Did God really order the slaughter of the Canaanites?

June 4th, 2018

This page in brief ….

The Old Testament of the Bible records the Israelite nation fleeing Egypt in the Late Bronze Age (somewhere between 1500 and 1200 BCE) and conquering dozens of cities in Canaan (more or less present day Israel) and killing all their inhabitants – all at the command of their God, Yahweh. Critics of the Bible point to these events as a serious reason not to take the Bible, or the christian God, seriously.

But did it happen this way? Did God really command such atrocities? I have examined the historical evidence in some detail, and come to the following conclusions:

  1. It appears that large-scale genocide didn’t occur. Warfare and killing did occur, but on a smaller scale than a literal understanding of the Bible suggests. The conquest narrative in Joshua 1-12 is an idealised, hyperbolic and not fully historical account that needs to be understood in its cultural context.
  2. We can choose between two views of this part of the Bible. We can hold to the accuracy of the Bible and paint a very unloving and harsh picture of God as commanding whatever level of killing occurred. Or we can accept that the Bible contains exaggeration and legend, and reflects the beliefs of the time, and so attributes to God actions that God wouldn’t have approved of. The second option seems best for three reasons:
    • The historical evidence shows that the book of Joshua is not always literally historical.
    • The Bible should, I believe, be understood as progressive revelation, beginning with pagan beliefs and gradually growing and changing until the teachings of Jesus, and Joshua is at a very early stage in this process.
    • It seems abominable to attribute these commands and actions to the God of Jesus, who spoke out against violence.
  3. Therefore it seems most accurate to say that the genocide didn’t happen, nor did God command it.

Read on to see the evidence that led me to these conclusions.

Bible background

The Old Testament of the Bible (Joshua 1-12) records Joshua leading the Israelites in conquering Canaan in a quick military campaign, destroying cities, killing the inhabitants and taking over the land. In several passages (Deuteronomy 7:1-5, 20:16-18) God is said to have commanded the wholesale slaughter of the inhabitants, because of their wickedness (e.g. Deuteronomy 9:5, 18:9-12).

How should we understanding these disturbing commands, which appear to amount to genocide? Evangelical christians justify the behaviour of God (Ref 10) but is this fair to God’s character and to history?

A historical perspective?

Before we form a moral or theological opinion on something like this, we need to consider the historical facts as far as they can be known. For this, we will put the Biblical account partly to one side temporarily, and see what archaeology and history can tell us about these events. Fortunately, for the conquest of Canaan we have significant archaeological evidence in the ruins of Canaanite cities, and we also have some independent texts and inscriptions (Ref 1).

There is a wide range of views on this matter, from minimalists who deny almost all historical basis for the conquest, to maximalists who believe the Biblical record is substantially historical (if understood correctly). I have followed scholars with a moderate or middle view. These scholars generally believe that the Biblical stories of exodus and conquest contain historical memories, but they sometimes conflate different events, and also include legendary material.

The Exodus from Egypt

There is reasonable evidence that some of the people who formed the nation of Israel came to Canaan from Egypt (Ref 3).

  • There is evidence that Semitic peoples, such as the Israelites, did often seek refuge in Egypt when drought or conflict affected their land.
  • Several names in the exodus story (including Moses, apparently), and several religious practices (including the design of the temple and monotheism itself) appear to have Egyptian origins.
  • DNA evidence suggests that the Levites (the tribe entrusted with the religious ceremonies in Israel) had an Egyptian origin.
  • There is no evidence that a number as large as the Biblical 2 million could have made this journey together, and logistics and archaeology suggest the number was much smaller. However it is possible that there were several Semitic groups which made the journey over a period of time.

Historical evidence for (and against) the conquest

Scholars are uncertain when the Joshua conquest could have taken place. The date favoured by some Biblical scholars is about 1450 BCE, but archaeologists and historians prefer a date closer to 1250 BCE (Refs 1, 2). Perhaps there were several migrations and the Joshua accounts are conflated. But whatever is the case, the Joshua account, read literally, is not well supported by the evidence.

Population

Archaeology suggests that the population of Canaan fluctuated considerably in the Bronze Age. Most estimates are in the range of 50,000 (perhaps before the Israelite settlement) to 150,000 (Refs 1 & 2). One estimate is around 600,000 (Ref 13), but few accept such a high figure. Whatever is the best estimate, we can say almost certainly that 2 million people never settled in the land at this time, and Joshua is exaggerated and inaccurate at this point.

Approximate location of Canaanite cities.

Archaeology and the destruction of cities

This was a time of turmoil. Egypt had controlled Canaan but when Egyptian influence waned, it left a power vacuum and many different cities and tribes fought for power and land. Many cities and villages were destroyed at this time, although probably over a longer period than envisaged in Joshua, and possibly by armies other than Joshua’s. So there is some evidence supporting the Joshua campaign.

