with the edge of the sword” (10:32). The Israelites then conquered Gezer, Eglon, Hebron, Debir, and Hazor (10:33-39; 11:1-1). “So all the cities of those kings, and all their kings, Joshua took and struck with the edge of the sword. He utterly destroyed them, as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded” (Joshua 11:12). 

God had the Israelites kill countless thousands, perhaps millions, of people throughout the land of Canaan. It was genocide in the sense that it was a plannedsystematic, limitedextermination of a number of nation states from a relatively small area in the Middle East (cf. “Genocide,” 2000; cf. also “Genocide,” 2012). But, it was not a war against a particular race (from the Greek genos) or ethnic group. Nor were the Israelites commanded to pursue and kill the Canaanite nations if they fled from Israel’s Promised Land. The Israelites were to drive out and dispossess the nations of their land (killing all who resisted the dispossession), but they were not instructed to annihilate a particular race or ethnic group from the face of the Earth.

Still, many find God’s commands to conquer and destroy the Canaanite nation states problematic. How could a loving God instruct one group of people to kill and conquer another group? America’s most well-known critic of Christianity in the late 1700s and early 1800s, Thomas Paine (one of only a handful of America’s Founding Fathers who did not claim to be a Christian), called the God of the Old Testament “the Mars of the Jews, the fighting God of Israel,” Who was “boisterous, contemptible, and vulgar” (Paine, 1807). Two centuries later, Richard Dawkins (arguably the most famous atheist in the world today), published his book The God Delusion, which soon became a New York Times bestseller. One of the most oft-quoted phrases from this work comes from page 31, where Dawkins called God, a “racist, infanticidal, genocidal…capriciously malevolent bully” (2006). According to one search engine, this quote (in part or in whole) is found on-line approximately one million times. The fact is, critics of the God of the Bible are fond of repeating the allegation that, because of His instruction to the Israelites to kill millions of people in their conquest of Canaan, the God of the Bible has (allegedly) shown Himself to be an unruly, shameful, offensive, genocidal, “evil monster” (Dawkins, p. 248; cf. Hitchens, 2007, p. 107).


How could a supremely good (Mark 10:18), all-loving (1 John 4:8), perfectly holy God (Leviticus 11:44-45) order the Israelites to slay with swords myriads of human beings, letting “none remain” in Canaan? Is such a planned, systematic extermination of nations not equivalent to the murderous actions of the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s, as atheists and other critics of Christianity would have us believe? In truth, God’s actions in Israel’s conquest of Canaan were in perfect harmony with His supremely loving, merciful, righteous, just, and holy nature.

Punishing Evildoers is Not Unloving

Similar to how merciful parents, principals, policemen, and judges can justly administer punishment to rule-breakers and evildoers, so too can the all-knowing, all-loving Creator of the Universe. Loving parents and principals have administered corporal punishment appropriately to children for years (cf. Proverbs 13:24). Merciful policemen, who are constantly saving he lives of the innocent, have the authority (both from God and the government—Romans 13:1-4) to kill a wicked person who is murdering others. Just judges have the authority to sentence a depraved child rapist to death. Loving-kindness and corporal or capital punishment are not antithetical. Prior to conquering Canaan, God commanded the Israelites, saying,

You shall not hate your brother in your heart…. You shall not take vengeance nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself…. And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him. The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself (Leviticus 19:17-18,33-34; cf. Romans 13:9).

The faithful Jew was expected, as are Christians, to “not resist an evil person” (Matthew 5:39) but rather “go the extra mile” (Matthew 5:41) and “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39). “Love,” after all, “is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10; cf. Matthew 22:36-40). Interestingly, however, the Israelite was commanded to punish (even kill) lawbreakers. Just five chapters after commanding the individual Israelite to “not take vengeance,” but “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), God twice said that murderers would receive the death penalty (Leviticus 24:21,17).

The Wickedness of the Inhabitants of Canaan

The Canaanite nations were punished because of their extreme wickedness. God did not cast out the Canaanites for being a particular race or ethnic group. God did not send the Israelites into the land of Canaan to destroy a number of righteous nations. On the contrary, the Canaanite nations were horribly depraved. They practiced “abominable customs” (Leviticus 18:30) and did “detestable things” (Deuteronomy 18:9, NASB). They practiced idolatry, witchcraft, soothsaying, and sorcery. They attempted to cast spells upon people and call up the dead (Deuteronomy 18:10-11).

Their “cultic practice was barbarous and thoroughly licentious” (Unger, 1954, p. 175). Their “deities…had no moral character whatever,” which “must have brought out the worst traits in their devotees and entailed many of the most demoralizing practices of the time,” including sensuous nudity, orgiastic nature-worship, snake worship, and even child sacrifice (Unger, p. 175; cf. Albright, 1940, p. 214). As Moses wrote, the inhabitants of Canaan would “burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods” (Deuteronomy 12:30). The Canaanite nations were anything but “innocent.” In truth, “[t]hese Canaanite cults were utterly immoral, decadent, and corrupt, dangerously contaminating and thoroughly justifying the divine command to destroy their devotees” (Unger, 1988). They were so nefarious that God said they defiled the land and the land could stomach them no longer—“the land vomited out its inhabitants” (Leviticus 18:25). 

The Longsuffering of God

Unlike the foolish, impulsive, quick-tempered reactions of many men (Proverbs 14:29), the Lord is “slow to anger and great in mercy” (Psalm 145:8). He is “longsuffering…, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Immediately following a reminder to the Christians in Rome that the Old Testament was “written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope,” the apostle Paul referred to God as “the God of patience” (Romans 15:4-5). Throughout the Old Testament, the Bible writers portrayed God as longsuffering.

Though in Noah’s day, “the wickedness of man was great in the earth” and “ever intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5), “the Divine longsuffering waited” (1 Peter 3:20). (It seems as though God delayed flooding Earth for 120 years as His Spirit’s message of righteousness was preached to a wicked world—Genesis 6:3; 2 Peter 2:5.) In the days of Abraham, God ultimately decided to spare the iniquitous city of Sodom, not if 50 righteous people were found living therein, but only 10 righteous individuals.

And what about prior to God’s destruction of the Canaanite nations? Did God quickly decide to cast them out of the land? Did He respond to the peoples’ wickedness like an impulsive, reckless mad-man? Or was He, as the Bible repeatedly states and exemplifies, longsuffering? Indeed, God waited. He waited more than four centuries to bring judgment upon the inhabitants of Canaan. Although the Amorites were already a sinful people in Abraham’s day, God delayed in giving the descendants of the patriarch the Promised Land. He would wait until the Israelites had been in Egypt for hundreds of years, because at the time that God spoke with Abraham “the iniquity of the Amorites” was “not yet complete” (Genesis 15:16). [NOTE: “The Amorites were so numerous and powerful a tribe in Canaan that they are sometimes named for the whole of the ancient inhabitants, as they are here” (Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, 1997).] In Abraham’s day, the inhabitants of Canaan were not so degenerate that God would bring judgment upon them. However, by the time of Joshua (more than 400 years later), the Canaanites’ iniquity was full, and God used the army of Israel to destroy them.

Yes, God is longsuffering, but His longsuffering is not an “eternal” suffering. His patience with impenitent sinners eventually ends. It ended for a wicked world in the days of Noah. It ended for Sodom and Gomorrah in the days of Abraham. And it eventually ended for the inhabitants of Canaan, whom God justly destroyed.

What About the Innocent Children?

The children of Canaan were not guilty of their parents’ sins (cf. Ezekiel 18:20); they were sinless, innocent, precious human beings (cf. Matthew 18:3-5; see Butt, 2003). So how could God justly take the lives of children, any children, “who have no knowledge of good and evil” (Deuteronomy 1:39)? The fact is, as Dave Miller properly noted, “Including the children in the destruction of such populations actually spared them from a worse condition—that of being reared to be as wicked as their parents and thus face eternal punishment. All persons who die in childhood, according to the Bible, are ushered to Paradise and will ultimately reside in Heaven. Children who have parents who are evil must naturally suffer innocently while on Earth (e.g., Numbers 14:33)” (Miller, 2009). [NOTE: For a superb, extensive discussion on the relationship between (1) the goodness of God, (2) the contradictory, hideousness of atheism, and (3) God bringing about the death of various infants throughout history, see Kyle Butt’s article “Is God Immoral for Killing Innocent Children?” (2009).]


Though the enemies of the God of the Bible are frequently heard criticizing Israel’s conquest of Canaan, the fact is, such a conquest was in complete harmony with God’s perfectly loving, holy, and righteous nature. After patiently waiting for hundreds of years, God eventually used the Israelites to bring judgment upon myriads of wicked Canaanites. Simultaneously, He spared their children a fate much worse than physical death—the horror of growing up in a reprehensible culture and becoming like their hedonistic parents—and immediately ushered them into a pain-free, marvelous place called Paradise (Luke 16:19-31; 23:43).


Albright, William F. (1940), From the Stone Age to Christianity (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins).

Butt, Kyle (2003), “Do Babies Go to Hell When They Die?” Apologetics Press,

Butt, Kyle (2009), “Is God Immoral for Killing Innocent Children?” Apologetics Press,

Dawkins, Richard (2006), The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin).

“Genocide” (2000), The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin), fourth edition.

“Genocide” (2012), Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary,

Hitchens, Christopher (2007), God is Not Great (New York: Twelve).

“Holocaust” (2011),,

Jamieson, Robert, et al. (1997), Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Bible Commentary (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).

Miller, Dave (2009), “Did God Order the Killing of Babies?” Apologetics Press,

Paine, Thomas (1807), “Essay on Dream,”

Unger, Merrill F. (1954), Archaeology and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).

Unger, Merrill F. (1988), “Canaan,” The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).



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Matt Flannagan on the Genocide of the Canaanites

by Luke Muehlhauser on September 3, 2010 in Bible


Yahweh slaughters the Amorites by throwing rocks from the sky (Joshua 10:10-11).

Matt Flannagan, an evangelical theologian/philosopher in New Zealand, has developed a particular apologetic concerning the Israelite genocide of the Canaanites recorded in the Jewish Bible: onetwo.

Before we get to his apologetic, what does the atheist attack look like?

The atheist contends that the conservative Christian is committed to an inconsistent set of propositions:

  1. Any act that God commands is morally permissible.
  2. The scriptures are an authoritative revelation of God’s commands.
  3. It is morally impermissible for anyone to commit genocide.
  4. According to the book of Joshua, God commanded Israel to commit genocide.

If the Christian accepts (1) and (2), she must reject either (3) or (4). Matt gets strong support for (3) from his intuitions, but he offers some reasons why (4) is doubtful.


But how could it be? Joshua 10-11 clearly states that Joshua conquered all of Canaan, that he exterminated all its inhabitants, and that God commanded these actions.

The first reason to doubt (4) is that the first chapter of Judges says there were many Canaanites still living where Joshua supposedly “left no survivors.” The Israelites needed to fight the Canaanites all over again, and several tribes could not dislodge them. Such contradictions are found even with Joshua itself.

So perhaps instead the most genocidal phrases in Joshua were meant as hyperbole. Imagine a basketball team speaking of how they “totally slaughtered” their opponents like their coach told them to. In the same way, maybe the Israelites wrote in hyperbolic language about how they defeated their enemies.

Indeed, this kind of exaggeration and hagiography on a nation’s own behalf is common in ancient literature.

My Reaction

I like this apologetics for three reasons.

First, it is accurate. Anyone familiar with ancient history for more than narrow apologetic interests will have already accepted it. Obviously these stories are hagiography – a tribe of people telling fictional and exagerated tales about its glorious history and importance. Every ancient culture that wrote their own history did this. It would be rather shocking if the Israelites were the only ancient people to record a literal, accurate history of their own tribe.

Second, it agrees with the Biblical minimalism already espoused by most atheists, for it says that these events found in the Bible never happened, or never happened much like the Bible records them as happening.

Third, it makes the Christian apologist appear less morally evil to others. Compare Matt’s apologetic for the genocide of the Canaanites to William Lane Craig’s apologetic for those same events. Matt’s apologetic says that genocide is probably wrong (what a relief!), so it must be that these events never really happened as recorded in the Bible, if we read it literally. Craig’s apologetic says that genocide was morally good because (1) God gave the Israelites Canaan as a gift, (2) God can do whatever the **** he wants, and (3) genocide is a fitting punishment for sin. I suspect those bound at the hip to Biblical literalism will follow Craig’s lead, and those with a shred of conscience will follow Matt’s.

Parting Thoughts

But I would be curious to know: If Matt did think these events happened literally as described in the Bible, would he then conclude that God was an evil monster to command them? Or would he, in the end, agree with Bill Craig that genocide is okay as long as God feels like it?

Finally, it’s worth reminding people that atheists who quote the genocide of the Canaanites as implicating the Biblical God in evil are not really “attacking a straw man” or “taking things out of context” as Matt sometimes says. They are responding to the way that millions of Christian fundamentalists interpret these verses. Fundamentalists like William Lane Craig interpret these verses literally, and still conclude that God is perfectly moral.

