God and the Genocide of the Canaanites

[HT Matt Flannagan]

Matt has an interesting approach to answering the objection often raised by critics regarding the apparent command of genocide in the OT.

In a series of posts, the original “Did God Command Genocide in the Old Testament?”, and follow-ups part 1, part 2, Matt builds a case for a hyperbolic interpretation of these problematic passages.

From his initial post:

Perhaps the most perplexing issue facing Christan believers is a series of jarring texts in the Old Testament. After liberating Israel from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites arrived on the edge of the promised land. The book of Deuteronomy records that God then commanded Israel to “destroy totally” the people occupying these regions (the Canaanites); the Israelites were to “leave alive nothing that breathes.” The book of Joshua records the carrying out of this command. In the sixth chapter it states “they devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.” In the tenth and eleventh chapters the text states that Joshua “left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded.” The text mentions city after city where Joshua, at God’s command, puts every inhabitant “to the sword” and “left no survivors.” If these passages are taken in a strict, literal fashion then it is correct to conclude that they do record the divinely authorised commission of genocide. In light of this critics of Christianity often ask how a good and loving God could command the extermination of the Canaanites?

In response, I want to suggest that this strict, literal reading is mistaken. Reading these texts in isolation from the narrative in which they occur risks a distortion of the authors intended meaning. Consider the book of Joshua, critics are quick to point out that in chapters ten and eleven the text states that Joshua “totally destroyed all who breathed”, left “no survivors” in “the entire land”, went through the land “exterminating them without mercy”.

The problem is that chapters fifteen to seventeen record that the Canaanites were, in fact, not literally wiped out. Over and over the text affirms that the land was still occupied by the Canaanites, who remain heavily armed and deeply entrenched in the cities. Astute readers will note that these are the same regions and the same cities that Joshua was said to have “destroyed all who breathed”, left “no survivors” in just a few chapters earlier.

This continues through into the next book in the Old Testament. The first two chapters of the book of Judges record that the Canaanites lived in the very same regions and cities that Joshua was said to have put every inhabitant “to the sword” in and “left no survivors” in. Moreover, again we see that they occupied these cities and regions in such numbers and strength that they had to again be driven out by force, which chapter one of Judges declared was very difficult.

I think Matt is on to something. What he has written meshes well with another excellent book by Greg Boyd titled God at War which explores many of the same themes.

I am also looking forward to reading one of the books Matt recommended for further reading on the subject, Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History Writing (The Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies)


7 responses to “God and the Genocide of the Canaanites

  1. I really like Matt's approach to the "genocide" of the Canaanites. Men of war use exaggerated claims to explain a brutal defeat of the enemy. Think about when people play cards (this is my experience anyway) and someone has a great hand. The person with the great hand will say something like, "Man, I totally destroyed you guys!" Even though he hasn't "destroyed" them physically, he used the word to describe his awesome victory.

  2. But that doesn't get God off the hook for ordering the killing of men, women, children, and animals. It just says Joshua was unable to carry out this divine command to kill. Go sounds like a muslim terrorist in many of these kinds of passages in the OT. It troubles me.

  3. OK. The words attributed to God are actually rhetorical or a colloquialism. God, or the men who wrote down these passages, were using conventional language of the conqueror in use at the time. So the words of God are put through mens' local understanding, and they used hyperbole.
    I'm more of a Gospels and appreciator of Jesus' Kingdom of God preaching and teaching.

    God still talks like a terrorist in the OT, or his 'press agents' make him out to be a jerk toward any non-chosen people. Times were harsh, it was kill or be killed, and they needed the 'wprd of God' to bolster the courage of their people. Or…it was just hyperbole, all that killing was just not really historical, etc.

  4. …However, I just started reading this website yesterday, and will continue to learn, so that my thought s are more to the point. Sorry for the rant.

  5. OK, having read further, I personally like the ideas in a comment by Fletch, quoting ASA from Ex-Atheist – great way to see this controversy. Thanks.

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