By Matt Lefebvre


Richard Dawkins

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p.51)

In the first article I wrote on the relevance of the Old Testament, I quoted only the first phrase of this extremely provocative sentence, but if ever there was a place to quote it at length, it is in this article.  For Dawkins, and no doubt many others, what happened in the land of Canaan around 3,500 years ago is the same as any example of ethnic cleansing or genocide in recent years.  Adding to this is the fact that it is not just recorded in the Bible, or committed by God’s chosen people, for we have many examples of the moral failures of people in the Bible, but it is actually the case that God commanded that the people of Canaan be destroyed or driven out that is likely the most troubling (Exodus 34:11-16, Deuteronomy 7:1-5).  A picture can quickly come to mind of thousands being killed or displaced, and such a picture is by no means pretty, but is this the whole story?  Certainly words like genocide and ethnic cleansing do not ever seem like they could have a positive connotation, so it will not do to simply skip over this part of the Bible or change the subject if it should ever come up.  We must look at what the Bible says and judge for ourselves concerning what was going on.

In dealing with this very difficult question, I do not intend to present every perspective on this question.  There are those who say it never happened, which are often very strangely the same ones who are so outraged by it, but this view is irrelevant to whether the Old Testament is relevant or not.  There are also those who claim that it is an Old Testament problem, for the people of Israel only thought this was the command of God to them, when it really was not (C.S. Cowles, in Show Them No Mercy: Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide, p.13-44).  As attractive as this might seem, and as fitting as it would be with common caricatures of the God of wrath in the Old Testament and God of love in the New Testament, this view ignores many of the consistencies between God as presented in both testaments, as I have explained in the above mentioned article.  It also creates more problems than it claims to solve, such as consistency in the Bible, the Bible being the inerrant word of God, and the New Testament view of the Old Testament.  There is also the approach of Paul Copan in Is God a Moral Monster?, which I think to be an interesting take on this question, but I am not totally convinced of its coherence with the biblical data or its explanatory power.  Among other things, Copan explains the references to destroying “all that breathes” to be Ancient Near Eastern rhetoric and not referring to killing everyone, like those who were non-combatants.  Passages that compare regular battles with this special instance of Canaanite warfare such as Deuteronomy 20:10-18 make me question this.  However, if you are interested, you can read some of the thoughts he has at or buy his book, which also goes in depth with other pressing questions of the Old Testament.  Again, it is not that I totally reject this view, but I intend to proceed by assuming that the destruction and displacement of the Canaanites is to be taken at face value.  In doing so, I will start with who God is, then move to who the Canaanites were, then on to what God’s relationship with Israel was, then why the land of Canaan was important, and finally how these commands relate to us today.  This will by no means be a simple journey, but I hope that by the end, this troubling portion of the Bible will not be quite as troubling anymore and will hopefully be better understood.

Who does God think He is?

Deuteronomy 7:1-5  “When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than yourselves,  and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.  You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.  But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and chop down their Asherim and burn their carved images with fire.”

Exodus 34:11-16  “Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.  Take care, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you go, lest it become a snare in your midst.  You shall tear down their altars and break their pillars and cut down their Asherim  (for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God),   lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and when they whore after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and you are invited, you eat of his sacrifice,  and you take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters whore after their gods and make your sons whore after their gods.”

Both of these passages are recorded as the command of God to the people of Israel and I have especially highlighted one phrase above that does not fit in with the picture of God in many people’s minds: “show no mercy to them.”  Many of us cannot reconcile the thought of a loving God ordering that these nations be either destroyed, as in this quote from Deuteronomy, or driven out of their homes, as in the passage in Exodus.  As I mentioned before, this is often played out in the form of a dichotomy between the Old and New Testaments, but there is a solution to this that I have suggested a few times in the first article in this series: actually reading the Old Testament as a whole.  Several weeks ago, I was at a Christian meeting and during the worship time, I was reminded of a debate I had recently seen between William Lane Craig and Sam Harris entitled “Is Good from God?”.  Sam Harris is an atheist and he was arguing that good is not from God, but he did something in defending this position that did not quite make sense to me.  He said at one point that the God of the Bible is evil for commanding the Canaanites to be wiped out, but then at another point, he said that God is too merciful, since a murderer, in order to escape judgement in Hell, could accept the forgiveness through Jesus’ death on the cross.  The question I ask is which is it?  Is God too merciful or is He too evil?  Perhaps Harris was thinking of the afore mentioned God as the God presented in the Old Testament, and the latter God as the God of the New Testament, but even if that is what he is implying, his argument does not hold up.  Instead of the word evil, I would say that God is just, but that of course would lose rhetorical power, which would obviously be detrimental to Harris’ case.  However, Harris has done this implicitly when he looks at the other side of the spectrum, for when he implies that God should not show mercy to a murderer, he is suggesting that God is not just.  The atheist would like to set justice and mercy against each other to make God either look indecisive and fickle or self-contradictory.  However, if we read the Old Testament, I believe a picture emerges that is compatible both with God’s justice and with His love.  As I was thinking of these things in the worship service, two Scripture passages came to mind and as it happened, they were from Exodus 34 and Deuteronomy 7, from which I have quoted above.  However, I never just read one verse here and another verse there, because as I explained in the first article, this is not the best way to understand what a passage means.  So what did I find in the context of these two passages that describe God’s command for Israel to take the land of the Canaanites?

