Understanding the Conquest of Canaan (Part 5): The Canaanites–Is Having Sex With Your Donkey Only Wrong If You’re an Israelite?

As we come to Part 5 in my series about understanding the conquest of Canaan, I want to address a point John Walton makes that stems from his propositions I addressed in Part 4. It is here where I take issue with some of Walton’s claims. Simply put, I’m not convinced. I think he overstates his case.

Can You Really Separate Justice and Morality?
In his attempt to argue that the Canaanites should not be seen as being punished for violating the covenant (which is true), Walton overstates his case when he says, “The Bible as Scripture…does not provide us with moral knowledge because God’s purpose in providing it for us does not include teaching us how to be moral” (98). Really? The Bible doesn’t provide us with any moral knowledge? I’m sorry, but that strikes me as absurd. If you are going to make such a statement, then you’re really going to have to tease that statement out—and for some reason, that is precisely what Walton does not do. Consequently, it left quite a few “question marks” in the margins of my copy.

Sure, it makes sense that the Canaanites are not being punished for violating the covenant, because they’re not under the covenant. And sure, it makes sense to see that much of the legal material in the Torah should be seen as illustrating underlying principles of justice, rather than just simple “moral commands” that one had better obey in order to “be good.” But it seems that Walton is trying to completely sever the concept of justice from morality—at least that is the impression the book gives, and that just leaves me shaking my head. It seems to me that one doesn’t have to deny there is a component of moral teaching in the Torah in order to argue that the Canaanites are not being punished for violating the covenant. So why does Walton seem to do this? Perhaps it is passages like Leviticus 18 and Deuteronomy 18…

Doesn’t Leviticus/Deuteronomy Describe the Canaanites as Immoral Perverts?
Walton spend a considerable amount of time addressing passages like Leviticus 18 and Deuteronomy 18 that specifically command the Israelites not to engage in the abominations that the Canaanites engage in (i.e. don’t have sex with your father, mother, sister, or any close relative; don’t sacrifice your children to Molech; don’t have sex with animals; don’t have sex with someone of the same sex), and then articulating the reason for such commands:

24Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, for by all these practices the nations I am casting out before you have defiled themselves. 25Thus the land became defiled; and I punished it for its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. 26But you shall keep my statutes and my ordinances and commit none of these abominations, either the citizen or the alien who resides among you 27(for the inhabitants of the land, who were before you, committed all of these abominations, and the land became defiled); 28otherwise the land will vomit you out for defiling it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. 29For whoever commits any of these abominations shall be cut off from their people (Leviticus 18:24-29).

That pretty much spells it out:

  1. Don’t do those practices and abominations
  2. The Canaanites do those practices, and have defiled themselves and the land
  3. Therefore, God is punishing them, and they are being vomited out of the land
  4. If you do those abominations, you’ll be vomited out of the land too, and you’ll be cut off from God’s people.

Simply put, God is telling Israel that it is the Canaanites’ immoral behavior that has led to them being vomited out of the land, and if Israel does the same abominations, the same thing will happen to them. Walton, though, goes at great length to argue (rather unsuccessfully, in my opinion), that the Canaanites’ behavior wasn’t really detestable for them, but only for the Israelites. Here’s how he makes that argument in Propositions 12-13:

