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Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 6: “Thrusting Out, Driving Out, and Dispossessing the Canaanites – Not Annihilating Them”

 

Summary by Mark Foreman 

Did God Really Command Genocide? 

A legend is told of a wealthy Texas rancher who owned a sprawling expanse of land in western Texas.  It was hundreds of acres is size and stretched out far beyond the horizon.  On this land he raised cattle that would annually be driven north to Abilene where it would be sold and shipped off to market.  This rancher had a son whom he loved much and, when the son came of age, he managed the ranch for his father knowing one day it would be handed down to him.

One year, taking the ranch hands along, the son led the drive to Abilene.  However, along the way they were ambushed by cattle rustlers who killed everyone and stole the herd.  However, the son did not die, but was severely wounded.  In his attempt to return to his father he incurred several set-backs and at one point was kidnapped and sent off to work on the railroads in China. His grieving father, believing him to be dead, died never seeing his son again.

Over time the ranch was abandoned and fell into disrepair.  Soon scavengers, freeloaders, and squatters began to move on the ranch.  They built homes and developed small communities scattered through the once sprawling land.  After several decades the son was able to escape his fate and began to return to his father’s ranch.  Along the way he gathered together a band of men to whom he promised work if they would follow him to his home.

Upon returning home he discovered the squatters and sent men around to announce that they were on land that legally belonged to him and needed to leave as he was returning to reclaim his father’s ranch.  They could leave peaceably, but, if they did not, they would be forced off the land.  Many, fearing the son and his band, left and moved on to other lands.  However, some decided to stay and fight it out.  The son was able to move back into his father’s ranch house and, over time, was able to clear off most of the squatters and encroachers on his ranch.  The son always attempted a peaceful resolution by allowing the encroachers to just pack up and leave.  However, at times many of these confrontations turned violent and men were killed.

The legend related above is analogous to the Hebrews’ return to Palestine during the Canaanite occupation.  God had promised the land to Abraham and his descendants.  His descendants, Jacob and his sons, sojourned down to Egypt where they were kept in slavery for 400 years.  During that time, different tribes moved on to the Promised Land.  When the Hebrews returned under the leadership of Joshua, they were given the task, commanded by God through Moses, to drive out the encroachers and squatters and retake the land promised to them.

In this chapter F&C wish to clarify and emphasize an important and often neglected aspect of that task:  it was not God’s intention nor command “to exterminate every single Canaanite man, woman and child in the Promised Land.  The dominant language used in Scripture is not of extermination but of ‘driving out’ and ‘thrusting out’ the Canaanites.” (76) They quote and exegete several passages from the books of Moses to argue this point, such as Ex 23:27-31:

I will send my terror ahead of you and throw into confusion every nation you encounter. I will make all your enemies turn their backs and run. I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites, and Hittites out of your way. But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land.  I will establish your borders from the Red Sea[a] to the Mediterranean Sea, and from the desert to the Euphrates River.  I will give into your hands the people who live in the land, and you will drive them out before you.

F&C note how the scriptures make clear that this is a gradual process.  The Canaanites will be driven out over a period of time, gradually as the Hebrew nation retakes the land.  In fact this is what we see when we read the stories of the conquest and in Judges.  Many Canaanites did not leave at first and so they had to be driven out over time.  Many other passages repeat this basic idea of driving the Canaanites from the land (Lev 18: 24-28; Num. 33: 51-56; Dt 4:37-38, 6:18-19, 7:1-5, 17-23).  F&C make a point of showing how this last passage is misunderstood because v. 2 is often divorced from the context.  It reads, “When the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.”  By itself it may seem to teach annihilation of the Canaanites, but when placed in the fuller context the meaning becomes clear:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.  This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. . . . You may say to yourselves, “These nations are stronger than we are. How can we drive them out?” But do not be afraid of them; remember well what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt.  You saw with your own eyes the great trials, the signs and wonders, the mighty hand and outstretched arm, with which the Lord your God brought you out. The Lord your God will do the same to all the peoples you now fear.  Moreover, the Lord your God will send the hornet among them until even the survivors who hide from you have perished. Do not be terrified by them, for the Lord your God, who is among you, is a great and awesome God. The Lord your God will drive out those nations before you, little by little. You will not be allowed to eliminate them all at once, or the wild animals will multiply around you. But the Lord your God will deliver them over to you, throwing them into great confusion until they are destroyed.

The context makes it clear that the original intent of God is for the Hebrews to drive the Canaanites out of the land.  Only those who refused to leave are left to be “destroyed” and even then the emphasis is on destroying what has been left: their idols and altars.  One might wonder why it is important to God for the Canaanites to be gone.  One reason can be seen above:  “Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods.”  God foresaw what would, and did happen.  The Canaanites eventually led many Hebrews astray.  But another reason is given in v. 8: “it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors.” God promised this land to Abraham and his descendants and he is keeping his oath.

F&C go on to show that when you look at all the passages concerning the Hebrew treatment of the Canaanites, the language of “dispossession” and “driving out” outnumbers that of “destruction” by 3 to 1.  Quoting from a study by Glenn Miller they state, “This would indicate the dominant ‘intended effect’ was for the peoples in the [Promised] Land to migrate somewhere else.  So consider Deut. 12.29[-30]: “The LORD your God will cut off before you the nations you are about to invade and dispossess.  But when you have driven them out and settled in their land, and after they have been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, ‘How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.’” (81, see footnote.)

However, this does raise the question of the conquest narratives in the book of Joshua where we are told that Joshua “utterly destroyed everything in the city, both man and woman, young and old.”  This is the subject of the next chapter.

Find the other chapter summaries here.

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