In recent years the issue of violence in the Old Testament has become a hot topic of discussion in many Christian circles. While there’s plenty of violence in the Old Testament worthy of wrestling and discussion, one particular event seems to come up a lot: the Canaanite genocide.
There’s fewer stories in the Bible that create the problems the Canaanite genocide creates. How could “God’s nation” completely slaughter an entire people group? How is it loving to one’s neighbor to kill all of them? Why would God make them do such a thing?
All good questions. Atheists have pounced on them for years, while most evangelicals have had to engage in cognitive dissonance as the modern concept of inerrancy has forced them to now find a way to justify an event (that if true) isn’t morally different than the holocaust or other genocidal conquests we’ve seen through history.
This discussion has been re-sparked by recent news that scientists have discovered that the Canaanites were not wiped out. This study reports:
“DNA retrieved from roughly 3,700-year-old skeletons at an excavation site in Lebanon that was formerly a major Canaanite city-state shows that “present-day Lebanese derive most of their ancestry from a Canaanite-related population, which therefore implies substantial genetic continuity in the Levant since at least the Bronze Age.”
In light of this study, here’s some important facts that Christians might want to know about the Bible’s Canaanite genocide:
Fact: The Bible itself ultimately makes it clear that the genocide did not happen.
Later in the Bible we find out that there are, gasp, still Canaanites. In fact, Jesus actually heals one of them in the Gospel of Matthew. So this idea there was a genocide where all of the Canaanites were destroyed? We know just from reading the Bible this isn’t true.
Fact: We already knew scientifically that the genocide didn’t happen.
“First of all, the Bible is very clear (in places) that the Canaanites were never completely wiped out from Israel. But second and more importantly, historians have always been aware that the Phoenicians were a Canaanite people, and so the discovery that their descendants are to be found in the regions they historically inhabited should not be a surprise either…”
Furthermore, as Peter Enns has pointed out in his own work, we know from archeological evidence that the genocide did not happen– certainly not on the scale the Bible implies.
Fact: False reports of genocide are common in the bronze age.
Should the fact that the Bible implies genocide occurred, but that modern evidence disproves this, be shocking? No, of course not. In fact, this clear exaggeration of events actually makes the Bible more authentic instead of less– and this is because at the time these passages were written, it was actually commonplace to falsely claim one had wiped out all of their enemies. Instead of shocking, it is quite affirming because it is exactly how I would expect a bronze age written war conquest to read. Had Canaanite records survived to present day, I wouldn’t be surprised if they claimed to have wiped out all their enemies, too.
Case in point, here is a short 2 minute video blog I made in Amman, Jordan when I stumbled upon a Moabite artifact that does exactly this– and ironically, falsely claims there was a genocide that destroyed all of ancient Israel:
So, when we as Christians discuss the problematic Old Testament passages claiming genocide, we need to begin from a starting point that recognizes that both the Bible, and multiple angles of science, affirm the reality that there was not an extermination of the Canaanites. Furthermore, we must also recognize that these exaggerations do not call the authenticity of the Bible into question, but instead affirm it is a historical document of a specific time and place, and that it reads exactly the way one would expect it to read– including exaggerations of genocide.
Of course, this brings up other questions, perhaps the most important being: “If the Bible claims that God ordered genocide, does that mean God really did?”
That’s a question for a different day– but the important facts to remember, is that they didn’t do what we often think they did.
And that’s actually good news.
Dr. Benjamin L. Corey is a public theologian and cultural anthropologist who is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with graduate degrees in the fields of Theology and International Culture, and holds a doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also the author of the new book, Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, which is available wherever good books are sold. www.Unafraid-book.com.