Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Genocide of Joshua (part 3)

In this final post on the command of God to Joshua to exterminate the Canaanites, we will look at the moral culpability of those involved in the slaughter of the Israelite conquest. As odd as it sounds with such subject matter, I have thoroughly enjoyed thinking through this complex and important biblical issue, and I think I have done so without going into heresy! I do not put forward my opinion as the only allowable one on the issue, but I do think it is pretty good as it preserves the goodness of God, the inspiration of Deuteronomy, the reality of the Canaanite genocide and the justification of the Israelites who faithfully obeyed God's commands. For those who have accepted (as I do) the simple biblical reality that God did indeed command the genocide, we come to a serious dilemma.

1) It is always wrong to kill an innocent human person.

2) God commands the killing of innocent human persons.

3) Therefore, either God commands what it evil and is not therefore good, or else the killing of innocent persons is not evil, which we know to be false.

If killing innocent people is sinful, how can God command what is sinful? Furthermore, this puts the persons involved in a terrible dilemma: if they obey God, are they guilty of the mortal sin of murder? But if they disobey God, do they incur the wrath of God for disobedience? What exactly is the culpability of those involved in carrying out God's decree of destruction against the Canaanites?

I think we have to step back and look at why killing is wrong. Murder is clearly prohibited by the fifth commandment. But why is murder wrong? Because it is the taking of a human life. Okay, but what is it about the taking of a human life that makes it sinful? God takes human life all the time. He sends or allows car accidents, heart attacks, sometimes smites people, in the Old and New Testaments (remember Uzzah and Ananias?) and has some devoured by wild beasts or taken in plane crashes, all of which He either permits or directly causes - and He does directly kill people at times, as He plainly tells the Israelites in Exodus where He warns against taking advantage of the widow and the orhpan: "My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword" (Ex. 22:24). Scripture seems to say that the prerogative of taking a life belongs to God alone: "See ye that I alone am, and there is no other God besides me: I kill and I make to live: I will strike, and I will heal, and there is none that can deliver out of my hand" (Deut. 32:39). I'm not sure how this is worked out through the principle of secondary causes working within Divine Providence, however.

But this verse brings us to the point of why killing is wrong: since God kills, we have to infer that killing a person is only wrong when done by another person. The reason killing is so heinous is because only God knows when a man's allotted time on earth is over and can cut the thread of life. If anybody other than God presumes to take life, they take unto themself the power of God.

This is not to minimize the true human tragedy of losing an irreplaceable person to death - the element of the sin which is based around the robbing of the world of another life. However, fundamentally, I think if we see murder within the context of the Old Testament and God's relation to His people, it is primarily a property issue. Humanity and human life are God's alone to give and take, and when we assume the right to do so on our own, we are robbing God of His prerogative. Even worse, we are acting as though we were God, not only knowing good and evil (as the serpent promised), but deciding when to give and take life.

So then it is always wrong to take life because we never know when a person's time is up and we cannot take upon ourselves the role of God in deciding these matters. But what if God Himself tells you authoritatively that a person's time is up and orders you to take their life as His instrument?

Of course, I am presuming that we all understand that in accordance with Divine Revelation God would never tell anybody this now - I am referring this question solely to Old Testament times and to instances recorded in the Scriptures, so don't send me a bunch of comments saying, "But Boniface, there are a whole bunch of nuts throughout history who thought God commanded them to kill." Understood. But I am not talking about them, only those few instances recorded in the Sacred Scriptures. Everybody got that?

At any rate, we would have to admit that knowing what we know about why killing is wrong, these factors become a non-issue if God is commanding the killing. I can't kill because the power to kill belongs to God alone. But God says, "I, the Lord over life and death, command you to take such-and-such a life and give you my authority to do so." I can say also that God alone knows when a person's time is up; this is not something I can decide. But God says, "Their iniquity is complete and the time for their destruction is at hand." Therefore, the very factors that make murder a culpable sin are negated when God commands the killing and invests someone with His authority to carry it out.

