This week, I want to talk about a very difficult Old Testament issue, the issue of the commanded destruction of the Canaanites. This is perhaps one of the most thorny Old Testament issues to discuss and to defend God’s actions in, because it seems like God has commanded genocide, that God has commanded ethnic cleansing because he commanded Israel to go kill a certain group of people. And so let’s look at that text from Deuteronomy 20. We’ll just jump right into it.
“In the cities of these people that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, in other words, kill everyone, but you shall devote them to complete destruction.”
Who? you might ask. Well,
“The Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, the Jebusites as the Lord your God has commanded.”
God here has commanded Israel to kill the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, et cetera, lots of different “ites.”
He has commanded this, and you might say, “Well, why?” Well, the text does say that this is so they can go into this land, that God is giving them this land, the land of Canaan, but they have to kill all these people first.
Sometimes I think we sit there and we say, “How does this square with our conception of God? Isn’t God just love?” Well, what some people have done is they have actually throughout church history divided the Old Testament and the New Testament, and they have said that the Old Testament God is different than the New Testament God, that he is a lower form of deity because surely a God who is revealed in the New Testament, who is love, could not command this sort of thing, so it must be someone else. Well, that option is not available to us. Jesus affirms the Old Testament at numerous points. It points to him. It finds its fulfillment in him. He regards it as the word of God and historically accurate, so we can’t just jettison the Old Testament.
So, we’ve seen what God commanded, but let’s see what actually happened in Joshua 11. It says,
“Joshua conquered the whole land, including the hill country, all the Negev, all the land of Goshen, the foothills, the Rift Valley, the hill country of Israel and its foothills. Joshua campaigned against these things for quite some time. No city made peace with the Israelites except the Hittites living in the land of Gibeon, and they had to conquer all of them for the Lord determined to make them obstinate so that they would attack Israel. He wanted Israel to annihilate them without mercy, as he had instructed Moses.”
God wanted Israel to annihilate them without mercy. He actually hardened and made them obstinate against Israel so that Israel would destroy them. That’s a topic for another day.
What we see here and we see in other places is that Joshua left no one alive, at least that’s what he said. Now there is a question of, well, was this a hyperbole? Was Joshua exaggerating for the sake of effect? Like we would say today, “Maybe FSU killed the other team. No one was left standing.” Well, that’s not entirely true, hopefully. Hopefully, FSU didn’t literally kill the other team. But my point is, is I think it’s hyperbole here potentially because there are still Canaanites who exist. God tells the Israelites in other places. When he’s telling them to go kill everyone, he says, “Don’t intermarry with them.”
Well, how would that work if they were supposed to kill everyone? Why should they not intermarry? God knew that not everyone would be killed, and, in fact, due to Israel’s disobedience, not all of the Canaanites and other people in the land were killed. But nonetheless, God still commanded them to go kill all of these people, and they killed a lot of them. We see here God saying he wants them to annihilate them without mercy. So, how does this work? How does this fit with who God is? If God is a God of love, then why has he commanded this? And why did Israel do it?
Well, I want to tell you something interesting that stood out to me, because when we want to understand the Bible, we should consider what the Bible has to say about itself. How does the Bible interpret things that happen in the Bible? And by extension, how it interprets those things is how we should interpret them too. And so as my church is going through the Psalms this summer, I was preparing to give some commentary on Psalm 111 and I found this verse very interesting. We’re going to read from verse five through seven, but it’s really six and seven that have the important part here.
And here’s what the psalmist said,
”God gives food to his faithful followers. He always remembers his covenant.”
So, what’s being captured in this Psalm is the faithfulness of God. And when God took Israel out from Egypt and they wandered in the desert, he sent them food in the form of manna, and manna is a word that literally means, “what is it?” And I remember hearing a story of a pastor who, when a certain lady would bring food to a church social—it didn’t taste very good—and so she would say, “Oh, what do you think, Pastor?” And he would say, “Oh, it’s manna,” and he meant, what is it?! And she thought that was just wonderful because she thought that meant it came from God. But anyway, that’s a fun story!
But so here’s the thing. God provided food to his followers in their exile, in the wilderness, but he also kept his covenant, his agreement with them, “I will be your God. You will be my people.” Well, what’s the next verse say?
”He announced that he would do mighty deeds for his people, giving them a land that belonged to other nations.”
