Putting the Conquest of Canaan in Context


by Doug Ward

After forty years in the wilderness, the children of Israel looked forward to a permanent home in the land of Canaan. But establishing that home would not be easy. In the final months before their entry into the Promised Land, Moses instructed them in how to deal with the many challenges they would face there. His words of encouragement, exhortation, correction, and admonition are recorded in the book of Deuteronomy.


Confronting the current inhabitants of Canaan would be one of their first tasks. Moses emphasized that there would be no room in the Promised Land for both Israel and the idolatry of the Canaanites. "And you shall consume all the peoples that the Lord your God will give over to you. Your eye shall not pity them, neither shall you serve their gods, for that would be a snare to you," he stated in Deut 7:16.


These words of Moses, and others like them in the Bible, sound harsh to our ears today. Modern critics sometimes condemn Israel's conquest of the Promised Land as the "Canaanite genocide." And yet the Bible, in both Old Testament and New, commends Joshua and the Israelites who carried out the conquest for their obedience and faith (Josh 10:40; Heb 11:30). To understand why, it is important to view these verses not in isolation, but as part of their biblical context as well as the larger context of God's plan of salvation.


The Big Picture

The Israelites, as descendants of Abraham, were called to be a blessing to all peoples (Gen 12:3). In the Promised Land they were to be a model nation, drawing others to the true God and to the way of abundant living outlined in his Torah (Deut 4:1-8; Isa 2:1-4). Through Israel salvation was to reach "to the end of the earth" (Isa 49:6). The future of the world thus depended on the success of Israel's mission.


That crucial mission would be seriously compromised, Moses warned, if Israel were to adopt the depraved, idolatrous practices of the peoples of Canaan, which included child sacrifice, ritual prostitution, incest, and bestiality (Deut 12:29-31; Lev 18). For that reason these peoples were not to be allowed to remain in the land. Instead, the Israelites were to remove all traces of Canaanite sins (Deut 7:5).


Scripture indicates that the evils of the Canaanites had persisted for some time. In fact God, in his mercy, had delayed Israel's settlement in the Promised Land for several centuries in order to give the inhabitants a full opportunity to change their ways (Gen 15:16). Then for forty years leading up to Joshua's arrival in Canaan, God's mighty works for Israel proclaimed his greatness and encouraged members of surrounding nations to repent. The miracles of the Exodus captured the attention of the Canaanites, prompting them to ponder how they would respond when the Israelites arrived (Josh 2:8-11).


Some, like the Jericho innkeeper Rahab, chose to embrace Yahweh and join Israel (Josh 2:8-13; 6:22-25). At Israel's covenant renewal ceremony after the fall of Jericho and Ai, "sojourners" as well as native Israelites were gathered at Ebal and Gerizim (Josh 8:30-35), and these sojourners may have included other Canaanites like Rahab and her family.1


Other terrified Canaanites responded by fleeing from the Israelite invasion. Indeed, this is the reaction most often anticipated in the Torah. In a few places in Deuteronomy, the language of destruction is used to describe the conquest of Canaan (Deut 7:2,16; 20:16-18). Much more often, however, the Bible speaks of the Canaanites fleeing or being driven away---dispossessed, in other words, rather than destroyed (Exod 23:27-31

; 33:2; Num 33:51-56; Deut 4:37-38; 6:18-19; 9:1,4-5; 11:23; 18:2, 14; 19:1).2


So when Joshua and his army confronted a town in the military campaigns described in Joshua 6-11, the residents of the town had three options. One option was to join Israel and become a follower of the true God. (At Jericho, for example, those who chose this option would have escaped with Rahab.) A second option was to flee and leave the area. A third was to stay and fight the Israelites. These battles have been described as "disabling raids". The Israelite army won a victory, then returned to its base camp at Gilgal rather than try to occupy the town at that point. Occupation came later, when the land was distributed among the tribes. The casualties in these battles, then, would have come from those who chose to stay and fight and would have included few noncombatants.3


Three settlements in Canaan were burned down in Joshua's campaigns: Jericho, Ai, and Hazor. Archaeological evidence indicates that Jericho was a fort that housed a small garrison of soldiers and was singled out for attack based on its strategic location at the junction of key roadways. Ai may also have been a small fort whose purpose was to defend the larger town of Bethel nearby. In these battles, too, soldiers would have comprised the bulk of the casualties. (Here it should be noted that the phrase "both men and women, young and old" in Josh 6:21 is a way of saying that all those in the fort-largely males of fighting age-were destroyed, rather than a description of the actual demographics of Jericho.)4 Canaanites who heard about these events would have had additional incentive to either join Israel or flee.


In summary, a careful reading of Deuteronomy and Joshua does not support the idea of a "Canaanite genocide." Instead, the conquest was a one-time event, meant to establish Israel's mission in Canaan, the ultimate goal of which was the salvation of all peoples. Canaanites were given ample opportunity to either join that mission or find a new home, with casualties consisting mainly of those who persisted in active opposition to God. The Bible consistently portrays a God who "is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (2 Peter 3:9).


1Rahab's example shows that the conquest was not genocide. Israel's mandate was to eliminate Canaanite idolatry, not necessarily the Canaanites themselves.


2Scholars Paul Copan and Matthew Flanagan estimate that in Deuteronomy, the language of dispossession occurs three times more often than the language of destruction. See Chapter 6 of their book Did God Really Command Genocide?, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 2014.


3See Copan and Flanagan, Chapter 7.


4On these points see "The Jericho and Ai of the Book of Joshua" by Richard S. Hess, pp. 33-46 in Critical Issues in Early Israelite History, Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, Indiana, 2008.

Issue 31


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On 25 Jul 2016, 23:05.