Two examples. We understand that a private individual cannot kill another person (save in self-defense), and that even if a criminal were found guilty of a serious crime and merited the death penalty, still a private individual could not execute this penalty upon the wrongdoer. Just because somebody is guilty doesn't mean I can just kill them. However, God has delegated the power to take life to the state, as sanctioned in Romans 13. Therefore, this is one situation where God says, "I give you power and authority to take human life" (provided it meets certain criteria, of course).

Another example is the sacrifice of Isaac. Murder is always wrong, but human sacrifice is deplorable. And yet God commands Abraham to commit human sacrifice, and Abraham instantly obeys, even though it is precisely because of human sacrifice that the Canaanites are being reserved for judgment from the time of Abraham to Joshua. Of course, Isaac was not actually killed, but Abraham had no idea that God would intervene and he intended to go through with the action till its completion. And the Scriptures commend Abraham for his faith in doing this. The lesson of this is that when God commands something it is to be obeyed: it is a matter of authority. All our human categories about what is right and wrong break down when God is the one commanding it, and obedience to these commands is considered faith. If one reads Judges and the last portions of Joshua, you will see that the Israelites are actually chastised by God for not taking the genocide far enough.

Now be careful here: I am emphatically not saying that God is not good, or that He is arbtitrary. I am not saying that God can command what is wrong - I am saying that what God commands is always right, even if it is genocide: but the only reason God can command genocide and it be right is because He alone has the authority to dispose of life as He wills and He alone knows the appointed time for each person's death. Therefore, it falls within His rights to order genocide if He wants and we must regard the obedience of the Israelites to this not as sinful but as obedience to God - an obedience which is meritorious and which the failure of (as we see in Judges, for example) is blameworthy.

Murder is always a sin, but murder consists of man killing another man of his own will. God telling you to kill somebody else cannot be said to be murder in the strict sense. As strange as it sounds, then, I must conclude that theologically speaking, the Israelites are not committing the sin of murder in the proper sense when they kill the Canaanites. They are killing, but killing with God's sanction, which He can give if He wills.

Ultimately, I think no other explanation will suffice other than finally agreeing that if God said it, it must be accomplished in obedience and that we can have faith (the implicit faith of Abraham as he raised the knife over Isaac) that what God commands is always right because He commands it.

Click here for part 1 and part 2 in this series.


Anonymous said...

I'm very late to this, but since there's no comments for part 3, I'll have at it. What is your understanding of God's relationship with Israel in the OT? How does a Catholic approach deal with the kind of relationship that God has with them, one in which they are commanded to destroy life? As a newbie Catholic who was raised Baptist, I know the latter group talks a lot about "dispensations" and how there are several of them both in the course of the Bible and during the time of the Church, but what does Rome say?
By the way, kudos for taking on a really tough subject!
Dave S.

Boniface said...


Thanks for the compliments, and welcome to the Church!

First, regarding God's relationship with Israel in the OT, it is too much for me to go into here. I suggest you read the Catechism's sections on Israel, which basically says that Israel was the first people that God chose to reveal Himself to - the beachhead of what would be an invasion and conquest of all humanity. He related to them as people in a childlike state - leading the, showing them what He is like, correcting them- until humanity, and Israel, reached "the fullness of time" when they were ready for the completion of the revelation in Christ, which negated nothing of what came before but fulfilled it all.

Regarding the "dispensations," the Church does not adopt this thinking. The dispensationalist thinking is that God judges men according to different moral standards in different periods, essentially saying that the natural law is mutable. But if something was wrong in the OT, it is still wrong now. God may choose to overlook certain things (like divorce, in the OT), but they were always wrong. "God is the same yesterday, today and forever." Whatever was proscribed in the OT is still wrong today, and vice versa.

Anonymous said...

