The Canaanite Genocide
Updated: Jan 27
I recently came across an old (2003 – is this old now?) book on my shelf, Show Them No Mercy: Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide, with contributions from a variety of Christian Evangelical scholars. I remember the shock I felt when I first read this slim volume two decades ago.
The book discusses the Biblical stories of the Hebrew people’s conquest of “the Land of Israel” after the Egyptian exile. The story is incredibly violent; I won’t dwell on the language here, other than to note that God tells the Jewish people to commit ethnic cleaning/genocide against the local inhabitants and claim the land as their own.
There is a vigorous debate in the literature about what, if anything, this passage means from an historical point of view. There is plenty of reason to doubt that anything like the conquest of Canaan ever took place. Logically, the story was probably a later invention for purposes of national myth-making.
To me, however, the biggest challenge is ethical. If the founding document of the Jewish religion contains a commandment to genocide, what should we do about that? Shouldn’t this be an important part of the discussion?
I grew up in a Jewish household, although we were never religious. I was educated from fifth grade onwards in Jewish-Israeli schools, where the Bible was a mainstream subject. To the best of my recollection, it was taught as a piece of vital literature, rather than as a theological or historical text.
To the best of my recollection, we never spoke about the Canaanite genocide at home, in school, or anywhere else. We celebrated Passover each year, but never talked about the ugly bits of what was alleged to have happened after Moses took the Jewish people from Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land..
The specialist literature explains that many Jewish sages believe those passages are irrelevant because the Canaanite tribes no longer exist, and the genocidal instructions pertained only to them. Still others note that while some Jewish religious nationalists today label Palestinians “Amalekites,” a hated Canaanite tribe, those are the views of a radical fringe.
The loudest sound I’ve heard about the Canaanite genocide, however, as a casual consumer of Jewish messaging, is silence. It’s simply not talked about. Jews think of themselves as an ethical people (West Bank, Gaza and Lebanese realities aside). The Biblical commandment to commit genocide as a precondition for entering the Land of Israel seems bizarrely out of place. So we ignore it.
That’s a problem, given the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Our founding document, and the main story we use to establish our connection to the Land of Israel, has a huge ethical disgrace right smack in the middle of its narrative.
It’s worth talking about.