Why Did God Command the Destruction of the Canaanites?

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All scriptures are quoted from the New King James Version unless otherwise noted.

Have you ever been asked a question about God that you couldn’t answer? For many of us, that question is, “If God is love, then why did He command Joshua to kill every man, woman and child in the Canaanite nations?” Skeptics point to the 6th commandment and claim that God is a hypocrite, telling His people not to commit murder in one verse and then commanding them to murder in another. If we are honest, we will admit that this is a perplexing event. There are many different proposed explanations, but we are going to look at the two theories that I believe have the most biblical support.

Judgment Theory

The first possibility is that God used the Israelites to execute His judgment against these nations because of their great sin, which is based largely on God’s word to Abraham in Genesis 15:15-16…

Now as for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a good old age. But in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.

In the verses preceding this promise, God gave Abraham an outline of future events. God told Abraham that his descendants would be strangers in a foreign land where they would be afflicted for 400 years. Then, He would judge that land and Abraham’s descendants would leave with great possessions and return to the land that He had given them. The reason for the delay was that the iniquity of the Amorites was not yet complete. (The Amorites were one of the Canaanite tribes and the name was probably used in this context to refer to all of the Canaanite people.)

The Canaanites were an utterly wicked and immoral people. Their culture was defined by child sacrifice, witchcraft, divination, sorcery, necromancy (consulting with the dead, aka demons) and debauchery of all kinds, including bestiality, incest and temple prostitution. God required the death penalty for every one of these practices. Yet, because God is patient and long-suffering, He waited several centuries to send His judgment. In other words, the sin of these people did not come to the point of warranting God’s judgment until the time of the Exodus and by that time, the Bible implies that every single person in the culture was corrupted.

Scripture clearly demonstrates that God uses nations to judge other nations – even nations that are not righteous themselves. For example, God describes Assyria as the rod of His anger in Isaiah 10:5-6…

Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger

And the staff in whose hand is My indignation.

I will send him against an ungodly nation,

And against the people of My wrath

I will give him charge,

To seize the spoil, to take the prey,

And to tread them down like the mire of the streets.

Then, in Jeremiah 25:8-9, God declares His intentions to use Babylon in judgment against Israel…

Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Because you have not heard My words, behold, I will send and take all the families of the north,’ says the Lord, ‘and Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, My servant, and will bring them against this land, against its inhabitants, and against these nations all around, and will utterly destroy them, and make them an astonishment, a hissing, and perpetual desolations.

Ironically, God sent Assyria and Babylon to judge Israel for the very same reasons He used Israel to destroy the Canaanites.

For so it was that the children of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God… and they had feared other gods, and had walked in the statutes of the nations whom the Lord had cast out from before the children of Israel, and of the kings of Israel, which they had made… the children of Israel secretly did against the Lord their God things that were not right, and they built for themselves high places in all their cities… They set up for themselves sacred pillars and wooden images on every high hill and under every green tree. There they burned incense on all the high places, like the nations whom the Lord had carried away before them; and they did wicked things to provoke the Lord to anger, for they served idols…they followed idols, became idolaters, and went after the nations who were all around them, concerning whom the Lord had charged them that they should not do like them. So they left all the commandments of the Lord their God, made for themselves a molded image and two calves, made a wooden image and worshiped all the host of heaven, and served Baal. And they caused their sons and daughters to pass through the fire, practiced witchcraft and soothsaying, and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the Lord, to provoke Him to anger.

2 Kings 17:7-17, abridged

When we see the destruction of the Canaanites as judgment, we can understand that it was not genocide. God was not sending Joshua to kill a certain race or ethnicity of people, but was… Read More

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