In this article, we argue that God did not command the Israelites to kill the Canaanites in the land of Canaan. Indeed the Bible does claim that God commanded this (Deu. 7:2; 20:16-17, Josh. 6:21), but we will see why this is problematic on historical grounds. We suggest that viewing the Israelites in their ancient historical context and acknowledging the historical issues of the conquests will demonstrate that God did not command the Israelites to commit genocide, although the biblical writers claim that he did.
Although this view will be controversial to many Christians, it is not proposed out of disrespect for the Bible; as Old Testament scholar Peter Enns explains, this does not constitute “arbitrarily picking and choosing what to keep and what to throw out. Really. I am respecting the Bible’s ancient voice, trying to understand what that ancient voice is saying, and then (and only then) make a decision, as best as I can, about what to do with it” (1). This article will argue its point with these sentiments in mind.
Israel in Historical Context: A Tribal Deity
Enns encourages us to view the Israelites, as God’s chosen people, in their historical context: “The Israelites grew up out of the soil of an ancient world, from a small band of tribes and nomads to become a nation, one surrounded by older and larger superpowers: Babylon to the east, Assyria to the north, and Egypt to the south” (2).
The ancient neighbors and cultures of Israel contributed much to shaping Israelite culture, even though Israel was its own nation with distinctive beliefs and practices. It is unsurprising then that we find Israelite culture shares similarities with other cultures in the ancient world. This is evident in Israel’s worship practices, ideas about how the cosmos was created, system of laws, notion of kingship, style of poetry, attitudes toward women and slaves, and so on; Israel’s development was influenced by their larger cultural environment. This also suggests that the Israelites shared with their neighbors a tribal view of the world around them. It was a self-identity along the lines that,
“We are the good guys, and all of you out there are the bad guys. We hate you, your gods, and your strange ways. You threaten us and we distrust you. We will make treaties when it benefits us, and we may even get friendly now and then. But, bottom line, you are the enemy. When we get big and strong enough, and our god favors us, we will invade you. You are not ‘us.’ You are ‘them.’ Watch your back” (3).
The supposed Canaanite genocide by the Israelites was part and parcel of this ancient mentality. This way of seeing others was at home in the ancient world in which Israel lived. We have, for example, a ninth-century BCE stone monument from Moab. Moab was a neighbor to Israel and in this monument we find an exaggerated record of the Moabite king Mesha’s military campaign against the Israelites. Historically, the Israelites had been in control of Moab for a period. The reason for this was not because of the military superiority of the Israelites, but because Mesha’s god Kemosh was angry with Moab. Kemosh thus allowed the Israelites to overrun the Moabites as a punishment. But Kemosh is still much in control of the destiny of the Moabites, so when things get better between Kemosh and Moab, Mesha is given the command to go through the towns of Moab and kill all the Israelites as a sacrifice to him and take back the land that rightfully belongs to them. We read that in Nebo, Mesha “put to the ban” the entire town, meaning he killed the entire population as an act of devotion to Kemosh.
The similarities between king Mesha and the instructions of his god Kemosh and what we find in the biblical narrative of the extermination of the Canaanites are clear. Enns articulates,
“Both Mesha and Moses (and later Joshua) were told by their deity to invade a land they believed rightfully belonged to them and “put to the ban” the entire population as an act of devotion and obedience to God. Hebrew and Moabite are very similar languages, and they even use the same word for this ban… the word is cherem, pronounced with a throaty “ch” as in “Bach.”). Failure to “put to the ban” everyone and everything as directed by your god was a great way to make your god extremely angry—including Israel’s God. Right after the conquest of Jericho, God turns his back on Israel’s next battle against the town of Ai… The Israelites are routed, and they soon learned why God had withdrawn his hand” (4).
Israel was an ancient tribal people and they thought and acted accordingly. This means that they saw their God and the world from a tribalistic perspective. Their deity was a warrior God who valued the same things that the Israelites did, which was to kill enemies and take their land. According to Enns, this is how the Israelites connected with their God.
Historical Issues with the Canaanite Conquest
There are strong archaeological reasons to think that God did not command the Israelites to commit genocide on the Canaanites. It is strongly held in biblical scholarship and by biblical archaeologists that there was no mass invasion from the outside by an Israelite army and no extermination of Canaanites as God supposedly commanded.
Archaeologists can tell whether or not a city was violently destroyed by outside invaders and if new occupants moved in. This is because the violent destruction of towns and cities leaves various archaeological pieces of evidence including human bones, weapons, smashed pottery, and soot (if the town was burned) that can be pieced together. Moreover, a large migration of a people group, like the Bible describes with Israel entering Canaan, would result in a cultural upheaval that would leave remains for archaeologists to discover. But here we begin to encounter historical problems for the biblical narrative. For example, of the towns listed in the book of Joshua (and four other towns on the other side of the Jordan River),
“Sixteen towns were destroyed according to the stories in the books of Numbers, Joshua, and Judges. Of those sixteen, two or three, maybe four, cities show signs of violent destruction at or around the time when Joshua and his army would have been plowing through Canaan (thirteenth century BCE, about two hundred years before the time of King David). That’s it. The towns on the other side of the Jordan River, in Moab, don’t look like they were even occupied at the time. We also read in the Bible that twelve towns were taken over without a fight. But of those twelve, only seven were even occupied at the time, according to archaeological findings. And of those same twelve towns that the Bible says weren’t destroyed, three actually do show signs of destruction. In other words, archaeology and the biblical story don’t line up well at all” (5).
Even Christian apologists who attempt to defend the genocide of the Canaanites admit, awkwardly, that scholars find this narrative problematic; William Lane Craig, who attempts to defend the genocide as consistent with divine command theory, concedes that “In fact, ironically, many Old Testament critics are sceptical that the events of the conquest of Canaan ever occurred. They take these stories to be part of the legends of the founding of Israel, akin to the myths of Romulus and Remus and the founding of Rome. For such critics the problem of God’s issuing such a command evaporates” (6).
The most widely known difficulty regarding the biblical narrative has to do with the city of Jericho mentioned in Joshua. A century of archaeological digging in Jericho suggests that the city was at best minimally inhabited and had no surrounding walls. This means the biblical story of the “walls of Jericho” falling over when the Israelites invaded is a problem. Arguably, only three cities fit biblical descriptions: Bethel, Hazor, and probably Debir, which look more like internal Canaanite conflicts than anything else.
These two points strongly suggest that God did not command the Israelites to commit genocide on the Canaanite people. First, Israel shared with its neighbors a tribal mentality and way of seeing God and the world. It is not surprising that at this point in Israel’s history their God reflected their way of seeing the world. Israel was a tribal people who believed in a tribal deity. Second, decades of archaeological excavations do not match up with the biblical conquest account. Cities were either unoccupied or still standing when the Israelites were said to have swept through Canaan. But if the Canaanite genocide never happened, then why did these stories emerge? It seems, concludes Enns, “that, as time went on and Israel became a nation (after 1000 BCE), stories of these earlier skirmishes grew and turned into exaggerated stories of Israel’s wars against the Canaanites in days of old” (7).
- Enns, Peter. 2014. The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. New York: HarperCollins. p. 69.
- Enns, Peter. 2014. Ibid. p. 70.
- Enns, Peter. 2014. Ibid. p. 71.
- Enns, Peter. 2014. Ibid. p. 73.
- Enns, Peter. 2014. Ibid. p. 75.
- Craig, William. 2007. #16 Slaughter of the Canaanites. Available.
- Enns, Peter. 2014. Ibid. p. 77.