Atheists are not, as Matt claims, reading the Bible as fundamentalists. Atheists don’t believe the genocide ever took place! What we atheists are saying is this: If you think these events were literally commanded by God and carried out by the Israelites, then how can you call God “perfectly good”?

If you don’t take the Bible literally with regard to these stories, then the moral problem is not as great as it would otherwise be. And that is exactly the effect of Matt Flannagan’s apologetic. It is certainly an improvement over fundamentalist apologetics.

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Commandment for Genocide?


David Steinberg


In EthannanEkev and Shoftim there are unambiguous divine instructions to wipe out all the Canaanites[1] – men, women and children.  The operative verses are -

Deuteronomy, chapter 7

1: "When the LORD your God brings you into the land which you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Gir'ga****es, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Per'izzites, the Hivites, and the Jeb'usites, seven nations greater and mightier than yourselves, 
2: and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them; then you must utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them, and show no mercy to them. 
3: You shall not make marriages with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons. 
4: For they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods; then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. 
5: But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and hew down their Ashe'rim, and burn their graven images with fire. 
6: "For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth. 
16: And you shall destroy all the peoples that the LORD your God will give over to you, your eye shall not pity them; neither shall you serve their gods, for that would be a snare to you.

Deuteronomy, chapter 20

16: But in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, 
17: but you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Per'izzites, the Hivites and the Jeb'usites, as the LORD your God has commanded; 
18: that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices which they have done in the service of their gods, and so to sin against the LORD your God.

Also relevant is the following from Joshua, chapter 11

10: And Joshua turned back at that time, and took Hazor, and smote its king with the sword; for Hazor formerly was the head of all those kingdoms. 
11: And they put to the sword all who were in it, utterly destroying them; there was none left that breathed, and he burned Hazor with fire. 
12: And all the cities of those kings, and all their kings, Joshua took, and smote them with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying them, as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded. 
13: But none of the cities that stood on mounds did 
Israel burn, except Hazor only; that Joshua burned. 
14: And all the spoil of these cities and the cattle, the people of 
Israel took for their booty; but every man they smote with the edge of the sword, until they had destroyed them, and they did not leave any that breathed.


Given the importance of this issue in the post-Holocaust period, I had expected Etz Hayim to deal with it seriously and at length.  Regrettably the treatment in Etz Hayim is inferior even to that in the old, pre-Holocaust, Hertz Humash. This is astonishing as its prime source for Deuteronomy - the JTS Commentary by Tigai - has a whole excursus (pp. 470-472) on the subject.


Plaut does a rather better job (Following is quoted from The Torah: A Modern Commentary by W. Gunther Plaut)


“The Treatment of Conquered Nations


“The Torah instructs the Israelites to "doom" the idolatrous nations in Canaan and to show them no pity. This provision is in stark contrast to the pervasive humaneness of the book, and therefore attempts of various kinds have been made to explain or defend this harshness and to make clear how a loving and caring God could be seen to issue such edicts.


“An early attempt was made in Talmudic days. The Hebrew for "show them no pity" (lo teHannem) was read as "do not grant them [land]," as if the text read lo taHnem), that is, do not sell real estate to "them-a rendering which leaned on the warning in Exod. 23:33 not to let them dwell "in your land". But even if one would deem this interpretation feasible (which. it is not, in view of the clear Masoretic text), one could not argue away the provision of Deut. 20:16 which, using another word, unequivocally says, "You shall not let a soul remain alive."


“The text has further been defended on the grounds of necessity: unless the native people were done away with, they would ensnare Israel with their idolatrous practices, and the maintenance of the Sinaitic covenant was a task overshadowing all else. God's plans for humanity could not and cannot be measured by human considerations. To emphasize this point, S. R. Hirsch interpreted the twice issued injunction of verses 2 and 16 to show that repetition was needed because it went so much against the sensibilities of the Israelites. However, no student of history can easily accept such a reading, for all too many humans have fallen victim to inquisitors and crusading warriors who pretended to act out of the highest religious motives. And already in talmudic times the notion was rejected that an Almighty God would agree to wipe idolatry off the face of the earth, though He had the power to do so.


“One comes closer to an understanding of the Torah if one abandons efforts to shield it from criticism and sees it in the light of its own time, its values, and standards.  "The custom to 'dedicate' an enemy to the deity, or to ban him, or after a victory to annihilate him, is told us of various Near Eastern nations as well as of the Greeks, Romans, Celts, and Germans. Since the sensitivities of the ancients were not offended by the rigor of this procedure, Moses could use this harsh war practice as a means to shield Israel from pagan infection" .


“But even this interpretation does not do the text full justice, for it ascribes to Moses a point of view which may not have been his at all. Moreover, and most important: the unyielding tenor of these provisions stands in sharp contrast to the fact that such a policy of annihilation was, never carried out-the Canaanites were not annihilated. In fact, in Judg. 3:1, God himself is said to have abrogated His original command (see above, at verse 22). Later, in retrospect-taking Deuteronomy to be a post-settlement and not a Mosaic document-the reader was told that the rampant idolatry which characterized Israel's history for centuries could have been avoided had the native peoples been destroyed. Note that the sermon warns the Israelites not to intermarry with the idolaters -the very idolaters who were supposed to be doomed!


“A proper understanding, then, would view these passages as retrojections of what could and might have been, and the sentiments were acceptable in view of the common practices of the times.”


This last view is well stated by G H Davies in Peake’s Commentary on the Bible (Nelson 1962)


“Israelites and their Neighbours- The Levitical preacher returns to his transition theme and takes his hearers back in imagination to the eve of their entry into the promised land. He instructs his people in the duties proper to that situation. They are to destroy their idolatrous neighbours, to have no dealings of any kind such as commerce or matrimony, and they are to destroy the shrines and their contents. The command to destroy utterly, that is to put to the ban, the different peoples of Canaan seems at first to be a blot upon the humanitarian outlook of Deuteronomy. This command is given in order to prevent idolatry. Now for Deuteronomy idolatry can only have one outcome and that is the destruction of Israel. It is through idolatry and only through idolatry that Israel can destroy itself and thus bring to naught God's purpose for Israel. The choice before Deuteronomy then was either to live with these peoples of Canaan, which would inevitably bring about idolatry and so the death of Israel, or to destroy these peoples and so remove the greatest cause of idolatry. It is more evil to be idolatrous than to slay these peoples. Thus the real meaning of idolatry for Deuteronomy begins to be clear for us, even though many moral difficulties in the command remain.


“It must however be remembered that the preacher was only laying down what he considered to be the ideal policy, namely, extermination. In actual fact he was preaching to people who had long settled in the land, had long lived with these groups and had frequently been idolatrous. His words show the situation confronting him. He bids his hearers exterminate idolatry. That is what had not happened. He then bids his hearers to make no covenants or marriages with them. That is what in fact did happen. So Deuteronomy faces the problem of Israel's contemporary idolatry.


Accordingly his second solution is the destruction of Canaanite altars with their accompanying stone and wooden ('ashe'rimsymbols of deity and images. The sanctuaries are the centres of holiness, blessing amd life for the Canaanites, and to destroy them is to destroy the life and body of Canaanite religion.”


Tigay also has an interesting discussion in The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy by Jeffrey H. Tigay 1996

“The Proscription of the Canaanites (7:1-2, 7:16and 20:15-18)

“According to Deuteronomy 7:1-2, 7:16 and 20:15-18, when the Israelites enter the promised land they are to wipe out the Canaanites living there. The terms referring to this requirement are the verb haHarem, "proscribe," and the nounHerem, "proscription," "a thing proscribed." Deuteronomy states this as an unconditional mandate and leaves no room for sparing any Canaanites in the promised land. Modern critical scholars and traditional Jewish exegesis hold, each for different reasons, that at the time when Israel entered the promised land there was actually no such policy of unconditional proscription of the Canaanites. Traditional exegesis holds that Deuteronomy in fact does not requireunconditional proscription. Modern scholars hold that it does, but that this policy is purely theoretical and did not exist when Israel entered the land.

“In 7:1-2, 7:16, the command to doom the Canaanites is clearly unconditional and offering them terms of submission is prohibited. That 20:15-18 is also meant unconditionally is indicated by its opening clause, "Thus you shall deal with all towns that lie very far from you," that is, with foreign, non-Canaanite cities. "Thus" refers back to verse 10, which requires Israel to offer to spare cities that surrender. Verses 15-17 indicate that this offer is made only to cities outside the promised land and that the Canaanites in the land are to be denied this option. This interpretation of the law is consistent with Joshua 6-11(except for 11:19-20, mentioned below), according to which surrender was not offered to the cities of Canaan when Joshua conquered them.

“According to 20:18, the aim of this unconditional requirement is to rid the land of Canaanites, who might influence Israelites to adopt their abhorrent rites, such as child sacrifice and various occult practices (12:31;18:9-12). Note that it is particularly abhorrent rites, and not beliefs, that prompt this policy. By itself, worship of astral bodies and other gods by Canaanites and other pagans is not counted against them as a sin, since Deuteronomy holds that God assigned such worship to them (see 4:19; 32:8; and Excursuses 7 and 31). Exodus, too, requires ridding the land of the Canaanites to prevent them from influencing Israel, though it prescribes expulsion rather than annihilation. 1 The aim of these policies is defensive, and no action is prescribed against idolatry or idolaters outside Israelite territory. These policies are not based on ethnicity; Deuteronomy prescribes the same treatment for Israelite cities that lapse into idolatry (13:13-19).

“Modern scholars hold that this law is purely theoretical and was never in effect. In their view, the populations of only a few Canaanite cities were annihilated, but most were not. There is much evidence in favor of this view. Archaeology has found only a few Canaanite cities that seem to have been destroyed by the Israelites when they arrived in the land at the beginning of the Iron Age (ca. 1200 B.C.E.). As noted above, pre-Deuteronomic laws, in Exodus, speak of the Canaanites being expelled rather than annihilated, and the narratives of Judges, Kings, and Joshua 15-17 indicate that many were neither expelled nor annihilated but were spared and subjected to forced labor.3 Some scholars suggest that even Deuteronomy did not originally require annihilating the Canaanites. In their view, Deuteronomy's original law consisted only of 20:10-14, according to which all cities are to be offered terms of submission. They note that Joshua11:19,Joshua 15-17, and Judges all reflect this form of the law. In this view the following paragraph in Deuteronomy, verses 15-18, is a later supplement that modifies the original law by restricting the requirement to offer the option of surrender to foreign, non-Canaanite cities. This supplement is reflected in Deuteronomy 7:1-5, 16-26, and the narratives of Joshua 6-11 (except for Joshua 11:19-20), but it is based on a theoretical reconstruction, conceived at a later time when the Canaanites had ceased to exist as a discernible element of the population in Israel, to account for their disappearance.

“If this is the case, where did the idea of proscribing the Canaanites come from? The historical books, as noted, indicate that the invading Israelites did proscribe some Canaanite cities. Proscription was a well-known practice in the ancient world. One type of proscription was the religious practice of devoting property, cattle, or persons (perhaps the victims of sacrificial vows, such as Jephthah's daughter) irrevocably to a deity, that is, to a sanctuary and the priests, sometimes by destruction or killing. Another type was punitive proscription, which consisted of executing those who committed severe offenses against the gods. This type is prescribed by Exodus 22:17 for individual idolaters, and by Deuteronomy 13:13-18for idolatrous cities. Proscription of enemy armies and populations to the gods is known from various places in the ancient world. King Mesha of Moab proscribed the Israelite inhabitants of some towns in Transjordan to his god when he recaptured former Moabite territory there. Other parallels are known from Mesopotamia and ancient Europe. In the context of ancient warfare, in which the gods were believed to be the main fighters and human antagonists their enemies, proscription of the enemy's population seemed to be a natural way for an army to express devotion to a deity. A case in point is God's command to Saul to proscribe the Amalekites to avenge their ancient ambush of the Israelites. Proscription was not considered necessary or obligatory in most cases, but was something that an army might vow to do to induce divine aid in critical circumstances, such as before a crucial battle or a counterattack following a defeat. Examples of this are Israel's proscription of Arad and Ai after initial defeats by them, and the proscription of Jericho at the start of Israel’s campaign for the promised land.

“Deuteronomy appears to have inferred from cases like these that the disappearance of the Canaanites was due to a systematic policy of proscription.  Aware that there were no discernible Canaanites left in Israel, aware from Exodus and Numbers that the land was to be rid of them, aware of Exodus 22:17,which requires proscription of Israelite idolaters, and mindful of its own law requiring proscription of idolatrous Israelite cities, Deuteronomy must have assumed that God, in His zeal to protect Israel from exposure to pagan abominations, had required eliminating the Canaanites by the same means. It is interesting, however, that Deuteronomy never speaks of proscribing the victims to God. It uses proscription in a purely secular way, meaning simply "destruction." It is not a sacrifice to God but a practical measure to prevent the debasement of Israelite conduct.

