David Couchman
David Couchman is the Director of Focus and the producer of the 'God: new evidence,' 'God and the Big Bang,' 'After Life?' and 'Jesus Myths' video series. More...

Digital Evangelism blog

God and the Canaanites

The destruction of the Canaanites in the Old Testament fills followers of Christ today with 'embarrassed horror' according to Don Carson. For many people, this is one of the most serious moral problems with the Bible and God. How can we respond?

This article is based on the story of the conquest of Jericho, which is found in Joshua chapter 6. Please read this account from the Bible before you go any further - the rest of this article will make much more sense if you have read the passage.

The Old Testament tells the story of how God told the Israelites to conquer the Promised Land of Canaan, beginning with the city of Jericho. In doing so, they were to destroy all the existing occupants of the land. For many people today, Joshua chapter 6 - and others like it - represent all that is bad about the Bible: God sends the Israelites on a rampage of slaughter and destruction, during which they murder innocent women and children.

God tells them that Jericho is to be completely destroyed. They are not to leave anything. They are not to keep anything:

The city and and everything in it must be completely destroyed as an offering to the Lord. Only Rahab the prostitute and the others in her house will be spared, for she protected our spies.(Verse 17)

They completely destroyed everything in it - men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep, donkeys - everything. (Verse 21)

Someone said recently:

Do you really think it was positive for God to destroy an entire city of people, and not even spare the innocent children?

Someone else said:

The Bible has more evil than all the other books written in history.

This is how many many people think. So there is a problem here. Professor Don Carson says that the annihilation of the Canaanites fills followers of Christ today with an 'embarrassed horror.'

There are three difficulties in the way of giving a response that is both faithful to the Bible and makes sense to people today:

  1. People today start with very different assumptions from the assumptions of the Bible. An answer that is faithful to what the Bible says will only make sense when we understand what the Bible's assumptions are, and
  2. There can be a kind of arrogance that prevents the response from being heard. People today think they know what the Bible is all about, but often they do not really know. Because they think they know, they are too impatient to listen to the answer.
  3. This is a complicated question, and it needs a detailed response. But we live in a culture that is impatient with complexity, and wants quick solutions. However, this question defies a 'sound bite' answer.

So if you are looking for a 'sound-bite' answer, you have come to the wrong place. However, here are five points by way of a response to this problem:

1. The outcome was important

It is easy for us to assume that what was going on here was just a spot of 'ethnic cleansing' by Joshua and the Israelite army. But this is not the case: There was never a time when God was only interested in the Jews. His purpose was always to save for his glory people from every tribe and nation. How was this purpose going to be accomplished? Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. All through the history of the Jews, God was at work paving the way for the coming of Messiah.

Equally, all through history, God's adversary, Satan, was seeking to spoil God's worldwide plan - from Pharaoh having the Jewish boy babies killed in Egypt (Exodus chapter 1 verses 15-17), through to Haman trying to have all the Jews killed in the days of Xerxes (Esther chapter 3 verses 5-6), through to king Herod killing the boys under two years old in Bethlehem (Matthew chapter 2 verses 16-18).

Satan is always trying to defeat God's purposes, and destroy God's people. Where he cannot destroy them, he will try to drive a wedge between them and God, either in the area of their religious beliefs or their moral practices. That is why the Old Testament prophets spent so much time denouncing idolatry and immorality.

This was a crucial moment as God's chosen people went into God's Promised Land. If they were compromised by the idol-worship of the surrounding nations, there was a real danger that God's plan would be spoiled. What was at stake here was not just local. It was of worldwide and eternal importance. Later history would show that the Israelites did not destroy these nations, and did succumb to their idolatry, and God's plan almost was spoiled.

Of course, the importance of the outcome does not excuse something if it is morally wrong, but this may help us to see why God told the Israelites to take such drastic action. The outcome was important.
Does the killing of the Canaanites justify killing people of different races or religions in the name of God today?

2. The people were not just individuals

In our western culture today, we have a very individualistic sense of a person's identity. Most other cultures, in the rest of the world, have understood that an individual is never just an individual. He (or she) is a member of his (or her) family. The family is part of a clan; the clan is part of a tribe, and the tribe is part of a nation. What the individual does affects the whole nation; what the nation does has consequences for the individual.

Most people in the world understand this much better than we do. But even we are beginning to understand that people's actions have consequences for future generations. Think for example of the legacy of environmental pollution that we are leaving for our children to grapple with. Children do not escape the results of what their parents do. Being innocent does not mean being insulated.

Someone read this, and responded:

You seem to be implying that every individual should be punished for what the community / family has done.

However, our purpose here is not to say that children should be punished for the actions of their parents. Of course they should not. This was recognized even in the law code given through Moses:

Parents must not be put to death for the sins of their children, nor the children for the sins of their parents. Those worthy of death must be executed for their own crimes. (Deuteronomy chapter 24 verse 16)

Rather the point was that children sometimes suffer as a result of what their parents do. Here is an analogy: on September 11th, as those 'planes hurtled towards the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, there were probably some babies and children on board. Those children had not done anything wrong that caused them to be there. But if the American Government had been able to respond fast enough and decisively enough, I am fairly sure they would have shot the planes down before they could be flown into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

Does this mean that the American Government condones the killing of babies and children? Surely not. The point is that the threat would have been large enough and serious enough for them to take drastic action, and because of this drastic action, innocent children would have died.

I believe that this is what was going on when the Israelites destroyed the Canaanites. One of the reasons we find it difficult to see it this way is that we do not take seriously enough the evil these nations were doing, or the threat they posed to God's good purposes for the whole world.

