What About the Canaanite Genocide?

What About the Canaanite Genocide?

Reading the texts of Canaanite destruction in the Old Testament is disturbing, and these texts raise big questions for many of us. This blog seeks to understand the meaning of these texts for the original readers and for us, also noting the misuse of these texts along the way.  I don’t want to diminish the problems in these texts for us, or baulk at the text, because this issue effects our own faith in Jesus and it also (understandably) fuels skepticism.  

It is probably helpful to state up from that there are good reasons for thinking that the Canaanite destruction texts do not have in view the entire destruction of the Canaanite populations in mind. In fact, as unlikely as this may sound at first, there are good reasons for thinking that these texts were formed in order to bring life rather than death. In this blog, I will focus on Judges chapter 1.  

[This blog is based upon a sermon preached at Grandview Calvary Baptist Church, 9.18.2017. It also includes material from a book chapter, Mark R. Glanville, “A Missional Reading of Deuteronomy: Communities of Gratitude, Celebration, and Justice,” in Michael W. Goheen, ed. Reading the Bible Missionally (Eerdmans, 2016).] 

The texts and the problem  

Judges 1:1-2 reads:  

After the death of Joshua, the Israelites inquired of the Lord, “Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?” The Lord said, “Judah shall go up. I hereby give the land into his hand.”   

The conquest of the land of Canaan and its inhabitants has been commanded by Yahweh, and Yahweh directs many details of the ensuing battles. In Judges chapter 1 there is the torture of Adoni-bezek, a tribal leader, who’s thumbs and big toes were severed (1:6). And, the inhabitants of a small city, Bethel, were all apparently put to death. ( “And they struck the city with the edge of the sword,” 1:25).  

These texts of Israel’s conquering the land of the Canaanites has influenced Western colonialism, in complex ways. Desmond Tutu, a renown South African Archbishop said: “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”  

Robert Allen Warrior, “Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians”, argues that the stories in the Old Testament about the Israelite conquest of the land were a part of the ideology that authorized the extinction of native Americans. This is very, very, sobering of us Christ followers. It produces in us shock and horror—and it rocks our faith. These texts about Canaanite destruction raise in us questions about grace, violence, ethnicity, judgment, and the character of God.   The main texts with these themes are Deuteronomy and Joshua. (Judges chapter 1 has more in common with Joshua than Judges.)  

Context of the Canaanite destruction texts

To unpack these texts, it is helpful to start by reminding ourselves that reading the bible is a cross-cultural exercise. We need to go back, way back, and to think about what this text meant for its original readers. Let’s go back in time. As you go back in your mind, along a time-line toward ancient Israel, you will pass Jesus, who lived 2000 years ago. Recall that these difficult scriptures were also Jesus’ scriptures. And, recall Jesus’ life: for example, recall the words, said of Jesus on the occasion that he healed the leper: “Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing’, he said, ‘be clean.’” Remember Jesus: the life, restoration, inclusion, and joy that Jesus left behind him, in every place, as he walked the roads of Galilee.  

Now, let’s go back further, back another, say, 500 years, around the time when these difficult texts were written and received. Here are four important aspects of the context for this text—I’ll tip that these points about context will shift these texts for you, entirely.    

1. Literary techniques of exaggeration in ancient conquest accounts  

The first movement in thinking cross-culturally is to understand how history was written, during the time of the Old Testament. Today we tend to think of history writing in terms of a journalistic account—history writing records the facts. Of course, we modern readers know that writers have bias and ideology. However, when we read a newspaper or a history book we generally put this aside, at least somewhat, and we read in order to learn the facts.   In the time of the Old Testament, there was no such thing as journalistic history. In ancient times the past was ‘recorded’ in order to communicate an ideology. ‘Historical’ texts were almost always about the king and the gods who sponsor him. History writing, other words, was an exercise in royal propaganda.  

Now, turning to the Canaanite destruction texts, these texts are in an ancient literary genre sometimes called an ‘ancient conquest account’. ‘Ancient conquest accounts record military victories. How does this genre work? Expressions of annihilation, of comprehensive destruction, are common. And, annihilation, in ancient conquest accounts, has a highly figurative and ideological aspect. For example, they are always hugely exaggerated (hyperbole). These accounts use stereotyped phrases that overstate the historical reality, expressing the power and honour of the victorious king.[1]  

For example, there is the Mesha inscription (Moabite stone, pictured) wherein King Mesha of Moab claims:

“Israel has gone to ruin, yes, it has gone to ruin forever.”[2]  

Omri was the king of Israel, and he oppressed Moab for many days, for Kemosh was angry with his land.  