“Traditional Jewish commentators, as mentioned, do not believe that Deuteronomy means to proscribe the Canaanites unconditionally. The Sifrei and other halakhic sources reason that since the express purpose of the law is to prevent the Canaanites from influencing the Israelites with their abhorrent religious practices (v. 18), if they abandoned their paganism and accepted the moral standards of the Noachide laws they were to be spared. Maimonides holds that verse 10 requires that Israel offer terms of surrender to all cities, Canaanite included. In his view, when verse 15says "thus you shall deal" with non-Canaanite cities, it is not referring to, and limiting, verse 10, but verse 14, which calls for sparing the women and children of a city taken in battle. In his view this means that all cities must be given the option of surrender; the difference between Canaanite and foreign cities is only that if foreign cities reject the offer, only their men are to be killed, but if Canaanite cities reject the offer, their entire population is to be killed. This view is compatible with Joshua 11:19,which implies that Canaanite cities could have saved themselves by surrendering: "Not a single city made terms [hishlimah] with the Israelites; all were taken in battle."

“These arguments notwithstanding, it is clear from 7:1-2 and 16 that Deuteronomy's demand for proscription of the Canaanites is indeed unconditional. The rabbis' rejection of this view is a reflection of their own sensibilities. As M. Greenberg has observed, they must have regarded this understanding of the law as implausible because it is so harsh and inconsistent with other values, such as the prophetic concept of repentance and the prediction that idolaters will someday abandon false gods, and the halakhic principle that wrongdoers may not be punished unless they have been warned that their action is illegal and informed of the penalty. In effect, they used interpretation to modify and soften the law in deference to other, overriding principles.”



Ethically Unacceptable Elements in the Scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam


Personally, I have grave doubts whether the Quran, the Torah or the New Testament can be truly seen except against the social, cultural and political contexts of their origin.  It is not just cultural distortions of pure, primitive, Judaism, Christianity or Islam and their respective scriptures that have caused these groups to have become oppressive within themselves (e.g. in the unfair treatment of women), in how they have treated minorities etc.  On the contrary, within their very scriptures are the seeds of such oppression and hence you can have a serious Islamic scholar approving of terrorism.  It might similarly be possible for serious fundamentalist Christian or Jewish scholars to do the same under the right circumstances. To mention a very few examples where scriptures license acts which would be unconscionable to most people  – the Torah’s demand that the Israelites exterminate the Canaanites (see above); the New Testament’s anti-Jewish passages[ii] (Matthew 23; John 5:37-40, 8:37-47; Acts 7:51-53; Gal. 4:21-31; IThes. 2:13-16; Rom. 9:1-33); and the Quran’s anti-Jewish passages (e.g. Allah stamped wretchedness upon the Jews because they killed the prophets and disbelieved Allah's revelations)

As long as the three Abrahamic religions hold on to various forms of scriptural verbal revelation or inerrancy, as is the case with Orthodox Judaism, many varieties of Christianity, and generally in Islam, it will be hard to develop a rationale for rejection of these hateful teachings.  Conservative and Reform Judaism and many Catholic and Protestant groups have rejected verbal revelation or inerrancy seeing scriptures as the work of human authors, who may have been inspired but nevertheless could not but import many of their cultural views into their writings.  Such a view of scripture makes it much easier to reject elements in scripture that conflict with modern ethical sensitivities.  Of course, the flip side of this approach is the creation of crises of authority with the religious communities throwing away old certainties.


“Jews, Christians, and Muslims encourage violence because they refuse to fully challenge the authority of "sacred texts" that overflow with violent images of God and stories justifying human violence in God's name….

“Jews, Christians, and Muslims must address the problem of violence and "sacred" text if we are to have any reasonable hope for an alternative future. A world being destroyed by violence, much of it done with justifying reference to God and "sacred" text, is a world in desperate need of new understandings of divine and human power. The futility of violence and resiliency of injustice requires us to unleash our imaginations in order to move beyond religious certainties into unfamiliar terrain where patriarchal assumptions that dominate "sacred" texts and political life are challenged in light of historical need and human experience. …

“The violence-of-God traditions at the heart of the Bible and the Quran have invaded our own hearts. By sanctioning violence in "sacred" texts and in reference to them, we invariably progress along a treacherous pathway. God is powerful and proves to be God through superior violence. The God of superior violence justifies human violence in the name of God and in pursuit of God's objectives that with frightening regularity mirror our own objectives. In the end, violence replaces or becomes God. Violence is widely embraced because it is embedded and sanctified in "sacred" texts and because its use seems logical in a violent world.”

Quoted from Is Religion Killing Us?: Violence in the Bible and the Quran -- by Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, Trinity Press International 2003



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What about the Canaanite Genocide?

Atheist Richard Dawkins considers the war over Canaan to be one of the most morally atrocious aspects of the OT.[1] In his book The God Delusion, he writes,

The Bible story of Joshua’s destruction of Jericho, and the invasion of the Promised Land in general, is morally indistinguishable from Hitler’s invasion of Poland, or Saddam Hussein’s massacres of the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs. The Bible may be an arresting and poetic work of fiction, but it is not the sort of book you should give your children to form their morals. As it happens, the story of Joshua in Jericho is the subject of an interesting experiment in child morality.[2]

How do we understand God’s commandment to “utterly destroy” the people of Canaan (Deut. 7:2)? He instructed the king of Israel to “completely destroy the entire Amalekite nation—men, women, children, babies, cattle, sheep, goats, camels, and donkeys” (1 Samuel 15:3 NLT). How could this possibly be compatible with the God, who is loving and compassionate to all people?

1. The Canaanites were sadistic and depraved

If one of your neighbors was acting like a Canaanite, you’d lock your door and call the cops! Canaanite culture was thoroughly depraved, and was guilty of barbaric acts such as burning newborn babies alive, corporate rape, and murder. Deuteronomy explains, “They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods” (Deut. 12:31). Harvard scholar G. Earnest Wright explains,

Worship of these gods [Baalism] carried with it some of the most demoralizing practices then in existence. Among them were child sacrifice, a practice long since discarded in Egypt and Babylonia, sacred prostitution, and snake-worship on a scale un­known among other peoples.[3]

John Wenham writes,

Molech sacrifices were offered especially in con­nection with vows and solemn promises, and children were sacrificed as the harshest and most binding pledge of the sanctity of a promise.[4]

It is not surprising that the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna), where Molech worship was practised in the days of Manasseh, should have provided the Jewish image of hell.[5]

Scholar Clay Jones explains,

Molech was a Canaanite underworld deity represented as an upright, bull-headed idol with human body in whose belly a fire was stoked and in whose outstretched arms a child was placed that would be burned to death….And it was not just infants; children as old as four were sacrificed.[6]

A bronze image of Kronos was set up among them, stretching out its cupped hands above a bronze cauldron, which would burn the child. As the flame burning the child surrounded the body, the limbs would shrivel up and the mouth would appear to grin as if laughing, until it was shrunk enough to slip into the cauldron.[7]

The Bible tells us that the destruction of the Canaanites was not a racial judgment. God explicitly stated that these people were to be executed, because of their horrific and sadistic actions (Lev. 18:20-30). If the Jewish people did the same things, God promised the same punishment for them (Lev. 18:29). If they were allowed to coexist, God explained that the Canaanite culture would eventually ruin them, if they intermingled with it (Ex. 23:20-33).

In addition, the Canaanites were the ones who first attacked the straggling Jews, rather than the other way around. One of the Canaanite people groups (the Amalekites) attacked the Jews, while they were travelling in the wilderness (Ex. 17:8-13). In fact, they repeatedly attacked the Israelites, trying to pick off the “faint and weary” stragglers (Num. 14:45; Deut. 25:17-19)—a reference to weak Jewish people (children or the elderly?). When the Jews were weak, the Canaanites tried to wipe them out (Deut. 23:3-4). John Wenham notes, “Ancient armies in this territory did not hold captives. They defeated them totally.”[8] There would have been no mercy for the Jewish people.

When the Nazis tried to wipe out the Jewish race in the 20th century, no one batted an eye at counter-measures. And yet, clearly, these nations were trying to do exactly the same thing—albeit over three millennia earlier. Instead of using gas chambers and furnaces, the Canaanites would’ve used swords and spears, but the result would have been the same. If God hadn’t commanded war, the Jews would have been exterminated. It was kill or be killed.

Therefore, the war with the Canaanites was not the destruction of an innocent group of people. It was the corporate capital punishment of a sick, twisted, and barbaric culture. If a modern man was caught perpetrating any of these acts, few would bat an eye at his death sentence. While the destruction of the Canaanites was a severe judgment, their sin was equally severe.

2. The Jews usually didn’t fight offensive wars—only defensive

The Jews were not permitted to conquer anyone they wanted. In fact, when they tried to conquer people without divine approval, they were utterly defeated (1 Sam. 4; Num. 14:41-45; Josh. 7). God was clearly calling the shots on the destruction of Canaan—not the Jews. The king was beneath God—not above him.[9] Moreover, after the war with Canaan, God did not command any other offensive wars in Israel. Even during this time, Israel’s wars were usually defensive (see Ex. 17:8; Num. 21:1; Deut. 3:1; Josh. 10:4; Num. 31:2-3). Copan writes, “All sanctioned Yahweh battles beyond the time of Joshua were defensive ones, including Joshua’s battle to defend Gibeon (Josh. 10-11). Of course, while certain offensive battles took place during the time of the Judges and under David and beyond, these are not commended as ideal or exemplary.”[10]

3. God wasn’t playing favorites

Throughout the Bible, we see that God cares about all people. Even though the Moabites were utterly evil, God shows compassion on them (Isa. 15:5; 16:9). Even though the Assyrians and Egyptians oppressed the Jews, God refers to them as “my people” (Isa. 19:25). Repeatedly, throughout the OT, we see that God loves the foreigner (Lev. 19:33-34; Deut. 10:18-19), and he doesn’t show preferential treatment. Even in predicting the destruction of the Canaanites, we see the same impartiality in God’s character. In Deuteronomy 9:1-6, we read:

Hear, O Israel! You are crossing over the Jordan today to go in to dispossess nations greater and mightier than you, great cities fortified to heaven, 2 a people great and tall… 4 “Do not say in your heart when the LORD your God has driven them out before you, ‘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 dispossessing them before you. 5 It is not for your righteousness or for the uprightness of your heart that you are going to possess their land, but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD your God is driving them out before you, in order to confirm the oath which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 6 “Know, then, it is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stubborn people.

God acknowledged that the Jews were “a stubborn people.” And yet, he wanted to use the nation of Israel to bring a blessing to the world (Gen. 12:2-3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14; Ex. 9:16; Josh. 4:24; 1 Kings 8:41-43; Ps. 72:17; Jer. 4:2; Zech. 8:13; Ezek. 36:22-23; Is. 19:24-25; 37:20; 45:22-23; 52:10; 66:18-19). If Israel had been destroyed, this would have disrupted God’s plan for bringing blessing through the Messiah. Therefore, God chose the Jewish people—not to suppress others—but ultimately to bless others.

4. God gave the Canaanites an opportunity to change

God waits patiently for all people to turn to him, and he remains slow to anger (Ex. 34:6-7; Ps. 103:8). God had compassion on the Ninevites, relenting from judgment, because they did “not know the difference between their right and left hand” (Jon. 4:11 NLT). In Ezekiel, we read that God takes no pleasure in the judgment of the wicked (Ezek. 33:11). In Jeremiah, God says that he will relent from judgment, if the wicked will merely change their minds: “At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; 8 if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it” (Jer. 18:7-8). If these men would have changed, God would not have judged them.

In fact, God allowed the Jews to rot in slavery for 400 years, so that the Canaanites could have an opportunity to change. He didn’t judge them immediately, because the sins of the Canaanites did “not yet warrant their destruction” (Gen. 15:13; 16 NLT). That is, they were not past the point of no return. However, by the time the Jews came for battle, they were.

During this 400 year period, the Canaanites knew that God was coming for them. God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, which were cities filled with Canaanites. By the time the Jews stood at the border, ready to fight, Rahab told them that they had heard of God’s judgment of Egypt (Josh. 2:10; cf. 9:9). Therefore, the Canaanites defiantly ignored these serious warnings.[11]




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5. Diplomacy was the usual method

When Israel would go to war with another nation, they would usually offer a peace treaty first. Deuteronomy 20:10 states: “When you approach a city to fight against it, you shall offer it terms of peace.” If the people surrendered, they were not to be harmed. However, they would become laborers in Israel. This might seem harsh, but don’t forget the ancient Near Eastern context. When the Ammonites surrounded one of the cities of Israel, they required every citizen to gouge out one of their eyes, as a term of peace and surrender (1 Sam. 11:1-2)! This is why the neighboring nations considered the Hebrew kings to be “merciful kings” (1 Kings 20:31).

