Killing the Canaanites: A Biblical Apology (Part 1)

Twelve Hittite gods of the Underworld

Since the 9/11 attack on twin towers, many Christians have been quick to contrast the violent tactics of Islamic Jihad with the gentler tendencies of Christian evangelism. For example, in an article entitled, “Christian or Muslim: What’s the difference?” Lutheran scholar Alvin Schmidt has argued,

Jihad is totally contrary to what Christ taught when he told Peter to put away his sword, or when he told individuals to turn the other cheek. Unlike Muslims, Christians have no command to advance their religion by killing unbelievers. Quite the opposite.1

The problem with Dr. Schmidt’s article is the same problem that characterizes the arguments of other Christian apologists. It’s not what they say. It’s what they leave unsaid. They’re quick to point out many NT passages that portray the gentleness of Christian evangelism. But they often fail to acknowledge several Old Testament passages in which God commands the Israelites to use violence against entire populations of people in an effort to get control of the land of Canaan. Allow me to cite a few examples:

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, and 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 (Deut 7:1–2 ESV)

But 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 (Deut 20:16–17 ESV)

And Samuel said to Saul, “The LORD sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (1 Sam 15:1–3 ESV)

Other important passages include Exodus 23:32-33, Exodus 34:12-16, and Numbers 31:7-18. In light of such biblical injunctions, some have insisted that the Christian’s Bible is more violent than the Muslim’s Quran.2 Even if we limit the divine injunctions to an earlier stage of redemptive history, we must still justify their presence in an inspired Bible, which is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). How can the Christian theologically and ethically justify God’s command to kill the Canaanites?

The Ethical Problem

To begin with, note that these texts do not merely describe what Israel did (or failed to do), but they record what God prescribed for Israel to do. Thus, one may not assign the “problem” to vengeful Israelites, as some have done with imprecatory prayers. Secondly, God did not merely prescribe the execution of adult males but also of women, children, and (in some cases) animals. Consequently, God’s command applies not only to those who might pose a military threat to Israel, but also to those who seem to be relatively innocent and harmless.3

At face value, God’s command seems to encourage unwarranted aggression and violence, which are violations of the sixth commandment (Exo 20:13; Deut 5:17), as well as the theft of property, which is a violation of the eighth commandment (Exod 20:15; Deut 5:19). Furthermore, God’s command to kill every man, woman, and child seems to be at variance with the Old and New Testament teaching that we should love our enemies (Exo 23:4, 5; Lev 19:17, 18, 33, 34; Prov 24:16-18; Mat 5:43-48; Lk 6:27-36) and the stipulation that every soul shall be judged for his own sin, not for the sins of others (Deut 24:16; Ezek 18:20).

These seeming ethical tensions and violations are what have led some critics and opponents to Christianity to attack the Old Testament. Gerd Lüdemann, a former theologian who is now an atheist, views “the command to exterminate [the Canaanites] as extremely offensive.”4 Richard Dawkins, a proponent of evolution and apologist for atheism, writes, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction; jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser….”5 Even Steven Davis, who considers himself an evangelical, does not believe the so-called OT “holy wars” can be justified and, therefore, cannot accept God’s commands in these cases as inspired revelation:

I speak for no one except myself, but I believe that killing innocent people is morally wrong…. I frankly find it difficult to believe that it was God’s will that every Canaanite … be slaughtered. Since the Bible clearly says that this was God’s will, I must conclude that the Biblical writers in this case were mistaken.6

Inadequate Solutions

Marcion, a second century Gnostic, argued that God of Israel who commanded holy war could not be the God of Christians!7 His solution was to reject the Old Testament as divine revelation. Obviously, this option is not open to the Christian who views the OT has divine revelation and the God of the OT as the God and Father of Jesus Christ. Modern theologians have generally offered one of the three following solutions:

Pious Pretense

Some scholars have suggested that Israel falsely attributed their actions to God’s command in order to justify their aggression. Patrick Miller writes, “Underneath Israel’s highly elaborate theology of election and promise, there was hidden the concrete and urgent fact that the people needed land and elbowroom—and they need it fast.”8 That would be roughly equivalent, according to this OT scholar, to European settlers coming to America, destroying an entire Indian tribe, and taking their land under the pretense that God had commanded them to destroy the infidels.

Political Propaganda

A similar solution is to attribute the OT Holy Wars to ideological propaganda that was promoted by later kings in Judah. This view builds on a claim that the book of Deuteronomy and other portions of the OT were written during the time of King Josiah in Judah. According to these scholars, Josiah and the priests “staged” the “discovery” of the Book of the Law in the temple. What really happened is that they created the Book of the Law, or more precisely, the Deuteronomic legislation of which the commands to exterminate the Canaanites are part. By introducing the concept of “Holy War,” Josiah could justify re-conquering territories previously lost to Israel and consolidate all political power under his domain.9

Obviously, these first two so-called solutions are unacceptable for the Bible-believing Christian. The Bible does not present the divine commands to engage in Holy War as either pious fiction or political propaganda.

