I’ll Take Canaan


This post on Unreasonable Faith depicts a page from a newsletter for conservative Christian homeschoolers, teaching how to confront atheists who cite “the most ridiculous stories in the Bible.” Wait, so the person who wrote this is ADMITTING that there are ridiculous stories in the Bible? Anyway, as you might expect, the argument makes no sense. I must say I’ve always been disturbed by the accounts of the Israelites conquering the tribes that were already living in the area. It’s a very might-makes-right concept, made even odder by the fact that the historical record doesn’t totally support these stories. It’s not entirely clear when the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan took place, but the date suggested by the Biblical text was likely one in which Jericho, for instance, wasn’t inhabited at all.

Also, while the end of the Book of Joshua makes it sound like the conquest was a done deal, Judges makes it clear that much of this territory was still disputed for long after that.
If we take the Biblical narrative as presenting a basically consistent view of history (which it really doesn’t), Abraham was promised that his descendants would take control of the land of Canaan. His son Isaac and grandson Jacob lived there, but Jacob and his sons emigrated to Egypt during a famine. Their descendants remained there for a few centuries, and then returned to Canaan to take it back. Can it really be considered taking it back, though? Genesis says that Abraham was from Mesopotamia, and when he came to Canaan there were already plenty of people living there. They even had their own cities. Abraham did legally purchase some land here, but this consisted solely of a cave in Hebron that became his family burial plot. Abraham and the other patriarchs were nomadic herders, and apparently didn’t have any permanent home. Sure, God promised the land to Abraham’s descendants, but I doubt this kind of claim has any legal basis. After all, the Canaanites probably thought their gods had promised them that same land. So it really just becomes a case of the Israelites becoming the owners of the land because they killed and/or conquered all the other inhabitants. To the victor go the spoils, and all that rot. Even if the Canaanite tribes didn’t settle there until after Jacob left for Egypt, it still seems that they would have had more legal right to it than a bunch of former Egyptian slaves who claimed their ancestors lived there 400 years previously. As someone else pointed out, if we’re going to consider them squatters then they would presumably have squatters’ rights, and they were actually using that land.


If Joshua’s conquest of Canaan really didn’t occur in the way the Bible says, as many historians believe, what would possess whoever wrote it to insist it did? After all, if you’re going to hold up your own nation as God’s favorite, couldn’t the account for how it came to possess the land be just about anything? That someone would actually CHOOSE to claim their own ancestors committed genocide and massive destruction, often even putting the women and children to death (although in certain special cases they were permitted to rape the women instead) shows that this society had some rather bizarre values by today’s standards. I guess they were basically saying the neighbors shouldn’t mess with them because they were the most bad-ass people around. After all, their victories in battle must mean God was on their side, right?

Never mind that, if God is as powerful as he’s usually said to be, he presumably could have provided a more peaceful and less disputable way for the Israelites to rule the land. That he instead decided his chosen people should put everyone else to the sword shows a quite militaristic and violent character for God, certainly quite different from the personality Jesus would give him.

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6 Responses to I’ll Take Canaan

  1. Hope this rather lengthy response at least addresses some of the interesting things that you bring up. There are no easy or quick answers, and if there, I’d probably not know how to successfully employ them! :)

    It is admittedly challenging to view the violent exploits of Ancient Israel from a modern-day perspective, or even from a biblically Christian perspective, since biblical Christianity is pacifism (which is not passivism, but rather active other-centered love). The conservative journals you cite clearly don’t know how to reconcile the violence found in the OT with the God that Jesus portrays. But they’re also written by people who just aren’t as educated, trying to deal with complex matters in a pat (and rather condescending) way, so we can’t expect much wisdom from that quarter.

    On the aspect of the OT’s historicity, I’d say that archeology is subject to much debate and interpretation. David Rohl (who is by no means religious) utilizes the New Chronology to show how the OT events fit well in this historical framework, which makes much more sense than the convoluted Old Chronology, and Immanuel Velikovsky’s well-thought-out interpretation of the data (in his Ages of Chaos series) is also worthy of research.

    I recently reread the Old Testament. It had been years, and I was newly approaching it from the perspective of being both a pacifist and vegan, so you can imagine that for me, the violence in the OT is difficult to stomach and even comprehend at times. That said, there were several aspects that helped to put me in the proper mindset and contextual/historical framework:

    1. God works with what he has — and what he had was what the OT candidly describes as a hard-headed, hard-hearted people. In the book of Acts, prior to being stoned to death by the very people he was speaking to, Stephen refers to his own people as a “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.” While they were physically circumcised as being set apart for God and different from the nations, their hearts were no different the peoples of the nations, their ears were deaf to God, and they were resistant of his guidance (through holy spirit). But a promise was made to Abraham and a promise kept, and, in that promise, a better nation would arise that would lead to the Messiah who would embody nonviolence and love, and see paradise restored. Were they the best of the bunch? Maybe. Maybe not. But it seems they were no different than the nations around them. This leads to point 2.

