Archives For The Canaanite Conquest

Kill Them All

Preston Sprinkle —  September 13, 2012 — 4 Comments
This entry is part 1 of 6 in the seriesThe Canaanite Conquest

The Old Testament is filled with various ethical dilemmas, but perhaps the most complex one is Joshua’s conquest of Canaan. God’s command to kill all the Canaanites—men, women, and children—has led Richard Dawkins, an atheistic philosopher, to state

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully (The God Delusion, p. 31)

You may not know what half of those words mean. But trust me, they’re bad. If Dawkins’s view of our Old Testament God contains even an ounce of truth, then we’ve got a real problem on our hands. Is the God of the Old Testament really a bloodthirsty, vindictive bully?

On the flipside, the conquest has given others biblical precedent to wage modern war. Two weeks into the Iraq war (2003), former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld encouraged president Bush with these words:

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.

Rumsfeld’s words are a quotation from Joshua 1:9, which God spoke to Joshua on the eve of the conquest of Canaan. They are a divine command to wage a “holy war” on the pagan Canaanites. And Rumsfeld saw fit to appropriate the same logic for America’s own (holy?) war against Iraq. The implications are clear: America is a holy nation and the terrorists in Iraq, like the Canaanites, need to be annihilated.

Rumsfeld wasn’t the only national leader to use Joshua’s conquest to give religious backing to war. Christian history is filled with examples of nations fighting other nations, or people seeking to annihilate other people, all under the banner of holy war. (The Crusades of the Middle Ages are one horrific example.) I’m not sure it could be done, but it would be interesting to see how many people have been killed, tortured, and in some cases cannibalized, all because certain Christians sought to apply the book of Joshua to their lives.

Needless to say, there still exists an ethical urgency to understand Joshua’s conquest and how—if at all—it applies to us today. Does God’s command to kill the Canaanites justify a Christian’s use of violence?

Over the next few posts, I’m going to look into the ethical issues surrounding the conquest, including the slaughter of women and children, and whether or not the conquest can be used by Christians to justify violence (or war). For the rest of this post, I’ll lay out a few ways Christians have understood the conquest.

Some think that Joshua (and Moses before him) misunderstood God’s command to kill all the Canaanites. God actually didn’t really mean that they should kill the Canaanites. The Israelites simply acted “in good faith acted on what they believed to be God’s will” (Cowles, “Radical Discontinuity,” Show Them No Mercy, Kindle loc 620). While this approach distances God from the apparent evil action (commanding the genocide), nowhere in the Bible does it say that the Israelites misunderstood God. In fact, the Israelites are rebuked for not driving out all the Canaanites from the land (Judges 2). If God never actually commanded Israel to get rid of all the Canaanites, then such a rebuke would be nonsensical. There’s got to be a better solution for Joshua’s conquest.

Other Christians say that the Bible grossly distorts what actually happened. Even though Deuteronomy and Joshua speak of entering and conquering the land, this isn’t what took place at all. What really happened—despite the biblical picture—is that the Israelites were already living among the Canaanites and yet there was a “peasant revolt” within the land. The oppressed Israelites rose up and overthrew their oppressors—the Canaanites—and then described their uprising as a “conquest” in their sacred Scriptures (the book of Joshua). This view not only dismisses the Bible’s own presentation of what happened, but relies on rather scanty historical evidence for support.

Still others—yes, even Christians—will assume that the God of the Old Testament is quite different than the God of the New. The God of the Old is filled with wrath, judgment, and violence, and it fits right in with His character to command an indiscriminate slaughter of all the Canaanites. But the God of the New, revealed in Jesus Christ, shows us how to love, forgive, and live peaceably with all mankind. So when it comes to the Canaanite genocide, there’s no problem. The God of the Old is a God of genocide. Let’s just be thankful that we serve the God of the New.

I don’t think any of these views does justice to what the Bible actually says. Regardless of the apparent moral dilemma, it seems best to deal with the text head on and then figure out how God could command such things. God doesn’t need us to make excuses for Him. So let’s approach the problem with a plain reading of Scripture and then move towards a solution of the ethical problems therein.

Stay tuned!

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the seriesThe Canaanite Conquest

In the last post, I started a series on the ethical dilemmas surrounding Joshua’s conquest. In this post, I’d like to set some groundwork by looking at two important facets: the people and the land, or the Canaanites and Canaan.

