If the Biblical critic uses terms like ethnic cleansing and genocide, would these words be justified. Can one point to anything in the Bible, if read in context, that would justify accusations of ethnic cleansing or genocide? I would have to say there isn’t a shred of evidence that justifies accusing God of such terms. These are inflammatory terms meant to shock readers and mold their judgment of the events into a motif agreeing with the position of the critic. Therefore, it may be helpful to take a survey of what God actually told the Israelites to do to the Canaanites, and see for ourselves, if the critic has any support for the motif he seeks to establish for the Israelites entering Canaan and ultimately for God who commanded them to do so.
In Exodus 23:23 God said he will “wipe them out” (NIV here and following), but in verse-27 he said he would “throw them into confusion” and they “will turn their backs and run.” In Exodus 23:28 God said he will use hornets to “drive (them) out of your way.” Although Psalm 135:10 says the Lord “struck down many nations and killed many kings”, in Numbers 21:32 the Israelites “drove out” the Amorites, who lived in the surrounding settlements of the cities they destroyed. In other words, the city of Heshbon and others referred to in Numbers 21:25-31 were walled, military fortresses. Israel destroyed those, but drove out the people in the surrounding settlements (v.32). After this they turned to Bashan, another military fortress, and destroyed it and its king, as they had done to Heshbon (Numbers 21:33-35).
When God spoke to Moses in Numbers 33:51-52 concerning Israel entering the land of Canaan, he commanded them to drive out the inhabitants but destroy all the religious paraphernalia, including idols and places of worship. In Deuteronomy 9:3 Moses told Israel that God would “destroy” their enemies in the land of Canaan and “subdue them,” meaning, he would be the power behind Israel, and they will “drive out” and “annihilate” those who possess the land. Moreover, Moses used terms like dispossess elsewhere (Deuteronomy 9:1; 11:23; 12:29; cf. “thrust out” in Deuteronomy 6:19).
In Deuteronomy 7 Moses told Israel that God commanded them not to make any treaty with the people of the land, implying national agreements, allowing co-existence (Deuteronomy 7:2). In the same verse Moses said God had “delivered them over to you” as though Israel had already “defeated them.” The very kings of the land were given into the hands of Israel, and they were to “wipe out their names from under heaven” (Deuteronomy 7:24), and even those who might escape in battle would “perish” at the hand of the Lord (cf. Deuteronomy 7:20).
Notice the language: annihilate and destroy versus drive out, thrust out and dispossess. Such language seems contradictory, if all the Canaanites are treated equally. Nevertheless, as we see in Numbers 21, it seems that only the military fortresses were of great concern as far as warfare was concerned. Non-combatants were driven out of the land, but the military were destroyed with the kings of the land. What God seems to intend to do is scatter the Canaanite people among the nations, but destroy their national identity by annihilating their military force and their governing officials. It is their name (national identity) that is to be destroyed or wiped out from under heaven (Deuteronomy 7:24).
In view of this perspective, it seems that God never had any intention of annihilating the Canaanite people. Genocide or ethnic cleansing is a false charge against the God of the Bible and cannot be supported by the context of the events that take place under Moses and Joshua. Neither God nor Moses commanded Israel to search out and destroy every Canaanite who survived the conquest of the land or escaped into the nations. With its religious centers and military fortresses destroyed, the evil culture of the Canaanites would be expected to disappear. As the Canaanites moved into other nations and were absorbed into their cultures, the Canaanite culture would have little power to survive. So, the individuals were driven out, but the national name including the governing bodies and its military were annihilated—or so this seems to be the intent of God in the above Scriptures. Moreover, this seems to have been his intent with Israel, as well, when he sent both the northern and southern kingdoms into exile. The northern kingdom was completely absorbed into the gentile nations but the Jews in the southern kingdom survived with their identity and permitted to return to the Promised Land, only to be removed once more and scattered among the nations after the war of 70 AD. One needs to consider the context of the Bible, if one wishes to make judgments concerning the integrity of the God of the Bible.