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Ethical Considerations on Israel’s Clearing of Canaan from its Inhabitants

Some people wonder what to do with Old Testament texts dealing with Israel's clearing of Canaan from its inhabitants.  Putting people to the sword hardly sounds moral.  It sounds like an evil military force like ISIS.  It also sounds like ethnic cleansing and genocide.  On the other hand, others think that this fits a narrative that the land belongs to the Jews.  One can see how people might reach such conclusions, but the Biblical evidence does not support them when considered in entirety.

In order to understand these texts from a Biblical and Christian perspective, one must first understand what the Old Testament understanding of the clearing of Canaan entailed.  Second, the Christian must further understand key differences between the Old Testament and the New Testament.  Following are nine points to consider on this issue.

1. Cultural Context.

Ancient Near Eastern peoples practiced people displacement and annihilation.  For example:
  • The last Sumerian kings built a wall from the Euphrates to the Tigris to keep ‘Tidnum’, the Amorites, away.  The Amorites eventually invaded.
  • In 1595 BC, Mursilli I (a Hittite) captured Babylon.  He removed the temple treasure and scattered the people.

2. The Land of Canaan was promised by God to Israel.

Genesis 12:1-3 Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.  2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." (All quotes are from the English Standard Version.) 

Deuteronomy 1:8 See, I have set the land before you; go in and take possession of the land that I swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give to them and to their descendants after them."

3. Occupying the Land and Living the Righteous Life.

Occupying the land of Canaan has to do with righteousness.  Being removed from the land has to do with punishment for sins.  Thus, not only Canaanite tribes but also Israel is punished with respect to occupying the land.  They are kept in the Wilderness and not allowed to enter Canaan because of their sins.  Once in the land, they are eventually removed and sent into exile for not obeying God.

Numbers 14:43 For the Amalekites and the Canaanites will confront you there, and you shall fall by the sword; because you have turned back from following the LORD, the LORD will not be with you."

4. The timing of cleansing Canaan had to do with the fullness of their sin reaching a tipping point.

God dealt with Canaan as He did with Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18-19): judgement only came when the land was bereft of righteous people.

Genesis 15:14-16 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.  15 As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age.  16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete."

Deuteronomy 9:4-5 "Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, 'It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,' whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you.  5 Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

5. Holy War is God’s War.

The Old Testament does not speak of ‘just war’—a theory that originated with the Stoics and came to be applied in Christian Europe after the empire was ‘Christianised’ (after the 4th century).  Holy War is seen to be holy because the battle really belongs to God.  Israel is God’s instrument of punishment, as with the battle against Jericho.

Joshua 3:9-10, 13-14 Joshua then said to the Israelites, "Draw near and hear the words of the LORD your God."  10 Joshua said, "By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites…. 13 When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, "Are you for us, or for our adversaries?"  14 And he said, "No; but I am the commander of the army of the LORD. Now I have come."

Joshua 7:10-13 The LORD said to Joshua, "Stand up! Why have you fallen upon your face?  11 Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I imposed on them. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have acted deceitfully, and they have put them among their own belongings.  12 Therefore the Israelites are unable to stand before their enemies; they turn their backs to their enemies, because they have become a thing devoted for destruction themselves. I will be with you no more, unless you destroy the devoted things from among you.  13 Proceed to sanctify the people, and say, 'Sanctify yourselves for tomorrow; for thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, "There are devoted things among you, O Israel; you will be unable to stand before your enemies until you take away the devoted things from among you."

6. Ungodly influences are to be removed from God’s people.

The occupants of Canaan are not only punished for their own sins.  They are also to be removed in order not to influence God’s people with their idolatry and sins.

Exodus 23:23-24 When my angel goes in front of you, and brings you to the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, and I blot them out,  24 you shall not bow down to their gods, or worship them, or follow their practices, but you shall utterly demolish them and break their pillars in pieces

Exodus 23:28-33 And I will send the pestilence in front of you, which shall drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites from before you.  29 I will not drive them out from before you in one year, or the land would become desolate and the wild animals would multiply against you.  30 Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land.  31 I will set your borders from the Red Sea to the sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates; for I will hand over to you the inhabitants of the land, and you shall drive them out before you.  32 You shall make no covenant with them and their gods.  33 They shall not live in your land, or they will make you sin against me; for if you worship their gods, it will surely be a snare to you.

