This article provides a brief synopsis of a case explaining why God did not command the slaughter of the Canaanites. It is based on a debate opening statement that I gave last year. And it provides an introduction to some of the arguments I develop at length in Jesus Loves Canaanites.
“Slaughter” is defined as the indiscriminate killing of large numbers of human beings and/or animals. There are biblical passages that, on what we can call a prima facie plain reading, describe God as commanding the indiscriminate killing of large numbers of Canaanites (e.g. Deuteronomy 20:16-17). There are also passages that describe the Israelites as carrying out this command: men, women, and children (e.g. Joshua 6:21; 8:24-5). Based on those texts a Christian might assume that there is nothing to debate. The text says it so God did it.
Rethinking “Plain Readings” of Scripture
But matters are more complicated than that, for a Christian can have many good reasons to reject the prima facie plain reading of God’s actions as described in the biblical text.
For example, the plain reading of Joshua 10:13 is that God made the sun stand still while the Israelites were in battle, a description prefaced on an ancient near eastern understanding of the earth as fixed and the sun moving around it. But beginning in the 17th century scientists recognized that the earth revolves around the sun, and that scientific advance in turn required a revision of the plain reading of Joshua 10.
Second example: Exodus 32:9-14 describes God telling Moses he is going to destroy the Israelites. But Moses reminds God of his covenant and calms him down so that we read in verse 14 that God “repents”. Christian theologians widely interpret descriptions like this non-literally because God is omniscient and morally perfect: he cannot literally change his mind, lose his temper, or repent.
Third example: Psalm 37:13 says the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he knows their day is coming. But Ezekiel 18:23 says God takes no delight in the death of anyone, a teaching resoundingly affirmed in the New Testament.
Thus, there are many reasons – scientific, theological, biblical, and others – that one might have to reject a prima facie plain reading.
What is Orthodoxy?
Before getting into my argument proper, I also want to say a word about orthodoxy. In 1981, G.W. Ramsey published his book The Quest for the Historical Israel in which he summarized the powerful archaeological evidence against the historicity of the Canaanite conquest and then famously asked: “If Jericho is not razed [r-a-z-e-d], is our faith in vain?”
The answer is an emphatic no: Christian faith rests not on Jericho razed but on Christ raised (1 Cor. 15:14), a point undergirded in the Apostles’ Creed and the creeds of the ecumenical councils. Christian orthodoxy is essentially committed to the triune God, creation, fall, incarnation, atonement, Christ’s resurrection, ascension, return, general resurrection and new creation. It does not require assent to the claim that God literally commanded the slaughter of the Canaanites.
And so, we are free to consider reasons to reject that prima facie plain reading of these passages without violating Christian orthodoxy.
In my remaining time, I will briefly summarize four reasons to reject that plain reading: history, morality, Christology, and Scripture.
Reason 1: History
While a popular early tradition of the church attributed authorship of the Pentateuch to Moses and Joshua to the book that bears his name, today these claims are rejected by a consensus of scholars. Instead, it is widely accepted that the so-called Deuteronomic history that encompasses Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings was likely compiled by one or more redactors beginning in the period of the Josianic reforms of the 600s BCE and extending into the exilic period up to a century later.
Given that the conquest of Canaan is commonly dated to about 1280 BCE, this means that the record of God’s command to slaughter Canaanites was written down approximately 700 years after the alleged events. Granted, one may assume these redacted texts were based on oral traditions and earlier written fragments, but the fact remains that the Deuteronomic history as we have it was composed centuries after the events it records.
To be sure, a vast time gap would not present an insuperable problem if the narrative was independently confirmed in period archaeology and supporting texts, but it is not. Since Kathleen Kenyon established in her 1950s archaeological dig (1952-58) that the walls of Jericho were destroyed two centuries before the alleged events occurred, scholars have recognized that the text is not supported by the archaeological record. Even the conservative NIV Archaeological Study Bible accepts that Kenyon’s work presents a problem for the biblical account.
In their influential survey The Bible Unearthed, Finkelstein and Silberman summarize the problem,
“The cities of Canaan were unfortified and there were no walls that could have come tumbling down. In the case of Jericho, there was no trace of a settlement of any kind in the thirteenth century BCE, and the earlier Late Bronze Age settlement, dating to the fourteenth century BCE, was small and poor, almost insignificant, and unfortified. There was also no sign of a destruction. Thus the famous scene of the Israelite forces marching around the walled town with the Ark of the Covenant, causing Jericho’s mighty walls to collapse by the blowing of their war trumpets was, to put it simply, a romantic mirage.”
Finkelstein and Silberman also point out that Canaan at the time was an economically depleted region controlled by Egypt with not more than 100,000 people. Suffice it to say, it is highly unlikely that the Egyptian garrisons throughout the territory would have remained on the sidelines as a group of refugees (from Egypt) wreaked havoc throughout the province of Canaan. And it is inconceivable that the destruction of so many loyal vassal cities by the invaders would have left absolutely no trace in the extensive records of the Egyptian empire.
Reason 2: Morality
In my book Jesus Loves Canaanites I argue that the closest modern analogue for the events described in Joshua is the 1994 Hutu genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda. Both modern Hutus and ancient Israelites believed another distinct group (Canaanites; Tutsis) were immoral and corrupt and that they had to be killed and removed from the land en masse. Furthermore, each group believed they had the divine approval to act and so they took sharp implements – Hutus used machetes and masu, the Israelites used spears and swords – and they systematically massacred civilians, hacking, bludgeoning, dismembering, disemboweling weeping mothers and their infants and children, the elderly, physically handicapped, and whomever else they could catch.
