Every once in a while a detractor of the Christian faith objects that Christianity is ethically bankrupt because Christians worship a deity who ordered a genocide of all the inhabitants of Canaan when the Israelites entered the land under the leadership of Joshua. They can certainly quote enough texts in arguing their case. Deuteronomy 20:16-17 says, “In the cities of the nations that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Utterly destroy them” [literally, “place them under the ban”]. Thus also Joshua 10:30: Joshua “captured [Debir] and its king and all its cities and they struck them with the edge of the sword and utterly destroyed [literally “put under the ban”] every person who was in it. He left no survivor.” More such texts could be cited, and our detractors are happy to cite them. What are we to say to all this?
Some people (spiritual descendants of Marcion) simply throw in the apologetic towel, admit that such a genocide happened, but say that God commanded no such thing. The ancient Israelites were simply blood-thirsty wretches, and they projected their blood-thirstiness onto their God, suggesting that their genocide had divine sanction when it had no such thing. Best therefore to throw away these texts and concentrate on the Sermon on the Mount. For those who take Scripture’s authority at all seriously, this will hardly do. The Church kicked out Marcion and his kids a long time ago.
Others say that God did order such a genocide, but that it was justified because the Canaanites in question were intrinsically evil, and that killing them was both just and comparatively merciful. This view puts the genocide within the context of a cosmic battle between good and evil, and asserts that Canaan was home to clans of giants which came into being because people were in communion with demons and were engaging in demonic fornication rituals in order to produce demonized human beings who had supernatural abilities. Given this situation, the mandated genocide was simply a part of the ongoing cosmic battle against evil, and against demonized human beings. It is even suggested that such demonized people may become actual demons after they die.
This also will hardly do. People do not become demons after they die, even if they were evil while they lived (Chrysostom explicitly speaks against such a notion), and sex between two people, even very evil and messed up ones, does not produce demonized babies. That is not how evil works. A person becomes evil through their own choice—although being the child of sociopathic parents would certainly set the child upon a wrong path very early. Evil remains something you voluntarily choose, and is not the result of the weird stuff your parents were into before you were born. All human beings are ontologically the same; to suggest otherwise is a form of Gnosticism.
So then, what are we to make of the Biblical commands to put under the ban of destruction everything that breathes in the Canaanite cities? We must begin by putting the Old Testament in its cultural context. Here later literature like the Book of Enoch and other Second Temple Jewish literature will not be of any use. It is much too late to help us situate the invasion of Canaan in the culture of its time.
We begin by reading the texts from Deuteronomy, Joshua and Judges a little more closely. The language that predominates in these texts is the language of expulsion, not of annihilation. Many texts speak of Israel driving the Canaanites out of the land, rather than killing them, by a ratio of about three to one (see Did God Really Command Genocide, by Copan and Flannagan, p. 80). In these texts we find God commanding Israel not to kill the Canaanites, but to drive them from the territory. Thus in Numbers 33:51-55 we read of the command, “When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you. Take possession of the land and settle in it. But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes.”
Note: “drive out”, not “destroy”. It seems as if Israel was commanded by Moses to dispossess the inhabitants of the holy land through war gradually. In the coming invasion the Canaanites were to be utterly destroyed from the land, but the aim was to drive them away, not to annihilate them. And this destruction would occur gradually.
Thus for example, Deuteronomy 7:22 declares that God will “clear away these nations before you little by little; you will not be able to put an end to them quickly”. This presupposes that the Canaanites will not be suddenly annihilated under Joshua, but gradually reduced—a picture confirmed in the Book of Judges (compare Judges 2:21-23). The warfare conducted by Joshua resulted in victories over the Canaanites resulting in their eventual defeat, not in their immediate and complete slaughter.
This would explain otherwise contradictory accounts in the Joshua narratives themselves. For example, in Joshua 10:39 we read that Joshua “captured [Debir] and its king and they struck them with the edge of he sword and utterly destroyed [literally “put under the ban”] every person who was in it. He left no survivor.” Yet later we read in Joshua 11:21 that Joshua “cut off the Anakim from the hill country, from Hebron, from Debir”. Again we note the contradiction between the texts if read literally: if Joshua slew everyone in Debir, how were there still Anakim living there afterward? Obviously the slaughter of Debir could not have been total, regardless of what Joshua 10:39 said.
