The Slaughter of the Canaanites: Our Options
“[The Israelites] sacrificed their sons and their daughters to false gods. They shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, and the land was desecrated by their blood. They defiled themselves by what they did; by their deeds they prostituted themselves” (Psalm 106:37-39, emphasis mine).
When I read this scripture, I could not help but ask myself, “Why did God consider the blood of the Israelite children to be innocent, while there was a time when it didn’t seem there was any issue with killing the children of the Canaanites?” (See Deuteronomy 2:32-37; 3:6; Chapter 7, Deuteronomy 20:10-18.)
Why are the Israelite children considered to be innocent blood while the nations of the Promised Land were not?
This is a difficult question that Christians have been attempting to answer for a long time. After all, the violence carried out against the Canaanites seems to be in stark contrast to the teachings of our Lord and Savior.
In this article, I will seek to briefly summarize some of the common ways that these Deuteronomy passages and the Israelite conquest in Joshua have been attempted to be explained. My point will not be to give a hard and fast answer for how we as Bible-believing Christians are to respond to these passages, but simply to present the possibilities.
Possibility 1: Scripture is Fallible
One possible interpretation of these violent scriptures is to simply conclude that the Bible, even in its original form (not just translations of the Bible), is fallible, and that these violent scriptures are simply the result of human influence on scripture. After all, the moral implications are easier to dismiss for someone who does not hold to any doctrine of sola scriptura.
For those of us who hold to the authority and divine inspiration of all scripture, this is simply not an option.
We cannot hold to a high view of scripture, and yet claim that some portions of scripture are of totally human rather than divine influence. While this solution is tempting to those who are disturbed by these portions of scripture, it is not an adequate solution for an orthodox faith.
Possibility 2: God “Wore a Mask”
This next possibility that I’ve heard is similar to the first, but slightly different. Propounded by Anabaptist teacher Greg Boyd, this view essentially teaches that God “wore a mask” or “hid his face” in certain texts of the Old Testament in order to allow human agents to carry out the violence in their hearts.
I would argue that this view is actually more dangerous than the first because not only does it confirm the Bible’s fallibility, but shows a God willing to hide his true loving nature from us and actually show himself as evil in order to work with fallen human creatures.
While I do believe in a doctrine of accommodation, where God accommodates his message to fallen human beings (see Matthew 19:8), this does not necessitate what Greg Boyd teaches. The Bible shows a God who is willing to work with his people slowly over time because of our hard hearts and slowness to learn. God puts his message in words his people will understand so it does not simply “go over our heads.”
However, accommodation does not mean that God allows himself to appear evil, or appear to have an evil human heart, in order to accommodate for his people. For a helpful assessment of Boyd’s position, see this article by Paul Copan.
Possibility 3: Allegorization
We are not the first to wrestle with these troubling passages. These passages were also troubling in antiquity to great Christian thinkers like Origen, Augustine, and others. Origen’s approach to passages that seemed to conflict with moral or theological truth found in Christ is that they can be allegorized. For instance, the destruction and driving out of the Canaanites can be compared to how we are to drive sin out of the church, etc.
I do not deny that we can find practical inspiration from comparing these scriptures to the church today. However, we still must come to terms with the fact that these things happened and are real history. They are not only stories that we can find inspiration from for the church.
It is hard to say the extent to which Origen or Augustine took allegorization to mean that those things did not actually happen. They may have been more concerned with a Christian thinking these scriptures ought to be implemented the same as they would implement Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament.
So regardless of whether there are spiritual, typological, or allegorical interpretations, it still remains necessary to come to terms with what actually happened in real history. For instance, just because Jesus takes the story of Jonah as a typological event for his own death and resurrection (see Matthew 12:39-40) does not mean he did not also believe this event happened in real history.
Possibility 4: God “Got Himself Dirty”
Another view that involves God’s accommodation to his people is that God had to “get himself dirty” when he tried to have a relationship with the Israelites. While this might sound like the earlier possibility of God “wearing a mask,” it is not the same. While it shows that God is willing to accommodate to the stubbornness of his people, it does not contend that God also appeared evil in order to do so.
In fact, there are a couple of times in the Old Testament where God clearly accommodates to human stubborness, and there are no masks involved.
I already mentioned one scripture where Jesus clearly taught some level of accommodation in the Torah (Matthew 19:8). One story from the Old Testament that can potentially support this view is 1 Samuel 8. In this chapter, the Israelites ask Samuel for a king to lead them like all the other nations have. God is angry at their request because up to this point they had not been led by a king, but were meant to be a “kingdom of priests” who enforced God’s rules and laws, not their own (see Exodus 19:6). God knew the dangers of an autocratic system and wanted his people to be led by his rules and laws, rather than by one appointed man.
