Is God Immoral for Destroying the Canaanites?

Today, we live in a pluralistic culture where moral relativism flourishes while any suggestion of absolutism is dismissed. When those who propagate such ideas are met with ideas they don’t like, we should expect—since, to them, there is no absolute and morality is relative—all ideas and moral preferences to be accepted. And many times, moral relativists are consistent by accepting a wide range of moral ideas.

Unless it’s in the Bible.

If the Bible offers moral values or instances that rub against society’s moral values and preferences, then it can’t be accepted on the grounds that it is immoral. But is this not the same society that promotes inclusivity, diversity, and tolerance. Why, then, is the Bible excluded and not tolerated for offering a diverse view? The example today is the destruction of the Canaanites.

In Deuteronomy 7:1:4 and 20:16-18, Yahweh commanded Israel to destroy the Canaanites when they enter the land promised to their father, Abraham. Today, many see this as an immoral act of genocide committed by Yahweh. I want to offer three points that will help see the event in light of the historical background and circumstance of their time. This will give us a more objective view of what was going on during that time so (hopefully) we aren’t inclined to think of our Creator God as immoral.

The first question we need to ask when thinking about this issue is this: Is God arbitrary or does he give reasons for what he asked Israel to do here? Again, to answer this, I want to raise three points.

First, it was for Israel’s protection. If the Israelites had not destroyed them all when they took possession of the land, the Canaanites would have coerced the Israelites from worshiping Yahweh to worshiping their gods (Deut. 7:3-4). This command wasn’t given because they were Canaanites. Rather, it was given to protect Israel from rebelling against the word of God. Had they done so, they would have experienced the same judgment that the Canaanites do (7:4b).

Second, this was symbolic in that the judgment was directed toward the Canaanite way of life. There are two ways of being a Canaanite (or of being a Jew, etc.). The first was through birth. In the same way that an Israelite or an American is born into that identity, so too were Canaanites. The other way was through practice (their way of life). If you live life as a Canaanite, then you’re a Canaanite in that sense. The same is true for Jews: once someone begins to practice Judaism, they are a (converted) Jew.

So, what was the Canaanite way of life? At this time, they had lived 500 years of iniquity including sacrificing their children on the molten, bronze god, Molech. Secondly, In Joshua 2, we see a Canaanite prostitute, Rahab, having greater faith in Yahweh than many in Israel and she was spared from the judgment. The theological principle is that those who fear Yahweh—regardless of their nationality—receive his grace.

In fact, it is not only the Old Testament that talks about this. The Greek writer, Plutarch, also talks about this. He asserts that when the Canaanites would sacrifice their children, the drummers in the village would drum louder so that the parents could not hear the screams of their own children being sacrificed.

Third, God is faithful in keeping his promise. Israel’s righteousness wasn’t the reason God allowed them to enter the land. Rather, it was the Canaanites’ wickedness (Deut. 9:4-6). This was ultimately so that he could fulfill his promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:1-6). God is patient with people – even when he doesn’t have to be. That God doesn’t strike me down the first time I sin is a display of his mercy. Every second someone lives is a gracious, gift from God. He showed the Canaanites this grace as well. God told Abraham he could not yet enter the land because their iniquities had not been complete (Gen. 15:14-16). God’s patience isn’t eternal. Nor should it be. Redemption might never get here if it were. His patience with the Canaanites ran out, so he decided to send the Israelites in to stop them. As creator and sustainer of all things, that’s completely in his prerogative.

So here are three points that may help us see what God was doing in judging the Canaanites from a more informed perspective. I hope this helps you in future conversations should someone bring this up.

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