One of the most difficult episodes to understand in the Old Testament is God’s command for Israel to kill the Canaanites. Paul Copan, a philosophy and ethics professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University, has made available an article, due out in the next issue of Philosophia Christi addressing this topic. The President of the Evangelical Philosophical Society (he also blogs at Parchment and Pen), Copan evaluates the passages in the context of archaeology and Ancient Near East literature and argues that the evidence suggests that the Canaanites who were killed were combatants rather than noncombatants (“Scenario 1”) and that, given the profound moral corruption of Canaan, this divinely-directed act was just.” Should this scenario be shown to be false, he also maintains that “even if it turns out that noncombatants were directly targeted (“Scenario 2”), the overarching Old Testament narrative is directed toward the salvation of all nations–including the Canaanites.”
The Canaanite campaign jars our moral sensibilities and jeopardizes our confidence in the Bible as a supernaturally inspired interpretation of history. Christians therefore have an obligation to try to understand this episode and Copan’s article, as a follow-up to his eariler essay on this issue (“Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics”), is very helpful in this regard.
I have tried to summarize the main points but if you’re interested in the topic, I strongly recommend that you read the whole thing.
Firstly, Copan argues that God’s judgment on the Canaanites was not only morally just but that evidence also indicates that the Israelite campaign was directed primarily at military combatants (Scenario 1):
1. The Canaanites were morally corrupt.
There was a profound moral corruption amongst the Canaanites that called out for God’s justice, in keeping with His salvation historical purposes. The divine judgment enacted upon the nation was consistent with God’s oracles against other nation states that had crossed moral thresholds. The Canaanite campaign is also, in a sense, anticipatory of the final judgment where justice will be firmly established on a cosmic scale. (Also see Clay Jones, “We Don’t Hate Sin So We Don’t Understand What Happened to the Canaanites: An Addendum to ‘Divine Genocide’ Arguments,” Philosophia Christi 11 (2009): 53–72.))
2. The Canaanites were morally culpable.
God has made available moral ideals and insights through general revelation to Gentile nations such that they are sufficiently accountable. Prophetic warnings as in Amos 1 -2 demonstrate that God can hold other nations responsible for stifling compassion, suppressing their consciences, and carrying out particularly heinous acts. The language used in the New Testament of the Gentile population also confirms this (“disobedient” (Heb. 11:31)–a term indicating a moral awareness of wrongdoing but a refusal to turn from it and also Paul’s affirmation of those outside the Sinai covenant who possess the capacity (through conscience) to distinguish right from wrong (Rom. 2:14–15))
3. The preservation of Rahab’s family demonstrated the possibility of amnesty.
Rahab’s embrace of Yahweh and discovery of salvation exhibited both the compassionate character of Yahweh and His to relent from judgment, whether Canaanite, Ninevite (Jon. 4:2) or those from any “nation” that “turns from its evil” (Jer. 18:7–8). It is Yahweh’s desire that the wicked turn rather than die (Ezek. 18:31–32; 33:11) but once a nation surpasses a point of no moral and spiritual return, God will intervene (as He did even upon Israel and Judah (2 Chron. 36:16; cp. 2 Kings 18:11–12; 1 Chron. 5:23) ).
4. The Canaanite campaign was not motivated by racial hatred or ethnic superiority.
Yahweh repeatedly commands Israel to show concern for strangers and aliens in their midst (for example, Lev. 19:34; Deut. 10:18–19) and throughout the Old Testament this theme is evident in the way enemies of Israel are shown as eventual objects of His salvation and are consequently incorporated into the people of God (Ps 87). Yahweh’s concern for the nations and His continual reminder that the taking of the land is not due to Israel’s intrinsic superiority (“indeed, the Israelites are “a stubborn people” (Deut. 9:4–6)”) hardly supports a Gentile-hating, arrogant ethnocentrism.
