The Bible records several acts of hostility that would be probably regarded as ‘war crimes’ today. The problem is made worse by the fact that God is said to have commanded these acts. Perhaps the most notorious involved the command to utterly destroy the Canaanites (see Deut 20:16).
What follows is based on an article by David Instone-Brewer:-
Curiously, it may be that this particular act of genocide never happened. Although Palestine contains many remains of ancient towns destroyed by warfare, very few date from the time of Israel’s conquest. The archaeological evidence is consistent with the biblical record, which states that although Israel fought and defeated several armies, only three towns were destroyed – Jericho, Ai and Hazor. It is possible that the purpose was the same as that of the use of atom bombs in 1945 – to force a rapid end to the war.
But why does the Bible seem to give the impression that the destruction was much more extensive than this? It would seem that it was using the kind of rhetorical language that was conventional at the time. For example, the Moabite Stone (about 830 BC) says that ‘Israel has been utterly destroyed forever’ when this was clearly not literally the case. Similarly, the town of Debir is described in Joshua 10:38f as ‘totally destroyed’, and yet in Joshua 15:15-17 as needing to be defeated all over again.
If the scale of destruction caused by Israel was not nearly so extensive as appears at first sight, then the rules of engagement were also much more humane compared with other nations. If a town surrendered, they were not allowed to harm anyone. Only male soldiers could be killed (and, with nowhere to lock of prisoners, this was the only option if future attacks were to be prevented). The rape of women was forbidden: if a soldier wanted a woman for himself he must leave her alone for a month, and then offer her the security of a marriage contract. Looting was not allowed: since everything must be destroyed, the only motivation for fighting was self-defence, and not greed.
It would be wrong to label the conquest of Canaan as ‘ethnic cleansing’. Israel herself was a racially diverse nation (see Ex 12:38). Moses married a Midianite, and later an Ethiopian. Boaz was the son of a Canaanite who married a Midianite. Solomon’s mother had previously been married to a Hittite.
So, the God of the Old Testament was not interested in racial purity. But he was concerned with religious purity. In the Canaanite religions, child sacrifice was central. Canaanite altars and idols were to be destroyed, the Israelites were not to marry people from those religions. Jewish people who went over to such practices were themselves to be destroyed (Deuteronomy 12:12ff).
Joshua’s campaign did not, then, destroy the Canaanite, population, but it did virtually wipe out idolatry and its associated evils.
Even when we have given a sober account of these events, the amount of bloodshed recorded is still disturbing. We can be sure that the methods used in the Old Testament give no-one any excuse to apply them today.
What we can do is to look forward to the day when God’s peaceful rule will hold sway, and war and hostility will be no more.
Based on an article by David Instone-Brewer in Christianity magazine.