Canaanite Destruction Not Genocide but Capital Punishment

God Ordered the Canaanite Destruction Because of Their Sins

In my introductory post I wrote that what God ordered Israel to do to the Canaanites wasn’t genocide but capital punishment. I say this was capital punishment for four reasons. First, the Lord clearly explains that He ordered the Canaanite destruction because of their sinfulness. In Leviticus chapter 18:6-23 the Lord says that the Canaanites—who lived within the territory that God had given Israel—were guilty of incest, adultery, burning their children in the arms of a bull-headed idol named Molech, homosexuality, and bestiality. The Lord then warned in Leviticus 18:24-26, 28:

Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations… lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.

That’s pretty clear, right?

Israel was a theocracy and in Leviticus 20 the Lord is unambiguous that the above sins were death penalty offenses. (To be clear: I do not think that that any of these sins—except for murdering children—should be capitally punished today.) The Old Testament tells us these things were rampant in Canaanite society and we also know these things were rampant from the Canaanites’ own documents. I’ll give just one example here, from “The Baal Cycle” we learn: “Mightiest Baal hears / He makes love with a heifer in the outback / A cow in the field of Death’s Realm. / He lies with her seventy times seven / Mounts eighty times eight / [She conceiv]es and bears a boy.”1 Well, if that’s how their god behaved, you can bet the Canaanites were aping that god whenever they got the chance. You can find more documentation of their sins in my 9,000 word article in Philosophia Christi (Warning: the article contains graphic accounts of sexual depravity and violence to children). Simply put, the Lord had concluded that these people deserved to die. Now, of course, today’s enlightened/benighted that don’t think that any of those things are even wrong, much less worthy of death, will consider this ridiculous. For crying out loud, most of the West has abolished the death penalty even for those who rape, torture, and then murder their victim after meticulous planning. They will never be convinced that God could be fair for taking the lives of those who do those things.

God Exacted the Same Penalty on His Own People

The second reason that it wasn’t genocide but capital punishment is that the Lord exacted the same punishment for Israel when they committed Canaanite sin. Israel was warned not to let the Canaanites live in their land but to completely destroy those who did not leave (Ex 23:33; Deut 20:16-18) because otherwise the Canaanites would be “barbs” in the Israelites’ eyes (Num. 33:55), the Israelites would intermarry with the Canaanites, and then the Israelites would consequently learn the Canaanites’ ways (Ex 34:15-16).

However, the Israelites did not drive the Canaanites out (Judges 1:28), but instead worshiped their gods and followed their practices (Judg. 3:5-6; 2 Kgs. 17:7). As a result Israel “did evil” (Judg. 10:6, 1 Kg. 14:22) and set up “Asherah poles on every high hill and under every spreading tree” (2 Kgs. 17:10). There were “male shrine prostitutes” (1 Kg 14:22); they committed acts of “lewdness,” adultery, and incest (Jer. 5:7, 29:23; Hos. 4:13-14; Ezk. 22:10-11; Amos 2:7); and even Solomon set up altars for all his foreign wives and set up an altar to Molech (1 Kgs. 11:5, 7-8). In time the Israelites sacrificed their sons and daughters (2 Kgs. 16:3, 17:17; 2 Chron. 28:3, 33:6; Jer. 32:35; Ezk. 20:26, 31). Then when the Lord threatened them with destruction, instead of repenting they concluded that their fall to Babylon was because they had stopped burning incense to “the Queen of Heaven,” Inanna/Ishtar (Jer. 44:18). So the Lord said that Israel became “like Sodom to me” (Jer. 23:14).

Because of the Israelite’s sinfulness at the Lord’s bidding the king of Assyria slaughtered many of the northern Israelite tribes, deported most of the survivors, and filled the land with conquered peoples from other nations. Similarly, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon slaughtered many of the inhabitants of the southern tribes and then deported most of the survivors.

But it doesn’t stop there. In Luke 20 Jesus warned the Jews in the parable of the tenants and the vineyard that the vineyard’s owner sent servants to them, but they mistreated the servants, so the owner sent his son to them, but the tenants killed his son. Jesus then asked, “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” Then, in A.D. 70, forty years after Jesus was killed, the Roman emperor Titus destroyed Jerusalem. Josephus says that the Jews in Jerusalem

were first whipped, and then tormented with all sorts of tortures, before they died, and were then crucified before the wall of the city. This miserable procedure made Titus greatly to pity them, while they caught every day five hundred Jews; nay, some days they caught more…. So the soldiers, out of the wrath and hatred they bore the Jews, nailed those they caught, one after one way, and another after another, to the crosses, by way of jest, when their multitude was so great, that room was wanting for the crosses, and crosses wanting for the bodies.

