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Did God Order the Massacre of Canaanites?

Dennis Bratcher

The question of the apparently ruthless attitudes of the Israelites toward Canaanites is a perplexing one in Scripture. -1- The problem is compounded by the passages in which God is pictured as commanding the extermination of certain peoples, including the slaughter of women and children. Dealing with this issue can be quite complicated depending on what perspective of Scripture with which one is working since the answer is tied to what we understand Scripture to be.

Without trying to speak to all those different perspectives, let me address the issue from only one. This view sees Scripture as a dynamic witness by the community of Faith to God’s self-revelation in history. That is, Scripture records the witness of the community of Faith to God and His work in the world. As authoritative Scripture for the community, God also uses that witness to reveal himself to future generations, at the same time that those future generations may also encounter God in new ways at new points in history. That simply affirms a very dynamic view of Scripture as well as God’s actions in the world, and rejects the idea that Scripture is the absolute truth and paradigm for everything that we want to know, including past history. It is true in its testimony to the revelation of God, in what is tells us about God, about humanity, and about humanity’s relationship with God (see Revelation and Inspiration of Scripture).

From this perspective, I don't think God directly told the Israelites to slaughter other people such as the Canaanites in any absolute or ontological sense. That is because I don't think the Bible was written by God nor is it word for word what God thinks or says. If the Bible is a human witness to God's revelation of Himself in the world, then that witness is borne by men and women who lived in a certain history and a certain culture. Therefore the Bible must be seen in terms of the people who wrote it as well as for what it tells us about the revelation of God in the world. Contrary to what we like to think, ancient Israelites were not modern Christians. They were not modern anything. They lived in 1,200 BC and reflected the culture of that time.

When they encountered God in the exodus they did not immediately become enlightened so that they automatically understood everything about God that we understand nearly 3,500 years later! Their encounter with God was a significant one. But it was largely up to them to translate that revelation of God into practical living. And they struggled mightily over several hundred years to be able to do that adequately (not unlike the similar struggles of the church over an even longer period of time!). So they spoke of God in terms of their own culture, just like they worshipped God in terms of the culture that they understood (for example, sacrifices, circumcision, temples, prophets, etc.; see Speaking the Language of Canaan). They transformed that culture based on their encounter with God, so they began moving to monotheism, social justice, authentic worship, etc. But it would take them nearly 1,000 years to get there.

They basically took their culture and subsumed it under God. For example, they no longer (in theory) sacrificed to appease the fertility gods of the land, but as a celebration of God's grace (see Ba’al Worship in the Old Testament). Everything that they were culturally was subsumed under God. As a faith confession of who they had become as God's people, they placed every facet of life under God, and so attributed all of their activities to God. They grounded all of their religious life, as well as social, political, and economic activities, in the Exodus and Sinai and the idea that God had reveled this new way of life to them by revealing Himself. They were responding in life to what they had come to understand about God based on their encounter with God in history.

So, for example, they attributed all their laws to God as if he had given them at Sinai, even when most of those laws were already in place hundreds of years earlier throughout the Middle East (see Israel’s Codes of Conduct Compared with Surrounding Nations), or were developed several hundred years later during the monarchy. To us, that might sound dishonest. But we have to remember that they were not us; to them, it was a valid expression of who they were as God's people. It was a way to confess based on their encounter with God, "God has called us to live this way."

Unfortunately, sometimes in their history they also did things less noble that they also attributed to God's will. Or at least they gave a theological rationale for what they should have done. The fact is, the early Israelites were a warlike people, not uncommon for tribes of that area. They conceived of God in terms of a great divine warrior who fought beside them or for them. Frequently, they portrayed God Himself slaughtering their enemies. Warfare, then, became a sacred act whereby they could serve God. And this attitude was especially focused on the Canaanites who presented them with the greatest threat to their survival in the early years of their existence as a people.

The fact is they did not try to exterminate the Canaanites when they first entered the land. They settled in with them and adapted their ways and customs. They even entered into alliances and treaties with them (Josh 9-10; see History and Theology in Joshua and Judges). Later, as some of the Canaanites tried to push them from the land, they realized that they had to fight for their very survival.

They also gradually realized that the result of a significant Canaanite presence in their midst was syncretism with the fertility religions of Baal and a steady erosion of their faithfulness to the God of the exodus. This reached a climax in the years following the return from exile (538 BC). The theological confession was then expressed that they should have killed all of the Canaanites when they first entered the land in order to be protected from the temptations of Ba'al worship. It was a short step to conclude that since God had wanted them to be free from Ba'al worship, then God must have wanted them to kill the Canaanites. It was here that the theological rationale for eliminating the Canaanites became primary.  But it arose in hindsight, not as a primary rationale from the beginning.

While there had been isolated incidents attempts physically to remove the Canaanites and their influences from Israel (for example, the purge of the Northern Kingdom by Jehu), there was never a wholesale attempt to exterminate the Canaanites. The tribes often fought each other as fiercely as they fought Philistines! (for example, Judges 20).

