By Kerwin Holmes, Jr.
“When you approach a city to fight against it, you must make an offer of peace. If it accepts your offer of peace and opens its gates to you, all the people found in it will become forced laborers for you and serve you.” -Deuteronomy 20:10-11
So, to be fair, you have seen how the functions of slavery operated within the Mosaic Code given to Israel for the nation to be transformed into a priestly nation to provide salvific covering on behalf of all humanity. See The End of Christian Legalism for Biblical insight on the entire narrative of the Bible’s do’s and do not’s.
We have so far seen that the slavery codes which the was embedded forever into the laws of Ancient Israel, and the slavery that the Israelites were to abide by perpetually, was set up for economic purposes only. The Mosaic slavery was VOLUNTARY, TEMPORARY, GENDER EGALITARIAN, encouraged ECONOMIC MOBILITY, and also HUMANITARIAN. But now, we have an issue. We have seen that it was reinforced that the slavery in Israel was to be voluntary. Any slaves fleeing from surrounding nations (even among the Canaanite cites who sometimes lived literally just down the road from the Israelites as they entered into Canaan) were to be protected by Israel and automatically freed, see Deuteronomy 23:15-16.
So then, in a slavery system that had within it the built-in foreign emancipation laws to bring an end to the harsher and often xenophobic slavery systems of the surrounding nations, why then does God allow the Israelites to force conquered nations or even nations that have been defeated by Israel in warfare, to become forced labor…a form of outrightly involuntary slavery?
Seems like God here is clearly contradicting Himself, finally. Ah, those of us familiar with the Richard Dawkins accusation of God being genocidal now finally have our vindication! We knew that the genocidal master was hiding around here somewhere. This trial against God is officially over, He stands guilty as charged!
Pause. This trial involves actual convicting evidence, and not the hearsay of an athelistman who has special interest in seeing God condemned as barbaric.
Deuteronomy 20 should be known as the Warfare Passage. The entire chapter gives the basics for how the Israelites were to engage in all form of combat necessary for any nation on the Earth to exist because…well…sinful humanity and ambitiously violent humans are our reality. Richard Dawkins would have you to believe that the Israelite warriors were sent out by God to ravage, pillage, and rape all of the cities of the Canaanites that they encountered. But just a smidgen of reading Deuteronomy 20 drops a nuke on this accusation. Ancient Israel had perhaps the most compelling military inscription law in human history. First off, let’s make a checklist.
How many modern nations do you know that have military codes like these:
- A group of newly freed slaves, who suffered under the most powerful empire in the world at that time, are to then go and fight against armies larger and superior to their own and that also are equipped with horses and chariots (the most state-of-the-art weapons of the ancient world)? Realize that the Canaanites the Israelites were going to face were the nations that pillaged even Ancient Egypt during the Hyksos Period– so much so that the Egyptians had to adopt Canaanite war strategies to regain their territory and to maintain their power (see “Second Intermediate Period 1640-1550 BC”). Canaanites were hardly ancient flower children.
- The Israelite army was composed entirely of volunteers per every military campaign. That means that for every skirmish against each Canaanite nation, the Israelites had to make a voluntary draft. There was no standing army in Ancient Israel…which is why the Biblical culture of Israel also placed emphasis on all men being trained for warfare should the need arise.
- All men who 1) built a new house, 2) planted a new vineyard, 3) just got engaged to their future wife, and 4) are afraid to fight in battle, were to be exempt from the voluntary draft, lest they not be able to enjoy their life before dying in combat or cause other soldiers to also become afraid. If Richard Dawkins wants to paint a picture of bloodthirsty Israelite hordes being compelled by a xenophobic deity like mujahideen to pillage all unbelievers…then he can either pick another religion or read some other Bible.
- The officers of the Israelite army, men chosen by valor to spearhead the war effort, chose from among the volunteers commanders who would be in charge of the rank smaller units within the army for each campaign. Honestly, the end of the bureaucracy of dynastic leadership that plagues so many modern armies should stand to learn much from this. Talk about a roadblock for militaristic corruption.
