Joshua's Conquest: Was It Justified?
Robert M. Bowman, Jr.
Manager, Apologetics & Interfaith Evangelism
North American Mission Board
In a separate article, "Joshua's Conquest: Did It Happen?" I have argued that we have some
good reasons to accept the biblical account of the Israelites' conquest of the
land of Canaan under Joshua as historically grounded.1 Many
critics, however, argue that the idea that God authorized the Israelites to
conquer the people of the land and kill not only men but, in some instances,
women and children, is immoral, and therefore evidence that the Bible is not
inspired. We will focus on this moral objection in this article.
As explained in the other article, the evidence shows that the idea that God
wanted the Israelites to wage their war of conquest against Canaan dates from
before the Conquest. It was most likely not an after-the-fact
theological justification (since the same books portray the conquering
Israelites as the children of fearful, rebellious parents who died in the
wilderness). The question remains, though: How could such a divine command be
The Wickedness of the People of Canaan
Critics of the Old Testament's claim that God ordered the killing of whole
tribes in Canaan typically neglect the reason expressly stated in the Old
Testament: those tribes were depraved beyond redemption (Gen. 15:16; Lev.
18:21-30; 20:2-5; Deut. 12:29-31; etc.). According to the Old Testament, the
Canaanites and other tribes in the land widely practiced child sacrifice,
incest, bestiality, and other behaviors that almost everyone in history,
including today, rightly regard as unspeakably, grossly immoral. If this
explanation is even acknowledged, critics often claim that it is a later
theological justification for Israel's displacing those peoples from the land.
Even many mainstream biblical scholars make this claim.
I have already questioned the conventional wisdom that the wickedness of the
peoples of Canaan was an after-the-fact rationalization. However, even if the
passages were all composed after the fact, such a response really skirts the
issue, which is whether that theological justification was true. If
the people of Canaan were akin to the peace-loving, civilized folks of
different religions living in our suburban neighborhoods and working in our
colleges, hospitals, and fire departments, then the Israelite claim that God
had condemned those peoples as hopelessly degenerate would be rightly
questioned. On the other hand, if the Canaanites and other peoples in the land
were a degenerate society widely practicing bestiality and publicly burning
their children to Molech, might not the Old Testament writers have had a
In this regard an obvious question to ask is whether these horrifying Old
Testament descriptions of Canaanite culture were at all accurate. Not
surprisingly, our extra biblical sources of information are still very meager
and fragmentary. Archaeology provides much more information about the classical
period of antiquity, which corresponds roughly to the biblical postexilic and
intertestamental periods, than it does for the second millennium BC. Moreover,
the further back in time one goes the more disparate interpretations one gets
from the archaeologists themselves. Still, some aspects of the Old Testament
descriptions of Canaanite culture, including its religion, have been
One point of special interest is the Canaanite deity Molech, to whom,
according to the Old Testament, the local pagan peoples sacrificed their
children in burnt offerings. It was fashionable during much of the twentieth
century to assert that the Old Testament had this completely wrong. Molech was
said not to have been the name of a foreign deity at all, but a ritual term of
some sort, and the children were not burned to death but were living
participants in harmless rites (perhaps akin to those in modern neopaganism and
other forms of nature worship). Several studies in the 1970s and 1980s put this
revisionist theory to rest. The scholarly tide began to turn with Morton
Smith's 1975 article debunking the fanciful theory that the references to
children in the fire were spiritual metaphors.2 John Day's
study, published by Cambridge University Press, argued convincingly that Molech
was the name given in Canaanite religion to the god of the underworld. He
showed that the same deity is mentioned in the Ugaritic writings
(MLK), the Mari tablets (Muluk), and in Akkadian
Meanwhile, evidence is trickling in that supports the Old Testament claim
that the indigenous peoples of the region were engaged in the practice of child
sacrifice. In 1978 an Egyptologist reported that relief pictures on an Egyptian
temple showed Canaanite children being sacrificed while their cities were under
attack.4 That the Phoenicians, who at one time controlled Canaan,
sacrificed children to their gods is well documented. "Archaeologists have
recovered the gruesome evidence not only at the great Phoenician city of
Carthage (in modern Tunisia), but also in Sicily, Sardonia, and Cyprus" (King
and Stager, 361).5 The evidence is not yet a "smoking gun" but
is consistent and indirectly supportive of the biblical picture.
Indeed, it is now so clear to biblical scholars that the Old Testament
really does refer to child sacrifice and that it really did occur that some
liberal scholars are taking a completely different tack. Some are now arguing
that child sacrifice was part of the normative religious system of the
worship of Yahweh until very late in Old Testament history. The biblical
"evidence" for this claim is at best extremely slender and depends on a number
of questionable assumptions. The principal text adduced for this dubious theory
is Micah 6:6-8.
