In recent years the issue of violence in the Old Testament has become a hot topic of discussion in many Christian circles. While there’s plenty of violence in the Old Testament worthy of wrestling and discussion, one particular event seems to come up a lot: the Canaanite genocide.
There’s fewer stories in the Bible that create the problems the Canaanite genocide creates. How could “God’s nation” completely slaughter an entire people group? How is it loving to one’s neighbor to kill all of them? Why would God make them do such a thing?
All good questions. Atheists have pounced on them for years, while most evangelicals have had to engage in cognitive dissonance as the modern concept of inerrancy has forced them to now find a way to justify an event (that if true) isn’t morally different than the holocaust or other genocidal conquests we’ve seen through history.
This discussion has been re-sparked by recent news that scientists have discovered that the Canaanites were not wiped out. This study reports:
“DNA retrieved from roughly 3,700-year-old skeletons at an excavation site in Lebanon that was formerly a major Canaanite city-state shows that “present-day Lebanese derive most of their ancestry from a Canaanite-related population, which therefore implies substantial genetic continuity in the Levant since at least the Bronze Age.”
In light of this study, here’s some important facts that Christians might want to know about the Bible’s Canaanite genocide:
Fact: The Bible itself ultimately makes it clear that the genocide did not happen.
Later in the Bible we find out that there are, gasp, still Canaanites. In fact, Jesus actually heals one of them in the Gospel of Matthew. So this idea there was a genocide where all of the Canaanites were destroyed? We know just from reading the Bible this isn’t true.
Fact: We already knew scientifically that the genocide didn’t happen.
As Dr. James McGrath pointed out today, many of us were surprised that people are acting like this is some sort of new discovery, when it’s not:
“First of all, the Bible is very clear (in places) that the Canaanites were never completely wiped out from Israel. But second and more importantly, historians have always been aware that the Phoenicians were a Canaanite people, and so the discovery that their descendants are to be found in the regions they historically inhabited should not be a surprise either…”
Furthermore, as Peter Enns has pointed out in his own work, we know from archeological evidence that the genocide did not happen– certainly not on the scale the Bible implies.
Fact: False reports of genocide are common in the bronze age.
Should the fact that the Bible implies genocide occurred, but that modern evidence disproves this, be shocking? No, of course not. In fact, this clear exaggeration of events actually makes the Bible more authentic instead of less– and this is because at the time these passages were written, it was actually commonplace to falsely claim one had wiped out all of their enemies. Instead of shocking, it is quite affirming because it is exactly how I would expect a bronze age written war conquest to read. Had Canaanite records survived to present day, I wouldn’t be surprised if they claimed to have wiped out all their enemies, too.
Case in point, here is a short 2 minute video blog I made in Amman, Jordan when I stumbled upon a Moabite artifact that does exactly this– and ironically, falsely claims there was a genocide that destroyed all of ancient Israel:
So, when we as Christians discuss the problematic Old Testament passages claiming genocide, we need to begin from a starting point that recognizes that both the Bible, and multiple angles of science, affirm the reality that there was not an extermination of the Canaanites. Furthermore, we must also recognize that these exaggerations do not call the authenticity of the Bible into question, but instead affirm it is a historical document of a specific time and place, and that it reads exactly the way one would expect it to read– including exaggerations of genocide.
Of course, this brings up other questions, perhaps the most important being: “If the Bible claims that God ordered genocide, does that mean God really did?”
That’s a question for a different day– but the important facts to remember, is that they didn’t do what we often think they did.
And that’s actually good news.
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Can you be more specific about the content of your article? After reading it, I still have some doubts. Hope you can help me. https://accounts.binance.com/sl/register?ref=B4EPR6J0
so the bible contradicts itself?
Great video, Ben. Very informative.
“No cause, no God, no abstract idea can justify the mass slaughter of innocents.”
Life actually gets so much more interesting when you get past inerrancy claims. Not only for scholarly inquiry – for our spiritual journeys as well.
I´m wondering … if ancient near eastern literature about possible historical accounts is usually exaggerated (normally in the form of propaganda that paints the writers nation in a positive light from a position of strength), why would the Israelites choose a possible history of slavery and exploitation?
The christian answer to Deuteronomy is often: God is sometimes portrayed as an asshole. The jewish answer to Deuteronomy is often: sometimes God is an asshole.
So although the Israelites may have tried, they did NOT succeed in wiping out the Canaanites. Well, that is a relief! BUT, as you point out, that still leaves the question of whether God ordered the genocide, as the Bible says, which IMO is itself quite problematic if we are to take the Bible as the literal word of God…
I found David Lamb’s book ‘God Behaving Badly’ made pertinent points.
If God is the author of life, can He not take it away?
“God” (whatever we take that multivalent word to mean) commanding (H)is people to commit genocide remains deeply, morally problematic surely, whether the Israelites obeyed or not, whether the accounts are historical or encrusted with myth, whether we regard the disparate texts known as “The Bible” to be inerrant or a kind of hodgepodge of ancient fables and partial truths. What is the Judeo-Christian deity like? This remains a troubling question in the light of these “holy” texts.
