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  • Writer's pictureKatie Rose

Was it OK to kill all the Canaanites? (Part 2 of 4)

Last week we talked about how God commanded Israel to wipe out the Canaanites. This reality rubs many of us the wrong way. We can't avoid this troublesome truth by lazily appealing to mystery, dismissing the Old Testament God, dismissing the Old Testament text, or claiming it was merely an allegory. We can't avoid the text at all. We have to deal with it and understand it.

This week, I want to focus on 5 key considerations that not everyone has (or keeps) in mind when contemplating (or complaining about) these Scripture stories.

First, we need to know that this annihilation command was exceptional. This 'total annihiliation' language applied specifically to those living in the Promised Land upon Israel's arrival. In other words, there was something unique about this particular situation.

Second, it's worth noting that the Canaanites were an extremely sinful group (or group of groups) of people. They practiced, among other heinous crimes, the sin of child sacrifice. What's more, they were given 400 years (by God) to repent of such sins, but they would not.

Third, it is not often enough pointed out that some of the main language used in these texts is that of driving-out the Canaanites. The conquest of Canaan did not happen overnight. There was plenty of time for Canaanites to leave. Surely many or most of them did. They were allowed (encouraged) to flee or even convert (for example, Rahab). It was only the most stubborn Canaanites who would have remained in rebellion.

Fourth, the targets of the conquest were military strongholds and idolatrous religious spaces. The account simply isn't about the destruction of towns and villages filled with peasants. The people who remained in Canaan during the conquest were soldiers with superior weaponry to the incoming Israelites. Archaeological findings confirm these insights.

Fifthly, and very importantly, we need to realize the Hebrew language and the military genre in particular heavily utilize hyperbole. Hyperbole is exaggeration to make a bold point. It is not necessarily dishonest, for it was (and is) a recognizable literary (and verbal) construct. In other words, when the Scripture talks about Israel destroying everything that breathes including women and children, that is hyperbole. Women and children would have already been gone. It is simply expressing that the conquest was to be absolute.

When all of the above is taken into account, we are left with God commanding the Israelites to take out a group of stubborn and sinful soldiers at military strongholds.

Even still, some might still take issue. In part 3, we'll conclude this series of Q&A's with some suggestions on how best to understand these texts theologically (how to reconcile them to Christ's enemy love).

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