Conquest and Christianity

I’ve long been troubled by the biblical stories of the Caananite genocide.  Here’s my humble effort to resolve the tension those stories create for me.


They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it— men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.   Joshua 6:21

“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”   Matthew 28:52

For Christians, and for evangelicals particularly, the stories of the Conquest can be troubling. How do we reconcile the God who manifested himself in Jesus with the God who seemingly ordered genocide in Canaan? How can the words and ethics of Christ be consistent with ethnic cleansing?

While acknowledging that this subject, like most, must be approached and addressed with humility and a respectful absence of confidence, this paper will suggest that the brutal stories of the Conquest need not be accepted as historical fact.

The Conquest

In fulfillment of the promise God made to Abraham and Moses, the Hebrew people came to possess much of Palestine. The circumstances of their doing so are set out largely in the book of Joshua, and have come to be called “The Conquest.”

Within the Bible itself, there is some internal inconsistency with respect to the nature and character of the Conquest. In the book of Joshua the Conquest is depicted as rapid and complete. The people of Israel were unified, and God was with them.1 By contrast Judges (and some passages in Joshua) suggests that the Conquest was more gradual, less dramatically successful, and plagued by dissention among the Israelites.2

Secular and critical historians have been skeptical of the Biblical conquest claims.  Indeed, the consensus among such historians is that the Biblical conquest stories are fictional or quasi-historical. For example, Michael David Coogan has concluded, “In my understanding, the book of Joshua is historico-theological fiction. The primary purpose of its authors was to present a theological construct.”3 Norman K. Gottwald argues that the “biblical history of Israel is a royal apology. A number of pre-monarchic sources and traditions (i.e. “sub-histories”) were collected and synthesized to produce a single, official explanation for the origin of a unified Israel under the monarchy.”4

Archeologists have been unable to discover evidence of a violent conquest of Canaan at the time reported in the Bible, and have been unable to confirm the destruction of Jericho and Ai described in the book of Joshua.5 Various theories have arisen among historians to explain how the Hebrews came to occupy Palestine. Those theories include a less dramatic conquest, a gradual immigration, and even a worker’s revolt.6 Some conclude that the Israelites did not enter Palestine by migration at all.7

While simply rejecting the stories of the Conquest as pure fabrications would seemingly solve the problem of trying to understand how God might have sanctioned such a thing, doing so would require a disregard for the Scripture that most evangelicals would find unacceptable. Certainly we are not bound by the judgments of secular historians and archeologists, many of whom give no credit to Biblical testimony. To unravel the apparent tension between the Conquest stories and the New Testament we must, therefore, dig deeper.

The Tension

In the description of the Conquest, Scripture records several instances of merciless genocide (“herem”).8 The inhabitants of Jericho and Ai, for example, according to the book of  Joshua were all murdered by the conquering Hebrews. Men, women, and children alike were  “put to the sword.” With the military technology of that day, this was not a manner of speech. The Hebrews would not have been able to kill from afar as we do today. These men, women and children would have been literally slaughtered with swords.9 The image of an armed warrior, claiming the imprimatur of the God we worship, stabbing, slicing and slaughtering women, children and old men must be disturbing to anyone with morals. To a people called to a God who tells us to love our enemies and not to resist them, it is particularly so.10

This paper presupposes an internal Biblical tension between the accounts of the Canaanite genocide and the teachings of Jesus.11 Although the Bible does not record any specific teaching from Christ on the subject of war, his insistence on love and mercy have caused Christians throughout history to conclude that aggressive wars of conquest are incompatible with Christianity. A complete description of the Christian doctrine of Just War is beyond the scope of this paper, but suffice it to say that for almost 2,000 years those Christ-followers who are not purely pacifists have nearly uniformly held to the belief that only just wars are permissible.12 Wars of conquest and extermination have been recognized as incompatible with the teachings and commands of Jesus.13

How then to reconcile the bloody genocide described in Joshua with the prevailing Christian ethic? The notion that God changed, becoming more loving and less violent later in history, is unacceptable. Scripture tells us that God is immutable and unchanging.14 Likewise, the notion that Jesus is “nicer” than God the father is likewise unacceptable. In fact, Scripture tells us that Jesus is the “exact representation” of God’s being.15 Therefore, if Jesus would not command the massacre of the Canaanites, then neither would God.

