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Does the God of the Bible command genocide? Are the armies of Israel immorally responsible for the genocide of Canaanite populations at the command of their God? Let's talk.

Genocide of the Canaanites

Postby Farat » Wed Aug 29, 2018 5:48 pm

In Deuteronomy 20:16-18, God commands the indiscriminate slaughter of all Canaanites when he calls for the city to be sieged, Casus belli being 'it was part of the chosen land for god', I quote" You shall save alive nothing that breathes". If anyone is wondering what that falls under, we can just go the the treatment of the Amaleks, where god so righteously commanded to "not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’ ” in 1 Samuel 15;2-3, or the people of Heshbon, where god says " And we devoted them to destruction, as we did to Sihon the king of Heshbon, devoting to destruction every city, men, women, and children.". The response i usually receive to this this is they were sacrificing children to pagan and false gods, fair enough, but why then kill every innocent child and women alive. The Jewish people back then were killing the children they were meant to save, how does that make sense?

I would just like to say, i am not implying that Jewish people and Christan people go around slaughtering children, in fact far from it with foundations helping children and such. I am just wondering what these sections from the old testament(included in the Bible) mean or try to imply, because it sounds like god was advocating the death of any living non Israelite in the lands of now Israel and the Levant.

Re: Genocide of the Canaanites

Postby jimwalton » Thu Sep 13, 2018 7:20 am

Thanks for your willingness to dialogue. Let me lay some groundwork first, and then I'll speak more specifically. There was no genocide.

1. The only time(s) that the Israelites were commanded by God to fight offensive battles (to conquer cities) was during the conquest. Beyond the land of Canaan, they were never commanded to expand their boundaries, build an empire, wipe out people groups, etc.

2. The goal of the conquest was not genocide, but occupation. Repeatedly the commands of God are to drive the Canaanites from the land (Ex. 23.30 as one example of many). More to the point, the Canaanites were first to be given an opportunity to surrender and become part of Israel (Dt. 20.10), and if they would not surrender, to engage them in battle.

3. It was God's intent to bless all the nations (Gn. 12.3 and others). It’s not the Canaanites as people that the Lord hates, but their godless perversions and lying religion. Dt. 7.5-6 is very clear that the point is truth, not genocide.

4. In those days the cities were fortresses surrounding governmental and cultic structures, not dwellings for the population. When commands were given to conquer cities, it was the rulers and soldiers the army was after, not the population. In the agrarian society of the Canaanite city-states, more than 90% of the people lived in the countryside as farmers, and less than 10% of the population lived in the cities. The cities were mostly fortresses and governmental centers. Almost exclusively, when a city was attacked, it was military action against military personnel and the rulers of the region, not against the general (and innocent) population. It was impossible, without nuclear weaponry, to wipe out all the citizenry. There was never an attempt to wipe them out.

5. The Conquest is not what many people imagine. Joshua cut a swath through the center of Canaan (Jericho, Ai and Shechem, Joshua 6-9), separating north from south. Gibeah surrendered (Josh. 9), and they were not killed. At that point an alliance of cities from the south attacked Joshua (Josh. 10), and the Israelites won. Now they controlled the southern hill country. Joshua then turned and attacked Hazor in the north and burned it (Josh. 11), and an alliance of northern cities attacked him. Joshua won, and all of the hill country of Canaan was now in Israelite hands. That was the extent of it (Josh 11.16, 23, etc.). They never gained the valleys and plains until under the monarchy, as nation-states attacked David and he won. There was no genocide.
Now let's talk about ancient Near-Eastern warfare. The "kill 'em all" speeches of the ancient Near East were a case of customary warfare bravado, and people in those days didn't take it literally. What it meant was: "Secure a total victory." The language is used in Josh. 10.40-42; 11.16-23; yet they readily acknowledge that it wasn't literally true (Judges 1.21, 27-28). On the one hand, Joshua says he utterly destroyed the Anakim (Josh. 11.21-22), but then he gives Caleb permission to drive them out of the land (Josh. 14.12-15; cf. 15.13-19). What it proves it that "kill them all" was an idiom of warfare that meant "We won a decisive victory." No people groups were being wiped out. This was pretty typical of the whole region in this era.

    * Egypt’s Tuthmosis III (later 15th c.) boasted that "the numerous army of Mitanni was overthrown within the hour, annihilated totally, like those (now) not existent." In fact, Mitanni’s forces lived on to fight in the 15th and 14th centuries BC.
    *Hittite king Mursilli II (who ruled from 1322-1295 BC) recorded making "Mt. Asharpaya empty (of humanity)" and the "mountains of Tarikarimu empty (of humanity)." Not true; just rhetoric.
    *The "Bulletin" of Ramses II tells of Egypt's less-than-spectacular victories in Syria (1274 BC). Nevertheless, he announces that he slew "the entire force" of the Hittites, indeed "all the chiefs of all the countries," disregarding the "millions of foreigners," which he considered "chaff."
    *In the Merneptah Stele (ca. 1230 BC), Rameses II's son Merneptah announced, "Israel is wasted, his seed is not," another premature declaration. Not true, didn't happen, no genocide.
    *Moab's king Mesha (840/830 BC) bragged that the Northern Kingdom of "Israel has utterly perished for always," which was over a century premature. The Assyrians devastated Israel in 722 BC.
    *The Assyrian ruler Sennacherib (701-681 BC) used similar hyperbole: "The soldiers of Hirimme, dangerous enemies, I cut down with the sword; and not one escaped."

In addition, we know that the people groups that Joshua claims were "utterly destroyed from the earth" continued on, such as the Anakim I have already mentioned. The same is true of the Amalekites of 1 Sam. 15 (the Amalekites were a people group for about 1000 years after being "totally destroyed"), and all of the Canaanite groups. The point was not to kill them all in a genocidal frenzy, but to win a decisive military victory over their armies and politicians, drive all rebels from the land, assimilate those who were willing, and to destroy the false religious practices that would corrupt the people of God.

The ultimate goal was that God would have a people, set aside for relationship with Himself, that he could covenant with to reveal Himself to and redeem them from sin. All comers, Israeli and foreign, man and woman, slave and free, were welcome. All rebellious, wicked, and deceivers were not.

As you can see, the label "genocide" misleads. The call to "kill 'em all" was language of victory, not genocide. "The moral of the story," as Dr. Paul Copan says, "is not to stop at a surface reading of these terms and assume God’s immorality."

The plan of God was a three-stepped plan, with each subsequent step only being necessary if the first two failed.

STEP 1: Incorporate the Canaanites into Israel as full members of the community, and worshippers of the true God. There was no reason to wait until the Day of the Lord to have the people worshipping the true God (Zech. 14.16-20; Rev. 22, et al.). The Lord will take any who come to him; the invitation is always open, and no sincere seeker is refused. Any Canaanite who surrendered would become part of the Israelite community.

STEP 2: Lacking surrender, the object of the army was to drive the Canaanites from the land, not slaughter them (Ex. 23.30-31; 33.2; 34.11, 24; etc.). Let them go somewhere else to live, and let Israel have the land that was theirs to possess. Anyone who would leave was free to go.

STEP 3: If they won't surrender, don't want to join you, and refuse to leave, the only option is to engage them in battle. The land belonged to Israel, not the Canaanites. But the point was still not genocide, but to kill the soldiers, supplant the rulers, and take possession of the land. The civilians were not harmed.

God communicated in the language of the culture, their typical Near-Eastern warfare rhetoric. Everyone in their era knew what it meant: secure a total victory. We need to read the text through ancient eyes, not through modern ones of a different culture, era, and language.

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