That program of elimination of Canaanite threat took a different turn in the period following the exile. Using the justification derived from Joshua relating to physical survival and expressed in theological terms in Deuteronomy, both Ezra and Nehemiah launched programs of elimination.  But there was no killing, certainly no genocide.  They simply attempted to remove by deportation all of the remaining non-Yahwistic influences in the community.

In other words, it was not simply a direct command from God, but their understanding from a certain time and place in history of what they thought would please God. They changed that later, just as they changed a lot of ideas about God throughout their history. And it may well have been that their rationale was not even all that religious in nature in the early period.  It may have been far more about  physical survival than it was about religious purity.

Christian history has similar circumstances. For example, religious leaders whipped up the fervor for the crusades with the cry that it was God's will that they should recapture the Holy Land from the infidels. Charlemagne slaughtered hundreds of his captured enemies after forcing them to accept Christianity at the point of a sword. If they refused, they were killed for being pagan. If they accepted, they were killed so they could immediately go to heaven! All done with the assurance that he was carrying out God's will in world.

A similar argument was made in the United States relating to Native Americans. The theo-political ideology of manifest destiny, using the model of the "promised land" and the settlers as the "Israelites" made it legitimate to exterminate the native population because they were "heathen" and because God had given this land to the new settlers. It is interesting that we now condemn those actions from our later perspectives, yet some continue to defend the Israelite’s attitudes toward the Canaanites as something mandated by God.

While this misreading of God's will in our own history is easy to spot, it is more difficult to do so in Scripture because we assume that everything in Scripture is exactly how it should be, and is all literally true and absolutely inerrant (see The Modern Inerrancy Debate).  It never seems to occur to us that biblical history records mistakes that God's people made as well as their successes.  We don't quite get around to realizing that the Israelite attitudes toward exterminating the Canaanites might have been preserved as a model of how not to act and to recall the magnitude of the people's failure to understand God rather than as a paradigm for how to treat others. We somehow never connect the Israelite attitude toward the Canaanites with the failure of Abraham to live out God's promise and become a blessing to all peoples, instead bringing plagues and curses upon them (Genesis 12:10-20, 20:1-18).

Perhaps that helps us understand an astounding statement from Amos. When God's people were feeling especially privileged yet also feeling slighted because things were not going as they expected, God reminded them that they were not the only people in the world for whom God was concerned (Amos 9:7-10).

And if we consider that perhaps what is recorded in Joshua or in Deuteronomy was written from a much later perspective rather than as it happened, we are faced with the possibility that the theological rationale for the elimination of the Canaanite religious threat may be the concerns of a later era and not in view at the actual time the Israelites were fighting for the land and their survival.

So, there really is no problem in the nature of God. The problem is with people who have a hard time separating their own culturally and historically conditioned ideas from the will of God in the world. If we could separate that out better, Christianity would have had a far less bloody history and we would probably be far less anxious to kill all the infidels even today. I think that is one of the most important aspects of the Incarnation and the proclamation of Peace on earth that accompanied it.

Further Discussion

One book that deals with the Canaanite genocide is Show Them no Mercy: Four Views of Canaanite Genocide by Stanley N. Gundry and others, eds. (Zondervan, 2003). In one of the articles, "The Case for Radical Discontinuity" by  C. S. Cowles, the conclusion is very similar to the one presented above, although approached from a much different direction.

To attribute such atrocities to the actual intention and will of God . . . poses insuperable difficulties for Christian theology, ethics, and praxis (p. 15).

 . . .evangelicals no longer have the luxury of defending genocidal '"texts of terror" as reflective of either God's "moral being" or his "will and activity." Nor is there any need to do so (p. 18).

[We need to] acknowledge what is everywhere assumed in the New Testament, namely, that while there are vast and vitally important areas of continuity between Israel's faith and that of the church, there are significant instances of radical discontinuity as well, none more so than in reference to divinely initiated and sanctioned violence (p. 19).

[To attribute such atrocities to the actual intention and will of God] can only be described as pre-Christ, sub-Christ, and anti-Christ (p. 36).

Basically, Cowles' position is that God's nature and character are best revealed in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  This revelation of God in Christ must be the hermeneutical lens through which we read Old Testament texts. The New Testament revelation of God's character in Christ, which is defined primarily as love, cannot be harmonized with the Old Testament command to slaughter all Canaanite men, women, and children indiscriminately.  The conclusion is that God did not command this genocide, but that the Israelites only mistakenly assumed that this was what God wanted.  Cowles emphasizes a progressive understanding of God's revelation rather than a progression in the revelation itself.  In other words, such problematic texts must be filtered through a Christological lens, so that the hermeneutical focus is a Christocentric interpretation.

