Urban Theology 8: Canaan: genocide or liberation?

Continuing in chapter 6 of David Smith’s book Seeking a City with Foundations: theology for an urban world called ‘The Bible and the City; from Patriarchs to Prophets’. In it he has an excursus on the conquest of the cities of Canaan. He’s candid in acknowledging their ‘deeply troubling’ nature and the inadequacy of spiritualising them away.

What follows is a proposal to see the conquest of Canaan as liberation.

The freed Hebrew slaves have been liberated from oppressive Egyptian kingship into service of Yahweh. This new identity forms a people marked by justice. Can Canaan, Smith asks, be seen as an extension of the radical saving acts of Yahweh – extending justice and social revolution and overthrowing oppressive power structures of the Canaanite kings that denied justice to the poor and exploited its peasantry? (Smith quotes studies including Bruggemann which have suggested this was the situation in Canaan).

Does the Joshua narrative indicate a panic among the Canaanite royal elites at the impact the liberated slaves may have on their own dispossessed peasantry? That the fall of Canaanite cities was to some degree an inside job? That the arrival of Israel was a spark to get revolution going?

That the Joshua narrative can be seen as a clash between two utterly opposing worldviews: an urban system of the Canaanite kings built on exploitation and sanctified injustice versus the liberating action of Yahweh who is on the side of the oppressed and enslaved? Archaeological evidence, Smith says, does point to social revolution.

In this sense Canaan is a continuation of the exodus and a vision of life shaped by Torah – which is reaffirmed in Joshua 1:6-9.

Smith suggests then that Canaan speaks to the injustices of the modern globalised world. And points to how differently Christians in the megacities of the Global South can read these texts as speaking to the injustice of an ‘abusive and degrading’ tributary system in which a globalised economy drains off resources to ‘bolster the profits of agribusiness, energy and finance corporations.’ [quoting Gottwald]. Or where millions of black peasants are working not to feed themselves but to sell, for a wholly inadequate price, export crops that deliver foreign exchange and profit for a small urban minority.[quoting Ela].

But what of the divinely sanctioned violence in the Joshua narrative?

Smith say we moderns have no grounds for ‘civilised’ abhorrence of what ‘primitive’ religion can do – just look at Dresden, Coventry, Leningrad, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Srebenica,  etc for modern practices of ‘urbicide’.

Canaan, he says, must be seen within the overall biblical narrative that is about Shalom, a peace that will gradually extend over all the world as God’s redemptive mission comes to fulfilment. And in that ultimate shalom there will be no more war or violence. And within the Canaanite conquest, it should not be missed that it enacts a new social possibility – a land under Torah, a society of justice where the blood of an innocent person cannot be shed.

Smith references Bruggemann and how there is a consistent OT theme of undercutting idolatrous trust in warfare and weapons (eg Ps 20:7), also seen in Joshua 11:6.

This still leaves the problem that the violence in Joshua is sanctioned by God. Here Smith appeals to God accommodating himself within the realities of human culture …

There is no magic wand that can be waved to bring about the reign of God; rather the divine purpose is worked out among the complexities and ambiguities of human history. This means that the ways of God are often hidden or difficult to discern in contexts where evil appears to triumph and the might and power of privileged elites often seems impregnable. But the narratives of the exodus and the gift of the promised land reveal a God who, as John Hamlin puts it, enters into battle ‘against the powers of death’, liberating the oppressed and granting them a new, truly revolutionary vision of life in the world, including life in the city. (140)

For more on Canaan, see this post and others following on Chris Wright, The God I Don’t Understand.


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