In the previous post, “God of War(ning) and Waiting,” I offered four important points we need to remember while reading through the accounts of the battles between the Israelites and the various people groups in Canaan:
- God waited and warned the people groups involved;
- He commanded the Israelites to accept and assimilate any immigrants from these nations, clearly showing God was not interested in genocide;
- He sought not to destroy individual people, but to destroy the religious and cultural centers that promoted their particular evil;
- He exercised lex talionis (a principle which says that punishment cannot exceed the crime).
As the first two points have been addressed, we are ready for the third point – the question of the war itself.
The “obliteration language” is certainly daunting. If God is truly a bloodthirsty tyrant who orders the killing of women and children, he would have a hard time explaining how he is different from the gods of the Amalekites. I believe an understanding of the language of hyperbolic semitic “war texts” offers a plausible context from which we see a very different image of God emerge. Read carefully, the historical accounts show that God’s intent was to get rid of destructive cultural influences and world views, but not necessarily the people in them.
The hyperbolic exaggeration of war texts is recorded in many documents of other Ancient Near East cultures of the time (all examples cited from Historical Backgrounds of Biblical History, by Jack P. Lewis).
- An Egyptian monument commemorating Merneptah’s conquest of Canaan noted, “Plundered is the Canaan with every evil…Israel is laid waste; his seed is not.”
- The Babylonian Chronicle makes this claim of Nebuchadnezzar: “…the Egyptian army withdrew before him. He accomplished their defeat and to non-existence beat them” – and then goes on to talk about what they did to all the soldiers in the army who escaped.
- Esarhaddon once claimed that he led Sidon’s people into exile, “teeming subjects which could not be counted.”
- When Mesha secured a Moabite victory of Israel, he claimed, “Israel has perished forever.”
- When Shalmaneser defeated Ahab, he penned this commentary: “I spread their corpses everywhere, filling the entire plain with their widely scattered soldiers…I made their blood flow down…the district. The plain was too small to let all their souls descend into the nether world, the vast field gave out when it came to bury them. With their corpses I spanned the Orontes before their was a bridge.”
This is a specific type of genre, one understood by the audience then in a very particular way.We can’t read the war texts of that time with 21st century eyes and do justice to the original intent.Israelite scribes wrote in a cultural context; their war texts reflect historical reality as it was typically recorded in the ANE. So the Bible records that God (or the Israelites) plan was to:
- “wipe them out” (Exodus 23.23)
- “throw them into confusion” (Exodus 23.27)
- “make them turn their backs and run” (Exodus 23.27)
- “drive them out of your way” (Exodus 23.28)
- “struck down” (Psalms 135.10)
- “dispossessed” (Numbers 21.32)
- “destroy them” (Deuteronomy 9.3)
- “subdue them before you” (Deuteronomy 9.3)
- “annihilate” (Deuteronomy 9.3)
- “delivered them over to you” (Deuteronomy 7.2)
- “defeated them” (Deuteronomy 7.2)
Were the Israelites supposed to “make them run” or “annihilate” them? Well, yes. In ANE vocabulary, these commands are not inconsistent considering the hyperbolic language of the war texts in that time period. The question is which command was consistently given.
These biblical “war texts” use words that fall into two categories: dispossession or destruction. If all biblical references were listed here, we would see that the “dispossession” words outnumber the “destruction” words by 3-to-1. This would seem to indicate that the dominant purpose was not destruction, but disruption and displacement of particular cultural groups (such as the Amalekites).
For example, in Exodus 23 God tells his people that He himself would “wipe out” their enemies (verse 23), but he explains this means to slowly drive them out ahead of time (verse 29). God tells the Israelites their specific role: ” demolish their gods and break their sacred stones to pieces”(verse 24). Just to make sure the people would not return, the Israelites were not to make a covenant with them, ” because the worship of their gods will certainly be a snare to you” (verse 33). Plenty of people continue to live – just not as neighbors, because God did not want his people to start burning babies on the outstretched iron arms of Molech.
Dueteronomy 7 (read the whole chapter here) contains a similar clear command for destruction, but also has insightful information about how this “destruction” would look:
” This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession…He will give their kings into your hand, and you will wipe out their names from under heaven. No one will be able to stand up against you; you will destroy them. The images of their gods you are to burn in the fire.”
Note the traditional war language, but also note that they specifically command the destruction of centers of worship. There is certainly a violent military aspect to this, but the destruction was for the worship centers and cultural systems that created and sustained systemic horrors, not necessarily the people who committed them.
The commands were given with two consistent goals: the destruction of religious systems that fostered remarkable evil, and the displacement of those who refused to give up their allegiance. God did not command genocide as is so often claimed.
Even so, this does not yet show that these wars were necessarily just. There was a lot of fighting, and a lot of evil can occur short of wiping out an entire people group. So just how violent were these battles? Stay tuned….