But I looked down on him and on his house, and Israel has gone to ruin, yes, it has gone to ruin forever!  

The text continues to list the annihilation of numerous Israelite cities, in this way:  

I took [city name], and I killed its whole population, seven thousand male citizens and strangers, and female citizens and strangers, and servant girls;  

The inscription of king Mesha of Moab is a helpful example, because we know that Israel wasn’t totally destroyed! If it was totally destroyed, then (from a Christian angle) we wouldn’t have the Old Testament, Jesus would not have been born, and there would be no church! This does not mean that the Mesha inscription is historically void and that these battles never occurred. It shows that the genre of ancient conquest accounts communicates through literary conventions that exaggerate elements of annihilation in order to make an ideological or theological point.[3] Absolute destruction is code for: “we won!”   An analogy from today would be language around victory in sports: ‘we smashed ‘em!’ ‘We destroyed ‘em!’ Imagine if someone read a historical fragment of the Globe and Mail in 1000 years. Imaging that they turn to the sports section of the newspaper and read: “The Vancouver Canucks have annihilated the Toronto Maple Leafs.” They might conclude that this was an act of ethnic genocide involving two strangely geographically distant people groups. Again, the rhetoric of Canaanite destruction is code for, ‘I won a military victory.’  

2. History: these people groups hadn’t existed for hundreds of years.  

Next, Consider the various people groupings that appear in Judges chapter 1: the leader Adoni-bezek (1:5), the Perizzites, (1:5), the Canaanites who lived in Hebron (1:10), the inhabitants of Debir (1:11), Bethel (1:11), etc.  

I suggest that at the time that Judges, Joshua and Deuteronomy were written, these people groups hadn’t existed for hundreds of years. In other words, these texts were referring to events and people groups who were already ancient history, at the time that Judges was written. This is the opinion of the majority of serious Old Testament scholars, but not all.  

If these people groups hasn’t existed for 500 years, why does Judges refer to them? Why does Judges retell ancient history in this way? Judges is retelling, reshaping, reframing history, in order to form a much later community—in order to communicate a message about the identity of this later community.  

There is not space here to discuss the dating of the book of Judges; here I will simple observe the implications of this likelihood. It is one thing to say, ‘go and destroy those people over there, and take their land’, and it is another thing to speak of people groups who hadn’t existed for 500 years and say: “go and destroy them and take their land, because of the sinfulness of that nation (1:7).”  

3. Written by the weak, regarding the powerful  

When Christians read the Old Testament, we tend to imagine the nation of Israel as a strong, well defended nation. The reality, however, was very different. For most of its history, Israel was a small, hen-pecked people group that was surrounded by far more powerful groups. Read the book of Nehemiah and you will see this clearly. The book of Judges was written during desperate times, when the nation’s very existence was under real physical threat. Yahweh followers were a small and fragmented group, and this group, along with the worship of Yahweh, was at risk of extinction. Sociologists tell us that when a group’s existence is under threat, it is usually necessary to form strong boundary markers, to clearly define the edges of the community, in order to survive and to preserve the integrity of the group.  

As Walter Brueggemann asserts, the theme of Canaanite destruction, “requires a class reading, this rhetoric is on the lips of those who have no weapons.”[4]  

Here is a make-believe analogy from today. Our family recently holidayed at Lisquiti Island, which is two ferry rides from Vancouver. Lisquiti is a gorgeous and relatively untouched Island; its residents vote to stay off-the-grid each year. The main economy of Lisquiti is the sales from illegal marijuana grow-ups (this much is true). Now, imagine that the residents of Lisquiti felt threatened by the B.C. Provincial Government. Imagine that they wrote a ‘letter to the editor’ in the Globe and Mail: “They want to smash us? We are going to smash the B.C. Province!” What would be the result of this letter? Probably, while main-landers would be sad to read this aggressive rhetoric (this is not quite Canadian civility), they wouldn’t be overly worried. Provincial politicians would sleep soundly at night. However, imagine that the scenario was reversed. Imagine that the B.C. Provincial Government wrote aggressively regarding Lisquiti: “They want to smash us? We are going to smash Lisquiti!” This time, these words would be deeply concerning, and the situation would probably require Federal intervention.  

