Was the Destruction of the Canaanites Just?

In recent years, much has been said and written about the Lord ordering Israel to destroy the Canaanites. This is largely because the new atheists proclaim it as “divine genocide.” But it’s not just a problem for Christianity’s detractors. Indeed, many Christians worry about the fairness of killing the Canaanites. After all, if the Old Testament commands are to be taken at face value, it would appear that the Lord ordered Israel to kill every Canaanite man, woman, and child that refused to leave a particular geographical area. Consider just one passage from Deuteronomy 20:16-18:

In the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded, that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God.

These words trouble many Christians and skeptics grouse that such a God is a “moral monster.”1 Do Christians need to worry, and are skeptics right to impugn God’s character, concerning this? No. My thesis is simple, God had good reason to destroy those Canaanites who refused to leave the area God had given Israel and this wasn’t divine genocide but capital punishment.

I’ve already published two articles on the destruction of the Canaanites: the first in Philosophia Christi, “We Don’t Hate Sin so We Don’t Understand what Happened to the Canaanites” and the second in the Christian Research Journal, “Killing the Canaanites.”  But there is a lot more to say, so I’ve decided to write several posts on the topic. In these posts I will examine such things as the Canaanite’s sinfulness, whether there were any innocent Canaanites, whether killing children could be fair, whether hyperbole can help explain these killings, and the implications for our own society’s Canaanization.

  1. For example, see Hector Avalos, “Yahweh is a Moral Monster,” The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, John W. Loftus, ed., (Amherst: Prometheus, 2010), 209-236. []
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6 Responses to Was the Destruction of the Canaanites Just?

  1. Tim Foutz says:

    Thanks for addressing this issue, Clay. It reminds me of a comment that Walt Kaiser made in class when I was in seminary way back when. He made reference to Genesis 15:12-16. There the Lord told Abraham that his descendants would be slaves for 400 years and then “will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” In other words, God allowed his people to be enslaved as act of grace to the people in Canaan. I’m sure you are already familiar with this passage, but it has been a great talking point for me in class and elsewhere on this subject.

    • Clay Jones says:

      Yes, that’s a huge point, Tim! The Lord wasn’t interested in destroying a race but He is willing to destroy those who do evil. That’s why this is capital punishment and not genocide.

  2. Don Ruhl says:

    Thanks for addressing this issue.

  3. Gary says:

    Your insights and information have been outstanding! I really appreciate your paper, Philosophia Christi, “We Don’t Hate Sin so We Don’t Understand what Happened to the Canaanites.” The depth of depravity is quite shocking and I hadn’t heard it before. It seems that some of the critics of the Bible can be quite selective in what they reveal to their audience with the intent to sway their readers to their perspective.

    Anyhow, thank you for your work and research, it has greatly helped me.

  4. Pingback: Canaanite Destruction Not Genocide but Capital Punishment

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