To resolve this apparent tension therefore we must find some way to reconcile the nature and teachings of Jesus with the brutal events of the Conquest, supposedly commanded by God.

Scripture versus History

That the author of Joshua presents the conquest story as a historical narrative is undeniable. But importantly, as is the case with much Old Testament historical narrative, this does not necessarily mean that God’s purpose for including these stories in canon is to describe historical events.

A completely objectively accurate representation of historical events is virtually impossible.16 When the history is not contemporaneous, but rather is written hundreds of years after the events it purports to describe, the difficulty in achieving pure objective accuracy is even greater. Aside from the challenge of reconstructing events from hundreds of years earlier, historians also inevitably bring their own biases and predispositions.17

In the case of the Conquest stories we must concede at least the possibility that, as history, they are flawed. As shown above, secular and critical historians, archeologists and scholars dispute even the existence of the conquest. If we concede the possibility that the stories are not entirely historically accurate, then we must also concede the possibility that God never intended for them to be.

Unlike history, Scripture does not pretend to objectivity. While grounded in history, Scripture is much more than mere history. The purpose of the Bible is not to convey facts, but rather to transform the life of the reader.18 When seeking to discern the reasons that historical narratives are included in canon, therefore, we should seek theological reasons.

Dennis Bratcher summarizes well the question of “history as theology” in relation to the conquest stories: “We have asked historical questions when the books are not history. This does not suggest that they are fictional; that reaction is as much a part of our own biases in favor of modern categories as were the historical assumptions that allowed the historical problems to dominate the books in the first place….So rather than asking ‘what really happened?’ a historical question, we should ask ‘what is the community of God telling us about God?’ a confessional theological question.”19 He concludes: “This means the purpose of the book is not to duplicate ‘what happened’ as Israel entered into the land in a dispassionate way. Its purpose is to highlight the points at which the people were faithful to God and the blessings that faithfulness brought to the people.”20

Obviously there are rich theological messages presented in the Conquest stories, which are not dependent upon the historical validity of the Canaanite genocide. For example, the stories illustrate the effect and importance of obedience and the faithfulness of God to his promises.21 They may also foreshadow Christ and his eventual return.22 For the Israelites of those days, the stories illustrated the value of unity and obedient God-fearing leaders.23 These messages are not dependent on the pure historical “accuracy” of the events described. Put bluntly, these messages are true and timeless, even if the events described in Joshua are exaggerations, legends or myths.

Christotelic Hermeneutics

Conceding the possibility that the Conquest stories are not historically accurate then necessarily raises the question of why they are included in canon. Assuming the stories are part of Scripture not to relate the details of historical events, but rather to convey a theological message, we must consider whether there is a hermeneutic which accepts the validity of the stories as Scripture, but rejects the conclusion that the Canaanite genocide occurred, or was sanctioned by God.

The character of God was fully revealed to us in the life of Jesus—who Scripture tells us is the “exact representation” of God. The example of Jesus, and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, give post-resurrection worshippers of God marked advantages over those who sought to know him before Jesus lived on earth. As Christ-followers we are not bound to read the Old Testament Scriptures blind to the truths and teachings of Jesus and the New Testament. Rather, we may, and arguably should, read the Old Testament with Christ and the New Testament in mind. Put differently, the words of the Old Testament can, and perhaps should, be read in light of the knowledge of Christ. Peter Enns has demonstrated that this is how the apostles themselves read Old Testament Scripture, enabling them to see meaning that would never have been apparent to those without knowledge of Christ. He calls this a “Christotelic hermeneutic.”24

