Troubling headlines

Recent incidents of genocide (the systematic killing of ethnic or religious groups) and ethnic cleansing (the forced deportation of ethnic or religious groups):

  • 1991    450,000 Palestinians expelled by Kuwait in retaliation for the PLO’s support of Saddam Hussein
  • 1993    170,000 Croatians and non-Serbs murdered or deported by Serbian rebels led by Slobodan Milošević
  • 1999    800,000 Albanians flee their homes during the Kosovo War
  • 1994    As many as 1,000,000 Tutsi killed by Hutus in the Rwandan genocide
  • 2000    200,000 East Timorese killed or expelled from Indonesia after voting for independence in a 1999 referendum
  • 2003    450,000 from various black ethnic groups killed and another 2 million expelled from the Darfur region of Sudan
  • 2008    200,000 Karen and 120,000 other refugees displaced from their Burma (Myanmar) homes, fleeing to Thailand
  • 2012    400,000 people displaced in dispute between Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslims of Assam, India

Problem: How should a believer respond to accusations about genocide in the Old Testament? Does the Bible encourage genocide for religious purposes?

The issue of genocide in the Old Testament can be a dilemma for those who are seeking God, and a difficult problem for Christians as well.

Imagine a workplace conversation, where a friend reads the day’s headlines and then asks why religion causes so many wars. Or perhaps a neighbor reads criticisms from atheists such as Richard Dawkins, who claims “the invasion of the Promised Land . . . is morally indistinguishable from Hitler’s invasion of Poland, or Saddam Hussein’s massacres of the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs.” As a result, Dawkins concludes that  though the Bible “may be an arresting and poetic work of fiction, it is not the sort of book you should give your children to form their morals.”

New Christians may be troubled when they first encounter phrases from Deuteronomy 20:10–18 (NASB), such as, “You shall not leave alive anything that breathes” and “You shall utterly destroy them.”

Or imagine the Bible student who looks up conquest in the Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, only to read how the Israelites “carry out the ethnic cleansing of their inhabitants. . . . Joshua leads the Israelites across the Jordan where, in an orgy of terror, violence, and mayhem, they conquer the land and attempt to cleanse it of inhabitants.”

The very thought of genocide and ethnic cleansing evokes a strong emotional response from most people. The thought that God might have endorsed such an activity is beyond comprehension—perhaps even causing Christians to view God quite differently than they should.

To understand the justification for taking land in the Old Testament, one must understand God’s promises to Israel—first through Abraham and later through Moses. It is therefore impossible to gain a clear understanding of the conquest without first considering what God was attempting to accomplish, not only through His elect, but also in the world at large. Several key elements were at play with the conquest. The first relates to the unique relationship between Israel and God and the fulfillment of His promises to them. The second has to do with His judgment of the pagan nations who were in possession of the land God has promised to His people. The third is preventative in nature and relates to God’s expectations for Israel.

1. The Election of Israel and the Gifting of the Land

The first justification for taking the land has to do with the election of Israel. Initially, the election of Israel may seem unrelated to the issue of genocide. However, election provides the foundation for God’s plan of redemption, and the conquest of the Promised Land is but one element of that scheme. Ultimately, the election of Israel is what gives them their divine approval for taking the land. This was not a situation where Israel was selfishly taking a land that was not rightfully theirs to possess. Rather, they were being used and directed by God as the conduit through whom God would work His plan—part of which involved the judgment of other nations.

This concept of election is unmistakably identified in Scripture. However, the reason Israel was the recipient of God’s favor is not so clear. The idea that God chose Israel because they were morally better than other nations is not supported by Scripture. In fact, the Old Testament almost seems to put Israel’s failure on display to indicate that other factors were clearly in play. Moses went so far as to say of the elect in Deuteronomy 9:24, “You have been rebellious against the Lord from the day that I knew you.”

It also was not Israel’s size or strength that influenced God’s decision. Deuteronomy 7:7 says, “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples” (ESV). Scripture seems clear that God did not choose the people of Israel because of something they had done or even because of who they were. Rather, He chose them out of His abundant grace based upon the covenant He had made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Deuteronomy 10:15).

Related to Israel’s election is the divine gifting of the land. That the land was a gift cannot be missed. Walter Kaiser remarks, “Sixty-nine times, the writer of Deuteronomy repeated the pledge that Israel would one day ‘possess’ and ‘inherit’ the land promised to her” and “in some twenty-five references, the land was called a gift from Yahweh (Deut. 1:20, 25; 2:29; 3:20; 4:40; 5:16).” Today many Christians refer to the estate of Israel as the Holy Land, because it was by definition “set apart.” The land and its people were meant to be unique; both the land and the people were intended for God’s special purposes.