Yeah. You can’t think of a nation with laws like this, can you? I am sure that many a modern military dissenter desires such laws even today. And no doubt the brave soldiers who would rather not have apathetic/fearful soldiers watching their backs would likewise benefit.
It is directly after all of these warrior regulations that we run into the Torah law that is listed at the opening of this blog post, Deuteronomy 20:10-11.
Then…if the Israelites were to require peace terms before attacking a city…but if the city surrendered they were to put the people into forced labor, then why such an aggressive foreign policy? The Canaanites would have surrendered in this case…and then Israel would have not had to fight a battle (especially in costly siege warfare where casualties on both sides generally tended to be heavy).
The answer lies in the life of Abraham over 400 years before:
God called Abraham as his servant into the land of Canaan to serve Him. Abraham’s entire life was spent living righteously before God among the Canaanites so that the Canaanite people would come to know the true God. The Canaanites, much of them then held loosely under the Amorite community, were pretty oppressive already. But Abraham lived among them peaceably and even had a treaty with Mamre, an Amorite neighbor of his. Eventually Abraham had to fight against several Mesopotamian kings in order to rescue his nephew Lot who had been captured in a Mesopotamian subjugation raid against the Canaanites and Sodom and Gomorrah, where Lot began to live. But the sinfulness of the Amorites, horrible as it was, was not as bad as the Sodomites. Even a Canaanite priest-king, Melchizedek, actually worshiped the same God as Abraham by the name El Elyon. Melchizedek personally came down from Salem (ancient Jerusalem) to thank Abraham for stepping up when his fellow kings totally failed in their duties, and Abraham was overjoyed and honored Melchizedek with tribute.
Still, when Abraham had defeated the Mesopotamian kings and had saved the Canaanites, rather than glorify God, the Sodomite king, by shame of his disastrous military and political policies, simply wanted to give Abraham the riches that he had won back for the king in exchange that the king receive back all of his people who had been carried off as slaves. Abraham of course refused because he had an oath before God that he would have no association with Sodom at all, though he allowed the Amorites who had allied with him (Mamre included) to take some of their fair share. Of course, later on the communities at Sodom and Gomorrah grew too intolerable for God to allow to continue to exist.
It is right after this incredible display of the inadequacy of the Canaanite rulers (for the most part) to realize that God Himself orders the affairs of mankind that God makes His promise to Abraham that someday the sins of the Canaanites would become great to their full measure, like Sodom and Gomorrah would, and that God would raise up Abraham’s descendants from their oppression in a foreign nation to come and conquer the descendants of the ungrateful and evil Canaanite peoples. Genesis 15.
So…this group of recently freed Israelite slaves (which included several Canaanites and any other people among Egypt who left with them) were destined and predetermined by God to be His tool for bringing the oppression of the Canaanites to an end.
But surely the Canaanites were not that bad and the Israelites were the main aggressors?
Right after the Exodus and the Red Sea crossing (which many Canaanites literally saw and heard about with their own eyes and ears), the Israelites complain of hunger and thirst and receive from God many and a spring of freshwater from a rock.
The tired and hungry people are provided for just as they are resting at the very edge of Canaanite land, with the pillar of smoke by day and pillar of fire by night as obvious signs of the supernatural covering of God among them (as if the Red Sea crossing and total defeat of the superpower Egypt weren’t signs enough).
Guess what happened?
The Canaanite Amalekites attacked the Israelite people, taking captives from among the more tired and straggers along the path, Deuteronomy 25:17-18. Even later on after the second time that God gives the Israelites freshwater from a rock, the Canaanite king of Arad preemptively attacked Israel and took prisoners while they traveled along the Atharim road after the Edomites refused to allow their Israelite brothers to pass through along their roads.
The emancipated Israelites weren’t even officially inside Canaan, and the Canaanites attacked them. That’s what was up. Once again, as with their father Abraham long ago, God was proven right in the way that He judged the wickedness of the nations that He rules over. Later on God would bring judgment on them once and for all…but Saul would fail in even completing this…and that is why we have the book of Esther and the Feast of Purim.
