Archives For Canaanite Genocide

In this sixth and final post on Joshua’s conquest, we will wrestle with God’s command to kill women and children in the conquest (Deut 20:16-18; cf. Josh 6:21; 8:25). It’s one thing to kill soldiers in combat, but to kill non-combatants is morally questionable to say the least. How much more horrific, then, is it to read about Joshua’s slaughter of Canaanite women and children? How do we reconcile Jesus, who had a special heart for children, with the God of the Old Testament who commanded Israel to slaughter Canaanite babies?

Let’s start with what the Bible clearly says. The Bible does give a straightforward reason for “disposing” (or otherwise “killing”) the joshua-conquestCanaanites. Deuteronomy says that if Israel doesn’t get rid of all the Canaanites, then they will end up leading Israel astray (Deut. 20:18). And this is exactly what happens. Israel does not drive out all the Canaanites and Israel ends up getting “Canaanized.” In fact, Israel’s dark history is littered with many Canaanite-like practices, including idolatry, child sacrifice, and male cult prostitution—all of which they learned from the Canaanites left in the land (1 Kings 14:24; 21:26; 2 Kings 16:3; 17:8; 21:2).

Now, the killing of children still doesn’t sit right with me. And yet Israel’s failure to dispose all the Canaanites ends up biting them in the end. Their moral collapse, which elicited God’s judgment, began when they failed to drive out all the Canaanites from the land. So when read from the perspective of the rest of the Old Testament, we can at least see the logic of the command. As morally difficult as it is, God was right. Failure to drive out all the Canaanites would lead to Israel’s ruin.

There’s another option that I will throw out as a suggestion. Perhaps the phrase “women and children” is not to be taken literally. This may sound a bit shady, but hear me out. We have already shown that hyperbolic language is typical in the conquest account. So let’s explore the possibility that no women or children were intended to be killed in the conquest.

The phrase “women and children, old and young” is first mentioned in Joshua 6:21 in the battle of Jericho, and then again in 8:25 in the battle of Ai—both battles are part of the conquest. It appears, then, that Joshua and Israel slaughtered women and children. However, there is a possibility that the mention of “women and children” is a stock phrase that simply means “everyone” without necessarily specifying the age or gender of the people. A number of Evangelical scholars (e.g., Richard Hess, Paul Copan) make a case for this in light of four factors. First, the phrase “women and children” occurs elsewhere in the Old Testament where it could to be taken to mean “everyone” without specifying the age and gender of the victims (1 Sam 15:3; 22:19; 2 Sam 6:19; Neh 8:2; 2 Chron 15:13). Second, both Jericho and Ai were military outposts and probably not vibrant cities filled with citizens of every age. They were therefore most likely stocked with soldiers, not non-combatants. Third, the only woman and child that are mentioned are Rahab and her family (which Joshua_womenprobably included children), and they were rescued, not killed. Furthermore, Rahab was a prostitute and—how do I say it—it would make sense that she would find much business in a city filled with soldiers. Fourth, apart from Joshua 6 and 8, which mentions women and children, all other accounts of Israel killing Canaanites in the conquest include—and only include—combatants, not civilians.

This fourth point is actually the surest of them all. Quite simply, there is no record of Israel actually killing a Canaanite woman or a child during the conquest.

So, even though it appears that women and children were killed, there’s some evidence that may suggest a less barbaric picture. Israel’s clash with the Canaanites resulted in killing other combatants and, perhaps, driving out its civilians who resisted God’s free offer of grace, without necessitating the wholesale slaughter of Canaanite babies.

So, let’s sum up our series on Joshua’s conquest.

The Canaanites were horrifically wicked, and yet God gave them hundreds of years to repent. Some did, while most didn’t. And since God chose Canaan to be his new residence on earth—and as Creator, He has every right to do so—He had to drive out all its wicked inhabitants. The ones that resisted God’s grace and who chose to stay in the land faced the sword of Israel—God’s tool of judgment. Therefore, as Christopher Wright concludes: “[t]he conquest was not human genocide. It was divine judgment” (The God I Don’t Understand, p. 93). While moral problems remain, such as the possibilities that women and children were actually slaughtered (though I have my doubts), the conquest was not a genocide at the hands of a bloodthirsty God.

But the one thing that must be noted about the conquest—a point that is essential for understanding the church’s non-violent posture—is this: nowhere in Scripture is Joshua’s conquest intended to be a repeated event. There is nothing in the Bible that appeals to the conquest as justification to wage war or execute violence. Nothing. The conquest, like the flood and the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah, was a one time non-repeatable event whereby God judged a particularly wicked people. This is why Christians cannot appeal to the conquest to justify using violence today. This would be like burning a city to the ground because God once did it to Sodom and Gomorrah (something James and John tried to do and were rebuked for in Luke 9). Some things happen in the Bible that weren’t meant to be repeated.

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?

Don’t Kill Them All

Preston Sprinkle —  September 20, 2012 — 1 Comment

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.

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.

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.