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.
- Mark S. Smith, trans. Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, ed. Simon B. Parker (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1997), 148. [↩]