Could God Have Commanded The Slaughter Of The Canaanites? -- By: Stephen N. Williams

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 63:2 (NA 2012)
Article: Could God Have Commanded The Slaughter Of The Canaanites?
Author: Stephen N. Williams

Could God Have Commanded The Slaughter Of The Canaanites?

Stephen N. Williams


This article is a slightly revised version of the Tyndale Lecture in Christian Ethics, delivered in 2010. It deals not with the narrowly historical question of the slaughter of the Canaanites, but with the theological question of the possibility of God’s having commanded it. Its argument is that we should not conceive it as a possible divine command, unless we regard it as sorrowfully commanded, a commandment accommodated to conditions of human violence for which humans are responsible.

Only the curse of academic habit prevents our being chilled by the title of this lecture and, if this sounds like rhetorical fancy, it is only because many of us live in regions where we and our friends, families and compatriots never feel the sharp edge of the sword. The sharp edge of the subject, however, seems to be turned by the title of the lecture, for it is not: ‘Did God command the slaughter of the Canaanites?’ The question: ‘Did God command…?’ is a form of question about history, a ‘form’ of question because, while it is a question about an event in time, it is not one which historical investigation can answer. That is the question which is avoided in the title. Whether or not the book of Joshua gives us a reliable account of second-millennial events is disputed. Archaeological evidence is commonly invoked to show that the Late Bronze Age could not have witnessed conditions such as those described in it, which apparently purports to describe Late Bronze Age doings. Historical reconstructions are proposed to correct its picture of conquest or of occupation; the possibility has long been mooted of a

more phased and gradual infiltration of the land than the narrative describes against its Pentateuchal background; internal revolt in Canaan is postulated to account for some of the turbulence whose echo reverberates through the book of Joshua, which posits invasion from without.1

There is also the more fundamental question of genre. ‘History’ is not a simple, undifferentiated category in itself and certainly not if we apply it to the Hebrew Scriptures or OT.2 Scholarly attention has been paid to ‘metaphorical’ readings of narrative accounts in the book of Joshua. But it is not a theme which I visit here more than I engage with the wider subject of genre. This is not because I doubt or contest the exegetically and theologically fundamental nature of questions surrounding genre. It is because the problem of the slaughter of the Canaanites has arisen over ...

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