Trimm, Charlie. The Destruction of the Canaanites: God, Genocide, and Biblical Interpretation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2022. 117 pp. Pb; $14.99. Link to Eerdmans
In The Destruction of the Canaanites, Charles Trimm summarizes the problem of the command to destroy all the Canaanites at the time of the conquest. This is an important issue since the Canaanite Genocide and violence in the Old Testament is one reason many modern atheists reject the existence of God, such as Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion or Dan Barker, God: The most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction. After setting the background to the problem, Trimm offers four ways to understand why God commands Israel to destroy Jericho and other Canaanites.
Trimm begins with three chapters on the background necessary to develop an informed opinion on this issue. First, he briefly surveys warfare in the Ancient Near East. Drawing on Egyptian and Mesopotamia and texts, he shows that the rhetoric of warfare often includes hyperbole to describe their victories. Archaeology and history confirm ancient kings engaged in battle. But friendly casualties are vastly under-reported while the extent of the victories is exaggerated. Sometimes both sides claimed victory! In the second chapter, Trimm examines other examples of mass killing or genocide in antiquity, focused primarily on Hittite records. Sometimes the Hittites consecrated a captured town, something which could be described as “cultural genocide.” Finally, Trimm defines Canaanites as various people groups who were in the land when Joshua arrived. This section also discusses the command to destroy the city of Jericho, focused on the key Hebrew term ḥērem. The word is sometimes used to describe bringing order to chaos (40). But the command to slaughter all the enemy may be because of a scarcity of land and resources. In addition, ḥērem sometimes appears in the context of sacrifice and punishment.
After this section on Ancient Near Eastern background, the second part of the book offers four approaches to the problem of Canaanite Genocide in the Old Testament: First, some reevaluate God and conclude that he is not good, or that he simply does not exist. For an atheist like Richard Dawkins, the question is pointless since there is not God, whether good or evil. Second, others reevaluate the historical value of the Old Testament. The Old Testament does record genocide, but these reports are historically suspect. This view (obviously) rejects biblical inerrancy.
Third, others reevaluating the interpretation of the Old Testament. In this approach, the violence found in the Bible is not as violent as it appears. This approach involves a legal definition of genocide, but more often, in church history, these texts in the Old Testament are spiritualized to refer to a later enemy (the Crusades, or persecution of the Jews). Unfortunately, this doesn’t really solve the problem, it just moves it to a different enemy. Several scholars in this category will observe that the word ḥērem is not always lethal, since it can be used as a metaphor for devotion. Others will point to the hyperbole used in the command, “destroy the entire city and all the people.” It cannot mean they literally destroyed the entire city, since some cities continued to exist after they were supposedly destroyed.
The fourth view calls for reevaluating the violence in the Old Testament. These scholars accept that the Old Testament does accurately report mass killing, and that at one time, the holy God sanctioned this violence If this is true, then the violence must be a just punishment on the wicked Canaanites, not a “ethnic cleansing.” Scholars supporting this view often point out that the entrance into Canaan was unique in history. God gave the land to Shem and later to Abraham; Israel is reclaiming land that was already theirs.
Conclusion. Trimm’s The Destruction of the Canaanites is an excellent introduction to the problem of violence in the Old Testament, written with laypeople in mind. It does not require special training in Ancient Near Eastern culture or Old Testament literature to appreciate the various approaches to the problem. He does not advocate for any of the positions, although he affirms both God’s existence and the truth of Scripture. Readers interested in more detailed arguments from scholars representing the views themselves might turn to Show Them No Mercy: Four Views on God and the Canaanite Genocide (Zondervan, 2003). Trimm provides a wealth of footnotes and a detailed bibliography for further study of this important topic.
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.