This is the second article in my series God Behaving Badly? where I address passages of the Bible where God seems to do some immoral things. In the introductory article, I discussed what it means for an action to be immoral, that it goes against some moral code. However, I argued that God is the best explanation of an objective moral code, so to call something really wrong is actually to provide evidence for God’s existence.
But still, this does not resolve some of the more troubling passages of the Old Testament. God commits and commands some actions that seem to contradict his all-loving, morally perfect nature. So we must examine the actual act or command and see if God had a morally-admissible reason. The one cited most often is the destruction of the Canaanites.
Destruction of the Canaanites
In the Old Testament, God commanded the Israelites to completely wipe out the Canaanites living in a certain region (Deut. 7:1-5; 20:16-18): “you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy” (7:2), “do not leave alive anything that breathes” (20:16). And Israel obeyed. How could a good and loving God possibly command something like this?
King of the Universe
We first must understand who God is. God is not just another ruler of some earthly kingdom. God is Creator of all things and King of the Universe. He gives life and he can take life whenever he wants, however he wants.
Furthermore, there are times that we think it is justified for humans to take another’s life, like in self-defense, to protect others, or in a just war. A general can order his troops to attack and kill enemy combatants. So was God morally justified in destroying the Canaanites?
Judgment, Not Genocide
The Bible is clear that God did not arbitrarily order Israel to kill the Canaanites. They were evil. God told the Israelites “It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations” (Deut. 9:5, emphasis mine). And while the Canaanites committed many wicked acts, I think only one example would suffice: child sacrifice. They would burn their children alive in a fiery furnace as a sacrifice to the god Molech. Just that one act alone would be justification for their complete annihilation.
The irony is that many skeptics question why God doesn’t prevent great evils in the world. But here we have an example of God eradicating a wicked culture, and yet skeptics complain about it!
God did not act impulsively or arbitrarily when he commanded the destruction of the Canaanites. He was judging the wicked. And He even imposed harsh judgment upon his own people, Israel, when they partook of the same wicked actions of the nations surrounding them. After all, one of the reasons God gave for destroying the Canaanites was so Israel would not adopt their evil practices (Deut. 7:3-4; 20:18).
But surely they weren’t all bad, right? Recall the account of Abraham bargaining with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18). God played along, knowing that Abraham could not find ten righteous in the cities, and God also knew that the Canaanites were completely and utterly evil. So he commanded them to be destroyed.
Occupy Promised Land
God did not command the Israelites to destroy every Canaanite on earth, only the ones living in the land he was giving to Israel (Deut. 7:1; 20:16). It is definitely possible that many Canaanites fled their cities once they saw the Israelites coming and only the defiant who remained to fight were killed.
What About the Children?
This is extremely hard to comprehend and I admit that it does trouble me. How could a loving God command the Israelites to kill innocent children? Now, it is possible that every child was evacuated from the land. But still, God gave the command to kill them. How do we make sense of this?
As stated above, God gives life, and he can take it however and whenever he wishes. No one is guaranteed a long, peaceful life and to die of old age in one’s sleep. And a child’s quick death by the edge of a sword would be much more merciful than being burned alive as a sacrifice to Molech, wouldn’t it? Plus, what if God knew that if these children were to grow up, they would be just as wicked and depraved as their parents? I strongly believe that young children who die are saved by God’s grace and will inherit eternal life, which is infinitely greater than being raised in the wicked culture of the Canaanites. Thus, God was actually showing these children mercy and calling them home to himself.
God Is Patient and Merciful
God does not enjoy the death of the wicked but patiently waits for us to repent of our sins (Ezek. 18:23, 2 Peter 3:9). Yet, he will only permit evil for so long until he finally passes judgment. God gave the Canaanites 400 years to cease their wickedness. But when their evil reached its peak, then God had the Israelites destroy them (Gen. 15:16).
God commanding the destruction of the Canaanites is a difficult passage to comprehend. But as creator and king of the universe, God has the right to give and take life as he pleases. This was not an act of genocide but divine judgment, as the Canaanites were a thoroughly wicked people. God is patient and merciful, always willing to show mercy and forgive our sins.
Now, if you are not convinced by any of these arguments and believe the destruction of the Canaanites was an immoral act, what moral standard are you judging God by? You cannot call any action truly evil unless an objective moral standard exists, and the best explanation for objective morals and duties is God. But if you choose to reject objective morality instead, then there was nothing wrong with God commanding the destruction of the Canaanites.
As for me, I choose to trust that an all-knowing, all-loving, morally perfect God always does what is best for mankind, even if I cannot always understand it.
For a further discussion of the destruction of the Canaanites, see:
Tim Stratton: TEN Problems with the Canaanite Objection
Clay Jones: http://www.clayjones.net/category/canaanites/
William Lane Craig:
- Question of the Week #16 Slaughter of the Canaanites
- Question of the Week #225 “Slaughter” of the Canaanites Re-visited
- Question of the Week #331 Once More: The Slaughter of the Canaanites
Paul Copan has a different take on the Canaanite destruction. He argues that the passages are hyperbolic, which some disagree with, such as Clay Jones. But his books on the topic are still worth exploring:
- Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God
- Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God
 In case you’re wondering, this in NO WAY justifies infanticide. This was a unique incident in history in which Israel was a theocracy and directly commanded by God to carry out these actions.