Can the actions of the Israelites legitimately be called genocide?
The term “genocide” means a major action “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” Some twentieth-century examples are the extermination of six million Jews by the Nazis and the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis by the Hutus in Rwanda in 1994. Going by this definition alone, the destruction of the Canaanites would seem to have been genocide.
But there is a major difference. These twentieth-century examples were basically people killing people simply because they hated them and/or wanted their land. The Canaanites, by contrast, were destroyed at the direction of God and primarily because of their sin. Because of this, I think the term should be avoided. The completely negative connotations of “genocide” make it hard to look at the biblical events without a jaundiced eye.
One’s background theological beliefs make a big difference in how one sees this. If God was not behind the conquest of Canaan, then the Israelites were no different than the Nazis and the Hutus. However, once the biblical doctrines of God and of sin are taken into consideration, the background scenery changes and the picture looks very different. There is only one true God, and that God deserves all honor and worship. Furthermore, justice must respond to the moral failure of sin. The Canaanites were grossly sinful people who were given plenty of time by God to change their ways. They had passed the point of redeemability, and were ripe for judgment.