6Wherewith shall I come before Jehovah,
and bow myself before the high God?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
7Will Jehovah be pleased with thousands of rams,
or with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my first-born for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
8He hath showed thee, O man, what is good;
and what doth Jehovah require of thee,
but to do justly, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with thy God?
The progression here is not merely from
a humbler offering to a more impressive one, as some scholars have argued.
Rather, Micah moves from a normative offering under Mosaic law (v. 6) to
obvious hyperbole (v. 7a) to an extreme that is not hyperbolic but instead
demands a negative response (v. 7b). In short, Micah is asking these rhetorical
questions in order to present a reductio ad absurdum rebuttal to the
notion that unremitting disobedience to God's demand for justice can be
compensated by offering sacrifices. The passage therefore presupposes that
sacrificing one's child is already understood to be very wrong.
What these liberal scholars are up to is not hard to see. The guiding
assumption in their study of Israelite religion in the Old Testament period is
that the Israelites, even at their best, could not have been all that
different from their neighbors in Canaan. To concede that the religion of
Israel's lawgiver and prophets was of a radically superior character to the
religions of the larger culture both morally and spiritually would be fatal to
the "methodological naturalism" (to borrow a phrase from the philosophy of
science) that has been the presupposition of mainstream biblical scholarship
for over a century. From the 1930s to the 1970s, the claim was that child
sacrifice in the land was a myth and neither the Israelites nor their Canaanite
neighbors engaged in the practice. As further study and new evidence overturned
that claim in the 1970s and 1980s, liberal scholars decided that if child
sacrifice was happening then everyone must have been doing it, and it must have
been an accepted and authorized element even in the worship of Yahweh. To make
this theory work requires a highly tendentious reading of the Old Testament, to
put it mildly.
Those liberal scholars are partially correct, though: some Israelites
sometimes did practice human sacrifice, including the sacrifice of their
children. At least two kings are reported to have done so (2 Kings 16:3; 21:6).
According to the book of Isaiah, the Lord condemned Israel for sacrificing
children to their idols (Is. 57:5-9). Jeremiah accused the Jews in Jerusalem of
setting up idols in the temple and sacrificing their children in a nearby
valley (Jer. 7:30-32; 19:5-6; 32:35). Ezekiel cited the practice as one of the
reasons that Judah was plunged into the Babylonian exile (Ezek. 16:20-21;
Again, the criterion of embarrassment militates against any speculation to
the effect that the Israelites never did any such thing as these various
biblical authors accused them of doing. We may regard it as historically a
given that they did. That being established, we can hardly deny the unanimous
testimony of all of these authors that the practice derived from the idolatrous
customs of the indigenous peoples of Canaan. Ahaz, we are told, "even
sacrificed his son in the fire, following the detestable ways of the nations
the Lord had driven out before the Israelites" (2 Kings 16:3). According to
Jeremiah, the Jews sacrificed their children to idols—particularly Baal and
Molech (Jer. 7:30-32; 19:5-6; 32:35).
The lesson is surely not hard to discern. Although the Israelites under
Joshua gained a measure of dominant control over much of the land of Canaan,
they did not eliminate the peoples of Canaan completely and did not cleanse the
land thoroughly of the corrupt religious and social practices of the
Canaanites. Throughout the periods of the judges, the united monarchy, and the
divided monarchy, Baal worship in particular continued to be a problem. One can
only imagine how much more difficult it would have been to maintain with
integrity any religion of the worship of Yahweh had the Israelites not been as
aggressive as they were under Joshua. Elijah's infamously overstated lament
that all Israel had abandoned the worship of Yahweh for Baal illustrates just
how close Israel came at times to doing just that.
One final point regarding the wickedness of the peoples of Canaan: Moses
warned Israel that they were not to claim that God drove out the pagans because
Israel was righteous, but must acknowledge that he did so because the pagan
nations were so wicked (Deut. 9:4-6). Throughout the Old Testament, the
Israelites are told repeatedly that they were not righteous and did
not deserve the land and other blessings that God was giving them.
They may have been not so far gone as the Canaanites, but they had nothing to
brag about as far as their own righteousness was concerned. This consistent
denial of the worthiness of Israel really undermines the claim that the Old
Testament was expressing some kind of "triumphalism" in attributing the defeat
of Israel's enemies to God.
But the Children?
The sharpest criticism of the morality of the Conquest focuses on the
Israelites' killing of the youngest children of the indigenous peoples. This is
certainly the most difficult aspect of the account for us to understand. Oddly
enough, there is no focus on this point at all in the Old Testament. It seems
to be clearly enough implied by the statements that Israel left alive nothing
that breathed in various cities, no survivors (Deut. 20:16; Josh. 10:29-40;
11:10-15). The book of Joshua states that Israel destroyed the people of
Jericho, "both man and woman, young and old, and ox and sheep and donkey"
(6:21), which may imply the killing of the babies, depending on how "young and
old" is interpreted. So, it does seem that Israel killed young Canaanite
children in these battles, though little or no attention is given to that
aspect, assuming that is the correct understanding of the above passages.
