The book of Joshua records that the Lord God fulfilled His promise to give the land of Canaan to the descendants of Abraham (Joshua 21:43). This book shows us how the Israelites, with the helping hand of the Almighty, conquered the land of Canaan, possessed it, and then divided its territory among the twelve tribes.
In the process of conquering Canaan, the Israelites killed many people. That is an undeniable fact of history. Critics of the Bible point to this as an immoral act on the part of God’s people. In fact, they claim that this demonstrates that the God of the Hebrews (Who is the God of Christians, for the living God Whom we serve is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) is without love and fairness, and thus could not be worthy of man’s service.
There are also those people who believe the Bible, but are hard-pressed to understand or explain why Jehovah would give the charge to destroy the Canaanites. What about it? Just why did the Lord God give the command to kill the inhabitants of the promised land? By no means do we propose to have all the answers to every aspect of this question that might be presented, but we would like to provide some biblical and historical information for your consideration.
First, is it true that God really did command the Israelites to destroy the inhabitants of Canaan? Here is the Bible’s answer: "When the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them" (Deuteronomy 7;1,2). Again, in the book of Deuteronomy we read, "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 … as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee" (20:16,17). It could not be any plainer. Yes, God gave such a command.
Did the Israelites carry out this charge to destroy the Canaanites? For the most part, yes. This is seen in Joshua chapters 6-12. There were, however, those cases when individual tribes of Israel did not completely destroy or "run out" the Canaanites who lived in their (the tribes of Israel’s) territory. This caused tremendous problems in the future for God’s people.
Just when did the Israelites destroy the Canaanites? The nation of Israel crossed the Jordan River and entered the land of promise in about 1407 B.C. But from a biblical perspective, there is a different answer. God told Abraham, "But in the fourth generation they (Abraham’s descendants, specifically the Israelites, rdc) shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full" (Genesis 15:16). So, after the descendants of Abraham would be servants in another country, God would bring them to dwell in Canaan. But when? Not in Abraham’s days. Why? Because during his lifetime "the iniquity of the Amorites" (Canaan dwellers) was "not yet full." This statement implies that there would be a time in the future when the iniquity of the inhabitants of Canaan would be "full" in God’s sight. When was that? In the 15th century before the birth of Jesus, in the days of Joshua.
Were the Canaanites whom the Israelites killed innocent? Remember what we just read from Genesis 15:16? Their "iniquity" was to be running over. Iniquity is sin. Sin is transgression of God’s law or lawlessness (1 John 3:4). Thus, the Canaanites were guilty of violating Jehovah’s will. From the Bible and archaeological findings we learn that in the time leading up to and during the conquering of Canaan by Israel, the inhabitants of Canaan and surrounding nations were involved in wicked behavior. Such things as idolatry, sexual immorality (including temple prostitution), and sacrificing babies to pagan gods were prevalent activities of the Canaanites before the Israelites attacked them. Further, through the counsel of Balaam, the Israelites had been seduced by Moabites and Midianites to commit fornication and join themselves to idols (Numbers 25:1-3; 31:15,16).
Make no mistake about it: evil behavior was the norm of the day for the Gentile nations with whom the Israelites came in contact, both en route to Canaan and in Canaan itself. Thus, when God charged Israel to "destroy" the people of Canaan, Israel was acting as an instrument in the hand of the Almighty to carry out His justice against these transgressors.
It is sometimes suggested that it seems unfair for God to punish the Canaanites, when, after all, they had no knowledge of Him or His will, and thus were acting out of ignorance. Three lines of evidence in the Bible serve to show that this type of reasoning is faulty. Number one, by observing the material world around them, the Canaanites had the possibility to learn of the existence and power of God. This conclusion is based on the apostle Paul’s declaration about the Gentiles in general: "For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse" (Romans 1:20). Notice that men of all ages ("from the creation of the world") could learn of God through nature.
Number two, teaching about Jehovah had been done in the land of Canaan long before the Israelites conquered it. During the days of Abraham, which was several hundred years before Joshua led Israel into the land of promise, there was a priest of God at work among the Canaanites. Who was that? Genesis 14:18 says that Melchizedek "was the priest of the most high God." To him Abraham gave "tithes of all" (14:20). From other passages we learn that in God’s scheme of things, priests function by helping people worship the true and living God, and at the same time they teach people about God’s law. So, several hundred years before Israel ever left Egypt to head towards the land of Canaan, there was Melchizedek acting as a priest of the one, true God among the Canaanites. That means that he was informing at least some of those people about how to serve the Creator! Those who learned from Melchizedek would then have had the responsibility to pass on such information to their offspring.
Number three, Rahab, who lived in the city of Jericho at the time when Israel invaded Canaan, and other Canaanites knew of God’s uniqueness and great miracles. Notice her confession to the two spies whom Joshua sent to Jericho: "I know that the LORD hath given you the land, and that your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land faint because of you. For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you, when ye came out of Egypt; and what ye did unto the two kings of the Amorites … And as soon as we had heard these things, our hearts did melt, neither did there remain any more courage in any man, because of you. For the LORD your God, he is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath" (Joshua 2:9-11). Thus, Rahab and those who lived with her in Canaan did have knowledge of the Lord God, and hence they were responsible to serve Him.
But still, how could killing the Canaanites be of help to the nation of Israel? We must remember that God desired for Israel to be a holy nation (Leviticus 11:44; Exodus 19:5,6). That means to be sanctified or set apart. In order to keep Israel morally pure, it was necessary to remove the immoral Canaanites, lest they (the people of Canaan) teach the Israelites their ways and cause them to depart from Jehovah. The Messiah was to come from Jacob, namely from the tribe of Judah, so God wanted to keep the Christ’s ancestors free from the contamination of other nations.
In addition, God forbid the Israelites to intermarry with the Canaanites for He knew that if they did unite with them in marriage, then they would forsake Him. He strictly charged His people, saying, "Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods; so will the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and destroy thee suddenly" (Deuteronomy 7:3,4). God later told Israel, "But thou shalt utterly destroy them … That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods; so should ye sin against the LORD your God" (Deuteronomy 20:17,18).
Okay, but what about the innocent Canaanite women and children who were slaughtered? How could God be justified in giving the command to kill them? Does this action not seem out of harmony with His character and love for all people? We do not claim to have complete understanding of all that Jehovah has done, but we readily confess that whatever He has done or said has always been right, and has always been done with man’s best interest in mind. Let us not forget: "For the word of the Lord is right; and all his works are done in truth" (Psalm 33:4). Concerning the "innocent" Canaanite women, as we have already noted above, many of them were, in fact, involved in great immorality and rejection of God. And what about the children? If we will consider their eternal destiny and not their physical lives, then it was really better for them to die before the age of accountability. This is true, because if they had grown up in the wicked environment that existed in Canaan, then they themselves would most likely have done evil as well, and as a result be lost eternally. The young, by being killed at an early age, would be spared eternal punishment.
Indeed, there are some tough questions associated with Old Testament history. We personally desire to understand much more than we do at present. Let each of us keep in mind that God always knows what is right, desires what is right, says what is right, and does what is right.