The last two posts have aimed to offer a response to those who accuse Yahweh of being a “moral monster” for His command for the Hebrews to defeat and “wipe-out” the Canaanites. Skeptics and more particular, the so-called “New Atheists” have attempted to use these texts and a basis for calling into question the moral integrity of the God of the Bible and the character of scripture itself. In the minds of such skeptics, the Bible endorses immoral practices such as “ethnic-cleansing”. Seven considerations have been offered aid the reader in knowing how to approach this difficult issue. For the reader’s review this author will list in short order those considerations:
Seven Introductory Considerations for Approaching the Destruction of the Canaanites in the Book of Joshua
1.Diffusing the logical arguments that attack the character of the Biblical text and Yahweh.
2. Careful consideration of how to interpret the language that is used to describe the “utter destruction” of the Canaanite nations
3. The Book of Joshua and the wider Biblical context portrays God’s incredible mercy and longsuffering just as much as His justice and Holiness.
4.The Canaanites were not an innocent people but were a culture that disregarded Yahweh’s repeated warnings to repent.
5.Ancient Near Eastern Literature outside the Bible helps us understand why the Biblical text asserted the moral and spiritual degradation of the Canaanites.
6. Yahweh is depicted in other Biblical texts, including Joshua, of sparing people devoted to judgment who repented.
7. Understanding the difference between Holy War and Genocide avoids misinterpreting the texts of Joshua and application of the text to today’s world.
Such above considerations may serve to show how at least some of the accusations leveled by skeptics are mistaken. The goal of today’s post is to suggest a way of “framing” or navigating this “thorny” issue in light of these considerations.
Suggesting a way of framing the discussion regarding Yahweh’s commands to destroy the Canaanites in the Book of Joshua
Since the above considerations are all interrelated, much of what will be proposed in this “suggested framing” of the discussion will use combinations of the above considerations #2-#6.
Extra-biblical resources that corroborate the history detailed by Joshua
To begin, one critic has tried to allege that when the Bible reports the immoral and spiritual degradation of Canaanite culture, it does so as propaganda and that there is scant to no outside evidence supporting such a notion. Is that true? When we consider the sources outside the Old Testament that refer to the Canaanite culture, it’s practices and the situation of Canaanland during the time of Joshua and the Conquest, we can look at some of the following ancient documents and/or writings:
1. The Tel El-Amarna corresponsdance between the Canaanite peoples and the Egyptians during the 13th century. In these letters (really tablets) we see the appearance of the Hebrews (called in the tablets the Hapiru).1
2. The discoveries at Ugarit in Northern Syria unearthed numerous tablets with a language akin to ancient Hebrew called the Ugaritic. Scholars have deciphered this language and have found it helpful in discerning Hebrew idioms in the Old Testament. It is here we get more information about the Canaanites and their religion, being that the peoples of Ugarit were closely related.
3. According to the Archaeological Study Bible, page 182, other Archaeological discoveries in the Phoenecian city of Carthage, Moab, Ur of the Chaldees and the like reveal a centuries old pattern of child sacrifices in the region of Canaan, confirming both the Biblical record and reasons as to why the Israelites would later practice such abominable activities in the latter parts of the Old Testament. They had picked it up from their Canaanite neighbors.2
4. The Ras-Shamra Tablets contain information relating to Canaanite worship practices and deities. Dr. Gleason Archer lists all of the deities and some of the practices described in these tablets which help reconstruct the picture of Canaanite culture that we see most fully revealed in the Book of Joshua.3
The Mercy and Long-suffering of God is displayed right along with God’s Justice and Holiness
In noting the extra-biblical sources that corroborate the cultural context of the Book of Joshua, we can now consider the character of Yahweh Himself. The Old Testament teaching about God’s holy character, long-suffering mercy and covenant relationship with His people must be considered if correct interpretation of Joshua is to be achieved. Dr. Walt Kaiser make this insightful observation in his work on this very issue:
“Every forecast or prophecy of doom, like any prophetic word about the future except those few promises connected with the Noachic, Abrahamic, Davidic, and new covenants (which were unconditional and dependant soley on God’s work fulfillment), had a suppressed”unless” attached to them. At what moment that nation turns from its evil way repents then at that time the Lord would relent and cease to bring the threatened harm (Jeremiah 18:7-10). The Canannites had, as it were, a final forty-year countdown as they heard of events in Egypt, at the crossing of the Red Sea, and what happened to the kings who opposed Israel along the way.”4
In reading Joshua, there are indications that the Canaanites were aware of Yahweh’s deliverances of Israel from Egypt, as indicated by Rahab’s testimony in the second chapter of Joshua.
