It is a command that led the leading atheist Richard Dawkins to claim that the God of the Old Testament was “a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser … a genocidal … megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully”.
For God had ordered the Israelites to slaughter the apparently sinful Canaanites, saying: “You shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them.” And, according to the Bible, they did just that.
However, a new genetic study has found that the Canaanites actually managed to survive this purge of their traditional homeland, passing on their DNA over the centuries to their numerous descendants in modern-day Lebanon.
Scientists managed to extract enough DNA from the remains of five people – found in the former Canaanite city state of Sidon and dated to about 3,700 years ago – to sequence their entire genome.
They then compared this to 99 modern Lebanese people and discovered they had inherited about 90 per cent of their genetic ancestry from their ancient forebears.
A paper about the study in the American Journal of Human Genetics said that there had been “uncertainties” about the fate of the Canaanites.