In a famous quote from his New York Times bestselling book “The God Delusion,” Richard Dawkins makes the claim that “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction.” High on the list of atrocities he claims to be committed by God in the Old Testament is genocide, presumably of the Canaanites allegedly described in the book of Joshua.
As Christians we must consider the claim Dawkins makes – that God is genocidal – and compare that claim to the text of the Old Testament.
The book of Joshua recounts Israel’s conquest of parts of the land God promised to Abraham and his descendants. The land promised to God’s people is to be a place set aside so that God can dwell there with his people. In Numbers 35:34 God commands his people: “Do not make the land unclean where you live and where I dwell; for I, the Lord, reside among the Israelites” (CSB).
The land of Israel is a place set aside for God to dwell with his people. In this way, the land of Israel echoes the Garden of Eden where God fellowshipped with Adam and Eve and looks ahead to the New Heavens and the New Earth where God will once again dwell among humanity (Rev. 21:3).
The land, as Israel’s inheritance, was set aside as a special place where God dwelled with his people. Therefore, only God was to be worshipped in the land. For this reason, the people of Israel were commanded to drive out those living in the land who worshipped false gods. They were to make no covenants with the pagan peoples of the land and were to show such people “no mercy” (Deut. 7:2).
In the book of Joshua, we do find God’s people showing the inhabitants of the land “no mercy.” Joshua 6:22 seems like a particularly difficult passage for Christians. After the fall of Jericho, the Bible says the warriors of Israel “completely destroyed everything in the city with the sword –every man and woman, both young and old, and every ox, sheep, and donkey.”
While the Bible does detail how the land belonging to the nation of Israel (like the land belonging to every nation) was taken by violence and force, nowhere does the book command genocide against the Canaanite people. If we continue reading in Joshua 6, we find that, while the inhabitants of Jericho are killed, the prostitute Rahab and her family are spared. Rahab, who confesses trust in the God of Israel in Joshua 2, is spared according to the conditions of the covenant she made with the Israelite spies.
Were the Israelites unfaithful in not putting this Canaanite woman to the sword? No, because they were never given a charge to kill or drive people from the land based on ethnicity. Instead, only those who worship a false God must be driven from the land.
In Joshua 9 we find another group of non-Israelites who are spared from destruction. There, it is the Gibeonites who come to Joshua and – by trickery – enter into a covenant with Israel. While the Gibeonites use dishonest means to enter into an agreement with Israel, their motives are the same as Rahab’s. They have heard about the power of the true God and want to be on His side. The people of Gibeon are spared from destruction because they become worshippers of the true God.
The instances of Rahab and the Gibeonites demonstrate that God does not command genocide in the book of Joshua – or for that matter anywhere else in the Bible. The violent manner in which God’s people push out the pagan nations before them may cause us to struggle with how such actions fit in God’s plan, but it is not genocide by any definition.
What we see in Joshua is what we see perfected through the work of Jesus in the New Testament. Regardless of ethnicity, when an individual professes that they desire God to mercifully include them on his side, they are welcome in his presence and become a part of His people.