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The Conquest of Canaan and the Character of God

By: Jonathan Harris

In the famous atheist book The God Delusion, the author Richard Dawkins tells us that “the Bible story of Joshua’s destruction of Jericho, and the invasion of the Promised Land in general, is morally indistinguishable from Hitler’s invasion of Poland, or Saddam Hussein’s massacres of the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs.” More than a few non-believers maintain that the God of the Bible, or perhaps more specifically the God of the “Old Testament,” is unworthy of human worship precisely because of His command to “utterly destroy” the Canaanite peoples whom happened to have the unfortunate position of existing within the boundaries of the land God had promised to Abraham. For some Christians this reality can seem to contradict the command of Jesus to love their enemies.

How then can a Christian reconcile the command of God to violently exterminate a people group with the grace of God found in Jesus? The first thing to recognize is that this is a fair question. The non-believer seeks to perform an internal critique within the Christian worldview, while the believer seeks to understand the God of his own faith on a deeper level. However, the non-believer does not have the moral capital with which to make such an accusation against the God of the Bible given his own worldview. If there exists no ultimate, invariable, and unchangeable moral standard having its foundation in a personal deity there should be no complaint if one group of people decides to do harm to another group, even if that group is being hypocritical by doing so. The non-believer’s ethical position, just like the assumed Christian position he or she is attempting to critique, has no moral justification for opposing the actions of God against the Canaanite peoples. Therefore, this is a question that only makes sense within the confines of the Christian worldview.

How is it that a Christian can hold to the teachings of Jesus while believing that the same God endorsed what some have called “genocide?” The answer lies in understanding better the full council of God when it comes to the Canaanite invasion, and more importantly, the character of God—specifically His justice.

Before analyzing the specifics of the Canaanite quasi-extermination, it would be helpful to point out that the God of both the Old and New Testaments is a consistent God; meaning, there are examples of harshness from a human perspective in the New Testament and examples of grace in the Old Testament. For example, “Jesus talked more about hell than all the other prophets combined.” Conversely, “Yahweh is characterized by hesed (steadfast love) generally throughout the Old Testament and specifically in most Old Testament books”. That being said, the question before is not a question in which the God of the Old Testament must be reconciled to the God of the New Testament. Rather, the God of both testaments must be understood when comparing his attribute of justice with his attribute of mercy.

The response found here is divided into three categories: misunderstandings concerning the Canaanites, misunderstandings concerning the Jewish invasion, and most importantly wrong assumptions concerning God.

When God commanded Joshua to destroy the Canaanite peoples the reason given is found in Deuteronomy 20:18 which says, “so that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the Lord your God.” Obviously, God did not want the people he had liberated from Egypt to fall into worshiping other gods. But what did this Canaanite worship look like? Two chapters before, God had already answered this question.

When you enter the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not learn to imitate the detestable things of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For whoever does these things is detestable to the Lord; and because of these detestable things the Lord your God will drive them out before you. You shall be blameless before the Lord your God. 

The Canaanites were not neutral. They were not innocent recipients of divine atrocity. If anything, they were enemies of God before they were enemies of Israel. Child sacrifice, bestiality, sorcery, etc. all caused the patience of God to run thin until the arm of divine judgement was wielded against them. Even while the Canaanites were enemies of God, mercy was still extended them through great patience on God’s part in waiting until their corruption was complete (Gen. 15:16), in using natural forces to drive some of them out of the land before Israel arrived (Ex 23:28), in warning them before Israel crossed the Jordan (Josh 2:9-11), and in saving some that humbled themselves such as Rahab the prostitute (Josh 2:14, 1 Sam 15:6). God’s issue with the Canaanites was therefore not “racial” (i.e. not genocide) but rather spiritual. God did not make them his enemy. They made God theirs.

It is argued by some that because ancient near eastern sources use much hyperbole when talking about war, the same can be said for the accounts in Joshua of Israel’s invasion of Canaan.

While Joshua 10:40 and Joshua 11:12-15 speak of everyone being destroyed, elsewhere in Joshua and judges a different perspective is given. These other texts repeatedly state that the Israelites did not kill all the Canaanites; they couldn’t even drive all of them out of the land (Josh 13:1-6; 15:63; 17:12; Judg 1:19-34).  (Lamb. God Behaving Badly. Kindle Locations 739-740.)

While this view may be seen by some as insignificant, it is at least worth mentioning so that apples are being compared with apples. The Canaanites own depictions of conquest surpassed the cruelty ascribed to the Jews. It was the Jews who were also entering a land, from a biblical perspective that already belonged to them. The Canaanites were the “claim jumpers” so to speak.

David T. Lamb, in his book “God Behaving Badly,” maintains, “Part of our problem with the conquest narratives comes from our discomfort with judgment more generally.” Even after spending copious amounts of time studying the near ancient context of the conquest of Canaan there will still remain challenging questions aimed at God on the part of the non-believer simply because he does not either understand or accept the sovereign, loving, just God of both testaments. Ultimately, it was not Israel inflicting divine punishment, but God sanctioning Israel to carry out His justice—a justice He often carried out Himself without their assistance (2 Kings 19:35)—that destroyed most of the inhabitants of Canaan. God’s love is demonstrated in His patience toward the evil Canaanites, His grace towards the faithful Canaanites, and his protection of Israel from false religion. God’s judgement of sin is nothing new to the Christian worldview, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that God would use one nation to punish another, something Israel learned the hard way themselves. It is in God’s character that the reconciliation is found.

In the Christian worldview, the Canaanites deserved what they got, but we deserve the same thing. God’s justice left no rock unturned. Infants, normally considered “off limits” were destroyed. Animals were destroyed. Anything associated with paganism was destroyed. We may be reviled, but in the Christian conception of reality God is sovereign. He owns the Canaanite infants. He either preserves them in eternity—an argument William Lane Craig has made to support the idea that God was demonstrating mercy in killing infants who were guaranteed an afterlife in heaven before the age of accountability, an opportunity most likely not afforded to them if they grew up in the religion of their people—or he destroys them for what they would become. This would be his prerogative from a biblical stand point—not man’s. God is not pro-choice in the modern progressive sense. He protects the defenseless, the orphan and the widow. In a very limited circumstance he used the children of Israel to inflict His wrath for the sin of another people. Unlike modern “jihad” this is not an ongoing command given to the Jews. It was for a specific context long past. It is God who knows the hearts of men. What they are, what they will be, what they deserve. It is He who chooses some for preservation and some for destruction all the time maintaining justice. Human beings are made in his image. It is a stamp of His ownership on each of us. Why should the Canaanites be any exception?

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