QUESTION: Why did God order the total destruction of the Canaanites?
ANSWER: When we come, in the Bible, to Israel's conquest of Canaan, we face an issue that has perplexed and disturbed many over the years. Long before the first battle–the attack on Jericho–God had ordered the total extermination of the Canaanite people, not only of the men of their armies, but of women and children too. "You shall drive them out [i.e. of their cities or possessed lands] and destroy them quickly" (Deut. 9:3). None were to be left in the land, living with the Israelites.
"Of the cities of these peoples which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance, you shall let nothing that breathes remain alive, but you shall utterly destroy them: the Hittite and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite, just as the LORD your God has commanded you" (Deut. 20:16-17; cf. Josh. 6:17, 21; 8:26; 11:20).
These six groups, living within the boundaries of Canaan, were to be utterly exterminated. (A seventh group is included earlier, the Girgashites (Deut. 7:1), of whom little is known.) "When the LORD your God delivers them over to you, you shall conquer them and utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them, nor show mercy to them" (Deut. 7:2).
Critics have called the annihilation of the inhabitants of Canaan a primitive and barbaric act of murder, perpetrated on innocent lives. But it was hardly that, as we shall see. There are some factors it is helpful to keep in mind.
1) The Inspiration of the Scriptures
If the Bible is the inspired Word of the living God (and it is, II Tim. 3:16), then we must not reject something in it simply because we don't understand it, or because it offends twenty-first century ideas of justice and morality. Actually, it's rather ironic that some of the ones, today, who condemn God's command with regard to the Canaanites are, at the same time, supporters of abortion, the killing of tens of thousands of innocent babies. We are hardly consistent!
2) More Than a God of Love
We may struggle to harmonize the holiness and justice of God with His love and mercy, but both are clearly taught in the Bible. It's also interesting that we put the two in that order. Let's turn it around for a moment.
We need to consider how the love and mercy of God toward us (guilty sinners that we are) harmonizes with His holiness and justice. Surely it's not so puzzling that a righteous, holy God destroys sinners, as that God has spared any at all. But He has done so, time and again. Habakkuk prayed, "O Lord...in wrath remember mercy" (Hab. 3:2), and He has.
God in grace made a way for Noah and his family to be protected in the ark, when He destroyed the entire population of the earth with the Flood (Gen. 6:13, 17). A merciful God was willing to spare the wicked city of Sodom if there were found in it even ten righteous people (Gen. 18:32), but there were not. So the Lord took Lot and his family out of Sodom (for Abraham's sake, Gen. 19:29), before judgment fell and all the rest were destroyed (Gen. 19:15-16). He graciously spared the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, when its citizens repented, in response to the preaching of Jonah (Jon. 3:4-5, 10). And God preserved Rahab and her family living in the doomed city of Jericho (Josh. 6:25).
3) Israel a Theocracy
Israel was in a unique position. It was the only nation that was called to be a theocracy, meaning a people ruled over by God. The Lord called Israel out of Egypt and established them as a nation that was above all other nations. "The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth" (Deut. 7:6).
As such they were to be a righteous example to other nations, serving as His witness on earth (Isa. 43:1, 10). They were the communicators of God's revelation (Rom. 3:1-2), and the nation through whom the Saviour of the world would come (Rom. 9:4-5). But also, on occasion, they were called upon to become God's instrument of justice and judgment on other peoples.
The theocratic position of Israel came to an end with Babylon's conquest of the nation. Because of Israel's ongoing sinfulness–in spite of many warnings by the prophets–they were subjugated to a Gentile power, and continue to be attacked and harassed by other nations to this day. The Lord Jesus called this "the times of the Gentiles" (Lk. 21:24), a state of things that will continue until the coming Antichrist is defeated, at Christ's return to set up His theocratic kingdom (II Thess. 2:3-4, 8; Rev. 19:19-20).
4) Canaan a Special Case
In Old Testament times, God often treated a nation as a unit, a connected body. Because of that, the sins of some could affect all. For example, the sin of Achan (one man) was treated as the sin of all Israel ("the children of Israel committed a trespass," Josh. 7:1). And that brought the nation down to defeat at Ai (Josh. 7:5). This may, in part, explain the inclusion of children in the annihilation of the Canaanites. They belonged to the unit God marked out for destruction.
Further, Canaan was a special case. Israel was not always told to completely exterminate their enemies. The wickedness of the people of that land was extreme, and had been for so long that the very land was defiled in God's sight. The abominations of gross immorality and demonism were rampant (Lev. 18:21-25; Deut. 18:9-12).
The Lord had borne with them for centuries, giving plenty of time for repentance. But He foresaw that things would only become worse and worse. He told Abraham, centuries before, "the iniquity of the Amorites [a Canaanite people] is not yet complete" (Gen. 15:16).
Finally, their day of grace came to an end, and judgment fell. "He [the Lord] repays those who hate Him to their face, to destroy them" (Deut. 7:10). Their immorality, the practice of child sacrifice, and demonic infestation were like a cancer that would spread to Israel if any were spared. "You shall utterly destroy them...lest they teach you to do according to all their abominations which they have done for their gods, and you sin against the LORD your God" (Deut. 20:17-18).
5) Some Questions Remain
In the last analysis, not all of our "Why?" questions will be answered–including why God would design that the sacrificial death of One would pay for the sins of all (I Jn. 2:1-2). Being finite creatures, there are things we cannot understand. But God is sovereign over His creation (Ps. 24:1; Rom. 11:36). He has a right to do with it as He chooses (Rom. 9:20-21).
God is infinitely holy, and must punish sin. He has said He would (Ezek. 18:4; Rom. 6:23). We also can be sure the Lord knows more than we do, not only about outward events, but about what's in the hearts of human beings (Ps. 139:1-2; Jer. 17:9-10). Further, He knows the future, and is aware of dangers to come, if evil is allowed to flourish (Isa. 46:9-10).
The kind of severe and all-encompassing judgment visited on the Canaanites will be exercised over all the earth, when the Christ comes, in power and glory, "in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ" (II Thess. 1:8; cf. Rev. 19:11-21). It's true that God is merciful, and "not willing that any should perish" (II Pet. 3:9), but eventually judgment will fall on those who reject His grace (vs. 10).
6) Life Under Grace
Meanwhile, today, we live "under grace" (Rom. 6:14-15; cf. Jn. 1:16-17). The Canaanites are long gone. And there is nothing comparable, now, to the role Israel played in the conquest of Canaan. There is no one theocratic nation now, exalted by the Lord over all the rest. No nation through whom God is working directly as He did through Israel. No nation commanded by the Lord to completely destroy another nation and take over their land.
Israel was God's earthly people, with an earthly calling. The church is God's heavenly people, a spiritual body, of which the glorified Christ is the Head (Eph. 1:22-23). It's a body made up of all nations (Rom. 10:12-13; I Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:28), a body with a heavenly citizenship (Phil. 3:20). And, incidentally, the unity of the body, mentioned earlier regarding earthly nations, is true of the church. What one Christian does tends to affect the body as a whole (I Cor. 12:26-27; cf. II Cor. 11:28-29).
Though some things are different today, we can learn from the Lord's destruction of the Canaanites how much He hates sin, and therefore how persistent we should be in sharing the gospel, and how careful we should be, at a personal level, to confess and forsake sin in our lives.