Since the accounts give so little attention to the issue and no direct
explanation for the inclusion of young children in the extermination order, we
are left to surmise an explanation indirectly from what information we have. I
have two suggestions on this point.
First, after generations of the sort of moral degeneracy that characterized
these peoples, it may be that even the smallest children were beyond
civilizing. Apparently even they were abused and forced to participate in
obscene conduct, such that they would have grown up psychologically and
spiritually scarred-and perhaps threatened to perpetuate the cycle.
Second, the STDs and other infectious diseases that must have pervaded those
cities may well have been carried by the smallest children, and if so, they may
have posed a grave danger to the physical health of the Israelites. Imagine
some of the nations today most ravaged by AIDS, but living more than three
thousand years ago, with no access to even the most basic medical resources. It
may be that infectious diseases were also ravaging the domestic animals in
these cities, which would also explain why they were destroyed.
It's horrible to contemplate that things were so bad that it was actually
necessary for even the youngest members of that society to be killed in order
to stop the generational cycle of degeneracy and disease. But something along
these lines seems likely to be the reason for God's order to leave alive
nothing that breathed.
Israel's Rules of Engagement
One of the evidences supporting the Old Testament's claim that God had
ordered the Israelites to exterminate some of the peoples in the land is that
the "rules of engagement" for these conquests did not give the Israelites
carte blanche to do whatever they wished. The rules restrained the
greed and lust typically exhibited by victors in ancient warfare (and in far
too much modern warfare as well) in ways that were far ahead of their time.
God's law in the Pentateuch actually distinguished at least four different
categories of non-Israelites and required Israel to act in markedly different
ways toward each group. We may call these four categories indigenous peoples,
border peoples, protected peoples, and sojourners.
By indigenous peoples I mean the people groups that inhabited the
land of Canaan, specified in various texts as the Amorites, Hittites,
Girgashites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites, and Jebusites (Gen. 15:19-21; Ex.
3:8, 17; 13:5; 23:23, 28; 34:11; Num. 13:29; Deut. 7:1; 20:17; Josh. 3:10; 9:1;
11:3; 12:8; 24:11; Judg. 1:3-5; 3:5;1 Kings 9:20-21; Ezra 9:1; Neh. 9:8). The
dominant tribe or nation among these peoples was the Canaanite people, which is
why the land was called Canaan and why the Canaanites are mentioned more than
any of the others. Israel was required to exterminate the peoples of these
tribes, men, women, and children—and in most cases, livestock as well (Num.
21:33-35; Deut. 2:32-34; 3:1-7; 20:16-18; Josh. 6:21; cf. Josh. 8:22-29). The
Israelites were explicitly forbidden to take wives from any of these peoples
(Deut. 7:1-4). Now, if Israel's claim that God commanded them to conquer Canaan
was merely a theological pretext for their own wars of aggression, why did they
not allow themselves to take women from those peoples? Why, in most cases, were
they not allowed to take and keep livestock? The best explanation for their
restraint in these matters was that they believed that God had forbidden them
to take women or livestock from the peoples they conquered in the land. Such
restraint—remarkable in that ancient culture—is evidence that their belief that
God had ordered the conquest was quite sincere.
We might note that the command to wipe out these peoples did allow for
exceptions. The obvious example is that of Rahab and her family, who were
residents of Jericho. In return for her help, and in response to her plea for
mercy, Joshua's two spies promised Rahab that she and her whole family would be
spared when the Israelites destroyed Jericho (Josh. 2:8-21), a promise Joshua
honored (6:17, 22-23, 25).
Border peoples lived in cities and villages on the outer edges of
Canaan, who were not part of the seven or so indigenous tribes of Canaan.
Cities outside the region inhabited by the Canaanites and other condemned
peoples, but within the land designated as belonging to Israel, were first to
be offered terms of peace, in which its people would become forced labor and
serve the Israelites. If a city refused, Israel was to make war against it,
kill all its men, and allow the women and children to live (Deut. 20:10-15).
The distinction drawn between the outlying cities of the land and the cities of
the Canaanites and other peoples clustered within the land reflects the belief
that the indigenous peoples were too far gone to be shown any mercy, while
other people groups were not deemed similarly degenerate.
The protected peoples were tribes or nations in the region that
Israel was to leave alone. The most significant of these was Edom. When Israel
sought to pass through the territory of Edom—even promising to pay for the use
of its water—and Edom refused, Israel simply went another way (Num. 20:14-21).
