John Walton and Israel’s Conquest of Canaan: Did God Really Command Genocide? (Spoiler Alert: No, he didn’t..and the Israelites didn’t claim he did to justify mass killing either)

We now come to the final post of my six-part extended book review of John Walton’s most recent book, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest, and in this post, we will address the controversial question, “Did God really tell the Israelites to commit genocide by wiping out entire populations, including women and children?”

To get right to the point, the answer to that question is, “No.” What is being described is ancient warfare, according to the accepted ancient Near Eastern rules of warfare, not genocide. Furthermore, the Hebrew word herem, which is often translated as “utterly destroy,” simply doesn’t mean “utterly destroy.” Therefore, this post will be devoted primarily to Walton’s discussion on the concept of herem, found in Propositions 15, 15, 17, 18, and 19.

Herem Does Not Mean “Utterly Destroy” and It Was Focused on Group Identity
When God tells the Israelites to put the Canaanite cities and people to herem, He is not ordering genocide. Rather, herem literally means “the removal of something from human use.” As Walton points out, “When herem objects are destroyed, the purpose of the destruction is to make sure that nobody can use it, but not all herem objects are destroyed. Most notably, Joshua 11:12-13 reports that all the northern cites were herem, yet Joshua destroys only one of them (Hazor)” (170).

Incidentally, one of the reasons why some people question the historicity of the conquest is because the archeological evidence does not show that there was “massive destruction” of Canaanite cities and towns during the time period that the conquest supposedly had occurred—archeologists claim only a handful of cities—like Hazor—show evidence of destruction. If we understand what herem actually means, and if we understand that the writer goes out of his way to tell us that of all the northern cities Joshua put to herem, he only utterly destroyed Hazor, we should recognize much of archaeology does support what is actually reported.

In any case, Walton points out that although herem can mean to utterly destroy something (like Hazor), what the actual focus of herem is the removal of group or community identity. Therefore, the purpose of herem against the Canaanite nations was “to destroy their community identities, not to purge their genetics” (189). This really should not be surprising, for, as Walton points out on page 193, passages like Deuteronomy 7 give the details of just what the Israelites were told to do: break down Canaanite altars, smash Canaanite sacred stones, cut down Canaanite Asherah poles, and burn Canaanite idols in the fire. It doesn’t order the Israelites to actually kill every single Canaanite. If it did, then the prohibition against intermarriage in Deuteronomy 7:3 really wouldn’t be necessary, would it?

Simply being a non-Israelite did not automatically make you subject to herem—we know this because in the very Torah itself (as well as in Joshua and throughout Israel’s history), there are references to foreigners who lived in the land along with Israel, and who were a part of the Israelite community. In fact, the Israelites are specifically told in Leviticus 19:33-34 not only to not harm foreigners who lived among them, but to actively love them as themselves.

So what Walton says we need to see is that the Israelites were not intent on “wiping out foreigners,” but rather Canaanite culture and institutions. The reason should be obvious: as mentioned in the previous post, Canaanite culture was not only idolatrous, it was also incredibly violent and corrupt. As Walton says, “…the identity needs to be removed so that Israel cannot make use of it. This is the essence of the threat that ‘they will become snares and traps for you’. With non-Israelite identities coexisting alongside the Israelite identity, syncretism, appropriating foreign religious customs and beliefs, becomes a distinct possibility, bordering on inevitable” (191).

Now, someone will ask, “But what about passages like Deut. 2:34: 3:6; and 20:16-18, where it is specifically says that men, women, and children were destroyed?” Walton’s response involves explaining just what these narratives are and what purposes they served.

Joshua in Canaan

Simply put, Walton says that these narratives were not meant to give information to reconstruct the actual events. Yes, they are about actual events, but no, they’re not news reports crafted to give “just the facts.” They are, as I would say, history told as story, and therefore, as Walton says, “the actual details of the totality of the destruction or the quantity of victims is likely couched in rhetorical hyperbole, in accordance with the expectations of the genre” (178). Thus, Walton argues that claims of the total destruction of men, women, and children are simply hyperbole, and the original audience would have understood that.

Still, although I do think these accounts are somewhat hyperbolic, I think we can still argue that the text itself isn’t even claiming that in a hyperbolic way. After all, if herem means “to remove from use,” and if it is focused on destroying Canaanite culture and identity, then what is the logical way to interpret something like, “Joshua put the entire city to herem, including men, women, and children?” Couldn’t it be that the Israelites destroyed their religious and cultural institutions so that they couldn’t effectively live out and promote Canaanite culture anymore?