Phillip, Thanks for the answer. The reason I was asking about dispensations has to do with the issue of what God asked Joshua to do, and that, if there are no dispensations, is it possible we could be asked to do the same thing again? Put another way, was there something particular about that time and place that brought about God's command to destroy? Related to that, could we say, in the same spirit God tells Job, that God knew the poison of the Canaanites was such that they needed to be dealt with in this way, and no other--that He knew the future and saw no other means?
And what role do Jesus' commands about dealing with our enemies play here? Do they cancel out the possibility of being asked to do what Joshua did? (BTW I ask that as a just war believer, not as a pacifist.) Dave

MEP said...


It seems that you do not subscribe to the idea that this event was fictional and did not really happen but was a story to bring forth revelation. Do you know of Margaret Nutting Ralph?

I am going through RCIA and am debating this topic with on of the group leaders.


Boniface said...


Joshua is clearly one of the historical books of the Bible, and I am not aware of anys erious exegete who thinks these things did not really happen.

I would be wary of any such attempts:

"Finally it is absolutely wrong and forbidden 'either to narrow inspiration to certain passages of Holy Scripture, or to admit that the sacred writer has erred,' since divine inspiration 'not only is essentially incompatible with error but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true. This is the ancient and constant faith of the Church'" (Divino Afflante Spiritu, 3).

MEP said...


I agree with you. I am looking for legitimate Catholic teachings to refute this position presented by this person. I strongly disagree but he gave me a book, "And God said what?" to read by Margaret Ralph. I find her writings are a bit concerning to me but she seems to be a reputable author for the Church. I sent this article to this class leader and he started warning me about misinterpreting things and that I need to look at the "genre". I know "genre" is important but it can get very subjective, and then where do you draw the line?

Can you point me in the right direction concerning Church documents or quotes other than the one you just gave me?

Boniface said...


That's just the thing, the genre of Joshua is HISTORY. Joshua is a historical book, just like Exodus, Kings, Judges, etc. Had they brought up genre with regards to Song of Songs or Psalms we might have a discussion...but Joshua is solidly history. Even secular authorities admit this. They may deny that Joshua is historically accurate, but nobody seriously denies that it is in the historical genre.

Here is an interesting quote from Benedict XV's Spiritus Paraclitus (1920):

"Yet no one can pretend that certain recent writers really adhere to these limitations… Their notion is that only what concerns religion is intended and taught by God in Scripture, and that all the rest - things concerning 'profane knowledge,' the garments in which Divine truth is presented - God merely permits, and even leaves to the individual author's greater or less knowledge…" (Spiritus Paraclitus, 19).

For more quotes on this, check the following post:


I've never heard of "Margaret Ralph" but I would question this book. This woman seems to be of the liberal-progressivist bent. The Church has been very serious about preserving the histrocity of the Scriptures. See the following three posts:




Here is a good compilation of all Magisterial documents on Scripture study:


I hope, by the way, that you viewed Part I and Part II of the Joshua post.

MEP said...

Thank you for the links. I will go and research them.

I did read all the parts of the Joshua post. They are quite revealing.


MEP said...


In the New American Catholic Study Bible, 2nd Addition, there is commentary in the reading guide that says that the taking of Jericho, Ai and Gibeon were not historical events. I was given this text along with a paragraph out of a New Jerome that I do not have handy since I do not have my own New Jerome. My question to you is, what exactly is Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur because this Study Bible claims both. I need to know if the Reading Guide in a Study Bible holds the same authority as a standard Bible or an Encyclical. If it does, then what?


Boniface said...


A reading guide or commentary (unless it sby a saint or something) possesses very little authority, even if it has an imprimatur (something I will go into in a future post). The NAB in particular has what my co-blogger Anselm has called a "poisonous" commentary - I recommend this article from 2007 on the NAB commentary:


This is also a good one, though not dealing with Joshua directly ("Ten Signs You Have a Bad Bible Commentary"):


Ai and Jericho are certainly historical. Joshua is a historical book - rememeber, though, the historicity of the book is a different question from whether or not the book is historical : the former pertains to accuracy, the latter to genre.

