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.1 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.

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.
Destruction Based on Culture

When we consider whether the invasion of Canaan had cultural motivations, let us first note that if the destruction was not politically motivated, it is awfully hard to credibly level the charge of genocide based on cultural differences between the Israelites and other ancient Near Eastern peoples. After all, politics are as much a reflection of a nation’s culture as they are of anything else. Cultural systems influence and even determine political systems everywhere a political system is in force. Cultures with strong authoritarian tendencies, for example, are much more likely to be home to a dictatorship than cultures who are less authoritarian.

Another piece of evidence that the destruction of the Canaanites was not culturally motivated can be found in the development of the Hebrew language. First, biblical Hebrew has much in common with other ancient Near Eastern languages in terms of its syntax, grammar, and even in its vocabulary. Language is a key aspect of culture, so the Israelites’ adaptation of the ancient languages of the peoples whom they conquered indicates that God did not see all aspects of non-Israelite culture as evil.

Finally, archaeology has demonstrated architectural similarities between ancient Canaanite houses of worship and the Israelite tabernacle and temple. The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, for instance, notes that many of the elements in the Israelite tabernacle and temple, such as the altar of incense, have analogues in ancient Near Eastern pagan temples. The division of the worship space into separate areas, each with its own purpose, in the Israelite temple and tabernacle is also evident in many Near Eastern places of worship. Now of course, Israel’s tabernacle and temple were for the worship of the one true God, unlike the pagan sanctuaries. But the similarities between pagan houses of worship and the tabernacle and temple indicate that certain aspects of those pagan houses of worship were not inherently sinful and could be adapted for use in the worship of the only living God. If the destruction of the Canaanites was culturally motivated, one would expect that God would not call for a temple and tabernacle that had many design features in common with the pagan Canaanite sanctuaries. The fact that these similarities exist is further evidence that not every aspect of Canaanite culture was considered bad and thus that Canaanite culture was not evil in every respect.

Not a Political or Cultural Genocide

This evidence and more indicates that to call the invasion of Canaan and destruction of the Canaanites acts of genocide for political or cultural resources is irresponsible. Some aspects of Canaanite culture were evil and were worthy of destruction, and we will discuss that idea more in part four. But the Israelites were not out to eliminate every single aspect of Canaanite politics and culture, so the invasion of Canaan does not meet the definition of a political or cultural genocide.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on the conquest of Canaan. Previous post.

  1. Bruce K. Waltke, An Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2007), 680–81. ↩︎

The Smallest Stage

God’s Sovereignty in Dark Places