See, God was desiring of Israel to destroy the Canaanite culture, in fact the laws for warfare against the Canaanite cities (should they not submit) focused upon this:
However, if it does not make peace with you but wages war against you, lay siege to it. When the LORD your God hands it over to you, you must strike down all its males with the sword. But you may take the women, children, animals, and whatever else is in the city—all its spoil—as plunder. You may enjoy the spoil of your enemies that the LORD your God has given you. This is how you are to treat all the cities that are far away from you and are not among the cities of these nations. However, you must not let any living thing survive among the cities of these people the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance. You must completely destroy them—the Hittite, Amorite, Canaanite, Perizzite, Hivite, and Jebusite—as the LORD your God has commanded you, so that they won’t teach you to do all the detestable things they do for their gods, and you sin against the LORD your God. -Deuteronomy 20:12-18
But, there was only one case where a city of Canaanites made peace with Israel…the Gibeonites. They actually ended up deceiving Israel into a treaty because they feared that Israel was just as treacherous a nation as they were. Of course, they weren’t, but that didn’t stop the Gibeonites’ fellow Canaanites from being treacherous. As soon as the surrounding Canaanites heard that their brother Gibeonites had made peace with Israel, they attacked Gibeon! Since Gibeon was a very mighty city, 5 separate Canaanite kings attacked them, and Gibeon had to reach out to the newly emancipated Israelite slaves (who had supernatural help from God due to their victories over superior foes) to help them. The situation repeated again and again…a full detailed account of just how Israel followed the Warfare Passage is seen in Numbers 21:21-35. Yes, the Israelites actually did follow these laws to the mark under Moses and Joshua.
Innocent flower children, the Canaanites were not.
Accusation of Genocide Refuted in toto:
Another allegation will be that this was still genocidal since the Canaanite people destined to be conquered after they had become overwhelmingly evil (the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaim, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, and Jebusites) were to be conquered by the Hebrew descendants of Abraham. You may recall how I mentioned in the Biblical Slavery Series how we ought not to skip over the so-called “boring” parts of the Bible– mostly because the writers of the Bible never divided their work into the “boring” and “fun” parts as the testified to what was happening to them. First off, genocide is not genocide when some of the very same people doing the conquering come from the conquered.
In case you really need convincing:
Moses married Zippporah, who was a Midianite of the “Kenite” clan, and his sons were also her sons. Notice that her people are listed above as among those destined to be conquered. But this was always according to the evil of the people and not their ethnicity in itself, which is why many of these people not only survived but joined Israel in their conquest. Moses was so grateful for the Reuel/Jethro’s help (Jethro had two names but was the leader of his Kenite clan of Midianites) that Moses personally begged his brother-in-law Hobab the Midianite-Kenite to continue traveling with the Israelites and share with their blessing. Later on when the Midianite king Balak tries to plague Israel with sorcery, the sorcerer sees his brother Midianites dwelling with Israel and blesses them while also predicting their eventual end when, centuries later, all of Israel gets judged by God in the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles. The Kenites dwelled in the land of the tribe of Judah. Also, in the Bible there is talk of one of the Israelite heroes of the tribe of Judah who led many assaults on the war campaign against Canaan: Caleb. But Caleb however, was not an ethnic Hebrew, but rather a Kenizzite who was adopted into Judah. Indeed, only Caleb from Judah and Joshua from Ephraim were allowed by God to survive into the Promised Land among those 20 years and older. You will notice that Caleb’s people, the Kenizzites, are also listed as those destined to be conquered. Centuries later, while David has to flee from killing his son Absalom when he revolts against him, Philistines from those who David fought against and alongside in various occasions swear their allegiance to David even as Israel itself divides in a civil war and is not loyal to King David. Ittai the Gittite (from the very same city as Goliath the human tank) personally came out to swear allegiance to David during his time of need. Honestly this is true, and their unit remained a formidably established unit for the rest of the existence of the reign of David’s descendants…a Philistine unit of elite soldiers under Israelite allegiance. The Philistines weren’t listed in the list above, but they were well known enemies of Israel until they too were destroyed by outside armies. Even today, many Jew-hating Arabs claim the “Philistine” name for themselves by the Latinized modern version of the “Philistine” name, “Palestinian.” But King David had the real Palestinians in his army. Among David’s heroes, elite soldiers who distinguished themselves in battle with near-miraculous exploits, there were actually Canaanite soldiers…including Uriah the Hittite. You will see that the Hittites are also in that list above given to Abraham. Hands down, this was not genocide, or even a total war, but a campaign to drive people out of the land who were evil even in the eyes of their own people. Those who stayed were the very defiant ones. When you click these hyperlinks, you will see that it is even mentioned that everyone saw the miraculous cloud of God over Israel and knew that God was causing the small Israelite army to win. There was no excuse and there was no genocide.
