In this fifth blog on the Canaanite conquest, we’ll return to the issue we ended our last post with: some passages suggest that all the Canaanites were annihilated, while others suggest that they were not. What do we do with this?
One option is that the Bible contradicts itself. And many have taken this view. But before we chalk up the problem to a hopeless contradiction—a big problem, of course, for those who believe that the Bible is inspired—let’s consider another option. Perhaps there’s a bit of hyperbole in the Biblical account of the conquest.
Last night, the Dodgers slaughtered the Yankees. I mean, they absolutely annihilated them!
We use hyperbole all the time. (Just like my phrase, “all the time.”) The language of slaughtering and annihilating the Yankees is overstating something to make a point. (Though the Dodgers really did beat them up pretty good. “Beat them up,” there I go again…) That’s hyperbole. It’s when you make comprehensive and sometimes exaggerated statements to make a point. You may think that there’s no way the Bible does that! But think again. Hyperbole is a common language device used in Scripture. “If your right eye causes you to stumble, then tear it out and throw it from you,” says Jesus (Matt. 5:29). Sounds painful, and it would be if taken literally, as would “swallowing a camel,” which Jesus says the Pharisees were quite fond of doing (Matt. 23:24).
The Bible sometimes overstates something to make a point. Since this is true, then perhaps the biblical phrases that refer to total annihilation are hyperbolic—they are overstating the case to make a point. I know, this may sound fishy. But our only other option is that the Bible contradicts itself, so let’s explore the hyperbole option a bit further.
How would we prove that the annihilation statements are hyperbolic and therefore not actually saying that everyone was killed? For one, the fact that the Canaanites weren’t all killed is one good piece of evidence that the statements are hyperbolic. Other evidence can be found by looking at ancient war rhetoric. If Joshua used hyperbole, was this a common practice among other nations? The answer is yes. For instance, the Egyptian pharaoh, Tuthmose III said that “the numerous army of Mitanni was overthrown within the hour, annihilated totally.” But historically speaking, the folks of Mitanni, including their soldiers, continued to fight well after Tuthmose had died. They weren’t totally annihilated. Tuthmose was using hyperbole. Again, the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II fought against Israel and said that “Israel is wasted, his seed is not,” suggesting that Israel ceased to exist as a people. That’s what “his seed is not” means. But this was in the 13th century B.C. and Israel continued to live on. Clearly Ramses overstated the case.
The point is well known and thoroughly document by historians: hyperbolic language about comprehensive defeat was typical war rhetoric and wasn’t intended to be taken literally. If this were true—and there’s every reason to believe that it is—then Joshua didn’t annihilate every single Canaanite.
Here’s one more clear example of hyperbolic rhetoric within the conquest account. Joshua 11:22 says that “There were no Anakim left in the land” (Josh 11:22) after Joshua got through with them. Sounds like total annihilation. But later, Caleb asks permission to drive out the Anakites (same people) from the hill country (Josh 14:12-15; cf. 15:13-19). Therefore, either the book of Joshua contradicts itself, or the first verse (“there were no Anakim left in the land”) is hyperbolic. I think there’s a good biblical case for the latter.
Now, let’s revisit Joshua 10:40, which sounds like Joshua killed every single Canaanite:
“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).
We should note two things—one we have already proven, and another we will suggest.
First, we have proven that Joshua didn’t actually “devote to destruction all that breathed” in the whole land of Canaan. The phrase must be hyperbolic (or contradictory!) and simply means that Joshua took control of the land. Second, I suggest that this hyperbolic phrase helps us to understand God’s original command in Deuteronomy 20, where He said: “you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction” (20:16-17). Compare Joshua 10:40 with Deuteronomy 20:16-17 and it seems clear that whatever Joshua 10 means—and it doesn’t mean total annihilation—it is intended to describe Joshua’s fulfillment of God’s command in Deuteronomy 20. The language is the same. Therefore, since the fulfillment was understood by its author to be hyperbolic, then it seems likely that God’s command in Deuteronomy 20 was also understood to be hyperbolic. If this is true—and I’m only suggesting it as a legitimate possibility based on biblical evidence—then God never commanded a wholesale slaughter of “everything that breathes” in Canaan. He only intended Israel to kill those who stubbornly resisted His offer of grace (unlike Rahab, who accepted it) and desired to remain in rebellion against their Creator. Such people would be “driven out.”
This suggestion isn’t bullet proof, but I think it carries some good merit. Many Evangelical scholars, in fact, agree that God didn’t intend for Israel to kill every Canaanite without qualification. But even if God did actually command a wholesale slaughter, we do know without a doubt that no such slaughter actually happened.
But there’s one more sticky issue that we have to wrestle with. What about the references to “women and children, old and young” that were killed? Did God command Israel to kill babies?