2. Why Isn't It Really Genocide?
The so-called “Canannite Genocide” mostly takes place in the book of Joshua. I'd like to look at three short stories from the book of Joshua to show that not everything is as we might expect.
a) The Story of Rahab
Rahab is a Canaanite prostitute, who starts out living in Jericho. Right at the start of the conquest, before anyone dies, Joshua sends some spies out to investigate the land. They comes to Jericho, and meet Rahab, but are spotted. In one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the Bible, Rahab then lies to her own people to protect the Israelite spies, then says this:
“I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that, as I have dealt kindly with you, you also will deal kindly with my father's house, and give me a sure sign that you will save alive my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.” (Joshua 2:9-13, ESV)
The spies escape; Jericho is destroyed; Rahab and her family are saved.
There are several remarkable things about this as we consider the Canaanite genocide.
- Rahab was a Canaanite, but she decided to side with the Israelites.
- She is spared. No-one even questions whether it was wrong to make an agreement with her or whether they should go back on it (both arguments are used later with the Gibeonites).
- God approves of her being spared. As we will see in the second story, God punishes all of Israel because Achan kept some of the plunder from Jericho, but he does not mention Rahab and her family being spared as a problem at all.
- Rahab is not subsequently treated as a Canaanite. According to Matthew 1:5, she is the mother of Boaz and hence an ancestor of both David and Jesus. None of the laws against intermarriage apply to her (e.g. Deut 7:3); none of the laws against her descendants being allowed into the temple apply to her. The same is true of her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth. Why not? I suggest it is because her profession of faith in the God of the Israelites means that she is no longer treated as a foreigner but as one of God's people.
What can we therefore learn about the “Canaanite Genocide”? Simply this – it's about punishment and idolatry. If people repent and decide to worship the true God, they can be spared. It might mean treason against their own people – it does for Rahab - but it means loyalty to the higher and more legitimate authority of God.
b) The Story of Achan
Achan stands in stark contrast to Rahab. She was the Canaanite who became part of God's people; he was the Israelite who was excluded from God's people and suffered the same fate as the Canaanites. We read about him in Joshua 7.
When Jericho was destroyed, the Israelites were not allowed to take any of the plunder for themselves – it was all to be destroyed or put into God's treasury. But Achan stole some and hid it under his tent. As a result, God was angry with Israel and they lost their next battle. Achan's actions come to light, and he is treated the same way as Jericho was (Josh 7:15 c.f. Josh 6:24).
What do we learn from this?
- The division between those whom God destroys and those whom God spares is not ethnic. It is to do with whether or not they serve him. So rebellious Israelites are put outside, and obedient Canaanites are included. Echoes of Romans 11...
c) The Story of the Gibeonites
After the next battle, at Ai, Joshua has some more visitors. These visitors have a confession of faith that sounds like Rahab's, and they claim not to be Canaanites.
From a very distant country your servants have come, because of the name of the LORD your God. For we have heard a report of him, and all that he did in Egypt, and all that he did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon the king of Heshbon, and to Og king of Bashan, who lived in Ashtaroth. (Joshua 9:9-10, ESV)
Joshua doesn't check it out with God, but makes peace with them. Of course, it turns out that they are actually from a nearby city. Squabbling ensues, but the Gibeonites join the list of Canaanites who are safe.
On the rare occasions when this passage is preached, it is usually applied by pointing out Joshua's foolishness in not asking God before signing the treaty. And that is there, but what is more striking to me is the Gibeonites' cunning in wanting to be part of God's people. It's a great illustration of Matthew 11:12. This is thrown into even clearer focus a couple of chapters later when the prophetic author of Joshua comments on the other Canaanites.
There was not a city that made peace with the people of Israel except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon. They took them all in battle. For it was the LORD's doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed, just as the LORD commanded Moses. (Joshua 11:19-20, ESV)
In the Bible, when God hardens people's hearts, it always describes the same process as them hardening their own hearts against him. The Canaanites harden their own hearts, but God is sovereign over it and uses their hard-hearted rejection of him to bring them to destruction.
But the crucial implication of that passage is that God approved of the Gibeonites trying to avoid destruction. It was the right thing for them to do, and stemmed from hearts that hadn't been hardened. Despite their lies, it seems that they really believed what they said about God. When Joshua confronts them with their lies, they reply:
“Because it was told to your servants for a certainty that the LORD your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you all the land and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you--so we feared greatly for our lives because of you and did this thing. And now, behold, we are in your hand. Whatever seems good and right in your sight to do to us, do it.”
So he did this to them and delivered them out of the hand of the people of Israel, and they did not kill them. But Joshua made them that day cutters of wood and drawers of water for the congregation and for the altar of the LORD, to this day, in the place that he should choose.
(Joshua 9:24-27, ESV)
What can we learn from the Gibeonites?
- Where the Canaanites were not hard-hearted towards God, it was quite possible for them to remain in the land and escape destruction. All that they needed to do was strive for it and be willing to serve God rather than their idols.
Three short stories set during the conquest of Canaan, and each of them radically changes our perspective on what happened.[intro | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]