Permissive Providence

Other scholars argue that the Holy Wars of the OT simply reflect that reality that God must work in a sinful world with sinful people. In the words of Peter Craigie, a professed evangelical scholar, “War is never less than unmitigated evil and its frequent mention in the Old Testament does not elevate its character. It is … a form of evil human activity through which God in his sovereignty may work out his purposes of judgment and redemption.”10 Thus, according to Craigie’s view, God’s involvement in Israel’s Holy Wars against the Canaanites was related to His will of purpose or providence; it was not related to His revealed will of precept. The “Holy Wars” were in fact “Unholy Wars.” They were evil and unjustified. Nevertheless, God is able to accomplish His purposes even though the evil actions of men.

At first glance, Craigie’s view may appear to rescue God from the horns of the ethical dilemma. But the biggest problem with his view is the undeniable fact that, as we pointed out earlier, the OT Holy Wars are not merely a record of what Israel did (or failed to do) to the Canaanite populations. More precisely, they are portrayed as God’s preceptive will—God Himself commanded the Israelites to obey Him by slaughtering entire populations of human beings.

Photo: Klaus-Peter Simon, Creative Commons, resized.

Notes

1 Alvin J. Schmidt, The Lutheran Witness (February 2005), p. 10.

2 Philip Jenkins, “Is the Bible More Violent Than the Quran?” May 18, 2010, NPR, accessed October 6, 2021: https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124494788.

3 Paul Copan, following the reasoning of Richard Hess, attempts to construe phrases like “man and woman” and “children and infant” as ancient Near Eastern stock phrases used for rhetorical purposes but not intended literally. See Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Baker Books, 2011), 175. While one may grant a certain hyperbolic element to words like “all” or phrases like “all who breathed,” it strains credibility to insist that the reader should only understand God’s command as applying to combatants and that the reader should not be predisposed “to assume anything further about their ages or even their genders.” If this were so, why does Yahweh through Moses specify, “Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (1 Sam 15:3)? For more thorough analysis and critique of Copan’s view, see Tremper Longman III, Confronting Old Testament Controversies: Pressing Questions about Evolution, Sexuality, History, and Violence (Baker Books, 2019), 168–72.

4 Cited in Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? 158.

5 Cited in Copan, 21.

6 The Debate about the Bible (Westminster/Knox, 1984), 97.

7 Kenneth Latourette, History of Christianity, 1:126.

8 Patrick D. Miller Jr., “God the Warrior: A Problem in Biblical Interpretation and Apologetics,” Interpretation 19 (1965), 42-43.

9 Paul D. Hanson, “War and Peace in the Hebrew Bible,” Interpretation 38 (1984), 352-53.

10 Peter C. Craigie, The Problem of War in the Old Testament (1978), 45; cf. G. Ernest Wright, The Old Testament and Theology (1969), 130.

Bob Gonzales bio


Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological ReviewThe Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.

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There are 3 Comments

Bert Perry's picture

(didn't one of the Puritan writers write something about by that name?)

My thought here is that first of all, our reluctance to embrace God's judgment of the Canaanites really speaks to our reluctance to see sin as the....sin...that it is.  Along the same lines, my family is reading together through the books of history (currently in 2nd Chronicles), and one thing that is very striking is that the sins of the Israelite kings are described significantly by comparison with the sins of the Canaanites.  So if we decide that somehow the punishment of the Canaanites wasn't justified, we simultaneously undermine the narrative of God's history with Israel, and the justness of His punishment of Israel.  Then there is a big issue with the doctrine of eternal punishment--if being invaded and quickly killed violates God's justice, then what do we say about Hell?

It's OK to be uneasy with the result, but I think we've got to consider "the exceeding sinfulness of sin" in our analysis here.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Bob Gonzales's picture

Bert, I totally agree. Clay Jones has written an article that details some of the sins of the Canaanites based on biblical and extra-biblical data, and it is shocking. It would appear that the Canaanites may have exceeded Sodom and Gomorrah in this department. Even so, all sons of Adam deserve God's judgment. In that case, the question isn't so much, Why did God judge the Canaanites? But rather, Why hasn't God judged the rest of humanity yet? This, of course, leads us to Peter's second epistle where the apostle points to God's amazing patience and his desire to give sinners space to repent. 

JNoël's picture

Why stop with the Canaanites? Isn't the larger question this (please pardon what will at first seem irreverent):

"What kind of a God would choose to set in motion events that he knew would result in having to kill his own son in order to provide opportunity for some to enjoy dwelling with him for all of eternity while also resulting in him damning the majority of his own creation to suffer eternal conscious torment? God is still creating countless beings, the majority of which he will condemn to be punished without end. How is that loving, merciful, and righteous? How is that even just, when considering that the Bible clearly teaches election?"

Personally, I can easily reconcile the destruction of Canaan without regard for "innocence" - because all of humanity, regardless gender or age, is guilty before God. In our humanity, we categorize people differently from God; we think women and children and other non-combatants are somehow not worthy to be punished. But God is no respecter of persons, and he will judge as he will, and we are wrong to question him. I think the greater challenge comes in the penalty to those who, after death, are found guilty before God and are condemned to hell.

Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

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