How does “Canaanite Destruction” relate to mission and justice?

The most common grudge people have against scripture is surely the apparent annihilation of the Canaanites. In my estimation those who complain most loudly against this issue, including scholars from the New Atheist camp, have done little serious research into the matter. As it turns out, this theme is not the atrocity that it appears to be. And understanding this theme properly is vital for a proper understanding the mission of Christ. However, you will need to buckle-in and journey with me for a while, back in time, and then back to our time, so that we can understand these ancient texts. I will focus on the book of Deuteronomy.

Moabite Stone, Louve

Moabite Stone, Louve

What follows is an excerpt from my chapter in a forthcoming book with Eerdmans, “A Missional Reading of Scripture: Hermeneutics, Preaching, and Theological Education,” edited by Michael Goheen.

The theme of judgment in Deuteronomy focuses our view of the missional encounter with culture of a worshipping community: God’s people exist both for and against the world.[1] Two great sins are condemned in Deuteronomy: apostasy and injustice. For tolerating these two great sins Israel would ultimately be exiled, as Deuteronomy had predicted. Of course these two themes are dependent on one another, for it is precisely Yahweh’s good rule that forges a society in which every person and all of creation can flourish.

Judgment Upon the Canaanites.

The Deuteronomic texts that command the utter destruction of the Canaanite populations require some discussion at this point (7:2, 5, 23; 12:30: 20:15-16).[2] These texts raise important questions about grace, violence, ethnicity, judgment, and the character of God. In order to clear the ground for our discussion, allow me to address some of the major objections to the ethics of these texts, with three brief points. First, Yahweh’s judgment upon the Canaanites is not arbitrary but is the divine response to their injustice and wickedness (12:31). Second, God’s judgment also fell on Israel itself for the same reasons, demonstrating that judgment upon “the nations” was not ethnically motivated. Third, there is no inherent incongruity between Yahweh’s judgment upon a nation at a particular point on the journey of salvation history and Yahweh’s blessing all nations through Abraham at the destination of the journey. God acts in power throughout history in order to restrain evil and injustice so that blessing may flourish.

Nonetheless there are good reasons for thinking that Deuteronomy does not have in view the entire destruction of the Canaanite populations. Walter Brueggemann asserts that this theme “requires a class reading, this rhetoric is on the lips of those who have no weapons.”[3] Insofar as Deuteronomy was allowed to shape the community during the monarchic period, it was a text in solidarity with those on the margins of society, those without economic power or military capacity. Furthermore, K. Lawson Younger, among others, has investigated the literary techniques of ancient conquest accounts, focusing on Assyrian, Hittite, Egyptian, and Israelite texts. Younger demonstrates that expressions of annihilation in ancient conquest accounts have a highly figurative and an ideological aspect that is commonly communicated through hyperbole. These accounts use stereotyped phrases that overstate the historical reality, expressing the ideology of the text’s sponsor.[4] Younger’s argument is perhaps most easily demonstrated in the well-known Mesha inscription (the Moabite stone) wherein King Mesha of Moab claims: “Israel has gone to ruin, yes, it has gone to ruin for ever,”[5] and claims that every resident in the vicinity of Nebo has been killed.[6] Of course in fact neither Israel nor Nebo were annihilated: the text is hyperbolic and ideological.[7] This observation does not mean that the Mesha inscription is historically void and that these battles never occurred. It does show that this genre of ancient writing communicates through literary conventions that exaggerate elements of annihilation in order to make an ideological or theological point.[8] Younger demonstrates that “Joshua 9-12 shares a similar transmission code with its ANE counterparts.”[9]

In Deuteronomy herem signifies the total loyalty that Yahweh demands and that deep human flourishing requires. Other societies were shaped by a different kind of rule and were therefore in many ways an aberration of Yahweh’s intention for society. Israel is meant to reject utterly the false worship of these kingdoms. Herem amounts to a kind of spiritual map, distinguishing between the kingdoms of darkness and of light. The lens of a missional hermeneutic highlights for us that Deuteronomy’s theology of judgment is preparing a people for a wholesale confrontation with the dehumanizing idols of culture.

Canaanite Destruction and a Missional Encounter with Culture.

Deuteronomy’s stipulations regarding foreign participation in the covenant community demonstrates a certain tension. On the one hand, the pagan practices of the Canaanite people who were established in the land posed a clear threat of syncretism for Israel. Intermarriage in particular would have spelled the end to Israel’s distinctive life and missional identity (7:3-4). On the other hand, Deuteronomy also insists upon the full inclusion of the stranger and the chattel slave in the life of the nation, and many of those included would have been from other kingdoms and would have worshipped other deities. Seemingly these latter groups did not present the same threat to the community’s faithfulness because of their vulnerability. Israel was to keep these principles in tension, taking steps to exclude threats to its own faithful allegiance to Yahweh but also striving to be a radically inclusive community (in line with the exodus motif). The command to separate from the Canaanites is as dependent upon the missional context of the community as the command to radical inclusivity.

