If God did destroy the Canaanites, how is He loving?
In the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the LORD your God has commanded you.Deuteronomy 20:16-18
You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.Matthew 5:43-45a
It is not difficult to see why, at a cursory reading, there has been trouble reconciling the God of the Old Testament and Jesus in the New Testament. It was very early in the church’s life when Marcion, influenced by early gnostic thought but also simply confused by depictions of God in the Bible that seems to contradict each other in Christian thought and writings, simply rejected the Old Testament (and large chunks of the New). To him, this Old Testament God not only created the material—that is, evil—world but also ruled through condemnation and suffering, unlike Jesus who ruled through acceptance and grace. He asked, how do we go from completely destroying everything that breathes to the always countercultural objective of loving your enemy? Reconciling those two visions will take us the remainder of this series, but I hope that in the sections that follow we will begin to recognize that what we’ve been told about God does not always align to the story about Him Scripture gives.
New Atheists like Richard Dawkins will often look at these violent passages of the Bible and read them in a wooden, “ol’ time religion” sense. It is very advantageous to avoid context, complexity, and literary genre because the arguments against the Old Testament God seem more potent as a result. However, the audiences that these writings were meant for—though admittedly from a different context and sometimes with different values than us—understood the shades of Scripture and how to read it. What follows is an attempt to reclaim that context to see things as their original audiences saw them. This is not a retreat due to the challenges of modern society; rather, it is the work of seeing what was seen but forgotten as time took the faithful away from that cultural place.
Destroying the Canaanites: Who?
The Canaanites could refer to eleven people groups descended from Noah’s grandson, Canaan. It was prophesied that these groups would be enemies of Israel since they were descendants of Ham, Canaan’s father, who was cursed by Noah (not God) for doing something shameful regarding Noah’s nakedness (Genesis 9:20-25; 10:6-20; Israel is descended from Shem, one of Noah’s other sons). But by the time that the Israelites were approaching the land of Canaan in the western Palestinian region—part of which would later be known as “Israel”—the term “Canaanite” described “its pre-Israelite inhabitants without specifying race.” The largest group in the region was the Amorites, a name sometimes used as a metonymy for all the groups of Canaan.
While it may be a temptation to view the peoples of Canaan as innocent victims of a blood-thirsty Yahweh, a closer look at the life and practices of Canaanites makes that a difficult proposition to uphold. There is a list of destructive activities the Canaanites took part in, such as incest and bestiality, but perhaps the one that strikes us today as the most horrific is their acts of child sacrifice. Yahweh also finds this practice particularly detestable. He explicitly forbids Israel from doing the same to their children (Leviticus 18:21). Murder was a direct result of the Fall (Genesis 4:8-12), and God finds it intolerable because of the value He places on human life (Genesis 9:6). One of the reasons why it is so important for Canaan to be expelled from the land Israel will inhabit is precisely that: God does not want the influence of Canaanites to turn Israel into a nation of infanticidal maniacs (Deuteronomy 12:29-31). This practice was a constant threat, as God relays later to Jeremiah. Speaking of the “kings of Judah and people of Jerusalem,” God laments:
They have forsaken me and made this a place of foreign gods; they have burned incense in it to gods that neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah ever knew, and they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent. They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal—something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind.Jeremiah 19:4-5
Due to this wickedness—which God has waited 400 years to judge, allowing the peoples of Canaan ample time to repent and avoid destruction (Genesis 15:16)—God finally “destroys” the Canaanites (although, it should also be pointed out that at least forty years of this waiting was due to Israel’s lack of faith and corresponding inability to enter the Promised Land).
It was important for God to act powerfully after 400 years. And, as Thomas Hopko has pointed out, even if God’s default position is mercy, what meaning is there to mercy if it is not proven to be the act of one who is powerful and has authority? Without a show of power, mercy will simply be interpreted as weakness, and chaos will reign. It would not be merciful if I told someone convicted of a crime of youthful ignorance, “I will give you a light sentence which can then be erased from your record when you turn eighteen.” It is not merciful because I have no power to sentence anyone. I am not a judge. But if a judge were to show this compassion to an offending youth, then it would be a meaningful act of mercy. Put simply, it is not mercy if one can’t and doesn’t enforce; rather, it is mercy if one can and should but relents out of compassion. That said, even the show of power is mercy when it is executed for redemptive ends. Sometimes mercy is lighter than a feather, and other times it feels like it’s carving the sin from our souls with a Bowie knife.
God is merciful for the purpose of redemption, but when He perfectly judges, He takes decisive action. And this is not arbitrary: it is God’s just judgment upon terrible wickedness. The judgments on Canaanites were not only, according to Tremper Longman III, “intended to simply make room for Israel to live.” Indeed, Meredith Kline refers to the judgments to come through warfare as end-time intrusions into the world’s historical record. Longman summarizes Kline: “Events like the conquest and the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem were intrusions of endtime ethics into a period of common grace. The period of common grace is the normal condition of the historical period between the fall and consummation.” In this view, the default of the world is common grace, and these moments of warfare judgment are signs of the future, of God’s ultimate defeat and destruction of all evil and oppression. Just as Old Testament sacrifices pointed toward the ultimate sacrifice in Jesus, and just as the first Passover pointed toward our ultimate rescue through Jesus from tyranny, so moments of judgment are signposts to an ultimate judgment to come when Jesus returns as the Judge who ends all evil and suffering forever (Romans 14:10; 2 Timothy 4:1).
The Promised Land
While possessing the Promised Land was not the only reason for the judgment of the Canaanites, it was indeed part of the package. The very name of this land—Promised—speaks to something of a claim on the land existing prior to the arrival of Canaanite squatters. This land was promised to Abraham for his descendants (Genesis 12:7; 15:8-20; cf. 26:3; 28:13). As Paul Copan explains,
When Israel is commanded to attack these nations, they are not, as far as the narrator is concerned, conquering or attacking an innocent nation and stealing their land; rather, Israel is repossessing land that already belongs to them and evicting people who are trespassing on it and refusing to leave.
Indeed, Rahab, a Canaanite woman perhaps running a hostel or a saloon in Jericho, admits to this much, thus implying that it was not secret knowledge among the Canaanite groups (Joshua 2:9-11). As Copan points out, God actually stops Israel from driving people out of other lands that they those people a legal claim to, which further establishes that Canaanites are trespassers and usurpers. But even then, God does not allow them to remove the Canaanites right away; they could not remove them from the land until Canaanite iniquity had reached its fullness and Israel’s need of land coincided with God’s need to remove wickedness.
One might rightly ask here: Why can’t they just get along in peaceful cohabitation of the land? Assuming there were resources aplenty, what’s the problem? The concern has already been alluded to in Deuteronomy 12: The corrupting influence of Canaan. God is not just worried about them worshipping other gods. He is worried about them incorporating the practices of other nations, which lead only to pain for others. It is not so much that Israel couldn’t interact with other cultures. They could and they did, quite often. They could even intermarry. However, as Copan explains, there is a difference between marrying a woman from a culture far away with no influence on Israel and marrying from a culture with a larger population in your backyard. Marrying someone from outside of Israel was all right so far as that person became an Israelite. With the Canaanites, though, the concern is that the Israelite would change, not the Canaanite! Their support system and relative power would be a difficult thing to overcome culturally.
While perhaps the case can be made for judging a people like the Canaanites, there is still a remaining question: Why judge them all so violently? Why did God destroy the Canaanite people? And in that question, there are really two questions: why all, and why so violent. After all, it seems quite odd to say that God destroyed the Canaanites for child sacrifice and to then turn around and order the killing of all people—even children—for that sin. So, is it that God just doesn’t like it when children are killed sacrificially, but He is OK with their bloody deaths in divine warfare? Something here does not compute. Some Christians attempting to make sense of this point out that the idea that children are innocent is one foreign to the biblical text. Whatever one makes of that claim, the implicit conclusion to such a statement seems to be that God is at peace with the death of any person so long as they are a sinner, which we all are from birth (so the thought goes). And yet, Genesis 9:6 talks about the seriousness of murder because the shed blood is from those made in God’s image. Ezekiel 18:23 and 33:11 speak of His displeasure in punishing the wicked, preferring much more that they turn and live. The Bible also talks of God’s command that Israel love and seek justice for the strangers and foreigners in their land (Deuteronomy 10:19; Leviticus 19:34). The picture begins to emerge that God has a problem with human suffering. Indeed, taken with everything we have discussed so far and what is to come later, it seems that God’s decisive and sometimes violent acts work to alleviate human suffering, not cause it. So, now we turn to warfare in the Bible in its particularities to try to make more sense of the biblical portrayal of divine warfare.
