An Overview of the Canaanite Genocide

canaanite genocide1

This week I’ve been discussing the issue of the “Canaanite Genocide” during the Israelite conquest.

Deuteronomy 20:16 states, “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.”

This is not a new struggle. People have long wondered why God ordered the Israelites to kill all of the Canaanites and many assume that the destruction of a whole people group, including women and children, would not be in the character of a loving God. Some equate it to problems we see today with ethnic cleansing around the world both currently and in the past century in horrific situations such as the holocaust or Islamic jihads.

The early church father Marcion was particularly disturbed by some of these Old Testament passage. So, he reconciled this difficulty in his mind by stating that the Jesus of the New Testament was distinctly different from the God in the Old Testament. He stated that the God in the Old Testament was a God of wrath, but that the God in the New Testament (Jesus) was full of love and mercy.[1]

However, we must be careful in the assertions we make about the Old Testament:

So harsh a view of the Old Testament is to dissociate Jesus and Christianity from the historical and religious context in which it is set and which gives it its meaning. Without his vital connection to the Old Testament and its God, Jesus appears out of nowhere, uninvited and unexpected, to fulfill a mission that is completely unintelligible and thus meaningless.[2]

But, it’s not just Christians who have struggled with these passages. Modern critics such as Richard Dawkins have also considered the God depicted in the Bible as unfair and unjust, issuing horrifying decrees:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.[3]

Dawkins’ description of God in the Bible, as well as that of some Christians’ view of the Old Testament, fail to note the numerous passages in the Old Testament which deal with God’s love and mercy.[4] While there are some passages which depict God as vindictive, there are far more which describe him as loving.

Furthermore, there are passages in the New Testament which also show God as a judge. Wright suggests that the New Testament actually has more passages describing God’s anger than does the Old Testament. Additionally, none of the writers in the New Testament ever appear bothered by these events in the Old Testament. On the contrary, they are supportive of the Old Testament in their writings.[5]

So, with these things in mind, we must grapple with the issue on more than a mere surface level. This is an issue that cannot be avoided or ignored. The book of Joshua states that the Lord commanded the Israelites to annihilate the Canaanites.

Traditionally, there have been two common explanations given by apologists. The first states that since God is just he sets the standard of justice, and therefore whatever he decrees must also be just. The second explanation is that this was a just act because the Canaanites were guilty of immense evil.[6]

A few other ideas have also been proposed. For instance, some suggest that the Israelites were mistaken. They thought the Lord had commanded them to destroy all of the Canaanites when in fact he did not. So, in this explanation the Israelites are blamed and God is off the hook so to speak.[7]

A fourth alternative suggests that the extreme language in the book of Joshua was hyperbolic. Even in today’s language one might say “Knock his block off! Hand him his head! Take him out!” at sporting events.[8] However, we do not mean what we say literally. In a similar manner, God used hyperbolic language to help drive the narrative.

Still a fifth option is to foresee the eschatological ramifications of God’s divine purpose for mankind. In other words, this “historical judgment” brings about “ultimate blessing” for the nations.[9] Christopher J. H. Wright sums it up well in describing God’s punishment of Israel and the surrounding nations, “God’s ultimate purpose of blessing all nations does not eliminate his prerogative to act in judgment on particular nations within history, any more than parents’ long-term and loving desire for their children to flourish prevents them from necessary acts of discipline or punishment in the meantime.”[10]

On upcoming posts, I’ll take a further look at some of the merits of these various fews and propose some ideas of my own. In the mean time, feel free to comment with any thoughts you might have.


[1] J. Glen Taylor, “How Can the Wrathful God of the Old Testament Be Reconciled with the Gracious Lord of the New Testament?” in Guide for the Christian Perplexed, ed. Thomas P. Power (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 25.

[2] Ibid., 26.

[3] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 51.

[4] God’s mercy and care is seen in the creation account, wherein God specially created the world for mankind. Furthermore, it is demonstrated throughout the Old Testament in his actions toward and deliverance of his people. In the book of Jonah, he had compassion on Nineveh, despite the city’s great sin. Many Psalms also depict the Lord’s mercy and loving-kindness: Psalm 25:6; Psalm 69:16; Psalm 119:56; Psalm 145:9, etc.

[5] Christopher J. H. Wright, The God I Don’t Understand, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 77.

[6] Philip Jenkins, Laying Down The Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses, (New York: Harper Collins, 2011), 105.

[7] Christopher J. H. Wright, The God I Don’t Understand, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 82.

[8] Matthew Flannagan, “Did God Command the Genocide of the Canaanites?” In Come Let Us Reason: New Essays in Christian Apologetics, ed. Paul Copan and William Lane Craig (Nashville: B&H, 2012), 226.

[9] Christopher J. H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), 473.

[10] Ibid., 473.