    2. The old maxim that states we shouldn’t judge the past by the mores of the present is true. We didn’t live then, and it’s difficult for us now to really comprehend just how people thought and behaved. The ancient nations of the Near East were notoriously dangerous, violent and rapacious. From the Babylonians to the Assyrians to the Egyptians and the numerous Canaanite tribes, history testifies that these were a people of unremitting cruelty and violence.

    3. The Canaanites easily top that list. It wasn’t just the ancient Jews who attest to this, but the not-so-gentle hearted Romans as well, who were shocked by the religious practices of the Carthaginians (who were the earlier Phoenicians, who are the Canaanites). They attested to the reality of the horrific Canaanite religious practice of burning alive infants and animals (in giant statues of Molech — a common and widespread practice that’s been confirmed archaeologically). The list of Canaanite atrocities reads like a horror tale. They were the Nazis of ancient times, and lasted far longer. I’ve always liked the quote from historian Henry H. Halley: “Archaeologists who dig in the ruins of Canaanite cities wonder that God did not destroy them sooner than he did.” According to Gen 15:13-16, God gave them 400 years to repent before acting against them. So, not only had they been warned, but one could argue that God was actually too lenient with them.

    4. In a fallen world, where violence is pandemic and regularly employed by the aristocracy to gain and maintain resources, wealth and power over the multitudes. For a peoples to survive in such hostile circumstances, violence was a tool to be used by God, although grievously and with boundaries. Each of the warring nations that Israel came into contact were part of larger family/tribal group, some were even distantly related to Israel. All had been given divine warnings to leave Israel alone or there would be dire consequences. Few listened. Similarly, Israel was constantly warned not to follow the practices of the neighboring nations, nor to form political alliances with them? Why? Because they would be morally corrupted by them. And from the outset, as far back as their slavery in Egypt, they were. They too were prone to violence.

    So, you’ve got a people corrupted by the idea that violence is the way to go, and rapacious surrounding nations ready to destroy and/or enslave them.

    To work in such a grim context, to allow free will, and yet preserve a nation wherein moral growth could emerge, God allowed, for a time, the people to have what they want. But only to a degree, as he reserved the right to set boundaries. So, in the Mosaic Law, there are definitely carryovers from the Hammurabi Code. But there are also significant moral differences. For example “the Israelites, like their neighbors, could own slaves. But slaves were not to be treated as mere property (see Exod. 21:1-11, Deut. 15:12-18). In Israel, slaves had some rights. Under certain circumstances, they could celebrate religious festivals with their owners. They were not to be mistreated. And there were limits imposed on the time they could serve as slaves (Lev. 25). Israelites could not enslave other Israelites…” (http://www.cresourcei.org/lawcodes.html)

    “The Babylonian codes also made a distinction between the aristocracy, landowners, and commoners, something the Old Testament does not do. Penalties for commoners who have committed offenses against landowners were often mutilation or death, while penalties for landowners against commoners for the same offenses were usually small fines, which they could easily afford… There are also numerous cases, mostly involving commoners, where physical mutilation is the penalty, usually the cutting off of a hand, a foot, or an ear for relatively moderate offenses. In some cases, even more severe measures are taken, such as cutting out the tongue of a child who speaks against his parents, cutting off the lower lip of either landowner or commoner who kisses another man’s wife, castration for some sexual crimes, and cutting off the breast of a wet-nurse who takes another child after one has died in her care.

    By contrast, the most severe penalties in the OT are applied to offenses against other people, regardless of social rank, or actions which threaten the community and its values. In the OT, there are only four categories of capital offenses: intentional homicide; sins against God, such as idolatry, sorcery, or blasphemy, all of which threaten the basis of the community; grave offenses against parents; and certain sexual abuses. The sentences were most often carried out by the community. There are no death penalties in the OT for crimes against property. There is only one instance where mutilation of a person is allowed, a special case of violation of the family (Deut 25:11-12), which probably reflects very old customs.

    While the Old Testament codes may sometimes offend modern sensibilities, they are far less severe and arbitrary than others of the Near East.” (http://www.cresourcei.org/lawcodes.html)

    The way women were to be treated, foreigners, and even the very ill (e.g., lepers) was FAR superior to the nations around them. Ideal? No way, but that’s the very point. Violence doesn’t work. Legalism doesn’t work. Christ would bring about the ideal at a time when mankind was better morally evolved, where they could (and did) apply it, and where we could grow along a better trajectory.

