Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites
Philosophy and Ethics
Palm Beach Atlantic University
Palm Beach, Florida
Of the various Old Testament (OT) ethical issues, Yahweh’s command that Israel kill the Canaanites strikes us as the weightiest. In this issue of Philosophia Christi, Wes Morriston and Randal Rauser highlight this theme in reply to my
earlier essay, “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?”
I am grateful for their comments and for the opportunity to respond to the key questions
they raise. Since their objections overlap somewhat, I shall simply list and respond
to the major concerns as I see them. In doing so, I shall touch on the contributions
made by comrades-in-arms, Clay Jones and Joseph Buijs, whose supportive essays also
appear in this issue.
1. Incorrigibly Wicked?
Morriston challenges the claim that the Canaanites were really that
wicked or that they were incorrigibly so and thus deserving God’s judgment:
“the evidence of incorrigible wickedness is nonexistent.”
However, Clay Jones’s essay documents and reinforces my point that this was indeed
a wicked people. God was willing to wait over 400 years because “the sin of the
Amorite was not yet filled up” (Gen. 15:16). In Abraham’s day, no reason yet existed
for dispossessing them. The land was not ready to “vomit them out” (Lev. 18:25).
Only after Israel’s lengthy enslavement in Egypt would the time finally be ripe
for the Israelites to enter Canaan�”because of the wickedness of these nations”
Meredith Kline reminds us that the judgment on the Canaanites is an “intrusive phenomenon”
of eschatological ethics into the period of common grace, anticipatory of a final
judgment when God finally establishes justice on a cosmic scale.
Now, I am not arguing that the Canaanites were absolutely the worst
specimens of humanity that ever existed, nor am I arguing that the Canaanites were
the worst specimens of humanity in the ancient Near East (ANE). However, the evidence
adduced by Jones sufficiently reveals a profound moral corruption, and we are not
surprised to read that they are ripe for divine judgment in keeping with God’s
salvation-historical purposes. Nor are the Canaanites uniquely singled out for divine
judgment in the Scriptures; prophetic oracles abound concerning Yahweh’s threats
of judgment on nations that had also crossed the moral threshold. Furthermore, we
should not think that God no longer judges nations today�even if we may not be able
to determine this precisely.
However, I shall say no more on this topic but shall let Morriston direct any remaining
objections to Jones!
2. Morally Culpable?
Morriston wonders if the Canaanites were really “morally culpable.”
After all, they were just practicing their religion, which was passed on to them
from the previous generation. Surely the Canaanites “deserve . . . enlightenment
about the true nature of God and about His requirements for human beings.”
However, history shows that nations and civilizations have been capable
of moral reforms and improvements. This suggests that humans are not necessarily
cut off from all moral ideals and insights through general revelation to help improve
upon what was handed down to them. Furthermore, a passage such as Amos 1�2 suggests
that moral “enlightenment,” though suppressed, was available to Gentile nations
surrounding Israel. There, God threatens judgment against the nations surrounding
Israel not because they were merely “practicing the religion of their parents,”
but because they stifled compassion, suppressed their conscience, and carried out
particularly heinous acts. They should have known better. The Canaanites were “disobedient”
(Heb. 11:31)�a term indicating a moral awareness of wrongdoing but a refusal to
turn from it.
Paul affirms that those without special revelation still have the capacity (through
conscience) to distinguish right from wrong (Rom. 2:14�15). Paul’s point is nicely
illustrated in the appendix to C. S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man: moral codes
of many cultures across the ages are strikingly similar at key points�honoring parents,
being faithful in marriage, not stealing, not murdering, not bearing false witness,
and so on.
Furthermore, despite their immersion in Canaanite ways, Rahab and her family (Josh.
2) are a clear sign that other Canaanites could have preserved their lives if
they had humbled themselves before Israel’s God, who had convincingly delivered
his people from Egypt with signs and wonders and demonstrated his reality and surpassing
greatness (Josh. 2:9�11).
Speaking of Rahab, we can reject Morriston’s claim about what the text “plainly”
says (that Rahab was being “prudent rather than pious”). Joshua’s literary strategy,
in fact, devotes much attention to Rahab’s responsiveness to Yahweh, including
her assisting the spies (chapter 2). In chapter 6, the number of words mentioning
her and her family’s being spared (86 words) are roughly the same as those devoted
to describing Jericho’s destruction (102 words)�an indication of Yahweh’s willingness
to receive any who turn to him.
