If Only It Weren't So Violent
The commandments to destroy the seven Canaanite nations are perhaps best understood as a later generation's struggle with idolatry.
Thus the portrait of the conquest of Canaan emerges in Deuteronomy. The military threat of the Canaanite nations as portrayed by the Deuteronomist is insignificant compared to the threat of idolatry. If we had gotten rid of idolatry when we first settled here 600 years ago, the author seems to say, then we wouldn't be struggling with it now.
The Deuteronomist makes a case for the campaign against idolatry in his own time. But that case is projected back to the time of Moses, to a sacred moment in history. Rather than being viewed as a mandate for the annihilation of indigenous peoples, Deuteronomy is best understood as a critique of the idolatrous habits of Jews in a much later age.
Although this explanation doesn't make these passages any more pleasant to read, it does help us to see them in historical context and, perhaps, lead us to ponder whether the task urged upon us by the Deuteronomist has not yet been accomplished.
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