  • First, Walton claims the behaviors God is prohibiting in Leviticus 18 are not so much commands that the Israelites not do them, as they are descriptions (by means of contrast) of covenant order. Simply put, God is saying, “I am establishing covenant order with you; these behaviors are contrary to that covenant order, so don’t do them.”
  • Second, Walton then claims Leviticus 18 isn’t really saying that the Canaanites actually did these behaviors, but rather is simply “generating a negative profile of those who live outside the established order, for the purpose of promoting the established order as the ideal state of being” (140). Simply put: it’s a pedagogical stereotype of the Canaanites, not to describe what the Canaanites were actually like, but rather to teach the Israelites (by means of contrast) what the ideal state of established order looked like.
  • Third, Walton then states that the Hebrew word that describes these practices is toeba (translated here as “abomination”—as well as in Deut. 18:9-14), and that word really means “contrary to order.” Therefore, “This indicates that the toeba described in Deuteronomy is detestable behavior if the Israelites do it, but that does not mean it is detestable when the Canaanites do it; the rhetoric is delivered from a purely Israelite perspective. The emphasis is on what Israel is not supposed to do, not on what the Canaanites should be (or were) punished for doing” (153).
  • Fourth (and this point is actually made in Proposition 11—BEFORE these previous three points, which adds to the frustration and confusion), therefore, just because it says Canaanite actions “defiled” the land, that “doesn’t mean that immorality was involved” (128). The emphasis of the conquest was to clear the land from impurity and establish covenant order. Hence, when the Canaanites are removed, God is simply clearing out the impurities from the land; but when Israel is removed later on, God is demonstrating his commitment to enforcing the covenant order that he has identified himself with. Therefore, as Walton says, “…it is not legitimate to claim that what happens to Israel at the exile is the same thing that happens to the Canaanites at the conquest” (133).

I’m sorry, but that explanation is baffling to me. Leviticus 18 clearly says, “The Canaanites did these things—that’s why they’re being expelled from the land; and if you Israelites do them, you’ll be expelled too.” But Walton turns around and says, “Oh, it’s not a literal description of what the Canaanites did, but only a stereotype-negative profiled projected on the Canaanites to illustrate what the Israelites should not do under the covenant; but those ‘abominations’ that the Canaanites did would only be considered detestable behavior if the Israelites did it—they weren’t detestable for the Canaanites…they were not being punished for doing them, because they were not under the covenant, therefore the curses of the covenant don’t apply to them. And it’s a totally different thing when Israel gets removed from the land.”

Does that make sense to you? Because it certainly doesn’t make sense to me: The Canaanites didn’t do the abominations mentioned in Leviticus 18 (even though Leviticus 18 says they did them), but the word “abomination” really means “contrary to order,” so when the Canaanites did them, they weren’t detestable behaviors for them…so they weren’t being punished for doing them—but if the Israelites do them they’ll be punished in the same way as the Canaanites…but it’s totally different?”

I think “tortured logic” is an understatement. And what’s more, I think it is wholly unnecessary to make Walton’s overall point.

Yes, the Canaanites Were Really Bad People
To get right to the point, Walton does not have to say, “The behaviors that the Canaanites did (that Leviticus says they did, but that they didn’t really do, but they did) weren’t detestable for them, but only for the Israelites” if he wants to maintain his point that the Bible is not saying the Canaanites were not being punished for violating the covenant. They weren’t being punished for violating the covenant, but the Canaanites were still really bad people, and it does no one any good to try to whitewash that fact.

I know it has become in vogue these days to basically portray the Canaanites as peaceful innocent people whom the Israelites stereotyped and slandered as vicious, immoral beasts just to justify their slaughter of them, but I’m not buying it. (Incidentally, Peter Enns basically says the Canaanites weren’t that bad, but that the conquest never really happened anyway—this is one area where I disagree with him as well).

Believe it or not, there are plenty of examples from history of really dangerous, horrible people, or of civilizations degenerating into barbarism. We can see this even in today’s world, either with ISIS or the Taliban. As horrible as the USSR was, they imposed a certain amount of order in Afghanistan when they invaded in 1980. After they left in 1990, the Afghanistan quickly degenerated into barbarism, with the Taliban eventually taking over and inflicting the worst atrocities on the Afghani people. Eventually, when they allied with Al-Qaeda, and Al-Qaeda attacked the United States, the Taliban suffered international justice for their atrocities. No, they didn’t “break any American laws” (obviously), but their actions were evil, and they deserved punishment.

This kind of thing has repeatedly happened throughout history: when a major culture or power collapses, chaos and violence erupt and often some very bad actors end up gaining power and atrocities become the new way of life.