The Canaanites. Many critics such as Richard Dawkins will describe the conquest with a slanted view of the Canaanites. You would think that they were innocent peasants living peaceable with each other, when all of the sudden, a blood-thirsty Joshua came in and slew all the women and children. But this is not the way the Bible presents the story. The Canaanites on the whole were a wicked group of people—more wicked than others in the ancient world. Incest, bestiality, orgiastic religious prostitution, and child sacrifice were a regular part of daily life. The Canaanite gods themselves engaged in wild sexual acts, in which the Canaanites themselves could participate. Author Paul Copan says that the “sexual acts of the gods and goddesses were imitated by the Canaanites as a kind of magical acts: the more sex on the Canaanite high places, the more this would stimulate the fertility god Baal to have sex with his consort, Anath, which meant more semen (rain) produced to water the earth.” Humans, therefore, were encouraged to participate in the wild orgies of their gods.

And violence on the whole was unchecked and sadistic. For instance, the Canaanite goddess, Anath, who was believed to have slaughtered humans, decorated herself with their skulls, and then waded in their blood and laughed with fiendish joy. Since the ancients often mimicked the behavior of their gods, we can imagine that such arbitrary violence was quite common. Indeed, our archaeological evidence shows that it was.

The Canaanites were not innocent peasants. They match the likes of Jeffery Dahmer, Charles Manson, Pol Pot, and Anders Breivik who massacred 77 innocent civilians in 2011.

This doesn’t mean Israel was much better. The Canaanites were particularly wicked, but this doesn’t mean that Israel was righteous. “Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going tin to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out” (Deut. 9:5). God used Israel as an extension of His justice to cleanse the land of its evil. And this geographical point is crucial to understand the conquest. God didn’t just randomly pick on the Canaanites because they were wicked. Rather, He sought to drive them out of the land because the land would become God’s residence on earth. And the Canaanites were having sex with prostitutes and sacrificing babies to foreign gods right there in God’s living room.

Canaan. Understanding the significance of the land is crucial for grasping the conquest. It doesn’t solve all the moral problems, as we will see. But it does give us a clearer theological lens for studying Joshua’s “genocide.” Simply put: God was present with Israel, and the Promised Land would be his new residence. Yes, God dwells in heaven. But biblically speaking, He also resides on earth in a tabernacle (and later in the temple, and then the church). Since God is holy (set apart), his presence needs “sacred space,” and God chose the land of Canaan to be that sacred space—the piece of earth where His holy presence would dwell.

But the land became defiled and therefore had to be cleansed, as God says: “the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants” (Lev. 18:25). The logic, again, is that the Promised Land is God’s residence. “[T]he land is Mine,” God says, “you are strangers and sojourners with Me” (Lev. 25:23). And if Israel lives a holy life, not defiling God’s residence as the Canaanites did, then God says “I will make my dwelling among you” and “walk among you” (Lev. 26:11-12). But if the Israelites live like the Canaanites did, then the land too will “vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you” (Lev 18:28).

So God didn’t bully the Canaanites because of their ethnicity. Rather, God’s holiness demands sacred space for Him to dwell with mankind. This is why the Canaanites had to be eliminated.

The term “genocide,” therefore, is not an accurate description of the conquest. While it is true that a genocide involves the attempted killing of an entire people group, it’s always fueled by a feeling of racial superiority which leads to an ethnic cleansing. In this sense, Joshua’s conquest cannot be called a genocide. It was God’s judgment on persistent evil (Copan, Moral Monster, Kindle loc. 3374).

A judgment that was prefaced by hundreds of years of grace, as we’ll see in the next post.

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the seriesThe Canaanite Conquest

I’ve been wrestling with the ethical issues surrounding Joshua’s conquest for the last couple posts. In the last one, I set some groundwork regarding the people (Canaanites) and the land (Canaan). This doesn’t solve all the moral problems, but it does put us in a better place to tackle the question: How could the God of love command a wholesale slaughter of the Canaanites?

In this post, I’d like to talk about one important feature in the Canaanite conquest: God’s preemptive strike of grace.

