What about the Canaanites?

The conquest of Canaan under Joshua isn’t a comfortable topic. Why would God command the destruction of people, and can He do it again today?

Here are three resources I’ve found helpful on this topic, in the order in which I encountered them:

Chris Wright: What about the Canaanites?

In this sermon (length: 37 min), Wright gives three wrong solutions and three hopefully helpful perspectives.

The first of the wrong solutions is, “That was the OT. Thankfully, the NT puts it all right. God was never really like that,” OR “God has changed now that Jesus has come.” Have a listen for the other two wrong answers, and for the helpful perspectives which stem from setting the episode of the conquest of Canaan in the wider context of the Bible.

Greg Koukl: The Canaanites: Genocide or Judgement?

In this article, Koukl seeks to answer one of the New Atheists’ objections to the God of the Old Testament. The destruction of the Canaanites wasn’t a matter of genocide, but of judgement. They were a nasty bunch, with a culture that practised stuff that was detestable to God (Deuteronomy 9:5, 18:9,12; Leviticus 18:24-25).

God judges evil, and if we are offended when we read of the conquest it shows we don’t hate sin like God does.

Peter J. Williams: New Atheists and the Old Testament

Is there a link between religion and violence? How can a good God command the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites? What difference does the nature and character of God (e.g. omniscience) make in the issuing of such a command? Who does most of the fighting in the conquest of Canaan? Does God, who gives life, have the authority to take it away?

Watch the video (length 51:32) to see how Williams handles these questions. There’s a Q&A at the end.

TL;DR/ Conclusion

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • The killing of the Canaanites wasn’t indiscriminate: Rahab and her family were saved. We don’t know if she was an exception or an example, but what’s clear is that it was possible to switch allegiance to Yahweh and live.
  • When the Israelites became Canaanized, they too suffer the same judgement of being driven out of the land. God is morally consistent.
  • In all this, God showed extreme patience in delaying judgement. He waited 400 years to judge the Canaanites (Genesis 15:16). He waited hundreds of years to judge the Israelites—that’s why the prophets are so long.
  • We need to read the story in the light of the beginning and the end. In the beginning, the world was without violence. In the end the wolf will lie down with the lamb.