The biblical command to destroy the Canaanites is troubling. In Deuteronomy 7:1-2, Moses instructs the Israelites: “When YHWH your God … clears away many nations before you … you must utterly destroy them” (author’s translation). This command is fulfilled by Joshua and his army, and Joshua 10:40-43 offers a breathtaking picture of the violent destruction of the peoples of Canaan. In modern terms, we may call this a war of genocide. How is the reader of the Bible to understand the ethics of this utter destruction, including the killing of every woman, man, and child? How can we comprehend a God who commands such things? These questions have troubled interpreters for millennia.
Charlie Trimm, a biblical scholar at Biola University, has written a very readable exploration of these issues. He opens the book with the refreshing admission that he cannot solve the moral problem. Rather, he sets out to contextualize the issue, present a variety of interpretations, and note the weaknesses in each alternative, offering thus a fuller picture of the problem.
Trimm first describes the concepts and practices of war in the ancient Near East, the question of genocide in antiquity, and the identity of the Canaanites. He points out that ancient war involves the ideology of the king as the protector of cosmic order who must periodically vanquish the forces of chaos. The history of warfare is filled with this ideology, from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia to current wars across the globe. This ideology informs concepts of biblical warfare as well.