Christians recognize that the genocidal slaughter of Rwanda is the embodiment of evil and inhumanity. They do not qualify their moral judgment to say it is only wrong if God didn’t command it. Rather, their moral perception, their conscience, informs them that God would never command such atrocities in the first place.
The genocidal slaughter of Canaanites described in Joshua 6 and 8 is an ancient equivalent of Rwanda. If the token genocidal slaughter of Rwanda is intrinsically immoral, as it surely is, then it follows that all other token examples of the type genocidal slaughter are likewise intrinsically immoral, and that includes that of ancient Canaan.
Reason 3: Christology
Jesus came to fulfill the law (Matthew 5:17) which includes challenging received interpretations of the law. For example, one of the fundamental aspects of the law is the distinction between clean and unclean foods. Pious Jews believed the dietary laws to be so essential that in 2 Maccabees 7, we read of seven young men, all brothers, who submitted to having their tongues cut out, limbs cut off, and being skinned alive rather than to eat pork in violation of the law. Then in Mark 7:19 Jesus declares all foods clean. The fulfillment of the law brings with it a radical challenge to received understandings.
And so it is with violence. While the Torah teaches an eye for an eye (e.g. Ex. 21:23-25; Deut. 19:21), in Matthew 5:38-48 Jesus calls us to turn the other cheek, a teaching echoed by Paul in Romans 12:14. While the imprecatory psalmist calls for hatred of enemies, Jesus calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. When Peter, in a bold attempt to be magnanimous, proposes forgiving our enemies up to seven times (Matthew 18:21) Jesus responds by upping the bar to seventy-seven times (18:22). The point, of course, is that you don’t stop forgiving. As Grant Osborne points out, Jesus is probably alluding to Genesis 4:24 where Lamech infamously boasts of his “‘seventy-seven’-fold vengeful spirit” in which he will seek vengeance on those who offend against him. Osborne observes, “Lamech celebrated his vengeance; Jesus … abrogates it altogether.”
In John 8, a woman caught in adultery is brought to Jesus. According to Torah, she should be stoned to death, period. But Jesus says let he who is without sin throw the first stone.
In Luke 9 when Jesus is rejected by Samaritans, James and John ask if they should call down fire from heaven to judge the wretches. But instead Jesus rebukes them and they continue on their way.
And when Jesus’ followers suggest violence to defend him, he rebukes them (Luke 22:49-51; John 18:11). His entire cruciform life embodied peace and service, a call that extends to his followers (Luke 9:23; Phil. 2:6-11).
What about the Canaanites? In Matthew 15:21-28 Jesus has an encounter with a Canaanite woman who has the temerity to ask him for help with her demon-possessed daughter. As Bruner writes: “To readers of the Hebrew Scriptures, the adjective ‘Canaanite’ means everything dangerous to the faith of Israel.” At first blush, Jesus seems to affirm that view as he refers to her and her daughter as dogs.
But then something truly extraordinary happens. The woman is undeterred by this rebuff, instead offering the perfect response: even dogs receive crumbs from the master’s table. And lest one think that by offering that quick witted reply, she has shown up the master, Jesus’ clear delight at her response reveals the truth. She has risen to the challenge as he knew she would. R.T. France writes, “In refusing to accept the traditional Jewish exclusion of Gentiles from the grace of God, she has shown a truly prophetic grasp of the new perspective of the kingdom of heaven….”
Reason 4: Scripture
In 2 Timothy 3:14-17 Paul explains the purpose of Scripture as being “to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (v. 15) by “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (v. 16) so we are “thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Jesus himself summarized the law and prophets as loving God and loving one’s neighbor as oneself where “neighbor” is expanded to include those traditionally viewed as enemies and outsiders (gentiles, tax collectors, adulterers, Samaritans, and Canaanites). With that in mind, Augustine stated that we ought always to interpret Scripture so as to increase love of God and neighbor.
Those who believe God commanded the Canaanite genocide defend their reading by dehumanizing and othering an entire human community, the Canaanites, as a disease, pestilence, a cancer. They seek to cauterize our compassion as they endorse the moral goodness of slaughtering infants in God’s name. This is an utter perversion of the scriptural call to love our neighbor. And thus, the purpose of Scripture itself requires us to reject this interpretation.
To conclude, many Christians wrestle with a deep cognitive dissonance at the heart of their faith. They believe they are called to love and show mercy and compassion, and to humanize outsiders. And yet, the Canaanite conquest demands that we otherize, dehumanize, and cauterize our feelings of love, mercy, and compassion.
No Christian should feel obliged to live with that cognitive dissonance. In my opening statement, I have explained how one can reject the plain reading of a text and how doing so in this case does not affect Christian orthodoxy. Next, I presented four powerful reasons for doing so in this case: history, morality, Christology, and Scripture. For those reasons I believe Christians can and should conclude that God did not command the slaughter of the Canaanites.
 The Bible Unearthed, 81-82. They also say: “Despite the fact that the ancient cities of Jericho, Ai, Gibeon, Lachish, Hazor, and nearly all the others mentioned in the conquest story have been located and excavated, the evidence for a historical conquest of Canaan by the Israelites is . . . weak.”
 As respected archaeologist William Dever concludes, the fall of Jericho was “invented out of whole cloth.” Who were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come from?
 Luke 22:49-51: 49 And when those who were around him saw what would follow, they said, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” 50 And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. 51 But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him.
John 18:11: “So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”
 As Donald Senior observes, this provocative story is even more striking when we contrast it to the Jewish leaders in Matthew who reject Jesus as “in league with Satan”. In Jesus kingdom, the first are the last and the last first
 “If one interprets in such a way that his interpretation does not increase love of God and neighbor, he does not understand them as he ought.” On Christian Doctrine.