The Hebrew Right to Canaan - What It Was Not

What It Was Not

Some of our readers have been tired by the questions—What right had the Israelites to Canaan, a country already occupied? What right to disturb the inhabitants in the peaceable possession of it? What right to wage a war of extermination against nations who had never given them any offence? These questions are in certain points of view difficult. We have, however, in these daily papers, rather preferred than evaded difficult questions, in the wish to put the reader in possession of the best or most authentic mode of regarding them; and therefore we turn to the questions now asked, notwithstanding the difficulties which they appear to present. It will probably be found, that these difficulties be not so much in the questions themselves, as in the considerations with which they have become invested.

Without attempting to state all the explanations which have been offered—for the purpose, as it seems to us, of turning the edge of the real difficulties—we can only notice the two or three which have acquired most prevalence, and in one or the other of which, most inquirers have been advised to rest.

It is urged by many, that in point of fact, the Israelites were not commanded to exterminate the Canaanites, without exception. They were, on the contrary, to offer terms of peace to all the Canaanitish cities, and only in the event of the rejection of this offer, were the inhabitants to be destroyed. Whatever cities accepted the proposals, became the vassals of Israel; a lot which, according to the mild laws of servitude among that people, was by no means intolerable. In proof of the correctness of this opinion, we are referred to Deu_20:10-14. It is very singular, that so pleasant a theory should have been built upon this passage; for we have only to read on to find its incorrectness, and to see that this was the law for foreign warfare; that is, with countries not within the limits of Canaan, and therefore not included among the doomed nations: “Thus shalt thou do unto all the cities which are very far off from thee, which are not of the cities of these nations;” that is, of the very nations, the treatment of whom by the Israelites is alone under question. And if this does not suffice, let us read on: “But of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God hath given thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth; but thou shalt utterly destroy them, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee.” Note: Deu_20:15-17. One would think that nothing could be plainer than this. But if we want further evidence, there is the case of the Gibeonites, who, under the pretence of coming from a far country, stole a peace from the Hebrews, knowing well that no peace would have been granted had they been known for Canaanites. And that it was no erroneous impression of theirs, is shown by the demeanor of the Israelites when the truth became known to them. Jos_9:24.

There are other views which, while admitting the plain character of the war which the Scripture states, deem it to require more justification than the word of God directly supplies. According to one of these views, Palestine was originally, and from time immemorial, a land of Hebrew shepherds; and the Israelites, who had never surrendered their rights, required it again of the Canaanites as unlawful possessors. Under this view, this people were not the original occupants, but coming up from the countries of the Red Sea, gradually, in the course of their traffic, spread into Canaan, establishing commercial towns and factories, and by degrees spreading over the country, superseding the former inhabitants. Who were they? This is not clearly stated. But we apprehend that the country is supposed to have been peopled by Eber or Heber, from beyond the Euphrates, from whom all the Hebrews, including the Israelites, derived their name, Note: See Vol. 1.—Thirteenth Week, Thursday. and who held it in pastoral occupation; and whose heir or representative Abraham is regarded as having been, although his migration was of later date, and not until the Canaanites had gained ground in the land. In this view, it is not without significance that it seems to be made a matter of complaint in Gen_12:6, that “The Canaanites were then in the land”—seemingly as if their encroachments had rendered the land too narrow for the flocks and herds of the patriarchs. Bearing in mind that, among other incidental corroborations, the land of Canaan is called, in Gen_40:15, “The land of the Hebrews.” This view is entitled to much consideration. To still more attention is that modification of it entitled which does not deny that the Canaanites originally settled in this country; but urges that they had not taken possession of the whole. The pasture lands lay open for those who wished to appropriate them. This was done by the ancestors of the Israelites. During their sojourn in Egypt, the Canaanites unlawfully occupied them. After leaving Egypt, the Israelites again asserted their claims, and since the Canaanites would not acknowledge them, the Israelites took possession of part of the country by virtue of their ancient occupancy of it, and of the other part by right of conquest. Now, this matter of territorial and pastoral right in the East, is one of which we may claim to know something—and we think that some have gone too far in denying that the Hebrews could acquire any rights of the kind here demanded for them. A pastoral tribe has a right to appropriate to its own real and exclusive use lands not occupied by any other pastoral tribe which has digged wells therein; nor by any settled people by whom it has, within any recent period, been subject to cultivation. The feeling is, that no one has a right to lands which he cannot use. We have no doubt, therefore, that the Israelites established a right to the possession of certain unoccupied lands in Canaan, in which they not only digged wells, but grew corn and planted trees, as at Beersheba. Those who oppose this view, by urging that the Hebrews purchased sepulchers and lands of the Canaanites for money, and therefore had no right but to lands thus acquired and secured, do greatly err. The lands thus bought were such as other persons before them had appropriated, and to which, therefore, they could only by purchase acquire a legal and permanent right. But again, the eastern territorial law does not recognize the fitness of any persons to maintain a right to the lands acquired in the way indicated, longer than they are able to keep them in occupancy. Since the land is God’s gift to man and beast, they would count it sinful to exclude the land from use, and suffer it to be idle and unappropriated, out of regard to the abstract and conventional rights of parties who have been away one, two, or three centuries, merely because they were the first to use them. Whatever pastoral, or even agricultural, rights they had acquired, would long ago have been foreclosed by their absence. If they had themselves laid any stress upon such rights, we should have heard of it. But, indeed, it were absurd to think of three millions of people claiming the right to settle in the small pasture grounds which, some generations back, had sufficed for as many hundreds. Such a claim would simply have been a ridiculous and insulting pretence for conquest. But no such claim was urged by the Israelites. They took far higher ground.