Did God Really Command Genocide?: The Case of the Canaanites

Did God Really Command Genocide?: The Case of the Canaanites October 7, 2018

This is a follow up to my last post about the divine commandment for the children of Israel to wipe out the nation of Amalek, and how to get around the ethical problems which that command presents.

In this piece, I want to apply the same literary principle I used to answer that question to address another instance of seemingly immoral violence in the Old Testament: namely, the Israelites’ conquest of Canaan and apparent genocide of the Canaanites.

Here’s the relevant text:

“Only in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them: the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the Lord your God.”
(Deuteronomy 20:16–18)

Once again, we have a text that looks pretty bad on the surface.

To make matters worse, the genocidal divine command actually seems to have been carried out soon afterwards, when Joshua leads the Israelites enters Canaan and conquers the land:

“Joshua struck all the land, the hill country and the Negev and the lowland and the slopes and all their kings. He left no survivor, but he utterly destroyed all who breathed, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded.”
(Joshua 10:40)

However, just as I discussed last week, there is a school of Christian Biblical scholars (whose views are best documented in the books of Paul Copan on this topic’) who understand both the divine command and the described historical events to be employing exaggerated rhetoric that did not reflect what actually happened, as was typical of Ancient Near Eastern texts about war.

Additionally, within the Biblical text itself, it is clear that Joshua certainly did not leave “no survivor” from the native Canaanites, as the literal words read. After all, just several chapters later in the very same book of Joshua, we learn that there is still much Canaanite land left to conquer:

“Now Joshua was old and advanced in years when the Lord said to him, “You are old and advanced in years, and very much of the land remains to be possessed.”
(Joshua 13:1)

Also, there are still lots of people living in that land who need to be fought! Joshua 15:13, 17:12, and 19:47 give examples of areas like Hebron, Gezer, and Leshem, which various Israelite tribes had to conquer and subdue even after Joshua had supposedly utterly destroyed all of the nations living in Canaan!

Given all this data internal to the book of Joshua, it’s clear that the Bible itself does not seem to believe that the Israelites literally annihilated the Canaanites and took over their land, even though it says that they did just that.

One way to resolve this obvious contradiction is to say that the verses which do discuss total destruction are not meant to be taken literally. This sort of exaggerated language of destruction is commonplace throughout the writings of Israelite contemporaries at this time, and therefore would not have originally been read by its first readers literally.

In my Amalek post, I listed a number of examples, cited by biblical scholars, from documents from the same Biblical time period by Near Eastern nations that engage in this “exaggerated warfare rhetoric.”
Here are some more I read about since then, cited by the biblical scholar K. Lawson Younger in his work Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study of Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History:

The Merenptah Stele, from c. 1200 BCE, which states “Yanoam is nonexistent; Israel is wasted, his seed is not.”
That’s obviously not literally true!

Mursilli II, Hittite king of the 12th century BCE wrote that he made “Mt.Asharpaya empty (of humanity)” and the “mountains of Tarikarimu empty (of humanity).”
Wrong again.

Finally, the Bulletin of Ramses II falsely describes a conquest of Syria as follows:
“His majesty slew the entire force of the wretched foe from Hatti, together with his great chiefs and all his brothers, as well as all the chiefs of all the countries that had come with him… He took no note of the millions of foreigners; he regarded them as chaff.”
Not sure I even need to spell out what’s fishy about this claim.

Again though, it isn’t quite lying because no one reading the text at the time would have been confused as to its meaning. Exaggerated, highly stylized descriptions of war were par for the course in ancient texts about violence. The Bible is no different. After all, as it’s best explained in Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed (I:26), arguably the most important work of medieval Jewish philosophy, the Bible was written “in the language of man.” So if the text says God commanded what sounds like total destruction, the text then says that total destruction took place, and then later clearly implies that total destruction did not take place, we know that God was speaking in the idiom of His day.

So now that we’re clear on that point, hopefully folks like Richard Dawkins will stop talking about how the Bible is filled with ethnic cleansing and narratives of genocide. And if any of you want to send him or anyone else who says that sort of thing these pieces, be my guest!

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  • Christine

    The usccb (US catholic bishops) commentary seems consistent with your analysis:

    “* [20:15] Deuteronomy makes a distinction between treatment of nations far away and those close at hand whose abhorrent religious practices might, or did, influence Israel’s worship. This harsh policy was to make sure the nations nearby did not pass their practices on to Israel (cf. chap. 7).”

    Part of establishing one’s identity is understanding what you are not, or what principles you do not stand for. May be oversimplifying it, but again seems like God here is making a clear demarcation as to whose teachings to follow and whose not to follow.

  • Barros Serrano

    Again with the case of the Canaanites I find the Biblical account to be hyperbole.

    Archaeology does NOT find evidence of this claimed annihilation of Canaanite cities. One interpretation is that in fact the conflict was religious, theological, between the incoming Hebrews from Egypt with their new Mosaic imperatives, and the Canaanites who were quite likely very close to being like the pre-Moses Hebrews (Canaanites and Hebrews having arisen from the same ancestral proto-Canaanite people, apparently, at least based on linguistic evidence).

    “utterly destroyed and left no one standing,” and such pronouncements are typical of the time, and always exaggerations.