Did God command Joshua to ‘utterly destroy’ the Canaanites?

Nicolas Poussin’s 17th century work depicts the victory of Joshua and his armies over the Amalekites. In the Old Testament, God’s command to the Israelites to “wipe out” certain tribes today causes some controversy, but these texts need to be examined with a critical eye.

One of the most controversial portions of Old Testament, especially since the rise of atheism, is God’s command to Israel to wipe out of the Canaanites, Perizzites, Jebusites and others. How could a good God command someone to “utterly destroy” every person? But there is a lot more going on in Joshua (and Judges) than meets the eye.

The command to utterly destroy these people seems pretty clear, and Joshua, after taking control of the land, said that he did everything the Lord commanded (Joshua 11:20-23). But a careful reader will notice something strange going on in these texts. The very people who were supposed to have been utterly destroyed are nevertheless still there in the Holy Land (Judges 1:8, 1:21, 2:21-23, etc.).

Even more strange, there is a flip-flop that occurs regarding these peoples’ supposed obliteration — sometimes even in the same verse! For example, Joshua 10:20-21 says, “When Joshua and the men of Israel had finished slaying them with a very great slaughter, until they were wiped out, and when the remnant which remained of them had entered into the fortified cities, all the people returned safe to Joshua in the camp at Makkedah; not a man moved his tongue against any of the sons of Israel” (emphasis mine).

How could these people be “wiped out” and a remnant still survive? Joshua 11:21 likewise says that Joshua wiped out the Anakim in the hill country, Hebron, Debir, Anab and all the hill country of Judah, “utterly destroying” both them and their cities. Yet, Joshua 15:13-15 says that Caleb once again had to drive out the Anakim in Hebron and Debir. How can the Lord command these people to be wiped out (Deuteronomy 7 and 20), Joshua fulfill this command (Joshua 11:20), and the people still be alive and well in the Holy Land? Something is at work behind these passages.

If one compares the language used in Joshua and Judges with the conquest writings of other ancient cultures (i.e., Egyptian, Hittite, Akkadian, Moabite, etc.), you’ll find there are a lot of similarities. The recorded battles and reports of conquest by these nations often give exaggerated hyperbolic accounts about how their enemies were completely wiped out, utterly destroyed, without any survivors, much like in Scripture. In fact, it appears that this was once a popular stylized form of war rhetoric that was used in the ancient near east. When we read it, it sounds like the Israelites were commanded to totally annihilate these people, when it simply was commanded of them to fight and win, even if the win was only temporary.

This raises another question: Why would God allow such rhetoric to be used in Scripture? Here is where things get interesting. First, God was speaking to the original audience in a way that they would understand. No one took these words literalistically, otherwise, Joshua would never have been said to fulfill them. Second, Scripture operates on more than just its literal historical meaning. It has other meanings as well. God not only writes with words, but he also writes with the events that the words describe. Therefore, the Old Testament provides spiritual lessons that apply to us today. In this regard, the war rhetoric used provides a solid allegorical lesson about Christ and our sanctification. As the early father Origen once wrote:

“Would that the Lord might thus cast out and extinguish all former evils from the souls who believe in him — even those he claims for his kingdom — and from my own soul, its own evils; so that nothing of a malicious inclination may continue to breathe in me, nothing of wrath; so that no disposition of desire for any evil may be preserved in me, and no wicked word ‘may remain to escape’ (Joshua 8:22) from my mouth. For thus, purged from all former evils and under the leadership of Jesus, I can be included among the cities of the sons of Israel.”

Joshua’s war rhetoric serves both as a means to communicate to a primitive people and to provide a lesson that through Christ (Yeshua — the same name as Joshua) all sin in our lives must be utterly destroyed.

Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.