How could Jo(e) in the pew deal with the Canaanites? (Part One)

I can’t get away from those pesky Canaanites recently, their latest intrusion into my quiet existence came when someone asked my colleague who is responsible for the training of pastoral leaders what Carey was doing to prepare pastors to help their congregations deal with such “difficult” questions about the Bible. It’s a good question. Not least  because the hot anti-Christian blogs and hotter atheist bestsellers have spotted it’s potential.

God told the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites, the argument goes, so God is not loving and forgiving but a genocidal maniac  like Slobodan Milošević only worse because God should have known better. Deuteronomy 7:2 is a prime example, and it hardly matters which translation you read, they are all as bad as each other:

The fall of Jericho by Jean Fouquet (1420–1480) from Wikipedia


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.

NIV 1984

and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy


When th/e LORD your God hands these nations over to you and you conquer them, you must completely destroy them. Make no treaties with them and show them no mercy.


and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.

And it’s not just the modern ones: KJV

And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, [and] utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them:

The Young’s Literal is the only one to suggest that “exterminate them” might not be quite what God was saying:

and Jehovah thy God hath given them before thee, and thou hast smitten them — thou dost utterly devote them — thou dost not make with them a covenant, nor dost thou favour them.

So, how is the average pew sitter to cope?

1. Cotext

First: Never, ever take a few words or a verse all on their own look at the text around! In this case already in the verse we can see something strange is happening… God apparently says “Exterminate the Canaanites [the verse before helpfully specifies several different nations that are to be specifically included] and while you are at it, make sure you do NOT make treaties with them. Either one part or both parts of this verse are not intended to be taken literally.

The immediate cotext1 in this case (though often you have to look wider at the passage, chapter, or sometimes whole book) gives us clues. (At least) one of the two things God says in this verse is not to be taken literally.It is difficult to see how “do not make a treaty with them” could be understood any other way, so perhaps it’s “Exterminate them!” that is non-literal. In fact such expressions are common among sports fans, and even in talking about the more aggressive board games, in our world should alert us to the possibility that this language is not literal.

In a comment on a previous post of mine on this topic Thom pointed out that simply spotting that these texts are not literal does not let God “off the hook”. We are still talking about war, if not genocide. I have not forgotten this comment, I will return to it, but in a later post. In the next post I want to turn to the even bigger question of how we “read” God’s speech in the Bible…

  1. This is a specialised term for the text around the text, what people often mean when they say “context”, but by context I’ll mean all the other “stuff” around a text, what linguists call “pragmatics”. []

7 comments on “How could Jo(e) in the pew deal with the Canaanites? (Part One)

  1. Gavin (Otagosh)

    Sorry Tim, maybe it’s just that I’m particularly dull today, but I don’t understand your point. The point of the double command (show no mercy to them and make no covenant with them) is surely illustrated in the story of the Gibeonites (Joshua 9). If you make a treaty with a group of outsiders, then you can’t kill them, so treaties are off the agenda. The people of Gibeon tricked Joshua into a treaty in order to save themselves. Who can blame them? How are both commands not to be taken literally? You don’t make treaties for the express purpose of putting the people – presumably at your earliest convenience – under the ban.

  2. Tim

    You could be right, but I don’t see any necessary connection. You choose to read suspiciously, I choose not to. Except where the text provides clues or directions why should I read Deut 7:2 as a response to Josh 9? In the story (whenever the two texts were written – something we simply do not know or even have much solid idea about) the order is the opposite?

  3. Jeremy

    I don’t know. I’m split between you two. I think the command against intermarriage that follows in verse 3 may follow more along the lines of Tim’s point. Intermarriage might seem like more of a future issue than making treaties … or perhaps not, if intermarriage was a means of sealing a treaty.

    I have often wanted to take these kinds of statements hyperbolically. But, the main problem I come up against is the similar command in 1 Samuel 15 where Saul is actually rejected from the kingship for not taking the commands literally.

  4. tim

    Thanks, Jeremy, 1 Sam 15 is way to complex a text to deal with in a comment, so I’ve added a short post above…

  5. Pingback: February 2011 Biblical Studies Carnival | A Fistful of Farthings

  6. Geir Skårland

    What about not defending the texts, mitigating contexts or no, and deal with this historically: The Israelites’ concept of God was mainly ethnocentric. This is before human rights thinking and any kind of universalism. The theology of the OT is contextual.

    To me, staying by the texts is both theologically, historically and ethically a poorer option. The only thing it accomplishes is preserving a view of the OT that also is ahistorical. Though a painful choice, I prefer ethical faithfulness to scriptural simplicity. And to me, after having left many of my old presuppositions, it seems that Jesus did so, too.

    1. tim

      That’s certainly one way to cut the Gordian knot. Certainly situating the text historically is necessary, but I am not sure that simply cutting one’s ties to the text is necessary. Maybe these thoughts will prod me to produce the next post in the series ;)

      (That image may do a disservice to the nuances of your approach, but it is difficult to express such nuances in a comment, so please excuse me if I have misunderstood :(