So, here’s the description from the psalmist that one of the mighty deeds God has done is giving the Promised Land to his people. That refers to what we just read, where God commanded them to go kill everyone and take the land. That was God giving them the land. And we’ll talk about why it was God giving them the land in a minute.
But verse seven is interesting. Here is the divine interpretation and perspective on what happened with the Canaanites,
”His acts are characterized by faithfulness and justice.”
So, it says God gave Israel a land that belonged to other nations. Next verse, “His acts are characterized by faithfulness and justice.” You might be thinking, “How is it just? God commanded that they kill all these people. How is that just?” Well, let’s talk about who these people were. Now I don’t actually think we need to talk about who the people were in order to establish this was just, but we’ll get there.
The Canaanites sacrificed babies that were alive on burnt altars to their god Molech. They would have this idol, this statue of Molech who had its hands outstretched, and they would light fires under the hands and they would place live babies on the hands that are now very, very hot, such that the babies would burn to death. And they would play the drums louder and louder to cover up the cries of the babies and the cries of the mothers, but this was part of their religious ritual, that they made live child sacrifices. Sex and adultery and orgies were a fundamental part of their religion in their temples with their priests. They did many other things which I’m not going to get into on the podcast. These were evil people. These were evil people.
God, it says in another place, gave them 400 years before he judged them. It says, He let the sin of the Amorites increase for 400 years. They did not repent. They didn’t turn back. It wasn’t just a blip on the radar. This was the trajectory of their life towards more and more and more evil. And so was God justified in doing this? I think we ask the wrong question. I do not think the question is, was this just? I think the question is, why did God wait so long? I think the question is not why did God punish those people’s sin? But it’s, instead, why doesn’t he punish everyone’s sin like this? The question is not, why did the Canaanites not wake up the next day and they died in battle, but why do any of us wake up the next day?
Because when we look at the Canaanites and we question, well, was God just there? I think what we end up doing is saying, “You know what? Sin does not actually deserve death. Sin does not deserve punishment.” Or somehow we actually think through some weird type of moral logic that it’s worse for God to end people’s existence on this planet than to punish them in hell forever. Because what God really did with Israel attacking the Canaanites-he changed the Canaanites location. They got their eternal judgment just a little sooner. And I don’t want to come across as cold or callous here because I understand this is such a weighty issue, but it’s really important that we don’t ascribe bad actions to God, that we attempt to make our hearts believe and feel about this the way God did, that we see our sin the way God does, because really, I deserve what the Canaanites got. You deserve what the Canaanites got.
Now did you sacrifice children alive on a blazing hot altar? No, hopefully not. And neither have I. But we have all done sin before God that deserves to go punished right that second. God is slow and long-suffering. That’s what the account of the Canaanites shows, because that sin deserved to be punished right then. Just like Adam and Eve’s sin, it is an act of grace that God does not take a person out the moment they sin. And we don’t look at the situation with the Canaanites from that perspective if we question the justice of it. And yet, let’s refer again to what the psalmist said, that his acts are characterized by faithfulness and justice.
God was just in punishing their sin then and also in the life to come. So, it’s not like that was the end of their punishment. No. They will continue to be punished because they have sinned against a holy, perfectly righteous God.
But God was also faithful in giving the Israelites that land. He made a promise back in Genesis 12 and in numerous other places that he would provide for his people, that he would give them a land, and so he uses the judgment of the Canaanites to be faithful to give Israel the land, and there was no wrongdoing in that. In fact, the only wrongdoing was Israel’s failure to trust God and live according to his standards and fully drive out the Canaanites. Now it needs to be said, this was not an act of racism. This had nothing to do with the race of the Canaanites. It wasn’t one race attacking another race. It was God’s people being used as an instrument of God’s justice on those who had sinned against God.
Now did Israel deserve any better? No. But God doesn’t have to show grace to everyone to be justified in showing grace to some. He even says in some places, basically “I’m not giving you the land because you deserve it. I’m not giving you the land because you’re bigger or better or more morally, intrinsically good than the other people. No. I’m giving it to you simply because I want to bless you in that way, and I want you to be my people and you will be my people.”