The point is that militant rhetoric has a very different meaning and effect, depending on who utters it—the powerful or the weak. The Canaanite destruction texts in scripture were written by a weak, small, and hen-pecked people group.   An implication should be noted here about Western colonialism. We noted that Western powers used the Canaanite destruction texts to authorize their colonial practices. In this case, they were taking a text that was written by the powerless and claim it for themselves, as the powerful.  

4. Foreigners in Judges 1  

Our view of the Canaanite destruction texts should shift yet again as we take a closer look at foreigners in Judges chapter 1. As we look at again at this chapter, you may have some of your assumptions about the Old Testament shattered (#Old-Testament-mind-blown).  

Let’s overview the many foreigners who are included within Israel in this chapter. First, there is Caleb the Kennezite. Caleb is a very important tribal leader in Israel. He was given a large territory in Israel (Joshua 14). You might like to read through Judges 1:12-15, concerning Caleb. Notice the leadership of a foreign woman, Achsah, Caleb’s daughter, who is given two springs of water of immense value. There is also Jethro, Moses’ father in law, who was a non-Israelite, a Kenite. He, too, owned land in Israel (Judges 1:16). As for the primary city of Jerusalem, it is filled with mixed ethnicities, including both Israelites and Jebusites (Judges 1:21).  

The text is saying, very deliberately, “foreigners are welcome!” This is very purposeful on the part of the author. We get a sense that the book of judges was written for a community that is resistant to people of other ethnicities. Judges is saying, “No, this is a part of our very identity. It is a part of our formative stories. “To use a common metaphor, judges is as much as saying, “We are not a bowl full of lettuce, we are a mixed salad!”  

We learn something fundamental and also surprising about the Old Testament here: the identity of Israel isn’t defined by ethnicity but by its being a faithful community.  

Message: what do these texts mean?  

The question remains, why these strange texts? Why have them at all? What message are they communicating—then? Now?   In my opinion, these texts addressed the Old Testament community at a time when there were many different people groups in the area of Syria-Palestine and different many religions. The very existence of a group that followed Yahweh was under threat.  

These conquest texts show the total loyalty that Yahweh demands. Israel is meant to reject utterly the false worship and ethics of these kingdoms. These conquest texts were preparing a people for a wholesale confrontation with the dehumanizing idols of their culture. They are a call for totally allegiance to Yahweh, Israel’s God.  

There are ethical implications, too. Other communities were shaped by a different kind of rule and were therefore missed out on the life of justice and flourishing for all that the rule of Yahweh brings. Consider a text such as Deuteronomy 15:4, “There shall be no poor among you.” Total allegiance to Yahweh includes living as a society that dignifies the least and the most vulnerable.  

For how about for us, today? What do these difficult texts mean for us? Of course, much may be said. For now, I simply reflect that in this ancient text, there is a joyful tension between being a participant in the wider culture and also in being absolutely faithful to Yahweh. This text reminds us that we are always living within this tension. On the one hand, we are participants in our community, our places of work, our neighbour’s lives. We are joyfully (and painfully) immersed in our culture and in relationships with our neighbours. (Israel was not called to withdraw from culture but to include others.) Christ’s followers, too, are called to participate in the community in which we live and work. Ion Keith Falconer wrote: “I have but one candle of life to burn and I’d rather burn it in a land filled with darkness than in a land flooded with light.”  

On the other hand, we are also invited into the life and joy of giving our first allegiance to Jesus, our Lord and Saviour. As give our first allegiance to Jesus we also learn to live into the upside down way of Jesus Christ.  

Here is a practical take-home to consider: think of just one place in which you participate in your community: work, neighbourhood, sports group. Then, consider one tangible way that you can live distinctively, as a Christ follower in that place.

[1] K. Lawson Younger,Jr, Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History Writing (JSOT Supp. 98; Sheffield; JSOT, 1990), p. 123.

[2] “The Inscription of King Mesha,” translated by K. A. D. Smelik in The Context of Scripture (eds. William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger; Leiden: Brill, 2000), 2.23. (Markers of uncertainty in the text have been removed.)

[3] Similarly C. Wright writes, “We do need to allow for the exaggerated language of warfare” (Ethics, p. 474).

[4] Brueggemann, Theology, p. 243.