Modern warfare is very civilised – compared to the ancient world, that is. There are exceptions, of course, but today prisoners of war are cared for, harm to civilians is avoided, looting is illegal, and rules of engagement sometimes even stop soldiers firing on the enemy until the enemy has fired on them. In the ancient world, warfare was very different. Life was cheap and rules of engagement were almost nonexistent.

To modern readers, the Israelites’ invasion of the land of Canaan as described in the book of Joshua can be hard to take. The Bible includes several acts of hostility that the Hague Conventions would define as ‘war crimes’. This cannot even be ascribed to the army having got out of control because God commanded ‘…in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes’ (Deuteronomy 20:16). It sounds as if God wanted the population emptied to make room for Israel.

Actually, according to the details preserved in the Bible text and in archaeology, this genocide never happened. Although Palestine is littered with the remains of ancient towns destroyed by warfare, archaeologists point out that very few are from the time of Israel’s conquest. This evidence agrees with what is described in the Bible. Although Israel fought and destroyed several armies, they only destroyed three towns. Jericho and Ai were wiped out at the start of the campaign, and after defeating several armies during their northern campaign, Israel only burned one town – Hazor (Joshua 11:12–13). Perhaps the destruction of these towns had the same purpose as that of the atom bombs of 1945 which brought the Second World War to an end. They were so dramatic and powerful that they discouraged further endless battles and loss of life.

Rhetorical language

Why then does the text seem to say otherwise – that Israel killed so extensively? Historians recognise that other ancient texts use similar rhetorical repetition rather than literal language. The Moabite Stone (around 830 BC) says, for example, that ‘Israel has been utterly destroyed forever’. This wouldn’t have been seen as a ridiculous exaggeration; it was the normal way to describe a glorious victory. Among the many towns described as ‘totally destroyed’ with ‘no survivors’ was Debir (Joshua 10:38–39), but soon after, when Joshua gave this town to Caleb, he had to defeat it again (Joshua 15:15–17).

The book of Joshua doesn’t exaggerate any more than the Moabite Stone – it merely uses language in the standard way of the time. We often use language in a similarly non-literal way; for example, when we say that an enemy was ‘totally annihilated’ we don’t mean that the nation doesn’t exist any more. This still means that a horrendous number of people died, but taken alongside the archaeological facts, we are reminded to understand the language as an ancient reader would.

As well as the destruction Israel caused not being as extensive as we might at first have thought, their conduct of war must also be seen in context.

Their rules of engagement were very strict and humane compared with other nations. They were only allowed to kill people who fought them, so if a town surrendered, they could not harm anyone. And even if the inhabitants didn’t surrender, they were only allowed to kill the men – ie the soldiers (Deuteronomy 20:10–15). This was actually their only option if further battles were to be prevented, because there was nowhere to lock up prisoners – if Israel let them go, they would attack again.

Racial Purity...

So why did God say that everyone must die in Deuteronomy 20:16? The previous verse makes it clear there were two sets of rules of engagement, and this second one applied only to nearby towns. Jericho and Ai, which suffered this fate, were just outside Gilgal where Israel was camping during most of Joshua’s campaign. This policy was a sad necessity because orphaned children were expected to take revenge when they were grown (rather like Conan the Barbarian!). If they grew up near their enemy, they would be honour-bound to slaughter their father’s killers.

Israel’s tactics must have seemed very strange to surrounding cultures who allowed soldiers to be as savage as they liked. Israel had strict laws against rape – any woman a soldier wanted for himself had to be left alone for a month, after which she had to be offered the financial security of a proper marriage contract. They couldn’t even loot nearby towns – everything had to be destroyed. This meant that an Israelite’s only motivation for fighting nearby towns was self-defence – soldiers didn’t get any wages, and without looting they had no incentive to attack them unprovoked.

God wasn’t concerned about racial purity – when the Israelites left Egypt, they were ‘ethnically diverse’ (Exodus 12:38 – identical to the Hebrew of Nehemiah 13:3). Moses himself was married to a Midianite, and later married an Ethiopian (Exodus 18:1; Numbers 12:1). The population of Palestine continued to be mixed, and they integrated with the Israelites. King David’s great-grandfather, Boaz, was the son of a Canaanite who married a Midianite (Matthew 1:5), and Solomon’s mother was formerly married to a Hittite who was one of David’s personal bodyguards (2 Samuel 11:3; 23:39).

...or Religious Purity?

Instead, God was concerned about religious purity. We don’t know much about the religions practiced, but enough evidence has survived to tell us that child sacrifice was a key feature. The Israelites were told to completely destroy the altars and idols in Canaan, not to marry people from those religions, and to kill any who rebelled. Even Jewish towns and people who went over to such practices suffered this same destruction (eg Deuteronomy 13: 12–16).

Joshua’s campaign didn’t wipe out the population (as we see in the rest of Joshua and Judges), but it did wipe out virtually all traces of these heinous religious practices. No doubt by using modern weapons, incarceration and re-education we could have eradicated this abhorrent practice of child sacrifice with less bloodshed than Joshua, though given his limitations, he did what he had to do with commendable restraint. However, even when we have a better understanding of the actual situation, the amount of killing is still very disturbing and many questions remain.

No Excuse

The use of those methods over 3,000 years ago does not give anyone the excuse to apply the same approach today. Modern-day Arabs take this part of Bible history personally because they see parallels to the events after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 when most Palestinian Arabs became exiles. The causes and responsibilities are a matter of great controversy and have resulted in wars and continuing hostilities.

The Bible looks forward to a day when that land will belong to King Jesus, and when everyone will acknowledge the one God. At that time, no one will be permitted to wage war, whatever rules of engagement they follow.