Don’t The Conquest Passages Mean Non-Combatants (Women & Children) Were Slaughtered?

QUESTION:  Hi Rick.  In your recent message you said that there were no woman and children killed when the Jews defeated a city.  How do you explain then in Joshua 10 and 11 for example when scripture states in several places that “everything that had breath” and “every person in the city” was destroyed?  Looking forward to hearing back from you.

RESPONSE: I’m so glad you came to AC3 this weekend!  Also grateful for your question, let me see if I can clarify.

My research leaned on Paul Copan, in his book, “Is God a Moral Monster?” and the work of Old Testament scholar Richard Hess and Philosopher William Lane Craig.  Copan makes the claim that the specific and repeated phrases used to recount the conquest, for example in Josh 10:39, “He destroyed everyone in it, leaving no survivors” is not unique to the Bible.  He suggests this is indicative of Ancient Near East hyperbolic ways of speaking effusively about military victory.  Related, Hess talks about what archaeology shows regarding the nature of the cities like Jericho and Ai, that they in fact were military garrisons, and not centers with large civilian populations.

So based on that work, I suggested the possibility that while the commands are to destroy everything in the Land, this amounted to destroying everything that remained in the land, as the Israelites “drove them out”.  And it is a striking note of the conquest narratives over some 20 chapters that there is not one mention of women or children being killed.  So Copan doesn’t argue with the descriptors in Joshua 10 and 11, “there were no survivors” and “he completely destroyed everyone in the land” – he just makes the point that we are not bound to believe that those who were destroyed MUST have included non-combatants.

Something I didn’t include was that in Joshua 11:19 the author says that no one “made peace with Israel” except Gibeon, which suggests that while they were to “make no covenant” with the inhabitants, terms of expulsion were nevertheless offered and in most cases not received.  Given Israel’s success, Gibeon’s fear and desperate attempt to save their own necks shows that any who remained to stand against this onslaught were only those fully prepared to stay and fight to the death.  Remember I said the phrase “drive them out” outnumbers the phrase “destroy totally” by 3 to 1 in the conquest narratives.

The bible further confirms some kind of treaty was possible, when it says God hardened them against such possible peaceful expulsion, so that he might execute judgement against them, Judges 11:20.  Also, confirming the suspicion that non-combatants fled and hid and were not part of the destruction is the fact that when you open the book of Judges, directly after the conquest, there are Canaanites everywhere!  (Judges 2:2-23).

While acknowledging these factors, I also said we still have to deal with the commands to kill “ALL”, whether or not they entailed the actual killing of non-combatants.  So I endeavored to also cover that much harder problem when I discussed the “divine command” theory of moral duty.  It was not wrong to destroy all in the land because God commanded it but would have been, if he did not.  The question then is, are these commands consistent with God’s love and justice?  And there I said they were, given the eternal stakes involved.

I think you might be helped by a deep dive into the topic.  William Lane Craig, despite evidence that non-combatants were not involved, sees full justification for the conquest even if all the verbiage of “men and woman”, “everything that breathes” was literally carried out.  He does that in this Q & A post:

If you go there, please click on the other link embedded, where he gives a longer answer to the question of God’s justification to command to slaughter of innocents.

To read a summary of Copan’s paper on this, go here:

Here is a video of Dr Richard Hess on this topic: