We now come to the final post of my six-part extended book review of John Walton’s most recent book, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest, and in this post, we will address the controversial question, “Did God really tell the Israelites to commit genocide by wiping out entire populations, including women and children?”
To get right to the point, the answer to that question is, “No.” What is being described is ancient warfare, according to the accepted ancient Near Eastern rules of warfare, not genocide. Furthermore, the Hebrew word herem, which is often translated as “utterly destroy,” simply doesn’t mean “utterly destroy.” Therefore, this post will be devoted primarily to Walton’s discussion on the concept of herem, found in Propositions 15, 15, 17, 18, and 19.
Herem Does Not Mean “Utterly Destroy” and It Was Focused on Group Identity
When God tells the Israelites to put the Canaanite cities and people to herem, He is not ordering genocide. Rather, herem literally means “the removal of something from human use.” As Walton points out, “When herem objects are destroyed, the purpose of the destruction is to make sure that nobody can use it, but not all herem objects are destroyed. Most notably, Joshua 11:12-13 reports that all the northern cites were herem, yet Joshua destroys only one of them (Hazor)” (170).
Incidentally, one of the reasons why some people question the historicity of the conquest is because the archeological evidence does not show that there was “massive destruction” of Canaanite cities and towns during the time period that the conquest supposedly had occurred—archeologists claim only a handful of cities—like Hazor—show evidence of destruction. If we understand what herem actually means, and if we understand that the writer goes out of his way to tell us that of all the northern cities Joshua put to herem, he only utterly destroyed Hazor, we should recognize much of archaeology does support what is actually reported.
In any case, Walton points out that although herem can mean to utterly destroy something (like Hazor), what the actual focus of herem is the removal of group or community identity. Therefore, the purpose of herem against the Canaanite nations was “to destroy their community identities, not to purge their genetics” (189). This really should not be surprising, for, as Walton points out on page 193, passages like Deuteronomy 7 give the details of just what the Israelites were told to do: break down Canaanite altars, smash Canaanite sacred stones, cut down Canaanite Asherah poles, and burn Canaanite idols in the fire. It doesn’t order the Israelites to actually kill every single Canaanite. If it did, then the prohibition against intermarriage in Deuteronomy 7:3 really wouldn’t be necessary, would it?
Simply being a non-Israelite did not automatically make you subject to herem—we know this because in the very Torah itself (as well as in Joshua and throughout Israel’s history), there are references to foreigners who lived in the land along with Israel, and who were a part of the Israelite community. In fact, the Israelites are specifically told in Leviticus 19:33-34 not only to not harm foreigners who lived among them, but to actively love them as themselves.
So what Walton says we need to see is that the Israelites were not intent on “wiping out foreigners,” but rather Canaanite culture and institutions. The reason should be obvious: as mentioned in the previous post, Canaanite culture was not only idolatrous, it was also incredibly violent and corrupt. As Walton says, “…the identity needs to be removed so that Israel cannot make use of it. This is the essence of the threat that ‘they will become snares and traps for you’. With non-Israelite identities coexisting alongside the Israelite identity, syncretism, appropriating foreign religious customs and beliefs, becomes a distinct possibility, bordering on inevitable” (191).
Now, someone will ask, “But what about passages like Deut. 2:34: 3:6; and 20:16-18, where it is specifically says that men, women, and children were destroyed?” Walton’s response involves explaining just what these narratives are and what purposes they served.
Simply put, Walton says that these narratives were not meant to give information to reconstruct the actual events. Yes, they are about actual events, but no, they’re not news reports crafted to give “just the facts.” They are, as I would say, history told as story, and therefore, as Walton says, “the actual details of the totality of the destruction or the quantity of victims is likely couched in rhetorical hyperbole, in accordance with the expectations of the genre” (178). Thus, Walton argues that claims of the total destruction of men, women, and children are simply hyperbole, and the original audience would have understood that.
Still, although I do think these accounts are somewhat hyperbolic, I think we can still argue that the text itself isn’t even claiming that in a hyperbolic way. After all, if herem means “to remove from use,” and if it is focused on destroying Canaanite culture and identity, then what is the logical way to interpret something like, “Joshua put the entire city to herem, including men, women, and children?” Couldn’t it be that the Israelites destroyed their religious and cultural institutions so that they couldn’t effectively live out and promote Canaanite culture anymore?
To illustrate this, Walton offers a modern-day example of how the Allies dealt with Germany after WWII. Yes, they rounded up the Nazi leaders, put them on trial, and executed them, but the majority of rank and file Nazi soldiers were told to go home, rebuild their lives, and never wear the Nazi uniform again, and never again display anything “Nazi.” What the Allies effectively did was destroy Nazi identity and culture in Germany. Yes, that involved the killing of leaders and the destruction of certain cities and Nazi strongholds, but it didn’t involve killing every last German.
Therefore, if we want to get a better grasp on precisely what the book of Joshua is describing by putting the Canaanite cities and people to herem, it probably would be a better thing to think of it in terms of the post-WWII events, rather than some sort of crazed, xenophobic genocide.
Holy War, the Gibeonites, and Vassal Treaties
At the end of his book, Walton touches upon a few other related items that I want to briefly mention. First, he discusses the misguided characterization of “holy war.” It has often been claimed that the Israelites saw the conquest of Canaan as a “holy war,” and thus herem was the utter destruction of foreigners as a “sacrifice to God.” Walton’s reaction is simple: No, that’s wrong. In the ancient worldview the gods fought besides armies, and thus were involved in everything. Hence, “the idea of war as either holy or secular would have been meaningless in an ancient context” (201). Furthermore, as has already been discussed, herem doesn’t mean “utterly destroy,” and it certainly doesn’t mean “sacrifice.”
In regard to the Gibeonites, who because they tricked Israel into making a covenant with them, were not killed. Still, Joshua’s assigning them to sanctuary service shows that they were considered herem as well—they were not allowed to be used as common slaves by Israelites, but were rather devoted to being used in the sanctuary.
Finally, Walton explains how the logic of herem works within the context of Israel’s vassal treaty with YHWH. If the first part of Joshua described God clearing the land for His own use, the second part of Joshua is essentially the “land grant” that the king (i.e. YHWH) gives to his vassals (i.e. Israel). Therefore, later on, with the exile, what we see is the king removing rebellious subjects from the land that was previously granted to them, and essentially putting them to herem by destroying their national identity.
Walton’s New Testament Application
In the last proposition in the book (Proposition 21), Walton applies what can be learned about the Old Testament concept of herem to the New Testament understanding of salvation, Christian identity, and life. Instead of discussing it, I will just provide, for your own consideration, the chart that Walton has in the book.
|OT Element||NT Recapitulation||Objective|
|Territory Subject to Herem||Canaanite cities captured; captives and spoils destroyed||The personal selves of members in the Christian community (“crucified with Christ”), represented by baptism||Place where the presence of God is located is turned over to God to use as he sees fit|
|What is driven out of the territory in order to remove it from use||Canaanite armies defeated, people displaced||The “old self,” “former nature,” “the flesh”||Removal of elements currently using the territory that prevent or impede intended divine use|
|Identities outside the community subject to herem||Canaanite nations within the boundaries of Israel||Personal or corporate identities other than “Christian” within the church or its members (i.e. Jew, Greek, slave, free, etc.)||Removal of elements that will lead to identify contamination of the community through syncretism|
|Identities inside the community subject to herem||Individuals or communities within Israel who defy the covenant order (idolaters)||Self-identified members of the Christian community who deviate from the parameters the community has established for itself (i.e. heretics)||Restoration of the health of the community from identity contamination that has already taken place|
|Not subject to herem of any kind||Cities and nations outside the land||Persons or identities outside the membership of the church (nonbelievers, or other religions)|
If we put all the points discussed in these six posts together, what we should understand about the Conquest of Canaan is the following:
- The Canaanites were not being punished for disobeying God’s moral law.
- The Conquest of Canaan was not genocide or ethnic cleansing.
- The Conquest is depicted as a recapitulation of creation.
- Genesis 15:13-16 is not saying that God was going to wait until the Canaanites sinned enough to warrant annihilation, but rather only that the destruction of the Canaanite culture would not happen until long after Abraham had passed away.
- Most of the battles described in the Conquest were instigated by the Canaanites, who were the clear aggressors. What is being described is ancient warfare, pure and simple.
- The Canaanites are described as “chaos creatures,” similar to the ANE concept of the Umman-manda, and thus are seen as a threat to God’s order.
- The Torah itself (i.e. God’s Law) is more about illustrating underlying principles of justice than it is about legislating morality and providing a list of moral commands.
- I do think, though, that Walton overstates the case by giving the impression that morality had nothing to do with the Conquest. The Canaanites were clearly an incredibly evil, violent and dangerous culture.
- Thus, Israel was commanded by God to put that Canaanite culture to herem: and that didn’t mean wipe out every last individual Canaanite—it wasn’t a command to commit ethnic-cleansing. It was a command to wipe out the violent and oppressive Canaanite structures and identities that were so abominable and horrible. Canaanites who wanted to keep their way of life had to leave the land, but those (like Rahab) who wanted to become part of Israelite society were allowed to do so.
My Particular “Historical Reconstruction”
Put all that together, and this is what I’ve come to believe about the conquest. Escaped slaves from Egypt made their way to the land of their ancestors, and were met with hostility and violence from some particularly vicious and dangerous people. When they had to, they fought their attackers and defeated them, and proceeded to set up their own society based on the covenant that they had entered into with their God. In doing so, they also attempted to wipe out the traces of the violent culture of the people who had attacked them. When later writers wrote the story of the “birth” of their nation, they told the story using the imagery of their creation myth. And in the telling of the story, they used a certain amount of literary license to explain the significance of what had happened.
That, to me, is entirely plausible and still fundamentally faithful to the text. It also fits in with the reality of life within the context of the ancient Near East. It’s not genocide, it’s not jihad, it is not ethnic-cleansing. It was the reality of the Israelites being attacked, fighting back, and then establishing a society based on the covenant.
So just remember, if you object to what is being described in the book of Joshua, that’s like objecting to the Allies banning Nazism and Nazi symbols in Germany, or to the United States trying to get rid of the Taliban who had inflicted horrendous atrocities on the innocent Afghani people.
But who in their right mind would do that?