The Destruction of the Canaanites
The account in Joshua presents the sensitive reader with a deep problem, namely, the apparently wholesale slaughter of the indigenous Canaanite population in order to allow the people of Israel to occupy their land. How did Israel have any right to seize that land? And how can it be God’s will for them to spare none of those who resisted them in defense of their own land? Could this be a level of barbarism that God tolerated in the OT but now forbids in the NT?
Certainly people hostile to the Bible decry ancient Israel for its “ethnic cleansing,” and many sensitive Christians find this deeply troubling as well. To handle the topic thoroughly would take a longer essay, but the discussion here can guide thoughts for fuller reflection.
One must begin by acknowledging that the questions are legitimate. Christians rightly condemn this kind of behavior in other circumstances, and there is no warrant today for nations to destroy other nations in order to take their land. But there are special features of the command to Israel that both make it unique (and therefore not open to be imitated) and allow it to be seen in a moral light. This command is one reason why Exodus records the call of Moses in such detail (Ex. 3:1–4:17; cf. Num. 12:1–15): Moses is God’s unique choice to be the lawgiver for his people, and the commands given through Moses come from God’s own mind (cf. Deut. 18:15–20). Believers accept God’s appointment of Moses to speak his will. Without this command from God as delivered through Moses, Israel would have had no right to the land.
A second point to clarify is that the Pentateuch sets out laws of warfare, distinguishing between battles fought against cities outside the Promised Land (Deut. 20:10–15) and those fought against cities inside the land (Deut. 20:16–18). It is only the latter case that requires Israel to spare no one (“you shall devote them to complete destruction”); see the ESV Study Bible notes on Deuteronomy 20:1–20 and 20:16–18. The law appears to be unconditional and implacable. With these clarifications, one can now outline why this command is not an unsolvable “problem.”
(1) A fundamental OT conviction is that Yahweh, the God of Israel, is the Creator of all there is, and therefore the owner of all lands. He has the right to distribute territories according to his good and holy will (cf. Ex. 19:5; Ps. 24:1). As the universal Creator, he is also the universal Judge, to whom all people everywhere are accountable: cf. Genesis 6–8 (the flood story affects all kinds of people); Genesis 11:1–9 (the Tower of Babel); Exodus 12:12 (judgment on the gods of Egypt); the prophetic oracles about the nations (see chart on ESV Study Bible p. 1264). The NT shares this basic conviction: cf. Acts 14:15–16; 17:24–31. This means that God has the ultimate rights over the land of Canaan, and that he has the right to bring the Canaanites to judgment for their moral condition and deeds.
(2) Since all people are sinners, all are rightly subject to God’s judgment. The Pentateuch gives a moral rationale for the removal of the Canaanites, seeing it as divine judgment for their iniquities (see ESV Study Bible note on Gen. 15:13–16; cf. Lev. 18:24–30; Deut. 9:5). This action against these peoples, then, is an expression of God’s judgment on them through the agency of Israel. This judgment therefore announces the moral nature of God to the whole world for their instruction (that announcement in all its clarity is itself part of the blessing that Israel is to bring to the whole world). In ways that are not entirely clear, the faithful will participate with God in carrying out the final judgment (1 Cor. 6:2; cf. Ps. 149:6–7), and Israel’s bringing of judgment on the Canaanites foreshadows that great responsibility as well (see ESV Study Bible note on Josh. 6:17).
God’s judgment allows no double standard: he did not base his choice of Israel on any merit of theirs (Deut. 7:6–9), and he calls them to embrace his love faithfully. Unfaithfulness will lead to judgment upon Israel itself, whether at the level of the individual (Ex. 22:20) or the whole people (Josh. 7:11–12; Mal. 4:6; cf. Lev. 18:28). This cannot be called “ethnic cleansing,” since the treatment is just, regardless of ethnicity.
(3) Further, the Sinai covenant sets Israel up to be a “theocracy,” a unique combination of what is now called “church” and “state.” Membership in the people is both political and religious, and thus “citizens” are under obligation to be faithful in observing the covenant. Those who carry out egregious violations must be removed (e.g., Deut. 13:5; 17:7; etc.), and if Israel were to allow unrepentant Canaanites to remain in the land, they would drag the whole people down into idolatry, injustice, and evil (e.g., Deut. 7:4; 12:29–31), which, sadly, is just what happened. Christians are not to carry out this kind of warfare, because the people of God are no longer identified with a particular nation-state.
(4) Finally, even though the laws about destroying the Canaanites are stated in an uncompromising and unconditional way (in keeping with the rhetoric of ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts, which allows for this kind of unqualified statement), the way Israel applied those laws apparently made room for some of the Canaanites to surrender and survive, particularly if they professed faith in the one true God (see ESV Study Bible note on Josh. 2:9 for Rahab and her whole family; see ESV Study Bible note on Josh. 9:1–27 for the Gibeonites; cf. Josh. 11:19). This means that the appearance of implacability in these laws is just that, an appearance, and there is an implied allowance for exceptions. This is another point showing that, strictly speaking, the command given to Israel is nothing like “ethnic cleansing,” since ethnicity itself is not the reason for the action.
These factors—God’s right to allocate land and judge the world with perfect justice; the need to protect the purity of the Israelite theocracy; and the provisions for even Canaanites to be saved—all illustrate the justice that lies behind these provisions. At the same time, it is also clear that the practices known as genocide and ethnic cleansing are indeed evil, and the Israelites were not commanded to commit them. These factors were a unique part of Israel’s mission; no people today have any right to use them as a warrant to support injustice.