Just because God is gracious to some, it doesn’t mean he has to be gracious to everyone. He doesn’t have to offer someone a pardon before he’s justified in punishing them. I think that’s really key for us to understand. I also think, just kind of repeating myself here, that we have to view sin as a grave offense against God, such that the 400 years God waited shows he was patient and that he was less extreme than if he had taken the action right then, which he would have been perfectly justified in doing, just like he would be with anyone who sins today who is not in Christ. It is only the grace of God in a general sense that leads to God not taking us out right when we sin or it’s grace in the specific for those who are in Christ, that God does not take them out when they sin.
It is because we are positionally righteous, having placed our trust for salvation in him. That’s really important. We don’t take the Canaanites seriously enough if we’re upset at God and not the Canaanites. If we’re upset at God and not ourselves for our sin, I think we are looking at the position and the situation inaccurately.
By What Standard Would We Judge God?
We also have to ask ourselves, by what standard could we even judge God? Let’s say we do think God did wrong here. By what standard? Where would you get a conception of what is good and bad except for based on who God is and what he said?
Now some people who are not Christians want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to say, “There’s too much evil in the world for God to exist.” The problem of evil, and I’m sympathetic to where someone could come from there. So, there’s too much evil. God can’t exist. Then often in the same conversation, they want to go back to the Old Testament in Deuteronomy and say, “God was immoral. He was a genocidal maniac when he commanded the destruction of the Canaanites. It was xenophobic rage.”
Well, you can’t have it both ways, can you? You can’t complain that there’s too much evil in the world and yet when a whole group of people has institutionalized burning babies alive, you can’t complain that God takes them out. You can’t have it both ways. Either it’s evil that you burn babies alive, and hence those people should be punished, or it’s not. But you can’t say God doesn’t address evil in the world and then complain when he does.
But what this points out also is we need an objective standard by which to judge what is right and wrong, and God is the only standard that makes sense. I think this is probably the topic I have talked about most on this podcast because it is essential for understanding the Bible in reality.
We must understand that there can be no wrong if there is no right, and there can be no right if there is no God, because to do something wrong is to break a moral law and laws require law-givers. You don’t get books without authors. You don’t get moral laws without law-givers, and God is that law-giver. We can never judge God apart from his own standards, and he will always be found to be good because he is the source and grounding of goodness.
The only alternatives there are to say that good is what we decide. So, good could be something different today than it was a thousand years ago, which means we can’t judge something that happened a thousand years ago because good can change. And if I decide what’s good and you decide what’s good and we disagree, who’s to say? That’s relativism.
That doesn’t actually work, and it doesn’t work if you just get a lot of people together and they take a vote. You can’t decide on what is right and wrong by a vote. And evolution can’t account for morality either. Evolution is said to account for the survival of a species, but not necessarily that species knowing what is right or wrong. And you also don’t get immaterial things like the laws of morality and logic from a materialistic process of evolution. So, none of the other proposed groundings for morality work, and if you talk with someone and they say, “You know what? I think right and wrong depends on me, and I think God did wrong with the Canaanites.” Well, I think you’d be fairly justified in saying, “Why should anyone care, especially God, what you think is right or wrong if it’s just your opinion?”
Now I’m not trying to be mean, but I am trying to point out if someone says what is right and what is wrong depends on what I think, well, then why should anyone else care? Why does it matter what their opinion is on someone else’s action when there could be as many opinions out there as there are people? No, we must point people back to the objective standard of God’s character as revealed in scripture. God is the ultimate standard for what is right and what is wrong, and as the psalmist said, in God’s divine interpretation of his own actions: He was faithful and just when he commanded the destruction of the Canaanites and gave that land to Israel. And so our job as human beings, with fallen emotions but emotions nonetheless, is to try to get those emotions in line. Not that we should be gleeful about what happened to the Canaanites, but to realize God is a consuming fire. He is holy and he burns against sin, and the only thing that separates us from the Canaanites is the grace of God if we are in Christ. That’s it. We deserved the same thing apart from that.
I know this has been a difficult topic, but I hope this has been helpful in helping you think through it and also present the truth to other people. Yes, there are potentially more tactically advantageous ways from an apologetic perspective to talk about this, but I think we have to go with the fact that, yes, God did command this. Yes, he actually intended for them to do more than they did. And the reason we don’t agree with that often or it doesn’t sit well is because we don’t take the holiness of God and our sinfulness as seriously as we should.
I will talk with you next week on Unapologetic.