What does it mean to “Utterly Destroy the Canaanites”

In the book of Deuteronomy God orders the Israelites to “utterly destroy” the people living in the land of Canaan. This command, known as “the ban,” is a major objection cited by critics of the Bible. Richard Dawkins, for example, refuses to debate William Lane Craig until Craig abandons his belief in the ban. Dawkins asks “Would you shake hands with a man who could write stuff like that? Would you share a platform with him? I wouldn’t, and I won’t.”[1]

Many Christian authors have tried to put the ban into perspective for modern readers,[2] but Paul Copan sheds new light on the subject in his book Is God A Moral Monster.[3] Copan argues that the language of the ban may be “ancient Near Eastern exaggeration rhetoric.”

At first I was skeptical, but found myself more open to his position as he argued his case from clues within the text itself.

Since I think his ideas are relevant to our understanding of the ban I have summarized the pertinent portions of it along with my own commentary and conclusions.

Deuteronomy 7

First of all, Copan points out that in Deuteronomy 7 there are indications in the text that “utterly destroy” refers to the false religion of the Canaanites. On the one hand, God tells them:

Deut. 7:2 (emphasis mine) – when the LORD your God delivers them before you and you defeat them, then you shall utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them and show no favor to them.

But then he goes on to say:

Deut. 7:3, 5 – Furthermore, you shall not intermarry with them… But thus you shall do to them: you shall tear down their altars, and smash their sacred pillars, and hew down their Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire.

Copan raises a good question: “If the Canaanites were to be completely obliterated, why this discussion about intermarriage or treaties? The final verse [Deut 7:5] emphasizes that the ultimate issue was religious: Israel was to destroy altars, images, and sacred pillars. In other words, destroying Canaanite religion was more important than destroying Canaanite people.”[4]

Later in Deuteronomy 7:22-24 we read

22 “The LORD your God will clear away these nations before you little by little; you will not be able to put an end to them quickly, for the wild beasts would grow too numerous for you.

23 “But the LORD your God will deliver them before you, and will throw them into great confusion until they are destroyed.

24 “He will deliver their kings into your hand so that you will make their name perish from under heaven; no man will be able to stand before you until you have destroyed them.

This describes God’s decision to provide a much more gradual possession of the land than the earlier verses in this chapter seem to indicate. We need to take this whole picture into consideration as we evaluate what he means by “utterly destroy.”

Ancient Near Eastern Exaggeration Rhetoric

Copan argues that Joshua describes his battles using “ancient Near Eastern exaggeration rhetoric… Like his ancient Near Eastern contemporaries, Joshua used the language of conventional warfare rhetoric.”[5]

For example, Joshua 10-11 makes it sound like the inhabitants of the land have been completely annihilated, which Joshua later acknowledges wasn’t the case. Notice how often it refers to the utter destruction of the different people groups (emphasis mine).

Joshua 10:28-40

28 Now Joshua captured Makkedah on that day, and struck it and its king with the edge of the sword; he utterly destroyed it and every person who was in it. He left no survivor. Thus he did to the king of Makkedah just as he had done to the king of Jericho.

29 Then Joshua and all Israel with him passed on from Makkedah to Libnah, and fought against Libnah.

30 The LORD gave it also with its king into the hands of Israel, and he struck it and every person who was in it with the edge of the sword. He left no survivor in it. Thus he did to its king just as he had done to the king of Jericho.

31 And Joshua and all Israel with him passed on from Libnah to Lachish, and they camped by it and fought against it.

32 The LORD gave Lachish into the hands of Israel; and he captured it on the second day, and struck it and every person who was in it with the edge of the sword, according to all that he had done to Libnah.

33 Then Horam king of Gezer came up to help Lachish, and Joshua defeated him and his people until he had left him no survivor.

34 And Joshua and all Israel with him passed on from Lachish to Eglon, and they camped by it and fought against it.

35 They captured it on that day and struck it with the edge of the sword; and he utterly destroyed that day every person who was in it, according to all that he had done to Lachish.

