God, Justice, and the Canaanites


Some Christians have always been troubled by God’s command to the Israelites to kill all the pagan inhabitants of the Promised Land. Moses ordered the people to “devote them to complete destruction,” (Deut 7:2). Why would God do this? Where’s the mercy? Where’s the love?

There are at least two reasons why God did this.

Because of sins

First, God did it because of the terrible sins of the pagan nations

Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob (Deut 9:5).

But, it’s not as bleak as all that. God told Abraham his descendants would eventually become slaves in Egypt for 400 years. Afterwards, “they shall come out with great possessions,” (Gen 15:14). Why would God not just give them the Promised Land immediately? Because, in Abraham’s time, “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete,” (Gen 15:16).

So, God kept the Israelites in Egypt for 400 years specifically so the pagan’s subsequent destruction would be justified. This suggests God allows us to “fill our cup” before He metes out judgment (cf. Mt 23:32; 1 Thess 2:15-16).

Protection from idolatry

Second, Moses warned the Israelites they must destroy all the inhabitants of the Promised Land. Why? So “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,” (Deut 20:18).

The Israelites under Joshua destroyed about 31 cities and killed the inhabitants (Josh 12:7-24). But, they never finished the job. Many tribes failed to drive the pagans out.1 They co-existed in an uneasy way; the hostility always at a slow boil. The results were predictable. After the first generation passed away, “they abandoned the Lord and served the Balls and the Asharoth,” (Judges 2:13).

What can we learn?

We can learn at least four things from this.

First, God can dispense judgment whenever He wants. It will be dispensed at the judgment seat. He can also dispense it now, in this life, any way He wants. He’s the sovereign Lord. This means there is no justification for thinking God is “mean” for ordering the destruction of the Canaanites.

Second, nobody is innocent. We’re all born guilty, and we all deserve judgment. The fact that anybody is alive now is proof of God’s grace. Too many Christians say they believe this, but probably don’t believe it. They assume God is “unfair” and “cruel” when He brought judgment on the pagan nations. It helps if we banish bad salvation analogies from our minds.

I’m not sure if you’ve heard the one about God as the lifeguard who tosses the ring buoy to the drowning swimmer. In this scenario, we are (all of us) the sinner struggling in the water, desperate for help, calling out for mercy to Yahweh the lifeguard. Because God is full of love, He of course tosses the buoy. This analogy crashes and burns when you come to the Book of Joshua, because now God is the heartless lifeguard who sits on His hands and orchestrates our drowning.

It crashes and burns because the analogy is false. It assumes we’re all calling out to God, desperate for help, wanting to be rescued. This is wrong. We’re alienated from Him. We don’t want Him. We hate Him.

A better analogy would be God as the fireman pulling people out of a burning building while they try to shoot him. Actually, they succeed in killing His Son. Yet, God knew we’d kill His Son. And the Son knew He’d die. Yet, He came anyway. He came specifically to be killed, so He could change hearts and minds and then pull some of the killers out of that burning building. Now, the analogy is better. What obligation does the fireman have to save everyone who wants to kill him? None at all. But, by God’s grace, He saves some of us anyway.

Third, God’s patience does have a limit – but it’s a big limit. He waited for the Amorites. He waited over 400 years. He waited for the disobedient Israelites who came out of Egypt who were barred from the Promised Land.2 He was patient with the Jews who hindered Paul from evangelizing to the Gentiles (1 Thess 2:13-16). The “limit” means not that they can’t come to faith,3 but that God ends their lives by removing them from the scene.

Fourth, when you pray for God’s kingdom to come (Mt 6:10), you’re also asking for judgment on the world whether you realize it or not! This prayer is a plea for God to act. When His kingdom comes, judgment will come with it (Rev 20:1-6). This means, in effect, Jesus commands you to pray for the wicked to be punished and the righteous to be rewarded. Whenever you pray for Jesus to return, you’re also asking for judgment on a whole lot of people.

When we consider this question, we’re actually asking whether we believe God is “allowed” to judge people when He wants, the way He wants, for the reasons He wants, and whether we’re allowed to second-guess His motives. If we believe for one moment that God is “unjust” for destroying the Canaanites, then we really have too high a view of ourselves.


1 Josh 13:13; 15:63; 16:10; 17:12-18; 18:1-3; 23:4-5.

2 Num 14:29; Ps 95:10-11; 1 Cor 10:5; Heb 4:2; Jude 5)

3 It’s certainly possible the disobedient Israelites who died in the wilderness were believers. It’s also possible Ananias, Sapphira, and Simon were all disobedient believers.


[T Howard]
Mark_Smith wrote:

but Rahab (Canaanitess), and Ruth (a Moabitess) were in the Messiah’s lineage!

