By Charlie Trimm
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2022), xxx + 117 pp., maps and photos, $14.99 (paperback)
Reviewed by Ronald S. Hendel
The biblical command to destroy the Canaanites is troubling. In Deuteronomy 7:1-2, Moses instructs the Israelites: “When YHWH your God … clears away many nations before you … you must utterly destroy them” (author’s translation). This command is fulfilled by Joshua and his army, and Joshua 10:40-43 offers a breathtaking picture of the violent destruction of the peoples of Canaan. In modern terms, we may call this a war of genocide. How is the reader of the Bible to understand the ethics of this utter destruction, including the killing of every woman, man, and child? How can we comprehend a God who commands such things? These questions have troubled interpreters for millennia.
Charlie Trimm, a biblical scholar at Biola University, has written a very readable exploration of these issues. He opens the book with the refreshing admission that he cannot solve the moral problem. Rather, he sets out to contextualize the issue, present a variety of interpretations, and note the weaknesses in each alternative, offering thus a fuller picture of the problem.
Trimm first describes the concepts and practices of war in the ancient Near East, the question of genocide in antiquity, and the identity of the Canaanites. He points out that ancient war involves the ideology of the king as the protector of cosmic order who must periodically vanquish the forces of chaos. The history of warfare is filled with this ideology, from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia to current wars across the globe. This ideology informs concepts of biblical warfare as well.
The book then turns to assess four major proposals that have been advanced to solve the ethical problem of divinely commanded genocide. These proposals are: (1) God is not good; (2) the Old Testament is not an accurate record; (3) the Old Testament does not describe the destruction as a genocide; and (4) the mass killing of the Canaanites was justified. Trimm has hard criticism for each. The first option, Trimm argues, would lead us to reject the whole package of monotheism. The second disregards scripture as divinely inspired. The third is dishonest toward the biblical text. And the fourth, according to Trimm, would practically associate God with genocide.
However, it becomes clear only in the second part of the book that Trimm is committed to a high doctrine of the inerrancy of scripture, meaning that he considers the Bible to be utterly truthful. Consequently, he holds that the destruction of the Canaanites must have happened historically, because it is told in the Old Testament and affirmed in the New Testament (Acts 7:45; Acts 13:19). As BAR readers know, however, there are serious historical problems with the biblical accounts of the conquest of Canaan. For instance, Jericho and Ai weren’t inhabited in the era in question, so the story of their destruction by Joshua and his army cannot be historically accurate. Second, other biblical accounts, such as Judges 1:19-33, contradict the picture of a total destruction.
The archaeological evidence indicates that the rise of Israel was a relatively peaceful process. The early Israelites were mostly local Canaanites who settled in the previously sparsely populated highlands. Any battles with Canaanites would have occurred later, with the expansion of Israel into lowland valleys (as in Judges 5). The wholesale destruction of the Canaanites is a later historiographical fiction. The story may still be morally troubling, but we shouldn’t assume that it really happened.
Another problem that Trimm glosses over is Joshua’s destruction of the indigenous giants of Canaan, called the Anakim, Nephilim, and other ethnonyms. Joshua 11:21 describes their utter destruction along with the people of Canaan. Trimm suggests that the annihilation of the Nephilim is not a moral problem. But is the destruction of fictional giants wholly different from the destruction of fictional Canaanites? There is clearly a moral difference between actual and fictional genocide, including monsters and humans.
A final critique is that Trimm does not address the one text where the biblical writers take a position on the moral problem of the destruction of the Canaanites: Deuteronomy 20. In his laws of war, Moses contrasts the total destruction of the Canaanites with the more compassionate rules for war against other peoples. The normal rule of war that applies to all the towns beyond the territory of Canaan is to first offer terms of peace (Deuteronomy 20:10). In Canaan, however, the Israelites are commanded to “not let anything that breathes remain alive” (Deuteronomy 20:15-16).
This text perceives the moral problem and limits it by placing the conquest of Canaan in a separate category, never to be repeated. In understated fashion, it shows a moral horror of genocide, prohibiting it in future circumstances. This biblical text grapples with the moral problem of the destruction of the Canaanites and, as part of the process, produces a legal innovation—the conduct of just war. This may not solve all the problems of the destruction of the Canaanites, but in an important sense, it overcomes the problem by creating a new ethics of war. These rules form the basis for modern concepts of just war and human rights. And this interpretation has the advantage of being biblical.
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