For three posts now, we’ve been looking into Joshua’s conquest and the ethical problems therein. How could the God who “loves His enemies” (Rom. 5:9-11) command a wholesale slaughter of the Canaanites (Deut. 20:16-18)? In this post, we’d like to consider the option that maybe He didn’t. Maybe God didn’t actually command Israel to annihlate every single man, woman, and child living in Canaan.

It’s not altogether clear that God actually intended Israel to massacre every man, woman, and child—young and old, solider and civilian. The Bible itself suggests a more complex situation. Here’s how.

If you add up all the passages that refer to God’s forecast of the conquest, you will see that most of them say that God would “drive out” or “dispossess” the Canaanites (Num 21:32; Deut 9:1; 11:23; 18:14; 19:1; 23:27-30; Exod 34:24; Num 32:21; Deut 4:38; cf. Gen 3:24; 4:14; 1 Sam 26:19). Such language in itself only means that the Canaanites would be forced out of the land. “Drive out” in itself doesn’t mean “slaughter.” For instance, Adam and Eve were “driven out” of Eden (Gen. 3:24), and Cain was “driven out” into the wilderness (4:14). Later on, David would be “driven out” into the wilderness by king Saul. Now, none of them were annihilated. They were simply disposed. And this is the most common language God uses when referring to the Canaanite conquest. In all the passages cited above, God’s main concern was that there would be no Canaanites living in His residence (unless they turned to Him, like Rahab). Any killing that would come about would happen as a result of their resistance, not Yahweh’s insatiable thirst for blood.

Together with the idea of “driving out,” the Bible also says that it would be “little by little” and not all at one time (Exod 23:27-30; Deut 7:22; Judges 2:20-23). In fact, some of these “little by little” passages mention that the Canaanites would be driven out by “hornets” (Exod. 23:27-30). Scholars debate the meaning of this, whether it was literal hornets or a figure of speech, but one thing is clear: a slaughter of all the Canaanites by an ancient blitzkrieg is not the uniform picture in the Bible.

So what do we do when there is language of annihilation? For instance, Deuteronomy 20 says that “you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction” (20:16-17). Several passages in Joshua describe Israel’s obedience to Deuteronomy’s command of total annihilation—not leaving alive anything that breathes. Here are the passages that describe Joshua’s annihilation of particular cities in Canaan:

  • Of Jericho, “they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword” (6:21).
  • Of Ai, “Israel had finished killing all the inhabitants of Ai…all who fell that day, both men and women, were 12,000, all the people of Ai…he had devoted all the inhabitants of Ai to destruction” (8:24-26).
  • Of Makkedah, “He devoted to destruction every person in it; he left none remaining” (10:28)
  • Of Hazor, “they struck with the sword all who were in it, devoting them to destruction; there was none left that breathed” (11:11).
  • Of Madon, Shimron, Achshaph, and other cities, “every man they struck with the edge of the sword until they had destroyed them, and they did not leave any who breathed” (11:14).

All of these passages refer to Israel carrying out the Deuteronomy 20 command of total annihilation against specific Canaanite cities: Jericho, Ai, Makkedah, Hazor, Madon, Shimron, Achshaph, and a few other unnamed cities. However, there is one verse in Joshua that refers to Israel annihilating the entire population of Canaan:

So Joshua struck the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings. He left none remaining, but devoted to destruction all that breathed, just as the LORD God of Israel commanded. (Josh. 10:40)

This seems rather clear. Joshua and his army killed every breathing Canaanite. And if this was the only verse we had, we would have to draw such a conclusion. We should note, however, that the language of “destruction” doesn’t have to mean that they were annihilated. For instance, Israel is said to be “destroyed” by God when they are driven out of the land of Canaan in years to come (Deut 28:63; cf. Jer 38:2, 17). Obviously, “destroyed” here can’t mean that they were all killed (Copan, loc 3901).

But even if all the passages about destruction do actually mean that they were killed, there’s one glaring problem: the book of Joshua itself doesn’t agree that Israel annihilated the entire population. Several passages in Joshua say that “there remains yet very much land to possess” (13:1), and that “they did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer, so the Canaanites have lived in the midst of Ephraim to this day” (16:10), and that “the Canaanites persisted in dwelling in that land” (17:12). This is why Joshua would exhort Israel at the end of his life that “you may not mix with these nations remaining among you or make mention of the names of their gods” (23:7, 12-14). And when the book of Judges picks up where Joshua left off, it’s clear that many Canaanites were not slaughtered but continued to live in the land.

The point being, some passages suggest that all the Canaanites were annihilated, while others suggest that they were not. What do we do with this?

Well, you’ll have to read the next post for my answer. For now, we can say that the conquest of Canaan was not clearly intended to kill every single man, woman, and child. God’s main concern was that were would not be any Canaanites living among the Israelites in the Promised Land.

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