Commandment for Genocide?


David Steinberg


In Ethannan, Ekev and Shoftim there are unambiguous divine instructions to wipe out all the Canaanites[1] – men, women and children.  The operative verses are -

Deuteronomy, chapter 7

1: "When the LORD your God brings you into the land which you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Gir'gashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Per'izzites, the Hivites, and the Jeb'usites, seven nations greater and mightier than yourselves,
2: and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them; then you must utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them, and show no mercy to them.
3: You shall not make marriages with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons.
4: For they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods; then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.
5: But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and hew down their Ashe'rim, and burn their graven images with fire.
6: "For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth.
16: And you shall destroy all the peoples that the LORD your God will give over to you, your eye shall not pity them; neither shall you serve their gods, for that would be a snare to you.

Deuteronomy, chapter 20

16: But in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes,
17: but you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Per'izzites, the Hivites and the Jeb'usites, as the LORD your God has commanded;
18: that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices which they have done in the service of their gods, and so to sin against the LORD your God.

Also relevant is the following from Joshua, chapter 11

10: And Joshua turned back at that time, and took Hazor, and smote its king with the sword; for Hazor formerly was the head of all those kingdoms.
11: And they put to the sword all who were in it, utterly destroying them; there was none left that breathed, and he burned Hazor with fire.
12: And all the cities of those kings, and all their kings, Joshua took, and smote them with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying them, as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded.
13: But none of the cities that stood on mounds did
Israel burn, except Hazor only; that Joshua burned.
14: And all the spoil of these cities and the cattle, the people of
Israel took for their booty; but every man they smote with the edge of the sword, until they had destroyed them, and they did not leave any that breathed.


Given the importance of this issue in the post-Holocaust period, I had expected Etz Hayim to deal with it seriously and at length.  Regrettably the treatment in Etz Hayim is inferior even to that in the old, pre-Holocaust, Hertz Humash. This is astonishing as its prime source for Deuteronomy - the JTS Commentary by Tigai - has a whole excursus (pp. 470-472) on the subject.


Plaut does a rather better job (Following is quoted from The Torah: A Modern Commentary by W. Gunther Plaut)


“The Treatment of Conquered Nations


“The Torah instructs the Israelites to "doom" the idolatrous nations in Canaan and to show them no pity. This provision is in stark contrast to the pervasive humaneness of the book, and therefore attempts of various kinds have been made to explain or defend this harshness and to make clear how a loving and caring God could be seen to issue such edicts.


“An early attempt was made in Talmudic days. The Hebrew for "show them no pity" (lo teHannem) was read as "do not grant them [land]," as if the text read lo taHnem), that is, do not sell real estate to "them-a rendering which leaned on the warning in Exod. 23:33 not to let them dwell "in your land". But even if one would deem this interpretation feasible (which. it is not, in view of the clear Masoretic text), one could not argue away the provision of Deut. 20:16 which, using another word, unequivocally says, "You shall not let a soul remain alive."


“The text has further been defended on the grounds of necessity: unless the native people were done away with, they would ensnare Israel with their idolatrous practices, and the maintenance of the Sinaitic covenant was a task overshadowing all else. God's plans for humanity could not and cannot be measured by human considerations. To emphasize this point, S. R. Hirsch interpreted the twice issued injunction of verses 2 and 16 to show that repetition was needed because it went so much against the sensibilities of the Israelites. However, no student of history can easily accept such a reading, for all too many humans have fallen victim to inquisitors and crusading warriors who pretended to act out of the highest religious motives. And already in talmudic times the notion was rejected that an Almighty God would agree to wipe idolatry off the face of the earth, though He had the power to do so.


“One comes closer to an understanding of the Torah if one abandons efforts to shield it from criticism and sees it in the light of its own time, its values, and standards.  "The custom to 'dedicate' an enemy to the deity, or to ban him, or after a victory to annihilate him, is told us of various Near Eastern nations as well as of the Greeks, Romans, Celts, and Germans. Since the sensitivities of the ancients were not offended by the rigor of this procedure, Moses could use this harsh war practice as a means to shield Israel from pagan infection" .


“But even this interpretation does not do the text full justice, for it ascribes to Moses a point of view which may not have been his at all. Moreover, and most important: the unyielding tenor of these provisions stands in sharp contrast to the fact that such a policy of annihilation was, never carried out-the Canaanites were not annihilated. In fact, in Judg. 3:1, God himself is said to have abrogated His original command (see above, at verse 22). Later, in retrospect-taking Deuteronomy to be a post-settlement and not a Mosaic document-the reader was told that the rampant idolatry which characterized Israel's history for centuries could have been avoided had the native peoples been destroyed. Note that the sermon warns the Israelites not to intermarry with the idolaters -the very idolaters who were supposed to be doomed!


“A proper understanding, then, would view these passages as retrojections of what could and might have been, and the sentiments were acceptable in view of the common practices of the times.”


This last view is well stated by G H Davies in Peake’s Commentary on the Bible (Nelson 1962)


“Israelites and their Neighbours- The Levitical preacher returns to his transition theme and takes his hearers back in imagination to the eve of their entry into the promised land. He instructs his people in the duties proper to that situation. They are to destroy their idolatrous neighbours, to have no dealings of any kind such as commerce or matrimony, and they are to destroy the shrines and their contents. The command to destroy utterly, that is to put to the ban, the different peoples of Canaan seems at first to be a blot upon the humanitarian outlook of Deuteronomy. This command is given in order to prevent idolatry. Now for Deuteronomy idolatry can only have one outcome and that is the destruction of Israel. It is through idolatry and only through idolatry that Israel can destroy itself and thus bring to naught God's purpose for Israel. The choice before Deuteronomy then was either to live with these peoples of Canaan, which would inevitably bring about idolatry and so the death of Israel, or to destroy these peoples and so remove the greatest cause of idolatry. It is more evil to be idolatrous than to slay these peoples. Thus the real meaning of idolatry for Deuteronomy begins to be clear for us, even though many moral difficulties in the command remain.


“It must however be remembered that the preacher was only laying down what he considered to be the ideal policy, namely, extermination. In actual fact he was preaching to people who had long settled in the land, had long lived with these groups and had frequently been idolatrous. His words show the situation confronting him. He bids his hearers exterminate idolatry. That is what had not happened. He then bids his hearers to make no covenants or marriages with them. That is what in fact did happen. So Deuteronomy faces the problem of Israel's contemporary idolatry.


Accordingly his second solution is the destruction of Canaanite altars with their accompanying stone and wooden ('ashe'rim) symbols of deity and images. The sanctuaries are the centres of holiness, blessing amd life for the Canaanites, and to destroy them is to destroy the life and body of Canaanite religion.”


Tigay also has an interesting discussion in The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy by Jeffrey H. Tigay 1996

“The Proscription of the Canaanites (7:1-2, 7:16and 20:15-18)

“According to Deuteronomy 7:1-2, 7:16 and 20:15-18, when the Israelites enter the promised land they are to wipe out the Canaanites living there. The terms referring to this requirement are the verb haHarem, "proscribe," and the noun Herem, "proscription," "a thing proscribed." Deuteronomy states this as an unconditional mandate and leaves no room for sparing any Canaanites in the promised land. Modern critical scholars and traditional Jewish exegesis hold, each for different reasons, that at the time when Israel entered the promised land there was actually no such policy of unconditional proscription of the Canaanites. Traditional exegesis holds that Deuteronomy in fact does not require unconditional proscription. Modern scholars hold that it does, but that this policy is purely theoretical and did not exist when Israel entered the land.