Contrary to Morriston’s charge that Rahab would “sell out her own city in order
to save her own skin,”
she simply realized that God was with the Israelites, and she aligned herself with
reality. Rahab is no more “selling out” than those Germans disenchanted with Hitler
who joined the Allied cause.
Rahab’s embracing Yahweh and finding salvation illustrates the theme of Exodus
34:6: Yahweh’s gracious, compassionate character extends salvation to all and relents
from judging, whether Canaanite or�much to Jonah’s dismay�Ninevite (Jon. 4:2) or
those from any “nation” that “turns from its evil” (Jer. 18:7�8). Yahweh desires
that the wicked turn rather than die (Ezek. 18:31�32; 33:11). And when Israel and
Judah reached a point of no moral and spiritual return (“until there was no remedy”),
God judged them severely (2 Chron. 36:16; cp. 2 Kings 18:11�12; 1 Chron. 5:23).
Yahweh’s ban (herem), then, was not absolute. Carrying out herem
did not entail the refusal of mercy, as we see in Rahab’s case. The possibility
of salvation was not a violation of the ban.
3. Standards for Irredeemability?
Rauser objects to the killing of the “wicked Canaanites” since “we have no guidelines
to determine when a culture is irredeemable.”
Rauser’s point calls to mind Israeli psychologist Georges Tamarin’s 1966 study
involving 1,066 schoolchildren ages eight to fourteen. Presented with the story
of Jericho’s destruction, they were asked, “Do you think Joshua and the Israelites
acted rightly or not?” Two-thirds of the children approved. However, when Tamarin
substituted “General Lin” for Joshua and a “Chinese kingdom 3,000 years ago” for
Israel, only 7 percent approved while 75 percent disapproved.
So, though we condemn the killing of an ethnic group when carried out by Nazis or
Hutus, Israel seems to get a pass when doing the “same thing” to the Canaanites.
Rauser suggests that we need something more than mere mortal assessments regarding
a culture’s ripeness for judgment. Such matters are too weighty a matter for humans
to judge. Indeed, these determinations ought to be left up to God�namely, special
revelation. And this is precisely what we have! In John Goldingay’s words,
“It takes a prophet to know whether and how a particular war fits into Yhwh’s purpose.”
4 Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide?
Both Rauser and Morriston utilize the term “genocide,” and Rauser mentions “ethnic
cleansing.” However, ethnic cleansing suggests a racial hatred, which just is
not behind the injunctions to kill Canaanites. Consider how Rahab and her
family were welcomed into the Israelite fold. Visions of ethnic and moral superiority
are not part of the picture.
In the Mosaic Law, Yahweh repeatedly commands Israel to show concern for strangers
and aliens in their midst (for example, Lev. 19:34; Deut. 10:18�19), since the Israelites
had been strangers in Egypt. Moreover, prophets later view the nations once singled
out for judgment (for example, the Jebusites�a Canaanite people [Deut. 7:1]) as
the ultimate objects of Yahweh’s salvation. For example, in Zechariah 9:7, the
Philistines�on whom God pronounces judgment in 9:1�6�and the Jebusites (who came
to be absorbed within the fold of Judah) are both to become part of God’s redeemed
“remnant.” This theme is reinforced in Psalm 87, where the Philistines and other
enemies are incorporated into the people of God.
Yahweh’s evident concern for the nations in the OT hardly supports a Gentile-hating,
arrogant ethnocentrism. Rauser notwithstanding, the Israelites did not determine
themselves to be the in-group, who in turn demonized the out-group and then destroyed
them. Yahweh pointedly reminds his people that their taking the land is not due
to their intrinsic superiority (“right�eousness,” “uprightness of heart”), but because
of the “wickedness” of the Canaanites. Indeed, the Israelites are “a stubborn people”
5. Herem and Human Sacrifice?
Regarding the Hebrew term herem (“ban,” “dedication to destruction”),
Rauser correctly observes the religious dimension to Israel’s wars. Indeed,
this was true of ANE wars in general�sacred or holy endeavors.
Israel’s defeating its enemies was an indication that Yahweh the “warrior” (Exod.
15:3) was ruler over all the nations and their gods. Is Rauser correct, though,
in claiming that the slaughter of all men, women, and children was a “religious
act of worship“?
Not quite. Susan Niditch’s study, War in the Hebrew Bible, affirms
that the “ban” in the early texts (for example, Deut. 20) refers to the total destruction
of warriors and the consecration to God of everything that was captured:
The dominant voice in the Hebrew Bible condemns child sacrifice
as the epitome of anti-Yahwist and anti-social behavior . . . . the dominant voice
in the Hebrew Bible treats the ban not as sacrifice in exchange for victory but
as just and deserved punishment for idolaters, sinners, and those who lead Israel
astray or commit direct injustice against Israel.
