The ethical and theological difficulties brought to fruition by the conquest narratives in the book of Joshua are several. I will argue why from questions of historicity of the biblical texts, biblical inspiration, and the nature of God. The paper will close seeking to briefly outline why Christians can still hold to morally problematic biblical texts as God inspired. We will also ask a host of questions stemming from the considered ethical-theological difficulties though attempts to settle them are beyond the scope of this paper.
The Major Difficulty Defined
Significant challenges stem from the alleged immorality of the God of the Bible. One late critic stated that many of God’s commands in the Old Testament are a warrant “for ethnic cleansing… indiscriminate massacre,” and are suggestive of “crude, uncultured human animals” (Hitchens, 2009: 102). His references being to herem warfare in which God commanded his people, the Israelites, to devote entire populations and towns to destruction as a sacrifice (Niditch, 1993: 30).
That this difficulty exists is admitted by Christian biblical scholars. Walter Brueggemann has considered the Joshua narratives and writes that “The rhetoric mandates nothing less than genocide” (Brueggemann, 2003: 148). Professor Peter Enns articulates similarly saying that “God commanded the Israelites to go from town to town and exterminate the current residents… If we read this anywhere else, we would call it genocide” (Enns, 2014). However, granted this, what justification is there that it confronts Christians with theological-ethical difficulties?
The Moral Dilemma & God As Greatest Conceivable Being
The first challenge is purely moral in nature. Human beings, especially those within the west, have a strong moral intuition that certain acts, like the systematic slaughter of entire human populations are objectively evil. Thus, Christians have the difficultly of marrying their belief in a loving, holy, and just God with a God who allegedly commanded what most would consider one of the worst moral atrocities possible. Brueggemann rightly observes that “There is no question more troubling for theological interpretation” than divinely commanded genocide (Brueggemann, 2003: 147).
There is also a theological difficulty through what philosophers have termed “Greatest Conceivable Being” (GCB) theology (Craig, 2010). It seems intuitively obvious for many that when one speaks of God, God must be a being greater than any other. If there is a being that is greater than God, perhaps in ways of moral perfection, in knowledge, or in power, then that being would take God’s place and, as a result, be God. Now, the GCB must obviously possess great-making properties: attributes and characteristics that it must have in order for it to be the GCB. One of these has been argued to be moral perfection. After all, a being that is morally flawed is a lesser being than a being that is morally perfect. Thus, if the God of the Bible is to be the GCB then he must necessarily be morally perfect, and ultimately holy, just, and impartial. The question then is whether or not such a being could ever command genocide, as the biblical God does. Philosopher and theologian Randal Rauser formulates a logical syllogism that captures this line of thought (Rauser, 2009: 28-29):
(1) God is the most perfect being there could be.
(2) Yahweh is God.
(3) Yahweh ordered people to commit genocide
(4) Genocide is always a moral atrocity. In addition, it seems very plausible to accept
(5) A perfect being would not order people to commit a moral atrocity.
(6) Therefore, a perfect being would not order people to commit genocide. (4, 5)
(7) Therefore, Yahweh did not order people to commit genocide. (1, 2, 6)
I find this reasoning ironclad, however, a number of apologists would dispute points (3) and (4). Some, like Paul Copan, have tried to lessen the charge of genocide arguing that God did not really command genocide but that the biblical authors employed Ancient Near Eastern literary devices of hagiographic hyperbole (Copan, 2011: 170-171). This, at best, lessens the charge to ethnic cleansing given that God’s command was for Israel to drive the Canaanites out of their land (Craig, 2011 & 2013). I question this nonetheless for its clear that the texts command herem (the command to systematically slaughter infants, women, men, and the elderly), and even given the lesser charge of ethnic cleansing, genocide is often an accompanying reality (Rauser, 2015). Moreover, some apologists dispute point (4) arguing that it is God’s divine prerogative to take life as he so pleases, and he does no wrong (Craig, 2011; Morriston, 2009: 10-11). However, I question this reasoning given that God’s sovereignty does not, nor should, trump his holiness and goodness. Rauser, moreover, forwards four arguments that render it is more plausible to accept that a most perfect being would not command genocide (Rauser, 2009: 33-41). We do not have the space to examine these in detail.
Thus, as Thom Starke argues, perhaps God did not command the Israelites to commit wholesale genocide (Starke, 2011: Location: 3330). This, however, has implications. If so, then how does it influence biblical inspiration? Can one still hold to plenary (full) inspiration even if God did not command all that is recorded of him within the biblical texts?
