Genocide in Joshua (Part 2)

We generally know that the Jews were innocent in the events leading up to the holocaust, but the Canaanites were far from innocent. When we examine the culture of these peoples it is important to understand that God was justified in his judgment. After all, God had waited 430 years until the sins of the people in Canaan had reached its limit. What were these sins that warranted the judgment of God? Much of what would be known to the original audience has been lost to popular audiences today.

Paul Copan describes the brutal nature of their attitude toward human beings through the lens of their depiction of the goddess Anath.[1] He describes how she would decorate her body with the body parts of her victims and take joy and sensuous delight at the gruesome nature of their deaths. She is described as being full of laughter with a heart full of joy and washing her hands in human gore before going on to other diversions. If this is the nature of the god that the Canaanites had created, then it is obvious that they paid no mind to the intrinsic dignity of mankind.

Copan also describes the immoral nature of their religious practices.[2] He describes how the Canaanites would engage in all manner of illicit sexual activities such as incest, homosexuality, bestiality, and adultery. They believed that these activities should be performed on the religious high places in order to inspire Baal to engage with his consort and bring fertility to the land. Not only was the immorality of the Canaanites beyond the pale, but it was justified as a religious practice such that it was considered “good”. This speaks to the depraved nature of the Canaanite culture.

Most disturbing was the nature of the worship of Molech that was prevalent in the land.[3] We have discovered the remains of trophets (open air sanctuaries for sacrifice) in other areas, most notably at Carthage.[4] The term trophet means “roaster” or “place of burning”, says Smith Jr. At these sanctuaries the partially cremated remains of children have been found and inscriptions indicating that they had been living sacrifices. These findings lead us to the conclusion that the Canaanites did sacrifice their children alive by fire in the name of God. With this understanding it is not a question whether God was justified in judging the Canaanites, but a wonder at God’s patience in waiting so long to do so. If genocide is the massacre of an innocent people group, then the campaign against the Canaanites cannot be considered a genocide.

Our understanding of genocide as the extermination of a people group also does not apply to the events in Canaan. Typically we get the concept that the Israelites exterminated the whole people group (including all members) due to the language that states as much in Joshua (see Joshua 10 and 11). As Copan points out, this was more likely exaggeration rhetoric common in the day than it was an accurate description of the extent of the carnage.[5] Consider, for example, that Joshua later makes reference to the Canaanites who were utterly destroyed later in his own book (see Joshua 14, 15, and 27). We see similar treatment of the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15 who reappear in 1 Samuel 27, 1 Samuel 30, and 1 Chronicles 4. Copan goes on to point out that this sort of exaggeration rhetoric is certainly not unique to the Bible. He cites similar language among the Egyptians, Syrians, Moabites, Hittites, and Assyrians. The point is that these authors were not trying to give a precise description of the extent of their victory, but to convey the idea of total victory. As Copan points out, we have similar language in sports commentary in our day. A commentator may say that a team slaughtered another team, but none of us will understand him to mean that a mass murder had actually occurred.

[1] Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011.

[2] ibid.

[3]Williams, Stephen N. “Could God Have Commanded The Slaughter of The Canaanites?” Tyndale Bulletin, 2012: 161-178.

[4]Smith, Jr., Henry B. “Canaanite Child Sacrifice, Abortion, And The Bible.” Journal of Ministry and Theology, 2013: 90-125.

[5]Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011.