As the people of Israel passed through the wilderness and drew near the land promised to their ancestors (Gen. 15:18-21), God commanded them to slaughter the Canaanites who dwelt there. “You must destroy them totally,” God demanded. “Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy” (Deut. 7:2).
En route to the Promised Land, Israel had offered terms of peace to enemy nations; they were to kill only the warriors of towns that resisted them. But total war was unleashed upon Canaan. “Do not leave alive anything that breathes,” God insisted: men, women, children, even animals—all destroyed. This was necessary so that the Canaanites and their gods would not lead Israel astray (Deut. 20:10-18; see also Josh. 6:17, 21).
“Show them no mercy.” Did God really command the genocide of the Canaanites?
It’s not surprising that critics and skeptics focus on stories like this to disparage the Bible and blame Christianity for promoting religious intolerance, colonialism, war, and violence. Some Christians try to keep their personal faith at arm’s length from the annihilation of the Canaanites, setting a New Testament God of love against the violent, holy God of the Old Testament. Even those of us who resist this (basically) anti-Semitic move struggle to understand how a divinely ordered annihilation could be Holy Scripture.
There are ways to soften the story. Archeologists haven’t found evidence that a genocide actually happened in the manner decreed in Deuteronomy and described in Joshua. In fact, Judges 3:1-5 tells us that God left some Canaanites in the land “to test the Israelites to see whether they would obey the Lord’s commands.” Some biblical scholars suggest that the language of destruction and annihilation used in Deuteronomy and elsewhere is not unlike the sort of hyperbole we use today: “The Detroit Red Wings wiped out the Toronto Maple Leafs last night.” Theologians make the point that God, true to form, had been incredibly patient with the wicked Canaanites, waiting four centuries to fulfill the promise of land to Abraham and Sarah because “the sin of the Amorites (Canaanites) has not yet reached its full measure” (Gen. 15:16). Finally, divine equity is at work. If God’s people repeat the immorality of the Canaanites, then the land will vomit out the Israelites just as it had its previous inhabitants (Lev. 18:28).
All these points might very well be true, but to me they feel a little pleading. They don’t remove the offense of God’s command to kill the Canaanites and “break … , smash … , cut down … and burn” their culture (Deut. 7:5). I suspect most of us would prefer that this story wasn’t part of the Bible.
In his challenging book The Old Testament Is Dying, Duke Divinity School professor Brent Strawn argues to this effect: tell me what you would scratch from the Old Testament, and I’ll tell you what defect there is in your Christian faith. If Strawn’s right, what does it say about our faith that many of us would love to remove this story from the Bible?
Perhaps one thing it says about us is that we’re too sentimental about grace.
God simply will not forsake his people or abandon his mission to redeem creation, even if it requires battle against the powers that oppress his children or oppose his blessing. For good reason Fleming Rutledge—one of the finest preachers of our day—speaks of the “militancy of grace” in her sermons and books. It is militant grace that drowns the earth in the age of Noah in order to save it (Gen. 6) and destroys the Canaanites in order to preserve a people to bear God’s name and mission. It is militant grace that disarms Satan at the cross (Col. 2:15) and violently bursts the tomb of death to bring resurrection life. And we ourselves are able to disown violence and seek Christ’s way of peace and forgiveness because we have hope that it is God— not us—who will destroy the forces of injustice and evil at the Day of Judgment.