ETHOS-Credo WS_21 Nov 2022_Wesley on the Church
ETHOS-Pulse WS_21 Nov 2022_A New Kind of Christianity
11. ETHOS-Feature WS-7 Nov 22_Identity in Christ and Moral Witness of the Church
11. ETHOS-Credo WS_7 Nov 2022_Christmas and Covid-19
11. 7 Nov 2022 ETHOS-Pulse WS_Religion And The Law (moved from 18 Oct and from 21 Feb to 4 Jul to 15 Aug 22 to 7 Nov 22)
10. ETHOS-Special WS_3 Oct 2022_Christian Witness in the Public Square Retrospection and Prospection
previous arrow
next arrow

January 2018 Credo

At a recent Ethos Institute conference on ‘Justice and the Common Good’, a participant asked how Christians should interpret the so-called violent passages of the Old Testament that record Yahweh’s command to the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites. One example of these haram (Hebrew for ‘destroy’) passages is Deuteronomy 20:16-18:

But as for the towns of these people that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them – the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites – just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God.

Atheists have used this and similar passages in the OT to mock Christians and the God they worship. For example, in his book The God Delusion the atheist scientist at Oxford University, Richard Dawkins asserts that ‘The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it, petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully’.

Some scholars, like Raymond Bradley, Professor Emeritus at Simon Fraser University, even go so far as to extrapolate that the Bible commands Christians to kill innocent human beings. In making this assertion, Bradley is merely echoing the view of the late Christopher Hitchens, who maintained that the barbarism of the Bible is because it was written by ‘crude, uncultured human animals’.

Christians should roundly reject these uninformed and unsophisticated readings of these passages. How, then, should Christians read and interpret passages like Deuteronomy 20?

An Occasional Command

Firstly, we must recognise that there are different types of commands in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. There are commands in the OT that are meant for every human being, not just for the ancient people of Israel. Examples of such universal commands include the prohibition of murder and theft in the Decalogue (Exodus 20: 13, 15). These commands are meant for every person, at all times and in all places. Obeying such commandments would result in the flourishing of human societies.

But there are other commands in the Bible – which scholars describe as occasional commands – that are meant specifically for certain individuals or for the ancient people of Israel. For example, in Genesis 12, we read about the call of Abram: ‘Now the Lord said to Abram: Go from the country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you’. This is an occasional divine command in the sense that it was given to Abram alone. No one reading this passage today would conclude that God is calling him or her to leave the Ur of the Chaldeans.

There are also commands that were meant specifically for the ancient people of Israel. A good example is the dietary laws in the Torah. In Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, we find a series of laws concerning clean and unclean food. Deuteronomy 14 sets the context for these laws in this way: ‘For you are a people holy to the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all peoples who are on the face of the earth. You shall not eat any abominations’ (vv 2-3). It then provides a list of clean and unclean food.

These dietary laws were given in order to set God’s covenant people apart from the other nations in the Ancient Near East. They are not universal in the sense that they do not apply to all peoples at all times. This is made clear by the fact that Israel was allowed to sell these prohibited foods to the sojourner and foreigner (Deuteronomy 14:21).

The command to ‘destroy’ the Canaanites found in the haram passages of the OT is also an occasional command. This command was given to the ancient people of God, as they were preparing to enter the Promised Land. It was confined only to the seven nations that were occupying Canaan, and did not apply to the nations beyond it. In fact, Moses explicitly prohibited Israel from conquering other neighbouring nations (See Deuteronomy 2:4, 9, 19; 23:7).

As Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan have rightly pointed out:

The command to Israel to destroy the Canaanite nations, according to the biblical text, is tied to Israel’s special status as a nation chosen by God to be a treasured possession – a status rooted in his covenant with Abraham and the patriarchs. On the face of it, this is not a general command to all people, Israelite and gentile.

This command therefore cannot be understood as a general command for Israel to exterminate people who belong to other nations. It certainly cannot be interpreted in the way Bradley and Hitchens have suggested, namely, as a divine sanction for Christians to kill innocent people.

Whose Land?

Atheists have routinely accused Israel – and therefore Israel’s God – of injustice because of the divinely sanctioned programme to exterminate or drive out the Canaanites from the land that rightfully belonged to them. However, it should be pointed out that the land of Canaan belonged to Israel, and not to the nations that were occupying it at the time. The title to the land belonged to Israel, and the peoples who have made their home there were illegal occupants.

