In this sixth and final post on Joshua’s conquest, we will wrestle with God’s command to kill women and children in the conquest (Deut 20:16-18; cf. Josh 6:21; 8:25). It’s one thing to kill soldiers in combat, but to kill non-combatants is morally questionable to say the least. How much more horrific, then, is it to read about Joshua’s slaughter of Canaanite women and children? How do we reconcile Jesus, who had a special heart for children, with the God of the Old Testament who commanded Israel to slaughter Canaanite babies?
Let’s start with what the Bible clearly says. The Bible does give a straightforward reason for “disposing” (or otherwise “killing”) the Canaanites. Deuteronomy says that if Israel doesn’t get rid of all the Canaanites, then they will end up leading Israel astray (Deut. 20:18). And this is exactly what happens. Israel does not drive out all the Canaanites and Israel ends up getting “Canaanized.” In fact, Israel’s dark history is littered with many Canaanite-like practices, including idolatry, child sacrifice, and male cult prostitution—all of which they learned from the Canaanites left in the land (1 Kings 14:24; 21:26; 2 Kings 16:3; 17:8; 21:2).
Now, the killing of children still doesn’t sit right with me. And yet Israel’s failure to dispose all the Canaanites ends up biting them in the end. Their moral collapse, which elicited God’s judgment, began when they failed to drive out all the Canaanites from the land. So when read from the perspective of the rest of the Old Testament, we can at least see the logic of the command. As morally difficult as it is, God was right. Failure to drive out all the Canaanites would lead to Israel’s ruin.
There’s another option that I will throw out as a suggestion. Perhaps the phrase “women and children” is not to be taken literally. This may sound a bit shady, but hear me out. We have already shown that hyperbolic language is typical in the conquest account. So let’s explore the possibility that no women or children were intended to be killed in the conquest.
The phrase “women and children, old and young” is first mentioned in Joshua 6:21 in the battle of Jericho, and then again in 8:25 in the battle of Ai—both battles are part of the conquest. It appears, then, that Joshua and Israel slaughtered women and children. However, there is a possibility that the mention of “women and children” is a stock phrase that simply means “everyone” without necessarily specifying the age or gender of the people. A number of Evangelical scholars (e.g., Richard Hess, Paul Copan) make a case for this in light of four factors. First, the phrase “women and children” occurs elsewhere in the Old Testament where it could to be taken to mean “everyone” without specifying the age and gender of the victims (1 Sam 15:3; 22:19; 2 Sam 6:19; Neh 8:2; 2 Chron 15:13). Second, both Jericho and Ai were military outposts and probably not vibrant cities filled with citizens of every age. They were therefore most likely stocked with soldiers, not non-combatants. Third, the only woman and child that are mentioned are Rahab and her family (which probably included children), and they were rescued, not killed. Furthermore, Rahab was a prostitute and—how do I say it—it would make sense that she would find much business in a city filled with soldiers. Fourth, apart from Joshua 6 and 8, which mentions women and children, all other accounts of Israel killing Canaanites in the conquest include—and only include—combatants, not civilians.
This fourth point is actually the surest of them all. Quite simply, there is no record of Israel actually killing a Canaanite woman or a child during the conquest.
So, even though it appears that women and children were killed, there’s some evidence that may suggest a less barbaric picture. Israel’s clash with the Canaanites resulted in killing other combatants and, perhaps, driving out its civilians who resisted God’s free offer of grace, without necessitating the wholesale slaughter of Canaanite babies.
So, let’s sum up our series on Joshua’s conquest.
The Canaanites were horrifically wicked, and yet God gave them hundreds of years to repent. Some did, while most didn’t. And since God chose Canaan to be his new residence on earth—and as Creator, He has every right to do so—He had to drive out all its wicked inhabitants. The ones that resisted God’s grace and who chose to stay in the land faced the sword of Israel—God’s tool of judgment. Therefore, as Christopher Wright concludes: “[t]he conquest was not human genocide. It was divine judgment” (The God I Don’t Understand, p. 93). While moral problems remain, such as the possibilities that women and children were actually slaughtered (though I have my doubts), the conquest was not a genocide at the hands of a bloodthirsty God.
But the one thing that must be noted about the conquest—a point that is essential for understanding the church’s non-violent posture—is this: nowhere in Scripture is Joshua’s conquest intended to be a repeated event. There is nothing in the Bible that appeals to the conquest as justification to wage war or execute violence. Nothing. The conquest, like the flood and the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah, was a one time non-repeatable event whereby God judged a particularly wicked people. This is why Christians cannot appeal to the conquest to justify using violence today. This would be like burning a city to the ground because God once did it to Sodom and Gomorrah (something James and John tried to do and were rebuked for in Luke 9). Some things happen in the Bible that weren’t meant to be repeated.