Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on the conquest of Canaan. Previous post. Next Post.
My oldest child was born in 2010. Sometimes I think about how different the world is from the one in which I grew up. None of my children, for example, will ever remember a time when there was no Internet. On the other hand, I remember a day when there was no Internet, when libraries had paper card catalogs, and when you actually had to walk into brick-and-mortar stores to make most purchases.
Right now, my children are barely aware of the Internet, but that will change in a few years as they grow up and start going online for research and other purposes. I am sure they will eventually come across one of the many websites that highlight supposed problems in the Bible. And when they do, I have little doubt that one of the “problems” they will find is the invasion of Canaan and the destruction of the Canaanites recorded in the book of Joshua. In fact, when I did just a brief amount of online research for this article, it did not take me long to find an atheist website that listed the destruction of the Canaanites as one of the top twenty most evil stories in the Bible.
As part of our responsibility to give an answer for the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15–16), we must respond intelligently and graciously to such claims. Enemies of the faith frequently refer to the destruction of the Canaanites as a form of genocide and then reject the God of the Bible as evil. Sadly enough, in recent years, some Christians of a more liberal theological persuasion have effectively conceded this point to those who reject the Bible altogether and have responded in one of three ways. First, they may reject the book of Joshua as inspired, saying that the Israelites got it wrong and that God did not approve of what they did. Second, they may accuse the biblical writers of exaggeration. Or, third, they may say that the revelation of God in Christ is contrary to such violence.
In our response to arguments about the destruction of the Canaanites, we must note, as we did in our first post in this series, that whatever else we may say about the invasion of Canaan, the New Testament certainly does not frown upon what Joshua and the Israelites did. But in addressing objections to what Joshua did, we should also consider the accusation of genocide itself. The claim of genocide is clearly designed to prejudice the discussion, to put believers in God’s Word on the defensive and to force them implicitly to cede the moral high ground to the objectors. After all, who but the vilest people are in favor of genocide?
But when we look just a little deeper at the claim that God commanded genocide, we find that it cannot stand. Simply put, the invasion of Canaan does not meet the definition of genocide.
Merriam-Webster defines genocide as “the deliberate killing of people who belong to a particular racial, political, or cultural group.” Other definitions include the destruction of people on account of religion. In any case, genocide defined in this way is the intentional destruction of a people group because of their race, politics, culture, or religion.
Destruction Based on Race
Over the next few articles, we will look at this definition in relation to the conquest of Canaan in more detail. We will finish this article by considering whether God commanded the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites for racial reasons. And when we consider the stated reasons for the destruction of the Canaanites, we find that the issue of race is irrelevant to the order given to Joshua.