Furthermore, Hess contends that human sacrifice to Yahweh was not behind
herem; no evidence in the early texts suggests this.
Contra Morriston, there is a “subversive attitude to human sacrifice” in
the OT. According to Hess, there is “little suggestion that war is an act of human
sacrifice to a god who demands it.”
Now, Morriston suggests that certain passages, if not implicitly endorsing the
acceptability of human sacrifice, seem to diminish divine displeasure towards it.
The first is 2 Kings 3:27, where Mesha, king of Moab, (apparently) sacrifices
his firstborn son on the wall of Kir Hareseth (in Moab), after which the Israelite
army withdrew. Morriston’s suggestion is mistaken here for several reasons. First,
it is at odds with what the author of Kings declares in subsequent passages (cp.
2 Kings 16:3; 17:7; 21:6). Second, the Mosaic Law clearly condemns child sacrifice
as morally abhorrent (Lev. 18:21; 20:2�5; Deut. 12:31; 18:10). Third, the word
fury (qetseph)is wrongly assumed to be divine wrath.
Its cognate is used elsewhere in 2 Kings, clearly referring to human fury
(5:11; 13:19). Fourth, typically, commentators suggest several plausible interpretations�and
Morriston’s is not one of them! (i) Perhaps there was fury against Israel
among the Moabites because their king Mesha, forced by desperation, sacrificed his
son (in order to prompt Moab’s renewed determination to fight).
(ii) Another possibility is that the Israelites were so horrified or filled with
superstitious dread�which came “upon Israel” (RSV)�at this human sacrifice that
they abandoned the entire venture.
(iii) A final alternative is that because of Mesha’s failed attempt to break through
the siege (perhaps to head north for reinforcements), he was still able to capture
the king of Edom’s firstborn son, whom he sacrificed on the wall, which demoralized
Edom’s army. Their “wrath” ended the war because they withdrew from this military
coalition of Israel, Judah, and Edom.
What of Jephthah’s rash vow and sacrifice (Judg. 11:30�40)? While some strongly
argue against the claim that Jephthah literally sacrificed his daughter,
most OT scholars believe the text asserts this.
Let us then assume the worst-case scenario. Morriston informs us that Jephthah the
“Judge of Israel . . . would surely have known” that child sacrifice was wrong and
that it was because of such acts that Yahweh judged the Canaanites. Why then this
Morriston too hastily concludes that Israel assumed human sacrifice as morally
acceptable before Yahweh. We can apply Morriston’s statement to Samson. As a “Judge
of Israel,” he “would surely have known” that touching unclean corpses and consorting
with prostitutes were forbidden by Yahweh. Precisely because we are talking about
the time of the Judges, Morriston should be all the more cautious in suggesting
what he does.
But didn’t “the Spirit of the Lord” come on Jephthah (Judg. 11:29)? Yes, but
we should not take this as a wholesale divine endorsement of all Jephthah did�no
more so than the Spirit’s coming on Gideon (6:34) was a seal of approval on his
dabbling with idolatry (8:24�7)�or Ehud (3:26), for that matter.
Yes, these “Judges of Israel” would “surely have known” this was wrong. Indeed,
“the Spirit of the Lord” came upon Samson to help Israel keep the Philistines at
bay (14:6, 19; 15:14). Yet his plans to marry a Philistine woman, cavorting with
a prostitute, and getting mixed up with Delilah all reveal a judge with exceedingly
poor judgment! (No doubt there is a moral in here somewhere about how God often
works despite humans rather than because of them!)
The theology of Judges emphasizes the nadir of Israelite morality and religion�with
two vivid narratives at the book’s end to illustrate this (chapters 17�21). In
light of the repeated theme “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6;
21:25; cp 2:10�23), we could say that Morriston is expecting too much moral uprightness
from characters in a book depicting Israel’s moral nosedive. Not only did the Mosaic
Law clearly prohibit child sacrifice�something known to the judges; Scripture itself
reminds us that not all behavioral examples in Scripture are good ones (cp. 1 Cor.
10:1�12). We do not have to look hard for negative exemplars in Judges of Israelites
in the moral basement. No explicit statement of Yahweh’s obvious disapproval is
6. Total Annihilation and “Bludgeoning Babies”?
(a) “All that breathes.”
