What the Bible Does Not Say about the Canaanites

What the Bible Does Not Say about the Canaanites January 24, 2018

The more I study the Bible, the more I discover what it does not say.

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Why did Israel attempt to clear the Canaanites from the promised land? Various reasons have been given but they can be simplified in this way: the Canaanites had so much sin that God had to judge them.

Does suffering imply guilt?

In The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest (TLWIC), John and Harvey Walton challenge conventional wisdom about the Canaanites. They make an astute observation. While people quickly eschew prosperity theology, a similar kind of thinking affects our reading of Joshua. Interpreters often assume God’s decree that people suffer somehow implies God’s judgment against them for guilt. They remind us,

“God’s gifts, blessings, and grace are not dispensed based on merit. What we often fail to appreciate is that the reverse is also true, that suffering can also be dispensed without merit…. God’s actions are not limited to responses to our behavior (or misbehavior).” (p. 34).

You would think reading Job would remind us of God’s ways of working in the world. “God can strike without cause, but God does not strike without purpose” (p. 37).

In systematic theology classes, students tend to privilege certain aspects of God’s character in isolation with other characteristics.

 “God’s wisdom, not God’s justice, forms the basis of God’s activity in the world. Faith trusts that God is wise and that therefore his purposes are good, even if they don’t seem that way to any system we can understand. God does not need to be defended; he wants to be trusted” (p. 35).

By slowing down, we gain balance and a perspective of goodness.

What is God’s plan?

In typical Walton fashion, he explores other ancient near eastern documents that describe other nations’ conquest of lands. The purpose is simply to consider whether other possible ways Israel might explain their conquest of Canaan. The authors summarize their conclusion in this way:

Two themes are described and continuously repeated: Yahweh is both able and willing to carry out the covenant promises made to the ancestors of Israel. If the Canaanite nations are allowed to remain, the Israelite nation will be unable to survive under the covenant. (p. 45)

This alternative suggestion does not suit our modern sensibilities but it does fit the text and ancient biblical context.

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Is the Fourth Generation Full of Sin?

“Wait a minute,” you might object, “What about Genesis 15:16?” Common translations of this key verse read something like this: God will wait to give Abraham the land “because the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”

Walton carefully demonstrates the various problems with this reading. Nearly every key word is contestable. Whatever will happen to the Amorites will come in the fourth generation. This common idiom that refers to “the first one that the patriarch is not going to see into adulthood” (p. 60).

Even the fact that God only mentions the Amorites (not all Canaanites) is a clue. They tied together multiple details often missed or not explained.

“Now it becomes perfectly clear why the idea of the destiny of the Amorites is tied to the idea of peace in Abram’s time; he isn’t only concerned about his own fate but also that of his allies. By delaying the displacement of the Amorites until sometime in the distant future, Yahweh assures Abram that his children will not negatively affect the people to whom he has some attachment.” (p. 61)

Even if one is not immediately persuaded, the explanatory power of this view cannot be ignored.

Thou Shalt Steal the Canaanites’ Land?

Is someone guilty of stealing? Scholars have made this claim in both directions, saying each side steals land from the other. Walton explains why this interpretation does not fit the text or the historical context. Instead,

“an appropriate analogy is not appeal to property rights but rather eminent domain. Eminent domain is something that the government has a legal right to do, but whether exercising that right is civil service or tyranny depends on the context in which it is employed. The government is not necessarily justified merely because it possesses the legal right; neither is it necessarily vilified because observers (or victims) of the action are not happy about it.” (p. 70)

How does this apply to God’s actions in Canaan? The authors conclude,

The conquest works the same way; the value of the action is not determined by the specifics of the action, but by the purpose that the action is intended to fulfill. Therefore, the conquest should be evaluated (positively or negatively) on the basis of the purpose for which it was done, not on the basis of the legal rights of any of the parties involved. (p. 71)

This final quote takes us back to the observations made in my previous post. In part 1 of the series, we highlighted a critical starting point for interpretation.

What the text means largely depends on why the text exists.

In the coming post, we’ll shift attention to a provocative claim; namely, the Bible does not depict the Canaanites as breaking God’s Law.

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