5. The religious dimension of Israel’s campaign cannot be equated with the sanctioning of human sacrifice.
The OT passages that treat Israel’s motivation for the campaign highlight punishment against idolaters (especially those who have lead Israel astray or committed injustice against her), the total destruction of warriors and the consecration to God of everything that was captured. Further, the OT strongly condemns child sacrifice as the epitome of anti-Yahwist and anti-social behavior. Even to take certain (dubious) readings as demonstrating the act of sacrifice is to forget that not all behavioral examples included in Scripture are good ones (cp. 1 Cor. 10:1–12) and in fact the theology of Judges emphasizes the nadir of Israelite morality and religion.
6. The rhetorical devices common to Ancient Near East (ANE) literature must be taken into account when understanding the passages that talk of total obliteration.
The phrase “all that breathes” is a standard ANE expression of military bravado and refers to total victory and the crushing defeat over one’s enemies. The accounts made clear that many inhabitants remained in the land and prescriptions against alliances and intermarriage with them actually assumed this.
7. Following OT scholar Richard Hess, it can be argued that the Canaanites targeted for destruction were the political leaders and their armies rather than noncombatants. The language employed appears to be stereotypical for describing all the inhabitants of a town or region, without forcing the reader to conclude anything further about their ages or even their genders.
8. Both the language and archaeological evidence point to Jericho, Ai, and the other targeted cities in Canaan as military forts, lacking civilian populations. The actual battles in Joshua do not mention noncombatants and excavated physical evidence show that, for example, Jericho was a military settlement and therefore all those killed were warriors.
9. The methods of Israel’s warfare demonstrate restraint and lack the bloodthirsty fervor of similar ANE annals.
Many battles were defensive and in response to calculated assaults and attempts to lead Israel into immorality. God often prohibited Israel from conquering other neighbouring nations.
10. The Canaanite campaign did not set down a pattern or legitimize similar action for later Israel or even professing Christians.
The killing of the Canaanites was deliberately limited in scope and restricted to a specific period of time. Neither Deuteronomy nor Joshua imply the campaign as precedent-setting and successive OT leaders did not take it as such. We see do not see Saul, David or the other leaders of Israel and Judah undertaking similar action against Assyria, Babylon, Persia, or the local equivalents of the Canaanites in the Second Temple period. Christians that have sought to justify their military campaigns with the killing of the Canaanites ignore Jesus clear own kingdom teaching (Matt 26:52; John 18:36).
However, even if the evidence was overturned and it could be shown that women and children were explicit targets of the campaign (Scenairo 2):
1. For the Israelites, the killing of the Canaanites would have been a grim task but in the ANE, warfare was a way of life and a means of survival.
Combatant and noncombatant would not have been easily distinguished and in combination with the hardness of human hearts (Matt. 19:8) and human moral bluntedness in the ANE, would have likely rendered such actions considerably less psychologically damaging for the Israelite soldier.
2. The Canaanite campaign must be set within the context of God’s overarching goal to bring blessing and salvation to all the nations, including the Canaanites, through Abraham (Gen. 12:3; 22:17–18; cp. 28:13–14). The killing of the Canaanites is not the norm but a troubling exception, apart of a background of Yahweh’s enemy-loving character and worldwide salvific purposes. While simultaneously punishing a morally wicked people and seeking to establish Israel in the land, God was certainly willing to preserve any who acknowledged his evident lordship over the nations, which was very well known to the Canaanites (Josh. 2:8–11; 9:9–11, 24; cf. Exod. 15:14–17; Deut. 2:25).
3. We should expect God’s purposes to be often unclear and even baffling, but not let this eclipse the overwhelming revelation of God’s trustworthy character.
We cannot measure God by our own defective standards, afterall, humanity is incapable of refereeing God’s actions. Apart from God, we have no transcultural standpoint to assess the moral fitness of a culture, least of all, judge God Himself and His purposes in judgment. We must remember both His “kindness and severity” (Rom. 11:22) and realize God’s unique cosmic authority will seek to correct our profoundly selfish human ways, even in civil contexts. Given the inadequacy of our “cognitive position”, and the recognition that even in human relationships there must be room for trust, the full picture of God’s purposes may not always be available to us.