Deuteronomy 7:7-10  It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples,  but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.  Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations,  and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face.

Exodus 34:6-7  The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,  keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

From both of these, I find it impossible to separate God’s love and His justice.  Both say that God shows His steadfast love to the thousandth generation, but also that He will punish the disobedient.  The emphasis is on His love, for His love to the thousandth generation is compared with His justice to the third or fourth, and even though it is clear that He gets angry, it is also clear that He is slow to anger, showing again that He would much rather show mercy.  In looking at this, I find it very hard to think that the people of Israel in the Old Testament knew nothing of this God of love supposedly confined to the New Testament, nor do I see God’s justice being disconnected in any way.  So at this point, the question is not whether God is presented this way or not, for He clearly is, but the question is how He could be both loving and just.

In the movie Bruce Almighty, Jim Carrey plays a reporter, Bruce, who feels that God is not doing a good job, especially with regard to his life.  In response to this, God, played by Morgan Freeman, endows Bruce with all of His powers, and it is laid on Bruce to try and do a better job.  At a certain point, Bruce attempts to answer all the various prayers which he has converted to email form, but getting tired of this process, he enters a general reply that answers “Yes” to all subsequent prayers automatically.  As time goes on, the city in which Bruce lives turns to chaos, to the point of Bruce crying out to God and going to Him in the place they first met.  In his own defense, Bruce says that he just gave everyone what they wanted, to which God responded, “Yeah…but since when does anyone have a clue about what they want?”  Sometimes we like to imagine that God could give everyone what they want, but the question God asks is a good one.  To that question, I might even add, “What if people have conflicting requests?  What if two enemies are both asking for victory over the other, and yet a third party is asking for peace?  Who decides what is best then?”  As humans, we often think ourselves to be in a great position to judge what is best in any given situation.  If only one person can get a job and it is between me and my co-worker, obviously the best choice would be me, and this was one of the cases in which the afore mentioned Bruce felt that he was let down by God.  However, if we think a little more about it, we are not always in the best position to see what is best in a situation.  As Paul Copan points out, “Perhaps we need to be more open to the fact that some of our moral intuitions aren’t as finely tuned as they ought to be.  The same may apply to our thoughts about what God should or shouldn’t have done in Canaan.” (Is God a Moral Monster?, p.192).  Many people acknowledge this fact every day around the world through the justice system.  Though there are reasons to doubt the reliability of the courts to varying degrees depending on the nation, there is an expectation that the judges are in a position to assess what is just in the case of some injustice and to punish or acquit accordingly, though they are merely humans.  It could be said that a judge would be in a better position to make sure that the punishment fits the crime than a grieving victim or victim’s family member looking for revenge, though the system might admittedly be imperfect.  The reason is because the judge has a certain perspective on what has happened, being presented with evidence, and can judge according to the guidelines set for the country in the law, in which the judge should be an expert.  My point is not that the justice systems are without flaw, but that many submit judgement to an expert expecting impartial justice.  This same impartial justice was what was commanded in Israel’s law, because of God’s justice as Judge (Deuteronomy 1:17/10:17-18).  The recognition in several Old Testament passages is that God is just and knows the hearts of men, in order to deliver that justice completely.  Not only can God see through feigned attempts at serving Him insincerely (Isaiah 29:13), but He also seems to know the hearts of people so well as to know what their intentions are, even if they have not done them (1 Chronicles 28:9, John 2:24-25/6:64, 70-71).  2 Chronicles 6:30 shows Solomon praying for God to render to each person according to all his ways, because God alone knows the hearts of mankind.  So I think it would be safe to say that if there was anyone in a position to hold the breath of all in His hands (Job 34:14-15, Daniel 5:23), it would be God, the righteous Judge (2 Timothy 4:8).

What was wrong with the Canaanites?

So considering that God would be the One in a position to judge, the question moves on to asking whether the Canaanites deserved judgement or not.  In the minds of some, there may be a picture of innocent Canaanites being shown no mercy by Israel, and that it would be justifiable simply because it was at God’s command.  However, in trying to understand this question, it is important to keep in mind two things: the character of God and the character of the Canaanites.  Let’s look first at God’s character.  I pointed out above that God is the Judge with ultimate perspective and that if anyone is in a position to pass judgement, it is Him.  I also showed these passages that talk about God’s justice and how they emphasize His steadfast love more than His judgement.  So it is important to see that God is not more inclined toward judgement than mercy.  This is not the picture often painted by critics, but again, reading through the Old Testament illuminates a lot in this area.  In Genesis 18:25 Abraham states that it is not like God to put the righteous to death with the wicked, and then he asks “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”  This then leads to a conversation that ends with God saying that He would not destroy the city of Sodom if there were just ten righteous there.  In Ezekiel 18:23, 32 and 33:11 it says that the Lord has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from evil ways and live.  This is a very crucial contrast, because it can be easy to think that God somehow owes humans something.  There is this conception of a good God that is like a cosmic Santa Claus, giving people whatever they want and not having any requirements upon them.  However, if we give a little thought to what is ascribed to this God, it is quite revealing, for if God is the One who created the entire universe and humans as well, He is the One to whom we owe our life and everything we could ever hope to gain in this life.  If God never did a thing for us, we would still owe our very existence to His creative work.  Moreover, the Bible presents a God that has not stood apart from His creation, but has revealed Himself for the purpose of blessing all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:3).  Before I even say anything about the revelation of God in Jesus or His sacrificial death and life-giving resurrection, it is clear that we need to reorient our view of what God “owes” us.  To give an example of this wrong picture of God, consider a child who thinks that a parent’s sole purpose for existing is to provide this child with all the candy and toys he wants, and not making any guiding rules or disciplinary boundaries.  Now, if we put ourselves in the position of the child, this may initially sound like a great deal, but perhaps we could all acknowledge that this is not positive parenting, nor is it in the best interest of the child to not offer any correction.  If we expect this kind of parenting from earthly parents, of course this would also be expected from the God who has ultimate perspective about what we should or should not do.  Now I understand that people have had different experiences regarding parenting, but I would hope that most could at least recognize some examples of positive parenting, or at least, unfortunately, know the consequences of insufficient parenting through negative examples.  If we again consider the position that God would be in, considering all factors into how He relates to His people, we would not be in a position to say that His actions are unjust simply because we did not wish for them.  The desire of God is not necessarily that everyone live their own personally designed life, but that they live a godly life, be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:2-4).  As Christopher Wright has rightly observed, “If God were not angry with evil, he could not really claim to love the world.” (The God I Don’t Understand, p.131).  Now, though this might make sense in general, some of you may be thinking that the Canaanites did not have a chance to repent, for their complete destruction was ordered.  This is a fair thought, so let’s move on to what was going on with the Canaanites.

