As much as I would like for it not to be so, the way we label things really does have an effect on the way people think. This is one of the reasons why propaganda is so effective. Call a particular group something or describe their beliefs or actions in a particular way long enough, and people will start to believe it. For example, it is much easier to get a group of people to turn against others if you keep accusing them of being “enemies of humanity,” “on the wrong side of history,” or something of that nature.
When God’s people and their Scriptures are attacked, it is often by having a label applied to them and then having that label repeated over and over again. Want to get people to reject the Bible? Accuse it of something that elicits an immediate emotional response, repeat the accusation long enough, and you can encourage people to reject large portions of the Bible or at least be embarrassed about certain portions of Scripture.
This discussion bears on the use of the word genocide to describe the invasion of Canaan as recorded in the book of Judges. Regardless of whether every individual who claims that the invasion of Canaan was an act of genocide is conscious of what he is doing, the use of the word genocide to describe what Joshua and the Israelites did is a play on emotion, not a critical evaluation of the evidence. But since the accusation is made, we need to do our best to understand how to answer it. And once we consider the actual definition of genocide, we see how absurd the accusation really is.
Destruction Based on Politics
In our last installment of this series, we looked at a standard definition of genocide from Merriam-Webster: “the deliberate killing of people who belong to a particular racial, political, or cultural group.” Only if the reasons for the invasion of Canaan match this definition can we seriously entertain any accusations of its being a campaign of genocide. Having seen in the previous article that the destruction of the Canaanites was not racially motivated, we are now ready to consider whether the invasion of Canaan had political or cultural motivations.
Just a very brief consideration of Israelite politics in relation to the culture of Canaan will show how absurd it would be to view the invasion of Canaan as a genocide for political reasons. Politically, the form of government eventually adopted in Israel had much in common with the governments of other ancient Near Eastern peoples in Canaan. For instance, other ancient Near Eastern peoples believed their monarchies were instituted by their gods and that succession to the throne was according to blood relations—dynastic succession. Many other cultures in the region also had systems wherein the king was appointed through a process of public acclaim. When we look at how David, for example, was enthroned as king of Israel, we see all of these elements: God selected him, his successors in Jerusalem had to be from his bloodline, and at least David himself was recognized by public acclaim (1 Sam. 16:1–13; 2 Sam. 5:1–5; 7:1–17). Of course, there were notable differences between the Israelite monarchy and the monarchies of the other nations, not the least of which was that David was appointed by the one true God whereas the other nations had kings who were “chosen” by false gods. Nevertheless, it is clear that many of the core elements of other ancient Near Eastern political systems were adapted for use in Israel. If the destruction of the Canaanites was a political genocide, this use of other political systems makes no sense. If the reason for destroying the Canaanites was their political systems, why adopt key parts of those systems after the fact? The answer is that Israel adopted much of these other systems because the destruction of the Canaanites was not politically motivated. It wasn’t their politics that made them worthy of death, and the Israelites did not destroy them because they had bad political policies or because they were political enemies. At least some aspects of their politics were just fine.