The Judgment of the Canaanites

It is a fairly common objection to the Bible and to all forms of biblical faith that a God who would order the extermination of all the Canaanites by the Israelites cannot be a loving God, and therefore cannot be any kind of god that they would want to worship.

There are a number of answers that have been posed to this question that are inadequate for anyone wishing to take the Bible seriously. One answer is that God did not prescribe the war, He simply decreed it. This falls foul of the Scriptural injunction that God gives to wipe all the Canaanites out. He commanded them to do it (though with very important exceptions, as will be noted below. The exceptions, in fact, point us in the right direction, as I will argue). Another inadequate answer is that Israel falsely attributed the command to God, but actually conquered Canaan on their own steam. Nor is it adequate to say that all forms of warfare are evil, as if there were no such thing as a just war. Christian ethicists have argued from Scripture through all the centuries of church history that there is such a thing as a just war. The question is a formidable one, and it will not do to simply wish the problem away, or explain it in such a way as does not do justice to the biblical data.

The exceptions to the genocide are, as state above, quite important. Rahab and her family were spared. Why were they spared? Because of their faith. The Gibeonites were spared. Why were they spared? They believed that the land was going to Israel, and they feared the God of Israel. They used underhanded methods to gain their lives. And yet, while there is a reproach from Joshua directed towards the Gibeonites, there is no reproach from God, interestingly. In fact, in David’s time, the Gibeonites are allowed to exact justice on the seed of Saul’s line because Saul violated the treaty made with the Gibeonites. In both cases, there was a belief (on the part of the people spared) that God’s people Israel had the right to the promised land, and that Israel’s God was the true King of all named gods. There was a measure of faith, in other words. Whether we would call that saving faith is a question that would go beyond the evidence.

But if a faith, a belief that Israel’s God was the real deal was sufficient to create an exception, then we may infer from this fact that the Canaanites, as a general rule, did not worship the one true God at all. This is well-documented in Scripture. The false gods of the Canaanites (Molech, Shamash, Baal, etc.) are mentioned over and over again. The sin of the Amorites is mentioned in a revealing way: it is something that is not yet full earlier in redemptive history (compare Genesis 15:16 with later mention of the Amorites), thus pointing to a long-suffering patience on God’s part (He could have judged them far earlier!). Sin and faith then can be seen as the central issues here. The majority of the Canaanites were unbelievers who lived extraordinarily sinful lives (Leviticus 18). The exceptions were spared!

This brings us to the question: what did the Canaanites deserve? Did they deserve life? Did they deserve heaven? No one deserves life, and no one deserves heaven. The evidence suggests that they were a very sinful people on whom God’s judgment is therefore entirely just.

The objection immediately comes to mind, however: what about the women and the children? What had they done? The evidence of Balaam and Balak in Numbers suggests that the Canaanite women actively tried to seduce the Israelite men in order to get them to worship false gods. Ok, then what about the children? Weren’t they innocent? Psalm 51 states that children are sinful from the time of conception. Not even children are innocent. Anyone who thinks otherwise has never had children. They are not the cute little innocents that we think they are, though they certainly have not had opportunity to become Jack the Ripper. The point is this: what does anyone deserve? The simple truth is this: none of us deserve a single day of life on this earth. We have no right to demand anything of God any more than the pot has the right to demand anything of the potter.

If one wants to talk about the most evil event that has ever happened in human history, we cannot look to the genocide of the Canaanites. That was God’s judgment on a wicked people. God used the judgment as simultaneously giving Canaan to His people to be the promised land. Later on, when the Israelites became terribly wicked, God did the same kind of thing: He used another nation to judge Israel. But the most evil event cannot be the genocide of Canaanites. It cannot even be the Holocaust, as horrific as that was. The most evil event in history is the crucifixion of the Lord of Glory.

God has infinite dignity. A sin against God is therefore a sin against an infinitely holy God with infinite dignity. Try this thought experiment: contemplate the differences of the consequences that a slap in the face has with regard to the following people: what would happen if you slapped a hobo on the street, a fellow citizen, a police officer, the President of the United States, and the God of the universe? The same action has drastically different consequences depending on the dignity of the person being offended. Imagine, then, the heinousness of putting to death a person who is both God and man in one person, and therefore has infinite dignity; but who is also absolutely innocent and perfect. Not only this, but the method of putting Christ to death was the most humiliating kind of death on offer in the Roman world (it was reserved for traitors to the Roman empire: Jesus Christ the most resolute non-traitor, died the traitor’s death in place of traitors). So, the most humiliating death a person could die being inflicted wrongfully on the God-Man, who was and is perfect in every way, is the most evil event in all of human history. This raises the question: why would the genocide of the Canaanites stick in our craw if the death of Jesus Christ of Nazareth does not? The truth is that God brought amazing and infinite good out of the infinite evil (the power of God is manifest in its most amazing form just here and at the resurrection of Christ from the dead) of the cross. As Joseph says of his brothers, they meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. What is the good, then, that came out of the genocide (I prefer the term “judgment” for obvious reasons!) of the Canaanites? The Canaanites were judged for their sin, while the Israelites received the promised land from God. This event, in fact, is part of the stream of the story that culminates in the very death of Jesus Christ Himself. Therefore, there seems little point in objecting to the judgment of the Canaanites, which seems just. The real question is the marvelous, amazing, and inexplicable mercy of God in sending His Son to die for us.

