Continuing a series which I started yesterday...
1. How Can God's Instructions About the Canaanites Possibly Be Justified?
God commanded Israel:
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)
The Bible itself gives several justifications for this command:
- The picture the Bible paints of God is of an all-powerful sovereign. He owns the whole world, including the land of Canaan, and chose to give the land to Israel. He is therefore perfectly within his rights to expel squatters. Strikingly, that's almost exactly the language used in Joshua 3:10 – God is “driving out” the Canaanites from the land. Only the ones who stay and fight get killed.
- God originally promised the land to Abram, 400 years earlier. But he does not give the land to Abram immediately. Instead he says “[your descendants] shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” (Gen 15:16). In other words, there is a strong element of punishment in what happened to the Canaanites. God is removing them from the land in punishment for their sin.
- One aspect of the Canaanites' sin which was particularly heinous was their idolatry, which God wanted eradicated. “The carved images of their gods you shall burn with fire. You shall not covet the silver or the gold that is on them or take it for yourselves, lest you be ensnared by it, for it is an abomination to the LORD your God.” (Deut 7:25) There are strong indications elsewhere in the Bible that Canaanite idolatry included child sacrifice.
- Linked to this is the idea that the Israelites needed to be protected from idolatry. After the verses quoted above, Deuteronomy 20 continues “... 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.” God wanted his people to be free from any of the evil influences of Canaanite religion, therefore he required that it be completely eradicated, which meant eradicating all of its adherents. Of course, what eventually happens is that the Israelites don't wipe the Canaanites out, they do end up copying the Canaanite religion, and so they do end up rejecting God. So God's concern at this stage turns out to be completely justified.
- This is all a part of the big picture of God's mission. The overarching storyline in this part of the Bible is that God has promised that he will bless all nations, and do so through establishing Israel as a nation which serves and honours him, and then shines as a light to the world. That requires them to be a nation, in a land, and living faithfully to him. All of which requires the removal of the Canaanites.
It's easy to kick against the idea that sin deserves death. We live in a culture which so often refuses to face up to reality in this area.
Most countries seem to agree that the most serious crime is treason. It was certainly one of the last crimes to carry the death penalty in the UK (abolished 1998). Treason is essentially an act of war against one's own country, particularly plotting to kill the rightful ruler. And it seems fairly clear that the better the ruler is, the worse the treason is. So Claus von Stauffenberg plotted to kill Hitler but is widely regarded as a hero, whereas William Joyce (aka Lord Haw-Haw) collaborated with the Germans during WW2 and is viewed as a villain, though both were convicted of treason. The better the ruler, the worse the crime.
What we seem to miss is that we are all guilty of treason against the best, the wisest and the most rightly sovereign ruler of all – God. We take all the good things that he has given us and try to declare our unilateral independence from him. And even while he continues to sustain us and bless us, we use our abilities to sing the praise of other gods, who are no gods at all. The Canaanites sacrificed their children, whom God had given them, to his rivals who were nothing more than statues.
They were all traitors, and all therefore rightly deserved death. Longman writes:
In conclusion, we must point out that the Bible does not understand the destruction of the men, women and children of these cities as a slaughter of innocents. Not even the children are considered innocent. They are all part of an inherently wicked culture that, if allowed to live, would morally and theologically pollute the people of Israel. (p.201)
But so are we, and that should be the real surprise of the Canaanite genocide. It was only the Canaanites who got destroyed, and not us too. We all deserve it – but they were the only ones to get what they deserved.
The important question is not so much why certain nations were destroyed but rather why all nations, including Israel, were not. By YHWH's standards of holiness, not even the most righteous of humanity could remain alive. (Gard, p.103)
Longman cites Meredith Kline's helpful idea of intrusion ethics – that what we see at the Canaanite genocide is God's final judgement on the Canaanites, but brought forwards from the end of time to the time of Joshua. What happened to the Canaanites is what should and will happen to all of us by rights. So it's just as well there's a way out...[intro | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]