So then, the Israelites were commanded to destroy every living thing within the Canaanite cities that would not surrender, much like how God had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah over 400 years earlier. It seems very harsh, but really even the Canaanites did not leave Israel any option. Even after the kingdoms began to see the result of refusing the Israelite peace terms…not one Canaanite city other than Gibeon surrendered to the Israelites.
But during this time, the Israelites did not just sweep in within a single generation. God told them that He wouldn’t do it that way because the Israelites were so few and ill-equipped compared to the size of the land of Canaan. Instead, the Israelites conquered the Canaanites in waves, waves that often times reversed when the Israelites disobeyed God and adopted Canaanite customs. You will notice that the goal wasn’t even the complete end of the Canaanite people, but instead God desired Israel to drive out all of the Canaanites because their evil in the land was too much for God to tolerate and still be just concerning His earlier judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah. The ones who stayed behind even after God’s obvious signs of His power were the baddest of the bad– just like how the city of Sodom and the land of Gomorrah were. This is already running long, but I will show you right here, Exodus 23:20-33:
“I am going to send an angel before you to protect you on the way and bring you to the place I have prepared. Be attentive to him and listen to his voice. Do not defy him, because he will not forgive your acts of rebellion, for My Name is in him. But if you will carefully obey him and do everything I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes. For My angel will go before you and bring you to the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites, and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out. You must not bow down to their gods or worship them. Do not imitate their practices. Instead, demolish them and smash their sacred pillars to pieces. Worship the LORD your God, and He will bless your bread and your water. I will remove illnesses from you. No woman will miscarry or be childless in your land. I will give you the full number of your days. I will cause the people ahead of you to feel terror and throw into confusion all the nations you come to. I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you in retreat. I will send the hornet in front of you, and it will drive the Hivites, Canaanites, and Hittites away from you. I will not drive them out ahead of you in a single year; otherwise, the land would become desolate, and wild animals would multiply against you. I will drive them out little by little ahead of you until you have become numerous and take possession of the land. I will set your borders from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates River. For I will place the inhabitants of the land under your control, and you will drive them out ahead of you. You must not make a covenant with them or their gods. They must not remain in your land, or else they will make you sin against Me. If you worship their gods, it will be a snare for you.”
But of course, some Canaanites who stayed behind actually did turn to God and join Israel even from those among the cities that Israel destroyed…but they were very few. Rahab the city prostitute was one example (and she is a great-grandmother of Jesus our Messiah). Another would be how when King David conquered and renamed Jebus (which the Canaanite Jebusites had named Salem/Jerusalem the city after they had reconquered it from Judah because Judah failed to follow through with it’s conquest) there were still Jebusites living within the city (such as Bathsheba). But even more, when God was judging Israel for having twice abandoned David their king, He showed favor on Ornan/Araunah the Jebusite and chose his threshing floor on Mt. Moriah as the site of His sacred temple in Jerusalem (the former city of Jebus). And when the Temple at Jerusalem was built by King Solomon the son of David, Solomon received most of his funds and services from King Hiram, the Canaanite Phoenician king of Tyre and Sidon who also worshiped God and who was grateful to David for his bringing peace to the Levant region, thus allowing the Phoenicians to trade without fear of attacks by their Canaanite and Mesopotamian neighbors.