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Why are we here?

I am starting a catechism class for the young people in our church, and I am using the Larger Catechism to do so. So here are some of the notes I have gleaned from the three commentaries on the Larger Catechism (Ridgeley, Vos, and Morecraft), as well as the commentaries on the Shorter Catechism that I own (Whyte, Watson, Whitecross, Williamson, Vincent, Fisher, Flavel, and Boston). Page numbers are to the most recent editions of these works. Question 1 of the WLC addresses the question, “Why are we here?” That is not all it says, of course, as the quotes below will well illustrate. Hopefully I will be able to keep on posting my findings as I go along.

The whole question: Ridgeley says that the first part is the means that leads us to the second part. Morecraft says that this is the most important question we can ever ask ourselves (115). He says “Happiness is a by-product, not a goal” (116). To begin with this question puts us on the highest possible plane (116). If we begin with “how do we become saved,” then we are in danger of believing that God exists for our benefit (116). Morecraft notices that this question presupposes the revelation of the Bible (118), since only God can reveal to us our ultimate purpose in life. Morecraft also says that “Our ultimate purpose with reference to God is to glorify Him. Our ultimate purpose with reference to ourselves is to enjoy God” (130). Vos notes that no evolutionist could possibly agree with this question (3). Evolution results in there being no meaning in life whatsoever, except what we make for ourselves. Whyte notes that if there is a chief end, then there are subordinate ends (14). Of course, all the lesser ends should serve the great end. Vincent says “And when God shall be most fully enjoyed by the saints in heaven, he will be most highly glorified” (15). Flavel asks the question, “what then is to be thought of those men, who being wholly intent upon inferior things, forget and neglect their principal end? A. they are dead whilst they live” (141). Boston says much the same: “There is an inseparable connexion betwixt the two, as between the end and the means; so that no person who does not glorify God here, shall ever enjoy him hereafter” (15).

The first part of the answer: Ridgeley says, “That there is a great difference between God’s glorifying himself and our glorifying him” (4). The difference is expressed: “God glorifies himself by furnishing us with matter for praise; we glorify him when we offer praise, or give unto him the glory due to him name” (4). Ridgeley also notes that we glorify God when we confess our sins, when we believe and trust in him, when we have a fervent zeal for his honor, when we improve our talents, when we walk humbly, thankfully, and cheerfully before God, when we are heavenly-minded, and when we submit fully to His will (5). We cannot always think about the glory of God in every second. Ridgeley notices this, and has a great analogy: “As every step the traveller takes is towards his journey’s end, though this may not be every moment in his thoughts, so the less important actions of life should be subservient to those which are of greater consequence, and in which the honour of God and religion is most intimately concerned” (6). Flavel says, “[I]t is the duty and wisdom of every Christian to renounce, deny, and forsake all inferior interests and enjoyments, when they come in competition with the glory of God, and our enjoyment of him” (142). Morecraft adds witnessing to the list of how we specifically honor God (121). He says, “When we truly honor God, we receive the greatest happiness from God a human being can experience: we are honored and glorified by God himself” (121). Watson adds to the list “by standing up for his truths” (15); “suffering for God” (16). Charles Spurgeon once said, “God can honour you, even though nobody else sees that he does it, in such a way that you will be more contented with that honor than if your name and fame were blazoned forth before the whole world” (Morecraft, 123). An illustration: “Lady Glenorchy, in her diary, relates how she was seized with a fever which threatened her life, ‘during the course of which,’ she says, ‘the first question of the Assembly’s Catechism was brought to my mind—“What is the chief end of man?” as if some one had asked it. When I considered the answer to it—“To glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever”—I was struck with shame and confusion. I found I had never sought to glorify God in my life, nor had I any idea of what was meant by enjoying him for ever. Death and judgment were set before me; my past sins came to my remembrance; I saw no way to escape the punishment due unto them, nor had I the least glimmering hope of obtaining the pardon of them through the righteousness of another.’ From this unhappy state she was shortly after delivered, by believing on the Lord Jesus as the only Saviour of guilty” (Whitecross, p. 7).

Why must we glorify God? Watson answers: 1. God gave us our being; 2. God made all things for his own glory (Proverbs 16:4); 3. The glory of God has intrinsic value and excellence; 4. Creatures below us give glory to God, “and do we think to sit rent free”? (9); 5. all our hopes hang upon him.

The second part of the answer: Ridgeley notes that in order to enjoy him, we must belong to him in covenant (6). It is imperfect in this life, perfect in heaven (6-7). However, a world of comfort is in that word “forever.” Some people, however, think of God as the great cosmic kill-joy, bent on preventing us from having any fun. God invented fun. The enjoyment consists in union and communion with God (Boston, 14).