I think we see a similar dynamic when it comes to ancient Canaan. According to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, in the time prior to Abraham, the land of Syria-Palestine enjoyed a very high culture, dominated by the kingdom of Ebla. Yet by around 2300-2100 BC, some sort of violent destruction happened, many cities were abandoned, and the civilization returned to the more village-level. As it is said in Peoples of the Old Testament World:

“The urbanization of Canaan in the Early Bronze Age II (ca. 2900-2700), illustrated by sites such as Arad and Ai, declined during the Early Bronze Age III, which ended about 2300. Walled cities were destroyed or abandoned, and urban culture gave way to a pastoral, village way of life over the next two centuries, Early Bronze Age IV (about 2300-2000).”

Translation? In the time period before the Exodus, things in Canaan had gotten really, really bad and violent. The Canaanites of this time practiced things that were considered abominable even by ancient Near Eastern standards: child sacrifice, incest, bestiality, in addition to other practices that were accepted in the ANE, but forbidden in Israel—cult prostitution and homosexual practices. On top of that, as more often than not, they were the aggressors against the Israelites, and thus were the ones provoking conflict and war.

My Own Historical Reconstruction
If you were part of a tribal people, recently escaped from slavery, and you were travelling back to the land where your ancestors came from, only to be constantly threatened and attacked by other tribal peoples who were violent and degenerate and blood-thirsty (i.e. think “the Taliban): (A) How would you view them? (B) How would you tell the story of your conflicts with them? And (C) What would you actually do when those conflicts arose?

I submit that if you were a member of the tribes of Israel, if you had recently escaped out of Egypt, if you were travelling back to your ancestors’ homeland, and if you found yourself constantly attacked and harassed by various Canaanite tribes, you would probably (A) view them as “creatures of chaos,” (B) tell your story against the backdrop of creation, and thus describe the conflicts in that light, and (C) would probably do something very similar to what is described in the book of Joshua—i.e. fight back and destroy all traces of that barbaric culture.

Hence, it was not unjustifiable aggression and genocide; it was entirely justifiable fighting for survival, and attempting to establish an orderly society according to the covenant they had made with YHWH. If we understand that, we can revisit Walton’s four earlier points:

  1. Of course, the actions in Leviticus 18 are descriptions that are contrary to covenant order, but they also are clearly commands not to do them. Why? Precisely because such actions do violate order and justice, and one only had to look at state of Canaan at that time to see that.
  2. Or course, by means of contrast, Leviticus is promoting what the ideal covenant order looked like, but that contrast would be meaningless if there wasn’t some truth in how it was describing the Canaanites.
  3. Of course, the behavior of the Canaanites was “contrary to order”—that’s why it was abominable, not just for Israelites, but for anyone.
  4. Of course, the behavior of the Canaanites “defiled the land”—but who in their right mind thinks immorality had nothing to do with it?

The ultimate purpose in this post is to give what I feel is a bit of a corrective to a very weak and unnecessary argument by Walton in his book. We cannot divorce the concepts of justice and morality. Sure, the Canaanites were not being punished for violating the covenant; but the Canaanites’ behavior was still really bad, really violent, and really barbaric—that is why they are depicted as chaos creatures. They were a threat to God’s order, they preyed upon the weak and needy of society, and they violently opposed anyone who wasn’t like them.

One doesn’t need to close one’s eyes to that fact in order to say that the Canaanites weren’t being punished for violating the covenant. By trying to do just that, though, Walton (and Enns, for that matter), ends up essentially saying, “The Canaanites didn’t do anything wrong; God simply cleared them out because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time—sucks for them! God decreed it, so there’s nothing they could do.”

Sure, in the ancient pagan world, whatever order there was, was there because of the decree of the gods—human beings were considered worthless and disposable. But one of the main themes throughout the Bible is that human beings aren’t worthless and disposable. And the Bible is clear: the reason the Canaanites got what was coming to them was because of their behavior. Because of their idolatry, they had become blind and deaf and dumb as their idols; because of their idolatry, they had become beast-like in their actions, given over to violence and perversion—that is why they are depicted as beast-like chaos creatures. And at some point, such threats to what is good have to be dealt with.

Point being, if you completely throw out the moral element to the conquest narrative, you are essentially reducing YHWH to just another pagan god, clearing worthless people out for his own whims.

In my final post, I am going to bring all this together to finally address the final big question: Did YHWH actually command the Israelites to engage in slaughter?

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