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The Ethical Question of War in the Conquest of Canaan

For many Bible readers, one of the most troubling themes in the history books of the OT is the role of warfare.  The conquest of the Promised Land of Canaan by Israel is particularly disturbing to some.  We find the conquest and settlement of the land chiefly in the book of Joshua, although we see some early battles in the Pentateuch, and the conquering of additional territory by Saul, David and Solomon in the Books of the Kingdom (1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings).

Many questions concerning the conquest are frequently asked, even by many Christians.  How can God command Israel to completely annihilate the indigenous Canaanites who were merely defending their homeland?  Doesn’t this basically amount to genocide or ethical cleansing?  How can God sanction this level of violence?  Is this the same God of love that we find in the NT, as revealed in the teachings of Jesus?  What right did Israel have to the land in the first place?  A complete detailing of the subject would take a much longer treatise, so in this article, we’ll attempt to answer some of these questions, such as those mentioned above, and discuss some of the main issues.

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Context of the OT Wars

Perhaps the most common method of explaining away the ethical challenges associated with warfare is by attributing the wars to the morals and customs of the era, characterized by a lack of moral development in an ancient pre-Christian time period.  The Christological principles of forgiveness, love your enemies, turn the other cheek etc, were not yet in effect.  In our dispensation, we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and possess spiritual weapons to fight battles, not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces (2 Cor 10:4-5, Eph 6:10-20).  The ancient Israelites did not have these advantages, or the example of the cross.  Instead, they could only act with faith and obedience to God’s commands as they carried out the physical battles against the Canaanites.  While the customs of the previous dispensation explains some of the difficulties, the various questions can’t be summarily dismissed on this basis alone, but must be considered as legitimate and addressed accordingly.

Therefore, in considering the ethical aspects of the conquest, we must next observe the specific and limited scope of the warfare.  God gave very explicit and detailed instructions to Israel throughout the conquest.  In Deuteronomy 20, we see many unambiguous laws involving warfare which are concerned with limiting conduct and casualties during the wars.  These laws clearly distinguish between enemies within and outside the boundaries of the Promised Land, the latter of which were to be offered terms of peace before attacking them (Dt 20:10).

Finally and most importantly, we must understand the purpose of the OT wars within the framework of the history of redemption.  In the era, most wars were fought for wealth, power and other human gains.  In contrast, the conquest was a continuation of the interaction of God’s grace and judgment.  God selected the nation of Israel to be a Kingdom of Priests, set apart for His service.  Israel could not become a witness and testimony to all nations regarding the way of eternal redemption unless the influence of the wicked pagans was removed.  To this ends, He commissioned them as His army to bring judgment on and reclaim His land from the depraved Canaanites whose sin had now reached its fullness (Gen 15:16).  Thus, God Himself led the conquest (Dt 31:3-5, Jsh 24:11-13) as an act of His judgment against the immoral and decadent inhabitants and an act of His grace in fulfilling His promises to the patriarchs (Jsh 21:43-45).

God’s sovereignty is undeniable throughout the OT wars, beginning with the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 15.  We continue to see His promises through the Pentateuch (eg Ex 23:20-33) and Joshua (eg Jsh 10:42, 11:19-20).  Just prior to the conquest, God sent the Commander of His army (Jsh 5:13-15).  When Joshua asks the Commander if He is for or against Israel, He replies “neither”.  That is, he is not simply a human ally or adversary, but a divinely sent judgment from God (Is 13:4).  The one true God was about to lead His people into battle.

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Israel's Right to the Land

The whole world was created by God and belongs to God (Ex 19:5, Ps 24:1), so in passing judgment on the Canaanites, He was merely reclaiming a portion that a depraved people had claimed for themselves.  Since the land belonged to God, it needed to be cleansed.  But, considering the frequent moral failures of the Israelites, what right did they have to possess the land?

