The Destruction of the Canaanites – Charlie Trimm

The Destruction of the Canaanites: God, Genocide, and Biblical Interpretation by Charlie Trimm
Published by Eerdmans on March 15, 2022
Genres: Academic, Non-Fiction, Theology
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How can a good God command genocide? 
In this short, accessible offering, Charlie Trimm provides the resources needed to make sense of one of the Bible’s most difficult ethical problems—the Israelite destruction of the Canaanites as told in the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Judges. 
Trimm begins with a survey of important background issues, including the nature of warfare in the ancient Near East, the concept of genocide (with perspectives gleaned from the field of genocide studies), and the history and identity of the Canaanite people. With this foundation in place, he then introduces four possible approaches to reconciling biblical violence:
Reevaluating God—concluding that God is not good.Reevaluating the Old Testament—concluding that the Old Testament is not actually a faithful record of God’s actions.Reevaluating the interpretation of the Old Testament—concluding that the Old Testament does not in fact describe anything like genocide.Reevaluating the nature of violence in the Old Testament—concluding that the mass killing of the Canaanites in the Old Testament was permitted on that one occasion in history.The depth of material provided in concise form makes Trimm’s book ideal as a supplementary textbook or as a primer for any Christian perturbed by the stories of the destruction of the Canaanites in the Old Testament.

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins refers to the Old Testament God as a “vindictive bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser, a misogynistic, homophobic racist, an infanticidal, genocidal, philicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” In other words, Dawkins doesn’t think too highly of God’s moral character or how the Divine is portrayed in Scripture. It’s easy to dismiss Dawkins with visions of Jesus and turning the other cheek, but if we’re to consider Dawkins’ purposefully inflammatory quote with any level of reason, we have to wonder if he’s at least somewhat right. The Old Testament does in fact attribute, or seem to attribute, some pretty horrible things to God. Top among these is The Destruction of the Canaanites.

The conquest of Canaan has always been problematic for anyone critically engaging Scripture. God is love…but then…there’s the genocide. It’s a difficult and emotional topic, particularly when politicized or when modern viewpoints are superimposed on ancient culture, but it bears looking at. Dr. Charlie Trimm, an associate professor of biblical and theological studies at Talbot, offers a balanced and thoughtful summary of how these texts have been interpreted.

The Destruction of the Canaanites is an academic text, so it stays away from drawing firm conclusions, instead laying out all the evidence and assessing it thoroughly and impartially, allowing the reader to come to a conclusion. As such, it reads almost as if Dr. Trimm created the text for use in a classroom setting. At under a hundred pages, it’s concise; yet it adequately details the four prevailing exegetical options and evaluates the backgrounds that compel that exegesis and what the implications might be.

The first half of the book is devoted to establishing the background. Trimm offers a chapter on ANE warfare, giving readers a summary of what the conquest of Canaan might have looked like and how what we understand from Scripture compares or contrasts to what we understand from other wars in this time period. He also offers a chapter on the history of genocide, being sure to develop a definition for the term that is accurate and contextual, not simply emotional. This will help readers to evaluate the actions of Israel later in the book. Lastly, there’s a chapter devoted to the Canaanites themselves, summarizing what we know from biblical and extrabiblical sources.

The second half offers four different ways of approaching the text, beginning with a series of four propositions:

  1. God is good and compassionate.
  2. The Old Testament is a faithful record of God’s dealings with humanity and favorably portrays YHWH’s actions.
  3. The Old Testament describes events that are similar to genocide.
  4. Mass killings are always evil.

Trimm notes that all four of these propositions cannot be true at the same time. Therefore, he offers four options:

Reevaluate God. In this interpretation, we make the assumption that we’ve understood God wrong and conclude that, like other ANE deities, he has no problem with genocide as a means of expanding his territory. Perhaps it is that God is not always good or compassionate. Trimm does not spend much time on this view—only a few paragraphs—and does not seriously evaluate it.

Reevaluate Scripture. This view resolves the problem by saying that the Old Testament record is not historical, or that it is accurate history but did not stem from something God actually wanted. In this view, either the history is made up wholesale (usually post-exilic) by a people looking to create a history (and longing to be conquerors) or it is the result of a war-faring people attributing their actions to their god.

Reevaluate OT Interpretation. This view strikes at premise 3, saying that the accusations of genocide are read into the text and not an accurate interpretation of reality, making God “minimally violent enough to be ethically permissible.” In this view, the “destruction” of the Canaanites is seen as a spiritual destruction, where the empire and power of the nation is destroyed, if not its literal people. It also suggests that Israel drove out many of the Canaanites, rather than kill them. (Though this raises the ethical implications of creating mass refugees, while also understanding cultural differences between today and three thousand years ago.) This is the interpretation that I believe has the most merit at some level.

Reevaluate the Morality of Mass Killing. Is genocide always evil? Is it evil if a holy God commands it? This interpretation accepts the historicity of the biblical text, acknowledges it was genocidal, but holds that mass killing can be justified under certain circumstances. Trimm spends some time discussing the implications of such a worldview,

As an academic work, The Destruction of the Canaanites chooses to not draw any conclusions. As a standalone work, it accurately and succinctly summarizes the conversation on the topic and will help engage others in conversation about each view and what implications result from it. It also serves a springboard into larger conversations of Old Testament interpretation. Despite its small size and limited focus, The Destruction of the Canaanites has a wide application and usefulness. For anyone truly wanting to study the Old Testament and contend with these texts, Charlie Trimm has given you a no-nonsense introduction to OT interpretation using one of the most prominent problematic passages we have.