The problem of violence in the Old Testament is something the Church has wrestled with for hundreds of years. Most people intuit that such violence—especially against children—is wrong. Various solutions have been proposed, including allegorical interpretation. The popular medieval study Bible, Glossa ordinaria, insisted that the laudation of dashing infants’ heads against a rock in Psalm 137 must be taken figuratively; God would never sanction the killing of innocents. Instead, the verse was understood to refer to sins that, if not eradicated in their incipient stage, would grow up to be “Babylonian-size” sins, dominating and wreaking havoc in one’s life. In biblical studies today, scholars are giving much attention to depictions of massacre during Israelite conquest of Canaan. These violent events, also known as war-ḥerem, included the killing of women and children and are mentioned primarily in the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua.
In many churches such acts of violence are often rationalized as ethical because God allegedly ordered it, and whatever God commands is moral. After all, some argue, the Canaanites were exceedingly wicked and deserved to be killed. Recently, John Piper received criticism for reaffirming this position. I would like to offer another reading to consider. What if the biblical text offers clues that the Israelite entrance into Canaan was less than ideal? What if Scripture actually contains a different model, a model that the canonical narrative suggests was forgotten until the Israelites recovered it in their exile? There are two models presented in the Pentateuch: Abraham’s entrance into the land and the Israelites’ entrance. I propose that Abraham’s is the model that we are to affirm and imitate.
God said to Abraham (AKA Abram), “Go into the land I will show you” (Gen 12:1). And Abraham did. Abraham left the familiarity of the only place he had ever known in order to trust God’s call. He left his home, his friends . . . and his idols . . . in order to follow God. For this he was considered “righteous” (Gen 15:5-7).
Abraham went to Canaan because God promised to give the land to Abraham and Sarah, as well as their descendents. Significantly, the promise does not mention violent conquest as the method for possessing the land (Gen 12:1-3). To the contrary, the narrative maintains God desired to bless every people group through Abraham and Sarah (v. 3; 18:18). Moreover, the patriarch and matriarch were destined to be the parental lineage of a multitude of nations (17:4-6, 15-16). In each re-affirmation of the promise of land and descendants, there is no mention of killing the inhabitants (13:14-16; 15:7, 18; 16:10; 17:1-8; 18:17-18; 24:7). The Covenant of blessing is threefold: an abundance of descendants, land, and through Abraham all the families of the earth will be blessed.
Accordingly, Abraham settles peaceably among the Canaanites (13:7, 12). Many leaders in the land respond favorably to him and Abraham treats them well in return: Amorites were in alliance with him (14:13), the king of Salem blesses him (v. 22), the Philistine king, Abimelech, makes a mutual covenant of no harm that applies to descendants (21:22-34), the sons of Heth consider Abraham a “mighty prince” and offer the choicest of graves for Sarah (23:3-6), Ephron the Hittite wants to give Abraham a field and burial cave at no cost (vv. 10-11). In other words, God’s promise to bless those who bless Abraham appears to be operative (12:3). Despite his ostensible military prowess, Abraham does not seek to expel or kill his neighbors.
The promise of the land absent any stipulation to kill continues when it is reiterated to Isaac/Rebekah and Jacob/Rachel (26:3-4, 24; 28:4-5; 29:13-15; 35:9-12; 48:4). This is the case even when a daughter of Jacob is raped by an inhabitant of the land (34:2). If there was ever an opportunity to rationalize violence, surely the rape of an innocent woman would give cause. Instead, through the voice of Jacob, the biblical author rejects the conquest-style warfare Dinah’s brothers unleash on the Hivites (34:30), and he even curses the anger that led to it (49:5-7).