“In 7:1-2, 7:16, the command to doom the Canaanites is clearly unconditional and offering them terms of submission is prohibited. That 20:15-18 is also meant unconditionally is indicated by its opening clause, "Thus you shall deal with all towns that lie very far from you," that is, with foreign, non-Canaanite cities. "Thus" refers back to verse 10, which requires Israel to offer to spare cities that surrender. Verses 15-17 indicate that this offer is made only to cities outside the promised land and that the Canaanites in the land are to be denied this option. This interpretation of the law is consistent with Joshua 6-11(except for 11:19-20, mentioned below), according to which surrender was not offered to the cities of Canaan when Joshua conquered them.

“According to 20:18, the aim of this unconditional requirement is to rid the land of Canaanites, who might influence Israelites to adopt their abhorrent rites, such as child sacrifice and various occult practices (12:31;18:9-12). Note that it is particularly abhorrent rites, and not beliefs, that prompt this policy. By itself, worship of astral bodies and other gods by Canaanites and other pagans is not counted against them as a sin, since Deuteronomy holds that God assigned such worship to them (see 4:19; 32:8; and Excursuses 7 and 31). Exodus, too, requires ridding the land of the Canaanites to prevent them from influencing Israel, though it prescribes expulsion rather than annihilation. 1 The aim of these policies is defensive, and no action is prescribed against idolatry or idolaters outside Israelite territory. These policies are not based on ethnicity; Deuteronomy prescribes the same treatment for Israelite cities that lapse into idolatry (13:13-19).

“Modern scholars hold that this law is purely theoretical and was never in effect. In their view, the populations of only a few Canaanite cities were annihilated, but most were not. There is much evidence in favor of this view. Archaeology has found only a few Canaanite cities that seem to have been destroyed by the Israelites when they arrived in the land at the beginning of the Iron Age (ca. 1200 B.C.E.). As noted above, pre-Deuteronomic laws, in Exodus, speak of the Canaanites being expelled rather than annihilated, and the narratives of Judges, Kings, and Joshua 15-17 indicate that many were neither expelled nor annihilated but were spared and subjected to forced labor.3 Some scholars suggest that even Deuteronomy did not originally require annihilating the Canaanites. In their view, Deuteronomy's original law consisted only of 20:10-14, according to which all cities are to be offered terms of submission. They note that Joshua 11:19,Joshua 15-17, and Judges all reflect this form of the law. In this view the following paragraph in Deuteronomy, verses 15-18, is a later supplement that modifies the original law by restricting the requirement to offer the option of surrender to foreign, non-Canaanite cities. This supplement is reflected in Deuteronomy 7:1-5, 16-26, and the narratives of Joshua 6-11 (except for Joshua 11:19-20), but it is based on a theoretical reconstruction, conceived at a later time when the Canaanites had ceased to exist as a discernible element of the population in Israel, to account for their disappearance.

“If this is the case, where did the idea of proscribing the Canaanites come from? The historical books, as noted, indicate that the invading Israelites did proscribe some Canaanite cities. Proscription was a well-known practice in the ancient world. One type of proscription was the religious practice of devoting property, cattle, or persons (perhaps the victims of sacrificial vows, such as Jephthah's daughter) irrevocably to a deity, that is, to a sanctuary and the priests, sometimes by destruction or killing. Another type was punitive proscription, which consisted of executing those who committed severe offenses against the gods. This type is prescribed by Exodus 22:17 for individual idolaters, and by Deuteronomy 13:13-18for idolatrous cities. Proscription of enemy armies and populations to the gods is known from various places in the ancient world. King Mesha of Moab proscribed the Israelite inhabitants of some towns in Transjordan to his god when he recaptured former Moabite territory there. Other parallels are known from Mesopotamia and ancient Europe. In the context of ancient warfare, in which the gods were believed to be the main fighters and human antagonists their enemies, proscription of the enemy's population seemed to be a natural way for an army to express devotion to a deity. A case in point is God's command to Saul to proscribe the Amalekites to avenge their ancient ambush of the Israelites. Proscription was not considered necessary or obligatory in most cases, but was something that an army might vow to do to induce divine aid in critical circumstances, such as before a crucial battle or a counterattack following a defeat. Examples of this are Israel's proscription of Arad and Ai after initial defeats by them, and the proscription of Jericho at the start of Israel’s campaign for the promised land.

