By: Mark Tabata (Evangelist)
One of the greatest struggles people have with the Bible is based on the misunderstanding that God commanded Joshua to commit genocide against the Canaanites.
Several I have studied with believe that the Bible teaches this concept, and I know that at one time I did also.
In fact, when I was younger, the destruction of the Canaanites was one of my personal problems with Christianity. I still remember one day when I finally made an uneasy “peace” with myself about this subject. I thought to myself: “There must be something that I am missing. I know that whatever God’s Word teaches is good, and so one day-if God allows me-I will understand.”
By the grace of God, that day came.
In this article, I would like to share with you some very important facts regarding Joshua and the “destruction” of the Canaanites.
First of all, let’s start by noticing some of the commands of God to Joshua, regarding the Canaanite nations.
As the people of Israel left the land of Egypt (where they had been slaves) and wandered in the wilderness for forty years because of their disobedience (Numbers 14), God prepared them for the day when they would enter into Canaan and “drive out” or “utterly destroy” the Canaanites.
These people had committed horrible atrocities for centuries: and yet God had still given them over four hundred years to repent. Sadly, they refused; and so God ordered Israel to be His instrument of Divine justice to these wicked individuals. The Bible tells us of the commands to Moses and Joshua to “utterly destroy” the Canaanites:
Deuteronomy 7:1-2-When the LORD your God brings you into the land which you go to possess, and has cast out many nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than you, 2 and when the LORD your God delivers them over to you, you shall conquer them and utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them nor show mercy to them.
Deuteronomy 20:16-17-But of the cities of these peoples which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance, you shall let nothing that breathes remain alive, 17 but you shall utterly destroy them: the Hittite and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite, just as the LORD your God has commanded you,
Several other passages bear out this command. Please notice that God commanded Moses to “utterly destroy” the Canaanites.
Second, the Bible makes it clear that Joshua carried out this command to “utterly destroy” the peoples of Canaan. For example, we are told:
Joshua 6:21-And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword.
Joshua 8:26-For Joshua did not draw back his hand, with which he stretched out the spear, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai.
Joshua 10:28-On that day Joshua took Makkedah, and struck it and its king with the edge of the sword. He utterly destroyed them—all the people who were in it. He let none remain. He also did to the king of Makkedah as he had done to the king of Jericho.
Joshua 10:29-42-Then Joshua passed from Makkedah, and all Israel with him, to Libnah; and they fought against Libnah. 30 And the LORD also delivered it and its king into the hand of Israel; he struck it and all the people who were in it with the edge of the sword. He let none remain in it, but did to its king as he had done to the king of Jericho. 31 Then Joshua passed from Libnah, and all Israel with him, to Lachish; and they encamped against it and fought against it. 32 And the LORD delivered Lachish into the hand of Israel, who took it on the second day, and struck it and all the people who were in it with the edge of the sword, according to all that he had done to Libnah. 33 Then Horam king of Gezer came up to help Lachish; and Joshua struck him and his people, until he left him none remaining. 34 From Lachish Joshua passed to Eglon, and all Israel with him; and they encamped against it and fought against it. 35 They took it on that day and struck it with the edge of the sword; all the people who were in it he utterly destroyed that day, according to all that he had done to Lachish. 36 So Joshua went up from Eglon, and all Israel with him, to Hebron; and they fought against it. 37 And they took it and struck it with the edge of the sword—its king, all its cities, and all the people who were in it; he left none remaining, according to all that he had done to Eglon, but utterly destroyed it and all the people who were in it. 38 Then Joshua returned, and all Israel with him, to Debir; and they fought against it. 39 And he took it and its king and all its cities; they struck them with the edge of the sword and utterly destroyed all the people who were in it. He left none remaining; as he had done to Hebron, so he did to Debir and its king, as he had done also to Libnah and its king. 40 So Joshua conquered all the land: the mountain country and the South and the lowland and the wilderness slopes, and all their kings; he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the LORD God of Israel had commanded. 41 And Joshua conquered them from Kadesh Barnea as far as Gaza, and all the country of Goshen, even as far as Gibeon. 42 All these kings and their land Joshua took at one time, because the LORD God of Israel fought for Israel.
Third, what did it mean that Joshua “utterly destroyed” the Canaanites?
Many would simply say, “Well Mark, it says that he killed everyone-man, woman, and child!”
Yes, that is what a simple glance at the text would reveal.
However, look a little deeper with me.
Isn’t it interesting that the text tells us that the Canaanites showed up time after time after Joshua “utterly destroyed” them?
