More on Canaanite Genocide, or Taking a Step Back Because What We Have Here is a Communication Problem

More on Canaanite Genocide, or Taking a Step Back Because What We Have Here is a Communication Problem July 18, 2012

I appreciate the many thoughtful responses, both pro and con, to my post on John Piper and his view on Canaanite genocide and his view that, “It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases.” 

I will say, however, that, although some pushback comments were very insightful and brought to the table issues of importance, a number of them were implicitly working from a false, though common, dichotomy: pitting against each other (1) engagement of Scripture informed by what we know of ancient context, and (2) any notion of biblical authority, inspiration, etc.

Such a posture is a lamentable innovation of recent generations of Fundamentalist influence on how Christians think about the Bible, prompted by some uncomfortable developments in biblical studies over the last two centuries. But in truth, the church has a long track record, going back to the 2nd century, of grappling with, let’s call it, the problem of history in the Bible, i.e., what it means for a transcendent God to speak within the humble and limiting circumstances of the human drama.

Of particular interest at the outset was how God’s actions in the Old Testament, especially his violence, can be squared with the not only the ethics of the gospel but common reason and decency. One early solution that stuck was to read these passages of violence allegorically. At the end of the day, I don’t think that solution works, but let’s not lose sight of the motivating factor:

God does things in the Old Testament that cause theological problems for Christians, and so we have to think about what to do about them.

We today are latecomers to this conversation, although some, apparently, do not seem to be aware that it is even an issue.


What marks off recent generations is not that a renegade group of scholars and other troublemakers are now, all of a sudden, allowing “historical context” to invade our understanding of the pristine Word of God. Rather, the problem is that we have come to understand much more of that ancient context than ever before. The fact that many Protestant communities are deeply committed to Scripture as a clear word from God, which, therefore, can safely be understood without engaging the messiness of  history, creates an antagonistic attitude toward those who are perceived as sacrificing Scripture on the altar of (unbelieving) scholarship.

With all this in mind, those demonizing the thought of bringing historical scholarship to bear on the issue of  Canaanite genocide labor under the false assumption that to do so is to reject, dismiss, or undermine the Bible; to “pick and choose” willy-nilly what we like and what we don’t like.

portion of Gilgamesh epic

Not at all. Engaging Scripture’s ancient context, especially in our day, is part of a subtle and challenging process of trying to understand how to understand the Bible as a product of antiquity, and then to think through how that understanding is to be brought to bear on current faith and practice.

If anyone thinks that in doing so there is a plot afoot, some sinister revolution or insidious innovation to the study of Scripture by a huddled band of scholars determined to undermine the gospel, I can only suggest that a study of the history of Christian interpretation (that predates 19th century Fundamentalism) will relieve you of this misunderstanding.

Some of the specific issues before us today may be new, but the principle of reading Scripture in context–which is nothing less than the principle of grammatical-historical exegesis, so esteemed in conservative circles–is not.

The problem, again, is that the more we know of ancient contexts, the more uncomfortable grammatical-historical exegesis has become, and so threatens to undermine the very Evangelical theological system that relied on it so heavily. Rather than abandoning the method, however, it is wiser, I feel, to be willing to do the hard work of trusting God, going where the questions lead, and rethinking theological articulations when necessary, knowing that the survival of the Christian faith does not hang in the balance.

So, all this is preamble for returning to the issue of Canaanite genocide, which I will do briefly in my next post (which I will write as soon as the temperature in the Philly area can no longer melt lead). We will look at a few other passages that, I am convinced, will underscore the ethical problem of saying that God commanded the extermination of an entire population.

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  • David G

    “God does things in the Old Testament that cause theological problems for Christians, and so we have to think about what to do about them.” It seems Piper wants to say that no, at least for this Christian, God does not do things that cause theological problems.

    Of course, God does things in the OT that cause theological problems for the OT itself (as you mentioned last post). Exhibit A:
    “Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go, count the people of Israel and Judah.’” 2 Samuel 24:1
    Which is then reworked by the Chronicler:
    “Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel.” 1 Chron. 21:1
    Apparently the Chronicler was uncomfortable with the notion that God incited David to commit a sin that would eventually result in the death of 70,000 Israelites who had nothing to do with the king’s ambition. Now I don’t think this gives us license to simply cancel out the 2 Samuel text with the one we like better, but I do think it enables us to share the Bible’s own discomfort with itself at points. The judge by Piper’s piece, shouldn’t the Chronicler be rebuked for fudging on divine sovereignty?

