“You shall destroy all the peoples”: Does the Bible advocate genocide?

In the parsha for last week, Parashat Eikev, Moses instructs the Israelites on how to enter the land of Israel. The general idea is that if the Israelites observe God’s commandments, they will be rewarded: they may enter, possess, and flourish in the land. Only one small obstacle stands in their way. The land that they are about to enter, possess, and flourish in is already occupied by a people called the Canaanites. This obstacle, however, can indeed be overcome, and Moses is clear on how. In 7:16, he states, “You shall destroy all the peoples that the LORD your God delivers to you, showing them no pity,” and in 7:23 he adds, “the LORD your God will deliver [these peoples] up to you, throwing them into utter panic until they are wiped out.”[1] This practice of utter annihilation is related to the idea of herem. Essentially, herem refers to “the notion that something or someone belongs exclusively to Yahweh [the deity of the Hebrew Bible] as an inalienable possession.”[2] In this situation, it is the Canaanites, and all they possess, that is herem; thus, they must be destroyed. No Canaanite person may be taken as a slave; he or she must be killed. None of the Canaanites’ livestock may be taken for use by the Israelites; they must be slaughtered. None of the Canaanites’ possessions may be taken as war booty; they must be destroyed. Herem is an intangible, inherent, and contagious quality. Total destruction of the Canaanite people and all that was theirs would thus ensure that the land would be free from their contaminating influence and ready for the godly nation of Israel to enter and possess it.

Many readers, myself included, find the terminology surrounding herem disturbing. The idea of “wiping out” and “destroying” an entire population is evocative of genocide, or ethnic cleansing. Unsurprisingly, these verses in Parashat Eikev (and other verses like them) have been used to justify some fairly heinous acts in human history. The Europeans who colonized the New World explicitly utilized this ideology to justify their destruction of the Native Americans; the Europeans saw themselves as the Israelites, with the divinely-given right to possess the land, and saw the Native Americans as the Canaanites, the indigenous population which had to be eliminated.[3] In addition, when one reads of the potential threat the Canaanites were to Israelite purity, one cannot help but think of the Nazi desire to create a pure “master race” and exterminate all peoples who threatened to contaminate the gene pool.

It may be some comfort to note that according to both the Hebrew Bible and archaeological record, this proposed annihilation of the Canaanite people never actually occurred. The main function of the exhortations in Eikev seems to have been trumped-up war rhetoric, common enough in the ancient Near East. Yet despite its dubious historicity, the mere fact that such verses are included in the Torah has disturbed everyone from ancient rabbis to modern scholars. Countless apologetics have been written in an attempt to explain these verses, and others like them, which seem to advocate for senseless slaughter. Some of these explanations are convincing, others, not so much. I am neither academically nor spiritually qualified to evaluate which one is best. But perhaps the point of these verses is not their spiritual value, or their insight into ancient times. Perhaps the point is that we simply try to explain what they are doing in the Torah. It could be that Parashat Eikev, and other, similarly challenging texts, exist to inspire us to engage in these difficult discussions.  In these conversations, we must ask: How do we reconcile our modern sense of the humanity of all people, with the biblical notion of the elevation of Israel above all people?  How do we reconcile Deuteronomy’s concern, elsewhere in the text, with the stranger, widow, and orphan, with its callous disregard for the value of the Canaanites’ lives? [4] How does our own behavior, on both the individual and communal level, challenge or permit the ethnocentrism of this text?

Every year, we encounter Parashat Eikev, and are forced to wrestle with it. We are repeatedly forced to confront our issues and questions about the disturbing aspects of the text. In doing so, we must simultaneously confront the aspects of our past, and our present, that we are not proud of, and try to figure out ways to make our future better. And if we can accomplish that, even to a small degree, it is my opinion that that would make the disturbing nature of the text absolutely worth it.


[1] In this essay, I use the Jewish Publication Society translation of the Bible.

[2] Richard D. Nelson, “Herem and the Deuteronomic Social Conscience,” in Deuteronomy and Deuteronomic Literature, ed. Marc Vervenne, Chris H.W. Brekelmans, and Johan Lust (Peeters Publishers, 1997), 43-44. For more on the meaning of herem, see pp. 41-49.

