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.


  1. Steve Drake said,

    September 27, 2017 at 8:45 am

    Can’t we all get along? Can’t God just get along? Who would want ‘love’ without ‘justice’?

  2. rfwhite said,

    October 9, 2017 at 7:53 am

    Green Baggins: Having just preached through Joshua in the last few months, I do empathize with the implications of the term “genocide,” but I have come to wonder if the term itself doesn’t beg the question for which the text itself provides answers. What I have in mind is this: the two paradigmatic battles in the book of Joshua — Jericho and Ai — expose the fact that Canaanites who followed in the footsteps of Abraham’s faith (e.g., Rahab) were spared, while Israelites who had Canaanite hearts (e.g., Achan) were judged. Arguably, it is this same point that is developed in detail in Judges, where the Canaanite spirituality of Israel is exposed and judged over and over again. As you suggest, the evidence of the text pushes us to recognize that the standard of divine judgment in the conquest was not racial/ethnic/geo-political. Rather it was moral and spiritual. To overlook that fact is to miss the point.

  3. roberty bob said,

    October 9, 2017 at 11:24 am

    When Noah awoke from his drunken stupor, it was revealed to him that his son Ham had brought shame upon the family for failing to cover his father’s nakedness. Noah proceeded to curse Canaan, the son of Ham. The story of Noah does not say that Canaan was complicit in Ham’s shameful act, only that he bears the curse for what Ham did.

    I think that it is possible that Ham [or Ham and Canaan together] sexually violated Noah while he was drunk and uncovered. Moses’ admonition to the covenant nation recorded in Leviticus 18 forbids Israel from engaging in every imaginable sexual relation with those of their own kin because all of these acts are detestable to the Lord; such acts corrupt the ordinance of holy marriage of husband and wife. The Canaanites, who were the descendants of Canaan and occupiers of the Promised Land, were notorious for sexual boundary violations and the life-destroying idolatry that proliferated from such abominable acts.

    There is no way for the God’s chosen people to co-exist in the Promised Land with the corrupt offspring of the cursed Canaan. The Lord knew that such co-existence would result in Israel’s corruption. Sadly, Israel did not fully obey the Lord’s command to destroy the Canaanites and drive them from the Promised Land.

  4. Steve Drake said,

    October 11, 2017 at 12:47 pm

    @ Roberty Bob #3,

    I think that it is possible that Ham [or Ham and Canaan together] sexually violated Noah while he was drunk and uncovered.

    A bit stretched, I think, brother. I’m not sure we can draw that conclusion from the text itself. Sexually violated in what way? The text doesn’t say, and you leave the phrase open to a whole host of perversions.

    The sinful act could have been in the telling (Gen.9:22). Rather than keep it to himself, and do what his two brothers did by turning their faces away and walking backward to cover their father with a garment, Ham went out and told his two brothers. Was there a bit of mockery in the telling, a snide comment, or a bit of laughing? Again, the text doesn’t say.

    This act of Ham in the telling, however it was done, foreshadowing Lev. 18:7, could have been enough for Noah’s curse in verses 25-27 of Genesis 9.

  5. roberty bob said,

    October 11, 2017 at 7:44 pm

    Yes, the sinful act could — a likely possibility — been in the telling. I totally agree.

    When I said that “I think that it is possible . . . ” I am not drawing a conclusion from the Genesis text. I am, however, wondering if the Leviticus 18 catalog of shameful sexual misconduct attributed to the Canaanites might be rooted in what happened in Genesis 9. If so, then there are multiple possibilities.

  6. Steve Drake said,

    October 11, 2017 at 8:24 pm

    Roberty Bob,
    I can see that. Another point might also be noted about ‘dignity’ a la Lane’s post concerning God’s infinite dignity, is that Ham did not protect his father’s dignity, did he? He really didn’t ‘honor’ his father Noah in any sense of the “Honor your father and mother’ of Exodus 20:12 by telling his two brothers.

    Today, as well, we’ve lost that sense of shame surrounding nakedness, yet it might have been very powerful in Noah’s day, and the injunctions to not uncover your father’s nakedness, your mother’s nakedness, your father’s brother’s nakedness, etc. of Lev.18 were taken much more seriously. Notice this was powerful enough incentive for Adam and Eve to feel this shame that one of the first things they did upon sinning was to sew fig leaves together to make themselves ‘loin’ coverings (Gen.3:7).

  7. roberty bob said,

    October 12, 2017 at 10:29 am

    Steve Drake,
    I think that you are right on the mark in regard to Ham failing to protect his father’s dignity. Before sin entered the world, Adam and Eve walked about naked and without shame. As soon as Adam yielded to Sin’s temptation, he and his wife were naked and ashamed; they instinctively gathered up leaves for a covering. From henceforth a covering was required — and provided by the Lord — so that man and woman, though sinners, may have dignity. Leviticus 18 shows the offspring of Canaan as careless about human covering, and then as uncontrolled in adhering to sexual relational boundaries. Sadly, we see contemporary culture giving in to many of these same abominations.