    • Clayton M

      I won’t disagree with you that there is much to be dealt with in the Hebrew Bible (or OT). Read Ecclesiastes as a whole book, for example (rather than just cherry-picking a verse or two from it).

      However, the above passages you quote have more to do with issues in English translation than internal consistency. “Satan” is derived from the Hebrew “hasatan” meaning “the adversary.” It is a general term in the Hebrew Bible applied to all sorts of individuals–frequently that individual is God. In this instance, it is likely that the chronicler is simply editing deuteronomistic historian to reflect the reality of that relationship.

      Satan as a figure did not develop in the theology of the Jewish people until the intertestamental period, in which the official belief in angels, demons, and a rich sense of their order and powers developed. For example, read Tobit (in the Apocrypha). By the time the New Testament was written, Satan was an assumed part of Jewish theology, but it is anachronistic (and a mistranslation) to read him into passages from the Hebrew Bible. (The same goes for “Satan” in the book of Job. The figure is a part of the divine council and simply referred the adversary of Job. The NT writers certainly wouldn’t endorse Satan being in the continual presence of God as an advisor as the adversary is in Job.)

      • David G

        Your genealogy of “the satan” is spot on, and I agree (mostly) with your second paragraph. The problem is the date we should assign to Chronicles. It is most likely very late in the post-Persian period when speculations about angels and demons are already under way. Also, it’s not ha-satan in 21:1; just satan, which many scholars think could be a proper name. So in this instance, it’s actually not very problematic to see the older “adversary” tradition beginning to take on a more “diabolic” dimension. (By contrast, the prologue to Job seems to be substantially older, and there we read “ha-satan).

        All that fits within the larger theological agenda of the Chronicler: to edit the Deuteronomistic History in the direction of an ideal moral order and a theology of immediate retribution (i.e., C ensures that bad things happen to bad people/kings, good things happen to good people/kings, and that the justice is swift; compare the portrayals of Josiah and Manassah in Kings to that of C). Whether or not satan here is a demonic figure, the Chronicler is certainly putting distance between God and David’s sin/punishment. The chances that C is referring to God are basically nil.

        Sorry to take up so much real estate on your comments section, Pete! But this is my version of fun.

  • Jeff Frazier

    Well, my friend, you have just headed-off a ‘private conversation’ I was going to have with you. Thanks!

    • peteenns


  • Adam Omelianchuk

    This reminds of an excerpt from on C.S. Lewis’s letters. In a letter replying to John Beversluis on what appears to be some questions about Joshua’s military escapades in Canaan, Lewis paid some kind of qualified respect to the view that God’s commands create moral obligations. But he paid more respect to “the danger of believing in a God whom we cannot but regard as evil, and then, in mere terrified flattery calling Him ‘good’ and worshipping Him, is still a greater danger.” He goes on:

    “The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of Scripture is to prevail when they conflict. I think the doctrine of the goodness of God is the more certain of the two. Indeed only that doctrine renders this worship of Him obligatory or even permissible.
    To this some will reply ‘Ah, but we are fallen and don’t recognise good when we see it.’ But God Himself does not say we are as fallen as that. He constantly, in scripture, appeals to our conscience: ‘Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right? [Luke 12:57] — ‘What fault hath my people found in me? [Jer 2:5]. And so on.”

    To be sure Lewis warns, “Some things which seem bad to us may be good. But we must not corrupt our consciences by trying to feel a thing as good when it seems totally evil.”*

    *All citations from The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: volume 3, 1436-37.

    • J.L. Schafer

      Adam, thanks for these great quotes. I recall at least one other quote by C.S. Lewis regarding inerrancy, in which he suggests that different portions of Scripture shouldn’t be regarded as inerrant in precisely the same ways. Is this a topic that he wrote about often?

  • Pete, I appreciate your commitment to reading the text in its historical context. Some of your readers might find some value in my article on the importance of Assyriology (Mesopotamian Studies) for biblical interpretation (forthcoming in an Oxford UP publication). From the earliest discoveries of Mesopotamian civilization, Christians have been anxious both to use or to avoid ancient historical findings.

