What about the annihilation of the Canaanites, God’s enemies?

What about the annihilation of the Canaanites, God’s enemies?                    by Jack Kettler

Was the extermination of the Canaanites in the following verses genocide as a so-called enlightened 21st Century man say?

“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.” (Deuteronomy 20:16-17)

Commenting on Deuteronomy 20:10-20, the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary says:

“10-20. When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it—An important principle is here introduced into the war law of Israel regarding the people they fought against and the cities they besieged. With “the cities of those people which God doth give thee” in Canaan, it was to be a war of utter extermination (De 20:17, 18). But when on a just occasion, they went against other nations, they were first to make a proclamation of peace, which if allowed by a surrender, the people would become dependent [De 20:11], and in the relation of tributaries the conquered nations would receive the highest blessings from alliance with the chosen people; they would be brought to the knowledge of Israel’s God and of Israel’s worship, as well as a participation of Israel’s privileges. But if the besieged city refused to capitulate and be taken, a universal massacre was to be made of the males while the women and children were to be preserved and kindly treated (De 20:13, 14). By this means a provision was made for a friendly and useful connection being established between the captors and the captives; and Israel, even through her conquests, would prove a blessing to the nations.” (1)

“And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword.” (Joshua 6:21)

From Matthew Poole’s Commentary on Joshua 6:21:

“Being commanded to do so by the sovereign Lord of every man’s life; and being informed by God before that the Canaanites were abominably wicked, and deserved the severest punishments. As for the infants, they were guilty of original sin, and otherwise at the disposal of their Creator, as the clay is in the hands of the potter; but if they had been wholly innocent, it was a great favour to them to take them away in infancy, rather than reserve them to those dreadful calamities which those who survived them were liable to.” (2)

“Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” (1Samuel 15:3)

From Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers on 1Samuel 15:3:

“(3) Smite Amalek, and utterly destroy . . .—For “utterly destroy” the Hebrew has the far stronger expression, “put under the ban” (cherem). Whatever was “put under the ban” in Israel was devoted to God, and whatever was so devoted could not be redeemed, but must be slain. Amalek was to be looked upon as accursed; human beings and cattle must be killed; whatever was capable of being destroyed by fire must be burnt. The cup of iniquity in this people was filled up. Its national existence, if prolonged, would simply have worked mischief to the commonwealth of nations. Israel here was simply the instrument of destruction used by the Almighty. It is vain to attempt in this and similar transactions to find materials for the blame or the praise of Israel. We must never forget that Israel stood in a peculiar relation to the unseen King, and that this nation was not unfrequently used as the visible scourge by which the All-Wise punished hopelessly hardened sinners, and deprived them of the power of working mischief. We might as well find fault with pestilence and famine, or the sword—those awful instruments of Divine justice and—though we often fail to see it now—of Divine mercy.” (3)

Introductory considerations:

Considering original sin, none of the Canaanites destroyed were sin-free; all were guilty! Therefore, their judgment was just.

Deuteronomy 20:10-20 is a section of instructions for warfare. As noted in Deuteronomy 20:12, “Now if the city will not make peace with you, but war against you, then you shall besiege it.” Verse 12 is an essential part of the context of Deuteronomy 20:10-20. The offer of peace was a general rule, with some exceptions as noted in Deuteronomy 20:16-17, Joshua 6:21, and 1Samuel 15:3.

What about the exceptions, where there was no offer of peace?

To start, let us not forget that the God of the Bible destroyed His people on several occasions, (Assyria and Babylon) and at the end of the world. At the end of the world, He promises to bring everlasting judgment upon all non-believers.

What needs to be determined before proceeding to answer the starting question?

  1. The objector may a pacifist or idealistic.
  2. The objector may have a different worldview.
  3. The objector may be an argumentative bully or an apostate.
  4. The objector may be an honest questioner.
  5. Does the objector believe we live in a sinful or fallen world?   

Digging into the initial question or as may be found, questions:

The question may go deeper than God’s elimination of the Canaanites. In many cases, the question probably includes any form of temporal and eternal judgment.      

Temporal judgment can be dwelt with easily by asking an objector if they believe a child molester or murderer should be punished, even including the death penalty. Only the extreme nihilistic anarchist would disagree.