Exodus 34:11-17 Observe what I command you today. See, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.  12 Take care not to make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you are going, or it will become a snare among you.  13 You shall tear down their altars, break their pillars, and cut down their sacred poles  14 (for you shall worship no other god, because the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God).  15 You shall not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to their gods, someone among them will invite you, and you will eat of the sacrifice.  16 And you will take wives from among their daughters for your sons, and their daughters who prostitute themselves to their gods will make your sons also prostitute themselves to their gods.  17 You shall not make cast idols.

Leviticus 18:3 You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not follow their statutes.
Numbers 33:50-56  50 In the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, the LORD spoke to Moses, saying:  51 Speak to the Israelites, and say to them: When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan,  52 you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, destroy all their figured stones, destroy all their cast images, and demolish all their high places.  53 You shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess.  54 You shall apportion the land by lot according to your clans; to a large one you shall give a large inheritance, and to a small one you shall give a small inheritance; the inheritance shall belong to the person on whom the lot falls; according to your ancestral tribes you shall inherit.  55 But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides; they shall trouble you in the land where you are settling.  56 And I will do to you as I thought to do to them.

Deuteronomy 7:1-6 When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you-- the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you--  2 and when the LORD your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.  3 Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons,  4 for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.  5 But this is how you must deal with them: break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire.  6 For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.

7. The occupants of Canaan were a ‘failed’ culture, full of sin, not just individuals who were sinful.

Examples of the Sins of the People of Egypt and Canaan:

  • Egyptians:

‘…and the Egyptians take their sisters in marriage (Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism III.205; AD 200).
  • Hittites:

199. ‘If anyone have intercourse with a pig or a dog, he shall die. If a man have intercourse with a horse or a mule, there is no punishment. But he shall not approach the king, and shall not become a priest’ (Code of Nesilim; 1650-1500 BC—Old Hittite).
  • Ammonites, Canaanites:

Ammonites sacrificed their children to Molech, Canaanites to Baal (1 Kings 11.7; 2 Kings 3.10; 13.10; cf. Jeremiah 7.31-32; 19.4-15; 32.5; Leviticus 20.1-5.

8. Terms of peace are to be offered certain towns first.  Israel’s war does not mean total annihilation: only particular nations which have done abhorrent things are put to the sword.

Deuteronomy 20:10-18 When you draw near to a town to fight against it, offer it terms of peace.  11 If it accepts your terms of peace and surrenders to you, then all the people in it shall serve you at forced labor.  12 If it does not submit to you peacefully, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it;  13 and when the LORD your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword.  14 You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town, all its spoil. You may enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the LORD your God has given you.  15 Thus you shall treat all the towns that are very far from you, which are not towns of the nations here.  16 But as for the towns of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive.  17 You shall annihilate them-- the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites-- just as the LORD your God has commanded,  18 so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the LORD your God.

9. The New Testament presents a non-violent ethic for God’s people.

The Church is not a state.  Unlike Israel, it has no land, no borders, no army, no king.  It is a community, and it is made up of all peoples of the earth.

a. Leave vengeance to God.

Romans 12:18-21 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord."  20 To the contrary, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head."  21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

b. Pray for your enemies.

Matthew 5:43-44 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'  44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you….

c. Forgive others as God has forgiven you.

Matthew 6:14-15 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you,  15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

d. There are no ethnic exclusions among God’s people.  Instead, the Church is inclusive of groups that used to fight.

Galatians 3:28  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

e. The Church approaches discipline differently from a nation like Israel.  The Church is a community of faith, not a civil government. 

Leviticus 20:11 If a man lies with his father's wife, he has uncovered his father's nakedness; both of them shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.

1 Corinthians 5:4-5 When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus,  5 you are to deliver this man to Satan [i.e., outside the church) for the destruction of the flesh [i.e., sinful desires], so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.

f. God will ultimately bring judgement to the earth.  Now is the time of God’s grace, the time to evangelise the nations, the day of salvation.

2 Corinthians 6:1-2 Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.  2 For he says, "In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you." Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.

Matthew 28:18-20 And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

1 Thessalonians 5:2-3, 8-10 For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.  3 While people are saying, "There is peace and security," then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape….  8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.  9 For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,  10 who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.