Joshua 10:39-And he took it and its king and all its cities; they struck them with the edge of the sword and utterly destroyed all the people who were in it. He left none remaining; as he had done to Hebron, so he did to Debir and its king, as he had done also to Libnah and its king.
Now look again:
Joshua 11:21-And at that time Joshua came and cut off the Anakim from the mountains: from Hebron, from Debir, from Anab, from all the mountains of Judah, and from all the mountains of Israel; Joshua utterly destroyed them with their cities.
If “utterly Destroy” meant to completely annihilate the people, then how is that the people in Debir were still around in Joshua 11 after Joshua wiped them out in chapter 10?
“Utterly Destroy” did not equal “annihilate.”
Yet there is more evidence along these lines.
Notice that according to Joshua 11:21, the Anakites were “cut off” and “utterly destroyed” in Hebron, just like in Debir.
So then how is that later, in Joshua 15:13-14, Caleb “drove out” the Canaanites from Hebron? (You can also see the same thing verified in Judges 1:20).
Joshua even mentions at the end of the Book that there were still Canaanites among the people who would try to come back in the land and gain dominance (Joshua 23:7, 12)!
Obviously, the phrase “utterly destroy” did not amount to “annihilate.”
Fourth, does this mean that Joshua was being dishonest in what he wrote in his book?
No, it doesn’t, and here is why: Joshua was simply using the language of conventional warfare of his day and age.
The following quotation is worthy of our careful consideration:
“In a comprehensive comparative study of ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts, Lawson Younger Jr. documents that Joshua employs the same stylistic, rhetorical, and literary conventions of other war reports of the same period….Third and most significantly for this discussion, part of this “transmission code” is that victories are narrated in an exaggerated hyperbolic fashion in terms of total conquest, complete annihilation, and destruction of the enemy, killing everyone , leaving no survivors, etc….Younger offers numerous other examples. Merneptah’s Stele (thirteenth century BC) describes a skirmish with Israel as follows, “Yanoam is nonexistent; Israel is wasted, his seed is not.” 24 Here a skirmish in which Egypt prevailed is described in terms of the total annihilation of Israel. Sennacherib uses similar hyperbole, “The soldiers of Hirimme, dangerous enemies, I cut down with the sword; and not one escaped.” 25 Mursil(i) II records making “Mt. Asharpaya empty (of humanity)” and the “mountains of Tarikarimu empty (of humanity).” 26 Mesha (whom Kitchen cited as stating “Israel has utterly perished for always”) 27 describes victories in terms of his fighting against a town, taking it, and then killing all the inhabitants of the town. 28 Similarly, The Bulletin of Ramses II , a historical narrative of Egyptian military campaigns into Syria, narrates Egypt’s considerably- less- than- decisive victory at the battle of Kadesh with the following rhetoric: “He took no note of the millions of foreigners; he regarded them as chaff . . . . His majesty slew the entire force of the wretched Foe from Hatti, together with his great chiefs and all his brothers, as well as all the chiefs of all the countries that had come with him, their infantry and their chariotry falling on their faces one upon the other. His majesty slaughtered and slew them in their places . . ; and his majesty was alone , none other with him .” 29 Numerous other examples could be provided. The hyperbolic use of language similar to that in Joshua is strikingly evident. Though instances could be multiplied, but the point is that such accounts contain extensive hyperbole and are not intended to be taken as literal descriptions of what occurred…Several other considerations can be added to bolster this point. One is the fact that such hyperbolic language is clearly being used within the book of Joshua itself, which we noted earlier. In Joshua 10:20 (NASB), for example, we are told that Joshua and the sons of Israel had been “slaying them with a very great slaughter, until they were destroyed.” Immediately, however, the text affirms that the “survivors who remained of them had entered the fortified cities.” In this context, the language of total destruction is clearly hyperbolic. A similar phenomenon seems to occur in the account of the battle of Ai. After Joshua’s troops feign a retreat, the text states that “ all the men of Ai” are pressed to chase them (Josh. 8:16). “Not a man remained in Ai or Bethel who did not go after Israel. They left the city open and went in pursuit of Israel” (v. 17). Joshua lures the pursuers into a trap “so that they were caught in the middle, with Israelites on both sides. Israel cut them down, leaving them neither survivors nor fugitives ” (v. 22). Then, after noting the capture of Ai’s military ruler (v. 23), the text immediately states: “When Israel had finished killing all the men of Ai in the fields and in the wilderness where they had chased them, and when every one of them had been put to the sword . . .” (v. 24). Taken literally, this is patently absurd. If there were no survivors or fugitives, whom were the Israelites chasing?