This peace treaty was not offered to these seven people groups in Canaan (e.g. Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jubusites), as Deuteronomy 20:16 makes explicit. This was probably because the Jews originally came to King Sihon (of the Amorites) with “words of peace” (Deut. 2:26), but the king was “not willing” to let them even pass through his land (Deut. 2:30). However, those willing to abandon Canaan were probably spared. For instance, Rahab’s entire family was spared from judgment (Josh. 2:13), because she surrendered to the Jews. The remaining Canaanites were killed because they chose to stay.[12]

6. Images in Joshua were mild compared to the ancient Near East

In the book of Joshua, we read,

(Josh. 10:24-27) When they brought these kings out to Joshua, Joshua called for all the men of Israel, and said to the chiefs of the men of war who had gone with him, “Come near, put your feet on the necks of these kings.” So they came near and put their feet on their necks.25 Joshua then said to them, “Do not fear or be dismayed! Be strong and courageous, for thus the LORD will do to all your enemies with whom you fight.” 26 So afterward Joshua struck them and put them to death, and he hanged them on five trees; and they hung on the trees until evening. 27 It came about at sunset that Joshua gave a command, and they took them down from the trees and threw them into the cave where they had hidden themselves, and put large stones over the mouth of the cave, to this very day.

When moderners read this passage, many are horrified. This looks more like a scene out of the movie Braveheart, rather than a passage from the Bible! And yet, when we compare this with the ancient Near East, we see that this was actually quite tame. Copan writes,

The Neo-Assyrian annals of Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) take pleasure in describing the flaying of live victims, the impaling of others on poles, and the heaped up bodies for show. They boast of how the king mounded bodies and placed heads into piles; the king bragged of gouging out troops’ eyes and cutting off their ears and limbs, followed by his displaying their heads all around a city.[13]

War was a bloody part of the ancient Near East. Yet in Joshua 10, we read that these kings were not tortured or humiliated. Instead, they were given a quick, military execution. By hanging their bodies, Joshua was giving an object lesson for the people that these evil men were going to be judged by God for their cruelty (Deut. 21:23). That is, he was emphasizing that this was not human judgment—but divine judgment.

7. “Utterly destroy” might not be absolute language

When God gave the command to “utterly destroy” the Canaanites, it is possible that this was akin to ancient Near Eastern war-rhetoric or hyperbolic language. There are several reasons for believing this:

First, some Canaanites survived the war, even though Joshua claimed that they were “all” destroyed. Joshua records:

“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… Thus Joshua took all that land: the hill country and all the Negev, all that land of Goshen, the lowland, the Arabah, the hill country of Israel and its lowland” (Josh. 10:40; 11:16).

Repeatedly, Joshua states that he fulfilled the command to utterly destroy the Canaanites “just as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded” (Josh. 11:12, 15, 20). Yet repeatedly, we also read that Joshua did not take all of the land (Josh. 13:1-5), and he did not dispossess all of the people (Josh. 13:13). Joshua states that he had “utterly destroyed” the Anakim people (Josh. 11:21-22), yet later in the book Caleb asks permission to drive out the Anakim (Josh. 14:12-15; 15:13-19). Judges records that “the Canaanites persisted in living in that land” (Judg. 1:21) and “they did not drive [the Canaanites] out completely” (Judg. 1:28). Later in Solomon’s day, we read that the “Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites” still existed in the land, because “the sons of Israel were unable to destroy utterly” them (1 Kings 9:20-21).

Furthermore, Moses writes that a future generation of Israelites “will be utterly destroyed” (Deut. 4:26). Of course, the nation of Israel survived being “utterly destroyed.”

Take another example. God commanded King Saul, “Go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (1 Sam. 15:3). Of course, Saul complies with this command, and he “utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword” (1 Sam. 15:8). Yet later in the same book, David’s men fought against a number of tribes, including the “utterly destroyed” Amalekites (1 Sam. 28:8; cf. 1 Chron. 4:43). These are not errors in the text. Instead, we may be misinterpreting the text, when we hold that these are absolute statements.

Even after the war with Canaan, the Jews were still warned about intermarriage and following after these people (Josh. 23:12-13; Deut. 7:2-5). These warnings would be useless, unless there were still survivors.

This provides evidence for the interpretation that the absolute language of this war may not be absolute. Instead, this could be a case of hyperbolic language, whereby the author uses all-encompassing language for effect. We might say, “Everyone has heard the new Kanye West song” or “The whole city was in uproar after the news report.” The Bible uses hyperbolic language when saying that “the whole world” (Rom. 1:8) has heard of Christ, the “world” experienced a famine (Acts 11:28), or “every nation under heaven” came to Jerusalem at Pentecost (Acts 2:5).

Second, war-rhetoric was common in the ANE. Copan cites usages in Egypt’s Tuthmosis III, Hittite king Mursilli II, Ramses II, the Merneptah Stele, Moab’s king Mesha, and the Assyrian ruler Sennacherib.[14] Each of these kings uses language that is similar to Joshua. While the king claimed that “all” were killed, some still survived. Put another way, this war-rhetoric was used to describe utter destruction of the nation, rather than of each individual person. We shouldn’t consider these statements false; we would consider them hyperbolic.

Third, the focus of this war was to destroy the religious life of the Canaanites and their military strongholds (Deut. 12:2-3). This is why Achan was killed for pilfering goods from the city of Ai (Josh. 7:20-26), but no one was killed for sparing civilian life—even though there were clearly survivors. OT scholar Richard Hess writes, “The stress is upon the leadership, the kings, and not the towns. The ruling elite were opposed to Joshua. Nothing is said of the citizenry of these towns and their attitude.”[15]

Fourth, Moses and Joshua use a variety of words to describe this war. Consider the usage of these terms below:

Dispossess: Moses had “dispossessed the Amorites” in his day (Num. 21:32). Yet later he writes, “You are crossing over the Jordan today to go in to dispossess nations greater and mightier than you” (Deut. 9:1; 11:23; 18:14; 19:1; etc.).

Drive out: Moses writes that God 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 drive them out before you little by little, until you become fruitful and take possession of the land” (Ex. 23:27, 30). This teaches that the war would be a process—not an overnight event. It also implies that many of the people who left would be left alive. The same language of being “driven out” describes Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:24), Cain (Gen. 4:14), and David (1 Sam. 26:19)—all of whom were left alive.

Perish and destroy: Moses states that God would “make you perish and destroy you; and you will be torn from the land” (Deut. 28:63). Yet when this event occurred, those who fled the city were spared (Jer. 38:2, 17).

At first glance, all of these terms seems to refer to an absolute destruction of the people. Yet when we see their other usages in the Bible, we discover that these are not absolute expressions.

8. What about the women and kids?

As we have already seen, the command to “utterly destroy” could have been hyperbolic language, which was consistent with ancient Near Eastern war-rhetoric. However, a few more points can be made about women and children.

First, these cities were military fortresses. They were not for civilians. That is, these cities may not have contained a lot of women and children. Copan writes,

There is no archaeological evidence of civilian populations at Jericho or Ai. Given what we know about Canaanite life in the Bronze Age,Jericho and Ai were military strongholds… The use of ‘women’ and ‘young and old’ was merely stock ancient Near Eastern language that could be used even if women and young and old weren’t 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.’ The text doesn’t require that women and young and old must have been in these cities.[16]

The only example of a woman in one of these cities is Rahab, and she was spared (Josh. 2). Therefore, it is possible that women and children weren’t there, or if they were there, the innocent life was spared.

Second, the Canaanite women were far from innocent. In Numbers 25:1-2, we read that the Midianite women were culpable for seducing the Israelite men. This act was more than simply sleeping around. These men were seduced into Baal worship, as a result (Num. 31:16-18). Remember, Baal worship was not an innocent or innocuous religion; it was a child-sacrificing abomination! Atheist Richard Dawkins criticizes, “This merciful restraint by his soldiers infuriated Moses, and he gave orders that all the boy children should be killed, and all the women who were not virgins… Moses was not a great role model for modern moralists.”[17]

At first glance, this story seems barbaric. Dawkins apparently misses the point. The virgin women were spared, because they hadn’t seduced the men (remember Num. 25:1-2). Therefore, the culpable ones were killed, and the innocent ones were spared.

Third, what about the Canaanite children? Why did God kill the kids? As we have already pointed out, children were most likely outside of the judgment on Canaan. Joshua may have been using military war-rhetoric, and these attack sites were military fortresses—not civilian cities. However, even if children were killed, this may have been an act of God’s mercy. If these Canaanite children had grown up in this society, they could have become forced-prostitutes, murderers, or even child sacrifices, roasting on burning altars to Baal! Moreover, they would have most likely been separated from God eternally after death—given their surroundings. Because these Canaanite children died before the age of accountability (and the Bible teaches infant salvation),[18] they were taken to be directly with God at death. Therefore, while the immediate action may seem barbaric, these children would have been sent into the immediate presence of God—rather than their horrific and barbaric surroundings.

9. God has the right to judge—as the Author and Sustainer of life

All people are going to die at some point. The question is not that they will die; instead, the question is when they will die. God takes every life in the end. This is called death. Since God is the author and sustainer of life, he has rights over human life that we do not. Job said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, And naked I shall return there. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away…” (Job 1:21). It is God’s business how and when he decides to end our life—not ours. We live here on Earth—not as a right—but by the mercy of God. We have a sense of this, when we say that a doctor was “playing God” by reviving a patient in a hospital. Therefore, God wasn’t evil by ordering the destruction of the Canaanites. He was merely acting on the prerogatives that rightly belong to him as the author and sustainer of life.

Further Reading

Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011.

Wenham, John William. The Goodness of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1974.

Jones, Clay. “Why We Don’t Hate Sin so We don’t Understand What Happened to the Canaanites: An Addendum to ‘Divine Genocide’ Arguments,” Philosophia Christi n.s. 11 (2009).

[1] The war with Canaan is contained in three premier passages: the Jews departed from Sinai (Numbers 20-22), crossed the river and took over parts of southern Canaan (Josh. 6-10), and then took over northern Canaan (Josh. 11).

[2] Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 280.

[3] Wright, G. Ernest, and Floyd V. Filson. The Westminster Historical Atlas to the Bible. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1945. 36.

[4] Wenham, John William. The Goodness of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1974. 126.

[5] Wenham, John William. The Goodness of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1974. 127.

[6] Clay Jones, “Why We Don’t Hate Sin so We don’t Understand What Happened to the Canaanites: An Addendum to ‘Divine Genocide’ Arguments,” Philosophia Christi n.s. 11 (2009): 61.

[7] Clay Jones, “Why We Don’t Hate Sin so We don’t Understand What Happened to the Canaanites: An Addendum to ‘Divine Genocide’ Arguments,” Philosophia Christi n.s. 11 (2009): 61. See footnote.

[8] Wenham, John William. The Goodness of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1974. 124.

[9] Note, also, the relationship between the King and the Law in Israel. In the Pagan world, the king was the lawgiver and the commander-in-chief, who could break or revise the law at any time. When we look at OT narrative, however, we see that the king was not above the law of God; rather, he was beneath it. This concept of lex rex (“the Law is King) was utterly unknown to the Ancient Near East, which practiced rex lex (“the King is law”). For instance, Nathan confronted David about his murder and adultery on the basis of God’s law (2 Samuel 12). Elijah challenged Ahab’s murder of Naboth based on the law (1 Kings 21). Uzziah got leprosy for taking over the priestly role, which was outside of his legal jurisdiction (2 Chronicles 26).

[10] Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011. 178.

[11] Even after this great and terrible judgment, the Canaanites continued to persecute the Jews (Judg. 3:13; 6:3; 7:12; 1 Sam. 15).

[12] In the same way, when Egypt was judged, many Egyptian civilians (“a mixed multitude”) were spared (Ex. 12:38). In fact, even some of Pharaoh’s people believed God and escaped judgment (Ex. 9:19-21).

[13] Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011. 179.

[14] Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011. 172.

[15] Hess, Richard S. Joshua: An Introduction and Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996. 217.

[16] Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011. 175-176.

[17] Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 275.

[18] Isaiah writes that there is an age before a child is able to “know to refuse the evil and choose the good” (Is. 7:16). The children of Israel were not held responsible for the sins of their parents during the Wandering, because they had “no knowledge of good or evil” (Deut. 1:39). David believed in an afterlife, and he thought that he was going to be with God after death (Ps. 16:10-11; see also Rom. 4:6-8). Knowing this, it is interesting to point out that David said that he would go to be with his infant baby, who had died (2 Sam. 12:23). This demonstrates that his infant must be in heaven, too (see also Jesus’ teaching on the subject in Mk. 10:14; Mt. 18:3; 19:14; Jn. 9:41).



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Gentiles in the Hands of a Genocidal God
Image: Illustration by Rick Beerhorst

There is genocide in the Bible. Scripture both describes the Israelites exterminating the Canaanites in cities like Jericho (Josh. 6:21), and also presents this as the command of God. This is what the Israelites are supposed to do when they enter the Promised Land and encounter its inhabitants: "devote them to complete destruction . . . and show no mercy to them" (Deut. 7:2, esv).

The Hebrew word for "devoting to destruction" is herem. It is not an ordinary kind of massacre but something sacred, a way of giving things totally to the Lord. It includes property and livestock as well as men, women, and children. And it has the effect of cleansing the land of abominations. The procedure looks very much like an ethnic cleansing demanded by the holiness of God.