In assessing the Canaanites, it would be tempting to start around the time when the orders were being given to Israel, thinking about what the Canaanites’ character was like then.  However, I would like to start around 500 years before that in Genesis 15:13-16, where the Lord foretells that the Israelite sojourn would last 400 years, saying that Abraham’s descendants would come back to the Promised Land after this.  The reason given for this delay is interesting, because it states in verse 16 “for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”  What this says to me is that God knew when the time for punishment would be full, and it was not yet, for their sin was not yet full.    In other words, the time for their judgement had not yet come, but God knew when it would.  It could also be pointed out that this period of over 500 years was a time in which God gave the opportunity for these people to repent.  In the next section below, I want to discuss the opportunities of Israel compared with the opportunities of other nations, but here I would only like to discuss what the Canaanites would or would not know.  Of Israel we can say that God gave them the Law of Moses so that they knew that some things, such as murder or theft, were wrong, but can the same be said of the Canaanites who had no such law that we know of?  Well, to answer a question with a question, did Israel not know that to murder or to steal was wrong before the Law?  I think they did (Genesis 31:19, 32, Exodus 2:11-15), and the Canaanites knew this too (34:30).  This is not to say that people would know every one of the hundreds of laws laid out in Exodus to Deuteronomy before they were given, but there was certainly general agreement about some sins.  In the first two chapters of the letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul explains this.  Romans 2:12-16 speaks of how it is not whether a person has the law or not, but what they do, which could simply be by a matter of conscience.  When someone does something which is considered by many others to be morally wrong, they might rationalize and convince themselves of doing this thing through lying to themselves or thinking that the ends justify the means, but it does not change the fact that there is some sense in which humans recognize that there are things that are right and things that are wrong.   J.P. Moreland and Tim Muehlhoff discuss a pertinent example in the Nuremburg trials after the Second World War.  The Nazis defended themselves by appealing to the fact that they had followed orders and made decisions within their own legal framework, and as such, they could not be condemned for not fitting in to the value system of their conquerors, the Allies.  This initially caused the prosecution to stagger, but the conviction came because of an appeal to a “law above the law” (The God Conversation, p.153-154).  Paul also describes something similar a little earlier in Romans than the passage mentioned above.  In Romans 1:18-26 the wrath of God is shown to be against unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth.  It also says that God can be seen through creation, but though men knew God, they did not honour Him as God, but served the creatures rather than the Creator.  They also followed their own dishonourable passions instead of God.  This is relevant to our consideration of the Canaanites, for in the two passages quoted above directing what the Israelites were to do in Canaan, both involve the destruction of the places of Canaanite worship.  Christopher Wright summarizes it well when he states,

“The degraded character of Canaanite society and religion is more explicitly described in moral and social terms in Leviticus 18:24–25; 20:22–24 and in Deuteronomy 9:5; 12:29–31. It includes the sexual promiscuity and perversion particularly associated with fertility cults as well as the callousness of child sacrifice. This is reinforced in the historical texts, with additional notes about social oppression and violence (1 Kings 14:24; 21:26; 2 Kings 16:3; 17:8; 21:2).” (The God I Don’t Understand, p.93).

