The Warring Destruction of the Canaanite People
The God of the New Testament often is characterized as a loving and merciful God, willing always to give grace to the wayward. He is a God Who loved the world so much that He gave His Son as a ransom, so that the world through Him might be saved (John 3:16). He is the Father Who anxiously awaits the return of His prodigal son, and showers that son with affection upon his arrival (Luke 15:11-32). Critics contrast this God with the God of the Old Testament, a God Who they claim is harsh, vengeful, and eager to punish. The ancient gnostics believed the God of the Old Testament to be a bumbling half-wit, incapable of judging righteously. Marcion, a false-teacher of the first century, also taught this, as do some today.
The Christian must be assured that there are not two separate Gods; nor are there two phases of the same God. The Almighty is the same “yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). He is immutable and unchanging; if His grace is emphasized more in the New Testament, it is only because the advent of Christ heralded a new dispensation—a spiritual kingdom. The corporeal was no longer central to God’s message, and became the stuff of types and symbols. His hatred of sin remains as relevant as ever, and though judgment is not such a persistent occurrence as it was in the Old Testament, God will one day “judge the world in righteousness” (Acts 17:31). The judgment to come will be much more severe and more lasting than any judgment of destruction visited upon any earthly tribe or nation. On that day, God will reveal “the Lord Jesus Christ from heaven with the angels of his power in flaming fire rendering vengeance to them that know not God, and to them that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 1:8). Such a warning is just as potent, though not as immediate, as any found in the Old Testament.
Nonetheless, God’s method of punishing sin has changed under the Gospel Age, and looking back on the former method, we sometimes are puzzled by God’s actions. We know that God is the same in both testaments, yet He does seem to act differently. The most jarring divergence is the violent wars recorded throughout the Old Testament, representing the complete annihilation of entire nations at the hand of a “loving” God. The wars described were more than mere defensive battles or land disputes; they were the complete and total destruction of men, women, children, and animals, the burning of cities, and the razing of countryside. What we read in the Old Testament is more closely akin to the ethnic cleansing of our day than any conventional warfare. How could a God Who “desires all men to be saved” condone, even command, this behavior?
The events of the Israelite conquest of Canaan are often misrepresented, and all the facts are not explained. Enemies of the Bible frequently select the most incriminating parts of a story without giving the surrounding information explaining it. Although the nation of Israel was selected by God to be the vehicle of the Messiah, God placed no other special value upon them, and their sin was just as inexcusable as that of the Canaanites. From the heights of Ebal, curses were leveled to those who would dare to disobey the pronouncements of God through His law. “And all these curses shall come upon thee, and shall pursue thee, and overtake thee, till thou be destroyed; because thou hearkenedst not unto the voice of Jehovah thy God, to keep his commandments and his statutes which he commanded thee” (Deuteronomy 28:45). The curses mentioned in this chapter are horrible beyond compare, and represent to His own people God’s judgment against sin. He is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34), and He did not punish the Canaanites because of their ethnicity, race, or anything other than their wickedness. It seems that God actually was sterner with His own people than with the other nations; after all, they were the chosen people who were deemed worthy by God of special privilege, and visited by numerous miracles and prophets. They, of all peoples, should have known better than to disobey God. It is reasonable, therefore, to conclude that God did not single out the Canaanites for punishment, nor did His divine standard differ from nation to nation. His hatred of sin crossed all borders, and included even Israel.
This indicates that the sin of the Canaanites was especially horrendous, and that they had been adequately warned of the consequences of their mischief. The biblical record, together with archaeology, reveals in Canaan a degraded society that practiced any number of atrocities in the name of religion. These nations engaged in ritual prostitution, self-mutilation, and human sacrifice. Their societies were filled with incest, idolatry, and violence. As a result of this immorality, God weighed them in the balance and found them wanting.
God’s judgment against certain nations did not result from one incident or practice, but was the culmination of many years of wickedness. After confirming His covenant with Abraham, God remarked that the iniquity of the Amorites “was not yet full” (Genesis 15:16). It was as if there was a level of wickedness that must not be exceeded; anything less was tolerated, but after that point, divine judgment ensued. Adding to their guilt, these pagans were privileged by the presence and example of the patriarchs, as well as the great miracle of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. These events had not happened in a corner—all of Canaan knew. Observe Rahab’s reaction to the Israelite spies:
For we have heard how Jehovah dried up the water of the Red Sea before you, when ye came out of Egypt; and what ye did unto the two kings of the Amorites, that were beyond the Jordan, unto Sihon and to Og, whom ye utterly destroyed. And as soon as we heard it, our hearts did melt, neither did there remain any more spirit in any man, because of you: for Jehovah your God, he is God in heaven above, and on earth beneath (Joshua 2:10-11).