I observed in my previous essay that the language of total obliteration (“all
that breathes”) is an ANE rhetorical device, an exaggeration commonly associated
with warfare. For example, in Deuteronomy 2:34 (“we captured all his cities at that
time and utterly destroyed the men, women and children of every city. We left no
survivor.”) and 3:6 (“. . . utterly destroying the men, women and children of every
city”), we come upon what is a standard expression of military bravado in ANE warfare.
In 7:2�5, alongside Yahweh’s command to “destroy” the Canaanites is the assumption
they would not be obliterated�hence the warnings not to make political alliances
or intermarry with them. That is, we have stock ANE phrases referring to a crushing
defeat and utter obliteration in my earlier article, but
this is what Goldingay calls “monumental hyperbole.”
After all, the books of Joshua and Judges themselves make clear that many inhabitants
remained in the land.
“While Joshua does speak of Israel’s utterly destroying the Canaanites, even these
accounts can give a misleading impression: peoples that have been annihilated have
no trouble reappearing later in the story; after Judah puts Jerusalem to the sword,
its occupants are still living there �to this day’ (Judg. 1:8, 21).”
OT scholar Richard Hess has written on the Canaanite question, offering further
insights on the entire discussion.
(Following Hess here, I shall present “Scenario 1,” which argues that the Canaanites
targeted for destruction were political leaders and their armies rather than noncombatants.)
Hess’s research has led him to conclude that the ban (herem) of Deuteronomy
20:10�18 refers to “the total destruction of all warriors in the battle,”
But does not Joshua 6:21 mention the ban�”every living thing in it”�in connection
with “men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys”? The stock phrase
“men and women [lit. �from man (and) unto woman’]” occurs seven times in the OT�Ai
(Josh. 8:25); Amalek (1 Sam. 15:3); Saul at Nob (1 Sam. 22:19 [only here are children
explicitly mentioned]); Jerusalem during Ezra’s time (Neh. 8:2); and Israel (2
Sam 6:19 = 2 Chron. 15:3). Each time�except at Nob, where Saul killed the entire
priestly family, save one (1 Sam. 21:20)�the word “all [kol]” is used.
Hess contends that “the phrase [�men and women’] appears to be stereotypical for
describing all the inhabitants of a town or region, without predisposing the reader
to assume anything further about their ages or even their genders.”
(b) The military forts of Jericho and Ai.
As we look specifically at Joshua’s language concerning Jericho and Ai, it appears
harsh at first glance: “They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the
sword every living thing in it�men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys”
(6:21); and again, “[t]welve thousand men and women fell that day�all the people
of Ai” (8:25).
As we shall see below, this stereotypical language describes attacks on military
forts or garrisons�not a general population that includes women and children. Jericho
and Ai were military strongholds guarding the travel routes from the Jordan Valley
up to population centers in the hill country. That means that Israel’s wars here
are directed toward government and military installments. So the mention “women”
and “young and old” turns out to be stock ANE language that could be used even
if “women” and “young and old” were not living there. The language of “all”
(“men and women”) at Jericho and Ai is, in Hess’s words, a “stereotypical expression
for the destruction of all human life in the fort, presumably composed entirely
The text just does not require that “women” and “young and old” must have
been in these cities.
The term “city” (�ir) reinforces this theme.
Regarding Jericho, Ai, and other cities in Canaan, Hess writes: “we know that many
of these �cities’ were used primarily for government buildings, and the common
people lived in the surrounding countryside.”
Archaeological evidence points to the lack of civilian populations at Jericho, Ai,
and other cities mentioned in Joshua. That “cities” were fortresses or citadels
is made all the more clear by an associated term, melek (“king”), which
was used in Canaan during this time for a military leader. What
is more, the battles in Joshua do not mention noncombatants (women and children).
Hess adduces inscriptional, archaeological, and other such evidences that Jericho
was a small settlement of probably 100 or fewer soldiers. This is why all of Israel
could circle it seven times in one day and then do battle against it.
So if Jericho was a fort, then “all” those killed therein were warriors�Rahab and
her family being the exceptional noncombatants dwelling within this militarized
The same applies throughout the book of Joshua. All of this turns out to be quite
the opposite of what many have been taught in Sunday school classes!
(c) Rahab in a tavern.
What, then of Rahab? She was in charge of what was likely the fortress’s tavern
or hostel rather than a brothel, though these were sometimes run by prostitutes.
Such overnight places for traveling caravans and royal messengers were common during
The Code of Hammurabi (�109) parallels what we see in Joshua 2: “If conspirators
meet in the house of a tavern-keeper, and these conspirators are not captured and
delivered to the court, the tavern-keeper shall be put to death.” As Moshe Weinfeld
notes, such reconnaissance missions were a “widespread phenomenon in the east.”