Is this what holiness looks like? Is this what we are supposed to imagine when we read, "Be holy, for I am holy" (Lev. 11:44, ESV)? How can we possibly read and teach the genocide accounts in our churches today?

To answer that question, we have to go back to the narrative and our peculiar place in it. And we have to ask who "we" are, who are hearing the command.

Who Do We Think We Are?

We are a bit too apt to forget that this is a problem. The vast majority of Christians after the earliest decades of the church have been Gentiles—"the nations," to use the biblical language. We have been reading Israel's Scriptures so long that we forget that these words were not originally addressed to us.

For example, the preface to the Ten Commandments says, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (Ex. 20:2). To hear the commands that follow as addressed to us, we have to identify ourselves with the people God brought out of Egypt. We have to say, in some sense, that we are Israel.

And how do we Gentiles get away with that? The difference is highly relevant to the issue of how we are to understand the destruction of Gentiles in the land of Israel. What could give us the right to think of ourselves as belonging to Israel, rather than being the kind of people who should be destroyed?

The New Testament's answer is clear: faith alone. Only faith in Jesus Christ brings Gentiles into covenant with God, grafting them into the life of Israel like a wild olive shoot grafted into a well-cultivated olive tree (Rom. 11:24). And even so, Paul insists, Gentiles who believe in Christ don't simply become Jews: they are not required to be circumcised or to follow all the laws of Moses. And that leaves us Gentile Christians in a rather complicated position with respect to the Old Testament commandments. We read them and believe them to be the Word of God, but we don't try to put all of them into practice.

In fact, with respect to the command to exterminate the Canaanites, our position is less like Israel's and more like that of Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute in Jericho who befriends the Israelite spies. She has not taken part in Israel's exodus, but she has heard of it and believes it. She knows the name of the Lord, the God who has given the land to Israel, and she confesses that he is God of heaven and earth (Josh. 2:9–11). She is a believer, and eventually will be included in Hebrews 11's great litany of heroes who lived by faith. But she is not an Israelite. She is a Canaanite who hopes to live, not die.

As a believer, Rahab can have hope, because the threat she faces is not so much moral as religious. It is not as if the Israelites were so much more righteous than every other nation (Deut. 9:4–6). Israel is holy not because of their own righteousness but because the Lord loves them and chose them as his people. And the holiness of the Lord is a kind of jealousy that claims Israel as his own, not allowing other nations to lead them into worshiping false gods (7:5–8). That is the holiness that leads to herem, the extermination of Rahab's people for their idolatry.



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Bible passages that appear immoral today

Part 2 of 5: Mass murder and genocide

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Topics covered in this essay:

bulletActs of mass murder and genocide:
bulletThe flood of Noah

bulletGenocide of the residents of Canaan

bulletGenocide of the Geshurites, Gezirites, and Amalekites

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The flood of Noah:

Genesis 6:5-9:

"And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them. But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD. These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God."

God is described as having created the earth, mankind, other living things, and the rest of the universe in the early chapters of Genesis. But he apparently was unable to foresee the future behavior of his creations. In particular, He did not predict the degree of wickedness that mankind would exhibit. He regretted his decision to create mankind. So he decided to commit the ultimate act of genocide, by murdering the entire human race: men, women, children, infants and newborns. God decided to exterminate people by drowning - a slow and painful way to die. He allowed Noah to survive, along with Noah's wife, his three sons and their wives. But the Bible states that the rest of the human race were wiped out, including young children and infants who had not reached the age of accountability.

In the 20th century, the most serious acts of genocide involved less than 1% of the human population. Examples are: the extermination of the Armenian minority in Turkey, the extermination of Jews, Roma (Gypsies) and others by the Nazis, the extermination of the ethnic Albanians by the Serbs in Kosovo in the former Yugoslavia. The perpetrators have become the most hated of people. But the genocide resulting from the great flood is far more serious. It is recorded as having destroyed over 99% of the human race, leaving only eight humans alive. 

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Genocide of the residents of Canaan:

The Israelites invaded Canaan and, under God's instructions, exterminated seven nations in widespread acts of genocide: the Girga****es, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites,  Hivites, and Jebusites. They continued to commit genocide against other groups.

Deuteronomy 7:1-2:

"... the seven nations greater and mightier than thou; And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them."

Joshua 6:21:

"And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.

This latter passage describes one event in the invasion of Canaan by the ancient Israelites. After the walls of the city of Jericho fell, the soldiers ran into the city, and murdered all its inhabitants: elderly men and women, mature men and women, pregnant women, youths, boys, girls, infants and newborns. Their goal was to entirely wipe out the Canaanite culture by destroying its people; this is one definition of genocide. Incidentally, the people were butchered by the edge of the sword, because the weapons did not have pointed ends.

Joshua 10:40-41:

"So Joshua smote all the country of the hills, and of the south, and of the vale, and of the springs, and all their kings: he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the LORD God of Israel commanded. And Joshua smote them from Kadesh-barnea even unto Gaza, and all the country of Goshen, even unto Gibeon." 

As recorded in Joshua 11:19-23, God had "hardened the hearts" of the Canaanites, so that all but one city attempted to fight the Hebrews in battle. The sole exception were the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon. "As the LORD commanded Moses", all of the rest were defeated in battle; their cities and populations were destroyed. This included people of all ages: men, women children, infants and newborns. 

Genocides and other extreme atrocities are recorded in:

bulletGenesis 19: - Cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for being:
bulletUncharitable to their widows, children and poor
bulletAbusive to strangers.

More details

bulletJoshua 8:24 - City of Ai
bulletJoshua 10:26 - Joshua murdered five defenseless kings of the Amorites in cold blood.
bulletJoshua 10:28 - City of Makkedah
bulletJoshua 10:29 - City of Libnah
bulletJoshua 10:31 - City of Lachish
bulletJoshua 10:33 - City of Gezer "...Joshua smote him and his people until he had left him none remaining."
bulletJoshua 10:34 - City of Elgon "They left none remaining."
bulletJoshua 10:37 - City of Hebron
bulletJoshua 10:38 - City of Debir
bulletNumbers 21:2-3 - City of Hormah
bulletNumbers 21:33-35: Land of Bashan "...they smote him, and his sons, and all his people, until there was none left him alive: and they possessed his land."
bulletDeuteronomy 2:21-24: The Ammonite, Horim, and Avim people.
bulletDeuteronomy 2:26-35 - Land of Heshbon "...we took all his cities at that time, and utterly destroyed the men, and the women, and the little ones, of every city, we left none to remain.
bulletJudges 4:16 - City of Sisera

Acts of genocide are condemned by all religions and secular groups and by the international community. 

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Genocide of the Geshurites, Gezirites, and Amalekites:

1 Samuel 27:8-9:

"And David and his men went up, and invaded the Geshurites, and the Gezrites, and the Amalekites ... And David smote the land, and left neither man nor woman alive, and took away the sheep, and the oxen, and the asses, and the camels, and the apparel. And David saved neither man nor woman alive"

The Living Bible translates verse 9 as saying "They didn't leave one person alive." David and his men apparently stole the animals and clothing, while killing all the people: the elderly, men, women, youths, children, infants and newborns.


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See also Part 3 of "Bible passages that appear immoral today"


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Copyright © 1997 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2012-JAN-22
Author: B.A. Robinson


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References used:

  1. C.M. Laymon, "The Interpreter's one volume commentary on the Bible," Abingdon, (10\99), Page 158-159.
  2. J.D. Douglas, Ed., "New commentary on the whole Bible: Old Testament volume," Tyndale (1991), Page 398

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Copyright © 1997 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2012-JAN-22
Author: B.A. Robinson


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The Bible and violence

The Hebrew Bible and New Testament contain many passages outlining approaches to violent activity both for and against it centering on the ancient nation of Israel and their involvement with Gentile nations. These same Scriptures also provide civil guidelines on the subject of violent activity as it pertains to individuals within the nation distinguishing individualistic from nationalistic actions.



Hebrew Bible[edit]

Against violence[edit]

The Torah, the Tanakh and related literature write extensively concerning peace directed toward the nation of Israel, as well as its opposite states. The word "shalom" meaning "peace" has been absorbed into the usage of the language from its Biblical roots. A New Concordance of the Bible: Thesaurus of the Language of the Bible [1] lists over almost 300 words connected with the root "SH-L-M" for "peace" and the same for "Solomon."

Notable examples:

  • The Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6:24–26) ends with: "May God lift up his face onto you and give you peace" – יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָלוֹם
  • Leviticus 26:6: "And I shall place peace upon the land" וְנָתַתִּי שָלוֹם בָּאָרֶץ
  • Numbers 25:12: "Behold I give him my covenant of peace" - הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת-בְּרִיתִי, שָלוֹם
  • Isaiah 57:19: Peace, peace to the distant and the close" - שָלוֹם שָלוֹם לָרָחוֹק וְלַקָּרוֹב
  • Psalms 34:15: "Seek peace and pursue it" - בַּקֵּשׁ שָלוֹם וְרָדְפֵהוּ

Descriptions of violence[edit]

Abraham carries a lit torch in his left hand and a sword in a belted scabbard while leading his heavily burdened son uphill as two onlookers and their donkey gawk.
Abraham carries fire, a sword, and unrevealed intentions for his son carrying a heavy load uphill.

In the story about the Binding of Isaac, son of Abraham,[2][3] God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah by binding him and placing him on a makeshift altar.[4] Abraham is about to carry out the execution when an angel of God stops him at the last minute. (Genesis 22:5 and 22:8).

Several of these arise in the context of the story of the conquest of Canaan.[5]:319–320 For example, in Deut 20:16-18 God orders the Israelites to "not leave alive anything that breathes… completely destroy them …".[6] thus leading many scholars to characterize the exterminations as genocide.[7][8] Other examples include the story of Amalekites and the commandment to exterminate them,[9] the story of the Midianites,[10]:245 and the battle of Jericho.[10]:289–296

The instruction God gives in Deut 20:16-18 is for the Israelites to exterminate "everything that breaths". Van Wees goes on to say that these campaigns were largely fictional.[11] In the archaeological community, the Battle of Jericho has been thoroughly studied, and the consensus of modern scholars is that the battles described in the Book of Joshua are not realistic.[12] For example, the Book of Joshuadescribes the extermination of the Canaanite tribes, yet at a later time, Judges 1:1-2:5 suggests that the extermination was not complete.[13]

Likewise, it is not clear if the historical Amalekites were exterminated or not. 1 Samuel 15:7-8 implies ("He took Agag king of the Amalekites alive, and all his people he totally destroyed with the sword.") that - after Agag was also killed - the Amalekites were extinct, but in a later story in the time of Hezekiah, the Simeonites annihilated some Amalekites on Mount Seir, and settled in their place: "And five hundred of these Simeonites, led by Pelatiah, Neariah, Rephaiah and Uzziel, the sons of Ishi, invaded the hill country of Seir. They killed the remaining Amalekites who had escaped, and they have lived there to this day." (1 Chr 4:42-43).

Scholars point out that collective punishment, particularly punishment of descendants for transgressions committed by ancestors of gentiles, is common in the Jewish Bible.[14]

  • Make ready to slaughter the infidel’s sons for the guilt of their fathers; Lest they rise and possess the earth, and fill the breadth of the world with tyrants. (Isaiah 14:21)
  • Then I heard God say to the other men, "Follow him through the city and kill everyone whose forehead is not marked. Show no mercy; have no pity! Kill them all – old and young, girls and women and little children.” (Ezekiel 9:5)
  • Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves. (Numbers 31:17-18)
  • If your own full brother, or your son or daughter, or your beloved wife, or you intimate friend, entices you secretly to serve other gods, whom you and your fathers have not known, gods of any other nations, near at hand or far away, from one end of the earth to the other: do not yield to him or listen to him, nor look with pity upon him, to spare or shield him, but kill him. Your hand shall be the first raised to slay him; the rest of the people shall join in with you. (Deuteronomy 13:7-12)

New Testament[edit]

Against violence[edit]

These are a few examples of passages which indicate the New Testament is against a violent approach, though there exist many others. These passages describe individualistic behavior against other persons as opposed to governmental action against other nations which would include national defense or other military actions.

Ephesians 4:32 – "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you".

Luke 6:27 – “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you".

Matthew 5:43-48 – “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?".

Matthew 26:52 "But Jesus said to him, “Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword". (Jesus said this after Peter had struck one of the soldiers who were attempting to arrest Jesus. Jesus subsequently healed the soldier's wound).

Romans 12:17-21 "Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone".