So, why did God allow and even command Israel to subjugate their conquered foes to forced labor? The answer is simple: the conquered foes were not to be given an occasion to rise up against Israel in order to make a counterattack. The humanitarian laws of slavery still applied to these conquered people. A soldier who raped a captive was a dead soldier, and a man who raped a Canaanite woman was a dead man. In the ethics of the Torah, the Israelites were to treat with equal human dignity the foreign-born and the native-born, Leviticus 19:33-37.
In fact, the Gibeonites were Hivites. Although they are listed as condemned people, they forsook their Canaanite religious culture and were spared, therefore incorporated into Israel and considered Israelites. The same was the case of Rahab, Bathsheba, and Ornan/Araunah. The Gibeonites’ forced labor was to provide wood and water for the site of the worship of Yahweh…which at first was their own city and later became the Temple at Jerusalem. This later became an honor for the Gibeonites, especially since by the time of the Temple at Jerusalem all negative connotation towards them were dropped.
And did God hate the Canaanites like a xenophobe? No, not at all. But King Saul did, especially when he tried to blot out the Gibeonites through actual genocide (Richard Dawkins can state his qualms now). But God made sure that Saul’s sons (most of whom would have been old enough to have participated in the attempted genocide) and all of Israel answered for that evil in 2 Samuel 21:1-8. Ooo, sorry Dr. Dawkins, maybe next time.
So then, any people that Israel encountered in warfare (whether the accepted the terms of peace or fought to the last man) was put to forced labor by the Israelites. For the Canaanites, if they rejected this offer of peace, then Israel was to be an acting force alike to God’s overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah in destroying the city and everything inside. The Canaanites had two options to escape becoming forced laborers in Israel, either they fled the hostile Canaanite city like Rahab did, they were slaves escaping from Canaanite lands, or they simply left from hearing about how the small Israelites defeated great Canaanite armies or because of the hornet plagues that God struck the land with before Israel arrived. All Canaanites not put to forced labor to repair the damage that their culture had done were either totally without blame by also being oppressed as slaves, or they were repentant by nature and in the face of the extreme justice violently brought against their city were granted extreme mercy by being freemen in Israel. By nature, any of the Canaanites could have simply gotten out of this forced labor by assimilating with the Israelites directly or avoided this conundrum entirely by simply leaving to the other lands where Canaanites lived, like the Hittite Empire or Phoenician kingdoms. And they all had ample time to do it because even in His judgment God acted gradually through many years and even many generations.
But please be aware from even the verses posted directly into this post that the war against the Canaanites was religious with a deeply moral dimension. For a modern-day equivalency, think if the Yazidis rose up and started brutally destroying ISIS…or if the Kurdish army did so, sparing not even the women and children who aided ISIS in their destructive mayhem in devotion to Allah (or themselves), but that these armies inflicted onto ISIS exactly what they had caused to others, minus the raping and sometimes even the pillaging. Just about every nation surrounding Israel was pagan, but the Canaanites had become the worst in all of the land even by pagan standards. Yet, Canaanites were still afforded an opportunity to escape God’s wrath. Indeed, many did. I bet that even you were not aware of how Canaanites and Israelites both were responsible for Solomon’s temple…even down to its very foundations and location.
There were Canaanites leftover from the peoples that King David finished conquering because even for all of those centuries they still lived as hostile neighbors among Israel in certain cities. The foreign slave policy of Israel ruined their slavery economy, much like the purpose of the Emancipation Proclamation during the American Civil War was meant to ruin the (pro-Democrat) Confederate States of America’s slavery economy. The Canaanites lived and witnessed the many miracles of Israel, and they would have seen this fledgling nation of emancipated slaves with far inferior numbers and weapons swell into the mighty nation that came to be under King David. They even saw the mighty miracles of God, and even lived through the mighty times of Samson and Joshua (if they missed the Red Sea crossing, they certainly didn’t miss the Jordan River crossing).
But the Canaanites loved their sins more. It was just like the men of Sodom who, even after being blinded by angels, still struggled to find the door to Lot’s house in order to rape the very “men” who blinded them.
What of these Canaanites who still had to be conquered?