I suggest that if a Christotelic hermeneutic is applied to the genocide stories of the Old Testament, we need not accept them as historically correct, nor are we necessarily required to disregard them entirely. Instead, we may see the stories as historical legends, embellished by human authors to glorify the early nation of Israel and its God. Alternatively, we may conclude that the genocide occurred, but that the humans who performed it were mistaken in believing God endorsed it.25 So considered, and because God has allowed these stories to be included in canon, we can find in them teachings that, seen in the light of Christ, are “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”26 In so doing, we need not accept the contention of the authors that God ordered the slaughter of the Canaanites.

There may have been a time in the history of God’s people that it was important for them to believe that their ancestors thoroughly conquered and annihilated the people of Canaan. It is pure speculation, but perhaps God created a record to which the Israelites could turn when they themselves were subjected to such treatment by others, as has happened all too often in their history, suggesting their own participation in such things in the past. Perhaps these stories are object lessons of Christ’s teaching that he who lives by the sword will die by the sword. Or perhaps these stories are intended by God to have eschatological meaning—those who are not saved will be subject to annihilation, while those who trust in God will enter into his kingdom. Whatever purpose God may have in including these stories in canon, as Christ-followers who see the Old Testament Scripture through the lens of Christ, we are not obligated to admit that God himself actually ordered the massacre of these people.


Admittedly it is dangerous to “pick and choose” which Scripture to accept as historically valid and which to treat as allegory or myth. Yet from its earliest days the church has done this. Many evangelicals readily accept the Flood story as something other than an objective and accurate historical narrative, for example, notwithstanding the fact that the author of Genesis presents it as if it were an historical narrative. Even Scripture that is presented as if it were historical narrative need not actually be objectively historically accurate in order to have a place in canon. In many instances the historical accounts presented in Kings and Chronicles are materially inconsistent, for example. The accounts cannot both be correct. Yet both accounts are canonical, because they are useful for God’s purpose of instructing his people. As uncomfortable as it may be for evangelicals, there are historical “facts” in the Old Testament that simply are not “true” in the modern historical sense. The massacre of the Canaanite people may be among those “facts.”

One solution to the apparent tension between the Conquest stories and the teachings of Christ, is to conclude that the genocide described in the Conquest stories simply never occurred.

One might conclude, as Anthony F. Campbell has, for example, that the genocide “never happened.”27 With regard to the genocide described in Joshua, Campbell concludes that it was “apparently wishful thinking; such killings never happened.”28 Specifically with regard to the genocide described in Joshua 10:27-41 (which Campbell believes was a late addition to the text) he cites internally conflicting scripture in Joshua and Judges to conclude that it never occurred. He writes, “…we do not know what experiences or fanatical theology, apparently in late deuteronomistic circles, may have triggered such texts.”29 If, as Campbell and many others believe, the stories of the Conquest are simply not true, then God did not order the massacre of the Canaanites and there is no tension to resolve. The question left to the reader would be to discern God’s instructive or theological purpose for allowing such non-historical stories to be included in canon.

More problematic perhaps is the possibility that the Canaanites were in fact massacred as reported in the texts, but that God did not actually command the massacres. Undeniably the Scriptures report God as having commanded that every living thing in Canaan be killed—man, woman, child and animal. But I suggest humbly that throughout history man has misinterpreted God’s commands, and justified aggression and atrocities by a claim that God commanded or approved them. Reading these passages christotelically, we may reasonably conclude that God as manifested in the person of Christ simply would not order the murder of defenseless women and children in a war of conquest. We may therefore reasonably conclude that the authors, who recorded these events hundreds of years after they occurred, have mistakenly attributed the acts to God, when in fact they were simply acts of fallen and sinful men. C. S. Cowles, for example, argues convincingly that although Moses and Joshua acted in good faith on what they believed to be God’s will, and that God honored their obedience (because God requires not perfect understanding, but rather a perfect heart of obedience), they in fact misunderstood the will and purposes of God in reference to the Conquest.30 In response to the counterargument that his interpretation disregards the truth of Scripture he notes that Christians uniformly acknowledge no obligation to obey many of God’s Old Testament commands, on the grounds that we now live under a new covenant. He says, “What we are suggesting is that we extend this functional Christological principle of biblical interpretation, employed by virtually all evangelicals, to cover texts of violence that are incompatible with the nature and character of God as disclosed in Jesus.”31 While such a conclusion may reach farther than most evangelicals are comfortable, I submit that we should at least consider the possibility that these are post-facto justifications for sin.