Such an innkeeper’s home would be “the accustomed place for meeting with spies,
conspirators, and the like.” In light of such potential security threats, the Hittites
prohibited the building of any such inn or tavern near fortress walls.
We could add here, contra Morriston, that the author of Joshua goes
out of his way to indicate that no sexual liaison took place: the spies “stayed
there” (2:1)�not “stayed with her,” which would imply something sexual.
Consider Samson, by contrast, who “saw a harlot, and went in to her” (Judg. 16:1).
The OT does not shrink from using such language; we just do not have any sexual
reference here. Rather, as observed above, the book of Joshua depicts Rahab as a
true God-fearer. Yes, such taverns in the ANE would draw people seeking sexual pleasure,
but this just does not apply to the Israelite spies, who visited there because it
was a public place where they could learn about the practical and military dispositions
of the area and could solicit a possible “fifth column” of support.
(d) Israel’s warfare methods.
When we examine Israel’s warfare, we should consider a number of features that
help minimize the notion that Israel’s army consisted of bloodthirsty, maniacal
warmongers. First, the aftermath of Joshua’s victories are featherweight descriptions
in comparison to those found in the annals of the major empires of the ANE�whether
Hittite and Egyptian (second millennium), Aramaean, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian,
or Greek (first millennium).
Unlike Joshua’s brief, four-verse description of the treatment of the five kings
(10:24�27), the Neo-Assyrian annals of Asshurnasirpal (tenth century) take pleasure
in describing the atrocities which gruesomely describe the flaying of live victims,
the impaling of others on poles, and the heaping up of bodies for display.
Second, a number of battles that Israel fought on the way to and within Canaan
were defensive: the Amalekites attacked the traveling Israelites (Exod. 17:8); the
Canaanite king of Arad attacked and captured some Israelites (Num. 21:1); the Amorite
king Sihon refused Israel’s peaceful overtures and attacked instead (Num. 21:21�32;
Deut. 2:26); Bashan’s king Og came out to meet Israel in battle (Num. 21:3; Deut.
3:1); Israel responded to Midian’s calculated attempts to lead Israel astray through
idolatry and immorality (Num. 31:2�3; cp. Num. 25 and 31:16); five kings attacked
Gibeon, which Joshua defended because of Israel’s peace pact with the Gibeonites
(Josh. 10:4). Furthermore, God prohibited Israel from conquering other
neighboring nations: (i) Moab and Ammon (Deut. 2:9, 19); (ii) Edom (Deut. 2:4; 23:7)�despite
the fact that Edom had earlier refused to assist the Israelites (Num. 20:14�21;
cp. Deut. 2:6�8).
Third, all sanctioned “Yahweh battles” beyond the time of Joshua were
defensive ones, including Joshua’s battle to defend Gibeon (Josh. 10�11).
Of course, while certain offensive battles take place in Judges and under David
and beyond, these are not commended as ideal or exemplary.
(e) “Driving them out.”
We should carefully note the language of “driving out” and “thrusting out” the
Canaanites (Exod. 23:28; Lev. 18:24; Num. 33:52: Deut. 6:19; 7:1; 9:4; 18:12; Josh.
10:28, 30, 32, 35, 37, 39; 11:11, 14) or “dispossessing” them of their land (Num.
21:32). “Driving out” is not at all the same as the “wiping out” or “destroying”
passages found in these same contexts. Upon examination, the former references are
three times as numerous as the latter.
When a foreign army might pose a threat in the ANE, women and children would be
the first to remove themselves from harm’s way�not to mention the population at
large: “When a city is in danger of falling,” observes Goldingay, “people do not
simply wait there to be killed; they get out. . . . Only people who do not get out,
such as the city’s defenders, get killed.”
Jeremiah 4:29 suggests this:
At the sound of the horseman and bowman every city flees;
They go into the thickets and climb among the rocks; Every city is forsaken, and
no man dwells in them.
Hess draws the following conclusions: “There is no indication in the text of
any specific noncombatants who were put to death.” Indeed, the “justified wars”
of Joshua “were against combatants.”
We read in Joshua (and Judges) that, despite the “obliteration” language, there
are plenty of Canaanite inhabitants who are not “driven out” but rather are living
in the areas where Israel has settled. Joshua himself refers to “these [nations]
which remain among you” (Josh. 23:12�13; cp. Josh. 15:63; 16:10; 17:13; Judg. 2:10�13).
