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Genocidal Warfare in Deut. 20?

By Luke Lancaster

In Deuteronomy 20:16-18, God commanded Israel to perform a holy war against the Canaanites in the Promised Land. Various other passages in Scripture speak of this (Deut. 7:1-5; 12; Josh 6:21; 8:26; 10:28; 11:11; 1 Samuel 15:18), and it makes many people sick to their stomach. Why would a God of love command Israel to murder people? Atheists will sometimes attack this as well, arguing that God is a genocidal maniac for commanding harem warfare. This attack could be briefly responded too with the fact that the genocide was very time-specific and nation specific, covering only Israel’s entrance into the land back in ≈1400 BC and covering only the Canaanite nation. Yet this is unsatisfactory. So, this article will cover the the depth of the topic to sensitively answer the question.

First, God is the author of life. Knowing this truth implies that He can create and uncreate His own creation, just as a writer can author a newspaper column and, after noticing several issues, throw it out and start from scratch. As the overseer of life, God can do what He wills with His own possessions. If He asks Israel to act as His executioner over one of His possessions, He is technically allowed to do that. This occurred only once and cannot occur again, for Divine Revelation ended with the death of the last apostle (≈100 AD).

Second, Scripture says that the people of Canaan were wickedly evil and deserved a harsh consequence for their sins. God says that the land itself could not bear the evils of the Canaanites. Leviticus 18 says in vv. 24-25, “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these [sinful] things, for by all these [sinful things] the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.” God is driving out the Canaanite nations from Israel due to the sins of Canaan. They have defiled the land and the land vomited them out. To give one example of their evils, they sacrificed their own offspring to their false deities (Deut. 12:30-31). We have archaeological evidence of infant bones in old altar ruins. Israel was to be the executioner of God's Divine judgment, for the wages of sin is death (Ezekiel 18:20; Romans 6:20).

Third, God was not impatient with Canaan’s sinfulness either. He waited patiently for their conversion (Genesis 15:16). But once it had reached a certain point, He could not handle it anymore. So, He commanded Israel to do away with them. Compare this to a woman who initially might have patience with her husband who is abusive to her one day, assuming the best and coming up with excuses for him. Maybe he had a rough day at work or something. But after a while, if the behavior does not improve, she has to cut the relationship off and live on her own. The same with God and Canaan.

Fourth, God was not racist towards the Canaanites. He was and is against sin of all kinds and will vomit Israel out from the land if they sin as well. Lev. 18:26-28 continues, “But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you” (see also Lev. 26; Deut. 9:4-5; Joshua 23-24). Israel will face the same fate as Canaan if they sin, which ultimately occurs with the Babylonian exile. As 1 Chronicles 9:1 says, “Judah was taken into exile in Babylon because of their breach of faith.” God also almost got rid of Israel on other occasions. For example, when they worshipped the golden calf (Ex. 32:10) and when the peoples of Israel entered the Tabernacle and grumbled (Num. 16:45). It was the intervention of holy people in Israel (ex. Moses) that stopped the elimination of Israel.

Fifth, God wanted to protect Israel from falling into idolatry. The people were weak and would sin if they lived amidst Canaan. Living near them was a near occasion to sin. Yet even with the command to destroy Canaan, which was only half accomplished, Israel fell into the idolatrous actions of the Canaanites. They worshipped Molech and offered their children as sacrifices to him. Psalm 106 says, “They [Israel] did not destroy the peoples, as the Lord commanded them, but they mixed with the nations and learned to do as they did. They served their idols, which became a snare to them. They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons; they poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, and the land was polluted with blood” (Ps. 106:34-38). Because of this, Israel received the same fate as the Canaanites through the Babylonian exile.

Sixth, it was not a massive destruction of Canaan, for cities were not all that big back then. To give an example, the walled city of Jericho was only two acres. Those who lived within the city walls were mainly the royalty in the palace, the priests in the pagan temple, and the military. Most of the people lived in the hill country. Since religions were tied to locations, all Israel had to do was wipe out the location, and the religion would be wiped out. So, Israel took out the center of idol worship (the temples within the cities) by destroying them. This was not a world cleansing either, for Israel needed to be peaceful with the other nations, such as Edom (Deut. 2, 20). Neither was it to just kill all the infidels (Deut. 4:19). It was only for Canaan, the land that had had enough of its inhabitants' sins and had wanted to vomit the people out.

Seventh, the actual genocidal take-over included massive hyperbole. Just as a football team might say that they “murdered” their opponents is not to be taken literally, so also with Israel’s conquest account. Israel spoke in hyperbole. The ancient Near Eastern scholar, K. L. Younger, has shown in his work, “Ancient Conquest Accounts” that the Scriptural conquest language is very comparable to the other ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts by Assyria, Hatti, and Egypt. They all use figurative language in their descriptions. To give a biblical example, Joshua 1-12 lists a massive “destruction” of Canaan by Israel, yet it is clear that those nations still remain alive in Joshua 13! Such nations were not completely wiped out like Josh. 1-12 implied. The later book of Judges even describes Israel’s subsequent struggles with the supposedly eradicated nations! In fact, if one were to add up the lands that still remained after the conquest, according to Dr. Tremper Longman, then Israel conquered only about 50% of Canaan, not 100%. The book of Wisdom itself clarifies that many Canaanites were not destroyed in the conquest (Wis. 12:10). Those people remaining ended up enslaving Israel or living next to them as neighbors. So, Scripture assumes that the interpreter knows it is using hyperbole.

Eighth, the conquest command in Deut. 20 was provisional and due to the hardness of Israel's heart. This logic can be applied in light of what Jesus says in Matthew 19. He says that Moses gave the Israelites permission to divorce their wives due to the hardness of Israel’s heart. Jesus's point is that such a permission was not good. Yet it was given, for as Aristotle, Maimonides, and Aquinas say, good leaders have to put up with lesser evils to avoid greater evils. Israel probably would have killed their spouses in order to marry a younger spouse, so Moses had to give a concessionary law of divorce. If that law was due to the hardness of heart, then there presumably were other laws that were provisional and due to the hardness of Israel’s heart. The conquest command was probably one of those laws. Ezekiel 20:25 itself states that there were some laws which were not good, and contextually, Ezekiel was referring to the book of Deuteronomy, which is where the conquest command is (Deut. 20).

Ninth, God commanded the killing of Canaanite women and children because they were attached to the idolatry and child sacrifice of their religion. God foresaw that they would not throw aside their ancestral traditions and would continue the evils of human sacrifice. So, God had Israel wipe out the whole nation of Canaan in the midst of the warfare.

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