In the last post, I started a series on the ethical dilemmas surrounding Joshua’s conquest. In this post, I’d like to set some groundwork by looking at two important facets: the people and the land, or the Canaanites and Canaan.
The Canaanites. Many critics such as Richard Dawkins will describe the conquest with a slanted view of the Canaanites. You would think that they were innocent peasants living peaceable with each other, when all of the sudden, a blood-thirsty Joshua came in and slew all the women and children. But this is not the way the Bible presents the story. The Canaanites on the whole were a wicked group of people—more wicked than others in the ancient world. Incest, bestiality, orgiastic religious prostitution, and child sacrifice were a regular part of daily life. The Canaanite gods themselves engaged in wild sexual acts, in which the Canaanites themselves could participate. Author Paul Copan says that the “sexual acts of the gods and goddesses were imitated by the Canaanites as a kind of magical acts: the more sex on the Canaanite high places, the more this would stimulate the fertility god Baal to have sex with his consort, Anath, which meant more semen (rain) produced to water the earth.” Humans, therefore, were encouraged to participate in the wild orgies of their gods.
And violence on the whole was unchecked and sadistic. For instance, the Canaanite goddess, Anath, who was believed to have slaughtered humans, decorated herself with their skulls, and then waded in their blood and laughed with fiendish joy. Since the ancients often mimicked the behavior of their gods, we can imagine that such arbitrary violence was quite common. Indeed, our archaeological evidence shows that it was.
The Canaanites were not innocent peasants. They match the likes of Jeffery Dahmer, Charles Manson, Pol Pot, and Anders Breivik who massacred 77 innocent civilians in 2011.
This doesn’t mean Israel was much better. The Canaanites were particularly wicked, but this doesn’t mean that Israel was righteous. “Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going tin to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out” (Deut. 9:5). God used Israel as an extension of His justice to cleanse the land of its evil. And this geographical point is crucial to understand the conquest. God didn’t just randomly pick on the Canaanites because they were wicked. Rather, He sought to drive them out of the land because the land would become God’s residence on earth. And the Canaanites were having sex with prostitutes and sacrificing babies to foreign gods right there in God’s living room.
Canaan. Understanding the significance of the land is crucial for grasping the conquest. It doesn’t solve all the moral problems, as we will see. But it does give us a clearer theological lens for studying Joshua’s “genocide.” Simply put: God was present with Israel, and the Promised Land would be his new residence. Yes, God dwells in heaven. But biblically speaking, He also resides on earth in a tabernacle (and later in the temple, and then the church). Since God is holy (set apart), his presence needs “sacred space,” and God chose the land of Canaan to be that sacred space—the piece of earth where His holy presence would dwell.
But the land became defiled and therefore had to be cleansed, as God says: “the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants” (Lev. 18:25). The logic, again, is that the Promised Land is God’s residence. “[T]he land is Mine,” God says, “you are strangers and sojourners with Me” (Lev. 25:23). And if Israel lives a holy life, not defiling God’s residence as the Canaanites did, then God says “I will make my dwelling among you” and “walk among you” (Lev. 26:11-12). But if the Israelites live like the Canaanites did, then the land too will “vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you” (Lev 18:28).
So God didn’t bully the Canaanites because of their ethnicity. Rather, God’s holiness demands sacred space for Him to dwell with mankind. This is why the Canaanites had to be eliminated.
The term “genocide,” therefore, is not an accurate description of the conquest. While it is true that a genocide involves the attempted killing of an entire people group, it’s always fueled by a feeling of racial superiority which leads to an ethnic cleansing. In this sense, Joshua’s conquest cannot be called a genocide. It was God’s judgment on persistent evil (Copan, Moral Monster, Kindle loc. 3374).
A judgment that was prefaced by hundreds of years of grace, as we’ll see in the next post.