Solomon’s reign was the most peaceful reign Ancient Israel ever lived under. Solomon took the conquered Canaanites who his father David had defeated in battle (and possibly those defeated by King Saul) who were not a part of Israel and put them to forced labor in building cities and public facilities for the rest of Israel, Canaanite and Hebrew, foreigner and native-born alike. Please do keep in mind, Solomon’s own mother Bathsheba was a Jebusite. And not just that, Solomon hailed from the tribe of Judah, and all of Judah’s descendants were also Canaanite descendants by virtue of his wife and daughter-in-law, see Genesis 38:1-2. Solomon had no leg to stand upon even if he wanted to be racist against the Canaanites.
And that is why, for the laws of slavery within Israel, Israel was allowed to put conquered people (even those outside of Canaan, like Ammon, Syria, and Mesopotamia) under forced labor. It was so that these wicked nations who rejected peace with Yahweh and His nation Israel would not have a Nazi Germany World War II comeback and plague the world again after being defeated. They instead, if they survived, were to be employed as laborers to rebuild their own cities and to build public projects for the rest of the nation so that the victory was complete and everyone benefited…in essence to undo what they had caused for centuries of destruction and vileness. But even the conquered Canaanites benefited because they were now under the humanitarian law of the One true God instead of being under the barbaric Canaanite practices of their ancient culture. They worked side by side by their Canaanite brothers who had been their former slaves but who were now freed, and they were able to see how Yahweh had used a motley nation freed from Egypt’s bondage to return upon their own heads the evil that they themselves had done to others.
It was quite the lesson.
Once again, the modern nations of the world could learn a thing or two from this.
So in closing, even the slavery after warfare was a slavery comparable to the normal methods of enslavement sanctioned and codified by the Torah, except that it was obviously not voluntary and it presumably continued generation-to-generation until the people were totally assimilated into Israel so as to no longer be distinguishable (if they were forcibly subjugated Canaanites living within Israelite borders).
I want to take just one pause and mention something else about this law. First of all, the complete destruction of cities was only limited to the Canaanite cities within the specific future Israelite border precisely because of their religious practices. The Bible describes these practices as bestiality, homosexuality, all different kinds of incest, infant sacrifices by holocaust to the bronze god Molech, temple prostitution, family prostitution, chattel slavery, kidnapping people for the slave trade, violence, rampant injustice, and false idol worship (which was the cause of all of this). But should we really trust this Biblical account? I mean, the Ancient Hebrews who wrote the Bible were brutally honest about themselves whenever they sinned (see the book of Judges for an introduction). But does this mean that they always told the truth? Well, even though King Hiram during Solomon’s time was righteous, eventually even the Phoenicians succumbed to their Canaanite paganism. They began to practice all of the evil that the other Canaanites had under them. This time though, the Canaanites were a mighty Mediterranean empire thanks to their success under King Hiram and from King David. So, God did not use Israel to judge the Phoenicians. God used the Romans. The final Canaanite society came to a crashing end in the final Punic War between Rome and Carthage. And when the conquering Romans took over Carthage, they found piles of burnt baby bodies among the many sacrifices that Carthaginian nobles made in their desperation to their gods for salvation from conquest. Even in the face of extinction, the Canaanites became more devoted to their heinous rituals– just as all but one city had done during the time of Ancient Israel. The Canaanite religious practice not only disgusted the Romans to the point of salting the city of Carthage after burning it to the ground, but it even repulsed the Ancient Greeks before them. Canaanite pagan society repulsed even the most bloodthirsty and perverted of the ancient world empires. Even today, Canaanite paganism is so repugnant a fact that modern historians have hard times coping with it ever existing, but it did. By the way, the Romans carried off the Carthaginians into Roman slavery…which was a way worse form of ancient slavery in the world (and possibly one of the worst). What God did to the Canaanites through Ancient Israel was brutal justice, but at least it was merciful, and it wasn’t driven by ethnic pride or hostility. Even David, a king responsible for executing God’s justice, recognized this distinction when God punished him for murdering Uriah the Hittite (a Canaanite) and stealing his wife Bathsheba the Jebusite (a Canaanite) and when God punished Israel for their rebellion against David through the punishment for David’s foolish census.