[3] Sylvester Johnson, “New Israel, New Canaan: The Bible, the People of God, and the American Holocaust,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 59, no 1-2 (2005): 33ff.

[4] For more on this topic, see Yair Hoffman, “The Deuteronomistic Concept of the Herem,” Zeitschrift fur die altestamenliche Wissenschafaft 111 (1999): 196-210.

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8 thoughts on ““You shall destroy all the peoples”: Does the Bible advocate genocide?

  1. Genocide was not the object of Israel’s invasion, and there was no Canaanite genocide.

    God said he would send terror upon the Canaanites (Exodus 23:27). How do you send terror? By creating an awesome reputation for God, and an invincible

    one for Israel. The plagues on Egypt, the defeat of the Amorites east of the Jordan, and the crossing of the river were all to convince the Canaanites they were

    not to fight, but run.

    After Jericho and Ai, most Canaanites were too afraid to defend the cities and fled.

    Just put yourself in their position after hearing of the “magic” that Israel wielded at Jericho.

    The evidence can be seen in the following:

    1) The 5 city alliance of the Gibeonites decided on guile rather than risk conflict. They offered to be slaves to Israel as long as they were spared.

    2) The Canaanite kings tried two alliances in open battle rather than depend on their walls.

    3) Israel took some cities in 1 or 2 days (Joshua 10:23, 32, 35). Compare this with 37 men at Harlech Castle holding off the entire Welsh Army in 1294AD. This was only possible if the cities were severely undermanned. No miracles or tactics were recorded.

    4) Isaiah 17:9 tells us many of the cities were deserted as Israel approached.

    5) If genocide was the goal, no Canaanite would dare return to any city after Israel had taken it. And yet, Caleb found some in Hebron to drive out (Joshua 15:14).

    6) Joshua chapters 15 to 22 lists approximately 260 cities allotted to the tribes, all with no record of battles or sieges.

    7) Thutmose III, pharaoh of Egypt circa 1500BC claimed over 350 Canaanite cities paid him tribute. Joshua 12 lists 31 kings and their cities defeated (less than 10%!)

    8) There is no archaeological evidence of massed graves in Canaan for that time period.

    God built a formidable reputation for Himself in Egypt, and an awesome one for Israel over 40 years in the wilderness, culminating with the destruction of the Canaanites east of the Jordan. An invincible reputation was supposed to be established at Jericho and Ai. This would have forestalled any resistance and saved lives. Too bad one greedy man stole what was reserved for God at Jericho, and Israel suffered an initial defeat at Ai. This encouraged some Canaanites to fight.

    God directed Israel against the strongest and most organized of the Canaanites. Once they were defeated, further killing was minimized. Only those Canaanites most responsible for the evil culture, and those who had the most to lose would have stayed and fought. These were slain to the last man or woman. It was the genocide of a wicked culture, not the genocide of a people. The people who ran away were later driven out.

    Should this be called cultural genocide? Even today, some nations in the world have laws where citizenship can be revoked, and people deported. God has His own thoughts on religion, culture, race, and politics. Leviticus chapters 17 and 18 lists sins that God says “cut off from his people”. Since this applies even to foreigners, it means foreigners are cut off from their own nations, and not just from God or Israel. In other words, people who commit those sins were not considered a religion, culture, race or political group. We can go by what the world says, or we can go by what God says.

    (Perhaps it should not be even called a culture. This was a culture imposed from the top by cruel kings and sadistic priests. This culture did not arise from the common people, who were poor and uneducated.)

    JC

  2. JC,
    Thank you for your comment. I am glad that Eikev has continued to inspire lively discussion! Your interpretation is but one of many interesting views on this text. I approach the text with a modern, scholarly view, as well as a Jewish one. In this view, destruction, conquest, or even disregard for the welfare of an entire people is disturbing. I appreciate that the genocide of the Canaanites may not have actually occurred, but I think it is valuable to continue to discuss whether such a goal existed or should have existed, and what that means for us today.
    Best,
    SF

  3. I agree with Ms. Fein. This passage was written to a people whose only frame of reference was a win-lose concept of good-vs-evil. But God has continued to be revealed throughout time, and many no longer believe that “good” people conquer and pillage “evil” people. A current understanding of God celebrates a God who sides with those who are persecuted. Yet it would be difficult to apply, say, liberation theology to this text because it is unclear as to who is most in need of liberation. Are the people without land the neediest? Are people native to the land necessarily the owners of land? These questions problematize the ethics of Deuteronomy.