36 Then Joshua and all Israel with him went up from Eglon to Hebron, and they fought against it.

37 They captured it and struck it and its king and all its cities and all the persons who were in it with the edge of the sword. He left no survivor, according to all that he had done to Eglon. And he utterly destroyed it and every person who was in it.

38 Then Joshua and all Israel with him returned to Debir, and they fought against it.

39 He captured it and its king and all its cities, and they struck them with the edge of the sword, and utterly destroyed every person who was in it. He left no survivor. Just as he had done to Hebron, so he did to Debir and its king, as he had also done to Libnah and its king.

40 Thus Joshua struck all the land, the hill country and the Negev and the lowland and the slopes and all their kingsHe left no survivor, but he utterly destroyed all who breathed, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded.

Josh 11:11-23

11 They struck every person who was in [Hazor] with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying them; there was no one left who breathed. And he burned Hazor with fire.

12 Joshua captured all the cities of these kings, and all their kings, and he struck them with the edge of the sword, and utterly destroyed them; just as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded.

13 However, Israel did not burn any cities that stood on their mounds, except Hazor alone, which Joshua burned.

14 All the spoil of these cities and the cattle, the sons of Israel took as their plunder; but they struck every man with the edge of the sword, until they had destroyed them. They left no one who breathed.

15 Just as the LORD had commanded Moses his servant, so Moses commanded Joshua, and so Joshua did; he left nothing undone of all that the LORD had commanded Moses.

16 Thus Joshua took all that land: the hill country and all the Negev, all that land of Goshen, the lowland, the Arabah, the hill country of Israel and its lowland

17 from Mount Halak, that rises toward Seir, even as far as Baal-gad in the valley of Lebanon at the foot of Mount Hermon. And he captured all their kings and struck them down and put them to death.

18 Joshua waged war a long time with all these kings.

19 There was not a city which made peace with the sons of Israel except the Hivites living in Gibeon; they took them all in battle.

20 For it was of the LORD to harden their hearts, to meet Israel in battle in order that he might utterly destroy them, that they might receive no mercy, but that he might destroy them, just as the LORD had commanded Moses.

21 Then Joshua came at that time and cut off the Anakim from the hill country, from Hebron, from Debir, from Anab and from all the hill country of Judah and from all the hill country of Israel. Joshua utterly destroyed them with their cities.

22 There were no Anakim left in the land of the sons of Israel; only in Gaza, in Gath, and in Ashdod some remained.

23 So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the LORD had spoken to Moses, and Joshua gave it for an inheritance to Israel according to their divisions by their tribes. Thus the land had rest from war.

The text emphasizes that Joshua did “just as the Lord had commanded Moses” and “just as the Lord… had commanded.” Joshua did exactly what God wanted and what Moses had intended too. This is relevant because interpretation tries to discern the author’s intention. It ties these narrative accounts to intended outcome of the earlier language from Deuteronomy.

Critical scholarship sees a contradiction between Joshua 10-11 and the book of Judges, which describes these same areas as full of Canaanites. But Joshua knew there were many Canaanites left in the land (Josh. 13-24). Instead, Joshua 6-12 describes victorious campaigns into the north and the south of Israel, and it leaves the individual tribes to take the rest of their allotted portion.

I’ve always understood this as the basic structure of the book of Joshua. But what I hadn’t noticed is how often it uses terms like “utterly destroyed” to describe this initial campaign.

