Gospel Gazette Online
Volume 19 Number 10 October 2017
Page 6

Was God Justified in His
Extermination of the Canaanites?

Clarence Lavender

When some individuals read of destructive events in the Bible, it is easy for them to draw wrong conclusions if they do not have a working knowledge of the nature of God. The Bible teaches that God never does anything without a morally justified reason. Our God is never out of control as charged by some, but He always does things consistent with His nature, which is holy, just and righteous. The truth as found in the Word of God is far more important than any man’s attitude toward it; it is more important than nations or individuals.

The following are some of the cases concerning wrong conclusions often drawn by some people when they call the ethics of God into question: (1) The account of Rahab the harlot (Joshua 2:1-24). (2) The destruction of the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 20:13-18). (3) The family of Achan (Joshua 7:21). (4) The biblical doctrine of Hell (Matthew 25:46). (5) The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:4-29).

We shall address only in this article the question: Was God Justified in His Extermination of the Canaanites? Before examining this question, let us remember the principle set forth in 2 Chronicles 19:7, “…for there is no iniquity with the Lord our God…” Since there is no iniquity with God, there must be a rational explanation as to His orders that caused the death of many people, some of them being even innocent women and children.

The Destruction of the Canaanites

Those who call into question the ethics of God concerning the destruction of the Canaanites or any other ethical decision made by God fail to take into consideration six things. (1) They ignore the reason given for the destruction of these people, “that they teach you not to do after their abominations which they have done unto their sons” (Deuteronomy 20:18). (2) The only way that a person can accuse God of wrong is to be equal with God. (3) The Canaanites were grossly immoral. The justice of God demands punishment for sin. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). From Romans 3:23-27, it is clear that God had to show or demonstrate His righteousness in the punishment of the wicked. He would violate His own nature if He failed to do so. (4) A person would have to be omniscient to know that what happened to the children was not the best thing that could have happened in their situation. The alternative here would appear to be that they would grow to adulthood and become malignant blights in the society of men as were their parents. Innocent children died, but they died safe. (5) Punishment here may be interpreted deterrently and retributively, that is, in recognition of what the Canaanites had earned. At one point in time God said, “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full,” and he would not permit them to be destroyed at that time. When it became clear that their iniquity was full—that they were past redemption— then their destruction occurred. (6) Punishment was deserved by the Canaanites, whereas it was not in the case of the Holocaust—that is, the Nazis and the Jews—only a vendetta by Hitler and the Nazis.

All attempts to mitigate or tone down the command of God to totally wipe out the population of the Canaanites must take into consideration the clear instructions in the following Scriptures.

Thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor with their gods. They shall not dwell in thy land, lest they make thee sin against me: for if thou serve their gods, it will surely be a snare unto thee. (Exodus 23:32-33)

Take heed to thyself, lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither thou goest, lest it be for a snare in the midst of thee: But ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves: For thou shalt worship no other god: for the Lord whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God: Lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they go a whoring after their gods, and do sacrifice; and thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters go a whoring after their gods, and make thy sons go a whoring after their gods. Thou shalt make thee no molten gods. (Exodus 34:12-17)

When the Lord thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou: And when the Lord thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them: thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them: Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shat not give unto his sons, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods; so will the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and destroy thee suddenly. But thus shall ye deal with them; ye shall destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graven images with fire. (Deuteronomy 7:1-5)

Thus shalt thou do unto all the cities which are very far off from thee, which are not of the cities of these nations. But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee: That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods; so should ye sin against the LORD your God. (Deuteronomy 20:15-18)

It was a dedication to continual wickedness that marked the Canaanites for extermination. Yet, once again we are back to the question, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25) and “Does God pervert justice? Does the Almighty pervert what is right?” (Job 8:3). This writer believes that the Scriptures uphold the justice and the righteousness of God even in this command to eradicate the Canaanites.

To place the whole question in perspective, note the principle of Deuteronomy 9:5, which says, “Not for thy righteousness, or for the uprightness of thine heart, dost thou go to possess their land: but for the wickedness of these nations the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee, and that he may perform the word which the Lord swear unto thy fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Therefore we can see that God’s call to Israel was not traced to any moral superiority or their number, but to fulfill His promise to Abraham and his seed; God was preserving a lineage through which the Messiah would be born.

For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God; the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth. The Lord did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people: But because the Lord loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, hath the Lord brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:6-8)

It is true that Israel was wicked, but their wickedness had not increased to the degree of guilt that Canaan had accrued. Even Jesus appealed to this principle in dealing with a comparison of cities in His day as judged over against Sodom and Gomorrah. “Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, than for that city” (Matthew 10:15). There had been a patient waiting from Abraham’s time for the sin of the Amorites to reach its full measure. “But in the fifth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full” (Genesis 15:16).

This is not to say that Israel was permitted or even ordered to treat all other nations the same way, for Deuteronomy 20:10-15 orders them to offer conditions of peace rather than extermination to all others.

When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it. And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee. And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it: And when the LORD thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword. But the women, and the little ones and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the LORD thy God hath given thee. Thus shalt thou do unto all the cities which are very far off from thee, which are not of the cities of these nations.