Worship of Molech through child sacrifice

The descriptions of sexual promiscuity included having sexual intercourse with animals and committing sexual acts in worship with sacred prostitutes.  The child sacrifice mentioned involved burning a child alive to secure the blessing of future fertility.  It could be said that their consciences had been hardened by generations of this being the cultural norm, but I think it would be incorrect to say that they were innocent and unworthy of punishment for their manmade traditions.  They worshipped something that they themselves made, which is rightly mocked in Isaiah 44 as a foolish devotion.  Some of us may be far removed from idolatry and not think it to be so damaging to a culture.  Some atheists, such as Richard Dawkins (if you remember from the beginning) suggest that God is jealous and proud of it, thinking that He is like an untrusting spouse raging at His wife flirting with another man (rival god) (The God Delusion, p.276).  However, I would say that idolatry is more than just casual flirting, but is more like jumping into bed with another man.  It is also comparable to a parent doing everything in their strength for the good of their child, and then the child turning around and attributing that good to a hockey stick, a toaster, or an imaginary friend.  To remember what Paul stated, these wicked men served the creature rather than the Creator, leaving all God’s good purposes in relationship with Him unfulfilled.  A person probably would not say that they could create their own god in reality and Isaiah rightly reveals the absurdity of such a claim, but this is still a course of action that many implicitly took in worshipping a god who was, at best, a part of the creation and not a creator.  Their worship was not modeled after the moral standard of the One true Creator, but after their own dishonourable passions and thus was a degraded and destructive culture that needed to be judged, both for the sake of divine justice and so that others would not learn their ways, as was a clear mandate for Israel, in God’s love for them.  Miroslav Volf is a Christian theologian who used to reject the idea that the God of wrath could be reconciled with the God of love.  However, what changed his mind was actually seeing his country torn apart by war in the former Yugoslavia.  Here is what he had to say,

Miroslav Volf

“I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath? God is love, and God loves every person and every creature. That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them. My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.” (Is God a Moral Monster?, p.192)

God’s plan was to bless all the earth through Israel, the descendants of Abraham (Genesis 12:2-3), so He did not want Israel to follow a bad example, and thus the necessity of judgement.  Though I feel that this plan reveals the fact that God has a heart for all nations, verses such as these can tend to make it seem like Israel had every opportunity for life and blessing through knowing God, whereas nations like the Canaanites only had limited opportunity to know God, though still being judged so severely.  This is a common view of what the Bible indicates and it certainly does not seem fair for the Canaanites and the other nations, so it is to the question of favouritism that we turn next.

Was God favouring Israel over other nations?

John Wenham puts his finger on this issue when he commented, “Christians would find no great difficulty with the overthrow of the Canaanites had it taken place at the hands of their heathen neighbours.” (Quoted in The God I Don’t Understand, p.107).  The Bible has many descriptions of judgement, such as the flood or Sodom and Gomorrah, but it is precisely the fact that in the case of the Canaanites, it is not only one nation destroying other nations; it is God’s chosen nation destroying other nations.  In again trying to bring perspective on this difficult to understand situation, I would like to discuss how God related to other nations and how He related to His people, Israel.  In regard to other nations, I mentioned that the inhabitants of Canaan had some knowledge of God, but chose to instead worship creatures rather than the Creator.  However, specifically in the case of the Canaanites, they had more than just this general revelation.  A few examples in Joshua, the same book that records the Israelites taking control of the land of Canaan, give us insight into what the people knew about God.

Joshua 5:1  As soon as all the kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan to the west, and all the kings of the Canaanites who were by the sea, heard that the LORD had dried up the waters of the Jordan for the people of Israel until they had crossed over, their hearts melted and there was no longer any spirit in them because of the people of Israel.

Joshua 9:9-10  They said to him, “From a very distant country your servants have come, because of the name of the LORD your God. For we have heard a report of him, and all that he did in Egypt,  and all that he did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon the king of Heshbon, and to Og king of Bashan, who lived in Ashtaroth.

So far from knowing nothing about God, the Canaanites knew that God was not only powerful enough to help His people defeat the Amorites on the other side of the Jordan River, but powerful enough to plague Egypt, one of the most powerful nations on earth at the time, until He brought His people out of Egypt.  They knew that God had not only dried up the waters of the Jordan, but also that He dried up the water of the Red Sea, as would be implicit in the verses quoted above, but explicit in perhaps the most famous encounter with a Canaanite in the Old Testament: Rahab receiving the Israelite spies.

Joshua 2:9-13 Before the men lay down, she came up to them on the roof and said to the men, “I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you.  For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction.  And as soon as we heard it, 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.  Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that, as I have dealt kindly with you, you also will deal kindly with my father’s house, and give me a sure sign  that you will save alive my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.”

Here we see the same knowledge as in the earlier examples: melting in fear before the Israelites, hearing what the Lord did in drying up the waters, hearing what the Lord did to the Amorites east of the Jordan.  What is different in this example, though?  The difference is the confession that the Lord is the God of the heavens and the earth, and that the Lord had given Israel the land.  Rahab showed faith, whereas many other Canaanites did not, but it was not that the other Canaanites were ill-informed.  God was doing unprecedented miracles, displaying His glory and power, so if ever there was an opportunity to recognize that the Lord was indeed God, the time was then!  Just imagine your nearest body of water miraculously drying up, a people walking through on dry land, and trying to tell God that He had not given you enough reason to believe.  No, the Canaanites were not abandoned by God nor given insufficient opportunity to turn to Him, but they were simply unwilling to turn to Him.  Rahab, on the other hand, was saved, together with her family, and continued to live in Israel (Joshua 6:25).  In fact, she even married a leader in the tribe of Judah and was an ancestor of Jesus Himself (Matthew 1:5).  Hebrews 11:31 says that Rahab, by faith, did not perish with those who were disobedient, and notice that it does not say “those who were ignorant”.  So it was not that there was no way for the people to be delivered, but that God was issuing divine judgement on wickedness and immorality.  To think that God is issuing some kind of racist decree is not to see what the Bible clearly teaches about how the foreigners were to be treated.  Leviticus 19:18 says to love your neighbour as yourself, and critics like Dawkins would have us believe this meant that love was restricted to Jews (The God Delusion, p.288), but that just does not square with reading a little further in Leviticus 19 until reaching verse 34: “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”  That was the testimony of the law, of which there are other examples, but the story continues in the historical books.  2 Samuel 24:18-25 describes how a Jebusite, from one of the nations to be destroyed, assists David in his service to the LORD, offering freely, even though David insists on paying.  In fact, the Jebusites are given an even higher honour in the book of Zechariah, they are mentioned alongside the tribe of Judah in a very positive light, comparing restoration for Philistia with them (Zechariah 9:7).  In one of my favourite passages, God speaks of the outcasts, eunuchs and foreigners, saying that those who hold to His covenant will receive a name better than sons and daughters, and be joyful in His house of prayer for all nations (Isaiah 56:3-8).