The field of objectors at this point will be narrowing down. Now we are dealing with the length of time arguments for punishment. Can anyone ever pay their debt for the crimes mentioned above? If no, this narrows down the field of objectors even more.

Possibly some objectors just do not like the idea of God executing the sentence. A disagreement like this would need to be determined by additional questions. It is ok for a government through its legal system to execute murders, but not God. In terms of the Christian worldview, God gave humanity the moral codes to convict and carry out penalties for crimes committed.      

In terms of the Christian worldview, God has ordained civil magistrates to carry out executions and penalties for various crimes, such as murder, theft, and perjury, etc.

Now back to the initial question. It may be that the questioner is against all forms of capital punishment utilizing the death penalty. If so, you have narrowed down the possible questions to just one. The objector may not admit it, but death penalty crimes and judgments occur throughout all of biblical history.

The objector may be coming from the point of view that anything God does record in the Bible is unconscionable to them. If this is the case, the burden is upon them to explicate their worldview’s allegedly superior ethical system.       

The Christian apologist by this time should have eliminated the surrounding questions to one or two basic questions or objections regarding the above passages command to kill all the Canaanites.

An example from history may be helpful:

In times of wars like World War II, many so-called innocents lose their lives during bombing campaigns and artillery assault upon population centers. When an evil leader like Adolf Hitler is accepted as their leader, in a sense, the whole nation becomes guilty of the crimes of the leader and his chosen henchmen.

In World War II the entire city of Dresden, Germany was bombed into a blazing inferno. Virtually everyone that stayed in the city lost his or her lives. Women and children were included in this. Allied generals gave the command to bomb Dresden. Does the objector have a problem from this scenario from World War II? What about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? The history of the world has been a history of war and bloodshed. In addition, inferior civilizations being conquered by stronger cultures has happened throughout history. It has been said, “War is hell.”

Answers to the initial question:

The question was about God’s punishment upon the Canaanites in Deuteronomy, Joshua, and 1Samuel.  

First, the events that happened in the land of Canaan happened during a time of war.

Second, God gave a command to his earthly regents to start a military campaign.      

Third, were the Canaanites righteous or wicked?

In modern times, wars have started over evil dictators killing and persecuting innocents in their lands. Should Hitler have been stopped or allowed to implement his Third Reich? Stopping Hitler would be included in the just war theory.

With the Canaanites and their widespread practice of child sacrifice, this indeed parallels the Nazi extermination of the Jewish people. In both cases, an intervention to stop this wickedness was justified. In the case of Hitler, an allied invasion, and in the case of the Canaanites, an attack by God’s forces, namely, Joshua and the armies of Israel.   

In closing:

The Judgment of the Canaanites by Lane Keister:

“It is a fairly common objection to the Bible and to all forms of biblical faith that a God who would order the extermination of all the Canaanites by the Israelites cannot be a loving God, and therefore cannot be any kind of god that they would want to worship.

There are a number of answers that have been posed to this question that are inadequate for anyone wishing to take the Bible seriously. One answer is that God did not prescribe the war, He simply decreed it. This falls foul of the Scriptural injunction that God gives to wipe all the Canaanites out. He commanded them to do it (though with very important exceptions, as will be noted below. The exceptions, in fact, point us in the right direction, as I will argue). Another inadequate answer is that Israel falsely attributed the command to God, but actually conquered Canaan on their own steam. Nor is it adequate to say that all forms of warfare are evil, as if there were no such thing as a just war. Christian ethicists have argued from Scripture through all the centuries of church history that there is such a thing as a just war. The question is a formidable one, and it will not do to simply wish the problem away, or explain it in such a way as does not do justice to the biblical data.

The exceptions to the genocide are, as state above, quite important. Rahab and her family were spared. Why were they spared? Because of their faith. The Gibeonites were spared. Why were they spared? They believed that the land was going to Israel, and they feared the God of Israel. They used underhanded methods to gain their lives. And yet, while there is a reproach from Joshua directed towards the Gibeonites, there is no reproach from God, interestingly. In fact, in David’s time, the Gibeonites are allowed to exact justice on the seed of Saul’s line because Saul violated the treaty made with the Gibeonites. In both cases, there was a belief (on the part of the people spared) that God’s people Israel had the right to the promised land, and that Israel’s God was the true King of all named gods. There was a measure of faith, in other words. Whether we would call that saving faith is a question that would go beyond the evidence.