We cannot escape the uncomfortable implications: the children killed were not just individuals. They were parts of a wider whole.

3. The nations were not innocent

The religion of these people was a fertility cult. They turned their women into temple prostitutes, and they sacrificed their children to their pagan gods. In other words, they put their material prosperity before the well being of their wives and children.

The Bible makes it clear that what happened was not just God's way of giving the Israelites the Promised Land. It was also God's deliberate judgment on the evil of the Canaanites - and this judgment was morally just and right.

Please read Deuteronomy chapter 18, verses 9-12. This is part of Moses' 'Last Words' to the Israelites before he hands over the leadership to Joshua, and then dies. Notice particularly what Moses says in verse 9 and the beginning of verse 10:

When you arrive in the land the Lord your God is giving you, be very careful not to imitate the detestable customs of the nations living there. For example, never sacrifice your son or daughter as a burnt offering...

The Canaanites sacrificed their own children. Perhaps we can see what happened to them when the Israelites invaded as a kind of poetic justice.

The idea of God's judgment, God's anger against evildoers, sounds quaint and archaic to us today, but we need to understand that it is a central part of the Bible's message. Not only that, but - if the Bible is true - it is the reality of the world that we live in. Deep down, don't we all want to see justice done? In the town where I live, a young girl was recently abducted, brutally raped, and then murdered. I do not know how that affects other people, but speaking for myself I know that I want to see the person who did this brought to justice. And in the same way, God's judgment on the Canaanites was an important expression of his justice.

4. God was not impatient

God's promise that the Israelites would have the land of Canaan was first made to Abraham, way back in Genesis. In Genesis chapter 15, God renews his promise to Abraham. He has just told Abraham that his descendants will be enslaved by another nation for four hundred years. Then in verse 16 God says this:

After four generations your descendants will return here to this land, when the sin of the Amorites has run its course.

The point is that the Israelites' possession of the Promised Land had to wait. It had to wait more than four hundred years, because that was how much time God gave the Canaanites and Amorites to turn back from their evil ways. God was not impatient. But instead of turning back, what they did just went from bad to worse. So in the end God stepped in in judgment, and in justice. The same action by which he gave the Israelites the Promised Land was also the action by which he judged the people of Canaan - but not until the Canaanites had had plenty of time to change their ways.

Someone who read this asked:

What Biblical evidence do you have that God even spoke to the Canaanites about reforming?

As far as I know, there is nothing in the Bible to suggest that God gave the Canaanites any specific warnings. However, the Canaanites were sacrificing their children, and I think their consciences told them that this was not the right thing to do - in just the same way that we today do not need a specific warning from God to tell us that - for example -murder, rape, or paedophilia are wrong.

The important point is that the Canaanites had plenty of time to change their ways, but chose not to. There is a warning here, for those of us who reject God's call. In the New Testament, Peter echoes this same point:

The Lord isn't really being slow about his promise to return, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to perish, so he is giving more time for everyone to repent. But the day of the Lord will come...(2 Peter chapter 3 verses 9-10)

Finally...

5. Escape was not impossible

God tells the Israelites to destroy everything and everyone. Well, not quite everyone. Look at chapter 6 verses 22-25. The prostitute Rahab and her family are saved.

If nothing else, the story of Rahab shows that even at this stage it would have been possible for the people of Canaan to escape from God's judgment, and one family did escape. But the others would not. Once again, the adults are at least partly responsible for what happens to their own children.

So

  • the outcome was important
  • the people were not just individuals
  • the nations were not innocent
  • God was not impatient, and
  • escape was not impossible

There is much more that needs to be said. This is nothing like a complete answer to the problem of the destruction of the Canaanites, but it may give us some pointers towards an answer.

One visitor to this web site wrote:

I want to talk a little bit about something in that text that doesn't seem to make a lot of sense. I have a couple of points, so I will list quotes from the text and then give replies below them.

'Most people in the world understand this much better than we do. But even we are beginning to understand that people's actions have consequences for future generations. Think for example of the legacy of environmental pollution that we are leaving for our children to grapple with. Children do not escape the results of what their parents do. Being innocent does not mean being insulated.'

This example illustrates a passive consequence. The state of the environment does not have a mind with which to judge our children. Therefore, a bad environment is more like a weapon that the current generation is crafting and wielding, and which will be used to harm our children.

'Rather the point was that children sometimes suffer as a result of what their parents do. Here is an analogy: on September 11th, as those 'planes hurtled towards the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, there were probably some babies and children on board. Those children had not done anything wrong that caused them to be there. But if the American Government had been able to respond fast enough and decisively enough, I am fairly sure they would have shot the planes down before they could be flown into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

Does this mean that the American Government condones the killing of babies and children? Surely not. The point is that the threat would have been large enough and serious enough for them to take drastic action, and because of this drastic action, innocent children would have died.'

God, as a superhuman being, should never encounter a threat that is 'large enough and serious enough' for Him to need to cause collateral damage. What stops God from selectively judging the wicked Canaanites, in the same way as when the angel passed over the homes of the Israelites who had painted their doors with blood?

'We cannot escape the uncomfortable implications: the children killed were not just individuals. They were parts of a wider whole.'

It is an 'uncomfortable implication' because it means that God may someday decide that you or I are part of a wider whole, and condemn us to death at the hands of 'His chosen people'. Your analogies do not fit the situation to provide a satisfactory justification for the slaughtering of a people.

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