How Could God Command Killing the Canaanites?

By Paul Copan

“Only in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them: the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the Lord your God”(Deuteronomy 20:16–18, NASB).1

Such texts have troubled Bible believers and unbelievers alike. In his book, The God Delusion, atheist Richard Dawkins asserts that Israel engaged in “ethnic cleansing” — those “bloodthirsty massacres” carried out with “xenophobic relish.”

How should we make sense of these kinds of texts? I have written a book on Old Testament ethics (Is God a Moral Monster?), including four chapters on the Old Testament and violence. I can only here briefly summarize my response to this perennially perplexing question. Keep in mind that I am offering an alternative to the Sunday School version of the Canaanite question.2 First, I will make a few introductory remarks. Then I will sketch out the key points as a preview of the warfare discussion in my book.

Contrary to what some Bible believers claim, the Canaanites were not the absolute worst specimens of humanity that ever existed — or the worst that existed in the ancient Near East. And what about the critic’s question, “Who is to say that these accounts are just like that of any army in history attacking another people in the name of God?”

The brief reply is, “This was a unique, unrepeatable historical situation, and we could not justify Israel’s attacking the Canaanites unless God had commanded this by special revelation.” Even so, God had patiently waited over 400 years until the Canaanites would be ripe for judgment (Genesis 15:16) — though this would mean Israel’s enslavement in Egypt in the meantime.

By the Israelite attack on Canaan, God accomplished two things. First, He brought righteous judgment on the deserving Canaanites — a kind of corporate capital punishment. God directed this destruction, however, less against Canaanite persons as it was against Canaanite religion (Deuteronomy 7:3–5; 12:2,3; cp. Exodus 34:12,13).2 The Canaanite gods/goddesses engaged in all kinds of sexual acts including incest and bestiality. Not surprisingly, worshipers of these deities engaged in ritual prostitution — not to mention infant sacrifice and other deviant acts.

In our sex-saturated culture, many people do not seem concerned about sexual immorality and the destruction it wreaks on individuals, families, and society. Our anger may flare up about racism or gender discrimination, but today’s society has jaded our moral instincts when it comes to other soul-destroying activities. God’s anger at a society’s moral and spiritual suicide mission — His saying “Enough!” —turns out to be a sign of moral concern.

Second, God was able to prepare a land for His people to create the proper religious setting to make sense of a coming Messiah who would bring redemption to Israelites and Gentiles alike (Genesis 12:3). Who are the intended recipients of this salvation? Jews, yes, but also Israel’s most hostile enemies — Assyria, Egypt, Babylon, and Philistia (Psalm 87:4–6; Isaiah 19:23–25). What is more, God even incorporated the Canaanites into the new Israel, the true people of God (Zechariah 9:7 [the “Jebusite,” who has been assimilated into Israel]; Matthew 15:22). Killing the Canaanites was not racially motivated; rather, it was theologically and morally motivated via divine mandate…

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How Could God Command Killing the Canaanites?