The Canaanite Genocide: The Evil of the Canaanites Viewpoint

canaanite genocide1

In reference to the evil of the Canaanites, some point out that the annihilation was only for one generation. Many other defenses have been pointed out as well from the limited number of cities destroyed to verses and archaeological information about the iniquity of these pagan nations.

It is worth noting that only three cities were completely destroyed (including physical structures) according to the biblical narrative: Jericho, Ai, and Hazor.[1] It has been suggested that these three cities were military forts placed at strategic points along frequently traveled routes from the Jordan Valley to the population centers in the hill country. There is no archaeological evidence that shows that women and children[2] even lived in theses cities.[3]

In fact, Paul Copan points out, “The use of ‘women’ and ‘young and old’ was merely stock ancient Near Eastern language that could be used even if women and young and old weren’t living there. The language of ‘all’ (‘men and women’) at Jericho and Ai is a ‘stereotypical expressions for the destruction of all human life in the fort, presumably composed entirely of combatants.’”[5]

In addition, records show that the Israelites did not exhibit the brutality typical of battles as seen in other empires such as the Hittites, Egyptians, Aramaeans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and Greeks. In Joshua 10, five verses describe the battle. Yet, the Assyrians, for instance, gave numerous details of their bloody escapades. Ashurnasirpal II bragged about flaying live victims, impaling people, his pile of bodies, cutting out of eyes, and cutting off of limbs.[6]

Israel was not known for such barbaric acts. As mentioned above, only three cities were completely destroyed (Jericho, Ai, and Hazor), and the destruction was limited to one generation, which probably did not include women and children. After the time period of Joshua, the only battles commanded by the Lord were battles that were done in defense.[7]

Copan writes, “Fighting in order to survive wasn’t just an adventure; it was a way of life in the ancient Near East. Such circumstances weren’t ideal by far, but that was the reality.”[8] Nearly every nation in the ancient Near East fought at some point, whether offensively or defensively. In comparison with its neighboring nations, Israel was quite tame. Keeping that in mind, it is harder to see their acts of war as ethnic cleansing or genocide.

Furthermore, some scholars also argue that it was a “just payment for their own national sinfulness.”[9] Genesis 15:16 mentions that the descendants of Abraham would come back to the land of Canaan in its fourth generation when the “iniquity of the Amorites” was complete. Others reference Deuteronomy 9:4, “It is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out before you.”

Another defense that has been given is that the destruction of the Canaanites was done in order to preserve Israel. God instituted a covenant relationship between himself and the Israelites with specific stipulations. This covenant relationship was instituted as part of God’s redemption plan through Jesus Christ. Genesis 3:15 promises that the “seed of a woman” would ultimately crush the serpent’s head. All through the Old Testament, the people of God waited for this to take place.

Thus it was imperative that Israel obeyed those regulations, “If Israel had shared the land with the Canaanites, the purity of the Israelites would be potentially jeopardized, as the Canaanites would lead the Israelites to immorality and idolatry. This would constitute a threat to Israel’s purity and hence survival.”[10]

The Canaanites were known for their polytheistic practices which included prostitution and atrocities such as child sacrifice in its worship. The Lord did not want them to adapt their practices, whether it be by observation or intermarriage. Rick Wade suggests a similarity in agricultural rhythms that would cause the Israelites to imitate the Canaanite religious rituals, stating, “The fertility of the land was believed to be directly connected to the sexual relations of the gods and goddesses. The people believed that re-enacting these unions themselves played a part in the fertility of the land.”[11]

While arguments could certainly be made against this viewpoint, it does have some notable considerations. One thing that particuarly stood out to me as I researched this topic in seminary was the fact that Jericho (as well as Ai and Hazor) might have been forts with no women or children present. At any rate, it certainly puts a different spin on the story.


[1] Eugene H. Merrill, Mark F. Rooker and Michael A. Grisanti, The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament, (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2011), 284.

[2] The one exception would be Rahab and her family, but God spared them when the rest of Jericho was destroyed.

[3] Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 176.

[5] Ibid., 176.

[6] Ibid., 178.

[7] Ibid., 179.

[8] Ibid., 179.

[9] Eugene H. Merrill, Mark F. Rooker and Michael A. Grisanti, The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament, (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2011), 284.

[10] Ibid., 284.

[11] Rick Wade, “God and the Canaanites,” (2010) [accessed April 25, 2012].

  • barry


    I was wondering what you think of a standard rebuttal to Copan and Flannagan, namely, that even if we allow that divine orders for infanticide in the bible are exaggerations, God was still ordering his people to slaughter children at times, even if the command wasn’t intended as total extermination that some overzealous atheists have intimated, and therefore, the moral problem of slaughtering children still exists?

    I am aware of other Christian apologists who reject the exaggeration-hypothesis, such as Bill Craig and Glenn Miller, not to mention the vast majority of conservative evangelical commentators since the third century who take the biblical extermination commands literally (Marcion used them as his basis for saying the OT god was a malevolent demon unrelated to Jesus).

    Even if Copan/Flannagan came up with something new and exciting, did they establish their point with such force that anybody who rejects their thesis is unreasonable?

  • Sarah_Bowler

    You are right that many conservative commentators don’t hold to this exaggeration-hypothesis. I also don’t think that Copan/Flannagan established their viewpoint with enough force so to speak that anyone who rejects their thesis is unreasonable. This topic is something that is much debated, and honestly I don’t think any Christian has really tackled the issue as satisfactorily as I’d like to see.