What?  Gentiles in the house of the Lord?  Eunuchs with a better name than the children?  How could this be when Israel was God’s chosen people and were His special “treasured possession”?  Well, I will explain more about this in the next section, but for now, it would be good to talk about what this chosen status looked like and hopefully pop some of the bubbles people might have concerning it.  I mentioned above that Israel did have a law and that it gave them more understanding about who God was, but with greater understanding came greater responsibility.  An incorrect conception of the situation with Israel and the Canaanites would be to think that because Israel was chosen, they could do what they wanted and destroy whoever they wanted, whereas everyone who was not chosen simply did not have a chance because Israel was God’s special nation and that was it.  Israel’s position always came within the concept of the covenant that they made with God, so that He would be with them if they obeyed, but against them if they disobeyed.  This can be seen directly in Deuteronomy 1:41-44 (and Numbers 14:40-45), for after the people refuse to enter the Promised Land, rebelling against the Lord, they think they can just say sorry and then go to take the land of the Amorites and the Canaanites.  However, because they should have believed the Lord who had worked mighty miracles in front of their eyes and they did not, they were denied entry to the Promised Land.  Then, believe it or not, the Amorites killed the Israelites, chasing them like bees, as it says in the text of Deuteronomy!  Following this, none of that generation of warriors actually gets to enter the Promised Land, but only their children.  So whether it be Israel or other nations, God was serious about people rebelling against Him.  If you are thinking to yourself that this was just a battle and an unfortunate sentence to wander the desert, you would be right, but that is not the end of it.  When we go to the prophets, we find that Israel is acting just like the nations that the Lord drove out, and even worse (Ezekiel 5:7-8/11:12).  It is worth noting that this is because they did not carry out the commandment of the Lord to dispossess these corrupt and idolatrous nations, failing to destroy their places of worship (Judges 2:1-3, 11-12, 23).  Again, it was not that God desired to destroy nations, but that He did not want Israel, His chosen, to become like these other nations.  Failure in this crucial area led to Israel being in that same place of deserving the judgement of God as these nations they were originally supposed to dispossess.  There are many passages in the prophets that could express this, but I have purposely chosen those that have a familiar ring to them, considering what we have already heard in this article.

Isaiah 9:17  Therefore the Lord does not rejoice over their young men, and has no compassion on their fatherless and widows; for everyone is godless and an evildoer, and every mouth speaks folly. For all this his anger has not turned away, and his hand is stretched out still.

Isaiah 47:6  I was angry with my people; I profaned my heritage; I gave them into your hand; you showed them no mercy; on the aged you made your yoke exceedingly heavy.

Jeremiah 27:15  I have not sent them, declares the LORD, but they are prophesying falsely in my name, with the result that I will drive you out and you will perish, you and the prophets who are prophesying to you.”

Hos 1:6-8  She conceived again and bore a daughter. And the LORD said to him, “Call her name No Mercy, for I will no more have mercy on the house of Israel, to forgive them at all.  But I will have mercy on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the LORD their God. I will not save them by bow or by sword or by war or by horses or by horsemen.”  When she had weaned No Mercy, she conceived and bore a son.

Yes, God chose Israel for a specific purpose, but that did not mean that He did nothing for the sake of the nations or that Israel was immune to judgement.  In fact, His special purpose with Israel actually was for the sake of the nations, and as I move into the next section, I hope that this will become clearer.

What was so special about the Promised Land?

I have spoken of Israel having been chosen by God, but I would like to take a look at one of the reasons why God would choose Israel, or even why He would want to choose any nation at all, and then at the limitations placed on that chosen nation.  Although I believe that there was more than one reason for Israel’s election, I will focus on the first thing we hear God speaking to Abraham.  In Genesis 12:1-3 God tells Abram (Abraham) to go to the land God would show him, tells him that He would make him a great nation, and tells him further that all the families of the earth would be blessed in him.  So while some may ask why God would choose one nation and not all of them, it was really through this one nation that God was planning to bring blessing to all nations (peoples).  Therefore, God chose a person who He knew would show great faith and could thus serve as an example to his descendants after him, as indeed Abraham does (2 Chronicles 20:7, Isaiah 51:2, Hebrews 11:8-19, James 2:23).  Then, building on that example of faith, God gave His people a law that would show the nations their wisdom and understanding, pointing to the God who gave the law.

Deuteronomy 4:5-8  “See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.  Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’  For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him?  And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?”