For those who cannot reconcile the Canaanite genocide with the character of God as revealed in Jesus, there are therefore at least two directions that may reasonably be taken. We may conclude that the genocide never occurred, and the stories are therefore legend or nationalistic exaggerations, included in canon to convey something other than historical fact, or we may conclude that the genocide did occur, but that the attribution of it to God is incorrect.

End Notes

1 See Dennis Bratcher, “History and Theology in Joshua and Judges” (2008), viewed at http://w ; p. 2.

2 See Bratcher, pp. 3-7; Dean R. Ulrich, “Does the Bible Sufficiently Describe the Conquest,” Trinity Journal 20:1 (Spring 1999).

3 Michael David Coogan, “Archaeology and Biblical Studies: The Book of Joshua,” The Hebrew Bible and Its Interpreters (ed. William Henry Propp, Baruch Halpern, and David Noel Freedman; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 27 (cited in Ulrich).

4 Ulrich, citing Norman K. Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1979), 27, 41, 87.

5 Ulrich, citing Coogan at 22-3; Bratcher, 5 (“(E)ven though there are destruction levels in some of the Canaanite cites mentioned in Joshua…there is no evidence to link Israel to the destruction levels, either in time frame or physical artifacts.”); Paul Lawrence, The IVP Atlas of Bible History (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2006) p. 48 (“The problem has to be faced that there is little archeological evidence for the Israelite conquest of Jericho….”).

6 See Bratcher, pp.7-8.

7 Anthony F. Campbell, Joshua to Chronicles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004) p. 15. (“Largely under the influence of archeology, older models—among them, conquest, peaceful infiltration, and peasant revolt—have been abandoned. A traditional archeologist…favors ‘indigenous origins’ and/or ‘symbiosis’ models, which are not compatible with the historical picture of the book of Joshua.”).

8 The practice of complete annihilation of enemies is reflected in the Scriptures by the Hebrew noun herem, sometimes translated “ban”, “devoted things,” or in its verb form “devoted.” The word “has no precise equivalent in English (although the NRSV’s ‘devoted to destruction’ comes close).” L. Daniel Hawk and David W. Cotter, Joshua: Berit Olam, Studies in Hebrew Narratives and Poetry (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2001), p. 99. The word appears in the bible (in noun or verb form) 84 times, primarily in the conquest stories. John A. Wood, Perspectives on War in the Bible (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1998), p. 20-21. Herem includes human genocide but is part of a more comprehensive approach to holy war that Gerhard von Rad has called “Yahweh War.” Ibid. at 18-19 citing Gerhard von Rad, Holy War in Ancient Israel, trans. and ed. by Marva Dawn (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991). See also Eugene Merrill’s essay in Cowles et al., Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), pp. 69-70. “The massacres of populations are cast as careful obedience to the divine decrees and enhance the sense of Israel’s covenantal loyalty.” Hawk, p. 99.

9 The Conquest occurred during the bronze age or iron age. The weapons used by the Israelites would have been swords, daggers, and spears. The Hebrew word hereb, translated “sword,” was also used for dagger. Wood, p. 179.