God commanded Joshua to eliminate the Canaanites, though not without warning. This point is often missed—or ignored—by skeptics who highlight the shear brutality of the conquest. Way back in Genesis 15, God told Abram that he would have to wait 430 years before his people would take full ownership of the land. The reason is that “the iniquity of the Amorites [one of the Canaanite nations] is not yet complete” (Gen. 15:16). In other words, though the Canaanites were sinful (aren’t we all?), they hadn’t exhausted God’s patience yet. They had 430 years to turn from their wickedness to the God of Israel.

But would such a “turn to God” have been realistic? After all, how would they know about this God of Israel?

Good question. One that the Bible clearly answers. After God wrecked havoc on Egypt and brought his people through the Red Sea, His divine power was broadcasted across the world. All the nations knew about this God of Israel, even those living in Canaan. The Canaanites living in the city of Gibeon are a case in point. After Israel entered the land, the citizens of Gibeon came to Joshua and said: “we have heard a report of Him, and all that He did in Egypt” (Josh. 9:9). Therefore, “We are your servants. Come now, make a covenant with us” (Josh. 9:11). God trumpeted his reputation across the ancient world, and these particular Canaanites not only heard it but turned to Him (albeit through espionage).

The most well-known example of someone accepting God’s preemptive strike of grace was Rahab, the prostitute living in Jericho. Like the Gibeonites, Rahab says that all the people of Jericho “have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea…and as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you” (Josh. 2:10-11). Even though they all came face to face with God’s grace and could have accepted it, only Rahab would go on to confess that “the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (Josh. 2:11). Instantly, God removed her sins as far as the east is from the west. But the rest of the people of Jericho and many other Canaanite cities chose to remain in their wickedness and oppose the God of Israel.

But even if they didn’t believe the report they heard about the God of Israel, Joshua intentionally had his soldiers march around the city for seven days. Think about it. Jericho probably only contained a few hundred people (a few thousand at best), and Israel numbered around 600,000! The soldiers in Jericho had 7 days to give into what was clearly an inevitable victory for the Israelites. And yet they chose to reject the God of Israel and defend their city. The point being: the 7 day march around the city was yet another offer of grace by the God of Israel, an offer taken up by Rahab yet rejected by the rest of Jericho’s inhabitants. Grace: God’s preemptive strike.

Again, there still remains moral problems with the conquest that we will get to. (What about the slaughter of women and children?) But before we do, we need to have a more thorough perspective on what we are dealing with. In sum, the conquest was the Creator’s punishment for extreme and relentless wickedness among people living in God’s special residence, who rejected clear and undeserved offers of grace. Whatever you think about the conquest as a whole, you have to distinguish between arbitrary killing—genocide—and retributive punishment. Old Testament scholar Christopher Wright articulates it well:

“There is a huge moral difference between arbitrary violence and violence inflicted within the moral framework of punishment” (Wright, Old Testament Ethics, 476).

The conquest, like the flood, was divine capital punishment after hundreds of years of rejected grace.

Don’t Kill Them All

Preston Sprinkle —  September 20, 2012 — 1 Comment
This entry is part 4 of 6 in the seriesThe Canaanite Conquest

For three posts now, we’ve been looking into Joshua’s conquest and the ethical problems therein. How could the God who “loves His enemies” (Rom. 5:9-11) command a wholesale slaughter of the Canaanites (Deut. 20:16-18)? In this post, we’d like to consider the option that maybe He didn’t. Maybe God didn’t actually command Israel to annihlate every single man, woman, and child living in Canaan.

It’s not altogether clear that God actually intended Israel to massacre every man, woman, and child—young and old, solider and civilian. The Bible itself suggests a more complex situation. Here’s how.

If you add up all the passages that refer to God’s forecast of the conquest, you will see that most of them say that God would “drive out” or “dispossess” the Canaanites (Num 21:32; Deut 9:1; 11:23; 18:14; 19:1; 23:27-30; Exod 34:24; Num 32:21; Deut 4:38; cf. Gen 3:24; 4:14; 1 Sam 26:19). Such language in itself only means that the Canaanites would be forced out of the land. “Drive out” in itself doesn’t mean “slaughter.” For instance, Adam and Eve were “driven out” of Eden (Gen. 3:24), and Cain was “driven out” into the wilderness (4:14). Later on, David would be “driven out” into the wilderness by king Saul. Now, none of them were annihilated. They were simply disposed. And this is the most common language God uses when referring to the Canaanite conquest. In all the passages cited above, God’s main concern was that there would be no Canaanites living in His residence (unless they turned to Him, like Rahab). Any killing that would come about would happen as a result of their resistance, not Yahweh’s insatiable thirst for blood.