The process of driving them out would be a gradual one, as even Deuteronomy 7:22
anticipates and is reaffirmed in Judges 2:20�23.
Israel’s occupation of Canaan involved not simply military activity, but also
infiltration and internal struggle.
In my previous article, I note that the text of Deuteronomy 7:2�5, Joshua, and Judges
suggests that we have the language of (i) obliteration as well as (ii)
acknowledgment of Canaanites as future neighbors. Goldingay comments that
Israel knew how to read Torah: “It knew it was not to assume a literalistic understanding”
of destroying the Canaanites. That is, Moses did not mean for this to be taken literally.
Rather, as Goldingay notes, “Israel was to dispossess the Canaanites and destroy
their forms of religion and have nothing to do with them.” That is, Israel took
this “totally destroy” command metaphorically or hyperbolically�which reflected
the ANE language of bravado and exaggeration in warfare.
To summarize, we should distinguish between two central aspects of the Canaanite
question. On the one hand, herem includes stereotypical language of “all”
and “young and old” and “man and woman”�even if women and children are not present.
So far as we can see, herem is carried out in particular military/combatant
settings (with “cities” and “kings”); this specific combatant scenario could well
apply in the Amalekite case (1 Sam. 15). In these limited settings, herem
is thoroughly carried out (involving even livestock [for example, 1 Sam. 15:9, 14])�though
it allows, and hopes for, exceptions (for example, Rahab). The sweeping language
which appears to involve only combatants is truly all-inclusive here. On the other
hand, evident in Deuteronomy�Judges is the clearly exaggerated ANE language of utter
obliteration and total destruction. These hyperbolic references to “totally destroy[ing]”
run on parallel tracks with regular mention of many remaining Canaanite inhabitants
after the “total destruction” (for example, Judg. 1). Additionally, we should take
seriously the many references of “driving out” the Canaanites, to clear away the
land for habitation, which does not require killing. Civilians would flee when their
military strongholds were destroyed and no longer capable of protecting them.
(7) Inefficient Means?
Morriston raises an “embarrassing” question: “Assuming that God’s desire to
destroy the Canaanite religion by destroying the Canaanites was a legitimate one,
why would He choose such an inefficient means of accomplishing this aim?” God could
have easily removed them from the scene and avoided this “spectacularly unsuccessful”
plan of allowing idolaters to remain in Israel’s midst. Wasn’t the point of killing
Canaanites to prevent Israel’s being pulled down spiritually and morally?
Too much theological weight should not be given to some efficiency criterion�that
God is the being than which nothing more efficient can be conceived! Indeed, what
theological reason compels us to assume that God must necessarily operate with maximal
Germanic efficiency? Just as God is not hot and bothered that a small planetary
speck would be home to all the universe’s inhabitants (while the rest of the cosmos
is uninhabited and uninhabitable), so God takes plenty of time and utilizes ostensibly
less-than-efficient means to accomplish his purposes. For example, he gets the ball
rolling with a barren, elderly couple�Abraham and Sarah�and chooses to work through
a stubborn and rebellious nation. Perhaps we should think in terms of sufficiency
rather than efficiency. In fact, this alleged embarrassment may actually
indicate historical reliability rather than legendary fabrication; perhaps we can
appeal to the “criterion of embarrassment” as an indicator of historicity/authenticity!
So why didn’t God make sure that none of the Canaanites was left to lead Israel
into idolatry? God was working through often-inefficient processes to accomplish
his salvation-historical ends, which did not require killing every last Canaanite,
but ensuring that they were sufficiently driven out so as not to be an
undermining spiritual and moral threat while Israel developed as a nation.
Israel’s failure to drive out this threat and destroy Canaanite religion indeed
brought mixed results, and they paid for their compromises with an Assyrian captivity
of the northern kingdom and then a Babylonian captivity of the southern (for example,
2 Kings 17:7�41; 2 Chron. 36:15�21)�despite regular prophetic warnings and periodic
kingly reforms. The theological and moral threat of foreign religion, however, did
not so damage Israel as to eradicate its monotheism and covenantal awareness that
would emerge with greater force in the wake of the Babylonian captivity. By the
first century AD, a theological stage had been sufficiently set through the preservation
of Israel’s scriptures and national historical identity, the restoration of the
temple and cultus, heightened messianic expectations, dedication to monotheism,
and so on. Despite Israel’s compromises and rebellions over the centuries, Jesus’s
arrival on the scene came “in the fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4). “Efficient”? Not
self-evidently so. Sufficient? Certainly.