However, while this approach correctly identifies the basic problem, it raises serious problems for the authority of the Old Testament. While Dr. Cowles and I end up concluding much the same thing, we arrive at it from different directions. He works backward from Jesus, while I work from within the Old Testament narratives.  His is a theological approach while mine is a biblical approach relating to the nature of Scripture.  I see Scripture as the ongoing testimony of God’s people, a response to God as they work out what it means to be the people of God within the parameters of the covenant.  Scripture is very dynamic, an ongoing testimony to the experiences of the community of Faith as they move through history (see Revelation and Inspiration and Community and Testimony: Cultural Influence in Biblical Studies).

I don't think the actions of the Hebrews becoming Israelites as recounted in Joshua are nearly that theologically laden, as if they consciously decided at that time that they needed to do this to eliminate the threat of Baal worship. It was not so much a matter of thinking God wanted them to eliminate Baal worship, mistakenly or not.

As I have argued elsewhere (History and Theology in Joshua and Judges), in the early days Israelites were far more Canaanite than they were people of God. In fact, a large percentage was actually Canaanite by birth and heritage, people who had joined the incoming Israelites.  Judges and much of the book of Kings confirm that.  I think they did attempt at least to dominate the Canaanites, but it was not for the lofty purpose of establishing true worship.  They were fighting for land and survival.  A recurring theme throughout Joshua and Judges, and even as late as Ezra-Nehemiah, is that surrounding peoples constantly raided into Israelite territory threatening their very survival.  They fought for security and survival far more than they fought for God, as the Book of Judges makes clear.

From our modern perspective, the early Israelites were savage tribal people who did not have the delicate sensibilities that we have today.  They were a violent people who lived in a violent time, where there was no law except the law of power.  To survive meant to fight well, and the only security of life came by brute force.  And yet they were people who understood themselves to be people of God.  So it was easy to relate survival with God.

Yet, I don't think the overtly theological rationale came into play until much later when Baal worship was seriously challenged.  Of course, the prophets and some righteous kings had tried to eliminate it before, but the lasting inroads against Baal worship did not come until after the exile. I think it was during the Deuteronomic era in the sixth and fifth centuries BC that the polemic against Baal worship led the Deuteronomists and the Chronicler to interpret the earlier wars against the Canaanites as primarily theological in nature (see The Deuteronomic History and Historiography). 

Since the post-exilic priests were struggling hard to eliminate all traces of Baal worship and to establish pure Yahwism (an effort that would end up in normative Judaism), from that context they could easily read the earlier struggle against the Canaanites as a struggle to eliminate Baal worship. The era of the settlement of the land and the period of the Judges could be seen as paradigmatic of what the post-exilic reformers needed to do.  As the Israelites had then tried to eliminate Canaanite influence for one reason (physical survival), so the post-exilic priests needed to eliminate all traces of non-Yahwistic theology and worship for another reason (theological survival).  Under the leadership of both Ezra and Nehemiah, this led, for example, to the deportation of non-Israelite wives back to their homelands (Ezra 10), and the imposition of strict laws governing intermarriage with outsiders and other religious practices (for example, Neh 13).

In other words, I think the idea that God commanded the massacre of the Canaanites to eliminate Baal worship was an interpretation of the earlier period from the perspective of the post-exilic situation. It was not that the earlier Israelites only misunderstood what God wanted or incorrectly believed that this is what God wanted, although that may have been a factor.  I just don't think there was that much of a theological rationale at all in the early period.  It was mostly survival in the only mode available at the time: fight and kill, or be killed.

Yet the post exilic priests desperately needed to eliminate pagan influences from the re-established community.  They did not have the ability to fight and the intervening millennium had brought different attitudes.  They were no longer a brutal tribal people.  Yet, they faced the same kind of test of survival.  It was just as much a matter of theological survival in the post exilic era as it was physical survival in the earlier era.  They could have survived physically without dealing with the theological crisis.  But they would no longer have been people of the covenant or the people of God.

The post-exilic priests understood that they must get it right this time, or there would no longer be an identifiable people of the covenant. So they exegeted the earlier history and used it as a program to carry out the post-exilic reforms, yet on a less violent scale without the bloodshed.

I do agree with Dr. Cowles that there was a progressive understanding of God's revelation rather than a progression in the revelation itself. That is why Scripture, as a testimony to God and his revelation from the community of faith, is dynamic and cannot always be taken as an absolute paradigm for future actions without exegesis and understanding.  Yet, while a Christological hermeneutic may support that view, I don't think that it needs it and is destructive of a comprehensive understanding of Old Testament authority to require it.


1. Canaanites are a general designation for a wide variety of people who lived throughout the Middle East, from as far south as the Philistine coast north to Phoenicia, and including various groups of people east of the Jordan River as far north as Babylon (sometimes referred to as Amorites). Their commonality was not ethnic or racial, but only, besides living in the same general region, that they worshipped nature and fertility deities. More specifically, however, Canaanite refers to the peoples who inhabited the territory in which the Israelite tribes settled, from Mount Hermon and the Sea of Galilee in the north to the southern end of the Negeb and the Sinai Peninsula in the south, from the Mediterranean coast on the west to the Jordan river on the east.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2018, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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