Well, it can actually be a helpful aid to hermeneutics if you take the question seriously. Is there any sense in which a tribal war-leader god, who seeks the extermination of an enemy, can be considered “the same entity” as a universal, loving God of everyone, who reaches out to us with a message of forgiveness and reconciliation?
In my view, there can. Our sense of right and wrong, which has strong biological components, seems to come from an urge for group solidarity against possible threats. Many ancient “god” concepts served as oath enforcers – anyone who violated their oath to, say, show up for the defense of the tribe in wartime, would thereby invoke a curse on themselves, with the god as the entity in the other world who would enforce the curse.
Now interpret that “other world” as the deep psychosocial realm in which we face our ultimate questions, such as what we deserve and what we seek to become, and you can see that it makes a certain sense for the representative (in that realm) of the interests of our tribal group to become, in a more stable and reflective world, the representative of all other people, including the foreign children who might have been seen mainly as a threat back in the war of all against all. This is God “growing up” or, of course, human culture’s ability to conceptualize God growing up.
Many comment below on whether the Bible is myth or truth. The biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah took place about 3,700 years ago. The ruins of the city of Sodom have been dug up and the archeological story is remarkably consistent with many aspects of the Bible story. See the book by Steven Collins “Discovering the City of Sodom”, or a summary of the book in http://www.iandexterpalmer.com/sodom-discovery-city-bible/
At the very least this discovery (way back in Genesis chapter 19) implies we have to be very careful before we consign old and very old Bible stories, to myth.
This is about the Tall el-Hammam site which some say might be Sodom. Others argue for other sites (as in south instead of north of the Dead Sea). All are using the Bible.
Most of the rest of us try evaluating the site on its own merits given that that part of the Bible dealing with the alleged destruction of Sodom is likely less accurate than the medieval stories of King Arthur and the round table. It is not as though cities destroyed by fire are hard to find in archaeology.
BTW Tall el-Hammam was resettled by the end of the IA1 era and at least one building during the LB2a era. You would think that somewhere in Samuel/Kings or Chronicles would mention the resettlement of Sodom?
“In fact, this clear exaggeration of events actually makes the Bible more authentic instead of less…”
Only in the convoluted world of the pacifist trying to deny the violence attributed to God in the bible does that line make any sense.
There has been a spate of articles lately implying or stating that the Bible is in error because not all of the Canaanites were not destroyed, as God commanded.
It’s simple, God commanded that the Canaanites be destroyed, but Israel disobeyed. Therefore, there is no error.
So our choices are
1. Take the story literally.
2. Pick and choose what you want to believe.
3. Don’t believe a word of it.
So because it is potentially provable that some or many Canaanites survived, it wasn’t really a holocaust? And if it did happen, God didn’t really order it. Kind of like the Mid-east version of the Charge of the Light Brigade. Whether they did it or not, the account reflects the apparent eternal actions and attitudes of the tribes of Abraham that are promulgated to this very day.
Goes to “state of mind” your Honor.
I find it easier to believe that Jesus using his more diplomatic and subtle side, repudiated the followers of the god of the Old Testament in toto. He used the bible as a common reference point to communicate to the people.
“Furthermore, we must also recognize that these exaggerations do not call
the authenticity of the Bible into question, but instead affirm it is a
historical document of a specific time and place, and that it reads
exactly the way one would expect it to read– including exaggerations of
genocide.” – Dr. BLC
I guess my only question(s) is, if the OT is not precise and contains exaggerations, how can we then be sure that the OT is 100% correct in what it claims about the Messiah? On the Road to Emmaus, Jesus showed them everything in the OT that pointed to him. Does it matter, then, if the OT is not a 100%, literally accurate collection of documents? Did it matter to Jesus?
so the bible says something only to recant it?……….that seems 100% legit
Exactly! Really inspires confidence, doesn’t it?
You are conflating the thinking of historians with actual scientific lines of evidence (based on genetics) when you make the claim that this is “not a new discovery”. The “new discovery” was in the finding (through DNA sequencing) that modern Lebanese people are descended directly from the Canaanites.
When what is written in the bible is to be regarded as exaggeration, and not being true to the facts as they happened, does that not mean that the bible is a book we need to regard as a sort of book with falshoods and exaggerations, and thus not being true at all? We see people (referring to themselves as christians!) taking the bible litteraly in the sense that what is written is the word of god and thus true, through that litterally taking condemning certain groups of people, actions and or institutions, for instance gay people, science, vaccinations to name a few. When what is written in the article is fact, and I do not question what is written as I regard it as something that is an opinion, then taking the bible litterally is wrong, and makes the ideas and opinions of those taking it litterally rubbish! God has not ordered that extermination of a whole people, the Cannaanites, it was a form of fantasy that was written down, the question arises was what written about the condemnation of the groups mentioned also a fantasy, and were not the words of god, but of humans?
