The Old Testament presents a variety of ethical problems for modern readers, but the major ethical problem there is God’s commanded destruction of the Canaanites. In a world where few things find wide agreement, most of the world condemns genocide. Why then would the merciful and compassionate God of the Abrahamic religions command his people to act in a genocidal way? In my classes on the Old Testament, this is a frequent question. Fortunately, Old Testament scholars have heard this question and written extensively on the topic. Unfortunately, these scholars have widely different views on the topic and often write very large books about it, all of which make their work a bit overwhelming for students. A few years ago I wrote a brief paper for my students surveying these various approaches, and I have now expanded this paper slightly to a book. The first part of the book provides background to the topic, with chapters on the nature of warfare in the ancient Near East, the history of genocide, and the background of the Canaanites.

The main part of the book surveys four approaches to the ethics of the destruction of the Canaanites. The first approach rejects God altogether, arguing that a deity who was violent in this way is not worthy of worship. The second approach desires to keep faith in God, but disconnect that God from violence. For example, these scholars might argue that the events of Joshua are not real historical events. Others present a “pacifistic Christocentric” view, in which they argue that the Jesus of the Gospels reveals a non-violent God to us, requiring us to read the Old Testament through a pacifistic lens. The third approach calls for us to read the biblical texts in light of their ancient Near East context, especially focusing on the use of hyperbole in warfare texts. If the texts are read this way, these scholars argue that the ethical problems disappear: it is not genocide if the events depict normal military battles. The fourth approach acknowledges that God is violent, but defends God’s actions at that particular historical moment. For example, these scholars emphasize the sinfulness of the Canaanites and an eschatological perspective that sees the event as an intrusion of the final judgment into history.

Much to the disappointment of many readers, I do not end the book by telling the reader what I think the correct answer is because my main point is to invite the reader into the conversation rather than tell them “the answer.” I end the book with some reflections on how we approach difficult ethical topics in the Bible when we do not feel fully satisfied with any answer. Following Brad Kelle’s work, I offer the idea that lament can be an appropriate way to engage these texts. The model of the disciples’ response to the controversial words of Jesus in John 6 also provides us insight: they might not like what Jesus said, but he “has the words of life.” Likewise, our faith in Jesus does not require us to have perfectly satisfactory answers to all of our questions. I hope that this book is helpful for you as you sort through this difficult issue!