I think I'd better just do a new post on this. Keep your eyes open.

MEP said...


MEP said...


I know this is not the proper place to post this question but I know of no other way to ask you this. After linking to other sites and references posted by others on your blog, I noticed that the Geocentric model is popular with Robert Sungenis and possibly others. I have been interested in this for quite some time but was told by others that I was crazy if I actually thought that Galileo was wrong. I would like to get your take on this if you are qualified to do so. Please let me know if you feel that it is crazy to believe the Geocentric model. Even a link to sources that represent your view would be good.


Boniface said...


I responded to your query on Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur. Please see this post-


Something on Geocentrism coming soon...


Pam H. said...

If it is not murder when the State ordains a person's death, what about when the Roman State ordained the deaths of Christians? Or when any other corrupt State ordains deaths? Can we believe this is the will of God?

Boniface said...

If it is not murder when the State ordains a person's death, what about when the Roman State ordained the deaths of Christians? Or when any other corrupt State ordains deaths? Can we believe this is the will of God?

There is a difference between the state abusing its power to put to death innocent people and the state using its legitimate power to put to death offenders guilty of capital crimes. The state has no right to put anybody to death per se, but it does have the right to punish those guilty of capital crimes with death. And yes, this can be the will of God because it says as much in Genesis:

"Whoever sheds man's blood, By man his blood shall be shed; For in the image of God He made man." (Gen. 9:6)

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for this series about Joshua. It was very revealing. Hats off for steering clear of Modernist biblical criticism which seems an easy way out but isn't one at all as it merely explains things away without really explaining them.

Jeffrey S. said...

A very interesting and valiant attempt to defend the genocide passages. Given what we know about God's Goodness, the Ten Commandments, natural law, etc. I don't think you succeed:


But I think you do an excellent job of making a serious case.

Jack said...

Perhaps this dilemma can be solved by qualifying the precept, "it is evil to kill the innocent".
This ought to read: "it is evil to kill one's neighbour without legal sanction" (murder).

The Canaanites were not neighbours or allies. There was not a state of peace between Israel and the Canaanites. They were at war, and you are allowed to kill the enemy at war whether he is a privately just and innocent man or not. This is because when you kill an enemy in war, you are not killing him as a private person, but your intention is to attack the public body with whom you are at war.

Now it's just a matter of acknowledging that the Canaanite women and children were enemies in war. This may not agree with modern notions of "combatant" and "non-combatant", but I believe such a distinction is probably false, certainly in the context of ancient warfare. What do you think would have happened if the Israelites allowed the Canaanite women and children to live? Probably a few generations you would have the same problem again. You can't take them in and incorporate either as slaves or citizens, because they will be rebellious after having just lost their fathers and husbands to you.

The Israelites didn't kill Canaanite children because they were innocent children. That would obviously be murder of the most wicked sort. They killed them because they were Canaanites, because they belonged to that nation with whom they were at war. It doesn't make sense to say that you can kill the men but not the babies, because those babies are men (and women that will breed men) in just a few years. They didn't slaughter them under the aspect of children, but under the aspect of the enemy. If that sounds inhumane it's probably because you are too used to living in a peaceful land. If you grew up surrounded by enemies that wanted to rape your wives and daughters and slaughter you, you probably would understand why killing the children that would grow up with such desires would not be unjust.

Mike II said...

Great read!

ST. Augustine is clear on the command from God to exterminate the inhabitants of Canaan:

XVI. (Ib. XI, 14, 15.) "God justified the reproach (shame, infamy or disgrace) of cruelty towards the Canaanites. "Joshua left no living being in this city; the orders which the Lord gave to Moses, his servant, are the same as Moses gave to Joshua; and Joshua fulfills them all; He did not fail to perform any of the things that the Lord had commanded Moses. That Joshua did not leave any living being in the cities from which he took possession, no one can reproach him for cruelty, since God had given him the orde.

--St. Augustine, Questions on Joshua- French