Wow, so you have to wipe out every last member of an ethnic group to have a ‘genocide’? Incredible! What amazing density. By that standard, no genocide has ever occurred including the one by the Nazis. What about all of the rivasl of the Levites priesthood that were wiped out? I guess they don’t count since they were Israelis (and deserved it?). The extreme intolerance and violence of the Old Testament IS NOT DEFENSIBLE from the perspective of the teachings of Jesus. ‘Christians’ should stop defending the action of the ancient people of the Levant and focus on the teachings of love that have been given to them: Love thy Neighbor.
A lot of things in the Buybull didn’t happen. It’s all mythology !
Whether this holocaust actually happened, it’s clear from the biblical record that the clerics of the time thought it should happen. After the ‘fact’, the Israelites are chastised for not completely eradicating the Canaanites. What I take from this is that the religious hierarchy is often wrong, or simply unenlightened, regardless of their authoritative pronouncements. Yesterday I listened to a moralistic rant by a priest against Republicans in general and Trump in particular. This is an Episcopal church, so I’m used to a clergy that assumes moral superiority without any examination of the premises on which it is supposedly based. http://godwrestling.blogspot.com/2017/06/the-progressive-ethos-of-episcopal.html
“…the genocide did not happen– certainly not on the scale the Bible implies” .What exactly is the scale by which one measures a genocide?
There are still Jews. Does that mean the holocaust genocide didn’t happen?
I believe the present day Jews are descended in part from Canaanites as are the Palestinians and not a far stretch the Lebanese. The Canaanites were Israelites in that they begat them not the other way around. Last I heard the closet dna sequence to Jewish Isrealites and across the board as far as basic markers are Palestinian. My theory was that what is now known as Jews were Canaanites [mixed with Hittites] that created a new religion which became known as Judaism. Many cultures have borrowed from older cultures to create their mythos and see no reason not to believe it was applied here too.
Ever since Hobbes, rationalists have been arguing on the internal evidence of the old Testament, as well as, more recently, archaeological evidence that the Canaanites *were* the Israelites, and that the entire Exodus and conquest literature was written to justify political claims, especially the claim to supremacy of the southern Kingdom. And believers should welcome this; what kind of God would harden Pharaoh’s heart, murder all Egyptian firstborn when Pharaoh behaved accordingly, and order the extermination of the Canaanite tribes?
But how are these recent genetic discoveries even relevant, since the Bible does not claim that the extermination extended to Lebanon?
While the Canaanites were not wiped out, the invading forces did try to destroy as many of them as possible. There are references to this mentality in the scriptures, even going to the degree of God “ordering” some prophet or other to have his forces kill all the people in a given city along with the animals and children… This is probably mostly propaganda, a sort of “We’re tough and you don’t want to mess with us” message aimed at non invader people living in the area.
I still have to wonder that anyone would deliberately follow such a faith, but obviously people did.
And I have deliberately avoided naming any modern descendant groups in this comment, hence the term “Invader”.
Unfortunate for the evangelical fundamentalist, but as archaeological findings and molecular genetic determinations appear to show their never was a thorough ‘genocide’ of the Canaanites, merely goes to prove the Bible was written solely by authoritative man for political gain and to maintain the masses.
Lest we not also forget the god commanded genocide of the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15: 2-3).
Well, Bronze-Iron. Iron chariots, after all, and Tubal-Cain.
Mr. Corey, I appreciate apologetics as much as the next person, but I have to refute your statement that God’s commanding the Israelites to commit genocide on the Canaanites was “not morally different” from to the Holocaust, etc. Those massacres were conceived by men pursuing political power. God’s command was intended to push back horrific evil in the earth, and it did, to the extent the Israelites obeyed. Some of these groups had a practice of sacrificing infants by throwing them into burning rubbish pits. God’s command was intended to redeem the earth from their wickedness. Evil has a way of spreading when it is left to run amok. Besides all that, God, as the Creator, has the absolute right to do whatever he wants with his own creation. We must never apologize for the truth. No doubt many who read these passages of Scripture will put themselves in God’s place and call it evil. Truth is still truth.
“Some of these groups had a practice of sacrificing infants by throwing them into burning rubbish pits.” Who commanded the sacrifice of Isaac? Who required the sacrifice of Jesus?” Seems to me it was not only “these groups” that had the blood of innocents on their mind. Oh, hang on, “God, as the Creator, has the absolute right to do whatever he wants with his own creation.” Shame on us all: a cruel theodicy that disgusts.
Evil men sacrifice infants = bad, good guys slaughter babies = good. You know, I do believe that that has been the equation used by all civilizations since the dawn of time. If my enemy does it, its evil. If we do it, especially if our gods demand it, it’s good. You have a tribalistic view of God and are still stuck in the OT, as are most conservative evangelicals I’ve run into. And it’s not apologetics that is your problem, but hermeneutics.
The fact that Yahweh ordered the mass extermination of men, women, children, and even animals is more disturbing to me than the question of how effective the Israelites were in actually pulling it off.
So that’s where Trump gets his hyperbolic gift. He is a bronze age throw back!
Thanks this article helps out some of the old testament in perspective.
Except that you don’t have to throw back to the bronze age to get rabid tribalism and brazen manipulation of the truth. Before about 1920 it was hard to find anything else going on in human history.