10 As C.S. Cowles has put it, “If we believe that Jesus is truly ‘the image of the invisible God’ (Col. 1:15), then we must resist all efforts to defend Old Testament genocidal commands as reflective of the will and character of God.” Cowles, et al. p. 36.

11 The tension is addressed in four essays in Cowles, et al. In the essay by C.S. Cowles, he argues for “radical discontinuity” between the conquest stories and the New Testament. He insists “God is not like the first Joshua, a warrior, but like the second, the Prince of Peace.” (p. 23) The other three essays, by Eugene Merrill, Daniel Gard and Tremper Longman, argue instead for “continuity” or “less discontinuity.” Cowles’ argument that there can be no warrior attributes to Christ is generally rejected. See, for example, in addition to the essays in Cowles, et al. Tremper Longman III and Daniel G. Reid, God is a Warrior (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995).

12 The Christian just war doctrine evolved over time, and became necessary with the advent of imperial Christianity. The earliest Christians were pacifists. Just war theory, including both the concepts of jus ad bellum (the right to go to war) and jus in bello (limitation of means in war), came to include as criteria: just cause, declared by a legitimate authority, last resort, proportionality, reasonable prospect of success and just conduct. See Lisa Sowle Cahill, Love Your Enemies: Discipleship, Pacifism and Just War Theory (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), pp. 197-98.

13 Obviously the principle of Just War has often been violated by Christian societies, perhaps most notoriously during the Crusades. Nevertheless, the concept of Just War has always been accepted as correct, notwithstanding the frequent failure to adhere to it.

14 “I the LORD do not change.” Malachi 3:6; “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.” Hebrews 13:8.

15 “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being…” Hebrews 1:3.

16 See Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2005) pp. 6566 (“All attempts to communicate the significance of historical events are shaped according to the historian’s purpose”).

17 Ibid. “…there really is no such thing as objective historiography.”

18 On this subject, see Joel Green, Seized by Truth (Nashville: Arlington Press, 2007) p. 42.

19 Bratcher, p.12.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid. (“The book of Joshua is a theological reflection on the results of obedience; when God’s people are faithful and live Torah, He is with them and brings His promises to fulfillment. As it stands within the canon, it recalls God’s faithfulness and the possibilities that exist in an obedient people enabled by God’s grace. The end of Joshua reflects a sermonic call to respond to His gracious self-revelation in faithfulness.”).

22 Compare, for example, Joshua 6: 20 and 1 Thessalonians 4: 16.

23 Bratcher, p.12. Admittedly there are some potential messages in these stories that would have resonated better in ancient tribally warring cultures, than in our own. For example, devoting everything in the conquered place to destruction (herem), may be seen as a sacrifice. Normally the conquerors might have kept all the things of value as booty, and would have kept many of the conquered people as slaves. Herem forbids keeping anything, requiring instead that they all be devoted to God. In this may be a lesson of sacrifice. This interpretation is suggested in Jerome F. D. Creach, Joshua: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching ( Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), p. 8.

24 Enns, p. 154. In Anabaptist tradition it has long been the hermeneutic practice to “interpret the Old Covenant by the New and both the Old and the New by the mind of Christ.” Dale W. Brown, Biblical Pacifism (Nappanee: Evangel Publishing House, 2003) p. 86.

25 This is the position taken by C.S. Cowles in his essay in Show Them No Mercy, discussed infra.

26 2 Timothy 3:16.

27 Campbell, p. 35.

28 Ibid. Interestingly, Campbell notes that the herem or genocidal holy war, was a practice known throughout the ancient world. In addition to biblical testimony attributing such wars to Assyria, the Ammonites, Moabites, and those ordered to punish Babylon, the Mesha Stele from the late Ninth Century BCE includes a statement from a Moabite king that he had slain and “devoted to destruction” for the god Ashtar-Cemosh, “seven thousand men, boys, women, girls, and maid-servants.”

29 Campbell, p. 238.

30 Cowles, et al., p. 41.

31 Cowles, et al. pp. 41-42.

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