Perhaps the most perplexing issue facing Christan believers is a series of jarring texts in the Old Testament. After liberating Israel from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites arrived on the edge of the promised land. The book of Deuteronomy records that God then commanded Israel to “destroy totally” the people occupying these regions (the Canaanites); the Israelites were to “leave alive nothing that breathes.” The book of Joshua records the carrying out of this command. In the sixth chapter it states “they devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.” In the tenth and eleventh chapters the text states that Joshua “left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded.” The text mentions city after city where Joshua, at God’s command, puts every inhabitant “to the sword” and “left no survivors.” If these passages are taken in a strict, literal fashion then it is correct to conclude that they do record the divinely authorised commission of genocide. In light of this critics of Christianity often ask how a good and loving God could command the extermination of the Canaanites?
In response, I want to suggest that this strict, literal reading is mistaken. Reading these texts in isolation from the narrative in which they occur risks a distortion of the authors intended meaning. Consider the book of Joshua, critics are quick to point out that in chapters ten and eleven the text states that Joshua “totally destroyed all who breathed”, left “no survivors” in “the entire land”, went through the land “exterminating them without mercy”.
I very much appreciate the thinking that has gone into this article and the response to the atrocities of Joshua. Here is the introduction, but I hope you will go read it all.
Contra Mundum: Did God Command Genocide in the Old Testament?: "