    In another matter, I strongly disagree about your assessment of what is actually at stake in the historically-informed interpretive enterprise. There is very good sociological evidence that Protestant churches that have embraced historical-critical insights are in decline. The real question, I think, is this: Is your god big enough and is your scripture inspired enough to hold up to scrutiny (historical, philosophical, comparative religious, etc.)? If not, one would be a fool to base one’s life on it. But then again, one would be a fool to embrace it blindly.

    Using historical insights to interpret scripture is sort of like asking a detective to follow one’s spouse around after some troubling evidence has come to light in order to see if their claims of fidelity are trustworthy. The detective’s findings could bring validation of one’s trust or they could lead to some very difficult conversations. To bring the analogy to bear on the historical interpretation of scripture: we’re dealing with the latter situation now. And not everyone is open to working things out by redefining the terms of the relationship.

  • Jeff Martin

    Dr. Enns,

    Thanks for providing the link to Thom Stark’s review of Copan’s book. We are actually discussing this very topic in a Bible Study here on post. I am an Army Chaplain now. I was a student in your class back in the 2002-04 era and stayed with the Homans for a bit.

    I thought Stark’s review was great.

    A few quibbles though. I do not think it is evident that the writer of Deuteronomy , already living in a more monotheistic enviroment would have thought that El Elyon and YHWH were two different gods. In Genesis 14 Melchizedek calls Abram’s God Elyon and Abram responds by equating YHWH and El Elyon.

    Also with regards to the nations outside of Canaan in Israel’s path, God had already promised them protection because of their family relationship with Abram, via Lot.

    Yes I agree that many of the nations deserved punishment equally as badly but either God made a covenant with them or they lived in an area that was not desirable of God’s choosing (i.e. the land was fed by God and was dependent on rain, so the Israelites would have to depend on God)

    I certainly agree that infants and little children are not guilty of anything. But the idea of corporate personality which H. Wheeler Robinson a long time ago brought up is not mentioned at all. If we are going to talk about morality being subject to the nation one is from and the culture as Stark does, then is it not possible that beside the propaganda idea, which is legitimate, that cultures back then thought it completely understandable that a whole family should be punished for those in charge of the families transgressions against whatever covenant they had with their God. Or in the case of warfare, the people that win, must mean that their God is stronger and thus legitimately has a right to kill.

    I am throwing out thoughts more than throwing out dogma. Thoughts subject to change based on the evidence.

    Also WIlliam Shea in the article on the Exodus in ISBE, I think, has yet to be refuted regarding his argument that Israel left Egpyt around 1400 BCE and that there is archaeological evidence that Jericho was actually destroyed in 1400 BCE and that the traditional site for Ai is really not Ai but somewhere else

    • Paul D.

      “I do not think it is evident that the writer of Deuteronomy , already living in a more monotheistic enviroment would have thought that El Elyon and YHWH were two different gods. In Genesis 14 Melchizedek calls Abram’s God Elyon and Abram responds by equating YHWH and El Elyon.”

      I would note two things:

      1. Most, if not all, modern source criticisms of the Pentateuch consider Genesis 14 to be much later than Deuteronomy. The Pentateuch wasn’t written in the order we have it in today.

      2. Regardless, Margaret Barker has shown quite convincingly that many Jews up to the time of Jesus still considered Yahweh and El Elyon to be father-and-son deities, a sort of binitarianism.

      • Jeff Martin

        Margaret Barker herself says that the Deuteronomists were responsible for monotheistic belief – “Once the Deuteronomists had introduced monotheism into the life, and more importantly, into the records, of the people of Judah, Yahweh and El Elyon were no longer distinct.” – from

  • RonH

    I can only suggest that a study of the history of Christian interpretation (that predates 19th century Fundamentalism) will relieve you of this misunderstanding.
    Do you have any favorite recommendations for books on this subject?

  • Elijah

    I love what you said in the second-to-final paragraph! That has been exactly my experience, and something that I have tried to articulate to others.

