The Israelite Conquest: Possibilities of Interpretation (Part 1)

Updated: Jan 4, 2020

In this blog post, I will discuss one of the most controversial and heavily debated subjects in the Bible: the Israelite conquest. I will show different options for how people have interpreted this difficult subject, and give my own opinion. In a later post, I will expound more fully on each possible interpretation presented in this blog.

Some conclusions I come to may be troubling for some readers. If you would like to have a further conversation on the subject, please send me a question through my site.

The most pertinent questions regarding the Israelite conquest of Canaan (See Deuteronomy 2:32-37; 3:6; Chapter 7, Deuteronomy 20:10-18) and other nations designated for herem (total destruction or devotion to the Lord) are:

1. How literally should we interpret the Israelite Conquest?

2. Was this genocide?

3. Was God justified in commanding such a conquest?

While I do not have time in this short article to go into the details of the most common positions that I have heard in response to these questions, I will simply give an outline of them here:

1. Scripture is fallible and does not always represent God and his actions accurately

2. God “wore a mask” and let himself “appear evil”

3. Total allegorization of the passages

4. God “got himself dirty” in order to have a relationship with his people

5. The Canaanite nations were very evil and wicked

6. The descriptions of the conquest are completely hyperbolic

7. The descriptions are literal and were God’s moral right

8. The Canaanite nations were descendants of the Nephilim (giants)

Some of these possibilities can overlap while others cannot. For instance, one cannot hold to a wholly literal interpretation and also completely allegorize the Israelite conquest. However, someone could hold to a literal historical interpretation while still taking the conquest as allegorical for the church today. The only totally unchristian interpretations in my view are possibilities one and two. Besides these, the reader must decide what possibilities seem most likely and logical. I believe possibilities three through eight each have some truth, while one and two must be rejected by Christians.

1. How literally should we interpret the Israelite conquest?

I believe that God did not command the complete annihilation of the Canaanite peoples but rather their “removal” from the land, which most likely involved killing women and children along with militia who did not flee from God’s wrath or join the Israelites, as Rahab’s family did. I do not believe we can get around this within the text. The Israelites were the instruments of God’s wrath just as the flood was an instrument of God’s wrath in the days of Noah.

It is apparent that the conquest was God’s wrath rather than from human motivation because of the extreme unlikeliness of its success. The Israelites were emphasized to be weak and unable (see Numbers 13:27-33; Deuteronomy 7:7, 17-20; Joshua 6 and 10), and the Canaanites were emphasized to be “like giants”, and far more advanced technologically than the Israelites. The Israelite success was like someone attacking the white house with a tiny water-gun and watching it fall to the ground!

Throughout the narrative, it is apparent that the Israelites are not capable and need God’s divine intervention at every turn. Because of this, I believe the Israelite conquest was God’s retributive punishment on the Canaanite nations that God held back for 400 years out of his grace (see Genesis 15:16), and that God in his sovereignty is able to decide when a nation’s wickedness has reached its limit and is deserving of wrath.

2. Was This Genocide?

God is not singling out one particular people group precisely because he brings similar wrath to His own people when they commit evil and ignore the terms of His covenant (see Deuteronomy 28:15-68).

God’s wrath on the nations residing in the promised land was for one specific time in history to bring wrath on the nations there. This was not something God endorsed at any other time for the Israelite people to do. In the case of the Canaanites and the inhabitants of the nations designated for herem, God commanded complete destruction (See Deuteronomy 7:1-6 as compared to Deuteronomy 20). However, we can be sure that this wrath was not racially motivated, but morally motivated (see the exceptions given for Rahab in Joshua 2, the Gibeonites in Joshua 9, Deuteronomy 9:1-6, and Deuteronomy 28:15-68).

To summarize, because the conquest

1. Was God’s wrath, not from human motivation or ability

2. Was not racially or ethnically motivated

3. Involved driving the Canaanites out of the land whenever possible rather than the determined annihilation of every Canaanite person

—I do not believe the conquest can be constituted as genocide.

3. Was God Justified in Commanding Such a Conquest?

God at times treats nations in a similar way to how he does individuals. For example, in Revelation 2:20-25, God kills Jezebel’s children for her wickedness. Were the children of Jezebel innocent? Yes, but God in his eternal wisdom decides when even the innocent must pay the consequences for the sins of others.

In an individualistic society such as America, this very statement screams of injustice. However, God is not bound by American or post-enlightenment ideals of justice. Rather, he as God decides what is the best way to bring about justice for evil. In scripture, at times this clearly involved taking the lives of the innocent because of the guilty. This says nothing of the eternal destination of the innocent, but simply that the actions of the guilty can sometimes bring consequences and judgment on a whole family, clan, or nation.

In the New Testament, only God can carry out wrath and judgment on individuals or nations since the Sermon on the Mount and other New Testament teaching would forbid God’s people from taking such actions (see Romans 12:14,19-21). However, in the Old Testament, God could use his people to carry out his wrath and judgment. In Joshua, God used his people to carry out his wrath against Achan and his family just as he does apart from human agents on Jezebel in Revelation chapter two.

The lesson for us should be that God does, at times, allow the innocent to be punished, or at least experience consequences, for the sins of the guilty (see Exodus 20:5; 34:7). While I’m not comfortable with this, I must admit that God does this throughout scripture, but never through God’s people after the new covenant under Christ has been established. There is no biblical justification for God’s wrath coming through God’s people under the New Covenant, as can be attested by the general pacifism of the first three hundred years of Christianity. The teachings of Jesus and the apostles forbid all vengeful actions.

One might appeal to Ezekiel 18 as evidence for the idea that God never punishes the innocent for the sins of the guilty. However, this chapter can also be taken as saying that the innocent will not be held responsible for the sins of the guilty, and that sin is not passed down to the next generation. However, we can see that at some points in scripture God allows the innocent to receive the consequences of the guilty.

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