Jesus, Genocide, and the Canaanites

Jesus, Genocide, and the Canaanites August 11, 2022

I have been writing about the alarming Bible passages in which God commands the destruction of the older peoples of the land of Canaan, ordering what by any common sense understanding we would call genocide. Early Christians were not too troubled by such texts, because they mainly saw them as allegorical, and they saw no need to confront the moral dilemmas in their own writings, particularly the New Testament. But here is one exception, and a significant one. It appears in a devious and quite sneaky way in the Gospel of Matthew. Am I allowed to call gospels sneaky?

The genocide commands are explicit. In Deuteronomy 7, God orders that

When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations ….  and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.

The word for “destroy totally” is herem, Greek anathema, and it means absolute annihilation, sparing neither human nor animal lives. Texts presented as historical depict the Israelites carrying out these commands under the leadership of brutal warlords like Joshua. When the conquerors take Jericho, for instance, “They devoted [herem] 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” (Joshua 6.21).

And here there is a problem that will not be obvious to most English-speaking readers. If you read the passage in Septuagint Greek, which is what virtually all early Christians did, the one who commanded these atrocities is ησος, Iesous, or as we would read the name, Jesus. That is the exact form of the name used throughout the New Testament. What we call the Book of Joshua, Greek readers knew as the Book of Iesous. In the Greek Old Testament, “Jesus” commands repeated slaughters, and inflicts massacres, anathemas. In the Septuagint version of the Jericho story, unlike the Hebrew, Joshua/Jesus is personally named as commanding the mass killings: “Iesous devoted it and all that was in the city.”

To say the least, that reads very oddly to us. It would be hard for a Greek-speaking Christian to read such passages without at least thinking of the relationship between Jesus Christ and those stories. Several early Fathers draw close parallels between the two Joshuas/Jesuses: in the second and third centuries, the linkage appears in the Epistle of Barnabas, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Origen. (The connection is not so obvious in the later Latin translations: drawing more heavily on Hebrew readings, Jerome calls Joshua Josue).

But what about the gospels themselves? Turn to the Gospel of Matthew, which starts with a genealogy of Jesus, but one with really odd features. On several occasions, Matthew throws in references to female ancestors, and they all had backgrounds that were foreign, if not sketchy. There is Tamar, who pretended to be a prostitute in order to conceive a child by her father in law, Judah (Genesis 38). Next is Ruth, a non-Israelite (Moabite) refugee who seduces Boaz; and the adulterous Bathsheba.

Just possibly, Matthew includes these women to counter and contextualize accusations that were then circulating in the Jewish and pagan worlds about the irregular circumstances of Jesus’s own birth, with the doubts they cast on the virtue of his mother. Matthew’s point would be that Mary would not be the first holy woman to be associated with such slurs. Moreover, there is the dynastic context to consider. Were people mocking Mary for sexual immorality? Then they had better condemn the whole Davidic and messianic line, which had so many blemishes in its record.

Whatever the reason, Jesus’s progenitors are listed as

Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab,

Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth,

Obed the father of Jesse,

and Jesse the father of King David.

Rahab was a Canaanite woman, a prostitute (Septuagint, pornes), who features centrally in the story of the battle of Jericho as we have it. She collaborates with the Israelite spies sent by Joshua, for which betrayal she and her family are allowed to live. She is also one of Jesus’s distant ancestors.

Against that background, let me turn to a story concerning the later and more famous ησος, Jesus, who is the hero of the New Testament. This concerns a Gentile woman who approaches Jesus, asking him to heal her young daughter. Jesus refuses, saying that his mission is first to the house of Israel: he must not take food from the children and throw it to dogs. She replies that his comment is fair, but that even the dogs are allowed to eat the scraps thrown under the banquet table. Impressed by the comeback, he provides the desired miracle, although the concession is exceptional. One interpretation of the passage is that it recalls a very early stage in the Jesus movement when the mission really was confined within the house of Israel, and Gentiles were unwelcome.

But another element is present. The woman is from what we would now call Lebanon, and her race is given as Syro­-Phoenician (in Mark) or, strikingly, Canaanite, Chananaia, in Matthew (15.21-28). The change of identification is odd, unless Matthew wants to stress how Jesus fits into the older Biblical narrative. Matthew has already linked Jesus to Rahab the Canaanite woman. In this miracle story, Jesus reaches out to the descendants of those peoples that the other Iesous, Joshua, was determined to kill. At one point in the Biblical record, the Canaanite people are to be annihilated, but in later stages of faith, they are not. They are to be healed.

The story comes full circle, and the extermination order is repealed.







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