The most criticized part of the Bible is surely the Old Testament killing of Canaanites by invading Hebrews under Joshua. They were commanded by God to rid Canaan of its wicked inhabitants and also permitted to enslave them. How can Christians defend God’s authorization of this seeming inhumanity?
People, especially today, prioritize our own rights. We think of God as at our service. If He loves us, He must defer to our rights, feelings and quality of life. But this is not the Biblical view. Scripture teaches and illustrates that rights belong to God, Who is holy and just. They do not belong to sinful humanity in our relationship with a God Who only wants to do us good. God had the right to do immense good by bringing the Hebrews into Palestine and establishing a bastion of divine ethics and religion in a darkened world. There He prepared for the greatest gift to all generations, creating a nation where our Savior could be incarnated and recognized.
Centuries before, God reached down to Abraham, who followed His voice into the wilderness of Canaan. With this definitive act of obedience, Abraham began his legacy as the father of faith. The wild country where he walked with God was promised to him and his obedient descendants forever as a land uniquely consecrated to holiness: a precious representation of heaven.
In Joshua’s time, wicked Canaanite people densely inhabited the land and squarely opposed God’s objective. They were defined by brutality, bloodshed, sexual perversion and hideous religious practices which included bestiality and infanticide. For generations they grieved God by polluting the Promised Land with a depraved culture and an evil representation of god which was the exact opposite of His nature.
Should Canaanite civil rights take precedence over God’s right to eradicate their culture and supplant it with His Hebrew theocracy? Liberals say, “Yes. The universal rights of man take precedence!” God, through the Mosaic Law, said, “No.” He insisted that if the occupants did not surrender or flee the land they would be killed, including women and children.
Here is probably the most objected-to passage of Scripture: (Deuteronomy 20:16-18)
Only in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the Lord your God has commanded you, 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 sin against the Lord your God.This passage assaults our contemporary belief that we all have a “right to life” and even to quality of life. Yet our rights only exist against other people. We have no rights against God. He is the one who loaned us life in the first place. His benevolent will, not human rights, comes first. At all times, in fact, God is authorizing His death angels to end human lives. He permits the deaths of hundreds of thousands through disease, calamity and natural disasters worldwide every week. Do you think God did not foreknow and allow the Japanese earthquake that killed tens of thousands? He also is entitled to end those lives that are grievous and repugnant to Him.
God promised the Holy Land to Abraham, but He also wanted to purge the Canaanite inhabitants because their sin was incredibly vile and deeply wounding both to innocent youth reared in it and also to God Himself. Canaanites grossly misrepresented God, saying there are many gods and that they practice all kinds of sexual immorality. Worshipping these gods involved forced male and female prostitution. Infant sacrifice was also often required. When archeologists excavated Jericho a century ago, they found hundreds of earthen jars containing the tiny bones of Canaanites … ritually sacrificed as newborns! God deferred judgment on this sickening society for at least seven centuries, but at last it was time for corporate judgment.
Here are important points to remember in helping us understand God’s seemingly harsh requirement:
This brings up the issue of Hebrew privilege to make slaves of captives, especially during war. Issues of practicality, forced on a rapidly moving, imperiled army, required the Hebrews sometimes to make slaves of prisoners. If prisoners were released, they would only return to battle. Similarly, it was unworkable that Hebrew slave owners be forced by Mosaic Law to let slaves return to their hostile countries, only to relay intelligence information and again join the fight against Israel. A high level of animus against the Hebrews was undoubtedly imparted to many captive children. Thus, God decreed that Canaanites and their children, once enslaved, should remain captive in Israel.
- Israel, even as it approached Canaan, was vehemently resisted by attacking Canaanites, such as Amalek, and was immersed in an ongoing struggle for survival in a sea of relentless attack.
- Assyrian kings boasted of inflicting incredible sadism on their victims: gouging out eyes, cutting off noses and tongues and leading exiles across burning sands with hooks in their jaws. Judgments by the Hebrews on the Canaanites were mild in comparison.
- Many of Israel’s battles were defensive, confined to conflict only with prescribed nations inhabiting Palestine. Israel had no mandate to bring warfare to nations outside that perimeter.
- Israel’s primary objective was not to exterminate the Canaanites but to drive them out. An exception was Amalek, who attempted to destroy Israel even while they wandered in the wilderness of Sinai. Amalek continued this vendetta through most of ancient Israel’s existence (Exodus 23:27-30).
- God allowed women and children to be taken from conquered distant cities (Deuteronomy 20:10-15). This was unworkable, however, for women and children of near cities. God knew they might reestablish social and religious ties with their former friends and relatives. Even children as young as seven or eight can possess very strong religious passions which they attempt to share with others. (I certainly did.) Israel could not be required to rehabilitate such potentially dangerous captives.
Christ came to a land that was set aside for followers of Abraham’s faith, as a symbol of heaven. His incarnation there was made possible in part by the removal of Canaanite wickedness. The slaying of Canaanites allowed a location and culture where Christ might preach and bear powerful testimony, eventually dying for the sins of humanity.
Today the story remains a powerful warning to us all of God’s right to judge and even end our lives. If we want to live in the Promised Land of heaven, we must be holy and obedient, or we too will be judged. Sin cannot exist in heaven, just as God couldn’t bear to see Canaanite influence polluting His Holy Land.
Similarly, God cannot bear to see the iniquity that fills that land today. Divinely endorsed bloodletting in Joshua’s unique time, in obedience to God’s higher plan, bears no resemblance to the racist, cruel and punitive oppressions by Israel against the people of Gaza today. Such injustices, dating back at least 70 years, have been committed with as much rebellion to God’s plan as the Canaanites practiced!
Because modern Israelis have flouted God's law, someday they will be expelled and judged in their own "Great Tribulation" at the hands of murderous Gentiles under Anti-Christ. Such will occur with the permission of the One Whose incarnation a remnant of righteous Jews under Joshua helped make possible. This is the One Who, amidst intense Jewish suffering to come, will again procure a repentant, righteous Jewish remnant and lead them back to a land that can never be lawfully occupied except in obedience.
(View list of conditional verses for occupation of Palestine here..)
ALSO, Visit our Biblical Answers Page. For many more thoughts on this subject and lively discussion with our Truthtellers group, listen to our latest Bible study under this title, "Can Christians Defend Old Testament Killing of Canaanites?" (5-12-11)
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