However many cities said to be destroyed by Joshua were either destroyed centuries before (Ai almost a millennium earlier and Jericho in about 1550 BCE), or apparently didn’t even exist at that time (e.g. Gibeon, Arad, Heshbon), or remained unconquered until much later (e.g. Jerusalem, Megiddo). This evidence tells agains the historicity of the campaign as described in Joshua.

Some conservative scholars (e.g. Ref 15) argue that the archaeology supports a literal understanding of Joshua if the conquest occurred 2 centuries earlier, but few scholars accept this, and the arguments are not convincing to my limited understanding.

However other conservative scholars (Ref 5) accept that an Israelite entry into Canaan was not as destructive and rapid as apparently portrayed in Joshua, but “involved several processes rather than a singular event.” It is widely accepted that Joshua is hyperbolic, in that several of the locations identified as cities were at most small settlements, and the destruction was not as complete as portrayed. Some (Ref 14) argue that several passages in Joshua shouldn’t be understood as implying a rapid and complete conquest.

We can say almost certainly that while significant fighting occurred, often consistent with Joshua, the conquest described in Joshua didn’t happen literally as apparently recorded there (Ref 1).

Israel existed

Nevertheless an inscription (the Merneptah stele) provides good evidence that a nation known as Israel was in existence at the end of this tumultuous period (Ref 4).

Gradual assimilation

Artefacts found in the remains of cities (e.g. pottery and religious figures) and a few texts (some on stone) show evidence of both gradual and destructive change, from Egyptian occupation and Canaanite culture to a mixed Israelite, Canaanite and sometimes Philistine culture. It appears that many Canaanites remained in their cities or were displaced to nearby rural areas, and newcomers were gradually assimilated over time.

DNA

DNA evidence suggests that modern day Palestinians and Lebanese are descended (in part) from Canaanites, as are modern day Jews. The Canaanites were definitely not all wiped out.

Understanding the Biblical text

The conventional Protestant understanding (e.g. Ref 10) is that the Biblical text is accurate and portrays real events commanded by God. The extreme action to exterminate all the Canaanites was justified because they were abominably evil, with practices such as child sacrifice, ritual prostitution, etc,and that evil would contaminate God’s chosen people.

But there are significant problems with this explanation.

Archaeology and history say otherwise

As we have seen, the history and archaeology suggest that the Joshua stories are not all literal history, but at the least exaggerated. The claims of total conquest reflect the situation several centuries later when the whole land was Isaraelite.

The Bible doesn’t speak with one voice.

The Bible seems to have two stories, the complete conquest story and the historically more realistic story of slow conquest and assimilation.

  • The commands to utterly destroy the Canaanites sit alongside other statements that God would drive out the Canaanites via “pestilence” (Exodus 23:27-31, Deuteronomy 7:20) or other means (Leviticus 18:24-28, 20:22-23). These two appear to be different.
  • While the commands to utterly wipe out seem to be absolute, at least in one place (Deuteronomy 7:22) God says this should only be gradual so that the land wouldn’t revert back to a wild state.
  • Despite the sweeping claims of total conquest, Joshua 1-12 actually describes the conquest of only some of the cities (e.g. Jericho, Ai, Hazor, Lachish), and makes clear that other cities (e.g. Jerusalem, Gezer, Megiddo) were not actually captured at that time. Joshua 13:2-6 lists several areas not conquered, and 18:1-3 seems to describe Joshua urging the Israelites to take possession of the land allotted to them.
  • While Joshua 21:44 says the Israelites defeated all their enemies, other parts of Joshua show that some campaigns (e.g. Jerusalem in 15:63, Gezer in 16:10, Dan in 19:47-48) were not successful.
  • Joshua 1-12 describes a quick bloody campaign in which “Joshua subdued the whole region …. he left no survivors” (Joshua 10:40), and Joshua 12 lists more than 30 kings and their cities that he conquered. Yet the books of Judges, Samuel and Kings show that many of these cities remained occupied until much later. The different books appear to be inconsistent, and experts generally believe Judges better reflects the historical reality.
  • Joshua 10:20 says that after the Israelites attacked some Canaanites in the open country, some of the survivors reached the safety of their fortified cities, implying that these cities were not captured, and again showing that the conquest was far from complete.

So the Bible accounts, taken literally, don’t always agree. Joshua 1-12 seems to present an idealised picture.

Hyperbolic language

Experts agree that the accounts, and likely the commands too, were written in hyperbolic language as was common at the time, and would never have been understood at the time as literal commands and accounts.

Were the Canaanites so evil?

There is no evidence that the Canaanites were any worse than other nations at the time. Child sacrifice and ritual prostitution were not uncommon (even the Bible contains the story of Abraham almost sacrificing his son Isaac).

Conclusion

It therefore seems best to consider the Biblical text as not fully historical (at least) and probably highly legendary. There is no in principle reason why God couldn’t reveal himself through legendary material.