Historicity of the Conquests
A third theological-historical difficulty linked to questions of inspiration, is the historicity of the events narrated in Joshua. The archaeological data does not sit well with numerous biblical descriptions (Knight & Levine, 2011: 20), for example, where it narrates the conquest of Jericho the biblical account depicts a city with walls that fell when Israel invaded it (Joshua 6:20). However, as Enns explains following thorough archaeological excavation from Kathleen Kenyon “the overwhelmingly dominant scholarly position is that the city of Jericho was at most a small settlement and without walls during the time of Joshua” (Enns, 2013: 129). Brueggemann explains that the academy’s general view is that “The historical evidence for such a conquest is, in current judgment, quite problematic” (Brueggemann, 2003: 141).
But historical recollections are questionable elsewhere too. Of the 31 towns found in Joshua 12:9–24 only 20 have been identified, and only Hazor and Bethel (and perhaps Lachish) can be said to fit biblical descriptions while the other listed towns display no evidence of sudden change or were unoccupied during the Late Bronze Period (1200 – 500 BC) (Enns, 2013: 129). However, it remains very probable according to biblical historians that the Joshua conquests are based upon historical kernels and are not created whole cloth (Dever, 2003: 23-50; Stark, 2011: Location: 4329). Nonetheless, Joseph Callaway, a conservative Christian archaeologist, once remarked that in relation to Joshua “every reconstruction based on the biblical traditions has foundered on the evidence from archaeological remains” (Callaway, 1985: 31-49).
As already stipulated above, how does this theological-historical difficulty sit with biblical and plenary inspiration? Can we still hold to the Bible as God’s word even given historical errors and inconsistencies? Thus, ought Christians, as Craig outlines, adjust their view of inerrancy (Craig, 2007)? Ought we reject inerrancy for some alternative model that reliably underscores biblical authority and inspiration?
Reading Joshua as Scripture as “Condemned Texts”
The poignant question here concerns plenary inspiration. So, why do we find such morally repugnant texts within the Bible which we take to be God’s word? For if we hold to plenary inspiration of the biblical texts then there must be a reason why God included it within the canon (Rauser, 2018).
I concede that I have no definite answer and that this is my most lively area of personal exploration of my Christian faith. Starke nonetheless rightly asks of these problematic texts, “Should we simply ignore them? Exercise them from the canon?” (Starke, 2011: Location 7125). I believe not. Rather, Joshua’s value as scripture is exactly as result of them being “condemned texts” (Starke, 2011: Location 7125). They are condemned precisely because they advocate genocide, sacrifice, polytheistic tribalism, other moral atrocities, and thus present God as a genocidal dictator. This, however, is their value as scripture, and it is through our engagement and taking them seriously as inspired that we condemn them. These texts, as product of both God and man, thus mirrors our humanity. They demonstrate what and who we can be, capable of both significant good and evil. Though I wish to explore this logic further I do believe it allows us to take scripture seriously as useful for teaching, correction, and training (2 Tim. 3:16).
This short paper has argued is that the ethical-theological-historical questions brought forth by the book of Joshua are numerous and significant. They are numerous because they touch on several categories including God’s nature, the nature of biblical inspiration, and the historicity of the texts. They are significant because they provide a challenge to the very Christian faith itself, and are a source of confusion for many. I wish space allowed but I hope my concluding remarks as reading Joshua as “condemned texts” are springboard for further reading and exploration.
Brueggemann, W. 2003. An Introduction to the Old Testament. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.
Callaway, J. 1985. A New Perspective on the Hill Country Settlement of Canaan in Iron Age 1. Palestine in the Bronze and Iron Ages. London: Institute of Archaeology.
Dever, W. 2003. Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come from? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Enns, P. 2013. Inerrancy, However Defined, Does Not Describe What the Bible Does. In Merrick, J. et al. Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Enns, P. 2014. The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. New York: Harper Collins.
Copan, P. 2011. Is God A Moral Monster? Grand Rapids: Baker Books.
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Craig, W. 2010. #177 Perfect Being Theology. Available:
Craig, W. 2011. #225 The “Slaughter” of the Canaanites Re-visited. Available:
Craig, W. 2013. #331 Once More: The Slaughter of the Canaanites. Available:
Hitchens, C. 2009. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve.
Knight, D. & Levine, A. 2011. The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us. San Francisco: HarperOne.
Morriston, W. 2009. Did God Command Genocide? A Challenge to the Biblical Inerrantist. Philosophia Christi, 11(1): 7-26
Niditch, S. 1993. War in the Hebrew Bible: A Study in the Ethics of Violence. New York: Oxford University Press.
Rauser, R. 2009. “Let Nothing That Breathes Remain Alive”: On The Problem Of Divinely Commanded Genocide. Philosophia Christi, 11 (1): 27-41
Rauser, R. 2015. Did God Really Command Genocide? A Review (Part 1). Available:
Rauser, R. 2018. 1 Samuel 15 and Paul Copan’s Middling Compromise. Available:
Starke, T. 2011. The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals when it Gets God Wrong. Eugene: Wipf & Stock Pub.