How could a loving God who prohibits murder, command the genocide of the Canaanite peoples?

This is a baffling question which continues to trouble me whenever I read Deuteronomy and Joshua, no matter what explanations people come up with.  The November 2005 issue of Presbyterians Today, in the column “Troubling Texts in the Bible,” dealt with this very question.

This column is not available in its entirety online.  Obviously, I cannot copy the article here.  So I will summarize:

  1. In contrast to Yahweh’s (God’s) commandment not to murder–which Jesus Christ expands on by saying that even hating someone is akin to murder–we are told in the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua that Yahweh commanded Israel to destroy the Canaanite peoples–in many cases, even the small children and infants.
  2. But “biblical scholars generally agree” that these accounts were written long afterwards, during a time when Israel was disobedient to Yahweh’s commands (the time of King Josiah, according to The New Oxford Annotated Bible).
  3. Instead of being recorded as a human vow made in hopes of victory in battles, it is recorded as God’s command to get idolatry out of the land.  So the text unintentionally becomes a lesson for us on what can happen when we try to justify killing for our own purposes.

The Jewish Study Bible (edited by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler) agrees that much of Deuteronomy was probably written during the time of King Josiah, and considers the genocide commands to be “an after-the-fact literary compilation rather than an historical portrayal.”

This is because of major variations in how the Canaanite peoples were listed and numbered, the use of the symbolic number 7 (completion or totality), variations in numbers of peoples listed depending on where in the Bible you look, and the fact that the genocide was not carried out except in “very limited areas.”

The law of the ban, or genocide command,

first arose centuries after the settlement; it was never implemented because there was no population extant against whom it could be implemented.  Its polemic is directed at internal issues in 6th century Judah.  Often the authors of Deuteronomy use the term ‘Canaanite’ rhetorically to stigmatize older forms of Israelite religion that they no longer accept (p. 382-383).

Another explanation put forth recently by archaeologists or scholars is that these stories were actually rumors spread around by the Israelites to keep the surrounding nations from messing with them.  Somehow, they made it into Holy Writ.

This article provides citations for this, stating that most modern scholars agree the stories of genocide are “exaggerated, fictional, or metaphorical.”  This is the explanation I most hope to be true–while noting that it is also most likely to be true.

It seems Origen and other Early Church Fathers also did not see these passages as historical:

[T]he Church responded to Marcion’s heretical jettisoning of the Old Testament not by justifying or rationalizing the herem command to slaughter the Canaanites (as many theologians and exegetes do today) but by insisting that, when necessary, the Old Testament must be interpreted figuratively, not literally. As Origen repeatedly stated in his writings, we may not attribute to God that which would be unworthy of him. The Church did not try to rationalize away the obvious evil of God commanding evil, but instead adopted a metaphorical hermeneutic. In this way, the identity of the God of the Old Testament (YHWH) and the God of the New Testament (the Father of Jesus)—and therefore the unity of the two covenants—was maintained. –Fr. Aidan Kimel, David Bentley Hart, Divine Violence, and the Figurative Interpretation of Scripture

Of course, to accept such explanations, we also have to believe the Bible is true, but not always historically or scientifically accurate.  This belief is supported not only by moderate and liberal denominations such as the PCUSA, but also by the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

According to Scripture scholar Raymond Brown, the awareness of these so-called historical errors moved the Church at Vatican II to teach that the Bible is free from error only in matters of faith and morals and not in matters of history and science (New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 1169).

Brown supports this claim by appealing to section 11 of the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), which reads, “we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.”

The phrase “for the sake of our salvation” is the key reference used to argue that only those things needed for our salvation (i.e., faith and morals) and not history and science, are free from error. –Karlo Broussard, Is Everything in the Bible True?


[Genesis] has nothing to say, for or against, the theory of evolution. Its true lessons are located elsewhere. –Fr. Lawrence Farley (Orthodox), Evolution or Creation Science?


The fundamentalist approach is ideological in that it is inclined to defend an absolute position of the plenary inspiration, propositional revelation, and total inerrancy of Scripture regarding all truth–scientific, historical, and theological–beyond the claims and evidence of Scripture itself.

While the intent to uphold the authority of Scripture is commendable, the extremes to which it has led, including a kind of intellectual sophistry and fanaticism, are indefensible. –Theodore G. Stylianopoulos, Scripture, Tradition, Hermeneutics

Another option is to look at these passages from a Jewish perspective I was fortunate enough to receive:

  • The Israelites did not have the option of peaceful coexistence, because the surrounding peoples were ready to destroy them.
  • The commandments were not meant to be taken literally, and in fact were not.
  • The written Torah was limiting; an oral tradition was passed down from God to Moses to Moses’ successors to rabbis.  This tradition helped to interpret the Torah properly.  The written Torah was not always to be taken literally.
  • The Israelites did not destroy everyone, they often fell into idolatry from the influence of the surrounding peoples (with whom they intermarried), and eventually ten tribes were expelled from Israel, never to be seen again.

Others have also noted that, if the Israelites kept the young children and babies alive, those children could grow up to destroy the Israelites out of revenge for their parents.

It’s a tough part of the Bible to deal with, but needs to be viewed from all angles, not just accepted or discarded without care.

A more up-to-date article as of 2024: Debunking the Conquest Narrative by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg

Written between probably 2005 and 2006

Index to my theology/church opinion pages:

Page 1:

End Times and Christian Zionism 
God’s Purpose/Supremacy of God Doctrine 
Cat and Dog Theology 
Raising One’s Hands in Worship 
Christian Music 
On the “still, small voice” and Charismatic sign gifts
On church buildings 
The Message Bible 
The Purpose-Driven Life 
The Relevance Doctrine, i.e. Marketing Churches to Seekers 
Republican Party 
Abortion Protests 
The idea that God has someone in mind for you 
Literalism in Biblical interpretation

Page 2:

Name it and Claim It Doctrine, Prosperity Doctrine, Faith-Formula Theology, Word-Faith Theology,  Positive Confession Theology, Health and Wealth Gospel, and whatever else they call it
More about Pat Robertson
Dr. Richard Eby and others who claim to have been to Heaven
Women in Marriage/the Church
Spiritual Abuse 
Other Resources 

Page 3:

Why do bad things happen?
Should we criticize our brethren’s artistic or evangelistic attempts?  Or, how should we evangelize, then?
Angels: Is “This Present Darkness” by Frank Peretti a divine revelation or fiction?
Halloween: Not the Devil’s Holiday!
Hell and the Nature of God 
Is Christmas/Easter a Pagan Holiday? 
Is everybody going to Hell except Christians?
How could a loving God who prohibits murder, command the genocide of the Canaanite peoples? 
What about predestination?
Musings on Sin, Salvation and Discipleship 
An Ancient View which is in the Bible, yet new to the west–Uncreated Energies of God

Page 4:

The Didache 
Technical Virginity–i.e., how far should a Christian single go? 
Are Spiritual Marriages “real”?  (also in “Life” section, where it’s more likely to be updated) 
Does the Pill cause abortions, or is that just another weird Internet or extremist right-wing rumor?
What about Missional Churches, Simple Churches, Fluid Churches, Organic Churches, House Churches or Neighborhood Churches?
Is Wine from the Devil–or a Gift from God?
What is Worship? 
Evangelistic Trips to Already Christianized Countries
Fraternities, Sororities, Masonic Lodge 
Was Cassie Bernall a Martyr?
Some Awesome Things heard in the Lamentations Service (Good Friday evening) during Holy Week

Conversion Story

Phariseeism in the Church