This entry is part [part not set] of 6 in the series The Canaanite Conquest

In this sixth and final post on Joshua’s conquest, we will wrestle with God’s command to kill women and children in the conquest (Deut 20:16-18; cf. Josh 6:21; 8:25). It’s one thing to kill soldiers in combat, but to kill non-combatants is morally questionable to say the least. How much more horrific, then, is it to read about Joshua’s slaughter of Canaanite women and children? How do we reconcile Jesus, who had a special heart for children, with the God of the Old Testament who commanded Israel to slaughter Canaanite babies?

Let’s start with what the Bible clearly says. The Bible does give a straightforward reason for “disposing” (or otherwise “killing”) the joshua-conquestCanaanites. Deuteronomy says that if Israel doesn’t get rid of all the Canaanites, then they will end up leading Israel astray (Deut. 20:18). And this is exactly what happens. Israel does not drive out all the Canaanites and Israel ends up getting “Canaanized.” In fact, Israel’s dark history is littered with many Canaanite-like practices, including idolatry, child sacrifice, and male cult prostitution—all of which they learned from the Canaanites left in the land (1 Kings 14:24; 21:26; 2 Kings 16:3; 17:8; 21:2).

Now, the killing of children still doesn’t sit right with me. And yet Israel’s failure to dispose all the Canaanites ends up biting them in the end. Their moral collapse, which elicited God’s judgment, began when they failed to drive out all the Canaanites from the land. So when read from the perspective of the rest of the Old Testament, we can at least see the logic of the command. As morally difficult as it is, God was right. Failure to drive out all the Canaanites would lead to Israel’s ruin.

There’s another option that I will throw out as a suggestion. Perhaps the phrase “women and children” is not to be taken literally. This may sound a bit shady, but hear me out. We have already shown that hyperbolic language is typical in the conquest account. So let’s explore the possibility that no women or children were intended to be killed in the conquest.

The phrase “women and children, old and young” is first mentioned in Joshua 6:21 in the battle of Jericho, and then again in 8:25 in the battle of Ai—both battles are part of the conquest. It appears, then, that Joshua and Israel slaughtered women and children. However, there is a possibility that the mention of “women and children” is a stock phrase that simply means “everyone” without necessarily specifying the age or gender of the people. A number of Evangelical scholars (e.g., Richard Hess, Paul Copan) make a case for this in light of four factors. First, the phrase “women and children” occurs elsewhere in the Old Testament where it could to be taken to mean “everyone” without specifying the age and gender of the victims (1 Sam 15:3; 22:19; 2 Sam 6:19; Neh 8:2; 2 Chron 15:13). Second, both Jericho and Ai were military outposts and probably not vibrant cities filled with citizens of every age. They were therefore most likely stocked with soldiers, not non-combatants. Third, the only woman and child that are mentioned are Rahab and her family (which Joshua_womenprobably included children), and they were rescued, not killed. Furthermore, Rahab was a prostitute and—how do I say it—it would make sense that she would find much business in a city filled with soldiers. Fourth, apart from Joshua 6 and 8, which mentions women and children, all other accounts of Israel killing Canaanites in the conquest include—and only include—combatants, not civilians.

This fourth point is actually the surest of them all. Quite simply, there is no record of Israel actually killing a Canaanite woman or a child during the conquest.

So, even though it appears that women and children were killed, there’s some evidence that may suggest a less barbaric picture. Israel’s clash with the Canaanites resulted in killing other combatants and, perhaps, driving out its civilians who resisted God’s free offer of grace, without necessitating the wholesale slaughter of Canaanite babies.

So, let’s sum up our series on Joshua’s conquest.

The Canaanites were horrifically wicked, and yet God gave them hundreds of years to repent. Some did, while most didn’t. And since God chose Canaan to be his new residence on earth—and as Creator, He has every right to do so—He had to drive out all its wicked inhabitants. The ones that resisted God’s grace and who chose to stay in the land faced the sword of Israel—God’s tool of judgment. Therefore, as Christopher Wright concludes: “[t]he conquest was not human genocide. It was divine judgment” (The God I Don’t Understand, p. 93). While moral problems remain, such as the possibilities that women and children were actually slaughtered (though I have my doubts), the conquest was not a genocide at the hands of a bloodthirsty God.

But the one thing that must be noted about the conquest—a point that is essential for understanding the church’s non-violent posture—is this: nowhere in Scripture is Joshua’s conquest intended to be a repeated event. There is nothing in the Bible that appeals to the conquest as justification to wage war or execute violence. Nothing. The conquest, like the flood and the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah, was a one time non-repeatable event whereby God judged a particularly wicked people. This is why Christians cannot appeal to the conquest to justify using violence today. This would be like burning a city to the ground because God once did it to Sodom and Gomorrah (something James and John tried to do and were rebuked for in Luke 9). Some things happen in the Bible that weren’t meant to be repeated.