However, God accommodates to their stubbornness and rejection of him as king and appoints them a king while simultaneously warning them of what this king will do to them.
This is a clearly defined point where God “got himself dirty” to accommodate his people’s stubborn hearts by working with an autocratic system rather than his original plan of a “kingdom of priests.”
One could argue something similar when God allows the Israelites to practice polygamy rather than monogamy, as originally intended (Genesis 2:24). Though this is never explicitly stated, nearly every example given of polygamous marriages seems to go poorly in the Old Testament (e.g., Genesis 37:3; 1 Samuel 1:6-7).
Another example of this is in Deuteronomy 21:10-14:
“When you go to war against your enemies and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails and put aside the clothes she was wearing when captured. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.”
In the cultural context of the time, the common practices when a nation went to war against another nation were to take over the area and do anything you want with the people there. How were those restricted by this command? According to God’s command, the men could not rape the women, and they had to go through a process and waiting period before they could take a woman as their wife. They had limits where the surrounding nations often had none. For instance, in the case of the Canaanites, God commanded complete destruction and/or driving out from the land. (See Deuteronomy 7:1-6 as compared to Deuteronomy 20.)
However, there’s something else interesting about this command.
In a sense, it backtracks on itself by saying that the person has done something dishonorable! It is not saying that this is the ideal situation; rather, it is saying that if it happens, then this is what to do in response. God was entering into a culture where war and conquest was the normal part of life for nations, and he put limits on what was allowed and what wasn’t.
So in this sense, God “got himself dirty” by entering into the current culture in order to bring his people forward into greater holiness.
Can these examples be juxtaposed to the situation of the complete annihilation of the Canaanites? Possibly, they can be.
Jesus said that Moses allowed the Israelite men to seek divorce if they wanted because their hearts were hard (Matthew 19:8), even though nothing in the Torah actually suggests that Moses allowed this because their hearts were hard (See Deuteronomy 24:1-4).
Perhaps something similar is going on with how God accommodated to the war and conquest practices of the time, the vulnerability of the Israelites to Canaanite influence, and the hard hearts of the Canaanite people.
God’s wrath on the nations residing in the promised land was for one specific time in history to bring wrath on the nations there. This was not something God endorsed at any other time for the Israelite people to do. We can be sure that this wrath was not racially motivated, but morally motivated. (See the exceptions given for Rahab in Joshua 2, the Gibeonites in Joshua 9, and Deuteronomy 9:1-6). We can see this clearly when God brought similar wrath on the Israelites later on in their history for similar reasons to the Canaanites (see Deuteronomy 28:15-68). This leads me into my next consideration.
Possibility 5: The Canaanite Nations Were Very Evil and Wicked
Deuteronomy 9:1-6 shows another dimension to this discussion: a moral dimension. This view says that in God’s providence he knows when a nation has gone to a point where judgment must be brought upon all of the inhabitants.
When evil has gotten to a certain degree, God has a right to decide that a people needs to be annihilated.
I’d like to give a personal illustration for this view from a movie I watched that I probably should not have watched as a Christian. The violence and gore in this movie was so unprecedented that I’ll neglect even mentioning the name so a reader won’t be tempted to go watch it. However, I feel it is the best way to illustrate my point.
In this movie a group of activists go into a rainforest that was about to be knocked down and the inhabitants killed. They tie themselves to trees while putting everything on video with their phones to keep the workers from bulldozing them. Their attempt to save the rainforest is successful. However, someone sabotages their plane after leaving which leaves them crashing into the rainforest. Most of the survivors are then kidnapped by a tribe in the rainforest.
However, this is no ordinary tribe. It is a cannabilistic tribe. The rest of the movie is so graphic that I won’t go into much detail, though I’m sure the reader has the imagination to fill in the details. Every man, woman, and child of the tribe enjoyed one-by-one eating the crew alive. By the end of the movie, there is only one survivor who somehow escapes. This one survivor is asked in front of camera how she was able to escape and if the tribe was cannibalistic as rumored. She says that the tribe helped her escape and she never experienced any cannibalism. She did this in order to save the tribe from being destroyed by those who wanted to exploit the resources of the rainforest for profit.
When I finished the movie, I was not only very sickened by all the violence, and confused as to why I just watched this movie. I was also very conflicted. I now felt it may have been better for the tribe to be destroyed since every man, woman, and child had learned cannibalism from an early age. Anyone else who came across this tribe would also be eaten alive.
Why go into detail about this movie? I go into this detail so the reader might consider the possibility that a whole tribe or people can come to the point of no return. I do not point this out to imply that humans can make the decision of when annihilation is an appropriate response to pure evil, but to show that it is God who can ultimately make decisions like this.