Together with the idea of “driving out,” the Bible also says that it would be “little by little” and not all at one time (Exod 23:27-30; Deut 7:22; Judges 2:20-23). In fact, some of these “little by little” passages mention that the Canaanites would be driven out by “hornets” (Exod. 23:27-30). Scholars debate the meaning of this, whether it was literal hornets or a figure of speech, but one thing is clear: a slaughter of all the Canaanites by an ancient blitzkrieg is not the uniform picture in the Bible.

So what do we do when there is language of annihilation? For instance, Deuteronomy 20 says that “you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction” (20:16-17). Several passages in Joshua describe Israel’s obedience to Deuteronomy’s command of total annihilation—not leaving alive anything that breathes. Here are the passages that describe Joshua’s annihilation of particular cities in Canaan:

  • Of Jericho, “they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword” (6:21).
  • Of Ai, “Israel had finished killing all the inhabitants of Ai…all who fell that day, both men and women, were 12,000, all the people of Ai…he had devoted all the inhabitants of Ai to destruction” (8:24-26).
  • Of Makkedah, “He devoted to destruction every person in it; he left none remaining” (10:28)
  • Of Hazor, “they struck with the sword all who were in it, devoting them to destruction; there was none left that breathed” (11:11).
  • Of Madon, Shimron, Achshaph, and other cities, “every man they struck with the edge of the sword until they had destroyed them, and they did not leave any who breathed” (11:14).

All of these passages refer to Israel carrying out the Deuteronomy 20 command of total annihilation against specific Canaanite cities: Jericho, Ai, Makkedah, Hazor, Madon, Shimron, Achshaph, and a few other unnamed cities. However, there is one verse in Joshua that refers to Israel annihilating the entire population of Canaan:

So Joshua struck the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings. He left none remaining, but devoted to destruction all that breathed, just as the LORD God of Israel commanded. (Josh. 10:40)

This seems rather clear. Joshua and his army killed every breathing Canaanite. And if this was the only verse we had, we would have to draw such a conclusion. We should note, however, that the language of “destruction” doesn’t have to mean that they were annihilated. For instance, Israel is said to be “destroyed” by God when they are driven out of the land of Canaan in years to come (Deut 28:63; cf. Jer 38:2, 17). Obviously, “destroyed” here can’t mean that they were all killed (Copan, loc 3901).

But even if all the passages about destruction do actually mean that they were killed, there’s one glaring problem: the book of Joshua itself doesn’t agree that Israel annihilated the entire population. Several passages in Joshua say that “there remains yet very much land to possess” (13:1), and that “they did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer, so the Canaanites have lived in the midst of Ephraim to this day” (16:10), and that “the Canaanites persisted in dwelling in that land” (17:12). This is why Joshua would exhort Israel at the end of his life that “you may not mix with these nations remaining among you or make mention of the names of their gods” (23:7, 12-14). And when the book of Judges picks up where Joshua left off, it’s clear that many Canaanites were not slaughtered but continued to live in the land.

The point being, some passages suggest that all the Canaanites were annihilated, while others suggest that they were not. What do we do with this?

Well, you’ll have to read the next post for my answer. For now, we can say that the conquest of Canaan was not clearly intended to kill every single man, woman, and child. God’s main concern was that were would not be any Canaanites living among the Israelites in the Promised Land.

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the seriesThe Canaanite Conquest

In this fifth blog on the Canaanite conquest, we’ll return to the issue we ended our last post with: some passages suggest that all the Canaanites were annihilated, while others suggest that they were not. What do we do with this?

One option is that the Bible contradicts itself. And many have taken this view. But before we chalk up the problem to a hopeless contradiction—a big problem, of course, for those who believe that the Bible is inspired—let’s consider another option. Perhaps there’s a bit of hyperbole in the Biblical account of the conquest.

Last night, the Dodgers slaughtered the Yankees. I mean, they absolutely annihilated them!

