Divine Judgment and the Canaanite Conquest: A Theological Exploration
Visitor's Question: Why does the Bible condone genocide? Was that just the Old Testament "god" who demanded that? It is clear that in the book of Joshua, God commanded the Jews to utterly wipe out people groups that inhabited Canaan. If this is so, why didn't Jesus denounce him? Christians often try to avoid this question, it seems to me.
Response: Actually, I am surprised that this question should be avoided, as it provides one of the clearest illustrations of a most significant truth in the Bible: Not only did God take the lives of those He ordered the Israelites to kill (the Canaanites) – He also takes the life of everyone on earth. The peoples of Canaan may have faced the death penalty earlier than expected, but in essence, their fate was no different than ours. We are all subject to death. Death, as the Bible reveals, is the just penalty imposed for Adam's disobedience in the garden (Genesis 2:16-17; Rom. 5:12-14). Thus, not only may God take life as He sees fit – He does take the life of every last human on earth (see Heb. 9:27). We should not lose sight of this alarming truth: death is not natural, it is not a normal process of time and chance, nor is it a necessary mechanism of evolution. Humans were created to live, and the fact that they do not speaks to a terrifying reality – we are all born under divine wrath and judgment.
Indeed, we must therefore submit to the fact that God is God and we are not. He alone is the Creator, the Giver of Life – and so He, too, is the Taker of Life. He takes life from whomever He wills, whenever He wills, and however He desires (1 Samuel 2:6; Job 1:21; Deut 9:4-6, 10:14; Isaiah 45:5-7). Even if we consider nothing else, that alone is more than sufficient reason for us to "lay our hands upon our mouths" (see Job 38-42, esp. 40:4). Doesn't the potter have the right to create one vessel for honorable use and another vessel for dishonorable use from the same lump of clay (Isaiah 45:9-10; Rom. 9:19-24)? Then, so does God, who fashioned humans from the dust, have the right to do with them as He sees fit.
In Deuteronomy 9:4-6, God Himself explains the reason for His command to slaughter the Canaanites. However, it is crucial to note that in the same passage, God declares the Israelites no less wicked than the Canaanites, deserving the same fate:
4 "Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, 'It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,' whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you. 5 Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you, and that He may confirm the word that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. 6 "Know, therefore, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people.
Deut 7:7: "The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, 8 but because the LORD loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the LORD brought you out by a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt."
This passage connects Israel's mission to conquer Canaan with God's earlier intervention on their behalf in Egypt. To understand the significance of this, we must remember how God redeemed Israel from slavery. The pivotal event of Israel's exodus was the Passover. During this event, the Israelites had to mark their doorposts with lamb's blood so that the angel of death would spare their homes (Exodus 11-15). Without the lamb's blood, their firstborn would have suffered the same fate as the Egyptians. Thus, Israel escaped judgment only through the protective power of the lamb's blood.
In a similar vein, God warned the Israelites that they were not essentially immune from the Canaanites' judgment of slaughter: "But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live. And then I will do to you what I plan to do to them" (Numbers 33:55-56). The Israelites deserved judgment just like the others, whether Egyptian or Canaanite. This should serve to remind us that we may not assume that those who suffer unique or catastrophic calamities in this life are any worse than we ourselves since it is only the grace of God in Jesus Christ which makes us differ from anyone (see Luke 13:1-5; 1 Cor. 4:7).
A couple more points may be helpful to keep the slaughter of the Canaanites in perspective: first, at that time in the Old Testament, God had given the nation of Israel clear civil authority and responsibilities; and as a lawfully-ordained civil government, functioning directly under His control, He commanded them to carry out His just judgment against the idolaters of Canaan. Although He gave Israel the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill" (better, "murder"), it is clear that this is a prohibition against unlawful killing of any kind or taking vengeance into one's own hands. In the same document in which we find this commandment, we may also find many places where God commanded the Israelites to put their own people to death for certain types of disobedience (like idolatry). When it is a judicial act of a properly instituted civil government, taking a life may sometimes be warranted. Apparently, the slaughter of the Canaanites was one such judicial act, carried out by the magistrates of Israel. This means God did not command some arbitrary genocide but gave a judicially sanctioned capital punishment to evil people.
There are a few additional points to consider:
1) The wickedness of the Canaanites: The extent of the Canaanites' evil practices, such as child sacrifice and other abominable acts (Leviticus 18:24-30, Deuteronomy 12:31), which led to God's judgment upon them. This helps to explain why God deemed it necessary to eliminate them from the land.
2) God's patience and mercy: It is essential to note that God gave the Canaanites ample time to repent before executing judgment (Genesis 15:16). Their destruction was not a hasty decision but rather a measured response after centuries of persistent wickedness.
3) The importance of holiness: God commanded the Israelites to be holy and separate from the sinful practices of the surrounding nations (Leviticus 20:22-26). The removal of the Canaanites was part of God's plan to ensure that Israel remained faithful to Him and not be corrupted by the idolatrous practices of the Canaanites.
4) God's sovereignty and wisdom: God's ways are higher than our ways, and His thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9). While we may not fully understand God's rationale behind certain actions, as believers, we trust in His infinite goodness wisdom, love, and justice.
5) Christ's fulfillment of the Old Testament: To address the question about Jesus not denouncing the events in the Old Testament, it is crucial to mention that Christ came to fulfill the Old Testament (Matthew 5:17) and that the Old Testament is not separate from the New Testament but serves as a foundation for understanding Christ's redemptive work.