We begin by noting that Israel right to the land was based upon God’s promises to their forefathers, not because of their inherent righteousness (Dt 7:6-9, 9:4-5).  It was common among the pagan nations to attribute triumph in battle to superiority of the victorious army’s god or gods, or as a reward for being favored in the eyes of the gods, even though these false deities were powerless (or even non-existent except in the minds of men).  So, Israel is warned beforehand not to credit victory to their own righteousness, even though their success is still contingent upon their faithfulness to the covenant.

Next, Israel was not so much given the land in the sense of being owners, but rather as being stewards of God’s land (Lev 25:23-34).  This is the principle behind the Year of Jubilee (Lev 25:1-22).  Israel was to establish a theocracy faithful to the rule of God as a witness to the other nations.  Israel was also warned not to imitate the abominable practices of the previous tenants, lest the land would vomit them out when they made it unclean (Lev 18:24-24).  Thus as the Israelites continued to disobey God and the covenant (despite short periods of faithfulness under a few Godly leaders), they were eventually exiled from the land.

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Why Complete Extermination?

God does not delight in the death of the wicked, but wants them to repent and live (Ezek 18:32, 33:11).  The Bible however, strongly implies that there is a point beyond which judgment becomes inevitable (Jer 15:1-9).  Prior to the conquest, we witnessed complete extermination due to unredeemable sin with the flood (Gen 6-7) and at Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19).  When Abraham migrated to Egypt centuries before, God promised that his descendants (the Israelites) would return and occupy Canaan in four hundred years after the sins of the Amorites (as representatives of the Canaanites) reached completeness (Gen 15:16).

At the time of the conquest, the Canaanite people had reached this point of degeneration, similar to those before the flood (Gen 6:5-7).  Their principle objects of worship were Baal (weather and agricultural god) and Asherah (fertility and mother earth goddess).  Their religious rituals included perverse sexual practices such as male and female temple prostitutes, and infant sacrifices.  Evil had infected every level of their society and archeologists continue to be shocked by new discoveries of these horrendous rituals, including pottery containing the remains of children or infants who had been sacrificed to their false gods.

Now, we know that all people are sinners and consequently, legally subject to God’s judgment.  Even so, God in his patience, allowed the Canaanites to occupy the land an additional four centuries before sending the Israelites as agents of His divine justice.  Yet, throughout history, there have been many other nations who worshiped false gods and practiced appalling rituals, including human sacrifices.  In many cases, these civilizations are allowed to continue and the people are not judged until they die (Heb 9:27).

So, why single out the Canaanites for destruction?

We can offer two related explanations within the context of God’s history of redemption.  We’ve already noted the first and immediate rationale of Israel being established as God’s witnesses to all nations.  Therefore, the idolatry and moral depravity needed to be removed so that Israel could establish her monotheistic civilization.  If left unchecked, the evil of Canaan would have contaminated Israelite religion and culture.  We have witnessed the later moral and religious problems of the Israelites due to their failure to carry out God’s instructions to completely destroy the pagans, leading to their eventual exile from the land.

A second motive may relate to the role that the nation of Israel would play throughout history. Israel was God’s chosen people, the apple of His eye (Zech 2:8) and the center of the earth (Ez 5:5, 38:12).  From Biblical times, the eyes of the world have been focused on Israel, a small country about the size of New Jersey.  Yet, even in our modern times, Israel continues to exert an influence greatly out of proportion to its size.  France, for example, is more than 25 times as large, yet turn on the evening news or pick up a newspaper and see which country commands a disproportionate amount of media coverage.  Finally, in the end times, God will gather all nations to Jerusalem (Zech 14).  So, the attention to be focused on Israel magnifies the significance of Israel’s’ witness to the world.

So, even if it is difficult, we can reconcile the killing of adults, but why annihilate the children and animals?  Although we can’t completely understand the answer to this question, we can know that God’s ways are never unjust (Dt 32:4) and we can trust Him even when we can’t fully comprehend.  Regarding the animals, all creation was cursed due to man’s sin (Gen 3:17-19) and remains in this state at present (Rom 8:22).  We can also be confident that these little children are now safe in heaven.