Yet when Sihon, the king of the Amorites, refused to grant the Israelites safe
passage, Israel conquered and possessed the Amorite cities (Num. 21:21-32),
destroying every man, woman, and child (Deut. 2:32-34). The reason for the
differing treatments was that Israel considered the Edomites (who were
descendants of Jacob's brother Esau) brothers (Num. 20:14).
Sojourners were individuals or families whose tribal origins were
from outside the land but who had immigrated into the land of Canaan. The Old
Testament refers to such persons as sojourners, aliens, or strangers (the terms
are roughly if not entirely synonymous). Israelites were forbidden to wrong a
stranger or oppress him (Ex. 22:21; 23:9). Anyone who took the life of any
human being was to be executed; this standard applied for the stranger as well
as the native (Lev. 24:17-22). Sojourners were to be permitted to offer
sacrifices to the Lord; again, the point was made that the law was to be the
same for the Israelites and the sojourners (Num. 15:14-16). Israelites were to
love the alien, remembering that God loves aliens and that they were aliens in
Egypt (Deut. 10:18-19). Israelites were not to pervert justice due to an alien
(Deut. 24:17-18). Clearly, the Mosaic Law was not xenophobic (expressing fear
or animosity toward people of other races). Since such sojourners were not part
of the degenerate culture of Canaan, they were to be welcomed into Israelite
society and placed under the same laws as Israelites.
No General Policy of Genocide
Perhaps the most common complaint about the biblical account of the Conquest
is that it appears to justify genocide. If we view a particular nation as
grossly evil, may we justifiably conquer its land and annihilate its
Of course not. The Old Testament does not teach that genocide has any sort
of general justification. There is no teaching here along the lines of saying
that if a nation is wicked enough then anyone has the moral justification to go
wipe them out, including men, women, and children. Rather, the Old Testament
claims that it was necessary to completely wipe out certain indigenous peoples
in order to stop the cycle of perversity from repeating generation after
generation, in order to protect Israel from succumbing itself to the madness
(an apparently accurate description of Canaanite culture). This drastic measure
was necessary to create a nation that retained at least some knowledge and
worship of the true God alone and some recognition (however limited) of his
The fact that Israel often slid at least part of the way into the madness
due to its failure to carry out God's orders completely confirms just how bad
it was. The fact that it took hundreds of years after Joshua's conquest and
several national disasters before Israel finally embraced ethical monotheism
(which they finally did after the Babylonian Exile) is further evidence that
the degenerate polytheism of the society was indeed very hard to overcome.
No society or government has the right to take it upon itself to conduct a
policy of genocide. What Israel did was right, but the only way they could know
it was right was that God had revealed it to them. Furthermore, they knew that
revelation was authentic because it was dramatically authenticated by signs and
wonders of a type still unparalleled in human history.
Let me summarize what I have tried to show. It is incoherent to maintain
that biblical writers made up stories about Joshua waging wars of aggression
and also that they made up a theological rationale to defend Joshua's
fictitious actions. No one makes excuses for doing something they didn't do.
The Israelites' reticence to invade Canaan from the wilderness is probably
historical, but that means that the belief that God ordered them to invade
Canaan originated before the invasion, not centuries after it. The texts claim
that the basis for the order was the extreme degenerate condition of Canaanite
society; if this claim is true, the belief that God ordered the Conquest
becomes that much more plausible. So far the evidence shows that indeed
Canaanite culture was highly degenerate; indeed, the Israelites, who never did
completely rid the land of its influence, often fell under its spell and
engaged in some of the Canaanites' most heinous activities. The "rules of
engagement" governing Israel's relations to non-Israelites shows restraint and
sensitivity to the differences among non-Israelite peoples, characteristics we
would not expect if Israel's claim of divine backing for the Conquest was mere
after-the-fact rationalization of their own aggression. Finally, the biblical
account of the Conquest emphasizes the unique situation involved and leaves no
room for extrapolating from it any generalized principle that would justify
We have, then, several lines of evidence that support the Old Testament
claim that the Israelites engaged in the Conquest under what they had good
reason to believe was God's command.
1Robert M. Bowman, Jr., "Joshua's Conquest: Did It Happen?" (Alpharetta, GA: North American
Mission Board, 2007), online.
2Morton Smith, "A Note on Burning Babies," Journal of the
American Oriental Society 95 (1975): 477-79.
3 John Day, Molech: A God of Human Sacrifice in the Old
Testament (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989),
4A. Spalinger, "A Canaanite Ritual Found in Egyptian Reliefs,"
Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities 8 (1978):
5Philip J. King and Laurence E. Stager, Life in Biblical
Israel, Library of Ancient Israel (Louisville and London: Westminster John
Knox Press, 2001), 361.