We use hyperbole all the time. (Just like my phrase, “all the time.”) The language of slaughtering and annihilating the Yankees is overstating something to make a point. (Though the Dodgers really did beat them up pretty good. “Beat them up,” there I go again…) That’s hyperbole. It’s when you make comprehensive and sometimes exaggerated statements to make a point. You may think that there’s no way the Bible does that! But think again. Hyperbole is a common language device used in armenian-genocide-denial-2Scripture. “If your right eye causes you to stumble, then tear it out and throw it from you,” says Jesus (Matt. 5:29). Sounds painful, and it would be if taken literally, as would “swallowing a camel,” which Jesus says the Pharisees were quite fond of doing (Matt. 23:24).

The Bible sometimes overstates something to make a point. Since this is true, then perhaps the biblical phrases that refer to total annihilation are hyperbolic—they are overstating the case to make a point. I know, this may sound fishy. But our only other option is that the Bible contradicts itself, so let’s explore the hyperbole option a bit further.

How would we prove that the annihilation statements are hyperbolic and therefore not actually saying that everyone was killed? For one, the fact that the Canaanites weren’t all killed is one good piece of evidence that the statements are hyperbolic. Other evidence can be found by looking at ancient war rhetoric. If Joshua used hyperbole, was this a common practice among other nations? The answer is yes. For instance, the Egyptian pharaoh, Tuthmose III said that “the numerous army of Mitanni was overthrown within the hour, annihilated totally.” But historically speaking, the folks of Mitanni, including their soldiers, continued to fight well after Tuthmose had died. They weren’t totally annihilated. Tuthmose was using hyperbole. Again, the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II fought against Israel and said that “Israel is wasted, his seed is not,” suggesting that Israel ceased to exist as a people. That’s what “his seed is not” means. But this was in the 13th century B.C. and Israel continued to live on. Clearly Ramses overstated the case.

The point is well known and thoroughly document by historians: hyperbolic language about comprehensive defeat was typical war rhetoric and wasn’t intended to be taken literally. If this were true—and there’s every reason to believe that it is—then Joshua didn’t annihilate every single Canaanite.

Here’s one more clear example of hyperbolic rhetoric within the conquest account. Joshua 11:22 says that “There were no Anakim left in the land” (Josh 11:22) after Joshua got through with them. Sounds like total annihilation. But later, Caleb asks permission to drive out the Anakites (same people) from the hill country (Josh 14:12-15; cf. 15:13-19). Therefore, either the book of Joshua contradicts itself, or the first verse (“there were no Anakim left in the land”) is hyperbolic. I think there’s a good biblical case for the latter.

Now, let’s revisit Joshua 10:40, which sounds like Joshua killed every single Canaanite:

“So Joshua struck the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings. He left none remaining, but devoted to destruction all that breathed, just as the LORD God of Israel commanded” (Josh. 10:40).

We should note two things—one we have already proven, and another we will suggest.

First, we have proven that Joshua didn’t actually “devote to destruction all that breathed” in the whole land of Canaan. The phrase must be hyperbolic (or contradictory!) and simply means that Joshua took control of the land. Second, I suggest that this hyperbolic phrase helps us to understand God’s original command in Deuteronomy 20, where He said: “you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction” (20:16-17). Compare Joshua 10:40 with Deuteronomy Genocide Rwanda20:16-17 and it seems clear that whatever Joshua 10 means—and it doesn’t mean total annihilation—it is intended to describe Joshua’s fulfillment of God’s command in Deuteronomy 20. The language is the same. Therefore, since the fulfillment was understood by its author to be hyperbolic, then it seems likely that God’s command in Deuteronomy 20 was also understood to be hyperbolic. If this is true—and I’m only suggesting it as a legitimate possibility based on biblical evidence—then God never commanded a wholesale slaughter of “everything that breathes” in Canaan. He only intended Israel to kill those who stubbornly resisted His offer of grace (unlike Rahab, who accepted it) and desired to remain in rebellion against their Creator. Such people would be “driven out.”

This suggestion isn’t bullet proof, but I think it carries some good merit. Many Evangelical scholars, in fact, agree that God didn’t intend for Israel to kill every Canaanite without qualification. But even if God did actually command a wholesale slaughter, we do know without a doubt that no such slaughter actually happened.

But there’s one more sticky issue that we have to wrestle with. What about the references to “women and children, old and young” that were killed? Did God command Israel to kill babies?

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