God said to the Israelites: “Go into the land I will show you.” But the Israelites were not like Abraham. At first they said no; they wanted to stay in Egypt (Ex 14:11b-12). Then they reluctantly agreed, protesting the whole way. They did not want to leave the only place they had ever known. They did not want to leave their idols (in fact Moses had to remind the people of who their true God is; 3:13-15). For this the Israelites are considered “grumblers” (16:1-3)
The Israelite’s reluctance to go into the land is a significant narrative theme that runs from Exodus through Numbers. When Moses first approached the people about leaving Egypt, they did not listen to him (Ex 6:9). And they barely stepped out one foot when, out of fear of Pharaoh, they asked Moses why he didn’t just leave them alone and let them stay in Egypt as they had first requested (14:11b-12). On the journey to Canaan, they grumbled and tested God when they had no water or meat (15:22-16:21; 17:1-7). They engaged in idolatry while Moses was speaking to God on Sinai (32). Some of the first priests offered offensive incense (Lev 10:1-6). The Israelites were nostalgic for Egypt (Num 11:1-6). Miriam and Aaron grumbled against Moses’ leadership (12:1-2). When the people finally got to the edge of the Promised Land, they were too afraid to go in. Instead they complained that they would rather die in Egypt and tried to appoint someone to take them back (14:1-4)! Later 250 prominent men in the community staged a mutiny against Moses (16). Even Moses, who is supposed to be the model of righteousness, is forbidden from entering the land because of his sin (20:8-12). When the Israelites experienced their first attack, they said yet again, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt” (21:1-5)? And if all this was not enough, they began to worship Baal with the Moabites (25:1-3).
Unlike Abraham, the Israelites did not eagerly go into the land. They engaged in multiple incidents of sinful behavior during the exodus and their journey to Canaan. Thus, it is not surprising that they would make a foolish vow—a vow that for the first time in the narrative introduces the most violent form of war: ḥerem. Like Jephthah who makes a hasty vow in hopes of victory and ends up sacrificing his own daughter (Judges 11), so also the Israelites propose war-ḥerem to retaliate for an attack (Num 21:1-2). Later, the author (or redactor) of Deuteronomy expands the notion of ḥerem, believing that Israel’s rebelliousness can only be addressed by killing off the inhabitants who might lead Israel into sin. But, what has been forgotten is that Israel never left her idols behind in the first place. The Canaanites were not the problem. Israel was her own worst enemy.
But What about the “Wicked” Canaanites?
By now it is probably clear that I am making a correlation between Abraham’s righteousness and peaceful co-existence with his non-Israelite neighbors, as well as correlating the Israelites’ disobedience and their violent entry into the land. But, that begs a few questions. Didn’t God send the Israelites into the land to punish the Canaanites for their wickedness? And if so, doesn’t that contradict the original promise which said the possession of the land was strongly associated with blessing for all people? The key to the answer seems to found in the spiritual health of God’s people.
The promise God made to Abraham to bless the nations is closely associated with Abraham’s obedience (Gen 18:18-19; 22:17-18; 26:3-5). Only when Abraham/Israel is righteous would the nations be blessed. Abraham could co-exist with the other inhabitants of the land because he was not tempted by their gods. He had freely and willingly left behind his former sins. In fact, instead of desiring the other nations’ destruction, Abraham pleaded with God to spare Sodom. And instead of being lured by idolatry, he was the influencer. As the nations looked upon Abraham’s model of righteousness they were drawn to the light. His righteousness earned the respect of many inhabitants of the land.
The Israelites, on the other hand, did not intercede for the nations. They did not model Abraham’s steadfast righteousness. Instead of being a light to the inhabitants of the land, they brought their sin with them from Egypt. Significantly, the narrative describes an Israel whose disobedience is never quite overcome even in the Davidic and Solomonic reigns. The promise of the land (all the territory promised) is never fully secured. Ultimately, the Israelites are vomited out because of their lack of genuine repentance. It is only when the Israelites are in exile that they truly come to term with their own sinfulness. Significantly, when they do, the Abrahamic covenant of blessing for the nations is revived. Jeremiah prophesied that when faithless Israel turned to God and became truly righteous, the nations would follow her example and also worship God in Jerusalem (3:15-17; see also Isa 19:24-25). This call to repentance in order to be a blessing is reiterated by Peter in his speech to Jewish leaders after the death and resurrection of Christ (Acts 3:17-16; esp. v. 25).