It can be quite jarring to read in the Bible that the Israelites, with God’s blessing and sometimes with His explicit command, “destroyed” the Canaanites (or “annihilated”) without leaving one thing living: No men, no women, and no children (Deuteronomy 2:34; 3:6). The verses that make these claims sound so obvious and clear. There is no sign of poetic flourish, no sign of mythical imaginings: this is a real slaughter. And, yes, we can’t get around the fact that something did happen. Even if we just simply said these narratives were concocted much later—which I do not agree with, but if we did say that—we would still have to wrestle with the God who would allow this depiction to survive and the Son of God who never sought to correct it. That said, the Bible is not quite saying what we may believe it says.
In the world of the Old Testament—the ancient Near East—there was a certain hyperbolic way of speaking about warfare. According to Webb and Oeste, “Hyperbole played an integral part of the genre of [ancient Near East] war rhetoric,” which included exaggerating the speed of victory and the number of soldiers involved in the battle. Hyperbole also included the claim of a total annihilation of people who show up later in the historical record. It is important to understand what hyperbole does and does not do. Hyperbole does not make the account a fabrication: the command to destroy the Canaanites means that, in some way at least, Israel was to deal with them decisively. People at the time understood the type of literature involved and would have read something like “we totally annihilated this people. None was left living!” as “We won this battle, our king is mighty, and our god is the best god.” To “totally destroy the Canaanites” means that Yahweh is the supreme God as seen in the gift of a decisive victory. Hyperbole does not negate the historical foundation of the claim. For example, if I say that it rained cats and dogs, the fact that you will find no report of cats and dogs falling from the sky does not negate the point of the hyperbolic statement: It rained a lot. Likewise, if I say that the Indianapolis Colts annihilated the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI, I am not saying that the Colts murdered them, nor am I just fabricating a story from scratch. I am saying that a particular team won. Kings used these descriptions to elicit admiration and devotion from their populace for themselves and their god/s, along with the desire to strike fear in the hearts and minds of their enemies. These descriptions were often displayed publicly in prominent places for all to see. Many of these same features are found within Israel’s scriptures in the Old Testament.
One of the ways we now know that these ancient warfare depictions are hyperbolic is because they state things that are later proven to be not quite as depicted. For instance, outside of the Bible, the Assyrian king Sennacherib relates that he conquered forty-six cities of Judah in a complete victory. However, the historical record from Judah shows that, while they were attacked and suffered great loss, they were not totally destroyed or totally conquered, and their king, Hezekiah, lived. Sennacherib’s account makes no such mention of a less-than-complete victory. While it may seem convenient to say that Sennacherib has been caught in a lie—and perhaps he has been—that overlooks the fact that this is a historical genre of literature. And we see this even more so in the Old Testament where often within the same book one group of people is totally wiped out, only to be featured later without any sign of shock or dismay by the narrator. There is no “hey, I thought you were all dead!” They all understood the genre. Copan and Flannagan put it well: “A good rule of thumb is that we should always treat the Bible literarily (according to the author’s intended literary genre) but not always treat it literally (which would lead to absurdities).”
Another way in which we see hyperbole in the Old Testament depictions is, as we know better now than ever, in the cities that were attacked by Israel. Copan points out that cities like Jericho, Ai, and the others mentioned by Joshua were not areas that held civilian populations; indeed, these military outposts were often there to guard access to the civilian populations. Archaeological evidence suggests that they were military encampments, which means that the call destroy the Canaanite populace of men, women, and children was simply a way of speaking about the desired decisive victory in that city. There would not have been many women there, if any at all, and one would expect even less to find a child there. There may have been government facilities and men with families inside, but the families lived largely in the countryside. Rahab is the notable exception, but as previously stated, she was probably there to run a tavern or hostel.