In Genesis 12, Yahweh called Abram to leave Ur of the Chaldeans and go to an unknown land. But in Genesis 17:8 we read: ‘And I will give to you and your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God’. Gordon Wenham notes that ‘this is the first time its title “Canaan” has been used by God, and the description of it as “the land to which you have migrated”’. He adds that the ‘tenure of the land is dependent upon the overarching goal of the covenant: “I shall be their God”’.

Thus, the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey, belonged to Israel because it was given to Abraham and to his offspring for ‘an everlasting possession’ as part of God’s covenant. Israel did not steal the land from the seven nations in Canaan. Israel took back the land that was rightfully theirs from its illegal occupants.

The Sins of the Canaanites

It is quite fashionable for atheists like Christopher Hitchens to describe the texts that we have been discussing as accounts of the ethnic cleansing of the Canaanites in fulfilment of the divine command. The United Nations Commission of Experts defines ethnic cleansing as ‘rendering an area ethnically homogenous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of a given group from the area’. The expulsion of the Canaanites by the people of Israel cannot be strictly described as ethnic cleansing because time and again the relevant texts stress that it was on spiritual and moral grounds – not ethnic ones – that the command was given.

Consider the following passages:

  1. ‘They shall not live in your land, or they will make you sin against me; for if you worship their gods, it will surely be a snare to you’ (Exodus 23:33).
  2. ‘You shall not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to their gods, someone among them will invite you, and you will eat of the sacrifice. And you will take wives from among their daughters for your sons, and their daughters who prostitute themselves to their gods will make your sons also prostitute themselves to their gods’ (Exodus 34:15-16).
  3. ‘You shall annihilate them – the Hittites and Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites – just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God’ (Deuteronomy 20:18).

OT scholars generally agree that it was because God wanted to protect his people from the corrupting influence of the pagan nations with their idolatrous and immoral practices that he sought their displacement.

The abominations practiced in Canaanite idolatry do not only include occult practises like witchcraft and sorcery (Deuteronomy 18:10-12) but also cult prostitution (Deuteronomy 23:17). But the most reprehensible practice of the Canaanites is child sacrifice. Here are the descriptions of this Canaanite practice:

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.

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 it laughing, until it was shrunk enough to slip into the cauldron.

Commenting on Exodus 23:33, John Durham notes that in this passage, ‘the singularity of the devotion expected by Yahweh is stressed. Israel is not to covenant with the people of the land’. The Canaanites must be displaced in order to ‘prevent their influencing Israel against Yahweh primarily by the advocacy of their gods: service of these gods, in any manner whatever, would constitute an entrapment of Israel’, he adds. On Deuteronomy 20:18 Duane Christensen writes: ‘The aim of the harsh policy in destroying the Canaanites is to prevent the people of Israel from doing “according to all their abominations”’.

Extermination or Expulsion?

 While there are indeed a number of passages in the OT that describe God commanding the Israelites to ‘kill’ or ‘destroy’ every inhabitant that resided in the land of Canaan, a closer look at the relevant passages (in Deuteronomy, Leviticus, Joshua, Judges and Numbers) will lead one to discern a more complex picture. Alongside the commands to exterminate the inhabitants of Canaan are the commands to expel them. In fact, many OT scholars maintain that the command to expel the Canaanites is more dominant than the injunction to utterly annihilate them.

In Deuteronomy 7:2 we read: ‘… and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them’. It seems quite clear from this passage that Yahweh has given an explicit command to the Israelites to completely destroy the inhabitants of Canaan.

But in an earlier passage in Deuteronomy, the language of expulsion – not extermination – is used. Thus, In Deuteronomy 4:37-38 we read: ‘And because he loved your fathers and chose their offspring after then and brought you out of Egypt with his own presence, by his great power, driving out before you nations greater and mightier than yourselves, to bring you in, giving you the land for a possession’ (Deuteronomy 4:37-38).

In chapter 6, the language of expulsion is used again: ‘Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may go in and occupy the good land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give you, thrusting out all your enemies from before you, as the Lord promised’ (vv 18-19).

This is repeated in a number of other passages in Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy 9:1, the Israelites were told that they were about to ‘cross the Jordan today, to going in and dispossess nations that are mightier than you …’ The text goes on to say that because of the wickedness of the occupants of Canaan, God will ‘thrust them out before you’ (9:4-5).