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  1. Interesting thoughts on the issue of
    women and children, but there seems to be an unwritten under current of ideology
    that somehow the “non-combatants” would have been considered
    innocent, and that issue may also be driving your willingness to consider this
    part of the narrative as hyperbole. It
    seems that while on one hand you are willing to concede that the conquest of Canaan
    and the subsequent loss of life that was a part of that was because of God’s
    righteous judgment, you are concerned that somehow the death of “innocent”
    women and children would make God unjust, bloodthirsty, and evil. The whole of scripture is not unclear as to
    the completely rebellious state of the human race apart from God’s divine grace,
    and that the penalty for rebellion against God is death. (Rom 3:10, Jer 17:9,
    Rom 6:23, Gen 6:5) While the loss of life is reprehensible in any form, the
    reason for it is clear. We live in an utterly
    broken world where sin’s curse and penalty are a part of reality. Death is awful! But in every instance it happens, it is just.

    I do appreciate the point you bring up
    about the fact that the conquest is not something to be repeated. I’d never really thought of it like that
    before. Thanks!

  2. I’m not sure I see the moral problem you mention if God did indeed ask for the killing of women and children. If we see this as a judgment by God, it’s no different than the flood which certainly wiped out women and children. God’s instrument of judgment was different, but the result was the same. While we may not be be totally comfortable with this image, I’m less comfortable with the theologians you mention who are trying to make the text say something else. I’m all for exploring this notion, but the examples you give all seem like a stretch (not saying they’re your ideas). Do you have a particular position on this? I’m not sure I see where you land exactly. I do like your point that this was a non-repeatable event, good to keep that in mind and not use it to justify war.

    • Tim,

      You bring up good points, and I actually had a paragraph in the original post about various times (including the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, and the killing of Achan’s family), where God orders the killing of children. So yes, the “problem”–if we can call it that–is widespread in the Bible.

      But just because it’s widespread, doesn’t mean we can’t call it a problem. Perhaps “perceived moral problem” would be more accurate; if I’m hearing you correctly, this is probably how you would word it. So ya, all I mean to say is what you said about not being “totally comfortable with this image.” However you slice it, I DO think we should be uncomfortable with running a sword through a 6 month year old Canaanite baby. Isn’t there a measure of innocence there? If God told you to do this today (in a dream, or whatever) I think there would, or should, be some reluctance to “obey God.”

      I also wouldn’t say that these scholars are trying to “make the text say something else” as you put it. They all are seeking to understand the language of the Bible more thoughtfully. As stated in the previous post, literary devices such as hyperbole are quite common in the Bible, as are other such metaphors or–as in this post–stock phrases that shouldn’t be taken literally. From reading these scholars’ other works, they don’t strike me as the type of people who try to make the text say what they want without exegetical warrant.

      So where do I stand? Good question! I’m not entirely convinced that “women and children…” is a stock phrase, nor am I totally convinced of the 4 arguments for this view. Some carry merit, while others don’t. And you are correct, I didn’t state my position since, well, I’m still noodling it around a bit. However, I do think a good case can be made–as I inadvertently made in my comments to McKnight in the previous post–for seeing 1 Sam 15:3 as not literal, but hyperbolic.

      In short, I’m leaning toward seeing “women and children, old and young” as a stock phrase that means “everyone” without specifying gender or age.

  3. Preston,

    In the last few weeks I have read this series with interest. When my regular bible reading brought me to Numbers 31, I realized that there is a very clear instruction. In the passage below, Moses becomes /angry/ with the Israelite army /because/ they did not kill the women and children.

    14 But Moses became furious with the officers, the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds, who were returning from the military campaign. 15 “Have you let every female live?” he asked them. 16 “Yet they are the ones who, at Balaam’s advice, incited the Israelites to unfaithfulness against the Lord in the Peor incident, so that the plague came against the Lord’s community. 17 So now, kill all the male children and kill every woman who has had sexual relations with a man, 18 but keep alive for yourselves all the young females who have not had sexual relations.

    Given that this occurs shortly before Moses’ death, and the subsequent conquering of the land, it seems pretty clear to me that God did intend / command the killing of Women and Children.

    • Donald,

      Yes, Numbers 31 is a sticky text, and much has been written on it. And yes, it seems that Moses commanded the killing of women and children in this passage (women who have had sex; not the virgins). I didn’t address this because it’s not part of the conquest and my posts were dealing specifically with the conquest of Canaan.


  4. Hey Dr. Sprinkle, I’m late on the discussion to this, but I just wanted to inform you that this series has been highly helpful for an Ethics paper I’ve been working on. I specifically explored the Canaanite conquest and used this series as well as Copan as my major sources. Thanks for delving into this issue. I’ve gleaned a great deal from it and I sense that I’m in a much better place to dissect this issue with others.