The Problem of Holy War
Daniel J. Dyke
Associate Professor of Old Testament
(A Paper in Progress)
Last Revision: March 14, 1998
Introduction to the Problem
The Biblical account of Joshua's conquest of Canaan in the late
second millennium B.C. has brought much criticism against the Bible and
anyone who would defend the concepts presented in it. The problem
is that the language used advocates (in the name of God) the genocide of
seven nations of people. Joshua was instructed by Moses and presumably
by God to kill all creatures that breathed. This would include man
and animal, male and female, adult and child, child and babe.
The general topic that this discussion falls under is that which is
called theodicy (the defense of God's justice). Is a god,
who commands the extermination of a race, worthy of our adoration and praise
or do we offer these things out of fear that he will exterminate us if
we don't say he is just?
Many avoid this question by saying, "This is the god of the Old Testament,
but I worship the god of the New Testament." A reminder to
such people is that the god of the Old Testament is the god of the New
Testament. He is immutable and will not change his nature.
It would seem logically consistent that if he practiced genocide and did
so justly and someone calls this act of genocide unjust then he has made
himself the judge and accuser of God. If one does this then he made
himself as much an enemy of God as he would if he had attributed evil to
The question of the genocide of the Canaanites is not really brought
forth as clearly in Joshua as in Deuteronomy.
I. The Question and the Existence of God
A. At the heart of the problem is the bigger question of the
existence of God. If there is no God or one that does not posssess
the attributes of the Jewish/Christian god then the question is irrelevant.
What Deuteronomy and Joshua would then be teaching would just be a theological
justification for the murder of a people that had something the Israelites
II. The Teaching of Deuteronomy Concerning Holy War and Genocide
B. If there is a God with the attributes traditionally held by
Christianity then the question is much simpler, though still difficult.
Christianity must be allowed to define these attributes and not the external
attacker. If someone, in an argument, allows another to define what
he believes when he does not believe it then the argument is lost.
C. I once had an interesting conversation with a university student
who when asked to assume for a moment that there was a god with the attributes
of the Christian God. He adamently refused to go further in the conversation.
He said, "That is a trap! Because there is no problem if I assume
D. The answer to the qustion must do the following:
1. Leave the attributes of God intact because ultimately the
answer is found in the attributes of God.
2. It must not draw a distinction between the god of the Old
Testament and the god of the New Testament.
3. It must not confuse good with evil.
4. It must allow the believer to honestly love and worship God.
B. Texts Concerning the Character of the Victims
III. A Summary of the Book of Joshua's Description of the War
C. Minor Texts
D. Major Texts
A. Joshua's Character
IV. The Concept of Just War as a Partial Justification
for Joshua's Actions.
B. Joshua's Actions
C. Canaanite Options
D. Canaanite Character
A. Principles of Waging a War: If one reads about
wars that men in general consider to be just wars, he will find that the
military leaders, who are considered to be great and honorable, followed
the following principles:
V. The Concept of Holy War
B. A Logical Question
C. Joshua's War Seen as a Just War: We remember generals
who waged less than just war as being honorable men.
VI. Possible Resolutions to the Problem
A. God as the Answer
The theological statements concerning the attributes of God are not
isolated concepts but man's limited attempts at describing in part the
reality of the being of God. His attributes are integrated in his
person. No argument works or is valid unless God is who and what
he says he is. His person is paradoxical from an existential standpoint,
but ultimately he is love.
This is the idea that the commandment may not have really intended
children, but that the language was hyperbolic to mean that the ones worthy
of death must be surely exterminated. An analogy is made with Numbers
where only the Israelites over 20 were to die in the wilderness for rebelling
and refusing to enter the land of promise.
God is God and can do anything he wants. Who is man to argue
with the creator. This is not a great argument unless God is truly
what scripture and theology declares about him. The argument is best
understood by analogy. A patient should not argue with the surgeon
on how to amputate a malignant tumor or what tools to use. (Cf. Romans
9-11; Job 38:-42)
Gen. Patton caused the inadvertant deaths of many children and non-combatant
adults, but he could never restore any life that was accidently or unjustly
taken. But the God who is omnipotent and just can. In the restitution
passages God ultimately is seen as going overboard on restitution.
If the Canaanites were into fertility practices that involved the varieties
of sexual deviation listed in Lev. 18 & 20, then the extermination
of the race was to prevent sexually transmitted disease and genetic problems
caused by incest. In one of the minor passages (Dt. 7) on the topic
a prohibition against inter-marriage is closely linked to extermination
of the people, but it also must be noted that the stated reason is religious--the
Canaanite partner will turn the Israelite partner away to serve other gods.
F. Position of the Victim
1. This argument is closely linked to D.
H. The later Problems Caused by the Canaanites Exonerates
2. In eternity God can restore what was lost by the
"innocent" Canaanite children.
3. Remember according to Jesus, the angel that represents
a child before the Father has the right and the ability to ever behold
the face of God (Mt. 18:10).
Whatever this means, it is a totally positive statement on the subject
of children in eternity.
4. In this life the children would potentially have
faced the following:
a. Being the victim in child sacrifice
5. In eternity they will be with God (remember to insert
all of his attributes at this point). The victim is the one that
should complain, not the casual observer. In eternity the pain of the Canaanite
child will be removed by the true knowledge of God.
b. Being made to "pass through the fire."
1) Was this a rite of initiation?
c. Being made to participate in religious sexual practices.
2) Was it a means of obtaining knowledge of divine
d. Eternal condemnation.
I. Frailty of Man