…Let me now share an extremely important observation: It does not make sense that this same God who wants to deliver the babies would then turn around and say to the Israelites (instruments of His justice), “To rescue these babies I want you to kill the entire populace, including all women and children, thus annihilating even more babies.” Probably that is not what happened. In all likelihood, there is something we are not catching here, something which does not immediately meet the eye.
Moving on to the harder part
Now that we have established some background, let us return to the second part of the original question: Why did God command the Israelites to completely wipe out the nations of Canaan ?
In a nutshell: He didn’t. Or at least, a very good case can be made that He didn’t. When God commanded the destruction of certain nations, He seems to have meant “displace them as a people” as opposed to “completely exterminate.” For one thing, these people all continued to exist hundreds of years later at the time of Solomon:
All the people left from the Hitties, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites (these people were not Israelites) that is, their descendants remaining in the land, whom the Israelites had not destroyed-these Solomon conscripted for his slave labor force as it is to this day (2 Chronicles 8:7-8).
Notice that every nation listed in Deuteronomy 20 as targets for destruction is listed here with the exception of the Canaanites. Since Canaan was a double term, referring both to the entire land of Canaan as well as an individual nation within the land, the author of II Chronicles may have felt it unnecessary to repeat the term. In any event, we know that people of Canaanite nationality survived as well (Matt. 15: 22). From this provocative passage in Chronicles we can reach two very safe conclusions:
a) The Israelites obviously did not exterminate these people, for if they had, there would have been few, if any, survivors. Obviously, this is a description meaning more than a handful of fleeing refugees, as these are people settled in the land, entrenched enough to retain some of their national identity, all the way up through Solomon’s time several hundred years later.
b) Solomon himself did not feel he had to exterminate them to “finish the job.”
We conclude that conquering the land and enforcing the servitude of the people is all that the Israelites did and all that they understood God commanding them to do.
“Then how do we explain extreme words like ‘completely destroy?’ ”
The Hebrew word destroy is Charan and means “the irrevocable giving over to God.” That can include destruction, but it does not necessarily mean destroy in the sense we know the word.
There is also an explanation in the way ancient Hebrews and others talked back in those days. They used extreme exaggerated phrases and spoke somewhat poetically a great deal of the time.
The following quote is from Dr. Samuel Davidson, a scholar familiar with the ways of the ancient near east.
He who does not remember the wide difference between the Oriental and Occidental mind must necessarily fall into error. The luxuriant imagination and the glowing ardor of the former express themselves in the hyperbolically and extravagant diction where as the subdued character and coolness of the latter are averse to sensuous luxuriance. 1
So, at times, the commands of God (as regards war) were written in a style that the Hebrews themselves would have taken as exaggerated and poetic. But at other times, the details of the war (sparing women and children) were spelled out. In Deuteronomy 20 we seem to see both used together.
“When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall now work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves” (Deut. 20:10-14).
Again, God’s precautions to avoid innocent casualties of war is noteworthy. Unfortunately the passage is harder when we read on:
“However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them-the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites as the LORD your God has commanded you. Otherwise they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshipping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God.” (Deut. 20:16-18).
We must read this passage in the light of all that we have learned: 1) The Israelites did not in fact completely destroy those nations but instead displaced them as a people. 2) God does not punish children for the sins of their parents. Indeed, it is out of a concern for children, that He was using the Hebrews to conquer those people anyway. 3) The sparing of women and children seems a standard practice issued by God. 4) The word for destroy could be interpreted as “completely give over to God”, a phrase compatible with the notion of conquering. 5) The Hebrews often spoke in exaggerated phrases.
For all these reasons I have come to the conclusion that the sparing of women and children, discussed in the first part of this passage, is assumed in the second part. The contrast between the two commands is in the fact that with some cities peace will be offered and men accepting the offer can be spared, but in those cities inhabiting the land of Canaan, peace will not be offered. The adult males of those cities are to be executed, for from them, the practice of other religious worship would spread, where as with women and children, the bondage and servitude would be more readily accepted. The phrase “put to death everything that breathes,” extreme and poetic in its rythmn, would be a way of saying, “Put to death, the males, the authorities, and in doing so you are destroying the nation, for all intents and purposes.” …