To illustrate this, Walton offers a modern-day example of how the Allies dealt with Germany after WWII. Yes, they rounded up the Nazi leaders, put them on trial, and executed them, but the majority of rank and file Nazi soldiers were told to go home, rebuild their lives, and never wear the Nazi uniform again, and never again display anything “Nazi.” What the Allies effectively did was destroy Nazi identity and culture in Germany. Yes, that involved the killing of leaders and the destruction of certain cities and Nazi strongholds, but it didn’t involve killing every last German.

Therefore, if we want to get a better grasp on precisely what the book of Joshua is describing by putting the Canaanite cities and people to herem, it probably would be a better thing to think of it in terms of the post-WWII events, rather than some sort of crazed, xenophobic genocide.

Holy War, the Gibeonites, and Vassal Treaties
At the end of his book, Walton touches upon a few other related items that I want to briefly mention. First, he discusses the misguided characterization of “holy war.” It has often been claimed that the Israelites saw the conquest of Canaan as a “holy war,” and thus herem was the utter destruction of foreigners as a “sacrifice to God.” Walton’s reaction is simple: No, that’s wrong. In the ancient worldview the gods fought besides armies, and thus were involved in everything.  Hence, “the idea of war as either holy or secular would have been meaningless in an ancient context” (201). Furthermore, as has already been discussed, herem doesn’t mean “utterly destroy,” and it certainly doesn’t mean “sacrifice.”

In regard to the Gibeonites, who because they tricked Israel into making a covenant with them, were not killed. Still, Joshua’s assigning them to sanctuary service shows that they were considered herem as well—they were not allowed to be used as common slaves by Israelites, but were rather devoted to being used in the sanctuary.

Finally, Walton explains how the logic of herem works within the context of Israel’s vassal treaty with YHWH. If the first part of Joshua described God clearing the land for His own use, the second part of Joshua is essentially the “land grant” that the king (i.e. YHWH) gives to his vassals (i.e. Israel). Therefore, later on, with the exile, what we see is the king removing rebellious subjects from the land that was previously granted to them, and essentially putting them to herem by destroying their national identity.

Walton’s New Testament Application
In the last proposition in the book (Proposition 21), Walton applies what can be learned about the Old Testament concept of herem to the New Testament understanding of salvation, Christian identity, and life. Instead of discussing it, I will just provide, for your own consideration, the chart that Walton has in the book.

OT Element NT Recapitulation Objective
Territory Subject to Herem Canaanite cities captured; captives and spoils destroyed The personal selves of members in the Christian community (“crucified with Christ”), represented by baptism Place where the presence of God is located is turned over to God to use as he sees fit
What is driven out of the territory in order to remove it from use Canaanite armies defeated, people displaced The “old self,” “former nature,” “the flesh” Removal of elements currently using the territory that prevent or impede intended divine use
Identities outside the community subject to herem Canaanite nations within the boundaries of Israel Personal or corporate identities other than “Christian” within the church or its members (i.e. Jew, Greek, slave, free, etc.) Removal of elements that will lead to identify contamination of the community through syncretism
Identities inside the community subject to herem Individuals or communities within Israel who defy the covenant order (idolaters) Self-identified members of the Christian community who deviate from the parameters the community has established for itself (i.e. heretics) Restoration of the health of the community from identity contamination that has already taken place
Not subject to herem of any kind Cities and nations outside the land Persons or identities outside the membership of the church (nonbelievers, or other religions)

If we put all the points discussed in these six posts together, what we should understand about the Conquest of Canaan is the following:

  1. The Canaanites were not being punished for disobeying God’s moral law.
  2. The Conquest of Canaan was not genocide or ethnic cleansing.
  3. The Conquest is depicted as a recapitulation of creation.
  4. Genesis 15:13-16 is not saying that God was going to wait until the Canaanites sinned enough to warrant annihilation, but rather only that the destruction of the Canaanite culture would not happen until long after Abraham had passed away.
  5. Most of the battles described in the Conquest were instigated by the Canaanites, who were the clear aggressors. What is being described is ancient warfare, pure and simple.
  6. The Canaanites are described as “chaos creatures,” similar to the ANE concept of the Umman-manda, and thus are seen as a threat to God’s order.
  7. The Torah itself (i.e. God’s Law) is more about illustrating underlying principles of justice than it is about legislating morality and providing a list of moral commands.
  8. I do think, though, that Walton overstates the case by giving the impression that morality had nothing to do with the Conquest. The Canaanites were clearly an incredibly evil, violent and dangerous culture.
  9. Thus, Israel was commanded by God to put that Canaanite culture to herem: and that didn’t mean wipe out every last individual Canaanite—it wasn’t a command to commit ethnic-cleansing. It was a command to wipe out the violent and oppressive Canaanite structures and identities that were so abominable and horrible. Canaanites who wanted to keep their way of life had to leave the land, but those (like Rahab) who wanted to become part of Israelite society were allowed to do so.