This same tension of being both for and against the world faces any missional community, because a missional community must immerse itself in the world’s grief and joys, its structures and sociality and yet not drown in its whelming idolatry. As G. Lohfink puts it: “Precisely because the church does not exist for itself, but completely and exclusively for the world, it is necessary that the church not become the world, that it retain its own countenance.”[10] Missional leaders must persistently ask: “What does it mean to love our neighborhood? And what are the idols that threaten our particular community in this particular place?”

I suggest that one strategy for the western church to live faithfully amidst cultural idolatry is to relocate itself at the margins of society, with the marginalized. Scholars and laypeople reading the New Testament notice that Christ ate his way through the gospels and that he had a reputation for eating with all the wrong people: tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners. But this social rearrangement through Kingdom feasting didn’t begin altogether with Christ. As we have seen in Deuteronomy, Israel was always supposed to live this way, sharing the festal table—indeed all of life—with the vulnerable, with gratitude to God. Certainly, the church is called into every sphere of culture, into education, health, business, politics, and the arts. Some of us are called to influence the very center of culture. Yet no matter what our calling or sphere of influence, we cannot neglect to make our home also at the margins, with “sinners.” This is how we set our table; this is where we feast.

[1] “The Church is for the world against the world. The Church is against the world for the world. The Church is for the human community in that place, that village, that city, that nation, in the sense that Christ is for the world. And that must be the determining criterion at every point” (Lesslie Newbigin, A Word in Season: Perspectives on Christian World Missions [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994], p. 54).

[2] See further, McConville, Deuteronomy, 90, 161; Wright, Ethics, pp. 472-80.

[3] Brueggemann, Theology, p. 243.

[4] K. Lawson Younger,Jr, Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History Writing (JSOT Supp. 98; Sheffield; JSOT, 1990), p. 123.

[5] “The Inscription of King Mesha,” translated by K. A. D. Smelik in The Context of Scripture (eds. William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger; Leiden: Brill, 2000), 2.23.

[6] The Hebrew/Moabite word hrm is used here, the same word employed in Deuteronomy.

[7] Bruce E. Routledge argues that the significance of Mesha devoting the Canaanites to Kemosh was that the deity then stood between the two social groups, preventing exchange of any kind and therefore of any kind of human sociability (Moab in the Iron Age: Hegemony, Polity, Archaeology [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004], p. 150).

[8] Similarly C. Wright writes, “We do need to allow for the exaggerated language of warfare” (Ethics, p. 474).

[9] Younger, Conquest Accounts, p. 241.

[10] G. Lohfink, Jesus and Community, p. 146.

About Mark Glanville

Mark Glanville is a pastor-scholar who ministers in a missional urban community, Grandview Church, Vancouver, and is Professor of Old Testament and congregational studies at the Missional Training Center, Phoenix (missionaltraining.org). Mark's research focusses upon the Pentateuch, biblical ethics, and mission. Mark has authored an introductory book on Exodus (Lexham, forthcoming), numerous refereed articles and chapters on the Pentateuch, mission, and refugee related issues, as well as numerous popular articles. Mark is presently co-authoring a book, "Providing Refuge: A Missional and Political Theology." Mark is regularly called upon to speak on in Canada, the U.S., and Australia. His previous career was as a jazz pianist in Sydney, Australia (Chick Corea and Wynton Kelly are his musical heroes).
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4 Responses to How does “Canaanite Destruction” relate to mission and justice?

  1. Peter Farthing says:

    Extremely helpful and challenging article, thanks Mark. Most illuminating to read about the hyperbole. Your core thesis sparks all sorts of challenging thoughts. It is prophetic. The church aligned with the marginalized . . . The church for the world but not imitating it. Thank you.

  2. Pingback: How many times must we be told? | FaithfulDailyRead

  3. Brion says:

    Hey, Mark. To your first point about Yahweh’s judgement as a divine response to injustice, Tertullian addresses this topic. His thoughts are helpful. He distinguishes between two types of evil.

    “We, on the contrary, distinguish between the two meanings of the word in question, and, by separating evils of sin from penal evils, mala culpæ from mala pœnæ, confine to each of the two classes its own author—the devil as the author of the sinful evils (culpæ), and God as the creator of penal evils (pœnæ); so that the one class shall be accounted as morally bad, and the other be classed as the operations of justice passing penal sentences against the evils of sin. Of the latter class of evils which are compatible with justice, God is therefore avowedly the creator.”

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