But if a faith, a belief that Israel’s God was the real deal was sufficient to create an exception, then we may infer from this fact that the Canaanites, as a general rule, did not worship the one true God at all. This is well-documented in Scripture. The false gods of the Canaanites (Molech, Shamash, Baal, etc.) are mentioned over and over again. The sin of the Amorites is mentioned in a revealing way: it is something that is not yet full earlier in redemptive history (compare Genesis 15:16 with later mention of the Amorites), thus pointing to a long-suffering patience on God’s part (He could have judged them far earlier!). Sin and faith then can be seen as the central issues here. The majority of the Canaanites were unbelievers who lived extraordinarily sinful lives (Leviticus 18). The exceptions were spared!

This brings us to the question: what did the Canaanites deserve? Did they deserve life? Did they deserve heaven? No one deserves life, and no one deserves heaven. The evidence suggests that they were a very sinful people on whom God’s judgment is therefore entirely just.

The objection immediately comes to mind, however: what about the women and the children? What had they done? The evidence of Balaam and Balak in Numbers suggests that the Canaanite women actively tried to seduce the Israelite men in order to get them to worship false gods. Ok, then what about the children? Weren’t they innocent? Psalm 51 states that children are sinful from the time of conception. Not even children are innocent. Anyone who thinks otherwise has never had children. They are not the cute little innocents that we think they are, though they certainly have not had opportunity to become Jack the Ripper. The point is this: what does anyone deserve? The simple truth is this: none of us deserve a single day of life on this earth. We have no right to demand anything of God any more than the pot has the right to demand anything of the potter.

If one wants to talk about the most evil event that has ever happened in human history, we cannot look to the genocide of the Canaanites. That was God’s judgment on a wicked people. God used the judgment as simultaneously giving Canaan to His people to be the promised land. Later on, when the Israelites became terribly wicked, God did the same kind of thing: He used another nation to judge Israel. But the most evil event cannot be the genocide of Canaanites. It cannot even be the Holocaust, as horrific as that was. The most evil event in history is the crucifixion of the Lord of Glory.

God has infinite dignity. A sin against God is therefore a sin against an infinitely holy God with infinite dignity. Try this thought experiment: contemplate the differences of the consequences that a slap in the face has with regard to the following people: what would happen if you slapped a hobo on the street, a fellow citizen, a police officer, the President of the United States, and the God of the universe? The same action has drastically different consequences depending on the dignity of the person being offended. Imagine, then, the heinousness of putting to death a person who is both God and man in one person, and therefore has infinite dignity; but who is also absolutely innocent and perfect. Not only this, but the method of putting Christ to death was the most humiliating kind of death on offer in the Roman world (it was reserved for traitors to the Roman empire: Jesus Christ the most resolute non-traitor, died the traitor’s death in place of traitors). So, the most humiliating death a person could die being inflicted wrongfully on the God-Man, who was and is perfect in every way, is the most evil event in all of human history. This raises the question: why would the genocide of the Canaanites stick in our craw if the death of Jesus Christ of Nazareth does not? The truth is that God brought amazing and infinite good out of the infinite evil (the power of God is manifest in its most amazing form just here and at the resurrection of Christ from the dead) of the cross. As Joseph says of his brothers, they meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. What is the good, then, that came out of the genocide (I prefer the term “judgment” for obvious reasons!) of the Canaanites? The Canaanites were judged for their sin, while the Israelites received the promised land from God. This event, in fact, is part of the stream of the story that culminates in the very death of Jesus Christ Himself. Therefore, there seems little point in objecting to the judgment of the Canaanites, which seems just. The real question is the marvelous, amazing, and inexplicable mercy of God in sending His Son to die for us.” (4)

“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) And “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)

Notes:

  1. Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, Commentary on the Whole Bible, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan, 1977) p. 156.
  2. Matthew Poole’s Commentary on the Holy Bible, Matthew, vol. 1, (Peabody, Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers, 1985) p. 418.
  3. Charles John Ellicott, Bible Commentary for English Readers, 1Samuel, Vol. 2, (London, England, Cassell and Company), p. 354.
  4. Lane Keister is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and is pastor of Momence OPC in Momence, IL. reprinted from the theaquilareport.com/the-judgment-of-the-canaanites/

Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: http://www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com

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