Rauser raises questions about the killing of the Canaanites as setting a negative,
brutal precedent for the nation of Israel. As a general response, one could cite
Goldingay here: “the fate of the Canaanites is about as illuminating a starting
point for understanding First Testament ethics as Gen 22 [Abraham’s binding of
Isaac] would be for an understanding of the family.”
Here I would affirm Buijs’s nuanced discussion of the alleged harm of religion.
He makes the salient distinctions asking whether “religion is indeed the cause�or
even a cause�of harmful acts” and whether “religion is exclusively
harmful or at least more harmful than beneficial in its individual and
Beyond this, let me offer two more specific responses.
First, the killing of the Canaanites was sui generis, limited to this
particular period of time of Joshua and shortly thereafter, after whose time Israel’s
warranted battles (“Yahweh wars”) were defensive. That the (rhetorical)
language of obliteration was not intended to be precedent-setting is clear from
Deuteronomy 20, which applies herem to cities in the land (20:16�18)�not
cities far away. In the former case, we are not talking about genocide or ethnic
cleansing, but a kind of corporate capital punishment that was deliberately
limited in scope and restricted to a specific period of time.
Was Israel’s warfare in Canaan precedent-setting? In Goldingay’s words, “Saul
does not seek to devote the Philistines and David does not seek to devote the surrounding
peoples whom he did conquer. Neither Ephraim nor Judah took on Assyria, Babylon,
Persia, or the local equivalents of the Canaanites in the Second Temple period.”
He adds that Deuteronomy and Joshua do not set a pattern that “invites later Israel
to follow, or that later Israel does follow.”
Second, what is puzzling is that professing Christians (during the Crusades,
for instance) inspired by the killing of the Canaanites to justify their actions
completely ignored Jesus’s own kingdom teaching.
Yet Jesus had informed Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were
of this world, My servants would be fighting” (John 18:36). Again, “all those who
take up the sword shall perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). On the other hand, we
can confidently say that, precisely because of their commitment to Christ’s kingdom
not being of this world, the Amish and Mennonite people would most certainly not
appeal to Canaanite-killing passages to engage in atrocities. The difference is
that some professing Christians are far more obviously consistent in applying Jesus’s
teaching than others. Buijs’s point that we ought to distinguish the “revelatory
root of religion” from “its human appropriation in a religious tradition” is well-taken.
(9) A Default Position (“Scenario 2”).
Readers will observe a slight shift in my approach to the Canaanite question,
thanks in large part to the further input of Richard Hess’s and John Goldingay’s
recent work. However, what if “Scenario 1” (above) fails? What if it turns out that
women and children actually were the explicit objects of herem
by Yahweh’s command�even if we allow for hyperbole in phrases such as “everything
that breathes”? I discuss the possibility of this alternative below.
(a) “Psychologically and spiritually shattering.”
Rauser and Morriston raise questions regarding the psychological damage done
to combatants who brutally kill women and children (for example, the My Lai massacre).
Now Rauser describes killing the Canaanites in Scenario 2 as a “morally praiseworthy”
act. Certain acts may be just (for example, a just war), but describing such involvement
as “morally praiseworthy” is misleading. As Confederate general Robert E. Lee affirmed,
“It is well that war is so terrible; otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”
Rather, theologian John Stott’s wording regarding the killing of the Canaanites
is apropos: “It was a ghastly business; one shrinks from it in horror.”
If babies were involved, surely this was a grim task.
Yet the killing of the Canaanites was deliberately temporary and sui generis.
Furthermore, in the ANE, warfare was a way of life and a means of survival�a
situation in which combatant and noncombatant were not always distinguished. This
fact, in combination with the hardness of human hearts (Matt. 19:8) and human
moral bluntedness in the ANE,
would likely render such actions considerably less psychologically damaging for
the Israelite soldier.
(b) The context of God’s goodness, enemy love, and overarching
As mentioned earlier, God’s overarching goal is to bring blessing and salvation
to all the nations, including the Canaanites through Abraham (Gen. 12:3; 22:17�18;
cp. 28:13�14). This sweeping, outsider-oriented, universally-directed covenant is
utterly unique among ancient religious movements.
Yes, for a specific, relatively short, and strategic period, God sought to establish
Israel in the land, simultaneously punishing a wicked people ripe for judgment.
During this time, God was certainly willing to preserve any who acknowledged his
evident lordship over the nations, which was very well known to the Canaanites (Josh.