We have examples in which God was glorified through Israel, such as the reign of Solomon when the queen of Sheba came because of the name of the Lord made known through the fame of Solomon and blessed the Lord when she saw his great wisdom and great kingdom (1 Kings 10:1-9) or when Naaman, the Syrian commander, was healed of his leprosy and proclaimed that Israel’s God was the only God (2 Kings 5:1-15).  Now, it might make sense why God would choose one nation through which to reveal Himself, so that they might be witnesses to others, but it is not so clear why He would choose the seemingly insignificant land of Canaan as the land He would give them.  It was not a comparatively large area and it was already inhabited, so if God wanted all the nations to see His people, why would He not find some large, empty space for Israel to settle?  Well, in making a strategy for witnessing to the nations, location was key, and in regard to the ancient Near East, it had to do with something called the Fertile Crescent.  At the time of the conquest of Canaan, there were some major kingdoms.  Two of these, Babylon and Egypt, stood across a vast desert from each other, but in order to trade and do business together, they would not cross this desert under normal circumstances.  Though it was a longer trip, it was preferable to travel along the Fertile Crescent, for it was well-watered by rivers, contrary to the hostile conditions of the desert.  This Fertile Crescent ran from the Persian Gulf along the land around the two great rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris, and then down the eastern most coast of the Mediterranean Sea, down into Egypt.  So between Egypt and Babylon (as well as other Mesopotamian kingdoms, such as Assyria) was the land of Canaan.  Also, to the north was the Hittite empire, which would also gain access to Egypt by way of Canaan, the Promised Land.  So with major international highways running through it, this land could be a place of influence, as it was in the days of Solomon as described above.  This could be a place where the nations would come and see the wisdom and understanding of the people of God.  I like to compare this placement to a podium, which leads to a focus of attention if someone is to give a speech.  However, the people who were on the podium before Israel were the nations mentioned above, who practiced idolatry involving bestiality (having sexual intercourse with animals), child sacrifice, and other wicked acts.  Because of these sins, the Lord describes dispossession of them from the land by saying that the land vomited them out (Leviticus 18:24-25).  The Lord intended that Israel would be separated from these acts of wickedness, but sadly, as they did not fulfill the Lord’s command to completely destroy or dispossess these nations, they failed in their mission to be a witness in the midst of the nations, having even done worse than these nations (Ezekiel 5:5-6).  As I mentioned above, the fact that Israel became like the nations was that they did not utterly drive out the inhabitants of the land, leading to them eventually being judged and shown no mercy like the Canaanites.  This can give the impression that there is no hope and I will address that in the next section, but right now, I would like to discuss what being God’s chosen nation entitled Israel to, for it is very instructive in regard to setting straight a misconception about these divine commands with which I will deal below.

For some, it might seem contradictory to think of Israel supposedly serving as a witness to the nations, but at the same time, being given the right to inflict violence on other nations, seemingly at will.  However, it is important to understand these events for what they were, and perhaps more importantly, what they were not.  First of all, they were not a divine guarantee that Israel could never be defeated in battle.  As I pointed out above, when a battle against the Amorites was not according to God’s command, Israel was defeated, and other similar examples could be cited (Joshua 7:1-5).  Israel was not deciding the battle plans, but God was, and that makes a big difference, for it is God’s judgement and not human ambition.  As Christopher Wright observes,

“There is a huge moral difference between violence that is arbitrary or selfish and violence that is inflicted under strict control within the moral framework of punishment.” (The God I Don’t Understand, p.93).

Israel under Solomon's control

Wright also explains on the same page that it does not make it less violent or okay, nor did it mean that God wanted this.  As I have already said, this was not God’s original desire to see this destruction, but it was necessary to execute divine justice.  So Israel could not say when a battle would take place in whatever manner they wanted, and indeed, these commands were limited to the time when the law was given.  Second, the borders of Israel were set by God and Israel was not to extend borders at will.  Genesis 15:18 shows how God promised the land from Egypt to the Euphrates to the descendants of Abraham, which was the area under the control of Solomon during his reign.  However, it was not as if Israel could attack and take the land of whoever they wanted wherever they wanted, as seen in Deuteronomy 2:5, 9, 19.  So in addition to not being able to decide when they could go to battle, Israel could not decide where they could fight and take possession either.  If for some reason they wanted to invade Egypt, their God-given boundaries would not allow them.  Third and finally, Israel could not decide what they could take as the spoils of war.  Paul Copan discusses this specifically in regard to women (Is God a Moral Monster?, p.119-121).  He starts out by stating up front that though many Western democracies having been fairly free from the traumas of war, warfare was a way of life in the ancient Near East.  He goes on to say that rape was common in ancient Near Eastern warfare, but in spite of this, Israelite soldiers were prohibited from raping women.  This can be seen from Deuteronomy 21:10-14, which describes a woman among prisoners of war that catches the eye of an Israelite soldier.  There was a process of a full month before this soldier could actually take her as his wife and have sex with her.  Rape would be unacceptable, and contrary to other laws concerning marriage and sexual conduct as well.  So it was not as if warfare was generally commanded and Israel was then left to their own devices in deciding how that would be played out.  They could not decide when, where, or even what would happen; nothing apart from the word of the Lord.  So, all that to say that the pictures that might come into our minds of what these divine commands of war would mean according to modern perceptions do not do justice to the strict regulations and leading that God gave in this era in Israel’s history.  Tremper Longman III sums this up well.

“Israel’s election was not a carte blanche to wage war against anyone at any time.” (In Show Them No Mercy: Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide, p.175).

