Updated: Mar 19, 2020
The story of Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land, at times sounds like the actions of ISIS which we all find morally repugnant. How can God ask Israel to commit genocide? The moral question is real and we should not ignore it nor bury it under a spirit of triumphalism.
Many Christians are troubled by the conduct of Israel’s warfare under God’s direct command. Of course, non-Christians will find them even more troubling. One reason why we find so many answers unsatisfactory is that we come to the text from different moral and intellectual places. An answer that satisfies me may not satisfy you. So my answer may satisfy your question, or it may not. Either way, there are not many people talking about this subject and if it is of concern to you, I will try to make it worth your read.
What the conquest is NOT about
.....1. It was not genocide
Many of us associate the Conquest as a genocide. What is genocide? Genocide is the killing of people on account of their race or ethnicity. For instance, the genocide of Armenians by the Turks, the genocide of the Jews by the Nazis, etc.
From the outset, we will affirm that God did command the killing of the Canaanites as Israel took possession of the land. But it would be a mistake to call it genocide. Genocide dehumanizes a people group and regard them as pestilence, and proceeds to eliminate that people group. What we see in the Conquest that does not make the killing genocide are: (1) the killing was not based on race or ethnicity, and (2) the killing was not inevitable.
At the very start of the Conquest, Israel confronted the city of Jericho. There was a prostitute who lived in that city, called Rahab. She was a Canaanite woman who decided to join Israel’s cause. She was not killed. In fact, the term Canaanite simply means anyone who lived in the land of Canaan. There were different people groups living there, and we are not told which people group Jericho belonged.
While Rahab exemplified an individual who chose to go with the God of Israel and was not killed, there was an entire city not far from Jericho that was spared. The people of the city of Gibeah decided that they would not want to fight Israel or the God of Israel, and through deception, made a peace treaty with Israel. Even though it was a treaty by deception, Israel kept the treaty. They were Canaanites too. Why did Israel make a treaty with them? Israel was deceived into thinking that they were from a far-off place not within the territory of Canaan.
The Canaanites, which Israelites were to displace, were a mixed group of people comprising: Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, Jebusites, etc. Israel did not declare war on any race. That is to say, they did not pursue the Hittites all over the ancient world to kill them. There was no hatred towards these group, and no prosecution of war against them beyond the land of Canaan.
Ancient people did not classify people the way we do. People were identified by where they lived, and where they used to live. That is to say, Egyptians were people who lived in Egypt. The Jebusites were people who live in the city of Jebus (the old name of Jerusalem). The Gibeonites were people who lived in Gibeah. So they are viewed from either a city perspective (people who lived in a city) or a country perspective, for example: Egyptians were people who lived in Egypt, Canaanites were people who lived in Canaan.
They also referred to people by ancestry. For instance, the Ishmaelites were descended from Ishmael, the Edomites were from Esau, the Moabites were from Moab, and the Ammonites were from Ammon.
They were not concerned with skin, hair color, or a certain type of look. For instance, Moses’s wife was a Cushite (from the land of Cush) which is perhaps modern-day Ethiopia. We are not told if she was a black woman, but the chances are pretty high. In today’s world, the description might be Moses married a black woman. In the ancient world she is simply called a Cushite (by location). This remained true for a long time. During the Roman Empire we had the great Christian leader Augustine of Hippo (northern Africa). We don’t know if he looked like north-Africans or sub-Saharan Africans. The people didn’t care.
The obsession with skin color came much later, probably during the commencement of the slave trade. But that is another story and not mine to tell.
What I am saying is that genocide as a concept is based on race, and that is a modern paradigm. Nobody was thinking of genocide because the concept race as used today did not exist then. For example, the Romans said there were three races: the Jews, the Christians and the rest of the world. Nobody uses the term in this way today.
When the Bible referred to a people group, that is what it was, a people group, and not a race. There are overlapping names. A Hittite was a person who belonged to the Hittite Empire that had collapsed. A Hittite living in Canaan can be called a Canaanite or a Hittite. Most times they were distinguished from the Canaanite because they spoke an Indo-European language, and had a different style of dressing and culture. But as long as they lived in Canaan, they can be classified as Canaanites. People groups are determined by language, culture, and location.
As we look at this, it becomes clear that genocide is a modern construct placed on an ancient event. There was no racial hatred or bias, no dehumanizing of a race, etc. It also becomes clear that the war was not fought based on race. It was about land.
