Did the Israelites really massacre the Canaanites, and if so, was this really at God’s command?

Q. Peter Enns has a book out called The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. In this book, among other things, he argues that there is a huge lack of archaeological evidence for the exodus and for the Canaanite “genocides.” He says that outside of evangelical scholarship this is essentially an undisputed fact. He argues that these stories likely reflect a sort of “tribal deity” rhetoric/mentality and are full of hyperbole and would have been characteristic of how people in that time and place related to God. He also argues that to the extent that the Israelites did massacre the Canaanites, they were not in fact carrying out God’s will but were instead doing what they erroneously thought God was telling them to do (since they related to him as a tribal warrior god). What do you make of these claims?

I haven’t yet read this particular book by Enns, though I have read some of his other books and I appreciate him as an honest, thoughtful, careful, articulate, and provocative writer. But I do discuss the historicity of the Canaanite genocides and their theological implications in this post, in light of a review of another book that makes similar claims.

I’m not qualified to speak to the archaeological debate, though I can  imagine how it could easily devolve into circular arguments: “Of course there’s no trace left of the campaign against the Canaanites, because the Israelites were told to ‘break down their altars, smash their sacred pillars, burn their Asherah poles, cut down their carved idols, and completely erase the names of their gods.’ You shouldn’t expect to find anything.  It’s just an argument from silence that it didn’t happen because you haven’t found anything.” But basically I will leave the archaeology to others.

Instead, to address the biblical and theological side of things, let me say again that the biblical stories of genocide are so disturbing that it would be a great relief to think that they never really happened. However, I think we have to ask ourselves what the implications would be if they actually had happened, and for that matter what the implications are that the Bible says they happened. As I wrote earlier, I think we need to see these stories as exceptional and even incongruous within the Bible, and on that basis see whether we can account for them somehow.

The best I’ve been able to do with that is still to see the life and teachings of Jesus as normative for the interpretation of all of Scripture, and on that basis to conclude that no one today should emulate the actions or attitudes represented by the genocide stories in the Bible. Instead, we need to hold them in an uncomfortably painful tension with the normative teachings about loving our enemies and seeking forgiveness and reconciliation, pursue those things, and await the day when “we shall know fully, even as we are now fully known,” and hopefully then understand.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

5 thoughts on “Did the Israelites really massacre the Canaanites, and if so, was this really at God’s command?”

  1. I think your response to this question is good, Chris. I just want to add something here, not to diminish the tension you bring out but rather to augment it with other perspectives. One of the things I have learned from my experiences in Africa is that attitudes toward life and death are culturally bound – perhaps not in totality, but in large part. [I realize that I’m about to make sweeping generalizations about Africans that are horribly imprecise; I’m not trying to assert that all Africans are the same here.] I have learned that Africans are far more comfortable with death than I am as an American. This isn’t to say that Africans don’t grieve as a result of death, they certainly do. I’m only saying that my experience is this: Africans don’t read the OT narratives of military conquest with near the level of emotional angst that I do, and this isn’t because Africans are somehow less compassionate than me. I suspect that it is because most Africans have a far different experience of (and relationship to) death than I do. My guess is that ancient cultures (within which the OT was written and originally read) also had a very different relationship to death than is typical in modern cultures, especially in the modern, developed world.

    1. Thank you for sharing these perspectives. Are you aware of particular books or articles written from an African perspective that discuss the massacre of the Canaanites as described in the Bible?

      1. Eish – no, I can’t think of any right off the bat. I’ll ask around, though, and see if anyone around here does. If I find anything, I’ll post it here.

  2. According to the book of Joshua, the Canaanites(people of Levant, New Egypt, Lebanon to the river of Jordan who are now predominately Muslims) were to be annihilated by Israel,hence making itself the natural enemy. Basically we have to take it from the time of the exodus for any arguments.

    1. This is not correct. No responsible interpreter of the Bible, no matter what they believe about whether the campaign against the Canaanites actually happened, sees any mandate in the Scriptures for Jews or Christians to war against Muslims or Palestinians (many of whom are Christians) and try to destroy them. The people of God are now a multinational community that is responsible to live out Jesus’ teaching about love for enemies. In fact, we should not even consider any person or group of people to be an enemy.

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