We see the same thing in Hebron. Joshua “cut off the Anakim from Hebron. There were no Anakim left in the land of the sons of Israel” (Joshua 11:21-22). Yet later on we learn that Caleb drove out from Hebron the three sons of Anak (Joshua 15:13-14). How could this be if none of the Anakim were left alive?
I suggest that the term “utterly destroyed” is an example of oriental hyperbole such as we often find in the culture of the time. The term means “completely defeated on the battlefield”, not “slaughtered along with the rest of the general population”.
This is consistent with the rhetoric of kings in the ancient Near East. Thus for example when the king of Moab gained a victory over the Israelite army he inscribed the event on his monument, saying “Israel has utterly perished forever”, suggesting complete and total annihilation, when obviously Israel survived and their army had simply experienced a defeat.
Similarly when the Egyptian Pharaoh memorialized his victory over “the numerous army of Mitanni” he said that it was “totally annihilated, like those non-existent”, whereas they in fact lived to fight another day. This hyperbole was part of the royal assertion of sovereignty of the time (today called “trash talk”). In terms of the Biblical narrative, it meant that the defeated Canaanite armies would be utterly put down, with no hope of return. This hyperbole would explain the otherwise odd contradiction between the assertion of Joshua’s annihilation of all the Canaanite population in Joshua 10:40 and the record that much of the Canaanite population remained to be conquered and driven out in Joshua 23:5 and Judges 1:1. Complete genocide was never envisioned by Moses or Joshua; complete subjugation was. It was understood that defeat on the battlefield would result in the population fleeing before Israel and leaving their towns vulnerable and vacant.
The Canaanites were to be driven out not because they were part of a cosmic war of light against darkness or because they were the fruit of demonic fornication. The Biblical text is quite clear: they were to be driven out because they were idolatrous, and if they remained in the land Israel would surely be assimilated and learn their idolatrous ways (Deuteronomy 7:1-6). The danger was not cosmic or demonic, but local and cultural. Intermarriage would inevitably result in syncretism. The people of Canaan were not subhuman or demonic, just idolatrous, and therefore constituted a threat to Israel, fresh from the idolatry of Egypt.
God’s programme for Israel when they came out of Egypt and entered Canaan involved cultural and religious exclusivism, but not genocide. They were told to drive out the original inhabitants of the land lest they learn their sinful and idolatrous ways. The warfare against Canaan involved merciless victory on the battlefield, but the final goal was not wholesale slaughter of populations, but displacement. The ultimate goal was what today is called “ethnic cleansing”. This displacement of population was the only way that Israel could remain pure and secure. This may not sit well with modern sensibilities, but it was not genocide.
It was also the only sensible policy at the time. Cultural coexistence was sure to result in assimilation and religious syncretism (as later events graphically and tragically proved), and if Israel was to remain purely monotheistic and devoted to Yahweh alone, such peaceful coexistence with their neighbours was not an option. One also wonders how welcome Israel would have been made anyway, since they were coming to claim as the land God had promised them territory which was already occupied.
The whole issue depends upon whether or not God had really given Israel the Land of Canaan. If He did not give them that Land, then driving out the occupants of Canaan was wrong. But if God did in fact give them the Land, such a policy was a harsh necessity if Israel were to survive and live as the covenant People of God. Our own modern politics and sentiments about ethnic cleansing are based on the conviction that one group driving another group from their land is always wrong, because we believe (correctly) that no group now has land title in the way that Israel once claimed to have it, and that cultural mixing and religious syncretism are never wrong.
But we must not let these modern presuppositions of ours direct our understanding of the text. The Bible assumes that the land of Canaan belonged not to the Canaanites, but to God, and God could evict the current tenants any time He chose and settle new tenants there if He wanted to, in the same way as a landlord can evict criminal and rowdy tenants from his place and rent to someone else. And it is significant that God did not evict the Canaanites until they indeed became criminal and rowdy: God told Abraham that possession of Canaan would have to wait until the iniquity of the Amorite [i.e. the inhabitants of Canaan] was complete (Genesis 15:16). Even in the invasion of Canaan, God refused to act unjustly or arbitrarily.
So, in short, God did not order the genocide of everyone in Canaan. And the invasion of Canaan, to be properly understood, must be read according to the cultural and literary conventions of its time.