My Particular “Historical Reconstruction”
Put all that together, and this is what I’ve come to believe about the conquest. Escaped slaves from Egypt made their way to the land of their ancestors, and were met with hostility and violence from some particularly vicious and dangerous people. When they had to, they fought their attackers and defeated them, and proceeded to set up their own society based on the covenant that they had entered into with their God. In doing so, they also attempted to wipe out the traces of the violent culture of the people who had attacked them. When later writers wrote the story of the “birth” of their nation, they told the story using the imagery of their creation myth. And in the telling of the story, they used a certain amount of literary license to explain the significance of what had happened.

That, to me, is entirely plausible and still fundamentally faithful to the text. It also fits in with the reality of life within the context of the ancient Near East. It’s not genocide, it’s not jihad, it is not ethnic-cleansing. It was the reality of the Israelites being attacked, fighting back, and then establishing a society based on the covenant.

So just remember, if you object to what is being described in the book of Joshua, that’s like objecting to the Allies banning Nazism and Nazi symbols in Germany, or to the United States trying to get rid of the Taliban who had inflicted horrendous atrocities on the innocent Afghani people.

But who in their right mind would do that?


  1. This was such a good series! Thank you for posting! I’m so disappointed that Walton’s book is apparently such a formatting disaster; I would love to have a more official-looking physical book to hand out to people, but I think your blog series will do just fine.

    1. There really is a lot of good information in the book. But yes, I think it certainly could have been laid out better. If you haven’t read Walton’s “Lost World of Genesis 1,” I’d highly recommend it.

  2. You say that the Israelites moving into Canaan was like the Allies moving into Germany in WW2. But if you think about it, in many ways it was like the Israelites were the Nazis.

    Hitler claimed,at least in the early years, that the land he was taking was just land that had belonged to Germany years before. The Israelites were claiming that they were just taking land that God had given to them years before. But is that a valid claim after 400 years? Could not the Canaanites have validly claimed that there was no expectation of ownership after having abandoned the land for that length of time?

    Hitler pretty much left people unscathed if they surrendered. He only resorted to armed conflict if the nations resisted. The Israelites did the same.

    Hitler removed objects of national identity and replaced them with objects of German identity. The Israelites did the same.

    The biggest issue here is land ownership. After 400 years, did the Israelites still have a valid claim to any land? If so, what proof did they have? If someone came to you and said they were taking your property and your house because they had owned that land 400 years ago and still did, would you comply without any physical proof of that ownership?

    Would it not have been more acceptable for the Israelites to have taken over the land of the Egyptians that had enslaved them rather than the land of Canaanites who had not enslaved them and had no knowledge of the Israelites previous ownership?

    1. No, I disagree. First, Canaan wasn’t a nation-state. Israel was not “invading” anything. Second, Hitler very much invaded, and he really did round up innocent Jews and put them on cattle-cars. His whole purpose was to exterminate the Jews and to advance the Aryan race. And sure, he put up Nazi symbols of identity, but for that matter, that is pretty much standard with virtually every nation.

      And it’s not a matter of land ownership. Israel didn’t “own” the land. It was considered YHWH’s. They were moving back to the land of the ancestors, sure, but if you take all the “God-talk” out of the account, what you see is that when they moved back, they asked a number of kings if they could peaceably pass through their land, and the kings attacked them; only then did they fight back. And once they defeated the kings who attacked them, then they took control of the land. And then once they were in the land, much of the land they ended up controlling was a result of first fighting back against kings who attacked them (or the Gibeonites) first.

      The author of Joshua tells the story against the backdrop of God’s covenant with Abraham, and obviously presents the conquest as a fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, but nowhere in Joshua does Joshua go to any of these kings and say, “Hey, this is our land; it was ours 400 years ago–give it back!” For that matter, Canaan WASN’T their land 400 years ago–Abraham was a sojourner. Therefore, to assume it was all a matter of land ownership is misguided from the start, because the text doesn’t present things that way.

      LOOKING BACK on the events, the author tells the story of those events with references to creation and Abraham’s covenant. But if you were “back there on the ground” at the time, in the middle of it all, you’d probably see things in the way I described here in paragraph 2.

  3. Deuteronomy 12:29-30 – The Lord your God will cut off before you the nations you are about to invade and dispossess. But when you have driven them out and settled in their land, and after they have been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.”

