If you’ve been a regular reader of this blog, you’ve seen this Bible passage before:
When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess … you must destroy [the inhabitants] totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. (Deuteronomy 7:1-2)
…in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them … as the Lord your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 20:16-18)
Do those sound like commands to commit genocide?
Even most Christians would say they do. In fact, during my church-going days I heard more than one sermon that spiritualized these passages by saying, “Just as God commanded Israel to completely wipe out the Canaanites, so we must completely remove sin from our lives. Just as any Canaanites that were allowed to live might one day tempt Israel to idolatry, so any sin that we tolerate in our lives could one day prove to be our undoing.”
Paul Copan, in his book Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God, offers a different take.
He says passages like these employ “stock expressions” that should not be taken literally. “Just as we might say that a sports team ‘blew their opponents away’ or ‘slaughtered’ or ‘annihilated’ them, [the Bible author] followed the rhetoric of his day.”
If that sounds like too convenient an out, Dr. Copan marshals several examples not just from the Bible but also from other ancient Near Eastern sources. He devotes Chapter 16 of his book to this argument, and I think he makes a good case.
In fact, he says, what sound to us like commands to commit genocide are really just commands to vanquish military outposts. Otherwise, how can we explain how Joshua “left no survivor, but he utterly destroyed all who breathed, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded” yet later in the same book of Joshua those annihilated people were still around?
According to Dr. Copan, the historically informed interpretation is that God only wanted Israel to destroy the Canaanites’ religion, not the people themselves (at least not the non-combatants). He approvingly quotes Gary Millar who said God’s concern was “to see Israel established in a land purged of Canaanite idolatry as painlessly as possible.”
There’s much more to Dr. Copan’s argument than I have space for here, but if the subject interests you I do recommend his book. It contains ideas you won’t hear from the average evangelical pulpit.
I say so because during my 40 years in the evangelical church the only interpretation I heard was the fundamentalist “plain meaning of the text.”
For example, well-known apologist William Lane Craig says,
The destruction was to be complete: every man, woman, and child was to be killed. The book of Joshua tells the story of Israel’s carrying out God’s command in city after city throughout Canaan.
More-liberal Christians have a third take: that the Bible contradicts itself (with people being “utterly destroyed” in one chapter but still around in another) because it “speaks with more than one voice.”
Peter Enns has an intriguing blog post titled, The best way of getting out of the whole Canaanite genocide thing, and it comes right from the Bible (but you may not like it). He observes that the Bible records several “traditions” of how Israel came to possess Canaan:
- God drove the Canaanites out little by little, using pestilence such as hornets (Exodus 23:27-31).
- God caused the Promised Land to “vomit out” its inhabitants even before Israel moved in (Leviticus 18:24-28).
- God commanded the Israelites to drive out the inhabitants of the land, but not to annihilate them (Numbers 33:53-56).
- God commanded the Israelites to totally destroy the inhabitants (Deuteronomy 7:1-2).
The last interpretation is classic genocide; the others are more palatable. Enns wryly concludes:
On the one hand, this is good news if you want to think of Israel’s settlement of Canaan in biblical terms that also takes the edge of the violence. On the other hand, this is bad news if you want to follow the Bible, since the Bible explains how the Canaanites ceased living in their land in two mutually exclusive ways–i.e., the Bible does not speak with “one voice,” which I know for some is more troubling than the thought of God killing off a population.
For the record, Dr. Enns is troubled by the voice in the Bible that seems to command genocide. If you’re not equally troubled, I recommend his post, John Piper on Why “It’s Right for God to Slaughter Women and Children Anytime He Pleases” and Why I Have Some Major Problems with That.
So which interpretation is correct: merely military conquest, the plain meaning of the text to modern readers, or multiple voices?
I tend to go with Dr. Enns’ multiple voices. God’s specific commands for how to conduct war in passages like Numbers 31 are just too chilling for me to believe that the conquest of the Promised Land was merely a campaign “to see Israel established in a land purged of Canaanite idolatry as painlessly as possible.” However, Dr. Copan’s arguments are persuasive on many points, and well worth considering.