Genocide or Hyperbole? Another look at the Conquest Narrative in Joshua – 1

Genocide or Hyperbole? Another look at the Conquest Narrative in Joshua – 1

The references in Joshua 10 and 11 to the extermination of  the Caananites pose a problem for believers, and not just because they are used by atheists to justify their assertion that the God of the OT is a “tribal, vicious, genocidal deity” that no civilised person should respect, much less worship. There is a problem arising from the fact that in the later chapters of Joshua and the early chapters of Judges, we see clear Biblical evidence that far from being wiped off the face of the Earth, the Caananites were in fact alive and providing considerable opposition to the Israelites. While some Biblical contradictions are the product of a tendentious reading of the text that ignores context and genre, a literal reading of Joshua 10-11 stands in marked tension with the later chapters of Joshua and Judges. This tension in the text itself, let alone the moral problem of exterminating innocent children, is one which requires attention.

Joshua 10 and 11 – in somewhat stereotypical language – reports the utter extermination of a number of Caananite cities:

Then Joshua and all Israel with him passed on from Makkedah to Libnah, and fought against Libnah. The LORD gave it also with its king into the hands of Israel, and he struck it and every person who was in it with the edge of the sword. He left no survivor in it. Thus he did to its king just as he had done to the king of Jericho. And Joshua and all Israel with him passed on from Libnah to Lachish, and they camped by it and fought against it. The LORD gave Lachish into the hands of Israel; and he captured it on the second day, and struck it and every person who was in it with the edge of the sword, according to all that he had done to Libnah.

Then Horam king of Gezer came up to help Lachish, and Joshua defeated him and his people until he had left him no survivor. And Joshua and all Israel with him passed on from Lachish to Eglon, and they camped by it and fought against it. They captured it on that day and struck it with the edge of the sword; and he utterly destroyed that day every person who was in it, according to all that he had done to Lachish.

Then Joshua and all Israel with him went up from Eglon to Hebron, and they fought against it. They captured it and struck it and its king and all its cities and all the persons who were in it with the edge of the sword. He left no survivor, according to all that he had done to Eglon. And he utterly destroyed it and every person who was in it.

Then Joshua and all Israel with him returned to Debir, and they fought against it.He captured it and its king and all its cities, and they struck them with the edge of the sword, and utterly destroyed every person who was in it. He left no survivor. Just as he had done to Hebron, so he did to Debir and its king, as he had also done to Libnah and its king. 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.  [1]

A plain reading of the conquest narrative in Joshua 10-11 describes the complete extermination of the Caananites.  The problem not only is the moral dimension of  genocidal behaviour, but the contradiction with the rest of Joshua and Judges which plainly refer to a strong Caananite presence in the areas which Joshua 10 and 11 claim were utterly destroyed:

Josh 15:63Now as for the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the sons of Judah could not drive them out; so the Jebusites live with the sons of Judah at Jerusalem until this day.

Josh 16:10But they did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer, so the Canaanites live in the midst of Ephraim to this day, and they became forced laborers.

Josh 17:16-18 The sons of Joseph said, “The hill country is not enough for us, and all the Canaanites who live in the valley land have chariots of iron, both those who are in Beth-shean and its towns and those who are in the valley of Jezreel.” Joshua spoke to the house of Joseph, to Ephraim and Manasseh, saying, “You are a numerous people and have great power; you shall not have one lot only, but the hill country shall be yours. For though it is a forest, you shall clear it, and to its farthest borders it shall be yours; for you shall drive out the Canaanites, even though they have chariots of iron and though they are strong.”

Furthermore, when one reads the opening chapters of Judges, one is struck by the fact that those Caananites which according to a literal reading of Joshua 10-11 had been utterly destroyed were alive and providing stubborn resistance. The NZ theologian and philosopher Matt Flannagan notes:

The problem is that chapters fifteen to seventeen record that the Canaanites were, in fact, not literally wiped out. Over and over the text affirms that the land was still occupied by the Canaanites, who remain heavily armed and deeply entrenched in the cities. Astute readers will note that these are the same regions and the same cities that Joshua was said to have “destroyed all who breathed”, left “no survivors” in just a few chapters earlier. [2]

The opening chapters of Judges do not describe a land whose inhabitants had largely been exterminated as one would imagine from reading Josh 10-11 as straightforward narrative. Judges 1v29 is representative of this fact:

Ephraim did not drive out the Canaanites who were living in Gezer; so the Canaanites lived in Gezer among them.

Compare this with Josh 10v33:

Then Horam king of Gezer came up to help Lachish, and Joshua defeated him and his people until he had left him no survivor.

In short, the areas of Canaan which Joshua 10-11 state had been left with no survivors were very much filled with Caananites. A literal reading of Josh 10-11 leaves one with the moral question of whether utter extermination of the Caananites is indeed genocide, while the later passages in Joshua and Judges when read as narrative appear to contradict Josh 10-11.

1. Joshua 10:29-40 New American Standard Bible : 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995),

2. Flannagan M. “Contra Mundum: Did God Command Genocide in the Old Testament?”  MandM August 1st 2010 http://www.mandm.org.nz/2010/08/contra-mundum-did-god-command-genocide-in-the-old-testament.html    Accessed 25th February 2013  (I am  greatly indebted to Dr Flannagan’s series of posts on this subject)

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