    Here God says that Israel will invade the nations. Notice the words “invade” and “nations”. He says they will drive them out of their “land”. This does not fit with anything you just said about then not being nations and not invading anything or being about land ownership.

    1. What translation is that? The Hebrew word is just the standard word for “go into”–go into a house, go into a city, go into a country, etc. And the Hebrew word translated as “nations” is “goiim”–peoples, nations, etc. But the point is Canaan was not a nation-state. It was inhabited by various people groups and had a number of what we would call CITY-states.

      It certainly does not mean “invade.” But yes, God says, “You’re going to go into those lands, I am going to give you possession of them.” And what we see in Joshua is (A) the Israelites moving into the land, (B) the various kings of neighboring city-states attacking Israel, (C) Israel fighting back and eventually dispossessing those people who attacked them. And here in Deuteronomy, God is telling Israel, “This is going to happen.”

      But to your two points: (A) No, the Hebrew word does not mean “invade,” and (B) “goiiim” is a generic word for people groups (i.e. nations) that, at that time, were tied to city-states.

      1. NIV.

        This is exactly the response I thought you would have. I’ve had a number of people respond this way. When the translation says something that doesn’t fit their narrative, they reinterpret the original words. I’m not saying you are wrong, but who is one to believe? The hundred experts who agreed on the NIV translation or the one guy saying they are wrong? If the common guy can’t trust the translations of Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic scholars, who can they trust? Does this mean that one must learn the original languages of the Bible to truly understand it? How do we learn those languages? Who should we trust as a teacher?

        BTW, which translation of the Bible got it right all the way through? Besides yours, of course. Which reminds me. I have your JAV NT, but not the OT. Could you post how you translated these Deuteronomy verses in question?

        1. Well, one thing you could do is compare the NIV translation of Deut 12:29 with the other major translations on Biblegateway–you’ll find that the NIV is the only translation that has “invades.”

          Then you have to consider the fact that the NIV has the reputation of not being thw most accurate or scholarly, often purposely translating things from a certain “conservative Evangelical” spin. For example, for the longest time they translated Romans 16:7 as Andronicus and JUNIUS, because Paul said they were “great among the apostles.” The NIV committee thus translated the name JUNIA (clearly a woman’s name) as JUNIUS (which isn’t even a name that is ever used in the ancient world) because they have a bias against women being leaders in the church. Basically, since Junia is considered “great among the apostles,” it just HAS to be a man, so lets make up a male name and change whatbit says.

          But basically, one doesnt have to learn Greek (although it obviously helps), but one can compare different translations to see where the differences are, and then do a little research (ie read a commentary) on a certain verse or passage if there is a significant difference.

          No translation gets it right all the way through, but some are acknowledged as much better than others. I had a professor who was on the NIV committee who would regularly complain about the poor translational decisions they made. I had another professor who said that if you go into a PhD program with an NIV, they’ll tell you to get out because that is such a poor version.

          1. You are correct concerning the word invade, but the context indicates that is what was to take place. All the versions I looked at say the Israelites were to enter Canaan and dispossess the people there of their land. That is what an invasion is.

            So the Israelites were being told they were going to take the Canaanites land for their own use when they got there. There is no indication that that was only to happen if they were attacked first. It could be the Canaanites knew this and tried to get the upper hand.

          2. Well, you have to remember the text is written after the fact, and is being shaped into a story. Most scholars agree that what is being described probably took place over quite a few years, and it wasnt a single “invasion” so to speak. But, as you know, in many stories about past times, the authors shape the facts into a narrative, sometimes conflating events into a single event, etc.

            As far as the text as it stands is concerned, the text simply has God telling the Israelites they would disposses the Canaanites; and then the author tells us how that ended up transpiring: the Canaanites attacked, Israel fought back, etc.

            Finally, the objection I have to words like “invasion” or “conquest” is that (a) they are not actually used in the text, and (b) in today’s world, those words carry with them a certain amount of baggage and assumptions: i.e. Hitler INVADING Poland, Japan INVADING the Philippines (i.e. the hostile aggression of a nation-state with clearly defined borders). And we thus end up reading into a text like Joshua our moral problems with someone like Hitler.

            So yes, God tells the Israelites they will somehow dispossess the Canaanites, but moving into Caanan itself was not seen as an “invasion.” They were just one of many tribal peoples in the land. To put it in our terms, they had every “right” to settle in the land, just like the other groups.

            What we see here is similar to the Exodus: Pharaoh was a bad guy, and the text tells us that God used Pharoah’s badness to bring about His purposes. The same here: the text is telling us that God used the badness of the Canaanites to accomplish His purposes.