  8. roberty bob said,

    October 12, 2017 at 4:55 pm

    I also remember my reaction to Robert Schuler’s attempt at bending theology toward his own will. If my memory serves, what shocked me most was his claim that shame is the greatest problem we humans have, and that Christ’s ministry aims at helping us to free us from the shame that we unnecessarily feel. You commonly hear people talk about the problem of feeling guilty. The error in that sentiment is that guilt is not a feeling at all; it is God’s verdict upon the sinner’s sinful act which says that the sinner has done the deed and will be held responsible for having done it. The feeling that accompanies the guilt is the shame. People who feel no shame for the sin that they have done ought to feel the shame so that they will own up to the sin in question and repent of it. That is why it used to be commonly said, “You should be ashamed of yourself!’ Today you don’t hear that expression very often because the common culture elevates self-esteem as the highest good [or should I say the highest God?]. This cannot be achieved, it is said, unless shame is obliterated.

  9. Reed Here said,

    October 13, 2017 at 8:58 am

    Steve, are you saying that the reference to seeing nakedness in Gn 9 is explicitly that, and nothing more, that there is no euphemistic aspect to what is being said occurred? Thx.

  10. roberty bob said,

    October 13, 2017 at 10:10 am

    In paragraph three it appears to me that greenbaggins doubts there is sufficient evidence to say conclusively that the Canaanite woman Rahab had saving faith. Interestingly, the Apostle James mentions Rahab as a prime exhibit of justifying faith [James 2:25].

  11. roberty bob said,

    October 13, 2017 at 12:11 pm

    During the years of Israel’s conquest of Canaan, what more could a Canaanite do who was asking the question, “What must I do to be saved?” than to pledge allegiance to the Great King over All the Earth [Israel’s God] and pray that this God, through His people Israel, would show Himself merciful. Far better for a Gibeonite to use a bit of guile to get into the Kingdom than to be crushed in the conquest with all the other Canaanites. What other option did he have than to press forcefully into it? Were the Canaanites cursed beyond redemption? According to Isaiah’s vision [ch. 19], there was great hope for the Canaanites.

  12. Steve Drake said,

    October 13, 2017 at 1:44 pm

    Reed @ #9,
    I’m saying I don’t see any euphemistic aspect in the text. What euphemistic aspect do you see or would imply? Specifically in what verse, and with what words?

    Ham didn’t uncover his father’s nakedness; Noah did that himself. Ham saw his father’s nakedness (Hebrew raah). The same Hebrew word used elsewhere in much of the Old Testament.

    Genesis 9:22-23 seems to be contrasting Ham’s raah of his father’s nakedness, with his brothers not raah of their father’s nakedness, e.g., turned their faces away, walked backwards, covered him with a garment, “so that they did not raah their father’s nakedness.”

    To imply there must have been something sexual just doesn’t seem to be there in the text itself.

  13. Steve Drake said,

    October 13, 2017 at 3:57 pm

    The other contrast seems to me to be the contrast between the actions of Ham and the actions of his two brothers (from the text). Ham could have done what his brothers did. He could have turned his face away, grabbed a garment and walked backwards with it on his shoulders and covered his father up.This would have been the ‘honoring your father’ thing to do and surely the right thing to do to protect his father’s dignity. And then shut up about it. He didn’t need to tell anyone.

    But he didn’t do that. He went out and told his two brothers: “Hey guys, Dad’s drunk and naked inside the tent, and I saw his nakedness.” How did he actually say this? The text does not tell us his motive or with what words he told his brothers about it. But to me, the text does seem to contrast the honorable with the non-honorable here.

    This would surely have been enough when Noah woke up from his wine, and found out what his son had done to him to utter the curses and blessings of verses 25-27.

  14. Reed Here said,

    October 14, 2017 at 9:39 am

    THx Steve.

  15. roberty bob said,

    October 16, 2017 at 8:59 am

    “They [Rahab and the Gibeonites] used underhanded methods to gain their lives.” — paragraph 3

    What other methods should they have used in order to gain their lives? Clearly, these Canaanites believed that the one living and true God was greater than the Canaanite gods; furthermore, they believed that the Lord God was on Israel’s side in the conquest of Canaan’s Land. God had promised victory and life to Israel, and defeat and death to Canaan.

    Any Canaanite who believed that God would keep his promise to Israel might, in desperation, use any method, underhanded or otherwise, in the hope of being saved. What would you do in Rahab’s situation? Would you also hide the spies and tell a lie? James tells us that Rahab’s action serves as proof that her faith is genuine, and therefore justifying.

    “Whether we would call that saving faith is a question that would go beyond the evidence.” — paragraph 3

    The evidence shows that the Canaanite from Jericho had the kind of faith that pleases the Lord. She had justifying faith, saving faith! What more evidence do you need to see in order to be persuaded? Is there not enough evidence to convince?

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