The Canaanite Extermination in Light of Genocide Criteria (Part 6)

In focus are common apologetic defenses of biblical genocide commanded by Yahweh, the Supreme deity of the ancient Hebrews.

Part 5 – Reprobate Culture
Part 7 – Hyperbole and Land Dispossession

A defense of Yahweh commanding genocide, notably offered by William Craig and Paul Copan, is that the Canaanites’ wickedness was a threat to Israel.

Gleason Archer likens the Canaanites and their children and infants to cancer that required eradication: “Just as the wise surgeon removes dangerous cancer from his patient’s body by use of the scalpel, so God employed the Israelites to remove such dangerous malignancies from human society” (1).

Cancerous Canaanite infants and children were culled along with their mothers, fathers, and grandparents. Similar justifications have been employed by historical perpetrators of genocide. It was used against the Vietnamese in My Lai, the Jews in Nazi Germany, and the Tutsi in Rwanda. As Thom Stark notes, the only evidence we have to go on for the Canaanite genocide comes down to us “in the memories of their killers – the Israelites” (2). He explains that “in the books of Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua, the Canaanites are depicted much like the Jewish people would later be characterized in Nazi propaganda… unclean, uncivilized, inhuman, hostile, subversive, and godless… history is written by the victors” (3)

Theologian Randal Rauser observes how common this justification for genocide is,

“As I have noted in my writings on this topic elsewhere this idea that a people must be eliminated because they produce a serious threat to the well being of the other group is a common justification for genocide. (Remember, the Jews were branded “vermin” in WW2, the Tutsis were branded “cockroaches” in Rwanda 1994.) So it is here that the Canaanite slaughter is justified by presenting the Canaanites as an imminent threat to the Israelite people” (4).

Adolf Hitler likened the Jews to “a cancer on the breast of Germany,” which was an analogy possibly inspired by his mother dying from breast cancer (5).

Old Testament scholar Eric Seibert offers a template presenting the common justifications for genocide (6). The template applies to the biblical justification,

1. Divide: first there is the distinguishing between an in-group and out-group. A superior authority or ontological status is attributed to the former;

2. Demonize: next the out-group is accused of promoting injustice, inequality, or threat against the in-group;

3. Destroy: finally, the in-group attempts to rectify the perceived putative injustice, often with a divine or transcendent imprimatur.

This process begins with an emphasis on the division between the “in-group” and “out-group” (7). An in-group will describe its efforts as good and righteous while also distinguishing and characterizing its opponents, the out-group, as evil and unrighteous.

The in-group portrays the out-group as a threat to its well-being. The in-group establishes itself as a superior authority to redress the present inequity and the ongoing threat. Sometimes violence is considered the necessary procedure. Violence can take on various forms. It can constitute wholesale extermination, ethnic cleansing, torture, and imprisonment of a population. One of the most powerful justifications is religious in nature according to which an in-group believes that its God has selected them as an instrument to visit his punishment upon the out-group.

This offers an appropriate description of the biblical accounts. The Hebrews, as the in-group, identified themselves as superior and characterized the Canaanite tribes as the out-group and therefore as a despicable and wicked people. The author of Leviticus 18:24-27 portrays Yahweh as saying that the land in which the Canaanites live has been “defiled” by their presence in it. The land “vomits” them out because of their “abominations”. The Canaanites, as the out-group, were contaminated and therefore an imminent threat to the Hebrews who could be infected by them (Deut. 20:16-18).

The Hebrews considered themselves uniquely selected by Yahweh to take ownership of this land in which tribes and people lived (Gen. 15:18–21).

The internal inconsistencies in the biblical accounts justifying the Hebrew invasion of Canaan and the extermination of its inhabitants suggest the invention and fabrication of these narratives. If the stories are historically accurate then Yahweh is a poor strategizer. The Hebrews asserted that Yahweh judged the Canaanite practice of child sacrifice to Molech (Lev. 18:21). Yahweh’s counterstrategy, according to the Hebrews, was not only to exterminate the Canaanite parents but also the infants and children. Yahweh judged the Canaanites for practicing child sacrifice by killing the Canaanite infants and children.

Yahweh, according to the Hebrews, wanted to eradicate the Canaanite religion and customs because they were a threat to the Hebrews. Yet despite wishing to eradicate the Canaanites fully (Judg. 3:1-4), Yahweh was unsuccessful. This cannot be explained away as hagiographic hyperbole because Yahweh’s plan for full eradication is stipulated in the biblical texts. According to Wesley Morriston,

“It was precisely the failure to destroy all the targets of the genocide that prevented one of the very things that God was supposed to be trying to do—namely, destroy the Canaanite religion… Assuming that God’s desire to destroy the Canaanite religion by destroying Canaanites was a legitimate one, why would He choose such an inefficient means of accomplishing this aim? It is only too easy to imagine more effective ways for the Almighty to remove the Canaanites from the picture. More to the point, it is clear that if this was God’s plan, it was spectacularly unsuccessful” (8).

As argued, the Hebrew justification for exterminating the Canaanite tribes in Canaan is analogous to other genocides of history. Further, the internal inconsistencies present within the biblical texts are suggestive of author invention rather than Yahweh actually commanding the Hebrews to exterminate the Canaan tribes. Stark considers “[T]hese accounts [to] reflect a standard ideology that Israel shared with many of its ancient neighbors, and I read them as products of ancient culture, rather than products of pure divine revelation” (9).


1. Archer, G. 1982. Encyclopedia of Biblical Difficulties. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. p. 121.

2. Stark, Thom. 2011. The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (And Why Inerrancy Tries To Hide It). Eugene: Wipf and Stock. Scribd ebook location: 3351

3. Stark, Thom. 2011. Ibid. Scribd ebook location: 3353

4. Rauser, Randal. 2013. Holy War in the Bible: A Review. Available. [article still up as of 06 February, 2023]

5. Proctor, Robert. 1997. The Nazi War on Cancer. Princeton University Press. p. 45-50.

6. Seibert, Eric A. 2012. The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy. Fortress Press. p. 104.

7. Rauser, Randal. 2009. ““Let Nothing that Breathes Remain Alive”: On the Problem of Divinely Commanded Genocide”. Philosophia Christi 11(1):27-41.

8. Morriston, Wesley. 2009. “Did God Command Genocide? A Challenge to the Biblical Inerrantist”. Philosophia Christi (1):7-26. p. 13.

9. Stark, Thom. 2011. Ibid. Scribd ebook location: 3372



  1. Seeing as though some these things in the OT have an overriding human component, how do you reconcile that with your faith? How do you navigate between what things in the Bible are truly coming from God and which aren’t?

    Also, do you have any blog/reading/video recommendations from Christians who take an honest, straightforward look at OT violence? The analogies to cancer and “they were evil” pat responses just don’t hold water for anyone truly being sincere.

Let me know your thoughts!

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