The Canaanite “genocide” and the renewal of creation

I’ve just got back from a fascinating and at times harrowing week in Rwanda and Burundi where I took part in a gathering of ‘emerging’ African leaders, organized by Amahoro Africa. The theme of the conference was ‘The Gospel of Reconciliation’, the 1994 genocide and its aftermath being the inevitable focus for a conversation that broadly addressed the inadequate response of the post-colonial church to the humanitarian, social and political crises that currently afflict East and Southern Africa. We listened to the barely believable stories of genocide survivors and visited a number of sites - churches in particular - where defenceless Tutsis had been slaughtered in their thousands. Even fourteen years after the event it is clear that beneath a veneer of micro-managed social stability anger, grief and fear are still intensely felt. The church has powerful stories of forgiveness and reconciliation to tell, but in the eyes of many Rwandans the church was largely ineffectual when it really mattered, when the frenzied mobs came wielding their machetes to exterminate the cockroaches.

For background reading I looked at the troublesome Old Testament accounts of the divinely mandated Canaanite ‘genocide’. To be reminded that horrors of this nature are part of our sacred tradition certainly keeps us from moral complacency; and I rather imagine that there are some complex lessons to be learnt from the conquest narratives with respect to the witness of the church in situations of war and conflict today, if we can just get beyond our understandable moral revulsion. But I want to make a less controversial suggestion here, which is that we may perhaps make some sense of the destruction of the peoples of the Land within the frame of a ‘new creation’ theology.

I have argued (for example, in Re: Mission) that the family of Abraham is conceived from the start as a ‘new creation’, a microcosm, a world-within-a-world, an alternative to the corrupted macrocosm. In marked parallel to the original creation of humankind, Abraham is blessed and told to be fruitful and multiply so that his descendants will take possession not of the whole earth but of the land that YHWH will give them. Whatever we make of the conquest as a matter of history, theologically the possession and filling of the land constitutes the completion of the new creation paradigm.

So here’s the thought. In light of the analogy between creation and new creation the destruction of the inhabitants of Canaan prior to the final establishment of Israel as a land-based microcosm appears to correspond to the destruction of the inhabitants of the macrocosm on account of their wickedness and violence by means of a flood that, according to the story, covered the whole earth. The Canaanites are destroyed because of their idolatry and because their continued presence in the land would jeopardize the purity of Jewish religion (ef. Deut. 6:14; 7:4; 12:29-31; 20:18). The invasion is also a judgment on the Canaanites on account of their wickedness (Deut. 9:4-5). So just as the macrocosm is cleared of corrupted life before the ‘new creation’ of Genesis 9:1-7, so the land of Canaan is cleared of corrupted life before the consummation of the ‘new creation’ promise to Abraham.

This is a large-scale correspondence. It seems to me to have an obvious coherence, but it would take more work to determine whether it has adequate textual support. I would cite one piece of exegetical evidence, however, at this point. The word nišmaṯ or ‘breath’ occurs in Genesis 2:7 with reference to the ‘breath of life’ in the nostrils of the man created from the dust; and in Genesis 7:22 all creatures in whose nostrils is the ‘breath of spirit’ die in the flood. The word occurs next in Moses’ instruction to Israel to destroy everything that breathes in the cities which YHWH will give to them for an inheritance (Deut. 20:16), and then in the accounts of Joshua’s subjugation of Canaan: ‘He left none remaining, but devoted to destruction all that breathed, just as the Lord God of Israel commanded’ (Josh. 10:40; cf. 11:11, 14). So we have in the ‘genocide’ narrative a rather distinct echo both of the flood narrative and of the original creation of humankind.

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