Was Violence against the Canaanites a Matter of Racial Prejudice?

The Moral Problem of Joshua

It is impossible to ignore what is routinely viewed as the grave moral problem of the book of Joshua, namely, the action of the Israelites in exterminating the Canaanites. The sad history of the Crusades, what colonial powers did to indigenous peoples, the Jewish holocaust, recent examples of ethnic cleansing, and the terror perpetrated by jihadist groups on people going about their daily lives have rightly made us sensitive about what looks like an ancient example of the same thing in the Bible itself. Of necessity, recent commentaries on the book of Joshua have wrestled at length with this issue.1 The problem is made more difficult by the fact that it is made plain that the ban (ḥērem) is at God’s behest (e.g., Josh. 6:2; 8:1–2; 10:40) and that God hardened the hearts of the Canaanites to prevent them from making peace with Israel, thus ensuring their destruction (Josh. 11:20). Moreover, the book does not try to excuse the action of the Israelites by laying stress on Canaanite decadence as a reason for the ban (unlike Deut. 7:1–5). The book of Joshua will be rendered unusable to the Christian reader unless an answer is found to the moral and theological problem as set out above.

Biblical Theology

Andreas J. Köstenberger, Gregory Goswell

Biblical Theology provides an essential foundation for interpreting all 66 books of the Bible, identifying the central themes of each text and discussing its place in the overall storyline of Scripture.

Lawson Stone highlights what he calls six “heard” texts (Josh. 2:9–11; 5:1; 9:1–2, 3–4a; 10:1–5; 11:1–5), in which the Canaanite kings hear about and initiate the aggression against the incoming Israelites, such that the Israelite campaign after Ai can be viewed as a defensive reaction.3 The Canaanites are depicted as resisting the decree of YHWH, who had given the land to Israel.4 On the other hand, the Israelites are pictured as exemplary in their obedience to God (Josh. 10:40; 11:15), carrying out his command to kill all Canaanites, so that Joshua’s generation is a model for future generations (Josh. 24:31: “Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua”).5 Given this way of framing the situation, Stone argues, “Clear moves were made to guide the reader to a non-militaristic and non-territorial actualization of the text in which the conquest first illustrated the necessity of an affirmative response to YHWH’s action, then became a paradigm of obedience to the written Torah.”6

Certainly, later in the Old Testament, in Ezra 9–10, what happened under Joshua is not understood to require the killing of Canaanites but only the breakup of marriages with non-Israelites who do not share their faith. To marry such foreign women is classified as “acting unfaithfully.” This damning characterization (using the Hebrew root m’l) is found a total of five times in these two chapters (Ezra 9:2, 4; 10:2, 6, 10). The most significant earlier biblical use of the root is in relation to the sin of Achan (Josh. 7:1: “the people of Israel broke faith in regard to the devoted things”; cf. Josh. 22:20).7 In other words, to be involved in foreign marriages was to commit the sin of Achan. In Ezra and Nehemiah, those Israelites who had married foreign wives were required to divorce them (Ezra 10; Neh. 13:23–27), but in the New Testament it is not mandated that an unconverted spouse be divorced (1 Cor. 7:12–16), for the desire is that, if possible, they come to faith. Wider biblical discussion makes clear, therefore, that any application of the book of Joshua is in terms of acting in a way that displays devotion to God but does no harm to other people.8

. . . a sinful Israel will receive exactly the same treatment as that measured out to the foreign nations.

What is more, in contrast to what is said about the foreign nations in the land, the portrayal of Rahab and the Gibeonites presents a positive view of foreigners, clearing the book of the charge of xenophobia.9 The book does not teach the dictum that “the only good Canaanite is a dead Canaanite.” Both Rahab and the Gibeonites side with Israel; they utter theologically profound confessions (Josh. 2:9–11; 9:9–10); and they establish binding covenants with Israel (Josh. 2:12–14; 9:11–15), so that their continued presence within Israel is not viewed as a threat (Josh. 6:25; Josh. 9:7, 16, 22, 27; Josh. 10:1). This aligns with the suggestion of Lori Rowlett that the book of Joshua explores the theme of marginality, that is, who is included in or excluded from Israel.10 The Gibeonites are the mirror image of the Trans-Jordanian tribes (Josh. 22), ethnic outsiders within the geographical boundaries of the land. In the same way, Rahab and Achan are opposites, with the contrast reinforced by her reappearance (Josh. 6:22–25) immediately before the Achan incident in Joshua 7.

These examples serve to show that ethnicity is not the only determiner of a person’s fate, and they reveal the process by which insiders are ejected from Israel and outsiders are brought into Israel.11 The warning speeches at the end of the book make the appropriate applications, for a sinful Israel will receive exactly the same treatment as that measured out to the foreign nations (Josh. 23:13, 15–16). In sum, the definition of “Israel” is not finally a matter of race, and the book of Joshua cannot be used to support ethnic prejudices of any kind.


  1. E.g., Pekka M. A. Pitkänen, Joshua, ApOTC 6 (Nottingham, UK: Apollos, 2010), 74–99. Pitkänen does not skirt around these moral issues, though he does point out the exceptional nature of the conquest, even in the Old Testament with its many wars, and notes that the New Testament proclaims a gospel to all nations and rejects any division of humanity along ethnic lines. The seeds of this are found in the book of Joshua itself, with the incorporation of Rahab’s family and the Gibeonites into Israel.
  2. Only near the end of the book, in Joshua 23, does Israel’s vulnerability to the appeal of Canaanite religion serve to justify the annihilation of the Canaanites.
  3. Lawson G. Stone, “Ethical and Apologetic Tendencies in the Redaction of the Book of Joshua,” CBQ 53 (1991): 25–36.
  4. Norman C. Habel, “Conquest and Dispossession: Justice, Joshua, and Land Rights,” Pacifica 4 (1991): 85, 90.
  5. The text is highlighted by Rachel M. Billings, “Israel Serves the Lord”: The Book of Joshua as Paradoxical Portrait of Faithful Israel, Reading the Scriptures (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013), 11–24.
  6. Lawson G. Stone, “Ethical and Apologetic Tendencies in the Redaction of the Book of Joshua,” CBQ 53 (1991): 36.
  7. The archaic listing of Canaanite people groups in Ezra 9:1 indicates that typological parallels are drawn between the entrance into the land under Joshua and the return from exile; see M. D. Goulder, Midrash and Lection in Matthew (London: SPCK, 1974), 215–17; also, Mark J. Boda discusses the similarities and differences between Ezra 9–10 and Joshua 7, in Praying the Tradition: The Origin and Use of Tradition in Nehemiah 9, BZAW 227 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1999), 58–61.
  8. For an interpretation of the ban as a metaphor for total devotion to God, see R. W. L. Moberly, Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 53–74.
  9. Cf. David G. Firth, Including the Stranger: Foreigners in the Former Prophets, NSBT 50 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), ch. 2.
  10. Lori Rowlett, “Inclusion, Exclusion, and Marginality in the Book of Joshua,” JSOT 55 (1992): 15–23. We acknowledge our substantial dependence on Rowlett for this paragraph.
  11. Cf. David G. Firth, “Models of Inclusion and Exclusion in Joshua,” in Interreligious Relations: Biblical Perspectives, ed. Hallvard Hagelia and Markus Zehnder, T&T Clark Biblical Studies (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017), 70–88.

This article is adapted from Biblical Theology: A Canonical, Thematic, and Ethical Approach by Andreas J. Köstenberger and Gregory Goswell.

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