Conversation Guide #14: Canaan and the New World – by Eleonora Hof

This article argues that we have much to learn from Native American theologians when finding constructive ways to deal with the topic of exclusion in our faith practices. Native American theologians read the Biblical texts about the conquest of Israel from an existential perspective, since they are all too intimately aware of the disastrous result of the conquest of the Americas. The conquest, settlement and drive towards extinction of Indigenous Peoples was partly fuelled by theological arguments, derived from the conquest by Israel of Canaan. In order to understand the current Biblical interpretations of Native Americans, we need therefore to first take into account the hermeneutical foundation on which the conquest was based.

Canaan and the New World

After the “discovery” of the Americas, Europeans had to grapple with the meaning of the encounter with people who differed in so many ways from what they had previously experienced. The conquest of the Americas was also a theological and hermeneutical endeavour of meaning-making. Through deliberate theologizing, First Nation people became othered as “heathen”. (Within the article I discuss various strategies that aided this identification as “heathen.”) The idea of God’s providence was fundamental in crafting the legitimization for conquest. It was seen as God’s providence, for example, that the English, who lived in cramped cities, had suddenly the possibility to expand to the enormous, vacant land of North America. Obviously, the land was not vacant, but rather densely populated, but the wilderness myth nevertheless became a foundational myth. The religious practices of the indigenous peoples were seen as irredeemably pagan, and they came to be identified with the inhabitants of Canaan, while the settlers identified themselves with the new Israel.

Indigenous Theological Contributions

Indigenous thinkers today still wrestle with the legacy of Biblical interpretation by the colonial settlers. They utilize various strategies to reinterpret the Biblical texts.

  • Some thinkers discredit the biblical texts altogether. For them, the damage that has been done is too severe to be able to be repaired. Whether or not the conquests described in the book of Joshua really took place or not, the fact of the matter remains that the ideology of the Bible writers actively condoned and espoused an ideology of conquest. For victims and survivors of genocide, this makes the Bible damaged beyond repair. I suggest that we should take this approach seriously, and not discredit it too easily, because we should give proper attention to the pain that lies behind it. If we can take the losses seriously and not gloss over them too quickly, we can incorporate the practice of lament. Lament grieves for the wrongdoings and confesses the sins of a hegemonic biblical interpretation. We grieve because we have lost brothers and sisters to a hermeneutic of exclusion.
  • The second reading approach interprets the Bible in a way that is both Christological and true to indigenous concerns. Many evangelical readings fall in this category, since they stress the primacy of Christ for reading the Bible.
  • The third reading approach reinterprets specific biblical passages, while abandoning other passages. The Bible is read with indigenous frameworks in mind. Feminist indigenous readings of the Bible belong in this category.

Where do we go from here?

When reading exclusionary texts like Deuteronomy 17 with indigenous concerns in mind, they acquire a new urgency. I argue that people who read the Bible through the eyes of faith should be serious about reflecting on our hermeneutic. All hermeneutics that aid oppression need to be denounced and are consequently false, since they are not true to the life-affirming message of the gospel. Not all ruptures might be mended, not all wounds can be healed, at least not in the present age. We need to be mindful of the true costs of exclusionary readings of the Bible, since reading the Bible is not just an intellectual pursuit, but has real world consequences. Although the Netherlands and Belgium do not have an indigenous population in the same way as, for example, the United States, Canada, New Zealand or Australia do, we still have to confront our legacy of colonialism. We still have to reckon in our society with racism and exclusion on the basis of heritage. The voices of Native American theologians are therefore indispensable to enter into a specific hermeneutical dialogue with Dutch Christians from formerly colonized nations to hear about the way they have experienced exclusion and/or inclusion.


  1. Do you recognize that you often chose the perspective of Israel and not the perspective of the conquered peoples when reading the Bible? How would it influence the way you read the Bible if you changed your perspective?
  2. One of the authors discussed in the article claims that the texts of conquest in the Bible are not a “bug” but a “feature.” In other words: they are not a lamentable mistake, but are integral to the biblical message. How do you evaluate this statement?
  3. How would your Bible reading change if you were to read the Bible “together with all the saints,” including the believers who have great difficulty with certain passages since they have been used to legitimize violence?
  4. How would our mission practices change if we radically adopted the perspective of indigenous peoples?
  5. Do you think there is a way that we could incorporate lament in our church practices? How?



This summary belongs to a more extensive article of Eleonora Hof, which can be found here: Canaan and the New World: Native Americans Engage the Legacy of Exclusionary Readings.
Last year, we published the book Religious Exclusivism and Social Inclusion? A Religious Response, which is available Open Access (for free). People asked for an additional discussion guide to bring the outcomes of this research to a wider audience. We agreed to that, and are happy to present a discussion guide which offers you summaries of all contributions, accompanied by questions for discussion. We hope this stimulates people, in all different contexts, to discuss these matters thoroughly and make them actual and relevant for their own situations. Every week we publish another summary of a chapter of the book, and questions for discussion.  If you want to use the whole conversation guide at once, it can be downloaded here: Conversation guide.