Did the entrance into the land have to be violent? The Old Testament describes two different responses to God’s call to “Go into the land.” One was life-giving. The other included death and destruction. While there are remaining questions and unresolved issues, the Old Testament clearly provides an alternative to violence, one that is prominent in the Abrahamic covenant itself and in prophetic texts. Abraham’s example teaches God’s people to respond to sin in the world, not through violence, but by actively modeling a captivating vision of what life can be like when it is lived for God. The New Testament affirms this model. As Jesus said, “Put your sword back in its place. For all who take up the sword will die by the sword” and “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16; 26:52).
 I recognize there is debate regarding whether the text should read reflexively (i.e. the nations bless themselves as they see Abraham’s model). I concur with those who see it as both Abraham mediating blessing as well as the nations blessing themselves as they imitate Abraham’s model of righteousness. For more on this see: M. Daniel Carroll, “Blessing the Nations: Toward a Biblical Theology of Mission from Genesis,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 10 (2000) 17-34; Benjamin J. Noonan, “Abraham, Blessing, and the Nations: a Reexamination of the Niphal and Hitpael of ברך in the Patriarchal Narratives, Hebrew Studies 51 (2010) 73-93; Chee-Chiew Lee, “גים in Genesis 35:11 and the Abrahamic Promise of Blessings for the Nations,” JETS 52 (2009) 467-82.
 Historically, the Philistines would not have been in the land during the time of Abraham, but narratively the author places the patriarch among them (John A. Wood, Perspectives on War in the Bible [Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1998] 105).
 Noonan, “Abraham,” 88.
 John Onaiyekan also notices a greater emphasis on the blessing for the nations in the prophets and also names other texts such as Jonah as additional evidence (“La bénédiction promise aux nations,” Istina 39  406).
 Even if one affirms that the narrative portrays God desiring to punish the Canaanites, it is worth noting that there is no direct Divine speech commanding slaughter. When the narrative gives voice to God, the language used in Exodus is that of “driving out” of the land not killing (e.g. Exodus 23:28,29,30,31; 33:2; 34:11). In Leviticus, God supernaturally “sends out” or the land itself is said to “vomit out” the inhabitants” (Lev 18:24, 25,28; 20:22, 23). In the book of Numbers, where violence begins to appear, most of Israel’s battles are self-defense. The one self-initiated battle, without any prompting from God or an attack, is the same battle where war-herem is introduced. The distinction between driving out vs. killing is significant. The Old Testament often uses the imagery of dwelling/eviction in/from the land as closely associated with being in God’s presence or not. Adam and Eve are driven out of the garden, Cain is forced to be a wanderer, the people of Babel are scattered, and Israel is also pushed out of the land. To be driven out, rather than killed, allowed for the possibility of repentance.
Often it is said, “God commanded genocide in the Old Testament”; however the narrative shows a more complicated picture. No where in the Pentateuch is there direct Divine speech of God commanding war-herem. The book of Deuteronomy is the only one in the Pentateuch that suggests God desires war-herem, as interpreted through the voice of Moses. The narrative suggests Moses is the one who commands war-herem based on his “explication” or interpretation of Sinaitic law (1:5). Repeatedly, the Deuteronomic narrator emphasizes the “statues and rules that [Moses} is teaching.” There are still issues that are unresolved if one considers Scripture inspired. But the text gives plenty of reasons to consider legitimate alternative narrative constructs than that of God sanctioning genocide: 1) the text gives more than one picture of possible ways of relating to the inhabitants of the land, including peaceful co-existence; 2) any punishment of the Canaanites, if described, primarily refers to driving out and not killing (or, the Noahic narrative suggests they are not driven out or killed but placed in servitude. Certainly that is not a laudable outcome either but it is a good example of the various claims made in the texts; there are divergent views [Gen 9:25-27]); 3) Jesus suggests the possibility that Deuteronomic law may include commands from Moses that were not God’s perfect will (Matt 19:7-8).