1 Peter 3:9 "Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing".

1 John 2:9-10 "Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble".

Descriptions of violence[edit]

Probably the central act of violence in the New Testament is the crucifixion of Jesus. This act is supported by most Christian theologies, ordained by God and is crucial to the redemption of humanity by God.[15]

Gustave Doré - Christ on the Cross - Google Art Project

There are sayings of Jesus that are alleged to promote violence:[16]

  • Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword. However, Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible,[17] as well as other Christian sources[18] note that the context of the discussion is Jesus sending out his disciples with a warning that they will face "the sword" of persecution by those outside of the Christian faith. This contributes to the "non-violent picture of Jesus and his disciples by envisaging the opposition they will face without recourse to violent resistance"[18]
  • And he said unto them, When I sent you without purse, and scrip, and shoes, lacked ye any thing? And they said, Nothing. Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one. For I say unto you, that this that is written must yet be accomplished in me, And he was reckoned among the transgressors: for the things concerning me have an end. And they said, Lord, behold, here are two swords. And he said unto them, It is enough. (Luke 22:35-38)
Jesus holds a whip in his hand in striking position while merchants scramble away, or brace for blows.
A 19th century rendition of theCleansing of the Temple.

Jesus' cleansing of the Temple is an example of direct violent action by Jesus, although it is an example of chastisement and not an attempt to create great bodily harm.[19]

The apocalyptic Book of Revelation is full of imagery of war, genocide, and destruction; it may be the most violent book in the entire Bible. It describes the judgments of God against humanity.[20]

Theological reflections and responses[edit]

The theological problem of theodicy deals with how evil can exist if God is omnipotent, omniscience, and good. People of faith who emphasize pacifism have struggled with biblical passages describing God as warlike or violent since these passages conflict with their worldview.[15][21]

Sociological reflections and responses[edit]

Scholar Nur Masalha writes that the "genocide" of the extermination commandments has been "kept before subsequent generations" and served as inspirational examples of divine support for slaughtering enemies.[22]

Arthur Grenke claims that the view of war expressed in Deuteronomy contributed to the destruction of Native Americans and to the destruction of European Jewry.[23]

Niels Peter Lemche asserts that European colonialism in the 19th century was ideologically based on the Old Testament narratives of conquest and extermination and that some radical Zionist groups have brought the same idea to bear in Israel.[24]

Scholar Leonard B. Glick states that Jewish fundamentalists in Israel, such as Shlomo Aviner, consider the Palestinians to be like biblical Canaanites, and that some fundamentalist leaders suggest that they "must be prepared to destroy" the Palestinians if the Palestinians do not leave the land.[25] Several scholars draw similar conclusions.[26][27][28]

The Book of Revelation has been used to justify Christian hostility, Christian imperialism and Christian sectarian violence.[20]

Theological uses[edit]


As the early Christian Church began to distinguish itself from Judaism, characterization of the "Old Testament" and the portrayal of God in it, as violent and unforgiving, were contrasted rhetorically with certain teachings of Jesus to portray an image of God as more loving and forgiving, which was framed as a new image.[29]

For example, in his work Contra Faustum Book XIX,[30] the Church father St. Augustine discussed Jesus of Nazareth's Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus urges his followers to turn the other cheek when confronted by violence, as opposed to applying the Lex Talionis.

Supersessionist Christians have continued to focus on violence in the Hebrew Bible while ignoring or giving little attention to violence in the New Testament.[29][31]




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Support for gnostic theologies[edit]

Gnosticism is a philosophy that has undergone waves of popularity, including some at the time that Christianity and Judaism were separating. A key notion is the division between the material world, which gnostics viewed as being created by a demiurge, and a spiritual world created by the true god.[32] Perhaps the most famous example of an early Christian Gnostic was Marcion who characterized the "God of the Old Testament" as the demiurge, and dropped the Hebrew scriptures from his version of the Bible. Marcion saw the God of the Old Testament, the Demiurge and creator of the material universe. For Marcion, the God about whom Jesus spoke was an altogether different being, a universalGod of compassion and love, who looks upon humanity with benevolence and mercy.[33]

Marcion's teaching was repudiated by Tertullian in five treatises titled "Against Marcion" and Marcion was ultimately excommunicated by the Church of Rome.[34]

See also[edit]


  1. Jump up^ Abraham Even-Shoshan, A New Concordance of the Bible: Thesaurus of the Language of the Bible: Hebrew and Aramaic Roots, Words, Proper Names Phrases and Synonyms(Kiryat Sepher Publishing House, Jerusalem. 1986 edition)
  2. Jump up^ Jewish Virtual Library. "Akedah". Accessed March 25, 2011
  3. Jump up^ Judaism 101: A Glossary of Basic Jewish Terms and Concepts Accessed March 25, 2011
  4. Jump up^ Genesis 22:9
  5. Jump up^ Ian Guthridge (1999). The Rise and Decline of the Christian Empire. Medici School Publications,Australia. ISBN 978-0-9588645-4-1the Bible also contains the horrific account of what can only be described as a "biblical holocaust". For, in order to keep the chosen people apart from and unaffected by the alien beliefs and practices of indigenous or neighbouring peoples, when God commanded his chosen people to conquer the Promised Land, he placed city after city 'under the ban" -which meant that every man, woman and child was to be slaughtered at the point of the sword.
  6. Jump up^ Ruttenberg, Danya, Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices: War and National Security Danya Ruttenberg (Ed.) page 54 (citing Reuven Kimelman, "The Ethics of National Power: Government and War from the Sources of Judaism", in Perspectives, Feb 1987, pp 10-11)
  7. Jump up^ Grenke, Arthur, God, greed, and genocide: the Holocaust through the centuries, pp 17-30
  8. Jump up^ Philip Jenkins - quoted in NPR article "Is The Bible More Violent Than The Quran?" by Barbara Hagerty. Online at Is The Bible More Violent Than The Quran? : NPR.
  9. Jump up^ A. G. Hunter "Denominating Amalek: Racist stereotyping in the Bible and the Justification of Discrimination", in Sanctified aggression: legacies of biblical and post biblical vocabularies of violence, Jonneke Bekkenkamp, Yvonne Sherwood (Eds.). 2003, Continuum Internatio Publishing Group, pp 92-108
  10. Jump up to:a b Dawkins, Richard (2006). The God delusion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-618-68000-9.
  11. Jump up^ Van Wees, Hans (April 15, 2010). "12, Genocide in the Ancient World". In Bloxham, Donald; Dirk Moses, A. The Oxford Handbook of Genocide Studies. Oxford University Press.
  12. Jump up^ Ehrlich, pp 117
  13. Jump up^ Ehrlich, p 119
  14. Jump up^ Krašovec, Jože, Reward, punishment, and forgiveness: the thinking and beliefs of ancient Israel in the light of Greek and modern views, BRILL, 1999, p 113. He cites the following examples of collective punishment (of descendants) in the Bible:
    Ex 20:5 - "You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand {generations} of those who love me and keep my commandments."
    Deut 5:9-10
    Exodus 34:6-7: "And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation."
    Deuteronomy 7:9-10 - "Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands. 10 But those who hate him he will repay to their face by destruction; he will not be slow to repay to their face those who hate him."
    Jeremiah 32:18 - " You show love to thousands but bring the punishment for the fathers' sins into the laps of their children after them. O great and powerful God, whose name is the LORD Almighty"
  15. Jump up to:a b Hawkin, David J. (2004). The twenty-first century confronts its gods: globalization, technology, and war. SUNY Press. p. 121.
  16. Jump up^ Stroumsa, Gedaliahu G. "Early Christianity as Radical Religion" (PDF). In Ilai Alon, Ithamar Gruenwald, Itamar Singer. Concepts of the other in Near Eastern religions. p. 176.
  17. Jump up^ John Gill, Exposition of the Entire Bible, 1746-63
  18. Jump up to:a b Jeremy Gabrielson, Paul's Non-Violent Gospel, James&Clarke, 2013, 52
  19. Jump up^ War, A Catholic Dictionary: Containing some Account of the Doctrine, Discipline, Rites, Ceremonies, Councils, and Religious Orders of the Catholic Church, W. E Addis, T. Arnold, Revised T. B Scannell and P. E Hallett, 15th Edition, Virtue & Co, 1953, Nihil Obstat: Reginaldus Philips, Imprimatur: E. Morrogh Bernard, 2 October 1950, "In the Name of God : Violence and Destruction in the World's Religions", M. Jordan, 2006, p. 40
  20. Jump up to:a b Barr, David L. (2006). The reality of Apocalypse: rhetoric and politics in the book of Revelation. Society of Biblical Literature. p. 127.
  21. Jump up^ Seibert, Eric A. (2009). Disturbing divine behavior: troubling Old Testament images of God. Fortress Press.
  22. Jump up^ Masalha, Nur, The Bible and Zionism: invented traditions, archaeology and post-colonialism in Palestine-Israel, Volume 1, Zed Books, 2007, pp 273-276:
    "Prior revisits the old ground [in his book The Bible and colonialism: a moral critique] … First, the biblical narrative, with its 'divine promise' was inherently linked with the mandate to ethnically cleanse or exterminate the indigenous people … third, in the narrative of the Book of Deuteronomy the divine command to commit 'genocide' is explicit. Fourth, genocide and mass slaughter follow in the Book of Joshua. These highly dubious traditions of the Bible have been kept before subsequent generations of Jews and Christians in their prayers…. The historical evidence, however, strongly suggests that such genocidal massacres never actually took place, although these racist, xenophobic and militaristic narratives remained for later generations as powerful examples of divine aid in battle and of a divine command for widespread slaughter of an enemy…. [Professor Bernardo Gandulla, of the University of Buenos Aires], while sharing Prior's critique of the perverse use that Zionism and the State of Israel have made of the Bible to support their 'ethnic cleansing' policies in Palestine, … Prior … found incitement to war and violence in the very foundation documents of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In the Hebrew Bible, for instance, there is a dominant strand that sees God as ethnocentric and militaristic. Furthermore, in their conquest of Canaan, the Israelites are commanded by Yahweh to destroy the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine. Later in the days of the Israelite kingdoms, they are urged to show no pity, but to massacre their enemies…. Today, both Christian Zionists in the West and Israeli messianics continue to refer to the Hebrew Scriptures for archetypal conflicts, which guide their attitudes towards the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine: the Palestinian Muslims and Christians." Masalha refers to: Prior, Michael P.The Bible and colonialism: a moral critique, Sheffield Academic Press, 1997.
  23. Jump up^ Grenke, Arthur, God, greed, and genocide: the Holocaust through the centuries, New Academia Publishing, LLC, 2005, pp 17–18: "Discussing the influence of Christian beliefs on the destruction of the Native peoples in the Americas, Stannard argues that while the New Testament view of war is ambiguous, there is little such ambiguity in the Old Testament. He points to sections in Deuteronomy in which the Israelite God, Yahweh, commanded that the Israelites utterly destroy idolaters whose land they sought to reserve for the worship of their deity (Deut 7:2, 16, and 20:16-17). … According to Stannard, this view of war contributed to the .. destruction of the Native peoples in the Americas. It was this view that also led to the destruction of European Jewry. Accordingly, it is important to look at this particular segment of the Old Testament: it not only describes a situation where a group undertakes to totally destroy other groups, but it also had a major influence on shaping thought and belief systems that permitted, and even inspired, genocide."
  24. Jump up^ Lemche, Niels PeterThe Old Testament between theology and history: a critical survey, Westminster John Knox Press, 2008,pp 315–316:"The [Biblical] story of the 'morally supreme people' that defeats and exterminates another, inferior, nation was part of the ideological baggage of European imperialists and colonizers throughout the nineteenth century. It was also carried by European Jews who,... migrated to Palestine to inherit their ancestral country … In this modern version of the biblical narrative, the Palestinian population turned into 'Canaanites', supposed to be morally inferior to the Jews, and of course the Arabs were never considered their equals … The Bible was the instrument used to suppress the enemy".
  25. Jump up^ Glick, Leonard B., "Religion and Genocide", in The Widening circle of genocide, Alan L. Berger (Ed). Transaction Publishers, 1994, p 46::"[God] looked with favor on what we may fairly call their [Israelite] proto-genocidal destructiveness. The Book of Joshua provides us with one of the earliest texts in which a deity quite plainly promotes the destruction of a people. As the Hebrews, under Joshua's leadership, undertake the conquest of Canaan, they massacre everyone who stands in their way…. It is instructive (and distressing) to note that contemporary Jewish ultra-nationalists in Israel root their politics in the Book of Joshua and equate their territorial aspirations with the will of God. Here, for example, isShlomo Aviner, a prominent theorist of the Gush Emunim … movement: 'from the point of view of mankind's humanistic morality we were in the wrong in (taking the land) from the Canaanites. There is only one catch. The command of God ordered us to be the people of the land of Israel'. Others have identified the Palestinians as 'Canaanites' who are engaged in a 'suicidal' struggle opposing God's own intentions; hence the Jewish people must be prepared to destroy them if they persist in pursuing their collective 'death-wish'."
  26. Jump up^ Whitelam, Keith W., The invention of ancient Israel: the silencing of Palestinian history, Routledge, 1996, especially pp 71–121. Cited by Ehrlich, pp 117 "Keith Whitelam (1996) has published a book [The invention of ancient Israel: the silencing of Palestinian history] in which he has implied that the modern European imperialist Zionist Jewish movement has drawn inspiration from the biblical conquest tradition … Parallels are thus drawn in Whitelam's thought between the genocidal Israelites presumably of Joshua's day and the racist Zionists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and also between the ancient Canaanites and the modern Palestinians … the interpretations attributed to [Whitelam] of the place of the book of Joshua and its … genocidal account of Israel's emergence in the land that it claims as its own pose a challenge to Judaism…. It thus behooves us to ask … how has the Jewish community dealt with these foundational narratives, saturated as they are with acts of violence against others?…."
  27. Jump up^ Boustan, Ra'anan S., Violence, Scripture, and Textual Practice in Early Judaism and Christianity, BRILL, 2010, page 4-5
    "Later readers of the Bible dramatically transformed this divine directive [Deut 20:15-18] through hermeneutic alignment of the Canaanites with the current detested 'other'. Thus the Canaanites have been identified with … Palestinians (by militant Zionists), and scores of other 'enemies' of Israel. In doing so, the violence perpetrated against these groups is not only justified, but indeed, part and parcel of the original divine plan. The violent legacy of the Bible is a product of both its own violent narrative and the hermeneutics of violence applied to it".
  28. Jump up^ Hitchens, ChristopherGod Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Random House, Inc., 2007, p 101
  29. Jump up to:a b R. Kendall Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996) ISBN 978-0800628833
  30. Jump up^ Contra Faustum Augustine of Hippo, NewAdvent. Archived 30 July 2007 at WebCite
  31. Jump up^ Gibson, Leigh; Matthews, Shelly (2005). Violence in the New Testament. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 3.
  32. Jump up^ On the complexity of gnosticism, see Larry W. Hurtado (2005). Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 519–561.
  33. Jump up^ Metzger, Bruce. Canon of the NT ISBN 978-0-19-826180-3; The Catholic Encyclopediaof 1913 characterized Marcion as "perhaps the most dangerous foe Christianity has ever known."; Harnack's Origin of the New Testament: "Marcion, on the contrary, treats the Catholic Church as one that “follows the Testament of the Creator-God,” and directs the full force of his attack against this Testament and against the falsification of the Gospel and of the Pauline Epistles by the original Apostles and the writers of the Gospels. He would necessarily have dealt with the two Testaments of the Catholic Church if the Church had already possessed a New Testament. His polemic would necessarily have been much less simple if he had been opposed to a Church which, by possessing a New Testament side by side with the Old Testament, had ipso facto placed the latter under the shelter of the former. In fact Marcion’s position towards the Catholic Church is intelligible, in the full force of its simplicity, only under the supposition that the Church had not yet in her hand any “litera scripta Novi Testamenti.”"
  34. Jump up^ Pixley, Jorge V. (2004). Jeremiah. Chalice Press. p. 65.



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Judaism and violence

Judaism's doctrines and texts have sometimes been associated with violence. Laws requiring the eradication of evil, sometimes using violent means, exist in the Jewish tradition. Judaism also contains peaceful doctrines.[1][2] This article deals with the juxtaposition of Judaic law and theology to violence and non-violence by groups and individuals. Attitudes and laws towards both peace and violence exist within the Jewish tradition.[1] Throughout history, Judaism's religious texts or precepts have been used to promote[3][4][5] as well as oppose violence.[6]



General claims[edit]

Some critics of religion such as Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer argue that all monotheistic religions are inherently violent. For example, Nelson-Pallmeyer writes that "Judaism, Christianity and Islam will continue to contribute to the destruction of the world until and unless each challenges violence in "sacred texts" and until each affirms nonviolent power of God".[7]

Bruce Feiler writes of ancient history that "Jews and Christians who smugly console themselves that Islam is the only violent religion are willfully ignoring their past. Nowhere is the struggle between faith and violence described more vividly, and with more stomach-turning details of ruthlessness, than in the Hebrew Bible".[8] Similarly, Burggraeve and Vervenne describe the Old Testament as full of violence and evidence of both a violent society and a violent god. They write that, "n numerous Old Testament texts the power and glory of Israel's God is described in the language of violence." They assert that more than one thousand passages refer to YHWH as acting violently or supporting the violence of humans and that more than one hundred passages involve divine commands to kill humans.[9]

Supersessionist Christian churches and theologians argue that Judaism is a violent religion and the god of Israel is a violent god, while Christianity is a religion of peace and that the god of Christianity is one that expresses only love.[10] While this view has been common throughout the history of Christianity and remains a common assumption among Christians, it has been rejected by mainstream Christian theologians and denominations since the Holocaust.[11]:1–5

Normative Judaism[edit]

Main article: Judaism and peace

Normative Judaism is not pacifist and violence is condoned in the service of self-defense.[12] J. Patout Burns asserts that Jewish tradition clearly posits the principle of minimization of violence. This principle can be stated as "(wherever) Jewish law allows violence to keep an evil from occurring, it mandates that the minimal amount of violence be used to accomplish one's goal."[13][14]


Judaism's religious texts endorse compassion and peace, and the Hebrew Bible contains the well-known commandment to "love thy neighbor as thyself".[2] According to the 1947Columbus Platform of Reform Judaism, "Judaism, from the days of the prophets, has proclaimed to mankind the ideal of universal peace, striving for spiritual and physical disarmament of all nations. Judaism rejects violence and relies upon moral education, love and sympathy."[6]

The philosophy of nonviolence has roots in Judaism, going back to the Jerusalem Talmud of the middle 3rd century. While absolute nonviolence is not a requirement of Judaism, the religion so sharply restricts the use of violence, that nonviolence often becomes the only way to fulfilling a life of truth, justice and peace, which Judaism considers to be the three tools for the preservation of the world.[15]:242


Main article: Judaism and warfare
Jean Fouquet: The Taking of Jericho, c. 1452–1460

While some biblical texts call for and justify offensive war and have had deep impact in Western culture,[16] these texts have been repudiated by mainstream Jewish tradition.[17] However, some strains of radical Zionism promote aggressive war and justify them with biblical texts.[18][19]

Contemporary warfare conducted by the State of Israel is governed by Israeli law and regulation, which includes a Purity of arms code that is based in part on Jewish tradition; the 1992 IDF Code of Conduct combines international law, Israeli law, Jewish heritage and the IDF's own traditional ethical code.[20] Tension between actions of the Israeli government, and Jewish traditions and halakha on the conduct of war, have caused controversy within Israel and have provided a basis for criticisms of Israel.[21]

Forced conversion[edit]

Forced conversions occurred under the Hasmonean Empire.The Idumaens were forced to convert to Judaism, either by threats of exile, or threats of death, depending on the source.[22][23]

In Eusebíus, Christianity, and Judaism Harold W. Attridge claims that “there is reason to think that Josephus’ account of their conversion is substantially accurate.” He also writes, “That these were not isolated instances but that forced conversion was a national policy is clear from the fact that Alexander Jannaeus (ca 80 BCE) demolished the city of Pella in Moab, ‘because the inhabitants would not agree to adopt the national custom of the Jews.’” Josephus, Antiquities. 13.15.4.[24]

Maurice Sartre has written of the "policy of forced Judaization adopted by HyrcanosAristobulus I and Jannaeus”, who offered "the conquered peoples a choice between expulsion or conversion,”[25]

William Horbury has written that “The evidence is best explained by postulating that an existing small Jewish population in Lower Galilee was massively expanded by the forced conversion in c.104 BCE of their Gentile neighbours in the north.”[26]

In 2009 the BBC defended a claim that in 524CE the Yemeni Jewish Himyar tribe, led by King Dhu Nuwashad offered Christian residents of a village in Saudi Arabia the choice between conversion to Judaism or death and that 20,000 Christians had then been massacred stating that "The production team spoke to many historians over 18 months, among them Nigel Groom, who was our consultant, and Professor Abdul Rahman Al-Ansary [former professor of archaeology at the King Saud University in Riyadh]."[27]Inscriptions documented by Yousef himself shows the great pride he expressed after massacring more than 22,000 Christians in Zafar and Najran.[28]

Retribution and punishment[edit]

Eye for an eye[edit]

Main article: Eye for an eye

While the principle of lex talionis ("an eye for an eye") is clearly echoed in the Bible, in Judaism it is not literally applied, and was interpreted to provide a basis for financial compensation for injuries.[29][30] Pasachoff and Littman point to the reinterpretation of the lex talionis as an example of the ability of Pharisaic Judaism to "adapt to changing social and intellectual ideas."[31] Stephen Wylen asserts that the lex talionis is "proof of the unique value of each individual" and that it teaches "equality of all human beings for law."[32]

Capital and corporal punishment[edit]

While the Bible and the Talmud specify many violent punishments, including death by stoning, decapitation, burning, and strangulation for some crimes,[33] these punishments were substantially modified during the rabbinic era, primarily by adding additional requirements for conviction.[34] As a consequence, the death penalty was very rarely applied, and it became more of a principle than a practice. The Talmud states that a court that executes one person in seven years is considered bloodthirsty (Makkot 1:10). The 12th-century Jewish legal scholar Maimonides stated that "It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death."[34] Whether Jewish communities ever enforced capital punishment or whether the Rabbis ever supported its use is still heavily debated.[35]

Purim and the Book of Esther[edit]

The Book of Esther, one of the books of the Jewish Bible, is a story of palace intrigue centered on a plot to kill all Jews which was thwarted by Esther, a Jewish queen of Persia. Instead of being victims, the Jews killed "all the people who wanted to kill them."[36] The king gave the Jews the ability to defend themselves against their enemies who tried to kill them.[37] numbering 75,000 (Esther 9:16) including Haman, an Amalekite that led the plot to kill the Jews. The annual Purim festival celebrates this event, and includes the recitation of the biblical instruction to "blot out the remembrance [or name] of Amalek". Scholars - including Ian LustickMarc Gopin, and Steven Bayme - state that the violence described in the Book of Esther has inspired and incited violent acts and violent attitudes in the post-biblical era, continuing into modern times, often centered on the festival ofPurim.[4]:2–19, 107–146, 187–212, 213–247[38][39] [40] [41] [42] [43] [44] [45] [46] [47]

Other scholars, including Jerome Auerbach, state that evidence for Jewish violence on Purim through the centuries is "exceedingly meager", including occasional episodes of stone throwing, the spilling of rancid oil on a Jewish convert, and a total of three recorded Purim deaths inflicted by Jews in a span of more than 1,000 years.[48] In a review of historian Elliot Horowitz's book Reckless rites: Purim and the legacy of Jewish violence , Hillel Halkin pointed out that the incidences of Jewish violence against non-Jews through the centuries are extraordinarily few in number and that the connection between them and Purim is tenuous.[49]

Rabbi Arthur Waskow and historian Elliot Horowitz state that Baruch Goldstein, perpetrator of the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre, may have been motivated by the Book of Esther, because the massacre was carried out on the day of Purim[4]:4, 11, 315[50] [51] [52] [53] but other scholars point out that the association with Purim is circumstantial because Goldstein never explicitly made such a connection.[54]




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Modern violence[edit]

Radical Zionists and settlers[edit]

The motives for violence by extremist Jewish settlers in the West Bank directed at Palestinians are complex and varied. While religious motivations have been documented,[55][56][57][58] the use of non-defensive violence is outside of mainstream Judaism and mainstream Zionism.[59][60][61][62]

Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Mandate Palestine, urged that Jewish settlement of the land should proceed by peaceful means only.[63]Contemporary settler movements, follow Kook’s son Tzvi Yehuda Kook (1891–1982), who also did not advocate aggressive conquest.[63] Critics claim that Gush Emunim and followers of Tzvi Yehuda Kook advocate violence based on Judaism's religious precepts.[64] Ian LustickBenny Morris, and Nur Masalha assert that radical Zionist leaders relied on religious doctrines for justification for the violent treatment of Arabs in Palestine, citing examples where pre-state Jewish militia used verses from the Bible to justify their violent acts, which included expulsions and massacres such as the one at Deir Yassin.[65]

After Baruch Goldstein carried out the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre in 1994, his actions were widely interpreted to based on the radical Zionist ideology of the Kachmovement, and was condemned as such by mainstream religious and secular Jews and praised as such by radical Zionists.[4]:6–11[66][67][68][69] Dov LiorChief Rabbi of Hebronand Kiryat Arba in the southern West Bank and head of the "Council of Rabbis of Judea and Samaria" has made speeches legitimizing the killing of non-Jews and praising Goldstein as a saint and martyr. Lior also said "a thousand non-Jewish lives are not worth a Jew's fingernail".[70][71] Lior publicly gave permission to spill blood of Arab persons and has publicly supported extreme right-wing Jewish terrorists.[72]

In July 2010, Yitzhak Shapira who heads Dorshei Yihudcha yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar, was arrested by Israeli police for writing a book that encourages the killing of non-Jews. In his book "The King's Torah" (Torat Hamelech) he wrote that under Torah and Jewish Law it is legal to kill Gentiles and even in some cases to kill the babies of enemy forces.[73][74] Later in August 2010 police arrested rabbi Yosef Elitzur-Hershkowitz - co-author of Shapira's book - on the grounds of incitement to racial violence, possession of a racist text, and possession of material that incites to violence. While the book has been endorsed by radical Zionist leaders like Dov Lior[55] and Yaakov Yosef[75]it has been widely condemned by mainstream secular and religious Jews.[55]

Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin[edit]

The assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by Yigal Amir was motivated by Amir’s personal political views and his understanding of Judaism's religious law ofmoiser (the duty to eliminate a Jew who intends to turn another Jew in to non-Jewish authorities, thus putting a Jew's life in danger[76]) and rodef (a bystander can kill a one who is pursuing another to murder him or her if he cannot otherwise be stopped).[5]:91 Amir’s interpretation has been described as "a gross distortion of Jewish law and tradition"[77]and the mainstream Jewish view is that Rabin's assassin had no Halachic basis to shoot Prime Minister Rabin.[14]

Extremist organizations[edit]

In the course of history there have been some organizations and individuals that endorsed or advocated violence based on their interpretation to Jewish religious principles. Such instances of violence are considered by mainstream Judaism to be extremist aberrations, and not representative of the tenets of Judaism.[78][79]

Views on Violence against Islam[edit]

While Judaism contains commandments to exterminate idol worship, according to all rabbinic authorities, Islam contains no trace of idolatry.[92] Rabbi Hayim David HaLevi stated that in modern times no one matches the biblical definition of an idolater, and therefore ruled that Jews in Israel have a moral responsibility to treat all citizens with the highest standards of humanity.[92]

Following an arson incident in 2010, in which a mosque in Yasuf village was desecrated, apparently by settlers from the nearby Gush Etzion settlement bloc,[92][93][94] the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger condemned the attack and equated the arson to Kristallnacht, he said: "This is how the Holocaust began, the tragedy of the Jewish people of Europe."[95] Rabbi Menachem Froman, a well-known peace activist, visited the mosque and replaced the burnt Koran with new copies.[96] The rabbi stated: "This visit is to say that although there are people who oppose peace, he who opposes peace is opposed to God" and "Jewish law also prohibits damaging a holy place." He also remarked that arson in a mosque is an attempt to sow hatred between Jews and Arabs.[95][97]

See also[edit]


  • Berger, Michael S., "Taming the Beast: Rabbinic Pacification of Second-Century Jewish Nationalism", in Belief and bloodshed: religion and violence across time and tradition, James K. Wellman (Ed.), Rowman & Littlefield, 2007, pp 47–62
  • Boustan, Ra'anan S., "Violence, Scripture, and Textual Practice in Early Judaism and Christianity", in Violence, Scripture, and Textual Practice in Early Judaism and Christianity, Ra'anan S. Boustan, Alex P. Jassen, Calvin J. Roetzel (Eds), BRILL, 2010 pp 1–12
  • Chilton, BruceAbraham's Curse: The Roots of Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Doubleday, 2009
  • Chomsky, NoamWorld orders, old and new, Columbia University Press, 1996
  • Ehrlich, Carl. S, "Joshua, Judaism, and Genocide", in Jewish Studies at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, Judit Targarona Borrás, Ángel Sáenz-Badillos (Eds). 1999, Brill. pp 117–124.
  • Ellens, J. Harold (Ed.), The destructive power of religion: violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007
  • Esber, Rosemarie M.Under the Cover of War: The Zionist Expulsion of the Palestinians, Arabicus Books & Media, LLC, 2009
  • Feldman, Louis H."Remember Amalek!": vengeance, zealotry, and group destruction in the Bible according to Philo, Pseudo-Philo, and Josephus, Hebrew Union College Press, 2004
  • Firestone, Reuven, "Judaism on Violence and Reconciliation: An Examination of Key Sources", in Beyond violence: religious sources of social transformation in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, James Heft (Ed.), Fordham Univ Press, 2004, pp 74–87
  • Glick, Leonard B., "Religion and Genocide", in The Widening circle of genocide, Alan L. Berger (Ed). Transaction Publishers, 1994, pp 43–74
  • Gopin, MarcBetween Eden and Armageddon: the future of world religions, violence, and peacemaking, Oxford University Press US, 2000.
  • Harkabi, YehoshafatArab attitudes to Israel, John Wiley and Sons, 1974
  • Heft, James (Ed.), Beyond violence: religious sources of social transformation in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Fordham Univ Press, 2004
  • Hirst, DavidThe gun and the olive branch: the roots of violence in the Middle East, Nation Books, 2003
  • Hoffman, R. JosephThe just war and jihad: violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Prometheus Books, 2006
  • Horowitz, Elliott S., Reckless rites: Purim and the legacy of Jewish violence, Princeton University Press, 2006
  • Jacobs, Steven Leonard, "The Last Uncomfortable Religious Question? Monotheistic Exclusivism and Textual Superiority in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as Sources of Hate and Genocide", in Confronting genocide: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Steven L. Jacobs (Ed.), Lexington Books, 2009, pp 35–46
  • Juergensmeyer, MarkTerror in the mind of God: the global rise of religious violence, University of California Press, 2003
  • Kuper, Leo, "Theological Warrants for Genocide: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity", inConfronting genocide: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Steven L. Jacobs (Ed.), Lexington Books, 2009, pp 3–34
  • Lustick, IanFor the land and the Lord: Jewish fundamentalism in Israel, Council on Foreign Relations, 1988
  • Masalha, NurThe Bible and Zionism: Invented Traditions, Archaeology and Post-colonialism in Palestine-Israel, Zed Books, 2007
  • Morris, BennyThe birth of the Palestinian refugee problem revisited, Cambridge University Press, 2004
  • Niditch, Susan, War in the Hebrew Bible: a study in the ethics of violence, Oxford University Press US, 1995
  • Pappe, IlanThe ethnic cleansing of Palestine, Oneworld, 2007
  • Pedahzur, Ami, Jewish terrorism in Israel, Columbia University Press, Columbia University Press, 2009
  • Perliger, Arie and Weinberg, Leonard, "Jewish Self-Defence and Terrorist Groups Prior to the Establishment of the State of Israel: Roots and Traditions", in Religious fundamentalism and political extremism, Perliger, Arie (Ed.), Taylor & Francis, 2004, pp 91–118
  • Phillips, Gary A., "More Than the Jews … His Blood Be Upon All the Children: Biblical Violence, Genocide and Responsible Reading", in Confronting genocide: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Steven L. Jacobs (Ed.), Lexington Books, 2009, pp 77–87
  • Pitkanen, Pekka, "Memory, Witnesses, and Genocide in the Book of Joshua", in Reading the law: studies in honour of Gordon J. Wenham, J. Gordon McConville, Karl Möller (Eds), Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007, pp 267–282
  • Prior, Michael P.The Bible and colonialism: a moral critique, Sheffield Academic Press, 1997.
  • Quigley, John B.Palestine and Israel: a challenge to justice, Duke University Press, 1990
  • Saleh Abd al-Jawad (2007) "Zionist Massacres: the Creation of the Palestinian Refugee Problem in the 1948 War" in Israel and the Palestinian refugees, Eyal Benvenistî, Chaim Gans, Sari Hanafi (Eds.), Springer, 2007
  • Selengut, Charles, Sacred fury: understanding religious violence, Rowman & Littlefield, 2008
  • Shahak, IsraelJewish fundamentalism in Israel, Pluto Press, 1999
  • Sprinzak, Ehud, Brother against brother: violence and extremism in Israeli politics from Altalena to the Rabin assassination, Simon and Schuster, 1999
  • Van Wees, Hans, "Genocide in the Ancient World", in The Oxford Handbook of Genocide Studies, Donald Bloxham, A. Dirk Moses (Eds), Oxford University Press US, 2010, pp 239–258.
  • Weisburd, David, Jewish Settler Violence, Penn State Press, 1985
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Genocide in the Torah

The existential threat of Amalek.

By Shmuly Yanklowitz

In 2006 Conservative Rabbi Jack Reimer, Bill Clinton’s rabbinic counsel during his presidency, created a stir when he associated Islamic fundamentalism with the biblical nation of Amalek.

“I am becoming convinced that Islamic Fundamentalism, or, as some people prefer to call it, ‘Islamo-fascism,’ is the most dangerous force that we have ever faced and that it is worthy of the name: Amalek. We must recognize who Amalek is in our generation, and we must prepare to fight it in every way we can. And may God help us in this task.”war and peace quiz

Who is Amalek?

According to the book of Exodus, Amalek is the nation that attacked the weakest among the Israelites as they fled from Egypt. This transgression was not to go unpunished. The Torah has a harsh prescription for Amalek: annihilation.

“It shall be that when Hashem, your God, gives you rest from all your enemies all around, in the Land that Hashem, your God, gives you as an inheritance to possess it, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven. Do not forget it!” (Deuteronomy 25: 19; also see Exodus 17:14 and Numbers 24:20)

Blotting out the memory of Amalek was no mere psychological activity. The Israelites were expected to kill every Amalekite–man, woman, and child. But was this just a theoretical imperative or was it meant to be carried out?

The book of Samuel implies that it required actual fulfillment: “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox, and sheep, camel and ass,”(Samuel I, 15:3). King Saul struck down Amalek as he was commanded but he then took mercy upon King Agag and upon some of the Amalekite animals. God and the prophet Samuel harshly criticized Saul for not fulfilling God’s word.

The point, of course, is that an invocation of Amalek is serious business. Rabbi Reimer wasn’t issuing a literal call to arms, but by associating “Islamo-Fascists” with Amalek, Rabbi Reimer was referencing the Jewish tradition’s genocidal instincts. Jewish authorities have struggled with this commandment for centuries, but the issue is perhaps even more urgent now.

For the last 2,000 years the Jewish people have lacked political sovereignty. With the return to the land of Israel, however, this is no longer the case. Invoking Amalek during the centuries of military impotency was one thing. Today, when there is a Jewish state with an army–and armed citizenry–it is quite another.

A Complicated History

knife amalekThe exegetical history of the commandment to destroy Amalek is complicated. The Talmud argues that the attacks and exiles of Sancherib, the king of Assyria and destroyer of Samaria, “mixed up the nations” over 2,500 years ago and thus all identity of the biblical nations has been lost (Berakhot 28a). This implies that all commands of exterminating nations were dismissed and that it is not appropriate to label any contemporary peoples as descendants of Amalek.

However, the Sefer HaHinnuch, a 13th century Spanish work, claims that the commandment still exists, demanding that every individual Jew kill every individual Amalekite man, woman, and child (mitzvah 604). Maimonides, on the other hand, argues that the command applies not to every individual, but to the Jewish nation as a whole (Hilkhot Melakhim 6).

Yet Maimonides also stated that the Jewish nation could accept converts from any nation in the world, including Amalek (Hilkhot Issurei Bia 12:17).

Most significantly, Maimonides contends that the Jewish nation can never launch a war with any nation (uniquely including Amalek and the seven Canaanite nations together) without first offering “a call to peace,”(keri’a l’shalom). If in this call to peace, the seven Noahide laws are accepted and peace is made, then no war is required (Hilkhot Melachim 6:1).

In the Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides explains further that the command to wipe out Amalek isn’t based on hatred, but on removing Amalek-like behavior from the world (3:41). For Maimonides, then, the commandment is not necessarily fulfilled through killing; it can be fulfilled through moral influence and education.

Deuteronomy 20 distinguishes between the obligatory war of conquest against the seven nations of Canaan and other wars. However, according to Maimonides and Nahmanides, the obligation to offer a call for peace is applied to both. Nahmanides, in quoting a midrash, also claims that there is an obligation of a Jewish army, laying siege upon a town, to provide an open direction to escape for those of the enemy who do not wish to fight  (Sefer Hamitzvot 5).

Some legal authorities were more eager to remove the command entirely from being applicable in our era. For example, in the 19th century, Rabbi Abraham Sachatchover  argued: “If they repent from their ways and accept the Noahide commandments, and they no longer continue in the path of their forefathers, they are no longer held responsible for the sins of their forefathers.” (Avnei Neizer Orat Hayiim 2:508)

The Sachatchover Rebbe, like Maimonides, suggests that Amalek is a way of being, not a genetic trait. Shouldn’t it be justified, then, for us to label contemporary enemies of the Jewish people Amalek? It appears, however, according to these interpretations, that the intention of the enemy must be first and foremost to destroy the Jewish people.

In addition to the rational legalists, the mystical thinkers in the Jewish tradition have also provided useful reinterpretations. Professor Avi Sagi demonstrated the claim of many Hasidic sources that the battle against Amalek was only intended to be a spiritual war.

Invoking Amalek

Even if most people would not invoke the commandment to destroy Amalek today, there are certainly those, like Rabbi Riemer, who have ventured to do so. And there has been no dearth of similar, violent invocations in reference to the Palestinians, as well. For example, Benzi Lieberman, the chairman of the Council of Settlements said in no uncertain terms: “The Palestinians are Amalek! We will destroy them. We won’t kill them all. But we will destroy their ability to think as a nation. We will destroy Palestinian nationalism.”

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