    One of the things that’s interesting about the OT is its candor. God never holds back from renouncing the nation’s leaders and priests, from saying things like: “Your rulers are rebels, partners with thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts.” (Isaiah 1) That’s just one example of the many times the OT condemns the nation’s kings and priests. That’s unheard of in the literature of the ancient Near East, where the opposite is always the case. Even look at the very first chapter of Isaiah and you see God expressing his annoyance at religion:

    “The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being.”

    So, God is apparently sick of meaningless religious rites too! But more importantly, he’s disgusted by violence, as he goes on to say: “Your hands are full of blood!”

    Jeremiah goes even further:
    “The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way. But what will you do in the end?”

    So, State, Church and commoner love what’s bad, which raises the question to the individual, whose forced to ask himself what he’ll do. “What does God want?” What is he asking of his ancient peoples if, in fact, he hates the lies, oppression and violence that the world loves?

    The OT doesn’t leave it a mystery:
    “Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
    Stop doing wrong.
    Learn to do right; seek justice.
    Defend the oppressed.
    Take up the cause of the fatherless;
    Plead the case of the widow.”

    Centuries later, James echoes this when he defines the only kind of religion that God approves of: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27)

    The apostle John echoes this idea of compassion in a broader spectrum when he clarifies what God wants: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.”

    Much of the violence that the ancient Hebrews committed is attributed to God in the OT, though it’s difficult to discern if they’re merely attributing their violence to God, as if to justify their actions, or if God is forced by the circumstance of a violent era and peoples to employ violence, in much the same way he’s forced to employ legalism, only later to repudiate legalism as futile.
    Many argue that “an eye for an eye” was never meant to be taken literally, and that ancient Near Eastern peoples better understood metaphoric language. Whether that’s true or not, ancient peoples understood that for all but the very wealthy, life was brutally hard, and suffering and death were constant companions. People were susceptible to the whims of evil rulers, priests and superstitions.

    So, God regulated and employed violence in ancient times to deal with a violent ancient world in order to bring about something greater that would ultimately transcend violence forever. If there is a god, and it’s the god of the Bible, then he has the power to fulfill those promises, and undo any violence that’s been committed by bringing the dead back to life, a promise that’s made to all peoples, not just the Jews or Christians. Mankind will live in a world of eternal peace and happiness, but first they must come to love and revere those things.

    • Nathan says:

      I suppose part of what bothers me as an American with a sense of rugged individualism (okay, maybe not so much the rugged part) is the sense of group punishment. I doubt that all of the Israelites were stiff-necked and hard-hearted, or that all of Canaanites were evil. Even if they were participating in an evil culture, would it have been possible to separate them from it and find out if they were decent people at heart? Maybe not, but for the most part nobody even tried it. And while we can’t judge the past by the standards of the present when it comes to fallible humans, why wouldn’t it be fair when dealing with a being who’s supposed to be the all-knowing arbiter of morality?

      As for “an eye for an eye,” it sounds rather harsh, but it also makes sure that the punishment fits the crime and doesn’t go too far. After all, it’s an eye for an eye, not, say TWO eyes for an eye.

  2. I love it when I’m in the midst of a lengthy reply that my windows all shut down!

    Ok, let’s see if I can sum up what I’d said so far.

    I agree with you about the sense of justice and individualism. Interestingly, though, ancient societies didn’t manifest a strong sense of individualism. This can be seen even in the modern world in the example of Nazi Germany. Several books (James E. Waller’s Becoming Evil : How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing, William Brustein’s The Logic of Evil: The Social Origins of the Nazi Party, and Ervin Staub’s The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence) look at how the mass of ordinary people, due to groupthink, economic advantage and blind submission to authority are capable of committing or supporting some of the worst atrocities the world has seen. The German society of that day was arguably as culpable as Hitler and the Nazi party for the extreme actions that occurred, actions that could not have been committed without the complicity of the nation as a whole (excluding those rare examples of ones who stood up against it, e.g., the White Rose).

    Now imagine going back a few thousand years, and we can begin to envision how much less people from those nations were self-reflective, compassionate and willing to stand up against authority.

    But what of the Mosaic Law Code? Even given that God has to work with what he has at any given time, shouldn’t his Word reflect a higher morality than that of the nations? Absolutely, and I would agree with author Joshua Berman (Created Equal) that the Pentateuch represents “a radical, egalitarian break from the political and theological traditions of the ancient Near East.” In what ways?

