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Genocide for Idolatrous Canaanites

January 2, 2012

Okay, so you know my view of Yahweh’s command in the book of Joshua to massacre the Canaanites. I think it does not come down to a question of a god’s right to issue such an order, but rather the wisdom of that order, including its correlation with the god’s other goals, and the possibility the humans could create any effectual protest for those commands or actions against their society. (That assumes that they are at least somewhat united in social interests.) B y a correlation of the order with the god’s other goals, I am referring to the Bible’s claim that the god Yahweh created humanity and wants to see humans happy. This goal seems to be completely opposed to any order of genocide.

The clearest text of the specific orders the Israelites were to effect is given in Deuteronomy 20:16-18. Here’s the translation of the NASB, courtesy of

Only in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the LORD your God has commanded you, so that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the LORD your God.

The character Rahab seems to know of or suspect these rders from her statement in Joshua 2:13: “give me a pledge of truth, andspare my father and my mother and my brothers and my sisters, with all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.” This is preceded by an acknowledgement (vs. 10) that the Amorites of Sihon’s and Og’s kingdoms were “utterly destroyed.” And so it came to pass in Jericho, according to Joshua 6:21. The Israelites also did the same to all the rest of the Canaanites that were targeted in the initial conquest under Joshua. (Why Joshua, the servant of Yahweh, didn’t destroy the rest of them is not explained, except for Exodus 23:29. And yet, even if there was a practical reason for this restraint, why doesn’t it defeat the purpose of not risking their living beside Israel and supposedly corrupting them? Joshua’s plan for eventually disposing of the remaining Canaanites is also not given.) It only makes sense to me that a powerful god could have organized means to convince the Canaanites to change their ways, perhaps by more actual miracles and, if necessary, proof that the other gods were not worthy of any worship.

Another element of the wisdom of this order is the practical reason for the slaughter of the children as well as the adults. Why would this slaughter be necessary? If the slaughter was intended to judge idolaters, the children could hardly be held responsible. If repercussions are feared from these children when they are grown, why not just make sure they are also aware of the importance to the Israelites’ god and society of not worshipping other gods?

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