See these comments from Paul Copan and Kenneth Kitchen:

Copan writes:

Just as we might say that a sports team “blew their opponents away” or “slaughtered” or “annihilated” them, the author (editor) likewise followed the rhetoric of his day. Joshua’s conventional warfare rhetoric was common in many other ancient Near Eastern military accounts in the second and first millennia BC. The language is typically exaggerated and full of bravado, depicting total devastation. The knowing ancient Near Eastern reader recognized this as hyperbole; the accounts were understood to be literally true. This language, Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen observes, has misled many Old Testament scholars in their assessments of the book of Joshua; some have concluded that the language of wholesale slaughter and total occupation–which didn’t (from all other indications) actually take place–proves that these accounts are falsehoods. But ancient Near Eastern accounts readily used “utterly/completely destroy” and other obliteration language even when the event didn’t literally happen that way. Here’s a sampling…[6] [Copan goes on to cite six different examples from the 2nd and 1st millenniums BC, all of which are drawn from Kitchen’s work quoted below]

Kenneth Kitchen comments:

The fact is that biblical scholars have allowed themselves to be swept away by the upbeat, rhetorical element present in Joshua, a persistent feature of most war reports in ancient Near Eastern sources that they are not accustomed to understand and properly handle.[7]

Kitchen goes on to say:

It is the careless reading of such verses as these, without a careful and close reading of the narratives proper, that has encouraged Old Testament scholars to read into the entire book a whole myth of their own making, to the effect that the book of Joshua presents a sweeping, total conquest and occupation of Canaan by Joshua, which can then be falsely pitted against the narratives in Judges. But this modern myth is merely a careless falsehood, based on the failure to recognize and understand ancient use of rhetorical summations. The “alls” are qualified in the Hebrew narrative itself. In 10:20 we learn that Joshua and his forces massively slew their foes “until they were finished off”, but in the same breath the text states that “the remnant that survived got away into their defended towns. Thus the absolute wording is immediately qualified by exceptions…[8]

The type of rhetoric in question was a regular feature of military reports in the second and first millennia, as other have made very clear. We can thus be brief here. In the later fifteenth century Tuthmosis III could boast “the numerous army of Mitanni was overthrown within the hour, annihilated totally, like those (now) non-existent” — whereas, in fact, the forces of Mitanni lived to fight many another day, in the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries… It is in this frame of reference that the Joshua rhetoric must also be understood.[9]

We aren’t saying that Joshua lied or exaggerated like his pagan neighbors. In that sense the term “exaggeration rhetoric” is misleading. He’s using the language of hyperbole which is found in various forms throughout Scripture, like when Mark says that “all the people of Jerusalem” went out to be baptized by John.

We need to hold a clear distinction between the testimony of pagan authors—who are free to lie—and the word of God—who cannot lie (Tit. 1:2). These comparisons to pagan literature are only useful if the original readers recognized them as hyperbole. For example, consider the boast from Tuthmosis III cited above:

the numerous army of Mitanni was overthrown within the hour, annihilated totally, like those (now) non-existent

Did Thuthmosis III think his readers would actually believe this? Did anyone in his audience think the army was overthrown? If not, then we have a useful parallel.

While we don’t know for sure what they thought, I think it’s plausible that they recognized it as rhetoric.

A Literalistic Interpretation Leads to Contradictions

In my opinion Copan is most persuasive when he shows how a literalistic reading of these statements leads to contradictions with the remainder of the Old Testament narratives. He supports his theory by showing two cases where Scripture declares that a people group was “utterly destroyed” only to see them reappear later in the Bible: the Amalekites and the Anakim.

The Amalekites

1 Samuel 15 makes it sound like Saul killed every Amalekite except for the king and some animals.

7 Saul defeated the Amalekites, from Havilah as you go to Shur, which is east of Egypt.

8 He captured Agag the king of the Amalekites alive, and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword.

9 But Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep, the oxen, the fatlings, the lambs, and all that was good, and were not willing to destroy them utterly; but everything despised and worthless, that they utterly destroyed.

But then, later in 1 Samuel 27, there are still lots of Amalekites, and they have been living there from ancient times.

1 Sam 27:8 – David and his men went up and raided the Geshurites and the Girzites and the Amalekites; for they were the inhabitants of the land from ancient times

Again, in 1 Samuel 30, the Amalekites are still there.

1 Sam 30:1 – when David and his men came to Ziklag on the third day, that the Amalekites had made a raid on the Negev

Over 250 years later during the time of Hezekiah, the Amalekites are still there.