  • I consider other times when God proposed destroying people, but relented when one man asked him to reconsider. One time, God told Moses he was going to destroy the entire nation of Israel. This prompted Moses to intercede in their behalf. I think God was provoking Moses into defending them, because up to that point Moses was frustrated and wanted to wash his hands of them. God also agreed to spare Sodom and Gomorrah every time Abraham asked him to do so. It was not God who set the limit of how many righteous people would qualify the cities for mercy, but Abraham who stopped asking. Also, When God sent Jonah to preach judgement to Ninevah, when they repented, God did not send judgment. I believe the Canaanite and Amalekites might also have qualified for mercy if God’s people had mercy in their hearts.
    In one case, Saul was going for the loot and power ply by sparing the king and livestock. I think it was a case where God was trying to teach them that war was not for gain, but to achieve peace. To allow them to take loot when they attacked (as opposed to when they had been attacked) would have taught them that it was okay to make war just to take what belonged to someone else.)

    I believe the entire OT details God’s efforts to move his people from primitive to mature, as a society. I plan to write some articles on this soon. If you have already beat me to it, give me the links so I can use your work as a source and reference!

  • Mark Erickson

    I have to admire your earnestness and willingness to tackle this formidable challenge. Good luck!

  • Keith Johnston

    It occurs to me that we have the same problem discussing the inerrancy of the Bible (i.e. truthful in all it affirms, whatever that mean) as we do in discussing evolution. That problem is deciding ahead of time how God had to do it (i.e. bring into existence the Bible and/or the universe) rather than believing that God did it and then investigating to see how God did it (why is the progressive development of either the Bible or the universe a sign that God was not involved?). As long as we take our theology to the Bible (i.e. our doctrine of inspiration) rather than getting our theology from the Bible, we will continue to have these problems it seems to me.

  • It seems to me that taking the Bible seriously in some Bebbingtonish sense means that we also need to read the stories just as they are … as texts isolated from history/context, as if they were written in modern times, perhaps found in a short story collection featuring emerging new writers. Of course there is still hermeneutical fuzz and translation problems, but there is a lot of space for picking at the small details just as they are, alert for irony, character insights, whatnot. At this level, the question “Did it really happen?” quite misses the point. There’s no need to anticipate fine-grained consistency from story to story.

    I reiterate this would be in addition to situated historical readings placed in the overall arcs of Scripture, Israel’s story about itself, ANE history as revealed by archeology, the contemporary political/economic situation, et all. The wonderful thing about a narrative is that one is not limited to a single view of it. Very postmodern of me, I’m sure.

    Since you are interested in evolutionary ideas, it has recently been brought home to me that best thought these days is that “a species” is not a well-defined genome, a type individual, but a breeding population which collectively offers choices “alleles” for the genes that compose the genome. A variety of alleles is quite necessary for a healthy population. Likewise Christianity, or A Christian, should be thought of as a breeding population of narratives, not a fixed set of ideas.

    • peteenns

      Very interesting way of putting it, Marshall. Thanks.

  • James

    Yes, this false (but deeply nuanced) dichotomy also shows up in the evangelical doctrine of scripture with the use of the word inerrant. This implies to many that inspiration means the writers of scripture were able to sidestep the messiness of ancient culture. This is increasingly impossible to believe with any integrity. We end up saying stuff like, God can exterminate anyone he wants because he is God. Or, God created the world in six literal days because that’s what the text says.

  • Jo

    “Mess” is what the humanity that God came to intervene in – why the surprise? This just shows how HUMBLE we need to be in the light of stories of God’s interventions at all! We have MUCH to learn and I am grateful for all scholars who ask the hard questions.

  • God didn’t do any of those things. Bloodthirsty man decided to pillage, rape, and steal the land of others and then justify it by attributing it to God. Kind of like what they do today. I think the real problem is their obsession with the Bible at the literal word of God which gives them an out for their own immoral choices and lack of compassion for others. I am amazed at how few quotes from the gospels I hear anymore. It’s all OT fire and brimstone crap.

  • Blake Wise

    It appears that “the more we know of ancient contexts” is deemed to be equal to or superior to Biblical text as an historical source. Should we expect that the ancient historians we might defer to for those contexts, when their accounts differ from the Bible, are more infallible than current historians?

    • peteenns

      The issue is not that the ancient context is “equal or superior” to the Bible, but that ancient context helps us see what these texts were intended to say in those ancient contexts.