    The “good guys” in Deuteronomy believed God was siding with the people who have no land—themselves. But I’ll bet there were seven other nations claiming that it would be a good thing if they remained alive. Preserving the lives of their opponents, unfortunately, is not a priority for the people of God. And so the world has witnessed triumphalist interpretations of Parashat Eikev, as Ms. Fein eloquently points out.

    Let us also turn inward and see how we might be guilty of the same kind of primitive triumphalism. We pray for our football team to win. We ask God to help us make it through that light or catch that bus. We proclaim that all good followers of [insert name of religion] ought to vote [insert name of political party]. By conflating our desires with the will of God, we take the name of the Lord our God in vain. And that’s how I read Parashat Eikev: the people in Deuteronomy ironically break the code of Deuteronomy by replacing their imperialistic desires for God’s will. Perhaps one lesson we can take from Parashat Eikev is that, by taking the name of the Lord our God in vain, we make ourselves similar to those who condone genocide in the name of God.

  4. Thank you for your comment, Daniel. Conflating our desires with the will of God, as you put it, is indeed a dangerous game! Best, SF

  5. This is a topic that is very close to my heart having written extensively on the genocide of Native Americans and how the Bible was used consciously and unconsciously to justify the atrocities. We need to talk about these annihilation orders and the repeated claims by Joshua that the herem was successful, whether or not there is nonbiblical historical evidence that the genocide happened at all. These orders and claims were certainly used by Christians and Jews centuries later as permission to annihilate people different from themselves. For me it is important to give the Canaanites a voice. As the narrative stands not only were the Canaanites physically annihilated (though there are chinks in that claim even in the narrative itself), but their memory was annihilated as well. They have almost no voice or almost no autonomous action.

  6. Wendy, Thank you for your comment and your work on this important topic. There are many in the Bible who have been made voiceless–the group about whom I am most passionate is women. Giving marginalized groups a voice gives them at least a little bit of power.

  7. Lately I have bee really pondering the idea of what influenced the Native American genocide…and in my soul searching it came to me clearly..the OT God ..the bible ! It is the only thing that makes sense ! All through the ages Christians have used the OT and copying the orders of the OT God to annihilate people who are different and worship differently ! It does not surprise me that there was a genocide of the Native Americans with books like the OT which encourage this violence and racism ! It should be banned as far as I am concerned ! So let me share my recent experience..My native American boyfriend left me for this religion that contributed to the genocide of his people and the residential schools ! he left because I have been soul searching and researching for a long time and walked away from the Christian faith. Now I am asking myself is this similar to the Stockholm syndrome..only passed down from generation to generation ? How does my boyfriend rationalize this in his mind and not see how the bible OT God is the very contributor of everything that happened to his people ? Why can’t he open his eyes and see this as it is so obvious ? Then to leave our happy 5 years relationship over this very same OT God? Makes no sense to me unless this is somehow like the Stockholm syndrome and it is hard or impossible for him to see clearly ?
    Also forgot to mention I also think it contribute in many ways to women being treated badly in this world ! The its a man’s world idea came from the bible for sure ! The bible is male dominated and a man can get away with so many things that any woman back then would be stoned or severely punished by ! It is the OT God who makes these sick rules and also he condones rape, murder, infanticide, abortions, incest, punishing the innocent for the guilty and so much more ! if men read this bible and believe it they are going to destroy their view of women and also wreck their marriages..unless the woman has fallen prey to it herself and feel below a man…now that is what the bible does !!!

  8. Hi Gail, thanks for your comment. Your frustration at the Bible is understandable. Many, like you, have abandoned their religious tradition entirely due to the many problematic aspects of the Bible and of organized religion. It is certainly true that issues exist, especially around the treatment of women and non-Israelite people. (I will point out that this is not just in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, but in the New Testament as well.) However, many people still find the Bible to be a source of inspiration and strength. I think our task is to continually wrestle with the text–to engage with the challenging aspects of it, and to let ourselves feel the confusion and anger that might result. Then, while acknowledging the problems of our past, we must work to create a better future.

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