…Similar hyperbole occurs in other biblical books, using the same phraseology we find in Joshua of “utterly destroying [ haram ]” populations “with the sword.” First Chronicles 4:41 states: “They attacked [ nakah ] the Hamites in their dwellings and also the Meunites who were there and completely destroyed [ haram ] them.” But only a few verses later, we read that the survivors fled to Amalek where they were later all “destroyed [ nakah ]” a second time (v. 43 NASB)! Later in 2 Chronicles 36:16–17, the author narrates the fall of Jerusalem: “But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the L ORD was aroused against his people and there was no remedy. He brought up against them the king of the Babylonians, who killed their young men with the sword in the sanctuary, and did not spare young men or young women, the elderly or the infirm. God gave them all into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar.” Only a few verses later, however, the narrator states, “He carried into exile to Babylon the remnant, who escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his successors until the kingdom of Persia came to power” (v. 20). Similarly, compare verse 19: “They [the Babylonians] set fire to God’s temple and broke down the wall of Jerusalem; they burned all the palaces and destroyed everything of value there.” With verse 18, “He [king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon] carried to Babylon all the articles from the temple of God, both large and small, and the treasures of the L ORD ’s temple and the treasures of the king and his officials.” Taken literally this is absurd. How could they carry off all the treasure from the palaces and temple if everything of value had been destroyed? But this was not intended to be taken literally….One finds the same language of killing all inhabitants with the sword also used hyperbolically in Judges. Judges 1:8 states, “The men of Judah attacked Jerusalem also and took it. They put the city to the sword and set it on fire.” A few verses later, however, the text states: “The Benjamites, however, did not drive out the Jebusites, who were living in Jerusalem; to this day the Jebusites live there with the Benjamites” (v. 21). Similar language is used hyperbolically in the prophetic writings. In the context of the Babylonian invasion and Judah’s exile (sixth century BC), God said he would “lay waste the towns of Judah so no one can live there” (Jer. 9:11). Indeed, God said, “I will completely destroy them and make them an object of horror and scorn, and an everlasting ruin” (25:9). Note that this is the same verb ( haram ) used for “utterly destroying” the Canaanites. In Jeremiah, God threatened to “stretch out My hand against you and destroy you” (15:6 NASB; cf. Ezek. 5:16)— to bring “disaster” against Judah (Jer. 6:19). However, the biblical text suggests that while Judah’s political and religious structures were ruined or disabled, and that Judahites died in the conflict, the “urban elite” were deported to Babylon while many “poor of the land” remained behind. 43 Similarly, in Isaiah God says, “I consigned Jacob to destruction [ herem ] and Israel to scorn” (43:28). Then in the very next verse (44:1), God tells “Jacob,” whom he has “chosen,” that God will restore his people and bring them out of exile under a new covenant in which he will pour out his Spirit upon them.” (Paul Copan & Matthew Flannagan, Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming To Terms With The Justice Of God, 95-102 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Books)
Joshua, in using the phrase “utterly destroy,” was simply employing the common military terminology of his day and age.
If there is misunderstanding in his statements, it arises from a lack of knowledge on the part of English speaking people who are not familiar with such hyperbolic terms from his culture.
Fifth, other statements of Scripture make it clear that the phrase “utterly destroy” and similar phrases were not understood as annihilate.
For example, in Deuteronomy 7:1-4, after God commands the Hebrews to “utterly destroy” the Canaanites, He instructs them not to marry them.
Yet if the Canaanites had been annihilated, then how could the Hebrews marry any of them?