“Deuteronomy appears to have inferred from cases like these that the disappearance of the Canaanites was due to a systematic policy of proscription.  Aware that there were no discernible Canaanites left in Israel, aware from Exodus and Numbers that the land was to be rid of them, aware of Exodus 22:17,which requires proscription of Israelite idolaters, and mindful of its own law requiring proscription of idolatrous Israelite cities, Deuteronomy must have assumed that God, in His zeal to protect Israel from exposure to pagan abominations, had required eliminating the Canaanites by the same means. It is interesting, however, that Deuteronomy never speaks of proscribing the victims to God. It uses proscription in a purely secular way, meaning simply "destruction." It is not a sacrifice to God but a practical measure to prevent the debasement of Israelite conduct.

“Traditional Jewish commentators, as mentioned, do not believe that Deuteronomy means to proscribe the Canaanites unconditionally. The Sifrei and other halakhic sources reason that since the express purpose of the law is to prevent the Canaanites from influencing the Israelites with their abhorrent religious practices (v. 18), if they abandoned their paganism and accepted the moral standards of the Noachide laws they were to be spared. Maimonides holds that verse 10 requires that Israel offer terms of surrender to all cities, Canaanite included. In his view, when verse 15says "thus you shall deal" with non-Canaanite cities, it is not referring to, and limiting, verse 10, but verse 14, which calls for sparing the women and children of a city taken in battle. In his view this means that all cities must be given the option of surrender; the difference between Canaanite and foreign cities is only that if foreign cities reject the offer, only their men are to be killed, but if Canaanite cities reject the offer, their entire population is to be killed. This view is compatible with Joshua 11:19,which implies that Canaanite cities could have saved themselves by surrendering: "Not a single city made terms [hishlimah] with the Israelites; all were taken in battle."

“These arguments notwithstanding, it is clear from 7:1-2 and 16 that Deuteronomy's demand for proscription of the Canaanites is indeed unconditional. The rabbis' rejection of this view is a reflection of their own sensibilities. As M. Greenberg has observed, they must have regarded this understanding of the law as implausible because it is so harsh and inconsistent with other values, such as the prophetic concept of repentance and the prediction that idolaters will someday abandon false gods, and the halakhic principle that wrongdoers may not be punished unless they have been warned that their action is illegal and informed of the penalty. In effect, they used interpretation to modify and soften the law in deference to other, overriding principles.”



Ethically Unacceptable Elements in the Scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam


Personally, I have grave doubts whether the Quran, the Torah or the New Testament can be truly seen except against the social, cultural and political contexts of their origin.  It is not just cultural distortions of pure, primitive, Judaism, Christianity or Islam and their respective scriptures that have caused these groups to have become oppressive within themselves (e.g. in the unfair treatment of women), in how they have treated minorities etc.  On the contrary, within their very scriptures are the seeds of such oppression and hence you can have a serious Islamic scholar approving of terrorism.  It might similarly be possible for serious fundamentalist Christian or Jewish scholars to do the same under the right circumstances. To mention a very few examples where scriptures license acts which would be unconscionable to most people  – the Torah’s demand that the Israelites exterminate the Canaanites (see above); the New Testament’s anti-Jewish passages[ii] (Matthew 23; John 5:37-40, 8:37-47; Acts 7:51-53; Gal. 4:21-31; I Thes. 2:13-16; Rom. 9:1-33); and the Quran’s anti-Jewish passages (e.g. Allah stamped wretchedness upon the Jews because they killed the prophets and disbelieved Allah's revelations)

As long as the three Abrahamic religions hold on to various forms of scriptural verbal revelation or inerrancy, as is the case with Orthodox Judaism, many varieties of Christianity, and generally in Islam, it will be hard to develop a rationale for rejection of these hateful teachings.  Conservative and Reform Judaism and many Catholic and Protestant groups have rejected verbal revelation or inerrancy seeing scriptures as the work of human authors, who may have been inspired but nevertheless could not but import many of their cultural views into their writings.  Such a view of scripture makes it much easier to reject elements in scripture that conflict with modern ethical sensitivities.  Of course, the flip side of this approach is the creation of crises of authority with the religious communities throwing away old certainties.