  4. Herem:
    It was offensive not merely passive.
    1 Sam 15:3, Deut 2: 33-35, 7:2, 20:16-17

    The selling or redemption of anything herem was forbidden by covenant law:
    “Nothing that a person owns that has been devoted to destruction for the Lord, be it human or animal, or inherited landholding, may be sold or redeemed; every devoted thing is most holy to the Lord. No human beings who have been devoted to destruction can be ransomed; they shall be put to death.”
    Lev 27: 28-29

    Herem is a sacrifice, even human, often as a pledge for victory in battle:
     Then the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah…And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering”….”My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has given you vengeance against your enemies, the Ammonites.” Judges 11

    Also a human sacrifice for victory in battle in 2 Kings 3:
    Elisha prophecies Moab will be given into Israel’s hand. They nearly prevail until King Mesha offers a herem sacrifice and the writer says great wrath (Chemosh?) came on Isreal and they fled. The Moabite stone also records a similar event.

    Once again, herem is offered by Israel in exchange for victory in battle:
    Num 21:2-3

    Randal Rauser’s blog has tons of posts on this. He interacts repeatedly in short posts with W.L Craig, Copan/Flannagan, Justin Taylor and many other “violence minimizers” 🙂

    Thom Stark has a massive response to Paul Copan here:

    Here’s the bottom line. I think the ANE warfare/worldview/writing style/cosmology etc are heavily at play, which is why I don’t think God commanded these things as they are portrayed by the Jewish writers. Rauser rightly challenges readers glossing the meanings of “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide”, but let’s be honest, what we are really talking about is can God actually command something that is objectively immoral. It doesn’t have to be millions for us to affirm one abortion is wrong and to intuitively know that, if moral realism is true (I think it is) then God could never command abortion. But he does in Num 31 and elsewhere, for example. Same applies to any objectively moral wrong. If, on occasion, the slaughter of innocents is not a moral wrong….say if God supposedly commands it, then moral realism collapses into moral relativism. Should we call evil good and good evil?

  5. Also, I have had many discussions about God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Many believers try to justify this request in different ways, the most common one being that God didn’t actually allow Abraham to go through with it. But this doesn’t negate the fact that the Bible says that God asked Abraham to commit a sin and praised him for actually being willing to follow through with the sin. This makes no sense if moral realism is true.

    1. Randy,
      What is striking about this story is that it seems Abraham is not as taken back by this as he should be, or as indicated by the text at least. This may very well be because, as I showed above, we know other nations did this to appease their deities. Is Abraham, or at least the writer, familiar with herem? It seems so. Israel, Jephthah and others do it.

      Of course we quickly default to the beautiful picture it is of Christ, as Abraham is sent to the location of the later sacrifice of Christ.

      1. In the story of Jephthah, it is worth noting that at no time does YHWH ask him to do it. Jephthah is hardly a model of moral behavior–the point is that God even uses rather bad people for his purposes.

        As far as Abraham is concerned, I think one needs to keep in mind a few things. These are stories written at a later time; just like in my recent post, I said, “In the summer after my junior year, God tapped me on the shoulder and said…” I don’t believe that literally happened, or that God literally talked to me–but there was a clear and definitive “thing” that happened in which my views changed, and I think God was ultimately behind it. And so, when the writer of Genesis tells us that “God told Abraham….” there is an element of story-telling, in the very way we all “tell stories” even about our own lives. Along with that, there are a lot of other literary things going on in Genesis that relate to the story of Abraham and Isaac.

        What I take from story here in Genesis is that (A) in that ancient culture, child sacrifice was practiced–it was part of that culture; but (B) the ultimate point is that Abraham realizes that YHWH is NOT like the other gods–He DOESN’T want child sacrifice. That’s the point—in fact, I think perhaps the rite of circumcision acts almost like a substitute of that barbaric practice–it is the act of making a “token sacrifice” YHWH, and then YHWH “giving the child back” to the family.

        1. Thanks for your reply, Joel.

          “Jephthah is hardly a model of moral behavior”
          Well except scripture says otherwise:
          ” And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.” Heb 11

          In regards to Abraham, I am a bit torn because of his seemingly familiarity with herem sacrifice, yet Heb 11 says “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac…..He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.”
          So, though he was willing to slaughter his son, he so trusted the promise of descendants through Isaac that he believed God would raise him up even if he killed him, which is a beautiful (albeit disturbing) picture of Christ because God takes him a long way to the very place of Christ’s later sacrifice. But if Jephthah is making a rash and evil vow, why doesn’t God intervene, as he did with Isaac? Something morally stinks here.

          What do you think of the issue of Moral Realism verses a literal hermeneutic that entails Divine Command Theory which amounts to Moral Relativism?

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