1 Chron 4:43 – They destroyed the remnant of the Amalekites who escaped

Even in the time of Esther (600 years later), we find Haman the Agagite (Esther 3:1).

Copan comments:

The moral of the story? Don’t simply adopt the surface reading about Saul “utterly destroying” the Amalekites. When we read phrases like the destruction of “everything that breathes,” we should be more guarded… Yes, decisive defeat is certainly in view, but something more is going on here[10]

The Anakim

On the one hand, Joshua claims to have “utterly destroyed” the Anakim.

Josh 11:21-22

21 Then Joshua came at that time and cut off the Anakim from the hill country, from Hebron, from Debir, from Anab and from all the hill country of Judah and from all the hill country of Israel. Joshua utterly destroyed them with their cities.

22 There were no Anakim left in the land of the sons of Israel; only in Gaza, in Gath, and in Ashdod some remained.

But in Joshua 14 and Judges 1 Caleb requests the hill country of Hebron where the Anakim live, and he drives out the Anakim who were living there:

Josh 14:12 (Caleb’s request) – “Now then, give me this hill country about which the LORD spoke on that day, for you heard on that day that Anakim were there, with great fortified cities; perhaps the LORD will be with me, and I will drive them out as the LORD has spoken.”

Judges 1:20 (summarizing Caleb’s victory) – Then they gave Hebron to Caleb, as Moses had promised; and he drove out from there the three sons of Anak.

I suppose it is possible that the Anakim from Gaza, Gath and Ashdod moved back up into the hill country right after the others were killed. But is it also possible that Joshua is saying that he defeated the Anakim before sending Caleb in to finish them off?

Additional Examples Not Cited By Copan

In addition to these examples cited by Copan I found several other occasions where this same phenomenon occurs.

The Midianites

In Numbers 31, it looks like Moses wipes out every last Midianite.

7 they made war against Midian, just as the LORD had commanded Moses, and they killed every male.

They killed the kings of Midian along with the rest of their slain: Evi and Rekem and Zur and Hur and Reba, the five kings of Midian…

9  The sons of Israel captured the women of Midian and their little ones; and all their cattle and all their flocks and all their goods they plundered.

10 Then they burned all their cities where they lived and all their camps with fire.

11 They took all the spoil and all the prey, both of man and of beast.

12 They brought the captives and the prey and the spoil to Moses…

14 Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the captains of thousands and the captains of hundreds, who had come from service in the war.

15 And Moses said to them, “Have you spared all the women?

16 “Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the LORD.

17 Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately.

But we find the Midianites oppressing the Israelites during the time of Gideon in Judges 6. Where did all of these Midianites come from if their five kings were slain along with every male and most of their women? It’s possible that it refers to a local victory over the Midianites that left rest of the Midianites unaffected.

The Amorites

Deuteronomy says the two kings of the Amorites (Sihon and Og) were utterly destroyed along with all of their people.

Deut 2:32-34

32 Then Sihon with all his people came out to meet us in battle at Jahaz.

33 The LORD our God delivered him over to us, and we defeated him with his sons and all his people.

34 So we captured all his cities at that time and utterly destroyed the men, women and children of every city. We left no survivor.

Deut 3:3-6

3 So the LORD our God delivered Og also, king of Bashan, with all his people into our hand, and we smote them until no survivor was left.

4 We captured all his cities at that time; there was not a city which we did not take from them: sixty cities, all the region of Argob, the kingdom of Og in Bashan.

5 All these were cities fortified with high walls, gates and bars, besides a great many unwalled towns.

6 We utterly destroyed them, as we did to Sihon king of Heshbon, utterly destroying the men, women and children of every city.

But Joshua defeats a lot more Amorites in Joshua 10.

Joshua 10:5 – So the five kings of the Amorites, the king of Jerusalem, the king of Hebron, the king of Jarmuth, the king of Lachish, and the king of Eglon, gathered together and went up, they with all their armies…

And in Judges 1:34 the Amorites are still there, battling the tribe of Dan.