“Readers need to approach passages and events in the context in which they were written according to the type of literature the biblical authors were writing. And this means making the standard of accuracy what the original readers or hearers would have understood, not our modern conceptions of how the biblical writers should or shouldn’t have communicated. In other words, we need to play by the rules when we read the Bible, allowing for normal literary features such as hyperbole, estimation,, exaggeration, and metaphor.21 What are we to make of the command in Deuteronomy 7:1-2 and 20:16 to destroy everything that breathes? First, we need to remember that other ancient Near Eastern nations practiced herem. “Texts from other nations at the time show that such total destruction in war was practiced, or at any rate proudly claimed, elsewhere. But we must also recognize that the language of warfare fare had a conventional rhetoric that liked to make absolute and universal claims about total victory and completely wiping out the enemy … which often exceeded reality on the ground.”22 Accordingly, this ancient Near Eastern rhetorical generalization allows for exaggerated language and “enables us to allow for the fact that descriptions of destruction of `everything that lives and breathes’ were not intended literally.”23 Observe this passage: When the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire.24 Notice the tension. This passage speaks of total destruction and showing no mercy, but then proceeds to instruct the Israelites regarding treaties and intermarriage. But if no Canaanites are going to be around anymore, then why even bother including this? Or think of Rahab the Canaanite. If strict obedience meant showing no mercy to anyone or anything, then why is the first Canaanite person we encounter allowed to convert to Yahweh,25 spared from destruction, and shown mercy? It is no accident that her story shows up at the beginning of the conquest narrative in Joshua….As we saw above, the “all” in this passage can’t mean everyone because we know at least Rahab and her family survived. Wright observes, “the key military centres-the small fortified cities of the petty Canaanite kingdoms-were wiped out. But clearly not all the people, or anything like all the people, had in actual fact been destroyed by Joshua.”27. The conquest narratives are filled with tensions like this.2, This rhetorical generalization is even applied to the people of Israel if they forsook Yahweh.29 Furthermore, Old Testament scholar Gordon Wenham points out that even in the context of legitimate mate judgment for the Canaanites’ wickedness, “it is evident that destruction of Canaanite religion is much more important than destroying the people .1130 This observation helps us transition to putting the issue of the Canaanites in its ultimate biblical context.” (Sean McDowell & Jonathan Morrow, Is God Just A Human Invention? And Seventeen Other Questions Raised By The New Atheists, 179-181 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Kregel Publications).
Sixth, the phrase “utterly destroy” was used in contexts that discussed the idea of “displacement” from the land.
Indeed, several passages indicate that God’s desire was to “drive out” the Canaanites from the land.
We are told, for example, that the Canaanites had committed such horrible atrocities that the land was “vomiting them out” (Leviticus 18:24-28). Later (Leviticus 20;22-23) the Hebrews are warned that if they commit the same wicked acts as the Canaanites, the land will “vomit” them out as well. We are told in Numbers (21:32) that Israel “drove out” the Amorites from the land.
In Numbers 33:51-56, God tells Moses to “drive out” all the Canaanites. Several other passages bear out that the idea of “utterly destroying “the Canaanites was to drive them out of the land (Deuteronomy 4:37-38; 6:18-19; 9:1-5; 11:23; 18:12; 19:1, etc.). Several passages equate the ideas of “utterly destory” with “displacing” from the land (cf. Deuteronomy 12:29-30; 19:1-2).
This is made especially clear in the Book of Jeremiah where God declares that He will “utterly destroy” the people of Judah (Jeremiah 25:9), and then promises to return them back to their land (Jeremiah 25:11-12).
Indeed, the idea of “utterly destroying” the Hebrews was that they were removed from the land (cf. Jeremiah 29:10).
Finally, it needs to be remembered that mercy could be shown to any Canaanite that stayed in the land if they truly repented and turned away from the gods of the Canaanites. We have noticed above the example of Rahab (cf. James 2:14-26; Hebrews 11:31).
But there are many other examples in the Scriptures that bear out this conclusion.
Consider, for example, Caleb, one of the spies who said that the Hebrews could conquer the land of Canaan (Numbers 14). God was very pleased with Caleb, and declared that he and his family would be blessed to have a share in the land of Canaan (Numbers 14:24). Joshua records that this took place (Joshua 14:14).
But what many do not realize is that Caleb was actually a Canaanite himself! In fact, he was a descendant of one of the seven nations that were recorded as being the most wicked in Canaan (Numbers 32:12; Joshua 14:6, 14).
Yet he was showed mercy because he followed the Lord and was true to Him. We see the same thing with the Shechemites, another nation of Canaan who were shown mercy because they turned to the Lord (Joshua 8:30-35).
I can think of no better way to conclude this article than to point out that God promises mercy on even the most wicked if they will repent.
Indeed, Jesus Christ was sent by God to pay the debt for man’s sins on the Cross of Calvary. No one deserves this amazing gift; yet God allowed His Son to die for all people (1 John 2:1-2). Jesus bore our sins, was buried, and arose from the dead on the third day (1 Corinthians 15:1-8).
He invites all sinners everywhere to repent of their sins and to be baptized into Him for the remission of sins and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).
Why not turn to Him today? Or if you are a child of God who has left the Lord, why not today repent of your sins and turn back to Him in prayer and confession (1 John 1:9)?
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.