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God and the Genocide of the Canaanites

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Matthew Flannagan. God and the Genocide of the Canaanites.

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“The Book of Joshua has to be read as a theologically oriented narration, stylized and hyperbolic at important points, of Israel’s early skirmishes in the Promised Land, with the story of these battles being framed by descriptions of two great ritualized events. The story as a whole celebrates Joshua as the great leader of his people, faithful to Yahweh, worthy successor of Moses. If we strip the word “hagiography” of its negative connotations, we can call it a hagiographic account of Joshua’s exploits.”

Wolterstorff: “Reading Joshua”


“Joshua, as we have it today, was intended as a component in the larger sequence consisting of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, I and II Samuel, and I and II Kings… I propose that we interpret the Book of Joshua as a component within this larger sequence – in particular, that we interpret it as preceded by Deuteronomy and succeeded by Judges.”

Wolterstorff: “Reading Joshua”

joshua 11 16 23
Joshua 11:16-23

“So Joshua took the entire land, just as the LORD had directed Moses, and he gave it as an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal divisions. Then the land had rest from war.” [Emphasis added]

judges 1 1 4

“After the death of Joshua, the Israelites inquired of the Lord, “Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?” The Lord said, “Judah shall go up. I hereby give the land into his hand.” Judah said to his brother Simeon, “Come up with me into the territory allotted to me, that we may fight against the Canaanites; then I too will go with you into the territory allotted to you. So Simeon went with him. Then Judah went up and the Lord gave the Canaanites and the Perizzites into their hand; and they defeated ten thousand of them at Bezek.”

joshua 10 36 40
Joshua 10:36-40

36Then Joshua and all Israel with him went up from Eglon to Hebron and attacked it. 37 They took the city and put it to the sword, together with its king, its villages and everyone in it. They left no survivors. Just as at Eglon, they totally destroyed it and everyone in it. 38 Then Joshua and all Israel with him turned around and attacked Debir. 39 They took the city, its king and its villages, and put them to the sword. Everyone in it they totally destroyed. They left no survivors. They did to Debir and its king as they had done to Libnah and its king and to Hebron. 40 So Joshua subdued the whole region, including the hill country, the Negev, the western foothills and the mountain slopes, together with all their kings. He left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded. 

judges 1 9 11
Judges 1:9-11

9 After that, Judah went down to fight against the Canaanites living in the hill country, the Negev and the western foothills. 10 They advanced against the Canaanites living in Hebron (formerly called KiriathArba) and defeated Sheshai, Ahiman and Talmai. 11 From there they advanced against the people living in Debir (formerly called KiriathSepher).


He left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded.

Josh 10:40

For it was the LORD himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy, as the LORD had commanded Moses.

Josh 11:20

judges 2 1 3
Judges 2:1-3

1I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land I swore to give to your ancestors. I said, “I will never break my covenant with you, 2 and you shall not make a covenant with the people of this land, but you shall break down their altars.” Yet you have disobeyed me. Why have you done this? 3 And I have also said, “I will not drive them out before you; they will become traps for you, and their gods will become snares to you.”


“Those whose occupation it is to try to determine the origins of these writings will suggest that the editors had contradictory records, oral traditions, and so forth to work with. No doubt this is correct. But those who edited the final version of these writings into one sequence were not mindless; they could see, as well as you and I can see, the tensions and contradictions – surface or real – that I have pointed to. So what is going on?”

Wolterstorff: “Reading Joshua”


“An assumption of the enterprise is that the principal author of the Bible—the entire Bible—is God himself (according to Calvin, God the Holy Spirit). Of course each of the books of the Bible has a human author or authors as well; still, the principal author is God. This impels us to treat the whole more like a unified communication than a miscellany of ancient books. Scripture isn’t so much a library of independent books as itself a book with many subdivisions but a central theme: the message of the gospel…”

Plantinga: Warranted Christian Belief


“By virtue of this unity, furthermore (by virtue of the fact that there is just one principal author), it is possible to “interpret Scripture with Scripture.” If a given passage from one of Paul’s epistles is puzzling, it is perfectly proper to try to come to clarity as to what God’s teaching is in this passage by appealing not only to what Paul himself says elsewhere in other epistles but also to what is taught elsewhere in Scripture.”