      • Dr. Enns,
        So you *are* saying that meaning is derivative of cultural setting, that interpretation is the slave of history. If so, then these things, as they endow the text with its truest interpretation, without which we would be in error I suppose, are in a sense equal to or superior to the text. I think you need to be very careful here. If the Bible is the revelation of God — written by men, yes; written by God, yes — then as it pertains to those writing it, sure, the culture and setting of those men has a bearing on the text, but as it pertains to God, the Bible is more transcendent than that. God is not limited, restricted, enslaved, confined to history, but stands outside of it and as sovereign over it; and what His Word says to Moses, it says to me, for not only does God transcend culture, but there are particular universals throughout history that enable texts to be brought to my heart in the same way it was brought to David’s, like depravity, for example. So Jesus has no problem using biblical texts a thousand years prior in order to reveal the mystery of Himself (though in a different and nuanced culture than that of Moses or David or Isaiah), nor does He have a problem pressing OT texts on the consciences of His hearers (though in a far removed historical setting). And Paul is free to use the history of Israel as example for the Gentile Christians (cf. 1 Cor 10, etc.). Why? Because the Word of God is not bound — to anything! You speak of it as a dead thing to be dissected and even refined or defined by the subjective presuppositions and starting places (and therefore results) of modern historical findings and the like, but it is more living than that. We believe in order to understand. The flip of this is suicidal to biblical Christianity and the gospel of Jesus. It is quite larger, quite the bigger deal that you make it out to be, friend.

        • peteenns

          “Derivative of cultural setting” and “interpretation is the slave of history” are not interchangeable.

  • JC

    Genocide was not the object of Israel’s invasion, and there was no Canaanit=
    e genocide.
    God said he would send terror upon the Canaanites (Exodus 23:27). How do you send terror? By creating an awesome reputation for God, and an invincible one for Israel. The plagues on Egypt, the defeat of the Amorites east of the Jordan, and the crossing of the river were all to convince the Canaanites they were not
    to fight, but run.
    After Jericho and Ai, most Canaanites were too afraid to defend the cities and fled. Just put yourself in their position after hearing of the “magic” that Israel wielded at Jericho.
    The evidence can be seen in the following:
    1) The 5 city alliance of the Gibeonites decided on guile rather than risk conflict. They offered to be slaves to Israel as long as they were spared.
    2) The Canaanite kings tried two alliances in open battle rather than depend on their walls.

    3) Israel took some cities in 1 or 2 days (Joshua 10:23, 32, 35)
    . Compare this with 37 men at Harlech Castle holding off the entire Welsh Army in 1294AD. This was only possible if the cities were severely undermanned. No miracles or tactics were recorded. Isaiah 17:9 tells us many of the cities were deserted as Israel approached.
    5) If genocide was the goal, no Canaanite would dare return to any city after Israel had taken it. And yet, Caleb found some in Hebron to drive out (Joshua 15:14).
    Joshua chapters 15 to 22 lists approximately 260 cities allotted to the tribes, all with no record of battles or sieges.
    7) Thutmose III, pharaoh of Egypt circa 1500BC claimed over 350 Canaanite cities paid him tribute. Joshua 12 lists 31 kings and their cities defeated (less th=
    an 10%!)
    8) There is no archaeological evidence of massed graves in Canaan for that time period.

    God built a formidable reputation for Himself in Egypt, and an awesome one
    for Israel over 40 years in the wilderness, culminating with the destruction of the Canaanites east of the Jordan. An invincible reputation was supposed to be established at Jericho and Ai. This would have forestalled any resistance and saved lives. Too bad one greedy man stole what was reserved for God at Jericho, and Israel suffered an initial defeat at Ai. This encouraged some Canaanites to fight.
    God directed Israel against the strongest and most organized of the Canaanites. Once they were defeated, further killing was minimized. Only those Canaanites most responsible for the evil culture, and those who had the most to lose would have stayed and fought. These were slain to the last man or woman. It was the ge
    nocide of a wicked culture, not the genocide of a people. The people who ran away were later driven out.

  • Thank you for the clarity with which you articulate the issues Peter!

  • sguilford12

    I wonder if ‘when the OT was written’ plays a role in how we read the genocide stories? Just a thought.