This post is part of an ongoing series examining whether or not God commanded Israel to commit genocide in the conquest of the Promised Land.
The Context of Conquest
Several texts can be submitted as examples of where Yahweh seems to have commanded the people of Israel to commit genocide. One such place is Exodus 23:23, which reads: “When my angel goes before you and brings you to the Amorites and the Hittites and the Perizzites and the Canaanites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, and I blot them out….” Here the implication seems to be that Israel and Yahweh will wipe out these nations. But let’s step back and read the wider context of this passage, beginning in verse 20:
20 “Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. 21 Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him. 22 “But if you carefully obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries. 23 “When my angel goes before you and brings you to the Amorites and the Hittites and the Perizzites and the Canaanites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, and I blot them out, 24 you shall not bow down to their gods nor serve them, nor do as they do, but you shall utterly overthrow them and break their pillars in pieces. 25 You shall serve the Lord your God, and he[a] will bless your bread and your water, and I will take sickness away from among you. 26 None shall miscarry or be barren in your land; I will fulfill the number of your days. 27 I will send my terror before you and will throw into confusion all the people against whom you shall come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. 28 And I will send hornets[b] before you, which shall drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites from before you. 29 I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply against you. 30 Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land. 31 And I will set your border from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates,[c] for I will give the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you shall drive them out before you. 32 You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. 33 They shall not dwell in your land, lest they make you sin against me; for if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you.”
Read contextually, this passage does not condone the utter annihilation of these nations, but rather explains why and how they should be driven out. The Canaanite nations have been living a debauched lifestyle full of idolatry, which Israel must be careful to avoid upon entering the land— (v24f) Do not bow down before their gods or worship them or follow their practices. You must demolish them and break their sacred stones to pieces. As for how Yahweh will give Israel the land, it becomes clear that God is going to “blot out” Israel’s enemies by driving them out of the land. Being dispossessed from your home is certainly a terrible thing, but it’s not really the same as being executed as a non-combatant. This passage goes on to suggest that God will drive out the Canaanites little by little, and then closes again with a warning against idolatry. So contextually, this passage does not seem to indicate that Israel should murder everyone in Canaan (or else evoke God’s wrath). Instead it suggests that obedience to Yahweh involves not worshiping other Gods and progressively taking control of the land (which, not coincidentally, is the pattern that we see in Joshua-Judges).