Can God command us to commit
mortal sin? ...

In defending the truthfulness of the Bible, Christians often justify the genocide of Jericho with arguments such as ...

The defense ...My comments ...

The Canaanites were totally depraved. God destroyed them so that they would not corrupt the Israelites.

Catholic just war doctrine does not allow for attacking someone merely because they might corrupt you. (I don't accept all these tenets.)

Innocent adults were spared (Rahab and her family).

We don't know whether or not there were other innocent adults. We don't know whether all the relatives of Rahab were innocent.

Innocent children will naturally have to bear the consequences of the sins of their parents.

This does not justify murdering them.

God commanded them to execute His sentence of capital punishment on the Canaanites.

God can execute anyone he wishes anytime He wishes without commanding someone to commit a mortal sin on his behalf.

The entire population (except babies and infants) were armed and fighting.

Perhaps so. Perhaps killing armed children is justified in this context.

This is just the way warfare was done back then.

This does not justify committing mortal sin.

Perhaps the women and children had already fled the city.

Why was Rahab still there?


I assume ...

My Assessment ...


The Just War Doctrine ...

The Catholic Church teaches the just war doctrine. In the Jericho incident, the conditions would not have been met without God's miraculous intervention. Some facts ...

QuotesMy comments

The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy.

Catechism, Just war

The actions of the Israelites were not defensive. But then, they were not offensive either. They were mysterious.

The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain.

Catechism, 2309

Jericho was not an aggressor. In fact they hid in the city behind the city walls.

Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.

Catechism, 2314

Genocide is extremely immoral.

The Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict. The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties.

Catechism, 2312

Genocide is not an option even in a just war.



Capital Punishment ...

One defense of the actions of the Israelites is that they were executing the sentence of capital punishment on God's behalf. What does the Catholic Church teach about capital punishment?

QuotesMy comments

Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

Catechism, 2267

The Canaanites were murdering their babies by sacrificing them to their gods. Certainly, they were guilty of murder. But was every man, woman, and child guilty?

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Catechism, 2267

Perhaps there was no other way.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.

Catechism, 2267

Certainly the Israelites could not merely imprison the offending Canaanites.

Legitimate defence can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defence of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.

Catechism, 2265

Perhaps you could make the case that Israel, as God's chosen nation, had sovereignty over the Canaanites and, therefore, had the responsibility for the welfare of the Canaanites. But annihilating a whole city hardly seems like the proper form of treatment for those who have responsibility for their welfare and who are charged with safeguarding the common good.


While it is true that the Catholic Church allows for capital punishment in certain extreme cases, I can see no possible justification for the wholesale slaughter of the inhabitants of Jericho. If God wanted to annihilate Jericho, he should have sent an angel to do it.


The Biblical Account ...

The massacre of Jericho described in the biblical book of Joshua was clearly genocide.

QuotesMy comments

And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.

Joshua 6:21

But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth.

Deuteronomy 20:16

Everyone was killed, including innocent women and children. I suppose it is possible that the women and children had already left the city, but why was Rahab still there?



Christian Justifications ...

Protestants typically justify the actions of the Israelites in performing genocide against the Canaanites. This is a consequence of their view of the Bible. But the moral law is very clear; genocide is never just.

QuotesMy comments

Why were the cities destroyed? The primary reason was punishment for wrongdoing. The populations of the destroyed cities had long histories of grievous sins (Genesis 15:16, Deuteronomy 25:17-19), which often included sacrificing their children to false gods (Deuteronomy 12:29-31).

Genocide in the Old Testament

Certainly the Canaanites were guilty of wrongdoing. But this does not justify genocide by the Israelites.

In the cities that were given to the Israelites as their inheritance, there was a secondary reason: totally depraved cultures were destroyed so that they would not corrupt the Israelites into committing the same evil acts (Deuteronomy 7:1-4, 20:16-18). This did in fact occur: when the Israelites didn't obey God and destroy cities, they too began practicing child sacrifice (Psalms 106:34-40).

Genocide in the Old Testament

It is unjust to exterminate a nation so that they won't corrupt you. Genocide is never justifiable.

The destruction of wicked nations served as an instructive warning to contemporaries (Joshua 2:1-11) and future generations (1 Corinthians 10:1-11).

Genocide in the Old Testament

Just because genocide has this benefit doesn't make it justified.

What about innocent adults? Sadly, these were few and far between. If people grow up in a culture that accepts things like murder and rape,very few will listen to their conscience and go against what everyone else says. Children learn wrong things from their parents and the surrounding culture; as they mature, they become part of the culture and perpetuate it by participating in it and passing on its teachings to their children.