The concept of Holy war is different from the historic practice of genocide.
Deuteronomy 20:15-18 depicts the rationale of Yahweh in his instructions to Moses for Joshua and the people. God did not want his people to be influenced by their neighbors. (Deuteronomy 7:1-5) As a Holy set-apart people, they were to be Holy as He is Holy.
The moral and spiritual conditions in Canaan had deteriorated to such a level as to cross the line where God hands them over to their own base desires and to be set apart for judgment. Whenever one reads the texts that speaks of God devoting or dedicating something to destruction, Romans 1:18-31 can be used as an interpretive lens for assessing the downward spiral of moral and spiritual degredation. Typically in the Hebrew Old Testament, a specific word “haram” (חרמ) is used to describe the particular judgment God declares on a specific culture that has “crossed the line” so to speak. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) expounds on this particular term:
“Usually haram means a ban for utter destruction, the compulsory dedication of something which impedes or resists God’s work, which is considered accursed to God. The idea first appears in Numbers 21:2-3, where the Israelites vowed that , if God would enable them to defeat a southern Canaanite king, they would ‘utterly destroy’ (i.e consider as devoted and accordingly utterly destroy) his cities. This word is used regarding almost all the cities which Joshua’s troops destroyed (e.g Jericho, Josh 6:21; Ai Josh 8:26; Makkedah, Josh 10:28; Hazor, Josh 11:11), thus indicating the rationale for their destruction.”5
Understanding the Concept of “Holy War” in the Bible and How Yahweh Could Still Show Mercy
The stark contrast between Holy and Profane is central to the Biblical concept of God’s Holiness. The Wrath of God, which is God’s Holiness in action, describes what God hates and is really His love and goodness expressed in relationship to that which is profane and contrary to His character. To love sin or to embrace injustice would make God not a good God. If God were not Holy and did not express His wrath, then He could not be good and be loving. This idea may seem repugnant to a secularized view of reality that denies the God of the Bible or any worldview that does not view God as Holy. God declared Holy War only on those nations and cities who had crossed the line on two main fronts:
a). They ignored previous warnings that came through a prophet or prior judgments God enacted on nearby cultures and
b). were engaging in practices that polluted the land spiritually and posed significant moral and spiritual contamination of other cultures.
This judgment of Divine Holy War was a judgment of “last resort” that stood at the end of the line in God’s dealings with nations and cultures. Having noted this pattern, the reader must also realize that God was more than willing to reverse such a judgment if the nation in question exhibited repentance. Jeremiah 18:8 states – “if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it.” Two most prominent examples are Rahab in Joshua 2 and the Ninevites in the Book of Jonah.
It must be recognized that when God dealt with a wicked culture, He did what was called “dedicating it to destruction”, meaning that because of its persistent refusal to heed His Revelation and clear directives to repent, judgment was all that would be left (see above discussion on the Hebrew word behind this concept, Haram or חרמ). However it must also be equally recognized that whenever an individual (such as Rahab) or a city (like Ninevah) did repent and respond to God’s revelation, God would relent His anger and based upon His equally balanced characteristics of love and mercy spare that individual or city.
More next time…
1.Dr. Gleason Archer. A Survey of the Old Testament Introduction. Moody Press. 1985. Pages 271-279
2.The Archaeological Study Bible. Zondervan. 2005. Page 182
3.Dr. Gleason Archer. A Survey of the Old Testament Introduction. Moody Press. 1985. Pages 271-279
4.Walt C. Kaiser Jr. Toward Old Testament Ethics. Zondervan. 1991. Page 268.
5.R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Bruce K. Waltke. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Moody Publishers. 1980. Page 741.
By the grace of God I was converted to saving faith in Jesus Christ at the age of 10 and called into the Gospel ministry by age 17. Through the Lord's grace I completed a Bachelors in Bible at Lancaster Bible College in 1996 and have been married to my beautiful wife since that same year. We have been blessed with four children, ranging from 7-18 years of age. In 2002 the Lord enabled me to complete a Master of Arts in Christian Thought at Biblical Theological Seminary, Hatfield PA. For nearly 25 years I have been preaching and teaching God's Word and have been studying the original languages since 1994. In 2016 God called my family and me to move to begin a pastorate at a wonderful Southern Baptist Congregation here in Northern New York.