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:
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.
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?
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…
- 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”. [↩]