Destruction of the Canaanites by Charlie Trimm

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 J. 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.

Charlie Trimm , "Destruction of the Canaanites", n.p. [cited 1 Oct 2022]. Online:



Charlie Trimm
Associate Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies , Talbot School of Theology, Biola University

Charlie Trimm is associate professor of biblical and theological studies at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. He received his PhD in Old Testament from Wheaton College and is the author of Fighting for the King and the Gods: A Survey of Warfare in the Ancient Near East (SBL Press, 2017) and The Destruction of the Canaanites: A Survey of Recent Approaches (Eerdmans, 2022).

Attributed authorship. ("Tradition ascribed the Pentateuch to Moses, even though he probably did not actually write it himself.")

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Worship of a diety or cultural value not associated with the one, true, God.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

Also called the Hebrew Bible, those parts of the canon that are common to both Jews and Christians. The designation "Old Testament" places this part of the canon in relation to the New Testament, the part of the Bible canonical only to Christians. Because the term "Old Testament" assumes a distinctly Christian perspective, many scholars prefer to use the more neutral "Hebrew Bible," which derives from the fact that the texts of this part of the canon are written almost entirely in Hebrew.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

Num 18:14

14 Every devoted thing in Israel shall be yours.

Deut 13:16-17

16 All of its spoil you shall gather into its public square; then burn the town and all its spoil with fire, as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God. It ... View more

Exod 22:20

20 Whoever sacrifices to any god, other than the Lord alone, shall be devoted to destruction.

Deut 13:15-15

15 you shall put the inhabitants of that town to the sword, utterly destroying it and everything in it—even putting its livestock to the sword.

Josh 6

Jericho Taken and Destroyed
1Now Jericho was shut up inside and out because of the Israelites; no one came out and no one went in.2The Lord said to Joshua, “See ... View more

Josh 2

Spies Sent to Jericho
1Then Joshua son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” So they went, and en ... View more

Exod 23:23-25

23 When my angel goes in front of you, and brings you to the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, and I blot ... View more

Deut 7:1-5

A Chosen People
1When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites ... View more

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