Apparently “the Amorites” must have been a loose term used to describe many of the city-states in Canaan. But for all the talk of the Amorites (and other Canaanites) being utterly destroyed, there are a lot left according to Joshua, Judges, and the rest of the Old Testament:

1 Kings 9:20-21

20 There were still some people living in the land who were not Israelites, including Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites.

21 These were descendants of the nations whom the people of Israel had not completely destroyed.

Perhaps it can be explained by God’s description of the defeat of Sihon and Og in Joshua 24. He says he “destroyed them” and also he “drove them out.”

Joshua 24

8 I brought you into the land of the Amorites who lived beyond the Jordan, and they fought with you; and I gave them into your hand, and you took possession of their land when I destroyed them before you.

12 Then I sent the hornet before you and it drove out the two kings of the Amorites from before you

18 The LORD drove out from before us all the peoples, even the Amorites who lived in the land.

Copan argues that the women and children probably fled the fortified cities before the attacking armies came, leaving only the soldiers to defend the city.[11] He cites Jeremiah 4:29 as evidence of this practice: “At the sound of horsemen and archers every town takes to flight. Some go into the thickets; some climb up among the rocks. All the towns are deserted; no one lives in them.” If many Amorites fled before the Israelites arrived and Joshua routed the soldiers who remained, this makes sense of both the “destroyed” language and the “drove out” language.

Copan also thinks that some of the so-called cities were actually military outposts.[12] This may have been true at Ai, but I have a harder time believing that about Jericho (see below under “Critique”)

The Aradites

In Numbers 21 Moses utterly destroys the Aradites before entering the Promised Land.

1 When the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that Israel was coming by the way of Atharim, then he fought against Israel and took some of them captive.

2 So Israel made a vow to the LORD and said, “If You will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.

3 The LORD heard the voice of Israel and delivered up the Canaanites; then they utterly destroyed them and their cities.

But then there are people living there again in the beginning of Judges.

Judges 1:16 – The descendants of the Kenite, Moses’ father-in-law, went up from the city of palms with the sons of Judah, to the wilderness of Judah which is in the south of Arad; and they went and lived with the people.

It is possible that others moved back into that region after the Aradites were utterly destroyed and that the land was still named for its former inhabitants. Perhaps there were more Aradites elsewhere who repopulated the district. Or it could be that “utterly destroyed” should be taken as an expression having something to do with soundly defeating the Canaanite armies and wiping out the immoral religion of the Canaanites in that area along with key political leaders.

Critiques

Although I find some of Copan’s arguments persuasive, his coverage of Jericho is weak. He thinks that Rahab is a tavern keeper[13] and he does not interact with the New Testament statements calling her a harlot (pornos – James 2:25; Heb 11:31)

Copan claims that “There is no archaeological evidence of civilian populations at Jericho or Ai.”[14] But this contradicts Kenneth Kitchen’s statements about Jericho. Kitchen doesn’t mention anything about a military outpost in his On The Reliability of the Old Testament,[15] instead calling Jericho a “town” and referring to its “small, close-set houses fronting on narrow, cobbled lanes.” It’s hard to believe that the Israelite spies snuck into a military outpost occupied only by soldiers and a tavern-keeper with her family. Part of Copan’s faulty information on Jericho could be related to his belief that the conquest occurred in the late 13th century, instead of ~200 years earlier.[16]

I find his explanation of the “men, women and children” language unconvincing. Copan argues that the expression “men and women” and similar phrases appear to be stereotypical for describing all the inhabitants of a town or region, “without predisposing the reader to assume anything further about their ages or even their genders.”[17]

To support this argument he references two essays by Richard Hess. The first article by Hess doesn’t give any more detail than Copan and bases its conclusions on the premise that Jericho was merely a military outpost with Rahab’s family as the only non-combatants.[18]

However, in Hess’s second article he writes:[19]