While Israel did not merit its election, according to Deuteronomy 9:6, the land, too, was undeserved: “Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people” (ESV). It was God Who chose Israel, not Israel who chose God, and it was God Who chose to give the land to Israel, not some reckless pursuit by the nation to enlarge their territory.

God called Abram to leave his country and go to the land that would be shown to him (Genesis 12). By faith, Abram obeyed and God made an unconditional covenant with him, which Mal Couch points out is “foundational to the whole program of redemption.” The Abrahamic Covenant itself demonstrates that Israel was meant to be set apart from all other nations. Up to that point there was no law—God had been silent. But it was as if God started over with Abraham as the first piece of cleaning up the mess mankind had made of the world.

God promised Abraham that all nations would be impacted through him, which is something that continues to this day. Thus the Promised Land became a central component, not only of history, but also as a part of the larger story of redemption. It was within the borders of this land that the ultimate Redeemer would be born. Furthermore, Christ will reign during the millennial Kingdom from Mount Zion in Jerusalem. A line, therefore, can be drawn from the Abrahamic Covenant all the way to the future millennial Kingdom, and it all pivots on the land.

2. To Judge the Canaanites

In the middle of Deuteronomy 9:5, Scripture provides a second justification for taking the land: “Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations” (ESV, ephasis added). As part of His redemptive program, God intended to use the Israelites as His agents of justice against the pagan Canaanite people.

As the first part of the verse points out, this certainly did not stem from the Israelites’ righteousness. They, too, deserved God’s hand of justice. Israel was not chosen and preserved based upon their moral superiority; rather, the culpability of the Canaanites’ sin had amassed over the previous several hundred years to the point that God’s justice had to be meted out. The Canaanites had been given ample time to repent of their sins and turn to God, but eventually the time for judgment became imminent. From the human perspective, a tension exists in that the timing of God’s judgment is not always on the timetable one might expect. Other nations also deserved God’s judgment, yet they did not always receive it in the same way or with the same timing as did the Canaanites. However, the lesson remains that God holds all nations responsible for their wickedness and that all will stand under His judgment.

Among other characteristics, God’s holiness is put on display through the conquest. Kaiser notes, “God’s anger and wrath are his legitimate expressions of his abhorrence of all that is sinful, wrong, unjust, and against his very nature and being. God did not flare up with impetuosity against the Canaanites, but gave them centuries and millennia to get the point and right the wrong. In the end, he had to act or he would not be holy, just, righteous, and fair.”

On the other hand, history also demonstrates a willingness on God’s part to work with those nations who reveal a repentant spirit. Jeremiah 18:7 and 8 make this clear: “If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it” (ESV).

In other words, if the Canaanites had turned from their evil ways at any point, God would have relented in His judgment. The conquest then was not human genocide; it was divine judgment. This does not make the conquest less bloody or gruesome. However, placing the conquest narratives within the framework of judgment does change how they are viewed.

Christopher Wright explains, “Punishment changes the moral context of violence. . . . Whatever our personal codes of parental discipline, there is surely a moral difference between a smack administered as punishment for disobedience and vicious or random child abuse. Similarly, there is a moral difference between the enforced captivity of someone imprisoned as punishment under due process of law for a defined criminal offence and the captivity of someone kidnapped as a hostage for no offence whatsoever.”

3. To Keep Israel from Worshiping Other Gods

A final justification for taking the land is preventative in nature. God commanded the annihilation of the inhabitants not only to judge their wickedness but also to protect the Israelites from their pagan practices. The passages that indicate God’s directive may seem overly harsh, but a complete purging of the land was necessary to remove the sin. Throughout Israelite history, the issue of idolatry would surface over and over again. This struggle is referenced in Joshua 24:14: “Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord” (ESV). Idolatry was a problem in Egypt that followed the Children of Israel after the Exodus. While in the desert, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, the first of which centers on this temptation. The need for this command was made evident by God’s command for Moses to proceed back down the mountain. Aaron listened to the people’s concerns and responded by forging a golden calf out of their jewelry (Exodus 32:2–6). He then declared this to be the god who brought them out of Egypt. It took no time at all for the Israelites to revert to what they had known. Even after their experience of watching God deliver them from the Egyptians’ hand through the 10 plagues and the parting of the Red Sea, still they fell back into their patterns of behavior. This is a reminder that the Children of Israel did not leave Egypt as an organized nation who was ready to follow the one true God; rather, they were starting a journey, and they needed 40 years in the wilderness as a time of preparation for what they would encounter in the Promised Land.