Genocide in the Old Testament

Just because someone is guilty of sin does not mean that others have the right to perform genocide on them.

Those who were righteous were spared from the destruction. In the destruction of Jericho, Rahab and her family were spared because she feared God and chose to help the Israelites (Joshua 2:1-21, 6:22-25).

Genocide in the Old Testament

Just because a few innocent people are spared doesn't make it okay to perform genocide on the rest.

What about the children? Small children did not share the guilt of their parents. The Bible describes small children as not knowing right from wrong (Isaiah 7:15-16), and in some cases, this meant that they were spared the earthly punishment their elders received.

Genocide in the Old Testament

The small children certainly were not guilty of any crimes, so executing them was unjust. Perhaps the women and children had previously evacuated (but why was Rahab still there?)

When the Israelites destroyed a population, they were acting as God's tools, not taking matters into their own hands. God made it clear to them that he was the one behind their victories (Judges 7:2-3, Joshua 5:13-14). In many cases, the nations were defeated by miracles of God (Joshua 6, 10:8-14), and in all cases the Israelites were victorious only because they were following God, who gave them the victory (Joshua 10:42).

Genocide in the Old Testament

It is true that God was giving them the land. But it is not true that God ordered them to perform genocide.

We may add, that they [the Canaanites] had been borne with for four hundred years, until their iniquity was complete. Who will now presume to complain of excessive rigor, after God had so long delayed to execute judgment? If anyone object that children, at least, were still free from fault, it is easy to answer that they perished justly, as the race was accursed and reprobated.

Commentaries on the Book of Joshua

John Calvin's harsh words that even the children were guilty.



My Assessment ...

God didn't command the Israelites to perform genocide against Jericho: Moses and Joshua did.

QuotesMy comments

The city [Jericho] shall be accursed, even it, and all that are therein, to the LORD: only Rahab the harlot shall live.

Joshua 6:17

These are Joshua's words, not God's. Notice carefully that it never says, "thus says the Lord God."

But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee: That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods; so should ye sin against the LORD your God.

Deuteronomy 20:16-18

These are Moses' words, not God's. Notice carefully that it never says, "thus says the Lord God."

He [Jesus] saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.

Matthew 19:8

Not everything that Moses taught and commanded the Israelites was from the Lord. And Joshua merely repeated what Moses said.

And the LORD spake unto Moses in the plains of Moab by Jordan near Jericho, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye are passed over Jordan into the land of Canaan; Then ye shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their pictures, and destroy all their molten images, and quite pluck down all their high places: And ye shall dispossess the inhabitants of the land, and dwell therein: for I have given you the land to possess it.

Numbers 33:50-53

Note that God did not command Moses to commit genocide on the people of Jericho, merely to possess the land. They could have done this in other ways ...

  • Settle in an unoccupied spot and wait until the Canaanites attack them.
  • Wander around between the cities, carefully avoiding privately owned land until the Canaanites attacked them.

But God provoked them into a war with Jericho by commanding them to get near the walls and then knocking down the walls, thereby initiating a just war.


God worked out a scheme in which the Israelites were justified in attacking the inhabitants of Jericho.

QuotesMy comments

The LORD said unto Joshua, See, I have given into thine hand Jericho, and the king thereof, and the mighty men of valour. . . . When they make a long blast with the ram's horn, and when ye hear the sound of the trumpet, all the people shall shout with a great shout; and the wall of the city shall fall down flat, and the people shall ascend up every man straight before him.

Joshua 6:2,5

Since the Israelites were near the city when the walls fell, they would be attacked by the inhabitants of Jericho if they didn't fight. A clever way for God to initiate a war without commanding the Israelites to attack them unprovoked.

Note that God did not command them to perform genocide.


God sometimes blesses the decisions of religious leaders even when they are wrong. There are plenty of examples in the Bible (e.g., David). And there are plenty of examples in church history (even some popes and bishops).

God gave the land to the Israelites starting with Abraham. But the Israelites gave up the rights to the land by abandoning it for so long starting with Joseph's reign in Egypt. They should have returned to the land much sooner, but they got too comfortable in Egypt. They should have remembered God's command to their ancestors that they were to inhabit the land. In spite of this, God was determined to give them the land so he found a way (requiring miracles).


God's Judgment ...

When God seems to do bad things: As judgment for people's wickedness God allows demons access to this world — all they know how to do is steal, kill, and destroy. Because the bad thing happens, it can be said that God does it since he does everything (nothing is outside his will, except evil).

Perhaps the destroying angels in the book of Revelation and elsewhere are not good angels at all.