.....2. It was not a land grab
Even though the Conquest was for land, it was not a land grab against weaker people groups. We will use the Sea Peoples as an example of how a land grab looks like. The Sea Peoples were a homeless group of people which invaded Egypt and other areas of the Middle East. The Sea Peoples fought the Egyptians but lost. However, they were formidable, and Egypt agreed to let them settle in what is probably the Gaza area. This would necessarily displace the local people. The locals who accept Egypt’s land grant to the Sea Peoples would leave, or live under the rule of the Sea People, or fight them. The grant from Egypt meant recognition and that Egypt would not try to displace them. It did not mean Egypt gave them the land. It meant Egypt gave them permission to land that belonged to a weak people group. Might was right.
In a land grab, the homeless will occupy whatever is available. But that was not the case for Israel. God had given them a piece of land and they are to occupy that one piece of land and no other. It did not matter that the people in Canaan were not easy to displace. And when Israel was strong, they did not conquer additional land. This is because land grab was not their national agenda. This is unlike say, Assyria or Babylon, or Persia. These countries became empires because they wanted to acquire more land, control, and prosperity. In the case of Israel, it was to acquire their homeland as God had assigned.
The Bible records a land grab done by one of the tribes of Israel as a dastardly act. The tribe of Dan felt they did not have enough land in the land distribution. So they spied out a peaceful city and its surrounding area. The tribe invaded the place and slaughtered the people. That was a land grab and it was described as something evil that the Danites did (Judges 18).
.....3. It was not about nationalism
Israel’s Conquest was not motivated by nationalism. By nationalism, we mean the pride or interest of one nation or people group at the expense of, and disregard for, other nations. Let’s hear the story.
When Joshua was about to begin the Conquest starting with the city of Jericho, he had a special encounter.
.....13 Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man .....standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up .....to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”
.....14 “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I .....have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in .....reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his .....servant?”
.....15 The commander of the Lord’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, .....for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so. .....(Joshua 5)
This incident reinforces to Joshua and explains to the reader where Israel stood. God does not stand with Israel. Israel must stand with God. The wars they were about to engage in, were God’s agenda, and when Israel stood with God, Israel stood to gain from God’s agenda. It was God’s intention to remove the Canaanites from the land, and because Israel stood with God, Israel inherited the land.
This is not sophistry or mere words to explain away the Conquest. The incontrovertible proof lies in the fact that Israel became the object of God’s wrath later and Israel was removed from the land! Nationalism will excuse one group and call another to account. Both Canaanites and Israelites were removed from the same land for the same reason – sin.
The removal of the Israelites happened in two instalments. The northern part, called “Israel” was overrun by Assyria in 722 BC and they never properly recovered from this exile. The southern part called “Judah” was conquered by the Babylonians in 586 BC.
From the countless warnings from God through his prophets, I select prophet Amos who prophesied to Israel thus,
.....“Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: .....“An enemy will overrun your land, ..........pull down your strongholds ..........and plunder your fortresses.” (Amos 3:11)
God waited for Israel over 200 years, and over 400 years for Judah..
.....10 “I sent plagues among you .........as I did to Egypt. .....I killed your young men with the sword, ..........along with your captured horses. .....I filled your nostrils with the stench of your camps, ..........yet you have not returned to me,” .....declares the Lord.
.....11 “I overthrew some of you .........as I overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. .....You were like a burning stick snatched from the fire, .........yet you have not returned to me,” .....declares the Lord. (Amos 4:10-11)
The same judgment that came on Egypt, and on Sodom and Gomorrah came on the children of Abraham.
A person may not like the Bible’s message that God consistently removed rulers and people alike for their social sins, but it is there, and it is not based on nationalism for Israel. It is based on God’s own righteousness.
During the Conquest, Israel was God’s agent to remove sin from the land. But Israel became just like the people they displaced. And God used the Assyrians and Babylonians to remove Israel and Judah from the land.
God’s intention is for human life to flourish in a certain way on his land.
Those who repeatedly failed to live up to it after several hundred years of warning, were removed. Regardless of whether they were Canaanites or Israelites. Therefore, we must preclude nationalism as the motivation for Conquest.
To continue …
The big moral picture
Why assign Canaan to the Israelites?
How does God execute sovereign judgment?