2:8�11; 9:9�11, 24; cf. Exod. 15:14�17; Deut. 2:25). Even Israel’s sevenfold march
Jericho, each circumambulation serving as an opportunity for Jericho to evade the
ban, was sadly matched by Jericho’s sevenfold refusal to relent and acknowledge
Furthermore, God’s difficult command regarding the Canaanites as a limited,
unique salvation-historical situation is comparable to God’s difficult command
to Abraham in Genesis 22 (a passage Morriston mentions in connection with human
sacrifice, which we discussed earlier). Behind both of these harsh commands, however,
are the clear context of Yahweh’s loving intentions and faithful promises. In the
first, God has given Abraham the miracle child Isaac, through whom God has promised
to make Abraham the father of many. Previously, he saw God’s provision when he
reluctantly let Ishmael and Hagar go into the wilderness�with God reassuring Abraham
that Ishmael would live to become a great nation. Likewise, Abraham knew that God
would somehow fulfill his covenant promises through Isaac�even if it meant that
God would raise him from the dead. Thus Abraham informed his servants, “we will
worship, and then we will come back to you return” (Gen. 22:5 [NRSV]; cp. Heb. 11:19).
With the second harsh command regarding the Canaanites, Yahweh has already promised
to bring blessing to all the families of the earth without exclusion (Gen. 12:1�3;
22:17�18). As previously observed, God is in the business of eventually turning
Israel’s enemies into his friends and incorporating them into his family. As Abraham
said of Isaac, it is as though ancient Israel could confidently say of its enemies
like the Assyrians, Egyptians, and Canaanites (Isa. 19:25; Matt. 15:22): “we
will worship together” (cp. Isa. 2:3). So while we have troubling exceptions in
each of these scenarios, these should be set against the background of Yahweh’s
enemy-loving character and worldwide salvific purposes.
Similarly, though blameless yet severely afflicted, Job received no clear answer
to his questions, but he did receive assurances of God’s wisdom, which far surpasses
ours. He learned that God’s character is trustworthy and his presence sufficient,
even when we remain baffled in the face of unanswered questions.
In Jonah’s day, God did not punish the Ninevites�to the great disappointment
of Jonah, who knew that this is the sort of thing Yahweh does�he loves
his (and Israel’s) enemies: “I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God,
slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity”
(Jon. 4:2; cf. Exod. 34:6).
Jesus, who sees himself as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets (Matt.
5:17), affirms that the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob is one who loves his enemies
and calls on us to imitate this complete love (Matt. 5:43�48). We even see God commanding
enemy-love in the OT�to show concern for the alien and stranger and enemy (for example,
Exod. 23:4). The “Canaanite exception” is a glaring one in the midst of many affirmations
of Yahweh’s lovingkindness and concern for his own enemies. To affirm Buijs’s
general point, we can say that Jesus himself does not view the killing of the Canaanites
to be an intrinsic tenet or permanent norm for Christians.
Scriptures attest to divine love, but also judgment: “Behold then the kindness
and severity of God” (Rom. 11:22). Paul Moser observes:
It would be a strange, defective God who didn’t pose a serious cosmic authority
problem for humans. Part of the status of being God, after all, is that
God has a unique authority, or lordship, over humans. Since we humans aren’t God,
the true God would have authority over us and would seek to correct our profoundly
Despite Morriston’s reference to C. S. Lewis’s “wise words” about God’s “gradual
and graded self-revelation,” he hardly negates Lewis’s assertion that “Aslan” is
not “safe.” Elsewhere, Lewis commends “the obstinacy of faith.” He asserts that
trust in a personal God (as opposed to a mere proposition) “could have no room to
grow except where there is also room for doubt.” Lewis goes so far as to say that
love involves trusting a friend beyond the evidence�even, at times, against such
evidence. He reminds us that we should give the benefit of the doubt to a friend,
even if the friend may display seemingly puzzling and uncharacteristic behavior.
For example, if a trusted friend pledges to meet us somewhere but fails to show
up, which of us “would not feel slightly ashamed if, one moment after we had given
him up, he arrived with a full explanation of his delay? We should feel that we
ought to have known him better.”
As with Job, the full picture is not always available. We are not necessarily
in the best cognitive position to discern God’s purposes.
We may find ourselves left with a puzzling gap between what we clearly know of God
and what seems to be a harsh exception (assuming here that Scenario 1 is false).
Having tasted and seen that the Lord is good (Ps. 34:8), we should deal with such
questions in the context of a loving, compassionate, and just personal God who has
the long-term good of even his enemies in mind. Yet we have excellent reason for
thinking that Scenario 1 is correct and that we do not need to resort to the default
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