When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you— and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. Deuteronomy 7ou must not let anything that breathes remain alive.You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded. Deuteronomy 20
The words are shocking. Annihilate? Show no mercy? Are these really the words of God? How can they be when far from showing no mercy, Jesus tells us that God pours out his love on the good and the bad, and calls us likewise to love our enemies?
Listen to some Evangelicals defend these texts and they sound as cold and merciless as the text. The best explanation I have heard comes from Christopher Wright in The God I Don’t Understand. He suggests we need to understand these texts through three frameworks.
The Framework of the Old Testament Story
Wright raises the question whether the call to annihilate all is part of the rhetoric of ancient warfare and would not have been understood as absolutely as it sounds to us. He also ponders whether God has accommodated Godself to the realities of a violent world, taking something that is evil, and using it for a good end. But his main point in this framework is that the conquest of Canaan is presented as a unique and limited event. It was not a model for future generations to follow.
The Framework of God’s Sovereign Justice
Wright suggests that the Old Testament texts see God as active in history, not only in the life of Israel but of all nations. This includes leading them toward blessing and calling them to account when they become filled with injustice. God does not rush to judgement, but only executes it when a nation has become thoroughly corrupted. This is the lens through which the destruction of the Canaanites is viewed.
The Framework of God’s Plan of Salvation
The Old Testament sees God as working for the blessing of “all the families of earth” (Genesis 12:3), for a world where warfare has ended and peace reigns (Isaiah 2:4). This is the ultimate will of God for humankind, not destruction, and it is achieved not by God inflicting judgement on others but absorbing it himself on the cross.
Wright concludes that he continues to struggle to make sense of the command to slaughter the Canaanites, but that “at some point I have to stand back from my questions, criticism, or complaint and receive the Bible’s own word on the matter. What the Bible unequivocally tells me is that this was an act of God that took place within an overarching narrative through which the only hope for the world’s salvation was constituted.”
What do I make of Wright’s argument? I think his three frameworks are very helpful and that there are some interesting points to tease out, such as the idea that God was accommodating Godself to the realities of a world of violent warfare. I’d add two more frameworks. First, the framework of God’s love. Whatever we may say, God loved the Canaanites as dearly as he loved the Israelites. An old story tells of Israel celebrating after the crossing of the Red Sea, when Moses stops to ask “where is God?” To which the angel Gabriel replies, “He is over in the corner weeping, for many of his children died today.”
Second, I’d add the framework of the primacy of Jesus. I am a follower of Jesus, not the book of Deuteronomy, nor even the Bible. The Bible brings me the story of Jesus. The Old Testament narrative provides the story that sets up the story of Jesus. But at the end of the day, my commitment is not to the Bible but to Jesus. So where anything in the Bible appears at odds with the teaching and way of Jesus I’ll not try to come up with a hybrid interpretation that compromises the teaching of Jesus, but give the teaching of Jesus the first and final say.
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Was the slaughter of the Canaanites God’s word to Israel? Even with Wright’s careful reflection, I struggle to see how it could have been. What I do know is it’s not God’s word to you or me.