Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on the conquest of Canaan. Previous post. Next post.
Definitions matter. When the right definition is used, clarity of meaning ensues and concepts or actions are not mischaracterized. When the wrong definition is used, truth is obscured and concepts or actions are cast in the wrong light. This is particularly true when words with emotionally charged definitions are thrown around. Describe something with a word that has an emotionally charged definition, and slander is the result if the term and its definition do not actually match what they are supposed to describe.
In this series of articles, we have been considering the use of the word genocide to describe the destruction of the Canaanites commanded in the Old Testament and recorded in the book of Joshua. We have considered the dictionary definition of genocide in parts 2, 3, and 4 of this series, seeing how the biblical narrative does not actually match the definition of genocide. Having dealt with matters of definition, it is now time to look at the invasion of Canaan from a slightly different perspective. Even though the destruction of the Canaanites cannot rightly be described as a genocide, there are some issues that must be dealt with. We all sense that the mass killing of men, women, and children is usually morally wrong, so what do we do with the invasion of Canaan, since it involves a mass killing ordered by the good God Himself?
Grace in the Invasion
There is much that we can say here, but the first thing to note is that the order to exterminate the Canaanites was not absolute. That is, Canaanites could escape death under the right circumstances. We mentioned this briefly in part 2, but it is worth discussing again.
Simply put, any Canaanite who was willing to renounce his pagan idolatry and serve the God of Israel could escape destruction. The best example of this in the book is in the account of Rahab, who hid the Israelite spies and prevented the Canaanite authorities from finding and killing them. Joshua 2 describes the hiding of the spies, but the key thing to highlight is that Rahab did what she did because she had heard of what God had done to the Egyptians and thereby knew that He is the one true God (v. 11). Hebrews 11:31 confirms this, informing us that true faith in God motivated her actions to protect the spies. Rahab came to fear the one true God and, as an inevitable consequence, came to love and help His people. God provided a way out for those Canaanites who did not want to be destroyed, and He was under no obligation to do so. This shows us the kind of God He is—the same God who justly ordered the destruction of His enemies also is willing to show mercy to His enemies when they surrender and bow the knee to His lordship. God would have been perfectly within His rights as the Creator and Judge not to provide a way to safety, and yet He provided one anyway. God is not a bloodthirsty, petty being, and His motives in ordering the destruction of Canaan were not selfish self-promotion or any other negative thing. The salvation of believing Canaanites helps us see that.
Rahab the prostitute and her father’s household and all who belonged to her, Joshua saved alive. And she has lived in Israel to this day, because she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho. (Josh. 6:25)
The Invasion’s Limited Scope
Another aspect of the invasion of Canaan that deserves special note is the fact that the destruction was limited in scope. Consider, for example, Deuteronomy 20:10–18, which lays out rules for Israel’s warfare within the borders of the promised land and outside of Canaan as well. The text makes a point of saying that when Israel found itself in a war against enemies based outside of Canaan, total destruction was not the aim. When not fighting within the boundaries of Canaan, the Israelites were to offer terms of peace to enemy cities and not kill everyone inside when those terms were accepted. Even in cases where the terms of peace were not accepted, not all of the citizens of the cities outside of the promised land were killed in the event of an Israelite victory. However, within the borders of Canaan, things were different. The Israelites were not to offer terms of surrender to the cities there (although they were to preserve the lives of those who embraced Yahweh, as in the case of Rahab), and in the case of an Israelite victory, all people and creatures in the defeated cities were to be destroyed.
This clear difference between how to treat Canaanite cities and cities outside of Canaan show us that the invasion of Canaan was limited in scope. The Lord was not attempting to wipe out all non-Israelites from the earth but was seeking only to purify one small portion of land. Again, God could have ordered the destruction of all non-Canaanite cities, but He did not.
Along the same lines, we should also point out that there was no command given to the Israelites that they were to chase down any Canaanites who fled the promised land when they saw the Israelite army approaching. Canaanites did not even have to convert to Yahweh, the God of Israel, in order to preserve their physical lives; they could have fled Canaan. It was possible to escape destruction by fleeing the invading armies or by turning to Yahweh in faith.
Divine Mercy and the History of God’s People
We should be clear. As the perfect Judge, God was well within His rights not to offer any way for the Canaanites to escape judgment. In fact, in the next part in this series, we will argue that we really should have no problem at all with God’s command to eradicate the Canaanites if we really believe that God is perfectly holy and mankind is fully guilty. Nevertheless, God’s mercy is no less central to His character than His justice. Seeing that God did, in fact, show mercy to some Canaanites does help us with some of the emotional and existential questions that may arise when we see that He ordered Joshua to put the men, women, and children of Canaan to death.