So, this lessens the genocide God commanded Israel to commit?

I think it shows a lot of love and mercy on God’s part. He included Jews and Gentiles in the Messiah’s lineage.


Here is a serious question. Tyler started off with Deut 7:2. I include verses 1 and 3 just to show an interesting point.

“When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, 2 hand when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. 3 You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons,”

So here is my question and then a suggestion, does “devote to complete destruction” mean kill them all from cradle to cane? I will grant you in some later specific cases God says to do that, but this is the general command to Israel about the Canaanites and the inhabitants of the land. I suggest “devote” is more like “have nothing to do with them” rather than a genocidal slaughter. More like a “spiritual avoidance” rather than a mass killing.

I suggest that because God says to not make a covenant with them, show no mercy, but then says to not marry them. Now, you can look at that as “of course you don’t do those things. You kill them.” I suggest maybe that is not the intent. Rather, the general rule is to avoid them.

Neither this passage nor preceding and subsequent passages support your alternative interpretation, at least as to the inhabitants of the Promised Land. The first use of the phrase “devoted to destruction” is in Num. 21:1-3, where the Canaanite king Arad attacked Israel and took captives. In their counterattack, as approved by God, Israel “devoted them and their cities to destruction.” In Deut. 2:26-35, the Israelites were attacked by King Sihon (because “the Lord your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that he might give him into your hand”). Israel defeated Sihon and devoted to destruction “every city, men, women, and children. We left no survivors.”

My Reformation Study Bible note on v. 32 calls this “the ban.” “The calculated effect of the ban in ancient times was to make the inhabitants of an area flee without putting up resistance. Israel was commanded not to use this procedure except in their conquest of Canaan and Transjordan” (citing Deut. 20:10-15). In the next chapter, Israel defeats King Og, striking him down “until he had no survivor left.” (Deut. 3:3) Og’s cities were devoted to destruction, including “every city, men, women, and children.” (Deut. 3:6)

Thus, the instruction in Deut. 7 to devote the seven nations to complete destruction wasn’t a new concept to the Israelites and it didn’t mean merely “avoid them.” To leave no doubt about His instruction, God added the reinforcements to make no covenant with them, to show them no mercy, and not to even think about future intermarriage (because there should be no survivors to intermarry with).

The reason the destruction of the tribes/nations occupying the Promised Land is a tough sell to unbelievers and to some/many believers is that we all start with and are naturally wedded to the wrong ideas about God and about ourselves. We (illogically) expect the God of the universe to reflect our default sensibilities of right, wrong, justice, fairness, etc. As my pastor said in his sermon yesterday, however, if you expect your God to line up with your sensibilities, your God is an idol made in your own image. So, even the most pastoral, logical, reasonable, biblical explanations of “the ban” are, most of the time, going to be rejected by a hostile audience as mean, unfair, appalling, etc.

In no particular order, and without spending too much time trying to be as diplomatic as you might want to be in a conversation with someone who is genuinely interested in an answer, here are some points I think I’d try to make:

  1. God is God and we are not. He is always just; he is never unfair; and he is often merciful. We don’t know everything he knows, including other people’s hearts or the actual consequences of events. We also don’t know the details of his plans. We are to trust him and follow his commands/instructions because he knows what’s best and will accomplish what’s best.
  2. Our natural inclination is to reject God and his revelation, especially when it’s inconvenient or it’s going to look bad to someone else.
  3. Every one of us deserves the same treatment God gave the Canaanites through Israel (and later gave to Israel through the Babylonians and Assyrians). We are all under the death penalty and there is no injustice if God exercises that death penalty directly or indirectly at any time in our lives, including infancy.
  4. The truly shocking thing about “the ban” is not that many people died as a result, but that God allowed anyone (including the Israelites) to live, let alone to prosper.
  5. The inhabitants of the Promised Land, as others have pointed out, were not peace-loving, morally pure people who had no reason to expect judgment and were a good influence in the world.
  6. We see clear examples of God’s mercy even in “the ban”: one of the primary practical purposes of the practice of the ban was to warn future enemies of what was coming so that they would flee rather than fight, so that suffering complete destruction was a matter of choice (for example, Rahab told the spies to Jericho that the city was well aware of the unbelievable military victories God had already given Israel, which was a factor in her faith in God; had anyone else in the city exercised the same faith, they would have been saved as well); in the Jericho example, the inhabitants had six additional combat-free days to convert or run, but they chose not to; any subsequent enemies who were later wiped out by Israel had even more time to convert or run; and so forth.
  7. The point of Israel’s existence as a nation in the Promised Land was to be a light to the Gentiles at the crossroads of the world, for the good (salvation) of those nations. That couldn’t be accomplished if the Israelites were intermingled with nature/idol/sex-worshipping, child-sacrificing God-haters. (And it ultimately wasn’t accomplished because (proximately) Israel in fact tried the inter-mingling route. As part of God’s plan in the first place, that led to Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of the initial promises to Adam & Eve and to Abraham.)
  8. And there are many other points that could be made in “defense” of God.