“Jews, Christians, and Muslims encourage violence because they refuse to fully challenge the authority of "sacred texts" that overflow with violent images of God and stories justifying human violence in God's name….

“Jews, Christians, and Muslims must address the problem of violence and "sacred" text if we are to have any reasonable hope for an alternative future. A world being destroyed by violence, much of it done with justifying reference to God and "sacred" text, is a world in desperate need of new understandings of divine and human power. The futility of violence and resiliency of injustice requires us to unleash our imaginations in order to move beyond religious certainties into unfamiliar terrain where patriarchal assumptions that dominate "sacred" texts and political life are challenged in light of historical need and human experience. …

“The violence-of-God traditions at the heart of the Bible and the Quran have invaded our own hearts. By sanctioning violence in "sacred" texts and in reference to them, we invariably progress along a treacherous pathway. God is powerful and proves to be God through superior violence. The God of superior violence justifies human violence in the name of God and in pursuit of God's objectives that with frightening regularity mirror our own objectives. In the end, violence replaces or becomes God. Violence is widely embraced because it is embedded and sanctified in "sacred" texts and because its use seems logical in a violent world.”

Quoted from Is Religion Killing Us?: Violence in the Bible and the Quran -- by Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, Trinity Press International 2003








See also

Overview of genocide: recent & biblical times


What is the Koran? by Toby Lester


And, on a different topic, 

Judaism and Islam – Influences and parallels






August 15, 2003



The following may be of interest


The First Word: Are Jews still commanded to blot out Amalek? 

By David Golinkin

“The Jews defeating Amalek's Army,'Adolf Fenyes, 1915
Photo: Hungarian National Gallery

On Purim, we are rightly appalled by Haman's attempt to destroy the Jewish people. Yet we seldom notice that we are twice commanded to do the same thing to Haman's people, to Amalek: in Exodus 17, which we read on Purim morning, and in Deuteronomy 25, which we read on Shabbat Zachor.

In the Haftara of Shabbat Zachor, the Prophet Samuel orders King Saul to "attack Amalek … spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses."

In short, we are instructed to commit genocide. This is morally problematic in and of itself; it is doubly problematic after the Holocaust.

During the biblical period, we were attacked by many peoples. Why blot out the memory of Amalek, as opposed to other peoples who have attacked us throughout history?

Some rabbis say that Amalek, by attacking a defenseless bunch of slaves on the road, deviated from the norms of war. It was an unjust war that offered no conceivable gain, and therefore was motivated solely by hatred.

Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Sofer (Hungary, 19th century) emphasized the words "undeterred by fear of God" (Deut. 25:18). If Amalek attacked the Israelites immediately after God redeemed them from Egypt with signs and wonders, it shows that they had no fear of God. That is why Exodus says that God will be at war with Amalek from generation to generation (Exodus 17:16). It is, so to speak, a war between God and Amalek.

DESPITE THE clarity of the biblical commandment, a number of rabbinic sources express clear discomfort with the requirement to blot out the memory of Amalek.

Rabbi Mani says (Yoma 22b) that King Saul argued with God: If the Torah says that if you find an anonymous dead body between two cities you must bring a sacrifice as a form of atonement for that one death, how much the more so all of these souls! And if an Amalekite sinned, did his animal sin? If adults sinned, did children sin?

Rabbi Ya'acov Haim Sofer (Jerusalem, d. 1939) asked why we don't recite a blessing before Parashat Zachor on the Shabbat before Purim.

"Because we do not bless regarding destruction, even the destruction of non-Jews, as we see that God said [to the angels after the Egyptians drowned in the Sea of Reeds]: 'my handiwork are drowning in the sea and you are singing?'"

