Today, we live in a pluralistic culture where moral relativism flourishes while any suggestion of absolutism is dismissed. When those who propagate such ideas are met with ideas they don’t like, we should expect—since, to them, there is no absolute and morality is relative—all ideas and moral preferences to be accepted. And many times, moral relativists are consistent by accepting a wide range of moral ideas.
Unless it’s in the Bible.
If the Bible offers moral values or instances that rub against society’s moral values and preferences, then it can’t be accepted on the grounds that it is immoral. But is this not the same society that promotes inclusivity, diversity, and tolerance? Why, then, is the Bible―along with those who regard it as the inspired Word of God―excluded and not tolerated for offering a diverse view?
In Deuteronomy 7:1-4 and 20:16-18, Yahweh commanded Israel to destroy the Canaanites when they enter the land promised to their father, Abraham. Today, many see this as an immoral act of genocide committed by Yahweh. I want to offer a perspective that will hopefully provide a more accurate understanding of the text in light of the historical background and circumstance of the time.
The first question we need to ask when discussing this issue is simple: Is God arbitrary or does he give reasons for what he asked Israel to do? To answer this, I want to raise three points.
1. It was for Israel’s protection
If the Israelites had not destroyed the Canaanites when they took possession of the land, they would have coerced the Israelites from worshiping Yahweh to worshiping their gods. This is crystal clear in the text. Deuteronomy 7:3-4 (CSB) reads:
You must not intermarry with them, and you must not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, because they will turn your sons away from me to worship other gods. Then the LORD’s anger will burn against you, and he will swiftly destroy you.
This command wasn’t given because God had an issue with them being Canaanites. It was never about the race. Rather, it was given to protect Israel from rebelling against God. Had they done so, they would have experienced the same judgment that the Canaanites do (7:4b). In other words, God would have still commanded the same thing had it been nation different from the Canaanites, reinforcing that it was never about the race of the people itself. That brings us to the second point.
2. The Judgement was directed toward the Canaanite way of life
There were two ways of being identified as a particular nationality in the Ancient Near East. The first was through birth. In the same way that a person born in the United States is an American by virtue of being born on US soil, so too were Canaanites and every other nationality (including Israel). The second way was through practice (their way of life; their lifestyle). If you lived life as a Canaanite, then you’d be considered a Canaanite because of the commitment to practice the Canaanite life. The same is true for Jews: once someone begins to practice Judaism, they are a (converted) Jew. An American who isn’t born in Saudi Arabia can still be a Muslim if they decide to practice Islam. You get the idea.
So, what was the Canaanite way of life? There’s a lot that goes into their history, but not much need be said to give an idea for the atmosphere of these people. When God gave Israel the command to destroy the Canaanite nation, they had 500 years of iniquity and evil, including sacrificing their children on the molten, bronze god, Molech. In fact, the Old Testament isn’t the only place we learn about this. The Greek writer, Plutarch, also noted that when the Canaanites would sacrifice their children, the drummers in the village would drum louder so that the parents could not hear the screams of their own children being sacrificed. (yes, my heart breaks over this too)
There’s another way to make the point that this was directed at the Canaanite way of life rather than the nationality itself. In Joshua 2, we read about a Canaanite prostitute, Rahab, having greater faith in Yahweh than many in Israel. For her faith, she was spared from the judgment. The theological principle is that those who fear Yahweh—regardless of their nationality—receive his grace.
3. God is faithfully keeping his promise to Abraham (see Genesis 12:1-3)
Israel’s righteousness wasn’t the reason God allowed them to enter the land. Rather, it was the Canaanites’ wickedness. God makes this clear in Deuteronomy 9:5-6 (italics mine), and he even puts the Israelites in their place by making sure they know how stubborn they are:
You are not going to take possession of their land because of your righteousness or your integrity. Instead, the Lord your God will drive out these nations before you because of their wickedness, in order to fulfill the promise he swore to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Understand that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stiff-necked people.
This was ultimately so that he could fulfill his promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:1-6). God is patient with people―even though he doesn’t have to be. That God doesn’t strike me down every time I sin is a display of his mercy. Every second someone lives is a gracious, gift from God. He showed the Canaanites this grace as well. In Genesis 15:14-16 (italics mine), God told Abraham he could not yet enter the land because he was giving them more time to stop their evil deeds:
However, I will judge the nation they serve, and afterward they will go out with many possessions. But you will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”
God’s patience isn’t eternal. Nor should it be. Redemption might never get here if it were. His patience with the Canaanites ran out, so he decided to send the Israelites in to stop them. As creator and sustainer of all things, that’s completely in his prerogative.
In Deuteronomy 7:7-10, God is speaking to Israel. In these verses, he communicates that he is going to bring Israel into the land because he made a promise to Abraham (that’s emphasizing his faithfulness to do what he says he will do). However, in these verses he also makes it clear that he won’t allow sin to go unpunished (that’s an emphasis on his justice):
“The Lord had his heart set on you and chose you, not because you were more numerous than all peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors, he brought you out with a strong hand and redeemed you from the place of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps his gracious covenant loyalty for a thousand generations with those who love him and keep his commands. But he directly pays back and destroys those who hate him. He will not hesitate to pay back directly the one who hates him.
So there are three points that may help us see what God was doing in judging the Canaanites. I hope this helps you in future conversations with others who may be confused with what God is doing. After all, he is an infinite being, and as finite beings, we won’t always be able to figure God out completely. He’s a mystery, but he isn’t mysterious. He invites you to know him still.