Some observations. The “genocide” question is certainly one that’s going to come up when you’re talking to educated unbelievers, but it’s a different question from the one(s) the post aimed to answer:

Why would God do this? Where’s the mercy? Where’s the love?

I haven’t yet met a Christian who wondered if God has the authority to end any life He sees fit and to use any instrument He chooses to do so. So “does He have the right?” and “is it right for God to…?” are not questions believers are generally asking.

With the authority and righteousness issue as a given, you wonder something else. Like maybe, “why?”

Not that it’s a bad idea to equip Christians to answer the genocide question when they run into it in others. But, realistically, we don’t really have an acceptable answer for someone committed to judging God by human standards rather than judging humans by God’s standards. Still, you never know when God might be drawing someone and a rational answer might be instrumental.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Just to be clear, I don’t believe the two reasons Tyler gives in his article are wrong. I believe them to be incomplete explanations.

As I’ve interacted with individuals (saved and unsaved) who see this issue as a significant stumbling block to their faith in the God of the Bible, I’ve found there are several foundational issues that I must uncover and confront.

  • First, we often have a wrong view of God’s holiness and our own depravity and sinfulness. Many people today believe that we are born naturally good and indifferent to God. As Sproul reminds us in his book, The Holiness of God, everyone is born a cosmic rebel who hates God:

By nature, our attitude toward God is not one of mere indifference. It is a posture of malice. We oppose His government and refuse His rule over us. Our natural hearts are devoid of affection for Him; they are cold, frozen to His holiness. By nature, the love of God is not in us.

As Edwards noted, it is not enough to say that the natural human mind views God as an enemy. We must be more precise. God is our mortal enemy. He represents the highest possible threat to our sinful desires. His repugnance to us is absolute, knowing no lesser degrees. No amount of persuasion from philosophers or theologians can induce us to love God. We despise His very existence and would do anything in our power to rid the universe of His holy presence.

  • Second, we often have a wrong view God’s justice and mercy. Because we have a wrong view of God’s holiness and our own depravity it follows that we have a wrong view of God’s justice and his mercy. To us, no one deserves to be the recipient of God’s wrath, well, except for Genghis Kahn, Hitler, and child molesters. Certainly, in our age of tolerance and pluralism, we can’t imagine slaughtering people in the name of God. That is what the Osama bin Ladens of the world do. However, because we are all born hating and rebelling against God, God’s justice demands that we all must die immediately. Therefore, God was perfectly just to eradicate the Canaanite peoples (children and all) just as he would be perfectly just to give us what our sin deserves today. The problem isn’t God’s lack of justice or injustice, but our own misguided sense of entitled mercy. Mercy isn’t deserved.
  • Third, we often have a wrong view of the historical context. As someone has already pointed out, these Canaanite cultures were engaged in some very wicked and abominable practices, with child sacrifice being just the tip of the iceberg. God poured out his wrath against these cultures to manifest to Israel and to the surrounding cultures his supreme holiness, righteousness, and ownership as Sovereign over his creation. As Creator, God has the right to stand in judgment over his creation. This is where I would insert Romans 9, specifically beginning with verse 20.
  • Fourth, we often have a wrong view of God himself. Because the God of the Bible is the Creator and the sovereign Ruler of the universe, he cannot be a megalomaniac. He is all powerful. He is exalted. He does deserve our total obedience and worship. On the contrary, it is we who suffer from megalomania because we believe we are important enough and powerful enough that the Creator of the universe must conform himself to our standards of right and wrong.

There are more ideas we could develop here, but I hope these initial thoughts are helpful when dealing with someone struggling with this issue.

Since you have this all worked out and have an agenda, how about you tell us how God ordered Israel to kill every Canaanite in Israel no question asked, and then uses Canaanites in His own lineage.

I don’t “have this all worked out and have an agenda,” but I have been tremendously helped by reading through books like Sproul’s Holiness of God and James Hamilton’s God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment.