Ironically, they, too, faced severe consequences for their idolatry. Initially Moses took action by instructing the sons of Levi to exercise judgment that resulted in the deaths of 3,000 men (Exodus 32:25–28). Moses then pleaded with God for the people, and God responded by sending a plague because of their worship of the golden calf (v. 35). This passage of Scripture provides conclusive support that God hates idolatry. The judgment upon the Canaanites was not an isolated event—even God’s Chosen People were punished severely for this deviation, and in Israel’s case, it was a lesson they had to learn over and over again throughout their history.

God demanded that the Canaanites and all of their possessions be destroyed so the Israelites would not be corrupted by their practices. However, the Israelites allowed these practices to creep in, which eventually led to their exile from the land that had been promised to them. The book of Judges is a prime example of what happened as a result of Israel’s failure to fully carry out God’s command. The turbulent events described in this book contrast with the victories of Joshua, because the people did not follow through with God’s directives. The Israelites did not drive the inhabitants out of the land and instead decided to live with them. This led to compromise in the form of idolatry and eventually to judgment.

Tertullian once said, “The principal crime of the human race, the highest guilt charged upon the world, the whole procuring cause of judgment, is idolatry. For, although each single fault retains its own proper feature, although it is destined to judgment under its own proper name also, yet it is marked off under the general account of idolatry.” It is not surprising then that God chose to place this as the first of the Ten Commandments, and it should not come as a surprise that as Moses handed off the reins to Joshua, he issued a charge related to idolatry. This exhortation, found in Deuteronomy 30:15–20, challenged the new leader to be careful not to be drawn away by other gods but to fully obey and follow the command of the Lord.

Likewise, Joshua, after the conquest and before his death, issued a call to the Israelites to choose which God/gods they would serve. This dual emphasis, placed directly before and after the conquest, serves to put the issue of idolatry front and center. The people’s response, as indicated in Joshua 24:14–24, was one of unity in which they declared together their desire to serve and obey the Lord.


Ultimately, the justification for taking the land is set against God’s broader purpose.

Unquestionably the issue of war in the Old Testament is challenging—so much so that atheists seem delighted to engage the subject matter. To make things worse, Christians often have little in the way of substantial answers to address such complexities. However, a discussion of the issue is not something believers need to fear. Taken in isolation, the verses regarding the conquest do create an “uncomfortableness”—and they should! Then again, when the conquest episodes are understood within God’s overall plan, much of the tension can be resolved.

The conquest episodes were a part of something bigger. J. Gordon McConville states, “The land of Canaan is not just destined by God to be a possession for the Israelites; it is destined to become the scene of corruption reversed and the place where God’s universal holiness shines forth.”

Though God used the Israelites as His agents of justice, and though the acquisition of the land was a fulfillment of His promises to Abraham, the wars of Joshua were also integral to the plan of redemption. Beginning with the promise to Abram and culminating in part with the Joshua conquest, the land represents a new beginning, when God stepped in and commenced a program that eventually climaxed with the cross.

By understanding the Old Testament as a record of God’s justice, we will be able to respond to questions from our friends and neighbors. The horrors of Kosovo, Croatia, and other examples of ethnic cleansing will provoke inevitable questions. Why doesn’t God do something to punish the wrongdoers?

Here the Bible provides both assurance and warning. Yes—the God of justice will punish the perpetrators of horrible violence. From our human perspective, God’s judgment does not come on the timetable one might expect. But it will come!

For the believer, this answer provides encouragement and hope, confirming for us that God’s dealings in the Old Testament are part of His perfect plan.

Will such an argument convince an atheist that the Bible is true? Perhaps not. But offering this answer will help seekers understand how God’s program unfolds in the pages of Scripture. When confronted with the challenging questions of unbelievers, we should at least answer their questions—the topics that interest them. And we should also move the conversation toward the claims of Jesus Christ and His atoning work on the cross.

Daryl A. Neipp (ThM, Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary) is associate pastor of New Community Baptist Church, Avon, Ohio. He is an adjunct faculty member of Baptist Bible College and Liberty University. This article is condensed from the author’s ThM thesis.