Over forty years had passed since the Exodus, yet the memory was still fresh in the minds of Rahab and the Canaanites. The people knew of God, they knew His power, and they knew He was “with” Israel, yet they persisted in their sin. God, in His mercy, gave them ample time to repent. This clemency He granted to all nations, as is evinced by Jeremiah’s declaration:
At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up and to break down and to destroy it; if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turn from their evil that I thought to do unto them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; if they do that which is evil in my sight, that they obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them (18:7-10).
Canaan was given the opportunity to repent, but neglected it, thereby incurring the wrath of God. The punishment for rebellion always has been death (Romans 6:23), and so, refusing to repent, these Canaanites chose to perish.
Many will concede these things, yet continue to question why God punished everyone, including the innocents—and punished them in such a violent way as annihilation by war. It must be acknowledged that, on numerous occasions, God did see fit to destroy whole groups of people, regardless of gender or age. The Flood, for instance, killed every living human, except for the eight souls saved on the ark. This destruction included young and old, men and women. Likewise, God visited His people with famine, disease, fiery serpents, and similar maladies on several occasions as a result of their obstinacy (cf. 2 Kings 6:24-33; 2 Samuel 24:15; Numbers 21:4-9). These plagues killed man, woman, and child. Though these judgments may seem excessive or unnecessary, they are only a demonstration of God’s contempt for sin. He loathes sin; it is an abomination to Him (Proverbs 6:16); sin is an affront to His purity and holiness. As difficult as it is for us to grasp how a loving God can condone the murder of children, it is far more difficult, nay impossible, for us to comprehend his absolute disgust at sin. From that infinite abhorrence of sin comes an infinite love for mankind, a love that caused God to send His only Son to become sin in our place (1 John 3:16; 1 Corinthians 5:21). The children were not guilty of the sins of their parents (Ezekiel 18:20), but were killed incidentally. As a result of their premature death, they were spared the eternal punishment awaiting their sinful parents. Instead of growing up in an utterly corrupt society and eventually losing their souls by participating in the ills of that society, the young were given immediate entrance into heaven, the abode of all the innocent.
So the destruction of the Canaanite peoples was warranted by their “excessive, willful, and forewarned wickedness” (Paley, n.d., p. 590), and the children were innocent victims of God’s judgment on the guilty. But again, why did God choose war as the means? There are two possible reasons, both supported by the Scriptures. God knew the enormity of their immorality and their idolatry, and He knew how infectious sin is. Give the Israelites one generation in that villainous habitat, and they would become as wicked as the pagans. This was indeed the case on more than one occasion. By destroying every vestige of the Canaanites and their religion (which the Israelites were commanded, but failed, to do), the Israelites would have been shielded from much temptation. One need look only as far as 1 Samuel to see how God’s people were influenced by the nations round about (8:6). This purpose is clearly seen in Deuteronomy:
But of the cities of these people, that Jehovah thy God giveth thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth; but thou shalt utterly destroy them: the Hittite, and the Amorite, the Canaanite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite; as Jehovah thy God hath commanded thee; that they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods; so would ye sin against Jehovah your God (20:16-18).
A second purpose was to establish the might and power of God. During the period of the patriarchs and the judges, the heathen immersed in idolatry had a god for every aspect of life. None was more powerful, however, than the God of war. We known how the inhabitants of Jericho reacted to Israel’s victories—their hearts melted within them. This same spirit caused Moses to suggest that God not destroy Israel, lest the Egyptians view Jehovah as weak (Exodus 32:11-12). God did not tolerate these lesser gods made of wood and stone, and used every opportunity to contrast the true power of heaven with the puny inventions of man (1 Kings 20:28). The destruction of the heathen people proved that He was supreme, that no other was above Him, and that He alone had power to judge the nations.
It is not unusual for Christians to struggle with the violence of the Old Testament; nor is it wrong, as long as they put their doubts to rest through study and prayer. I have set forth here from scripture a partial explanation of the problem, but only God can reveal all the reasons for His actions. Even though the destruction and violence is troubling, one ultimate purpose of the conquest of Canaan was an expression of love. God protected the children of Israel, that they might in time produce a mighty King—a Deliverer, a Conqueror; a Man unlike all other men—Who did not deliver a physical nation, conqueror a visible foe, or reign over a temporal people, but instead delivered from sin, conquered death, and ruled a spiritual kingdom. The Old Testament, though sometimes difficult, is not impossible to understand if we only have patience. After all, it was written that we might have hope (Romans 15:4).
Paley, William (no date) The Works of William Paley (Philadelphia, PA: Crissy and Markley).