For example, Hamilton writes the following about the Canaanite conquest:

In the book of Joshua, Moses’ appointed successor leads the people into the Promised Land. Israel takes the land (Joshua 1-11), then apportions it to the twelve tribes (12-24). The book of Joshua shows much of what was announced in Torah, particularly in Deuteronomy, being fulfilled, while the stage is cleared of Canaanites for the drama of Israel’s life in the land. The nature of the conquest—the inhabitants of Canaan being placed entirely under the ban—forcefully communicates the glory of God in salvation through judgment. The total destruction of the inhabitants of the land is just only if the deity who calls for such a measure is worthy of all honor. If Yahweh’s worth is not so great that those who reject him have committed a crime that cries out for infinite justice, then the zero-tolerance policy against the people of the land is a brutal, unjust, egomaniacal atrocity. But Yahweh’s policies are not like those of mere men, whose importance does not warrant the slaughter of their opponents. Nor is this a kind of immature self-centered phase that Yahweh eventually grows out of when he decides to be nice and send his Son, Jesus. Rather, the ban on the Canaanites heralds the infinite majesty of the justice of Yahweh, whose holiness demands perfect loyalty, whose worth is such that anything less than absolute allegiance defiles unto death. The conquest of Canaan enacts the glory of God’s justice against those who look to worthless things to be for them what only God can be for them. This justice against the inhabitants of Canaan is intended to deliver Israel from the deleterious influence of idolaters and give them the land that has been promised. Yahweh commissioned Adam and Eve to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28), and in Joshua 18:1, the sons of Israel assemble in Shiloh and “the land was subdued before them.”

When I encounter people who struggle with this issue, at the root cause is a deficient view of God and his holiness and of man and his depravity.

That is why when told about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices, Jesus responds, “Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:2-3). We are all born as sinful as the Canaanites and Galileans. We all deserve what the Canaanites and these Galileans received. The fact that God gave the Canaanites over 400 years to repent and is giving us even now time to repent is evidence of God’s undeserved mercy.

And, it is an extreme display of God’s mercy and grace that he saved Rahab and Ruth and allowed them to be included in the lineage of David and the greater David, Jesus. That mercy and grace foreshadowed the mercy and grace that God would extend to all gentiles through the gospel as they became the new people of God, the church.

Everything you wrote is true. I have read Sproul and Hamilton as well. Great books.

Yet, God said, “devote them to destruction, and oh, by the way, don’t marry them either.” Then later He said to make sure to not worship at their temples and worship their idols. Obviously, God is envisioning them still being around…


Just like God told Israel to obey his covenant, detailed the blessings of obedience and the consequences of disobedience. Then, in Deut. 31, he tells Moses that “this people will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them in the land that they are entering, and they will forsake me and break my covenant that I have made with them.”

God, in his omniscience, knew his people would break his covenant. Yet, he chose them and loved them anyway. Another example of God’s extreme mercy and grace.


Everything you wrote is true. I have read Sproul and Hamilton as well. Great books.

Yet, God said, “devote them to destruction, and oh, by the way, don’t marry them either.” Then later He said to make sure to not worship at their temples and worship their idols. Obviously, God is envisioning them still being around…

Mark, I addressed your question above when you posed it earlier, but you haven’t responded to that.

This question always brings up the topic of God’s providence, and I believe compatibalism is the only coherent way to make sense of how the world works. The 1561 Belgic Confession, Article 13, is perhaps the best expression of the Reformed position:

We believe that the same good God, after He had created all things, did not forsake them or give them up to fortune or chance, but that He rules and governs them according to His holy will, so that nothing happens in this world without His appointment; nevertheless, God neither is the Author of nor can be charged with the sins which are committed. For His power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible that He orders and executes His work in the most excellent and just manner, even then when devils and wicked men act unjustly. And as to what He does surpassing human understanding, we will not curiously inquire into farther than our capacity will admit of; but with the greatest humility and reverence adore the righteous judgments of God, which are hid from us, contenting ourselves that we are pupils of Christ, to learn only those things which He has revealed to us in His Word, without transgressing these limits.

This doctrine affords us unspeakable consolation, since we are taught thereby that nothing can befall us by chance, but by the direction of our most gracious and heavenly Father; who watches over us with a paternal care, keeping all creatures so under His power that not a hair of our head (for they are all numbered), nor a sparrow can fall to the ground without the will of our Father, in whom we do entirely trust; being persuaded that He so restrains the devil and all our enemies that without His will and permission they cannot hurt us.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

Mark_Smith wrote:

Everything you wrote is true. I have read Sproul and Hamilton as well. Great books.

Yet, God said, “devote them to destruction, and oh, by the way, don’t marry them either.” Then later He said to make sure to not worship at their temples and worship their idols. Obviously, God is envisioning them still being around…

Mark, I addressed your question above when you posed it earlier, but you haven’t responded to that.

You have an answer, not THE answer. I disagree.

In my experience in discussing the doctrine of judgment with many believers, I have observed that there has been a widespread lack of full biblical appreciation for the glory of God as Judge in many respects. That lack of appreciation contributes significantly to the problems that many have with accepting His dealings with the Canaanites.