    “Modern natural rights thinkers held that all individuals were created equal qua individuals, in the state of nature before civil society existed, and thus that the moral demands on men must be few (but by no means nonexistent). The Pentateuch’s egalitarianism was, however, communitarian, insofar as the whole people of Israel, and each individual within that society, had responsibilities to his fellow man.

    “The moral responsibility toward others thus required of the Israelites was quite significant. It can be seen most emphatically in the rule of tithing. The biblical requirement differed markedly from the norm in the ancient Near East in the scope of the tithing; but more significantly, every third year the people of Israel needed to pay the tithe to the poor. This was “the first known program of legislated taxation for a social purpose… The Pentateuch also required the people of Israel to forgive all debts from their Israelite brethren every seven years and prohibited them from charging interest. Their obligations toward their fellow men were thus steeped in the theology of equality, which stemmed from the Exodus experience, as well as divinely prescribed social welfare legislation.” (http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2012/09/6463/)

    That’s pretty significant. But what of the rare individual in Canaanite society? Shouldn’t these have somehow been weeded out? I think the more significant question might be, was it not each person’s individual obligation to have weeded themselves out beforehand. What do I mean? Well, if I personally, or even some ancient facsimile of me, lived amongst a community of Moabites, I hope that I’d have the good sense to move, that I’d be so horrified by neighbors who had no problem sacrificing living creatures and infants on a regular basis to a bull-headed statue wherein they would roast alive, that I’d flee as soon as I could from such an extreme example of evil (e.g., the wealthy, in order to preserve their own children, actually substituted their slaves’ children whom they adopted years earlier for the purpose of using them as sacrifices; when a new building was erected, the burnt remains of sacrifices were placed at each of the four corners; the list goes on.) If I didn’t leave such a community, one in which I’d be forced to participate in such horrors and more, and especially given the fact that these were a pastoral nomadic peoples, used to moving around, I think it would say that I was complicit with their doings, tacitly or otherwise, and would be worthy of being put to death.

    Something to think about that, at least.

    • Nathan says:

      Perhaps, although it’s possible that the Canaanites who weren’t so fond of their culture didn’t want to leave their families, or just had no idea where else to go. Travel wasn’t as easy in those days.

      • Very true. They were rough times. And the fact is that any compassionate person should be troubled by the events that occurred back then.

        What helps me is to know that: a) They were warned well in advance and given time to change, get out of the area, and desist, individually and collectively. The evidence for this is what Rahab (who with her family is saved) says in the Canaanite city of Jericho, now 40 years after the events of the Exodus, to the Jewish spies that entered: “For we have heard how Yahweh dried up the water of the Reed Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites that were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. When we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you. Yahweh your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below.” (Joshua 2:10-11). So, the events of the Exodus were known by all of Canaan, and yet they persisted in their ways despite their terror that God would punish them for their sins.

        The other part is that God doesn’t single out a nation due to “ethnicity, race, or anything other than their wickedness.” It seems that God actually was sterner with His own people than with the other nations; Also, he doesn’t bring divine judgment due to one incident or practice, but from the culmination of many years of wickedness (e.g., the sin of the Amorites “was not yet full” by the time God concluded a covenant with Abraham: Genesis 15:16). “It was as if there was a level of wickedness that must not be exceeded; anything less was tolerated, but after that point, divine judgment ensued.” (https://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=11&article=1224)

        Lastly, and I like this, clemency was granted to ALL nations, not just Israel, as seen in Jeremiah’s declaration: “At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.” (Jeremiah 18:7-10)

        God proved he meant it too when he sent Jonah to pronounce judgment on the Assyrian capitol Nineveh, and the Ninevites actually repented (!) leaving Jonah pissed off at God. What’s interesting about that account is that it shows how merciful God is. There’s no record (biblically or otherwise) that the Assyrians started worshipping Yahweh, kissing babies and adopting stray cats. That would’ve been an unreasonable expectation. But they repented for their sins — went into mourning, fasted and prayed that they’d turn away from their violence.

        But what of the individual who, through no fault of his own, got caught up in the violence of his nation? Well, that happens today all the time too when countries go to war, when disaster strikes, when our bodies grow sick. God promises to all a resurrection to eternal life. And that free gift undoubtedly extends to those in Canaan, Egypt, Assyria, even those nations God destroyed by his own hand (e.g., Ezekiel 16: 53 says Sodom would be restored, a point that Jesus reiterates in Matthew 11:20-24).

        Just food for thought.

  3. Pingback: Shot Full of Holiness | VoVatia

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