God and the Canaanites: A Biblical Perspective

Rick Wade provides a biblically informed perspective of these Old Testament events, looking back at them with a Christian view of history and its significance.

The Charge of Genocide

A common attack today on Christianity has to do with the character of the God of the Old Testament{1}. Moses’ instructions to the Israelites as they were about to move into Canaan included this:

In the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the LORD your God has commanded (Deut. 20:16-17).

download-podcastBecause of such things, biologist and prominent atheist Richard Dawkins describes God as “a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser . . .  genocidal . . . [a] capriciously malevolent bully.”{2}

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.” {3} 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.

Yahweh War

To understand what God was doing in Canaan, one must see it within the larger context of redemptive history.

The category scholars use for such events as the battles in the conquest of Canaan is Yahweh war. Yahweh wars are battles recorded in Scripture that are prompted by God for His purposes and won by His power.{4}

Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman sees five phases of Yahweh war in the Bible. In phase one, God fought the flesh-and-blood enemies of Israel. In phase two, God fought against Israel when it broke its side of its covenant with God (cf. Dt. 28:7. 25). In phase three, when Israel and Judah were in exile, God promised to come in the future as a warrior to rescue them from their oppressors (cf. Dan. 7).

In phase four there was a major change. When Jesus came, He shifted the battle to the spiritual realm; He fought spiritual powers and authorities. Jesus’ power was shown in His healings and exorcisms and preeminently in His victory in the heavenlies by His death and resurrection (see Col. 2:13-15). Christians today are engaged in warfare on this level. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against . . . the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (6:12).

Phase five of Yahweh war will be the final battle of history when Jesus returns and will once again be military in nature.

Thus, Longman says, “The war against the Canaanites was simply an earlier phase of the battle that comes to its climax on the cross and its completion at the final judgment.”{5}

There are several aspects of Yahweh war. The part that concerns us here—the real culmination of Yahweh war—is called herem. Herem literally means “ban” or “banned.” It means to ban from human use and to give over completely to God. The ESV and NIV give a fuller understanding of the term by translating it “devote to destruction” (the NASB renders it “set apart”).

Old Testament scholars Keil and Delitsch write that “there can be no doubt that the idea which lay at the foundation of the ban was that of a compulsory dedication of something which resisted or impeded sanctification; . . . it was an act of the judicial holiness of God manifesting itself in righteousness and judgment.”{6}

Canaan, because of its sin, was to be herem—devoted to destruction.

The Conquest of Canaan

In the conquest of Canaan, three goals were being accomplished.

First, the movement of the Israelites into Canaan was the fruition of God’s promise to Abram that He would give that land to his children (Gen. 12:7). When Joshua led the people across the Jordan River into Canaan, he was fulfilling this promise. Since the land wasn’t empty, this could only be accomplished by driving the Canaanites out.

The second goal of the conquest was the judgment of the Canaanites. Driving them out wasn’t simply a way of making room for Israel. The Canaanites were an evil, depraved people who had to be judged to fulfill the demands of justice. What about these people prompted such a harsh judgment?

For one thing, the Canaanites worshipped other gods. In our pluralistic age, it’s easy to forget what an offense that is to the true God.

In the worship of their gods, the Canaanites committed other evils. They engaged in temple prostitution which was thought to be a re-enactment of the sexual unions of the gods and goddesses.

An even more detestable practice was that of child sacrifice. Under the sanctuary in the ancient city of Gezer, urns containing the burnt bones of children have been found. They are dated to somewhere between 2000 and 1500 BC, between the time of Abraham and the Exodus.{7}

The third goal of the conquest was the protection of Israel. God was concerned that, if the Canaanites remained in the land, they would draw the Israelites into their evil practices.

How could the Canaanites have that much influence over the Israelites? For one thing, the Israelites would intermarry with them, and their spouses would bring their gods into the marriage with all that entailed.{8} In addition, the Israelites would be tempted to imitate Canaanite religious rituals because of their close connection to agricultural rhythms. The fertility of the land was believed to be directly connected to the sexual relations of the gods and goddesses. The people believed that re-enacting these unions themselves played a part in the fertility of the land.{9}

At first, the Israelites tried to compromise and worship God the way the Canaanites worshiped their gods. God had warned them against that (Deut. 12:4, 30, 31). Then they would simply abandon worship of the true God. As a result, they eventually received the same judgment the Canaanites experienced (Deut. 4:26; 7:4).

The Dispossession and Destruction of the Canaanites

In Deuteronomy 20:16, Moses said the Israelites were to “save alive nothing that breathes” in the cities in their new land. The question has been raised whether God really intended the Israelites to kill all the people. It has been suggested that such “obliteration language” was “hyperbolic.”{10} Commands to destroy everyone are sometimes followed by commands not to intermarry, such as in Deut. 7:2-3. How could the Israelites intermarry with the Canaanites if they killed them all? Maybe this was just an example of Ancient Near Eastern military language.{11}

I think God meant it quite literally. Here’s why. Leviticus 27:29 says very plainly that every person devoted to destruction was to be killed. Further, in Deuteronomy 20, Moses said they were only to kill the adult males in far away cities (vv. 13-14), but in nearby cities they were to “save nothing alive that breathes” (v. 16). If God didn’t mean to kill everyone in nearby cities, then what distinction was being made? And how else would God have said it if He did mean that? That being said, I do not think God had the Israelites comb the land to find and destroy every person; they were to devote to destruction the people who remained in the cities when they attacked.

Another observation is that the instruction is frequently to dispossess the Canaanites or move them out rather than to destroy them. Scholar Glen Miller points out that “dispossession” words are used by a three-to-one margin over “destruction” words.{12}

Can these be put together? With Miller, I think they can. The people of the land had heard about all that had happened with the Israelites from the time they escaped Egypt. “As soon as we heard it,” Rahab of Jericho said, “our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (Josh. 2:11). Because of that advance warning, it is possible that some people abandoned their cities. Thus, the Israelites could possibly have married people who weren’t in the cities when they were attacked.

A more obvious reason for the possibility of intermarriage is the fact that the Israelites didn’t fully obey God’s commands. In Jdg. 1:27-2:5, we read that tribe after tribe of Israelites did not drive out all the inhabitants of the cities they conquered. The Israelites intermarried with them which eventually drew God’s judgment on them as well.

Final Comments

The most disturbing part of the conquest of Canaan for most people is the killing of children. After the defeats of both Heshbon and Bashan, Moses noted that they had “devoted to destruction every city, men, women, and children” (Deut. 2:34; 3:3, 6).

No matter what explanation of the death of children is given, no one except the most cold hearted will find joy in it. God didn’t. He gets no pleasure in the death of anyone. In Ezekiel 18:23 we read, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (see also Ezek. 33:11). When God told Abraham He was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham pleaded for them, and God agreed in his mercy that if but only ten righteous people were found, He wouldn’t do it. Long after the conquest of the land, when God decided He would have to destroy Moab, according to Isaiah God “wept bitterly” over her cities (Isa. 16:9; cf. 15:5).

But what about Deuteronomy 24:16 which says that children shall not be put to death because of their fathers’ sins? Isn’t there an inconsistency here?

The law given in Deuteronomy provided regulations for the people of Israel. On an individual basis, when a father sinned, his son wasn’t to be punished for it. The situation with Canaan was different. Generation after generation of Canaanites continued in the same evil practices. What was to stop it? God knew it would take the destruction of the nations.

Here are a few factors to take into consideration:

First, the sins of parents, just like their successes, have an impact on their children.

Second, if the Canaanite children were allowed to live and remain in the land, they could very well act to avenge their parents when they grew up, or at least to pick up again the practices of their parents.

Third, if one holds that there is an age of accountability for children, and that those younger than that are received into heaven with God at their death, although the means of death were frightful and harsh, the Canaanite children’s experience after death would be better than if they’d continued to live among such a sinful people.{13} How persuasive this thought is will depend on how seriously we take biblical teaching about our future after the grave. [Ed. note: please see Probe’s article Do Babies Go to Hell?by Probe’s founder Jimmy Williams.]

These ideas may provide little consolation. But we must keep in mind that God is not subject to our contemporary sensibilities.{14} The only test we can put to God is consistency with His own nature and word. Yahweh is a God of justice as well as mercy. He is also a God who takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked.

1. This article is a slightly adapted version of the program that aired on the Probe radio program. A more detailed version is also available on our Web site with the title “Yahweh War and the Conquest of Canaan.”
2. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Mariner Books, 2008), 51.
3. “Convention on the Punishment and Prevention of the Crime of Genocide,” Article II, University of the West of England, at: www.ess.uwe.ac.uk/.
4. The phrase “the Lord’s battles” or “battles of the Lord” are found in 1 Sam. 18:17 and 25:28.
5. Tremper Longman III, “The Case for Spiritual Continuity,” in C. S. Cowles, Eugene H. Merrill, Daniel L. Gard, and Tremper Longman III, Show Them No Mercy: Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 185.
6. C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, trans., James Martin, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 1: The Pentateuch (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), 484-485. Emphasis added.
7. M.G. Kyle, “Canaan,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 550. 8. The atheism of today wasn’t an option. If the Israelites started to get a little slack in their obligations to Yahweh, they would turn to other gods.
9. Bernhard Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1957), 93-94; 96-103.
10. Paul Copan, “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?”, Philosophia Christi 10, no. 1 (2008): 7-37; www.epsociety.org/library/articles.asp?pid=45. In his article “Yahweh Wars” which was written after “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?,” Copan presents two scenarios, one in which everyone was put to death, and the other in which the targets were military leaders and soldiers. He believes the latter is the correct interpretation. See Paul Copan, “Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites,” Philosophia Christi 11, no. 1 (2009): 73-92; www.epsociety.org/library/articles.asp?pid=63.
In his discussion in “Moral Monster,” Copan refers specifically to Deut. 23:12-13 where Joshua also warns the people against intermarrying. One should note that Joshua’s commands in Deuteronomy 23 are given before the Israelites have completed their sweep through the land, so of course there are Canaanites there to marry. The Deut. 7 passage provides better support for his position.
11. Copan, “Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites.”
12. Glenn M. Miller, “How could a God of Love order the massacre/annihilation of the Canaanites?” on the web site A Christian Thinktank,
13. Cf. Paul Copan, “How Could a Loving God Command Genocide,” in That’s Just Your Interpretation (Grand Rapid: Baker, 2001), 165.
14. And I say “contemporary” because children weren’t regarded as highly in the Ancient Near East as they are today.

© 2010 Probe Ministries