Because this series is about the Old Testament, I have spent most of these first 4 sections there, but in order to bring these ideas to a conclusion in regard to relevance, there are some things that must be said about what effect these issues surrounding the destruction of the Canaanites have on us today.

What does it mean for us today?

Genocide: the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group.

Ethnic cleansing: the elimination of an unwanted ethnic group or groups from a society, as by genocide or forced emigration. (

Paul Rusesabagina, who saved over 1000 people during the Rwandan genocide, played by Don Cheadle in the movie Hotel Rwanda

These terms have an undeniably negative connotation, evident in the fact that most groups charged with it do not like their actions to be termed as such.  Because of the stigma involved with these concepts, it is important to establish how what happened to the Canaanites then relates to these ideas and what it means for people now.  To start with the first question, it may be helpful to compare the actions of Israel with a more modern example.  Miroslav Volf provided a contemporary example of genocide in the quote above, “Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days!”  In the case of the Rwandan genocide, there were 2 groups of people, Tutsis and Hutus, and it was some of the Hutus who started systematic killing of the Tutsis and even moderate Hutus or Tutsi sympathizers.  Graphic depictions of bloody bodies without number lying by the roads can be seen in the films Hotel Rwanda and Shooting Dogs.  Is this comparable to the case in ancient Israel?  Well, it was groups of people that were involved, but not exactly groups of people that were the target.  If it was about wiping a people off the face of the earth, then Rahab and her family should not have been spared.  If it was a racial issue, why was there provision for foreigners in the law?  If it was about the superiority of the pure Israelite race, why could Rahab marry a leader of Judah?  If it was about racial superiority and nationalism, why were the Gibeonites and their sympathizers untouched (Joshua 9:3-27)?  If it was a matter of racism, why would God judge Israel later in their history?  For Israel, it was not so much about the people of Canaan, but about their corrupt and idolatrous worship, and it was judgement from God, not the pride of man, that brought this destruction.  In the case of genocide or ethnic cleansing, the killing is fueled by racial hatred, but having just come out of Egypt and the wilderness, the Israelites had no easily identifiable reason to hate the Canaanites.  It also does not fit with what we know of ancient Israel, as Paul Copan points out after clarifying motivation for ethnic cleansing, “The alleged in-group pronounces a pox on the out-group and then proceeds to destroy them.” (Is God a Moral Monster?, p.163).  This was how the Hutus proceeded in exterminating the Tutsis, calling them cockroaches, and it showed the motivation to be strictly an issue of superiority of one race over another, but in the Bible, every person had the same value, having been created in the image of God, not just Israel (Genesis 1:26-27).  In the Old Testament, God showed no partiality, even for the foreigner (Deuteronomy 10:17-18), so there was no higher class, but everyone was in the same boat, and if they rebelled against God, they would see His justice.

Okay, so that was then, but this is now.  The danger that both critics and believers alike perceive is the thought that this command is still in effect and would therefore be the ultimate case of the end justifying the means, and that would be a terrifying proposition for most people to consider.  Thus, more needs to be said about how what was spoken then relates to us now.  The insights of N.T. Wright are useful as a start.

“The Torah is given for a specific period of time, and is then set aside – not because it was a bad thing now happily abolished, but because it was a good thing whose purpose had now been accomplished.” (The Climax of the Covenant, p.181).

Paul Copan also, in quoting this sentence, offers his thoughts to the effect that the Old Testament covenant was not a universal ideal and was never meant to be that (Is God a Moral Monster?, p.59-60).  Many critics would like to make it seem like accepting the God of the Old Testament is to accept genocide and to condone violence in the name of God, but this is simply not what the Bible teaches.  It is not even as if we need to wait for the New Testament for God to show His ideal either, but it is in fact in the very beginning of the Bible, in the Old Testament, that God reveals His perfect creation (Genesis 1-2), and then humans, in deviating from that perfection, bring seemingly never-ending troubles on themselves, starting with the first sin, followed closely by the first murder (Genesis 3-4).   So, the Old Testament is not showing God’s lack of an answer to bring in perfection or a series of failed attempts, but it is necessary preparation for what Jesus would eventually fulfill.  As such, the Old Testament is neither to be totally rejected nor taken as legally binding in all of the stipulations it put on Israel.  It is easy for critics and believers alike to go to either extreme, but it does not square with what the Bible says about itself (as can be read in the first article in this series).  To cite a relevant example, Jesus both affirms that Sodom was judged with fire and sulfur (Luke 17:29), but denies the request of two disciples to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans who did not receive Jesus (Luke 9:53-55).  Also, at the time of Jesus’ arrest, a disciple draws his sword, but Jesus tells him to stop (Matt 26:51-52, Luke 22:50-51, John 18:10-11).  Also in the teaching of Jesus, He tells of the suffering of those who follow Him, not their superiority (Matthew 5:11-12, 44/10:23/23:34, Mark 8:34-36/10:30, Luke 21:12, John 15:20).  The references in Matthew 5 even involve rejoicing in persecution and praying for persecutors, which is hardly a picture that has anything in common with what happened in Rwanda or any other example of modern genocide.  In light of this, more must be said about how people interpret the Bible in general and the Old Testament in particular, because in the case of the Rwandan genocide, the vast majority of people would have called themselves “Christian.”  This does not make me question what the Bible says any more than I would question the accuracy of a cookbook just because someone says they are a cook, but make me bad food.  However, it is likely that when someone says that an atrocity was perpetrated in the name of God, it makes many people reject any message from God as unworthy of their attention, or perhaps more likely, worthy of their opposition.  Critics often point to the Crusades or the Inquisition as evidence of the dangers of Christianity and the message of the Bible, but they fail to recognize that these came over a thousand years after the founding of Christianity.  Specifically with regard to the Crusades, they were in radical discontinuity with the message of Jesus as sketched briefly above, but it could even be said that there is a certain level of discontinuity with the Old Testament as well.  Those fighting in the Crusades were not Israelites and their enemies were not Canaanites.  It was trying to retake the Promised Land, but even when God brought back Israel from exile, it was under the pagan Persian Empire, and yet, they were not to retake the land violently, but were to live as a province under the Persians.  It was also not God giving the command to the crusaders directly, as in the case of Moses speaking to God face to face (Exodus 34:1-16, Numbers 7:89, Deuteronomy 34:10), but often church leaders, who (whatever the Roman Catholic church might say) did not always accurately represent the will of God and the teaching of the Scriptures.  It also makes no mention of the fact that Christianity was a persecuted religion for the first 3 centuries of its existence, so even if there was any violence inherent in the message, which seems highly unlikely, it was completely lost on Jesus’ first followers.  No, Jesus was not intending to just be another teacher of the law, but He came to fulfill the law (Matthew 5:17).  He presented the hope of God’s mercy, which was present in the Old Testament, but was now made perfect through His sacrificial death on the cross, and triumphant resurrection.  That is how He would rule the nations: not through political takeover, as many expected in Israel, even among His closest followers, but through bringing salvation from death through the power of resurrection.  This incredible gift was not only available for the people of Israel, but it included all the nations and all the peoples (Matthew 28:18-20, Galatians 3:8//Genesis 12:3, Revelation 7:9).


