Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on the conquest of Canaan. Previous post.
Genocide. The very word makes us cringe and conjures up unpleasant images of death and reminds us of some of the most wicked acts in history. It is a loaded term, to be sure, and many Christians are caught off guard when they hear it used to describe the invasion of Canaan that God ordered the Israelites to accomplish. Hearing such a charge puts us on the defensive, and it may even cause us to wonder whether our critics might be right.
In our series on the invasion of Canaan, we have been considering whether it is accurate to describe the conquest as an act of genocide. Thus far, we have considered whether the invasion matches Merriam-Webster’s definition of genocide as “the deliberate killing of people who belong to a particular racial, political, or cultural group,” and we have seen that the actual biblical narrative and history does not support the charge that the invasion of Canaan was a genocide. Before we move on to considering other aspects of the invasion more specifically, this article will look at whether the invasion of Canaan was a religious genocide.
Destruction Based on Religion
Although the Merriam-Webster definition cited above does not identify genocide as the deliberate killing of people who belong to a particular religious group, some other definitions of genocide do. Perhaps it is included implicitly under Merriam-Webster’s category of “cultural group,” but in any case, of all the possible definitions of genocide, the intentional destruction of people who belong to a particular religious group seems on the surface to be a better descriptor of the invasion of Canaan than the destruction of people based on other categories.
I say that it seems that way on the surface because once you dig deeper, there are serious problems with viewing the invasion of Canaan as an act of genocide for religious reasons. For instance:
1. One of the stated reasons for the destruction of the Canaanites is at best tangentially religious. Leviticus 18:24–25 states that God will drive the Canaanites out of their land because of their incestuous behavior, homosexual activity, and bestiality. Though it was not the only reason God wanted to purge the promised land, engaging in forbidden sexual acts was one of the chief sins that brought divine judgment on the Canaanites in the form of the Israelite invasion. Now, some of these forbidden acts could have had religious dimensions if, for example, a family member was a cult prostitute. But that’s not the reason why the acts were forbidden. God simply declared them to be wrong in Leviticus 18 in such a way as to indicate that they were wrong even when not a part of a pagan religious context. The invasion was not ordered to destroy a religion but to purge immorality from the Promised Land.
2. There is no blanket destruction ordered for all religious groups that engage in forbidden religious practices. Deuteronomy 18:9–14 adds to the list of reasons why God commanded the Israelites to invade Canaan such things as child sacrifice (also mentioned in Lev. 18), necromancy, sorcery, and fortune telling. Undoubtedly, these are religious practices. What is interesting, however, is that the Israelites were not commanded to destroy everyone they ever meet who engaged in these things. Old Testament Israel had dealings with many nations outside the land of Canaan throughout its long history, and many of these nations also engaged in fortune telling and other religious practices found among the Canaanites. Yet, God did not order the Israelites to destroy those other nations. Although God hates false religion, the destruction of the Canaanites was not motivated by some kind of simplistic religious pride that says, “My religion is better than your religion; therefore, I must wipe you out.” There was something more going on.
3. The destruction of certain religious (and cultural) practices is not inherently wrong. As we have noted, the term genocide carries with it a sense of moral judgment. When most people make the accusation of genocide, they are not making a simple statement of objective fact but are making the moral evaluation that the act of destruction is inherently wrong. But some religious and cultural practices should be destroyed. From a biblical standpoint, it is inherently wrong to kill an innocent person, which makes the act of child sacrifice morally abhorrent. It is religiously abominable as well, and not merely because it is offered up in the name of a false god. It is inherently wrong because all people are made in God’s image, and it is sin to kill a divine image bearer without just cause (Gen. 9:5–6).
Our morally relativistic world tends to say that all religious and cultural practices should be preserved. That is manifestly not the case. Child sacrifice, widow burning, and a host of other religious and cultural traditions are evil and should not be preserved.
4. From a divine perspective, the invasion of Canaan can be seen as an act of “self-defense.” I want to be careful here. God cannot be killed, so He cannot engage in self-defense as we can. And yet, the Scriptures tell us that idolatry is the attempt of fallen people to suppress the knowledge of the one, true Lord (Rom. 1:18–32). It is an attack on God Himself. When God orders the destruction of the Canaanites, He is “defending” Himself from those who would seek to destroy or displace Him.
A More Fundamental Issue
While there are good reasons to deny or at least to qualify strongly the idea that the invasion of Canaan was a genocide for religious reasons, there is a more fundamental issue at play related to this specific aspect of discussion. When we discuss religion, we are dealing with matters of ultimate truth. And once we get down to it, the fact is that if the Bible is true, there is only one Creator God who owns everything, and He owns everything because He has made everything. To reject Him and pursue another religion is not merely an affront to mere fallible human opinions about what the supernatural world must be like. It is to reject reality itself. It is to reject the fundamental right of God to order our lives and tell us how to worship. Those who turn from their Creator lose their right to life, and as the Creator He has the absolute authority to determine when and how to take life.
Ultimately, God is going to destroy not only the Canaanites but all those who reject Him and His authority. He is not going to do so out of pettiness, for the choice to participate in false religion is not like the choice to wear a blue shirt instead of a red shirt or to eat vanilla ice cream instead of chocolate ice cream. To participate in false religion is first a turn away from the Judge and Creator of all before it is a turn to false gods. God has the right at any moment to destroy those who turn away from Him to falsehood, and it is a sign of His grace and patience that He does not immediately destroy everyone who does this and that He even chooses to save some of them.