If you’ve been a Christian for any amount of time, most likely you will have struggled through how to understand Joshua’s conquest of Canaan. Even if you haven’t, I can almost guarantee that you have spoken with someone who calls God evil and vindictive for his “genocide” of whole people groups. In many ways, I can sympathize with this accusation. The Bible does appear to portray God’s judgment of Canaanites in harsh terms. Consider Deuteronomy 20:16–18:
16 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, 17 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, 18 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.
In this passage, God commands Israel to devote those who live in Canaan to complete destruction. As Joshua 6:21 verifies, Israel carried out this command (mostly): “Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword.” While I grant that this may at first blush appear overly harsh, allow me to suggest a number of ways to think through the Canaanite destruction biblically. When we do this, Joshua’s conquest of Canaan teaches us about both God’s mercy and his justice. Rather than a an arbitrary divine genocide, the conquest of Canaan illustrates God’s patience, long-suffering, mercy, and justice.
God’s desire to bless the Canaanites
In order to think biblically about the Canaanite conquest, we need to return to creation. In Genesis 1, we learn that God originally intended to bless all humanity (Gen 1:26–28). However, because our original parents disobeyed God, the Lord cursed the world (Gen 3:14–19). But this did not stop God’s desire to bless the world, and so he called Abraham from Ur to restore blessing to nations: “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3). God’s desire to bless the families of the earth includes all the Canaanites who lived in the land. Tragically, however, the biblical narrative tells the sad tale of Canaanites who reject God’s good desire of blessing, as the story of Sodom and Gomorrah so aptly demonstrates (Gen 19).
In short, God desires to bless people, but people reject his blessing and instead receive curse. This is Adam and Eve’s legacy to humanity. However, since God desires to bless humanity, He sends Abraham into Canaan to bless the nations, which surely includes the Canaanites. This important theological concept undergirds our understanding of how God’s judgment on Canaan demonstrates both his mercy and his justice.
God’s mercy and patience with the Canaanites
Genesis presents God not only as desiring to bless people, but as patient and merciful to them. For example, God gives those living in Canaan over four hundred years to repent, turn to him, and receive blessing. The Lord tells Abraham that his descendants will go into Egypt for four hundred years, “and they [Abraham’s 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, God leaves the Amorites (those living in Canaan) alone for four hundred years to “fill” their iniquity. During this time, those living in Canaan could have freely repented and been saved from God’s wrath, yet they refused. At a certain point, too much is too much. So God had to judge a people with whom he has pleaded with for years through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (among others) to repent, believe and receive blessing.
Thus, when God sends Joshua and Israel with him to destroy the Canaanites, the question we could appropriately ask is, “How can a good God take so long to punish such evil people?” The answer to that question is that God is merciful, long-suffering and patient (cf. Exod 34:6). Israel’s destruction of those living in Canaan hundreds of years after God’s warnings through the patriarchs demonstrates his mercy, patience, and long-suffering, and not only his justice. God’s first desire is man’s repentance and salvation, not destruction (2 Pet 3:9).
God’s justice in destroying the Canaanites
God was also just in his punishment of the Canaanites. The idea that the Canaanites were innocent farmers against whom God sent an army to crush is not only misguided, but totally wrong. Archeological finds and Biblical evidence portray the Canaanites as child sacrificing, temple-prostituting, false-god-worshiping people (cf. Deut 20:18). These evil and warlike tribes received their just deserts, and we might better wonder why it took so long! It would be the same if God had allowed Hitler’s regime to continue past 1945. In this case, you might be accusing God of injustice for not punishing Nazi Germany.
Despite the fact that the Canaanites as a people group were incredibly evil, it is extremely important to understand that humanity is inherently sinful and wicked. In fact, the Bible’s testimony is clear: humanity is evil and all of us deserve judgment (Gen 6:5; 8:21). There is no innocent person who deserves their best life now. We are all sinful, and we all deserve judgment. God’s grace constitutes the only reason that we are alive and kicking today. So let’s not be too easy on the Canaanites and on ourselves for that matter.
Set against this stark picture of humanity and God’s justice demanding our punishment, consider God’s everlasting kindness. Recognize that we know for a fact that Canaanites who repented from their sins and joined Israel to serve her God could receive salvation from God’s judgment. Observe, for example, righteous Rahab who receives mercy because of her faith (Josh 2; Heb 11:31). Rahab’s salvation in the midst of judgment is not a contradiction to Deuteronomy 20:16–18. Part of God’s law to Israel includes loving sojourners and foreigners (e.g., Lev 19:18 and Deut 10:18–19). God has always desired the good of all people.
In summary, the Canaanites received a death sentence, because they rebelled against God and committed outrageous evil for hundreds of years. Even though God’s blessing was available to them, they refused to repent because they loved their sin more than God. This is a clear indication that God’s punishment was not unjust, it was perfectly just and righteous.
God’s mercy and the death of children
If you have been tracing with my argument so far, you might still wonder about the children who have not yet done enough evil to merit God’s justice. While the Bible provides answers like the idea of corporate solidarity and the doctrine of total depravity, I’d like to suggest another way to think about this.
John MacArthur has written at length about God’s mercy to infants and children who die in Safe in the Arms of God. His basic argument is that children who die meet the Lord immediately, and this surely includes Canaanite children. Just think about it. If Israel hadn’t destroyed the children within Canaan, it is likely that they would have fallen into the outright evil of their parents and thus damn themselves. Instead, they entered into God’s presence. Thus, there is a sense in which God has shown mercy in his just judgment, even to the very young. I grant that this may not resolve every question you have in this regard, but as a start, choose to take hope and comfort in the fact that those little children have found rest and eternal joy in heaven with God. That is truly a mercy!
God’s consistent witness in the words of Jesus
A final consideration is that God’s message has always remained the same. The Lord will punish sin absolutely, but he offers salvation from his wrath through faith. Jesus himself taught about eternal punishment for those who rejected him (Matt 25:46). In fact, when Jesus warns of the fires of hell as the judgment for unbelief, this punishment far outweighs the death that God commanded Israel to mete out on the Canaanites (cf. Luke 12:5). Jesus’ teaching makes me wonder if part of the reason we struggle to understand the Canaanite destruction is because we have failed to grasp the seriousness of Jesus’ message.
It’s pretty easy to accuse God of injustice for commanding the conquest of Canaan, if you only read a few verses apart from their context. But when you read the wider context of the Scriptures, a picture emerges of a long-suffering God who has extended his arm in mercy to a people who remain stubborn and unrepentant for hundreds of years. Finally, the continual sin and evil of the Canaanite people overflow, and God answers the cries of the disenfranchised, poor, and disadvantaged by sending Israel to conquer Canaan. The Canaanite conquest hits a chord of mercy and justice, not vindictiveness and arbitrary destruction.