Killing the Canaanites

Richard Dawkins and other new atheists herald God’s ordering of the destruction of Canaanite cities to be divine “ethnic cleansing” and “genocides.”1 With righteous indignation, Dawkins opines that the God of the Old Testament is “the most unpleasant character in all of fiction.”2 But was the killing of the Canaanites an example of divine genocide? If you think the Canaanites deserved to die because of their own wickedness, Dawkins will zealously compare you to acting like the Taliban.3 A closer look at several key facts will help explain God’s reason for the destruction of the Canaanites and reveal how our own sinfulness demonstrates our incapacity to judge rightly.

That atheists are incapable of judging spiritual matters leads some Christians to wonder why we even need to answer them at all, especially if they lack any objective, moral, or epistemological foundation for their claims. Moreover, most atheists do not customarily condemn the very practices that God condemns, for example, idolatry, adultery, and homosexuality. Predictably so, their values conflict with what God hates.

Concerning the destruction of the Canaanites, atheists especially like to exploit the Christian condemnation of genocide. They reason something along these lines: (1) Christians condemn genocide. (2) Yahweh’s command to kill the Canaanites was an act of divine genocide. (3) Therefore, Christians should condemn Yahweh for commanding genocide.

The second premise is false, however. Part of the goal of this essay is to offer evidence to show that God had good reason to command Israel to kill the Canaanites. In Leviticus 18 and elsewhere, for example, the Bible reveals that God punished the Canaanites for specific grievous evils. Also, this wasn’t the entire destruction of a race as God didn’t order that every Canaanite be killed but only those who lived within specific geographical boundaries (Josh. 1:4). Canaanite tribes (especially the Hittites) greatly exceeded the boundaries that Israel was told to conquer. And since, as we will see, He punished Israel when they committed the same sins, what happened to the Canaanites was not genocide, but capital punishment.

This wasn’t merely punishment, however. God sought to reveal His standards of righteousness to a thoroughly corrupted humankind, and He chose Israel out of the nations to exhibit the requirements for relationship with Him (Deut. 4:5–8). Before He redeemed humankind, He needed to unambiguously demonstrate what exactly He was redeeming them from: a blatant and unrestrained evil that resulted in a worthless, nasty, and cruel existence. God knows what is best for humankind, but He allowed free creatures to rebel and find out on their own that He is right. If Jesus had died to redeem humankind prior to humankind’s comprehending the depth of their sin, then people would question the need for Jesus’ death. Why would Jesus die for basically good folk? God waited to redeem humankind until they had the chance to be, as 2 Live Crew once put it, “as nasty as they wanna be.”

You can read the rest of my article online at the Christian Reserach Journal.

In the resources section of my blog you can read my much more in-depth article “We Don’t Hate Sin So We Don’t Understand What Happened to the Canaanites: An Addendum to Divine Genocide Arguments or you can click here.

  1. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 247. []
  2. Ibid., 31. []
  3. Ibid., 246. []
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6 Responses to Killing the Canaanites

  1. Josh Illian says:

    A truly impressive and unexpected reference to 2 Live Crew.

    And a great overall article! I appreciate your continued witness.

  2. John Cogan says:

    It sounds as if the New Atheists would have been right at home in 13th century Canaan.

  3. John Cogan says:

    It sounds as if the New Atheists would have been right at home in 13th century B.C. Canaan.

  4. Pat Berner says:

    I enjoyed your comments on Chris Fabry Live regarding “Why Does a Good God Allow Bad Things To Happen?” and highly value your love for the Lord. However, like most theologians, I feel that you have complicated the issue (or I am just a simple guy). May I suggest the following:

    1. There was a war in Heaven and Lucifer became the Accuser. What was he accusing God of? The answer is found at what happens at the end (Every knee will bow and every tongue will be forced to confess that God is righteous and just).
    2. Earth was created as a test case to give Satan a chance to prove his accusations. Most bibles date the Genesis 1 account to 4004BC or thereabouts and here we are some 6000 years later. Many suggest that this is the 6 days of work proscribed for this planet and that the millennium is the 1 day of rest while the evidence is being reviewed in heaven.
    3. God allows some things to happen in order that the full nature of sin or rebellion will be revealed.
    4. God is not going to let this go on forever; He will put a stop to this. Looking at all of the things in this world that are causing instability and at the prophesies in the Bible, I think that the end is very near but no one knows hour or day except the Father. (Like a woman in travail, everyone knows it is soon, but everyone is surprised).
    5. It is very easy to state that Jesus’ life was the full vindication of God’s character and the accusations of the accuser AND I AGREE.
    6. May I suggest that God went even farther in allowing the fallen creatures of this world an opportunity to further vindicate God in every combination of circumstance that even God can think of: war, peace, famine, plenty, sickness, health, educated, unlearned, high tech, low tech, brilliant, simple, gender, confused and a slew of others. The simple message of the gospel, as I understand it, is that every one of these circumstances can be overcome with God’s help. We were not created with that power, only the power to love and trust God to help us to overcome those situations to His glory. The secular world says that we are born with these circumstances, live with it. God says with my help you can overcome it!

    I am thinking of turning this into a book and would welcome any comments.

    Thanks for your time and attention,
    Patrick Berner

  5. clayjones says:

    I think I agree with everything you said, Pat! I teach these principles in my course and as I have the opportunity I’m publishing them.

  6. JC says:

    Genocide was not the object of Israel’s invasion, and there was no Canaanite genocide.

    God said he would send terror upon the Canaanites (Exodus 23:27). How do you send terror? By creating an awesome reputation for God, and an invincible

    one for Israel. The plagues on Egypt, the defeat of the Amorites east of the Jordan, and the crossing of the river were all to convince the Canaanites they were

    not to fight, but run.

    After Jericho and Ai, most Canaanites were too afraid to defend the cities and fled.

    Just put yourself in their position after hearing of the “magic” that Israel wielded at Jericho.

    The evidence can be seen in the following:

    1) The 5 city alliance of the Gibeonites decided on guile rather than risk conflict. They offered to be slaves to Israel as long as they were spared.

    2) The Canaanite kings tried two alliances in open battle rather than depend on their walls.

    3) Israel took some cities in 1 or 2 days (Joshua 10:23, 32, 35). Compare this with 37 men at Harlech Castle holding off the entire Welsh Army in 1294AD. This was only possible if the cities were severely undermanned. No miracles or tactics were recorded.

    4) Isaiah 17:9 tells us many of the cities were deserted as Israel approached.

    5) If genocide was the goal, no Canaanite would dare return to any city after Israel had taken it. And yet, Caleb found some in Hebron to drive out (Joshua 15:14).

    6) Joshua chapters 15 to 22 lists approximately 260 cities allotted to the tribes, all with no record of battles or sieges.

    7) Thutmose III, pharaoh of Egypt circa 1500BC claimed over 350 Canaanite cities paid him tribute. Joshua 12 lists 31 kings and their cities defeated (less than 10%!)

    8) There is no archaeological evidence of massed graves in Canaan for that time period.

    God built a formidable reputation for Himself in Egypt, and an awesome one for Israel over 40 years in the wilderness, culminating with the destruction of the Canaanites east of the Jordan. An invincible reputation was supposed to be established at Jericho and Ai. This would have forestalled any resistance and saved lives. Too bad one greedy man stole what was reserved for God at Jericho, and Israel suffered an initial defeat at Ai. This encouraged some Canaanites to fight.

    God directed Israel against the strongest and most organized of the Canaanites. Once they were defeated, further killing was minimized. Only those Canaanites most responsible for the evil culture, and those who had the most to lose would have stayed and fought. These were slain to the last man or woman. It was the genocide of a wicked culture, not the genocide of a people. The people who ran away were later driven out.

    Should this be called cultural genocide? Even today, some nations in the world have laws where citizenship can be revoked, and people deported. God has His own thoughts on religion, culture, race, and politics. Leviticus chapters 17 and 18 lists sins that God says “cut off from his people”. Since this applies even to foreigners, it means foreigners are cut off from their own nations, and not just from God or Israel. In other words, people who commit those sins were not considered a religion, culture, race or political group. We can go by what the world says, or we can go by what God says.

    (Perhaps it should not be even called a culture. This was a culture imposed from the top by cruel kings and sadistic priests. This culture did not arise from the common people, who were poor and uneducated.)


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