For a fuller explanation of this view and the evidence for the unprecedented evil of the Canaanites, see this article by Greg Koukl.
Possibility 6: Hyperbole
Paul Copan and Matt Flanagan are among scholars who believe that the accounts of conquests are described largely in hyperbole. The command to “completely destroy everything that breathes” was something akin to how you might trash-talk a sports team: “We completely destroyed them!”
There is reason to believe that there may be some hyperbole expressed in these passages as there still seem to be surviving Canaanites even in areas where they were “totally destroyed.” For example, although there was “none of the Anakim left in the land” in Joshua 11, there were Anakim in the land in Joshua 14 (see 11:21-22; 14:12-15). He also points out that there could have been more localized raids on military outposts rather than wide-spread territorial conquests.
But a totally hyperbolic approach doesn’t seem to do justice to the text and it does seem there were likely cases where women and children were killed (see 1 Sam. 15:10-16). Joshua 7 also reveals how Achan’s family was treated for his sin.
If this is how Israel treated their own people for their sin, why would they have treated the Canaanites any differently?
While I appreciate the insights of Paul Copan and have gleaned much from his books Is God a Moral Monster? and Did God Really Command Genocide?, I do not find a purely hyperbolic view very convincing. I don’t feel we can escape from the fact that there are likely situations where women and children were killed, though we could conclude this was the exception rather than the norm.
Possibility 7: The Descriptions are literal and God’s Moral Right
William Lane Craig is a proponent of the view that God did command women and children to be killed, not just soldiers, and that it was God’s moral right to do so. For a full description of this view and his treatment of Copan’s hyperbolic argument, check out this and this by William Lane Craig. Greg Koukl’s article represents a similar view here.
Possibility 8: Giants
One interpretation that has been put forward is that the ancient Jews believed that the Canaanites and the surrounding nations were the result of the marriage of fallen heavenly beings with women, resulting in the “giants” called the Nephilim in Genesis 6. I have read the scholarship from Michael Heiser on this subject in his book The Unseen Realm, but I have also heard unreasonable theories under this category that sound like they were taken from Lord of the Rings.
Heiser himself points out some of the extremes of his own view that the ancient Israelites considered the Canaanites to be descendants of the Nephilim. I believe his research is sound and that there is good reason to believe that the Canaanites and other nations that the Israelites were expected to annihilate and/or drive out were believed to be unusually large people/descendants of the Nephilim.
However, I do not feel this helps us at all in determining the morality of such a decision by God. So what if they were giants? If God destroyed them based on their genetic makeup, this does not resolve the problem; it makes it worse! I do not believe God commanded herem (wherein something is devoted to destruction) on the Canaanites because they were giants, and there is nothing in the biblical text to suggest that this is the reason herem was commanded.
Possibility 9: John Walton’s book The Lost World of The Israelite Conquest
Unsurprisingly, John Walton has a different and controversial approach to this issue. Walton’s scholarship in the Lost World series has been helpful to me at many points, though I have found that his conclusions can sometimes be overly black-and-white. For instance, his completely functional interpretation of Genesis 1 is one point where many scholars disagree with his conclusions.
I don’t have time here to go deep into this subject, but suffice it to say that most scholars do not think there is a strong enough reason to treat the creation story of Genesis as purely functional, and not at all about material origins.
While The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest was written mainly by John Walton’s son, Harvey, with John offering more of an editorial role, I see some of the same potential for black-and white thinking, and perhaps surprisingly, some “under-thinking” in key areas. I don’t have time here to get into an overview of the whole book but here is a helpful review. I just want to point out a couple of problems that I saw, and one place where I benefitted from the scholarship the book offers.
For one, he interprets the Canaanite conquest not as God’s retributive punishment, but as a way to establish the “military prowess” of Israel’s God and His desire to establish His identity with His people, the Israelites.
When I read Walton’s arguments for this point, I did find at least his “Proposition 6” as persuasive. This chapter of the book explains why Genesis 15:16 cannot be used to defend the view of the Canaanite conquest as God’s retributive punishment if it is taken in context and if the Hebrew is translated more accurately. However, I did not find his arguments persuasive that the same could be said of Leviticus 18:25 or Deuteronomy 9:5. Here I found his arguments to be overly black-and-white, and he seems over-determined to show these scriptures as not showing God’s retributive judgement.
In my opinion, if the Canaan conquest was not God’s judgment on the Canaanite peoples, and indeed an impossible undertaking for the Israelites on their own, most apologetic arguments for the conquest fall apart. In this way, while I found some helpful scholarly information, I didn’t find Walton’s book to be a very helpful Christian defense for why God allowed such a brutal conquest.
In a future article, I will set forth what I believe to the best biblical response to the problem many people find with these passages.
(For more from Jon, visit jonwalt.com. Used with permission.)