This type of discomfort led to allegorical interpretations of the commandment to destroy Amalek. The Zohar says Amalek is Samael or Satan, while in Barcelona (ca. 1300) there were commentators who said that Amalek means Yetzer Hara, the evil inclination. In other words, we are commanded to blot out Satan or the Yetzer Hara, not a physical people called Amalek.

Indeed, the commandment to blot out Amalek is omitted entirely by two of the most important codifiers of Jewish law - Rabbi Ya'acov ben Asher in hisTur and Rabbi Yosef Caro in his Shulhan Aruch. Other important rabbis eliminated the obligation by explaining that, in our day, Amalek no longer exists.

Nonetheless, there were many important rabbis, such as Maimonides and Rabbi Pinhas Halevi of Barcelona, who ruled that Amalek still exists, and that we are still commanded to remember their deed and to destroy them. Some rabbis even proceeded to identify Amalek with a specific people.
In 1898, Rabbi Yosef Haim Sonnenfeld refused to go out to greet Kaiser Wilhelm II when he visited
Palestine, citing the Gaon of Vilna's view that the Germans are descendants of Amalek. Not surprisingly, many prominent Jews such as Simon Dubnow, Arthur Szyk and Raul Hilberg identified the Nazis with Amalek beginning in the 1930s.

Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik and others say that anyone who hates the Jewish people is from the seed of Amalek e.g. the Nazis, the Soviets, Nasser and the Mufti. More recently, Rabbi Jack Riemer has written that the Muslim fundamentalists are Amalek.

Sadly, some Jews have identified other Jews as Amalek. Rabbi Elhanan Bunem Wasserman (1875-1941) said that Jews who defy Jewish law are of the seed of Amalek. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hacohen, the Hafetz Haim, associated Jewish communists in Russia with Amalek, and some Jews in Israel today do so to their ideological opponents.

Finally, various Christians have referred to themselves as Israel and to their enemies as Amalek. The Byzantine chronicler Theophanes called the Muslims who conquered Eretz Yisrael "Amalek." In 1095, Pope Urban II told the Crusaders that he was Moses, they were the Israelites and the Muslims were Amalek. Martin Luther claimed the same of the Jews who fought against Jesus. Finally, in 1689, the Puritan preacher Cotton Mather urged Christian soldiers fighting the Indians to defeat "Amalek who afflicts Israel [=the Puritans] in the desert."

I SHARE the discomfort regarding the commandment to destroy an entire people, despite the gravity of their original deed. I agree with the many rabbis throughout history who eliminated this mitzva from their codices, or who said that Amalek no longer exists. We have seen just how dangerous it is to identify your current enemy with Amalek. The identification changes over time and place, and is even used by Christians against us!

Though it would seem that the Amalek story is entirely negative in nature, there are two positive, ethical lessons which we can learn from it.

In Pesikta d'rav Kahana, Proverbs 11:1-2 is interpreted that if you use unjust weights and measures, a non-Jewish nation will wage war against your generation. According to this midrash, Amalek's attack was a punishment for unethical behavior. Thus, the message of the story is not hatred but repentance. In order to prevent another Amalek, we must behave ethically.

Professor Nehama Leibowitz noted that in all four biblical passages which use the expression, the litmus test for "undeterred by fear of God" is the attitude to the weak and the stranger. Amalek is the archetype of the Godless who attack the weak because they are weak, who cut down the stragglers in every generation.

In our day, perhaps the most important lesson is not hatred of Amalek but aversion to their actions. In Israel, there are many strangers and stragglers - new immigrants, foreign workers, as well as innocent Arabs and Palestinians. Some Jews learn from the story of Amalek that we should hate certain groups. We must emphasize the opposite message. We must protect "the stragglers" so that we may say of the State of Israel: "surely there is fear of God in this place."

The writer is president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.


Linda Price

Director of Communications

Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem

tel: 972-2-6790755, ext. 124

fax: 972-2-6790840


[1] See Civilization Before Greece and Rome by H. W. F. Saggs, Yale University Press, 1989 pp. 186-187 for an interesting analysis.