Titus then renamed the region Palestine and for almost 1,900 years one couldn’t find “Israel” on the map. In A.D. 135 the Romans built a city on the ruins of Jerusalem and called it Aelia Capitolina. Then Emperor Hadrian decreed: “It is forbidden for all circumcised persons to enter or stay within the territory of Aelia Capitolina; any person contravening this prohibition shall be put to death.” They were forbidden to see Jerusalem even “at a distance.”

This is important for three reasons. First, it shows (as I’m asserting) that what God commanded Israel to do to the Canaanites wasn’t genocide—it was capital punishment. God warned Israel that if they committed the same sins, the land would also vomit them out. God is no respecter of persons. Second, there is a cosmic lesson: God hates sin because sin leads to rebellion and the worst kinds of evil. Third, this also answers the misunderstanding that there is some discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments. In both Testaments God hates sin and punishes it.

God Waited Until the Canaanites Corruption was Complete

The third reason it wasn’t genocide but capital punishment is that God didn’t order the Canaanites’ destruction until their society had become completely depraved. In Genesis 15, the Lord promised Abraham that his descendants would inherit the land of the Canaanites but that the Israelites would have to be slaves for 400 years because “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Gen. 15:16). If it was genocide, then the Lord could have told Abraham to kill any Canaanite he could get his hands on—but it wasn’t genocide.

God Limited Their Destruction to within Certain Boundaries

The fourth reason it wasn’t genocide but capital punishment is 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.


There are three major objections to the capital punishment argument: that there were righteous adults, that there were innocent children killed, and that the Leviticus 18 prohibitions are outdated at best because among them is the prohibition that one can’t have sex with a woman in her period. We will deal with each in turn in upcoming blogs.

  1. Mark S. Smith, trans. Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, ed. Simon B. Parker (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1997), 148. []
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14 Responses to Canaanite Destruction Not Genocide but Capital Punishment

  1. Gary says:

    Thank you for your excellent insights, I really appreciate it! Your papers and articles have brought a lot of clarity to me on this issue.

    The fact that your paper entitled “We Don’t Hate Sin So We Don’t Understand What Happened to the Canaanites,” needed to be written, is a testimony to the severity of decline in our nation and the world. It seems the conscience of many continue to become more and more deadened.

    The law and God’s dealings with Israel and nations, particularly in the past, is a reminder to me of the seriousness of sin and the necessity of the lamb of God so that we don’t spend eternity separated from a perfectly pure and holy God. The cross is offensive to our human nature, but provides the only true remedy. He is loving and willing to forgive the vilest of sinners if they will come to him, however, his absolute purity and holiness prohibits sinners to dwell in his presence. God help us to not reject the only one who can truly help and save us.

  2. Eric says:

    Thank you for your work on this subject. I used your material on the destruction of the Canaanites when I taught on the problem of evil last year.

    Although this was merely an aside in your article, you state that you do not think the sins in Leviticus 20 should be capitally punished today, with the exception of murdering children. First off, we have little to no say as to what laws our country creates. And we must live under the laws of whatever country we live in – whether we agree with them or not (I am not advocating we create a theocratic country!). However, it seems today that Christians are becoming products of the culture that they live in as evidenced by the moral crisis over homosexuality in the church (is it a sin or not?). If God considers a sin so heinous that it merits execution (whether it be adultery to murdering children) aren’t we on dangerous ground when we declare that punishment is void? It seems that God knew what would happen if the “Leviticus 20 sinners” were left alive to influence society – the society (Israel) became the Canaanites they expelled and were themselves expelled. I wonder if we are watching that happen to segments of the church today as Christians begin to compromise on clear teachings in scripture.

    • Clay Jones says:

      I’m glad you found the material helpful, Eric, and you’ve asked a huge question. It concerns first and foremost how the Christian relates to the Law of Moses. I encourage everyone to read Five Views on Law and Gospel by Douglass Moo, et. al. (I take the modified reformed position, by the way). From there it’s about trying to figure out how we as Christians who live in a democracy should implement God’s will and that is no simple matter.

  3. David K. M. Klaus says:

    Since *God* killed them for thoughtcrime, so can *WE*.

    Your idea is the same as tyrants throughout history, including the present day. With the identical argument with hate-subject substitution you get the Holocaust over Jews, Orwell’s Inner Party over the Proles, Mao’s Red Guard over the peasants, the Khmer Rouge over the educated, Islamic fundamentalists over Western Civilization.