Alvin Plantinga: Warranted Christian Belief


“The book is framed by its opening narration of the ritualized crossing of the Jordan and by its closing narration of the equally- ritualized ceremony of blessing and cursing that took place at Shechem; and the conquest narrative begins with the ritualized destruction of Jericho.”

Wolterstorff: “Reading Joshua”


“Anyone who reads the Book of Joshua in one sitting cannot fail to be struck by the prominent employment of formulaic phrasings. … Far more important is the formulaic clause, “struck down all the inhabitants with the edge of the sword.”

Wolterstorff: “Reading Joshua”


“The first time one reads that Joshua struck down all the inhabitants of a city with the edge of the sword, namely, in the story of the conquest of Jericho (6:21), one makes nothing of it. But the phrasing – or close variants thereon -- gets repeated, seven times in close succession in chapter 10, two more times in chapter 11, and several times in other chapters. The repetition makes it unmistakable that we are dealing here with a formulaic literary convention.”

Wolterstorff: “Reading Joshua”

kenneth kitchen
Kenneth Kitchen

“This kind of report profile is familiar to readers of ancient Near Eastern military reports, not least in the second millennium. Most striking is the example of the campaign annals of Tuthmosis III of Egypt in his years 22-42 (ca. 1458-1438). … the pharaoh there gives a very full account of his initial victory at Megiddo, by contrast with the far more summary and stylized reports of the ensuing sixteen subsequent campaigns. Just like Joshua against up to seven kings in south Canaan and four-plus up north.” [Emphasis added]

Kitchen: On the Reliability of the Old Testament

kenneth kitchen1
Kenneth Kitchen

“The Ten Year Annals of the Hittite king Mursil II (later fourteenth century) are also instructive. Exactly like the “prefaces” in the two Joshua war reports (10:1-4; 11:1-5), detailing hostility by a number of foreign rulers against Joshua and Israel as the reason for the wars, so in his annals Mursil II gives us a long “preface” on the hostility of neighbouring rulers and people groups that lead to his campaigns.” [Emphasis added]

Kitchen: On the Reliability of the Old Testament

kenneth kitchen2
Kenneth Kitchen

“The type of rhetoric in question was a regular feature of military reports in the second and first millennia, as others have made very clear. … In the later fifteenth century Tuthmosis III could boast “the numerous army of Mitanni, was overthrown within the hour, annihilated totally, like those (now) non-existent” –- whereas, in fact, the forces of Mitanni lived to fight many another day in the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries , …”

Kitchen: On the Reliability of the Old Testament

kenneth kitchen3
Kenneth Kitchen

“Some centuries later, about 840/830, Mesha king of Moab could boast that “Israel has utterly perished for always” – a rather premature judgment at that date, by over a century! And so on, ad libitum. It is in this frame of reference that the Joshua rhetoric must also be understood.”

Kitchen: On the Reliability of the Old Testament

ramses ii
Ramses II

“His majesty slew the entire force of the wretched foe from Hatti, together with his great chiefs and all his brothers, as well as all the chiefs of all the countries that had come with him, their infantry and their chariotry falling on their faces one upon the other. His majesty slaughtered and slew them in their places; … He took no note of the millions of foreigners; he regarded them aschaff.”  [Emphasis added]


“On the assumption that Deuteronomy and Joshua are parts of the same sequence of books, this interpretation of Joshua forces a back-interpretation of Deuteronomy. If “struck down all the inhabitants with the edge of the sword” is a literary convention when used to describe Joshua’s exploits, then it is likewise a literary convention when similar words are used by Moses in his instructions to Israel in general and to Joshua in particular.”

Wolterstorff: Reading Joshua


“When a high-school basket ball player says his team slaughtered the other team last night he’s not asserting, literally now, that they slaughter the other team. What is he asserting? Not easy to tell. That they scored a decisive victory? Maybe, but suppose they barely eked out a win? Was he lying? Maybe not. Maybe he was speaking with a wink of the eye hyperbole. High school kids do.”

Wolterstorff: “Reply to Louise Anthony”


Israel scored a decisive victory and once you recognise the presence of hyperbole it is not even clear how decisive the victories were. Joshua did not conquer all the cities in the land nor did he slaughter all the inhabitants in the cities he did conquer. The book of Joshua does not say that he did.”

Wolterstorff: “Reply to Louise Anthony”




Philosophy of Religion | Ethics | Theology | Jurisprudence