Again in 18:12, we read that ‘… it is because of such abhorrent practices that the Lord your God is driving them out before you’. This idea is repeated yet again in 18:14, which says: ‘Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the Lord your God does not permit you to do so’.

The juxtaposition of the texts that speak of extermination with those that command expulsion warrants a more nuanced reading of the so-called haram passages.

After carefully examining these passages, Copan and Flannagan came to the conclusion that the ‘text … continually and repeatedly states that the Canaanites will not be exterminated in the sense that the Israelites are to kill every single man, woman, and child in Canaan. Rather, it states they are to be driven out’. ‘[T]he language of “destroy” or “annihilate”’, they added, ‘is typically in the context of gradually driving out the nations – or of nations fleeing from before the battle is joined’.

Rhetorical Hyperbole

Joshua 10 and 11 record the victory of Joshua and his army over the inhabitants of Canaan. On the surface of it, it appears that Joshua took the command to exterminate the Canaanites literally.

Joshua 10:40 records the victory thus: ‘So Joshua defeated the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings; he left no one remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel has commanded’. We get the same picture from Joshua 11:21: ‘At that time Joshua came and wiped out the Anakim from the hill country, from Hebron, from Debir, from Anab, and from all the hill country of Judah, and from all the hill country of Israel; Joshua utterly destroyed them with their towns’.

However, when we turn to Judges, which gives an account of the same conquest, we get a different picture. In Judges 1:21, we are told that the Jebusites were not entirely driven out, not to mention exterminated or destroyed, and that they have even assimilated with the Benjaminites in Jerusalem. But it is Judges 2 that gives us with the clearest contrast to the Joshua passages above:

… I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations that Joshua left when he died … the Lord left those nations, not driving them out at once, and had not handed them over to Joshua (vv 21, 23).

The passages in Judges not only show that Joshua had not ‘utterly destroyed all that breathed’, but that he and his army did not even drive all the inhabitants of Canaan out. Furthermore, Judges 2 has Yahweh declare that he ‘will no longer drive out before them any of the nations that Joshua left when he died’ (v 21).

Just as the commands to exterminate the Canaanites are juxtaposed with the instructions to expel them, so the accounts of total annihilation are juxtaposed with passages that indicate that huge numbers remained even after Joshua’s death. Scholars like Brevard Childs have long noted the tension between the two accounts.

How, then, should we read the haram passages?

Scholars like Copan and Flannagan argue that these passages should be understood as hyperbolic. According to the Oxford Dictionary, ‘hyperbole’ is ‘an exaggerated statement, not meant to be taken literally’. When we carefully consider all the passages that describe the divine command and the conquest, we are inexorably led to conclude that the language of extermination or annihilation is hyperbolic, and should not be taken literally.

As Copan and Flannagan put it:

Taken together, these points give persuasive reasons for thinking that one should interpret the extermination language in Joshua 1-12 as offering a highly figurative and hyperbolic account of what occurred. It seems sensible to conclude that the language of ‘leaving alive nothing that breathes’, ‘leaving no survivors’, and ‘putting all inhabitants to the sword’ is not meant to be taken literally.

The historian of the Ancient Near East, Lawson Younger, Jr. and Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen have shown that there are profound similarities between the war accounts of other Ancient Near Eastern nations and that of Israel as recorded in Joshua. As was the convention of the day, these texts liberally employed rhetorical hyperbole in their respective conquest accounts.

To say that the haram passages are written in hyperbolic language is not to suggest that the divine command and the conquest of Joshua are fictitious. Rather, it is simply to acknowledge the fact that they are described in extravagant language. To recognise that the haram passages are written in hyperbolic language is to acknowledge the specific genre of these passages. Sound biblical exegesis and hermeneutics require that the different literary genres in the Bible be judiciously identified and interpreted accordingly.


The New Atheists and other authors have used the haram passages in the OT to argue that the Christian God commanded his people to commit genocide and other atrocities. This is a serious misreading of these passages. It has led to scathing misrepresentations of the Christian Faith and the Bible.

I hope that this brief article will help Christians (and anyone who is genuinely interested) achieve a clearer and more nuanced interpretation of the passages in the Old Testament.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.