#342. Were the Israelites to dispossess the indigenous Canaanites OR utterly destroy them? (Num 33:51-52; Ex 23:28-33 vs Deut 7:1-16)


The itinerary of Numbers 33 ends at verse 49 with the Israelites on the plains of Moab, with no mention of a Transjordanian conquest as previously noted (#341). Here our Priestly author launches into the conquest of the promised land theme, articulated as the very words of Yahweh himself:

Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: “When you cross the Jordan to the land of Canaan, you shall dispossess (ירש) all the residents of the land from before you and destroy (אבד) all their carved figurines, and all their molten images you shall likewise destroy, and all their high places you shall make desolate. And you shall take possession of the land and live in it, because I’ve given the land to you to possess it.” (Num 33:51-53)

The Hebrew verb ירש (yarash), “to possess by driving out previous inhabitants,” “to occupy,” even “to seize,” clearly indicates that according to this tradition the indigenous Canaanites were to be expelled from the land, driven out, and that the invading Israelites were now to occupy and possess it. This same geographical ejection is also duplicated in the Elohist tradition of Exodus 23 with the verb גרש (garash). And, as we previously saw the same runs true in the Yahwist tradition when speaking of the dispossession of the indigenous Amorites of Transjordan (#324-325).

Yet when we turn to the Deuteronomic tradition we notice that the ejection and dispossession of the indigenous Canaanites have now given way to an utter annihilation and destruction of them, and this was also the case in its renarration of the Transjordanian conquest (see #324-325)!

And when Yahweh your god shall put them [i.e., the indigenous Canaanites] before you and you shall smite (נכה) them, you shall completely destroy (חרם) them! You shall make no covenant with them nor show them mercy! (Deut 7:2)

You shall devour all the peoples that Yahweh your god puts before you; your eye shall have no compassion for them! (Deut 7:16)

Under the plume of the Deuteronomist, the conquest of Canaan is presented as nothing short of a complete annihilation of the indigenous—literally a herem (חרם)—a ritualized slaughter to Yahweh, a sacrificial devotion of something or someone to utter annihilation in the service of Yahweh! Scholars have long noted that the herem is a unique expression of the Deuteronomist tradition’s cultic ideology. I have discussed this in greater detail in several earlier posts. See particularly the Deuteronomist’s herem treatment of the Hormah conquest (#269, #271-273) and the Transjordanian conquest (#324-325).

I might end by noting that contrary to the book of Deuteronomy’s divine proclamation “to exterminate,” “devour,” “put an end to,” and “utterly destroy” all the peoples of Canaan and their shrines and altars, the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings present a different picture: the Israelites are portrayed as repeatedly practicing Canaanite ritual practices and worshiping Yahweh and the gods of Canaan interchangeably at the high places, and even in the temple. This in itself, we must recall, is completely contradictory to Deuteronomy’s strict legislation of a single altar and place of worship at Jerusalem (#117). More specifically, the books of Kings openly recognize that the worship of Yahweh along with other Canaanite deities at local altars and high places was a common and repeated occurrence in both the northern and the southern kingdoms from Solomon to Josiah. These types of cultic practices were labeled as apostasy by the Deuteronomist. Even the good kings of Judah, those “who did good in the eyes of Yahweh,” left the altars of the high places with their Canaanite, and Yahwistic, cultic practices undisturbed. All this was to change however with Josiah’s religious reforms in the last third of the 7th century BCE. Josiah, we are informed, was the only king of Judah to have destroyed the high places and to have centralized the cult of Yahweh in Jerusalem as part of a systematic religious reform. The ideology behind this religious reform may be identified as the Yahweh alone movement as represented in the book of Deuteronomy.

The exclusive allegiance to Yahweh, and Yahweh alone, is best voiced throughout Deuteronomy in terms of the covenant. In fact the book of Deuteronomy is the covenantal document par excellence that defines this allegiance and stipulates the conditions of the allegiance as well as its punishments (curses) if the covenantal demands are broken. On the flip side of this demand for sole loyalty to Yahweh and his covenant is the systematic program to utterly destroy the Canaanites. “You shall doom them to destruction (herem)! You shall make no covenant with them nor show them mercy!” (Deut 7:2). “You shall devour all the peoples that Yahweh your god puts before you; your eye shall have no compassion for them” (Deut 7:16)!

This utter extermination of all the peoples of Canaan coincides with Josiah’s 7th century BCE religious reform of destroying all local altars and other non-Yahwistic altars, as defined by the Deuteronomic ideology promulgated from Jerusalem. This is merely one way in which the text of Deuteronomy supported and legitimated the ideological program of Josiah in centralizing the cult of Yahweh around one shrine located in Jerusalem and exterminating all other Yahwistic and non-Yahwistic cultic sites. In reality the holy war against the Canannites and the divine decree to utterly exterminate them never happened. It was an idealistic program meant, theoretically, to eradicate the root or causes of apostasy: Canaanite cultic altars and statues. In practice, however, this never happened. Indeed many scholars have wondered if it ever happened under Josiah’s reign since once again the archaeological record indicates uninterrupted layers of cultic figurines and graven images throughout the monarchal period, even through Josiah’s 7th century reforms.

For more about the Deuteronomist tradition see my Introduction to The Deuteronomist.

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