    Just have enough of a sliver of moral decency to admit it: you want to kill anyone who believes differently than you do. And don’t give me sophistry as to why it’s okay for *your* group to mass-murder but not others because you’re not the same as they : “A difference which *makes* no difference *is* no difference.” — William Blake and Alfred Korzybski, separately.

    • Clay Jones says:

      Hi David, You wrote, “Since *God* killed them for thoughtcrime, so can *WE*.” I certainly don’t believe that and I didn’t write that in my post. You wrote, “you want to kill anyone who believes differently than you do.” No I don’t and my post doesn’t say that. As for the Holocaust comparisons, you’re missing the point. It was the Canaanites who were running the Holocaust. They were molesting their children and burning their children alive in fires. They had to be stopped.

      • Harrison Pfingsten says:

        I must admit. I don’t see him saying what you seem to think he’s saying. This is actually one of the more reasoned bits of theology I’ve seen.
        We can certainly debate the morality of imposing one’s own strictures on a different culture, and, finding them lacking, wiping them out. However, within the framework of belief, I see nothing more atrocious in this than in any other conquest. Indeed, the fact that the invaders are held to the same strictures as conquered would have seem pretty damn enlightened by the standards of the time. I doubt the Akkadian emperor, Naram-Sin had any such scruples.

    • Mark S. Phillips says:

      There are two problems with this reasoning by Mr. Klaus: 1) it fails to assess how to stop murderous, evil people groups; and 2) it commits a fallacious non-sequitur.

      Should ISIS be allowed to go about freely engaging others as to how they see fit? Or should a response be generated to stop their murderous actions? The problem is your view assumes the nation of Israel is like ISIS or Mao’s Red Guard, when the reality is the Canaanites were the ISIS or the Red Guard of the day. And that’s where the non-sequitur comes in: an inability to see just *who* the “bad guys” are in this instance.

  4. Lora Gorton says:

    I posted your video from the 10th Annual EPS Apologetics Conference and a link to this article on facebook. A David Rohl an Egyptologist said this, in reply “Lora, no good god would order the mass murder of every man, woman and child (as well as animals) … and you have no idea what those Canaanites were like. Remember Moses ordering the slaughter of all Midianite women who had slept with a man … but keep the young virgins and make them brides of the Israelite warriors? Remind you of Boko Haram and ISIL?”
    He makes it sound like what your saying about the Cannanites is all bogus.

    I would much rather believe what your saying. I’m not sure he even listened or read your paper. Could you recommend any other authors besides Paul Copan? I started reading his second book and it wasn’t what I’d hoped for. I’m wondering if his first book would be better for me. Your writing get’s to the main ideas better. Thank you very much. I find it very helpful.

    • Eric says:

      Remember it was the intention of the Midianites to destroy Israel by leading them into idolatry so the God would no longer bless them. This was Balaam’s plan and it worked. They did this by sending there beautiful women to seduce the Israelite men and fornicate before Baal. The consequence was proper – kill all the women who seduced Israel away from God. But that is not all who died! God killed thousands of the Israelites as well for their spiritual harlotry. I don’t think you are being fair to the text by comparing Israel to ISIS – they are nothing alike.

  5. Lora Gorton says:

    Correction, I posted your article called “We Don’t Hate Sin So We Don’t Understand What Happened to the Canaanites.”

    His other responses were as follows.

    Here is Mr. Rohl’s response to me asking if Mr. Jones’ claims are bogus.
    “That is your right, of course. But it is also the right of specialists in ancient history and archaeology to question the ‘bad press’ dished out by the Israelite conquerors to the conquered and ethnically cleansed victims. When, ever, have the victors in war painted themselves as the baddies? Even then, if you read your Bible carefully, there are some major moral issues about the actions of the Israelites in the years from Exodus down to the sack of Jerusalem by Nebuchadrezzar. Not that they were alone in committing atrocities and genocide … but today we are expected to accept their crimes against humanity because they were sanctioned and ‘commanded by God’.”

    Then he asks me, “Let me ask you a moral question. If God came to you in a dream and ordered you to murder your own children in their beds with a knife from your kitchen, would you do it?”

    I assume this is reference to God having all but destroyed Israel for committing Canaanite sins.

    My response was to him that we do not have all knowledge or the right to stand in the seat of judgment against God.

  6. Pingback: Were There Any Innocent Canaanites?

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