What about the Canaanites?: On the Bible, Violence, and Genocide

What about the Canaanites?: On the Bible, Violence, and Genocide May 6, 2015
Nicolas Poussin, The Victory of Joshua Over the Amalekites (Public Domain: Wikimedia Commons)
Nicolas Poussin, The Victory of Joshua Over the Amalekites (Public Domain: Wikimedia Commons)

Suzanne and I recently delivered a workshop on the Bible and violence at the Faith Forward conference in Chicago. We highlighted the differences between the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus and the biblical story of Cain and Abel.

You can read the description of our workshop here, but to summarize, in the Roman myth, Romulus kills his brother Remus, founds the city of Rome, and the god Mars vindicates Romulus by welcoming him to heaven and divinizing him as the god Quirinus. The biblical account is similar, but has important differences. Cain kills his brother Abel, founds a city, but God doesn’t vindicate the murderer. Rather, God actually vindicates the victim by hearing Abel’s blood crying out from the earth.

In the Roman myth, the god vindicates the persecutor’s violence and ignores the victim. In the biblical account, God hears the voice of the victim and seeks to heal and protect the repentant persecutor from a cycle of violence that might turn against him.

The differences couldn’t be more profound.

But as we talked about those difference, someone asked an important question, “You are telling us about the compassionate God of the Bible, but what about the Canaanites?”

It is the most troubling story in the Bible. As they enter the Promised Land, God commands the Israelites to kill everything that breathes – including women, children, men, and animals. As if God wasn’t clear enough, God instructs Israel to kill more than just the Canaanites. God says to “annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perrizites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God commanded, so that they may not teach you to do abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you do thus sin against the Lord your God.”

Our questioner was right. How can we talk about a biblical God of compassion in the face of genocide and Holy War? What about the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perrizites, Hivites, and Jebusites?

Great question.

Peter Enns does a remarkable job exploring some answers in his masterful book The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. Peter discusses the various answers historically offered to justify God’s demand for genocide, but there are two answers in particular that interest me.

Did God Actually Command Genocide?

First, it’s important to note that while the Bible tells a horrific story of the conquest of Canaan, there is no evidence outside of the Bible that the conquest actually happened. Generations of scholars have known that there are no textual sources to corroborate the conquest. So, scholars looked to archeology to support the biblical claim. But archeology has come up empty, too. Peter states,

Biblical archeologists are about as certain as you can be about these things that the conquest of Canaan as the Bible describes it did not happen: no mass invasion from the outside by an Israelite army, and no extermination of Canaanites as God commanded.

Archeologists could be wrong, of course. Maybe archeological evidence of a conquest will emerge. Still, with such a massive conquest, you would expect archeological evidence to be easy to find. The lack of archeological evidence sheds serious doubt on the historical facts of the conquest. But if we claim that the conquest never happened, we’re still left with an important question – Why is the genocide in the Bible? Peter postulates,

It seems that, as time went on and Israel became a nation (after 1,000 BCE) stories of these earlier skirmishes grew and turned into exaggerated stories of Israel’s wars against the Canaanites in days of old…What most everyone is certain about, however, is that the Bible’s version of events is not what happened. And that puts the question, “How could God have all those Canaanites put to death?” in a different light indeed. He didn’t.

In a similar vein, James Alison talks about the “conquest” of Canaan in his book Jesus the Forgiving Victim. James also highlights the lack of archeological evidence and provides another explanation for the violent story. He states that the story as we have it was finally solidified by the ancient Jews, known as Judeans, who were returning from the Babylonian exile. As they entered into the Promised Land, they told the story to those who remained in the land during the exile. Understandably, those who remained in the land feared those who were returning from exile. James states that the story’s purpose,

[W]ould have been a way of letting the current occupiers of the land know, among other things: “You needn’t fear us returning Judeans from Babylon, for, as our text shows, so completely did Joshua extirpate the former occupiers of the land, many centuries ago, that if you are there now, you must in fact really be part of us already.” In other words…the account of the ancient conquest becomes a backdrop to a modern co-opting without conquest.

If Peter and James are right, God didn’t call for genocide. Nor was the point of the story to strike fear in Israel’s enemies. Rather, the point was to alleviate the fears of those who were left behind in Judea during the Babylonian Exile.

Jesus and the Canaanites

Which leads me to Peter’s second point – Jesus and the Canaanites. Interestingly, there were no Canaanites in the first century. They were long gone as a people. And yet, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus met a Canaanite woman. Peter claims this “Is the only time Israel’s ancient foes are mentioned in the New Testament.”

The woman wasn’t actually a Canaanite. In fact, Mark and Luke claim she was a Syro-Phoenician. But Matthew intentionally called her a Canaanite, not because he was lying, but because he had a point to make about their “ancient foes” – that the Canaanites might actually have been exemplars of faith.

The Canaanite woman begged Jesus to heal her daughter, but Jesus refused by saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” She persisted and Jesus refused again, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Dogs?!? Ouch, Jesus. That wasn’t nice.

But the Canaanite woman softened Jesus’ heart, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Like Joshua destroyed the walls around Jericho to defeat the Canaanites, this Canaanite woman destroyed the wall around Jesus’ heart. “Woman,” Jesus replied, “great is your faith. Let it be done as you wish.”

What about the Canaanites?

In the end, I don’t know if these answers are satisfying. Whether or not it actually happened, the story of Israel’s conquest over the Canaanites is horrific. But the last word in the Bible about the Canaanites belongs to Jesus, and it’s a positive one. Peter claims that Jesus was fully immersed in his Jewish context when he healed the Canaanite woman’s daughter. Jesus and the Hebrew prophets lead us to a different view of, and a different ethic toward, our enemies:

Jesus, taking a page from some Old Testament prophets (like Isaiah) would complicate things. God’s people are a light that shines into dark places, or salt that makes the whole meal taste good, or a pinch of yeast that makes the entire loaf rise. Wherever God’s people are, it makes a difference—for better, and without violence. 


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  • Jerry Lynch

    “But the Canaanite woman softened Jesus’ heart…” Did she? I am going with the third time’s a charm theological argument. Three days in the tomb proved the glorious miracle of the Resurrection. Peter was given three opportunities to show his faith in Christ, his response showed beyond doubt his fear. This women was given three opportunities to show her faith in Christ, her response showed beyond doubt her faith. I do not see Jesus being hardhearted here but like my Jesuit priest in high school that did not reply “Correct” to a right answer but fired three more questions to show your knowledge and belief in the answer. Three seems to cinch the state of the heart and mind.

    More troubling than the presence of this genocide story in the Bible is the many of Christians down through the decades I have heard use it as an argument to justify participation in war and their guns. And in the last eight years, as a possible solution to rid this “city on a hill,” America, from the unholy and corrupting power of the “libtards” and “democraps.” God’s wrath and judgment are coming soon to our fellow Americans and neighbors for having differing views.

    • I think that’s a fair interpretation of the story, Jerry. Although, referring to the woman as a dog seems a bit excessive to me. You may be right, but I think Jesus, as fully human, probably had his prejudices and this scene may have shown one of them. If that’s the case, Jesus provides for us a perfect example of repentance, a change of heart toward another who was scapegoated as “other.” If Christians followed Jesus example here, we wouldn’t be in the situation of your second paragraph.

      And yet I’m still open to your interpretation. Thank you for it.

      • Jerry Lynch

        Referring to the woman as a dog is fairly excessive but I failed to mention how the Jesuit priest in hs introduced his questions: excessive. “How can you be so stupid to think that…Support that!”