When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, 2 and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction.You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. 3 You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, 4 for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. 5 But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and chop down their Asherim and burn their carved images with fire.
1) A careful examination of language and context is essential to understanding any text. While ancient historians could not simply invent facts to suit their political agenda, boasts and exaggeration were part and parcel of ancient record keeping. We have to ask if Joshua and Judges were describing, and if Deuteronomy was commanding, a literal genocide.
2) After telling the Israelites to devote the Canaanites to YHWH, Moses also gives instructions not to intermarry with the Canaanites or to seal covenants with them. Now, if “devoting” the Canaanites meant annihilating them completely, why order the people of God to stay separate from them in the future?
3) Deuteronomy was written as Moses’ last sermon to the people of Israel. Deuteronomy 7 is theological preaching rather than a detailed battle plan; it does not aim at the eradication of an entire race. The aim was to shatter the structure of Canaanite society, to dismantle the city states of Canaan so that they could never threaten the existence of the Israelite people and their religion.
“Jesus tells men who are inclined to fancy other women to gouge an eye out (Matt 5 v 29). We assume he was absolutely serious but did not intend to be taken literally. It would make sense if Deuteronomy is absolutely serious about annihilating the Canaanites but does not intend to be taken literally. It would fit with this chapter’s place in the exposition of basic attitudes that occupies Deuteronomy 4-11. These chapters are not laying down rules but seeking to form attitudes. It is vital that Israel totally repudiate Canaanite religion. As far as the Israelites are concerned, the Canaanites no longer exist.”- John Goldingay Numbers and Deuteronomy for Everyone (SPCK:2010)
4) Joshua 10 verse 40 states, quite clearly, that the Israelites followed this command to the letter; but the writer of Joshua does not believe that there was a sweeping slaughter of the occupants of Canaan. Other texts repeatedly state that the Israelites did not kill all the Canaanites; they couldn’t even drive all of them out of the land (Josh 13:1-6; 15:63; 17:12; Judges 1:19-34). Once we put the rhetoric of Joshua to one side, it is clear that the author of Joshua (a skilled editor and narrator) did not believe that the Israelites systematically eliminated their enemies in Canaan.
So Joshua struck the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings. He left none remaining, but devoted to destruction all that breathed, just as the Lord God of Israel commanded. – Joshua 10 v40
Yet the people of Manasseh could not take possession of those cities, but the Canaanites persisted in dwelling in that land. Joshua 17 v 12
But the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the people of Judah could not drive out, so the Jebusites dwell with the people of Judah at Jerusalem to this day. Joshua 15 v 63
5) The book of Joshua describes how the Israelites remained based in Gilgal and conducted raids on the surrounding territory. Only three towns are burned (Jericho, Hazor and Ai). These towns were not sprawling densely populated cities. They functioned as centres of government and military control for Canaanite leaders – much as Motte and Bailey Castle’s functioned during the Norman Conquest of England.
6) Once this campaign was over, Joshua allotted territory west of the Jordan to the tribes of Israel. In other words, once Canaan was defeated, the command was fulfilled!
7) However, these texts teach us that the judgment of God is always a terrible thing. It cannot be made aseptic and painless; it can never be accommodated to modern sensibilities. The holiness of God is not to be toyed with. It demands an immediate and personal response –that of unconditional surrender.
8 ) These texts teach us that God is a warrior. God personally fights to bring people to salvation. This is not a bloodless struggle: victory came at the price of a Cross.