So do the ends justify the means?  No, the means have to justify themselves.  I do not presume to think I have somehow solved the issue of the destruction of the Canaanites, but I hope I have succeeded in bringing some relevant perspectives and clearing up some common misconceptions.  I will attempt to summarize them in conclusion:

  1. God is the perfect Judge and if any One should be trusted with the lives of humankind, it is Him.  In saying this, we do not need to say that what happened to the Canaanites was good because God said so, but that because God is good and just, His actions are consistent with His character.
  2. Moving on from the character of God, it would be inconsistent of God to say that He is good and loving and yet not punish evil.  The wickedness of the Canaanites, particularly in sacrificing their children to their gods in fire, stood against what God wanted for His creation and thus merited God’s judgement.
  3. It is crucial to see that even though God had a specific purpose for Israel in giving them His revelation in the law, He did not leave the Canaanites and other nations without any revelation of Himself.  Indeed, He held the nations accountable to what they knew of God, and Israel was included in this.  In fact, because of Israel’s disobedience, they ended up being shown no mercy by God in much the same way that the Canaanites were judged.
  4. Even when Israel was carrying out the Lord’s justice, they were only to follow His command and they did not have freedom to choose when, where, or what the circumstances of war would be.  Their borders were set and their regulations firm.
  5. Today, the words genocide and ethnic cleansing may be used by critics of the Old Testament for rhetorical effect, but it does not fit what actually happened, and even if it were to be called genocide, it was for a specific time and was by no means a universal ideal or command.  Jesus fulfills the law and in contrast to commanding violence, He actually commits His disciples to a life in which they would be persecuted for His sake and not persecuting others.

In dealing with what happened with the Canaanites, there can be an expectation of making everything fit together perfectly and make total sense, but I do not think that will really work and I do not think I have done that in this article.  Rather I have attempted to show how we as humans can understand what was really going on, to further appreciate why God did what He did, instead of only listening to criticisms and caricatures of those who have not read the Bible as they should and do not care to.  As I said, I think reading the Old Testament clears up a lot, but it does not clear up everything, though that does not make the pursuit of God hopeless.  Why not?  Because even though we cannot understand everything exhaustively, I believe there is still enough for us to trust in God and His goodness.  As Christopher Wright has written,

”God with his infinite perspective, and for reasons known only to himself, knows that we finite human beings cannot, indeed must not, ‘make sense’ of evil.  For the final truth is that evil does not make sense.  ‘Sense’ is part of our rationality that in itself is part of God’s good creation and God’s image in us.  So evil can have no sense, since sense itself is a good thing.” (The God I Don’t Understand, p.42).

So in looking at what happened to the Canaanites, we cannot think in terms of perfection or destiny, but we sadly have to think in terms of the sinfulness of humans in which they rebel against God.  However, it is not all doom and gloom, because in Jesus, the revelation of God’s goodness conquered this nonsensical evil, the sinfulness of men, and He offers us freedom from the bondage of sin and death.  In spite of all our failures, God has offered us reconciliation, so that we might have relationship with Him, returning to the plan He had in mind in the first place.  I leave you with the words of Paul Copan, who has so often proved insightful regarding these issues.

“When God’s intentions for us are realized and when we’re alert to the divinely given boundaries built into our nature and the world around us, we human beings flourish—that is, we enjoy loving, trusting relationships with God and with one another because we’re living out the design-plan. God’s jealousy isn’t capricious or petty.  God is jealous for our best interests.  His commands are given ‘for your good’ (Dt. 10:13; cp. 8:16; 30:9).” (Is God a Moral Monster?, p.39)


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