The actual expression is translated, “men and women,” literally, “from man (and) unto woman.” The phrase occurs elsewhere seven times, referring to the inhabitants of Ai (Josh 8:25), Amalek (1 Sam 15:3, here without the waw), Nob (1 Sam 22:19), Jerusalem during David’s time (2 Sam 6:19 = 1 Chr 16:3), Jerusalem during Ezra’s time (Neh 8:2), and Israel (2 Chr 15:13). In 2 Sam 6:19 (= 1 Chr 16:3) it describes the joyful occasion of David’s entrance into Jerusalem with the ark of the covenant and his distributing food to all the onlookers. Except for Saul’s extermination of the inhabitants of Nob in 1 Sam 22:19, where children are specifically mentioned (unlike the texts about Jericho, Ai, and elsewhere), all other appearances of the phrase precede or follow the Hebrew kol “all, everyone.” Thus, the phrase appears to be stereotypical for describing all the inhabitants of a town or region, without predisposing the reader to assume anything further about their ages or even their genders. It is synonymous with “all, everyone.” If Jericho was a fort, then the “all” who were slain in the Israelite attack would have been warriors. Rahab, as an innkeeper, may have been an exceptional noncombatant who, with her family, lived in what was an otherwise militarized camp.

This argument could hold for the case of Amalek (1 Sam 15:3) and possibly Ai and Nob. But it doesn’t fit his other references, which refer to groups of all ages and genders.

In my opinion this would be like saying, “I ate all of the chocolate and vanilla ice cream in my freezer,” when in reality my freezer only contained chocolate ice cream. While the account of my ice cream conquest would technically be true, it’s a strange and confusing way of expressing what really happened.

Conclusions

While I have lingering questions about the weaker points of Copan’s argument I think we should consider his “rhetoric” theory as one possible way of reading some of the language of the conquest. Properly understood, this argument doesn’t suffer from a low view of Scripture or from ceding too much to background material. Instead it makes its case from clues within the biblical text, in some cases citing verses from later within the same book that seem to clarify the earlier use of so-called rhetoric.

If Copan and others are right it means that most of the “utterly destroyed” language describes victories over opposing armies and cities whose inhabitants had already fled. It means that authors like Joshua and Moses knew what they were doing when they used that language and that their audience would have understood what they were trying to communicate. And we can continue to hold a high view of Scripture that makes sense of some apparent contradictions—passages where exterminated people groups seem to reappear.

Works Cited

Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2011. 157-198

Dawkins, Richard. “Why I refuse to debate with William Lane Craig.” The Guardian. 20 October 2011.

Hess, Richard S. Critical Issues in Early Israelite History. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2008. 39.

Kitchen, K. A. On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: W.B. Eerdmans, 2003. 163.

Endnotes

[1] Dawkins, Richard. “Why I Refuse to Debate with William Lane Craig.” The Guardian. October 20, 2011. Accessed October 12, 2015.

[2] Including these helpful papers by Gary DeLashmutt: https://www.xenos.org/essays/ban and James Rochford: http://www.evidenceunseen.com/what-about-the-canaanite-genocide/

[3] Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2011. 157-198

[4] Copan, Moral Monster, 173.

[5] Copan, Moral Monster, 170.

[6] Copan, Moral Monster, 171.

[7] Kitchen, K. A. On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: W.B. Eerdmans, 2003. 163.

[8] Kitchen, Reliability, 173-174, emphasis his

[9] Kitchen, Reliability, 174

[10] Copan, Moral Monster, 174.

[11] Copan, Moral Monster, 181-182.

[12] Copan, Moral Monster, 175-176.

[13] Copan, Moral Monster, 177.

[14] Copan, Moral Monster, 175.

[15] Kitchen, Reliability, 187-188.

[16] Although Kitchen also holds to a 13th century BC date for the Exodus

[17] Copan, Moral Monster, 175

[18] Hess, Richard S. War in the Bible and Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2008. 29-30.

[19] Hess, Richard S. Critical Issues in Early Israelite History. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2008. 39.

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