Did God command ethnic cleansing?


Did God command ethnic cleansing – in Canaan and Canada

The reading from Deuteronomy we heard today really hit me hard when I read it last week . I thought of the destruction of Buddhist temples and statues in Afghanistan and elsewhere by Muslim fanatics. But also, closer to home, about the way our settler ancestors treated the inhabitants of this and other lands when they “discovered” these countries in the “new” world.  Nigel preached a few weeks ago about the Doctrine of Discovery and the Great Commission which together resulted in a land grab and proselytizing which attempted to wipe out whole nations and their civilization.

Is this the Word of the Lord?

But here we have God, many centuries before Christ, supposedly telling the Israelites not only to proselytize, but also to destroy the sacred sites of other religions.  I’m glad that, at the end of today’s first lesson, we responded with thanks for the Word of God in Scripture etc, rather than with This is the Word of the Lord!

History, fiction or something else?

Did God command ethnic cleansing as the way to conquer Canaan?  Are these words history observed, history remembered or history rewritten?  In other words, did God actually say these words, or has someone interpreted God’s words in the light of later events?  Or has someone made it all up? Let’s look at some facts agreed by most serious scholars.

Deuteronomy was written between the 7th and 5th centuries BCE. It is part of the story of the exodus from Egypt, at least 500 years earlier. It claims to record the final words of Moses before the Israelites entered the promised land after their 40 years wandering in the wilderness.   In it, Moses restates the laws set out in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. He stresses, particularly, how the people are to conduct themselves in the new land and conquer it.

Conquest of th Promised land

The next book in the Bible, Joshua was also written down long after the event, again probably in the 7th century. It tells the story of that conquest of the promised land and the ethnic cleansing of the Canaanites, at the command of the Israelite’s God, Yahweh. According to the book of Joshua, not only did the Israelites “Break down their altars … and hew down the idols of their gods” but they also killed the inhabitants of the towns they conquered.  Did God command ethnic cleansing? Is this the command of the God of Love?

The archeological record

archeological remains of Izbet Sartah, a 12th century BCE village in Canaan

But, did this really happen? The archeological evidence does not paint a clear picture but, reading between the lines, we see a very different depiction.  The ending of the bronze age (c 1200 BCE) in the near east was a time of turmoil. The status quo crumbed, superpowers like Egypt and the Hittites retreated or collapsed; the bubble of lucrative long distant trading burst.  Big cities failed and the nomadic tribes, could no longer trade with the  (collapsed) cities. So they formed new villages, where they could to do subsistence farming. 

Archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman in The Bible Unearthed wrote: “the emergence of early Israel was an outcome of the collapse of Canaanite culture not its cause, and most of the Israelites did not come from outside Canaan, they emerged from within it”. Other historians believe that some tribes from outside Canaan were absorbed into these settlements, bringing with them their stories of an escape from slavery in Egypt.  Over the next 400 years, these sparse settlements grew in number and developed into the later Israelite cities like Bethel and Jerusalem.

Tribes become a nation

This collection of nomadic tribes and escapees from slavery, over time, become a nation. Now, what creates and binds a collection of tribes into a people isn’t material culture or religious practice but a shared narrative of common origin or descent.  That’s what the Hebrew Bible provides. It creates a story from different tribal memories, bound together through the special relationship with Yahweh. But it reflects the world of the 7th century when written than 12th century it describes.

So why read the Bible?

Does any of this negate the value of the Bible? Not at all.  It makes it easier to understand how the Bible hangs together. Why are there 2 very different accounts of the creation? Did god tell Noah to take 2 of each species into the arc or 7 pairs of some species? These are just some of the discrepancies in bible stories. But more importantly, why does the God of the Old Testament often seem at odds with the loving God that Jesus came to show us?

It has been a relief to me over the years to know that the Bible is a book written by men, and perhaps women. Though inspired, they were no more infallible and as much products of their own time as any of us are. Because the Bible writers were products of their own time, we find biases and misconceptions that seem strange, even immoral to us today, polygamy, slavery and, yes, ethnic cleansing, to name a few. But the Israelites developed from a group of tribes with many gods and strange ways of worshipping to a nation which was the cradle of monotheism. And in that, I see my faith development mirrored.  I have progressed from belief in a God who is a kind of supernatural Santa Claus, checking if I’ve been naughty or nice, to a relationship with a loving, forgiving parent.

The miracle of the Bible is that God’s word has shined for millennia through the words of primitive and flawed humans and is still alive and active today.  May it shine on and for us all today.