Calling for Peace in the Conquest of Canaan


To Make Peace or Not to Make Peace?

Devarim 20 discusses the nation's obligations when fighting against both distant cities and the Seven Nations of Canaan.  The Torah commands that before embarking on optional wars in more distant lands, an offer of peace must first be tendered.  If that overture is rejected and war ensues, all men are to be killed, while women and children are to be left alive.  In contrast, when fighting against the nations of Canaan, Hashem instructs:


(טז) רַק מֵעָרֵי הָעַמִּים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר י"י אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה לֹא תְחַיֶּה כׇּל נְשָׁמָה. (יז) כִּי הַחֲרֵם תַּחֲרִימֵם הַחִתִּי וְהָאֱמֹרִי הַכְּנַעֲנִי וְהַפְּרִזִּי הַחִוִּי וְהַיְבוּסִי כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוְּךָ י"י אֱלֹהֶיךָ.

(16) Howbeit of the cities of these peoples, that the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth, (17) but thou shalt utterly destroy them: the Hittite, and the Amorite, theCanaanite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite; as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee;

These verses seem to explicitly declare that all Canaanites must be obliterated and that no possibility of peaceful coexistence exists.  This reading is supported by the many verses throughout Torah1 which similarly speak of the need to rid the land of Israel of its Canaanite inhabitants.

However, a different picture emerges from Yehoshua 11 which summarizes the wars of the Conquest of the Land of Israel:


(יט) לֹא הָיְתָה עִיר אֲשֶׁר הִשְׁלִימָה אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בִּלְתִּי הַחִוִּי יֹשְׁבֵי גִבְעוֹן אֶת הַכֹּל לָקְחוּ בַמִּלְחָמָה. (כ) כִּי מֵאֵת י"י הָיְתָה לְחַזֵּק אֶת לִבָּם לִקְרַאת הַמִּלְחָמָה אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל לְמַעַן הַחֲרִימָם לְבִלְתִּי הֱיוֹת לָהֶם תְּחִנָּה כִּי לְמַעַן הַשְׁמִידָם כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה י"י אֶת מֹשֶׁה.

(19) There was not a city that made peace with the children of Israel, save the Hivites the inhabitants of Gibeon; they took all in battle. (20) For it was of the Lord to harden their hearts, to come against Israel in battle, that they might be utterly destroyed, that they might have no favour, but that they might be destroyed, as the Lord commanded Moses.

According to these verses, it seems that had it not been for Hashem hardening their hearts, some of the Canaanite cities might have made peace with Israel, implying that peace was, in fact, an option!  How can this be reconciled with the verses in Torah?  Were the Israelites supposed to extend an offer of peace to the nations of Canaan or not?

The Historical Record

Several other passages in Tanakh bear on our question:

  • Prohibition of marriage & covenants – Devarim 72 also speaks of annihilating the Seven Nations, but then continues to warn the people against making covenants with or marrying the Canaanites.  If the nations of Canaan are supposed to be utterly eliminated, why is there a concern lest the nation make alliances with them? What is the relationship between the two commandments?
  • Calling to Sichon – In recounting the battle with Sichon the Emorite in Devarim 2, Moshe says that before fighting, he sent Sichon "דִּבְרֵי שָׁלוֹם", asking permission to pass through his lands. Is this equivalent to the seeking of peace discussed in Devarim 20? If so, what does it teach about the lawfulness of negotiating with the nations of Canaan?  Does the fact that Sichon lived on the eastern side of the Jordan make a difference?
  • Saving Rachav – If all Canaanites were supposed to be destroyed, why were Yehoshua's spies allowed to save Rachav, as described in Yehoshua 6?  Was she an exceptional case or just one example of a larger accepted practice?
  • The Gibeonites' trickery – Yehoshua 9 describes how the Gibeonites felt a need to pretend that they hailed from a distant city so as to convince the Israelites to make  a treaty with them.  This would seem to imply that peace was not an option.  If so, however, why did the Israelites not kill them when they discovered that they were duped?
  • Canaanites in Shofetim and Melakhim – Both Shofetim 1 and Melakhim I 9 speak of Canaanites who remained in the land and were forced to pay tribute.  In Shofetim 2, the tribes are chastised for making treaties with the indigenous inhabitants, while in Melakhim I 9, Shelomo's similar actions receive no rebuke.  Was subduing, rather than conquering, the Canaanites allowed or not?