Ethnic Cleansing?

While the land was promised to Israel as a nation and other nations were corporately destroyed in the process, we see that faithfulness to God is an essential prerequisite for success during the conquest, and continued obedience to the covenants as a necessary condition for remaining in the land.  These requirements, along with their resulting exile due to disobedience, eliminates the ethic factor from consideration.

Thus, the conquest was not so much an ethical cleansing as a spiritual cleansing.  Perhaps, nothing illustrates this concept better than the contrasting accounts of the Canaanite prostitute Rahab (Jsh 2) and the Israelite Achan (Jsh 7) at Jericho.  During the destruction of the city, Achan stole and hid some spoils that were to have been dedicated to the Lord.  Therefore, all Israel stoned him to death.

Rahab however, placed her faith in the God of Israel, aiding the two Israelite scouts who came to her house.  She hid them from her countrymen and helped them escape.  As a Canaanite, Rahab possibly participated in the aforementioned religious rituals.  Yet, based upon tales of Israel’s advancement toward her land, she recognized Yahweh as the absolute “God of the heavens above and the earth below” (Jsh 2:11).  As a result of her faith (Heb 11:31, Ja 2:25), Rahab and her family were the only survivors when Jericho was destroyed (Jsh 2:14, 6:22-25).  The scarlet cord that Rahab tied in the window as a sign to the Israelites (Jsh 2:18-21) is reminiscence of the blood applied to the doorposts of the Israelites in Egypt during the Passover (Ex 12:13, 21-23).

Rabab later married the Judahite Salmon, and produced a descendant named Boaz (Mt 1:5).  Thus, Rahab became the ancestor of Ruth (Boaz’s wife), another foreign woman adopted into Israel.  Boaz and Ruth then had a son named Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David (Ruth 4:13-17).  So Rahab became an ancestor of King David, and one of five women cited by the Apostle Matthew in his genealogy of Jesus the Messiah.  The story of Rahab remains a great testimony to the vast inclusion of God’s grace.

An Exception Claus?

Some scholars interpret the inclusion of the stories of Rahab and the Gibeonites (Jsh 9) as an implied “exception” to the divinely mandated “complete destruction command”, however, this runs into difficulty in light of Deut 7:1-2.  Others believe that the statement “There was not a city that made peace with the people of Israel except the inhabitants of Gibeon” (Jsh 11:19) implies that many city-states were offered terms of peace but refused.  This finds additional support in context with the next verse, which states that God hardened their hearts so that they would receive no mercy (Jsh 11:20).  Regardless, we can be assured that God is never unjust.

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Summary

In considering the ethical aspects of the conquest, we must understand that the OT wars were limited to a specific setting in space and time, very explicit regulations, and a particular objective.  Although it’s a very difficult concept for those of us living in modern times, the Bible clearly states that God Himself ordained the warfare.  When all aspects are considered however, it is clear that, while the conquest is an act of divine justice, it is ultimately an act of divine grace within the context of God’s perfect plan of redemption.

God used Israel as His instrument of divine judgment to drive out the immoral Canaanites from His land.  Total destruction of the inhabitants was to protect the Israelites from adopting their wicked behavior.  Israel’s right to the land was based upon God’s promises to the forefathers, rather than any intrinsic merit, but their prolonged occupation was subject to their continued obedience to God and His covenants.  Thus, continuation as stewards of the land was on a spiritual rather than ethnical basis.

In our modern times, Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and possess spiritual weapons to fight battles, not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces.  We are no longer identified corporately with any particular state or nation.  Instead, we fight for a kingdom that is not of this world (Jn 18:36).  While some modern military campaigns are necessary, each should be justified by its own merits.  Israel’s unique and limited mission should never be used to support an unwarranted modern war.

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