What probably happened

It seems likely that a group from Egypt entered Canaan around 1250 BCE and over a period of a century or more gained a place for themselves by both fighting and assimilating (as described in Judges). The resulting mix of the original Canaanites, the immigrants from Egypt and other newcomers fleeing fighting on the coastal plains, coalesced into the nation of Israel in the hill country of Canaan.

The group from Egypt perhaps brought new religious ideas which competed with the Canaanite paganism and eventually became Jewish monotheism. It is quite possible that God used such means to reveal himself.

The Joshua stories seem to be based on facts, but much exaggerated, idealised and “talked up”, as was common at the time, to justify Jewish claims to the land.

Philosophical and moral issues

Christians use various arguments to try to justify God’s supposed actions, but they are all unconvincing (to me), and several arguments undermine the idea that a good God could command genocide.

1. “It wasn’t really genocide.”

The UN defines genocide as “the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular nation or ethnic group.” If it happened or was commanded, it was genocide.

2. “The Canaanites were abominably evil and had been given many opportunities to repent. They deserved their just punishment.”

Most scholars accept they were not particularly worse than other nations who had similar practices, and who were never punished like this. It wasn’t just to punish those among the Canaanites who were too young or powerless to be considered responsible.

3. “It wasn’t so bad because the children were innocent and went straight to heaven.”

We don’t know whether the children went straight to heaven. Those who believe in the doctrine of Original Sin believe they were not innocent and thus without Jesus they went to hell.

But if the argument was true, why wouldn’t we kill all our children today (as one poor woman did) because that would ensure the greater good of their eternal future? No-one would suggest that this action would be justified today, so how could it have been back then?

4. Would you kill children today if you believed God had commanded you to?

I hope no christian ever would do so (though there are cases, e.g. the Rwanda genocide, when christians did do this). But if all the Bible is true, why would it be possible for God to command killing then but not now? If someone thought God had called them to kill today, we would (rightly) regard that person as having a mental illness.

So, could God have commanded these killings?

This is not a question that historical study can answer. But in the light of all that I have examined, there are four reasons why I think God did not command genocide, or even killing.

  1. We have seen that the accounts in Joshua are hyperbolic, inconsistent and almost certainly not historically accurate. We have seen that the “commands” were inconsistent too, so it seems likely that they were also hyperbolic and not historical.
  2. The extreme language used in both the “commands” and the reports are typical of that used by other nations, even in cases where we know that the massacres didn’t actually happen as claimed. The extreme claims are more like propaganda. So it seems that this was Israelite propaganda, part of the culture Israel had grown from.
  3. This all fits with a consistent view of the Bible as a whole (as held, for example, by CS Lewis), that God began with a pagan people and gradually revealed his greater truths to them. The book of Joshua was at a very early stage in that process, when God was still seen by them as their own tribal god, very little different to the tribal gods of the surrounding nations.
  4. As a christian, I believe the full revelation of God’s character is seen in Jesus, who was opposed to violence. It is inconceivable to me that Jesus would have given such commands or approved of such actions. It is more consistent to disbelieve the traditional view of the Bible as inerrant history than to believe God would order violent and unloving acts.

Conclusions

  1. It appears that large-scale genocide didn’t occur. The evidence supports the idea that a small group of refugees from Egypt settled in Canaan (not a large group as portrayed in the Bible) and over several centuries assimilated with the local Canaanite population and established the nation of Israel. Warfare and killing did occur and many cities were destroyed or captured, but the incoming Israelites were not responsible for all this. The destruction was on a smaller scale than a literal understanding of Joshua suggests.
  2. The Bible presents two different pictures of these events. Joshua 1-12 is an idealised, hyperbolic and not fully historical account of total destruction that needs to be understood in its cultural context. But the remainder of Joshua and the book of Judges shows that the Israelites only gained control gradually, with much less fighting and destruction. This second picture agrees with the archaeology.
  3. We can choose between two views of this part of the Bible. Despite the obvious inconsistencies in the text, we can hold to the accuracy of the Bible and paint a very unloving and harsh picture of God as commanding whatever level of killing occurred. Or we can accept that the Bible includes two different versions of events, contains exaggeration and legend, and reflects the beliefs of the time, and so attributes to God actions that God wouldn’t have approved of. The second option seems best for three reasons:
    • The historical evidence shows that the Bible is not always literally historical.
    • It seems best to see the Bible as progressive revelation, with this being a very early stage in that process.
    • It seems abominable to attribute these commands and actions to the God of Jesus, who spoke out against violence.
  4. Therefore it seems best to say that the genocide didn’t happen, nor did God command it.

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References

Graphic: Free Bible Images. This graphic shows the inhabitants of the city of Ai chasing the Israelites after an unsuccessful attack. There is some doubt about whether Ai actually existed at the time of Joshua, and the graphic may be anachronistic, as it appears to show the Canaanite soldiers wearing iron helmets, whereas this was still the Bronze Age, and neither the Canaanites nor the Israelites had iron weapons at this time.
Map from Free Bible Land Maps.