The destruction of the Canaanites in the Hebrew Bible is a major ethical problem for many modern readers because of its similarity to modern acts of genocide. Genocide is when someone intentionally attempts “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” (UN Convention on Genocide). The focus of genocide is not just on the number of people killed, but on killing people because of their group identity. The similarities between the actions against the Canaanites and genocide have led to a variety of scholarly proposals for how to respond to these violent texts.
What is the context for the destruction of the Canaanites in the Hebrew Bible?
In the Hebrew Bible, certain items are said to be herem (“devoted to destruction”). In some cases, this term is applied to property that is dedicated to the priests for their use (Num 18:14). It can also refer to property that is destroyed as a punishment for Israelite idolatry (Deut 13:16-17). In both cases, herem signifies something that is set apart by God. The word also is used to refer to punishment for Israelite idolaters (Exod 22:20; Deut 13:15-15). However, the word most commonly appears in connection with the Canaanites, where it is used to describe the destruction of Canaanite property and the killing of Canaanite people (Josh 6). Thus God declares the city of Jericho and all within herem. Only Rahab, who assists the Israelites and recognizes God’s power (Josh 2), is spared. The acceptance of Rahab suggests that ethnicity might not have been an overarching determining factor. Rather it was Canaanite religious culture, and its ability to lead the Israelites away from the worship of Israel’s God, that was unacceptable to the biblical authors (Exod 23:23-25; Deut 7:1-5).
How have scholars responded to the ethical challenge of biblical depictions of the destruction of the Canaanites?
Scholars have responded to this ethical problem in a variety of ways. Some scholars simply accept that the Hebrew Bible contains concepts that are objectionable to modern sensibilities. Rather than pass judgment on the texts, they focus on the cultural and literary contexts and attempt to understand these texts within their historical setting. For example, they might focus on the similarities between these texts and other ancient Near Eastern military texts written by monarchs like Ramses II and Sennacherib—as highlighted by K. Lawson Younger—to discuss how ancient texts routinely employ hyperbole to show the strength of the ruler (Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan). A similar reading draws on the cultural context to understand the herem commands as denouncing the Canaanites rather than killing them (John Walton and H. Harvey Walton).
Other scholars reject these violent texts, or at least portions of them. Although they take the texts seriously as historical artefacts, they reject the ethical claims contained within. Such scholars might appeal to historical arguments. For example, they appeal to archaeological data to deny the historicity of the events described in the text of Joshua and ascribe the violent descriptions to later time periods when the Canaanites no longer existed. However, as John Collins notes, even if the story is not historical it remains an ethical problem because the authors chose to write the story in this violent fashion. Alternatively, scholars might use theological arguments to reject the text. For example, a Christian scholar might employ a “pacifistic-Jesus lens” to these texts: since the nonviolent Jesus revealed God perfectly, then all violent events in the Old Testament ascribed to God should be rejected (Eric Seibert).
Finally, some scholars seek to defend the text on theological grounds. They might appeal to God’s sovereignty, Canaanite sin, the uniqueness of the land of Canaan, the redemptive trajectory seen in Scripture, and the parallels with other acts of divine judgment like the flood, the exodus, and judgment after death (Daniel Hawk, William Webb, and Gordan Oeste). These scholars use such arguments to defend God’s commanded destruction of the Canaanites.
Whether appealing to historical arguments, contemporary literary evidence, or theological conviction, scholars approach texts calling for the destruction of the Canaanite in a variety of ways. Some scholars find ways to defend the ethics of the conquest and the God who commanded it, while others ethically reject the commanded destruction and express concern about how it might be used to enable more violence today.