However, the verses that follow, namely verses 16-18, disallowed the same offer to be given to Canaan.

But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breathest: But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee: That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods; so should ye sin against the LORD your God.

In fact, the Hebrew wars with other nations (except Canaan) were designed to be only in self-defense.

Why, then, were the Canaanites singled out for such severe treatment? They were cut off to prevent Israel and the rest of the world from being corrupted (Deuteronomy 20:16-18). When people start to burn their children in honor of their gods (Leviticus 18:21), practice sodomy, bestiality and all forms of wickedness (Leviticus 18:23-24; 20:3), the land itself begins to “vomit” them out as the body heaves under the load of internal poisons (Leviticus 18:25, 27-30). Thus, objection to the fate of these nations is really an objection to the highest manifestation of the goodness of God. Greene likens this action on God’s part, not to doing evil that good may come, but doing good in spite of certain evil consequences, just as a surgeon does not refrain from amputating a gangrenous limb even though in so doing he cannot help cutting off healthy flesh.

However, there is more. Greene wisely observes that “we may not object to God’s doing immediately and personally what we do not object to His doing immediately, through providence. Now nothing is more certain than that providence is administered on the principle that individuals share in the life of the family and of the nation to which they belong; and that, consequently it is right that they should participate in its punishments as in its rewards. …Though many innocent persons could not but suffer, it was right because of the relation in which they stood to the guilty, that this should be the relation in which they stood to the guilty, that this should be so.”

We have seen this same principle work in our own generation. During World War II, the United States of America dropped two atomic bombs on the country of Japan. Many innocent persons, including women and children, were killed; our action was right because of the relation in which they stood to the guilty. Such is a distasteful truth, but that is the fact of the matter. Also, the purpose behind the bombing was to save lives that would have continued to be taken had the war continued. Thus, the overall action of America was to save lives. Some innocent persons died, but many more, in the long run, were saved from death. To illustrate how God was morally justified in His actions, we as human beings sometimes bring about suffering and even death of the innocent to save other lives. Note the following.

A husband is told his wife will die if an abortion is not performed immediately (due to tubular pregnancy). It is a question of her life or death! The purpose of the abortion is not to take the life of the child, but to save the life of the mother. Let me illustrate the point further. Two men, let’s call them Jim and Joe, are drowning in a body of water. A man passing by sees the desperation of both men, dives in, swims out, but he can only save one of them. He reaches and pulls Jim to safety. Who can fault him for not saving Joe?

A cancer patient must often be given radiation treatments by a qualified physician. The doctor knows that in destroying cancer cells that healthy cells will be destroyed as well. His purpose is not to kill good cells, but to kill bad ones; yet in trying to save the person from the spread of cancer, good is destroyed as well. Who faults the doctor for his practice?

Walter Kaiser makes this observation. “Every forecast or prophecy of doom, like any prophetic word about the future except those few promises connected with the Noachic, Abrahamic, Davidic, and new covenants (which were unconditional and dependent solely on God’s work of fulfillment), had a suppressed ‘unless’ attached to them. At what moment that nation turns from its evil way and repents, then at that time the Lord would relent and cease to bring the threatened harm.”

At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it: If that nation against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the 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 it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good wherewith I said I would benefit them. (Jeremiah 18:7-10).

Thus Canaan had, as it were, a final forty-year countdown as they heard of the events in Egypt, at the crossing of the Red Sea and what happened to the kings who opposed Israel along the way. We know they were aware of such events, for Rahab confessed that these same events had terrorized her city of Jericho and that she, as a result, had placed her faith in the God of the Hebrews.

For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you, when ye came out of Egypt: and what ye did unto the two kings of the Amorites, that were on the other side Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom ye utterly destroyed. And as soon as we had heard these things, our hearts did melt, neither did there remain any more courage in any man, because of you: for the LORD your God, he is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath. Now therefore, I pray you, swear unto me by the LORD, since I have shewed you kindness, that ye will also shew kindness unto my father’s house, and give me a true token: And that ye will save alive my father, and my mother, and my brethren, and my sisters, and all that they have, and deliver our lives from death. And the men answered her, Our life for yours, if ye utter not this our business. And it shall be, when the LORD hath given us the land, that we will deal kindly and truly with thee. (Joshua 2:10-14).

Thus God waited for the “cup of iniquity” to fill up, and fill up it did without any signs of change in spite of the marvelous signs given so that the nations, along with Pharaoh and the Egyptians, “might know that He was the Lord.”

The destruction of the Canaanites was based on the same principle by which the whole world was judged (except for eight persons) in the flood, and that by which the five cities of the plain (including Sodom and Gomorrah) and Pharaoh’s army were judged. Usually those who object to these events are those who deny compatibility of the doctrine of eternal destruction of the unrepentant wicked with the mercy and love of God.

God’s character and the acts He requires are fully consistent with everything that both Testaments would lead us to expect in our God. The problem usually centers in a deficiency in our view of things and our inability to properly define or grasp the whole of the subject. “Will the judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25). Always!


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