Herem: Destroy the Canaanites?
The type of warfare that we are discussing here is herem warfare. Herem is the Hebrew word at the root of all of our confusion. It is the term translated when we read that God commanded Israel to utterly or completely destroy the Canaanites (as in Deuteronomy 20:17, quoted at the top of this article). However, as John and J. Harvey Walton have pointed out, this misses the point of herem in a foundational way. The point of herem in Canaan is not destruction (though it may involve that), but the “removal of something from human use.” There are many different types of herem that are ultimately meant to remove a cultural identity, not an ethnic identity; to the contrary, Israel is instructed to love those foreigners who live in their midst (Leviticus 19:33-34). Herem removed sinful identities—like the identity of a child-sacrificing people. The point of herem is somewhat similar then to the deNazification of Germany after World War II. Part of it involved warfare, but part of it also involved reeducation, removing swastikas and other Nazi symbols, removing literature, etc. Herem warfare likewise could be toward certain “communal abstractions,” cities, or people.
Interestingly, while the impression we get is that herem was largely focused on people, most of the time, the Waltons point out that this is the rarest category for this style of battle. The most common form of herem warfare is the herem of cities. God most often does not command Israel to destroy the Canaanites. Rather, the most common word used for what should be done to the Canaanites in these cities is garash, which means to “drive out.” Indeed, “It doesn’t matter where they go or what happens to them as long as they are gone. Killing them is one way to make them go away, of course, but it is not the only way and probably not the preferred way.” This is why God sends a “terror” that goes before the Israelite Army (Exodus 23:37; Deuteronomy 2:25, 11:25) in order to encourage less need for physical violence when Israel arrives. If Israel were told destroy the Canaanites by literally killing every man, woman, and child, then the later instruction not to intermarry with Canaanites seems out of place (Deuteronomy 7:3). Of the cities that were herem—Joshua 11:12-13 says all northern cities faced this fate—only one, Hazor, was actually destroyed. So it seems as if the hyperbole is well understood even within these texts themselves. There was no contradiction, no hint of a lie—this was simply how you wrote about such things in those times.
A Giant War
One might ask why this particular type of warfare was so prevalent in the period of the Canaan conquests before vanishing from Israel’s military repertoire. Rather interestingly, Michael Heiser shows that herem warfare is used only in areas associated with the giant Anakim people, who were in some way related to (either descended from or created in similar ways as) the Nephilim. Herem in these conquest narratives, Heiser explains, “is only used of assaults in cities or locales that overlap with giant clan population clusters.” So then, the need to remove certain identities from use, to cleanse the land and symbols was not just because Canaanites were on Israelite land or because they were particularly wicked people. Rather, it is because the land was full of a type of being—not human—last described in the anti-creation events of Genesis 6:1-4. Israel’s war is in some sense not only with the people of Canaan (although it was indeed their sin that was being judged), but with that ancient race influencing Canaanites to do the terrible things they practice: the demon-human hybrid Anakim.
Numbers 13:32-33 details the report made by some of the spies about seeing the “Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim)” in the land of Canaan. Their immense size scared the spies into retreating from God’s promises, so they warned Israel not to invade Canaan. Traditionally, because of how certain biblical interpreters understood the events of the Flood, they thought it was impossible for anyone to see actual Nephilim ancestors because, simply put, they were all drowned in the great deluge. Therefore, these spies are just considered cowardly liars, fabricating a story about seeing giants (this is discussed in more detail in the next part of this series). However, notice that no one in the text raises this objection. They do not seem surprised to see the giants; rather, they just seem afraid and hopeless. And notice also that Joshua and Caleb (the only two spies who thought Israel should still go into Canaan), when speaking explicitly of this report, do not contradict what the other spies say. Rather, they proclaimed,
The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. If the LORD is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. Only do not rebel against the LORD. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will devour them. Their protection is gone, but the LORD is with us. Do not be afraid of them.Numbers 14:7-9
This would explain the seemingly odd detail then—in the midst of writing about the overall successes of Israel’s campaigns and declaring that “Joshua took the entire land… Then the land had rest from war” (Joshua 11:23)—that “no Anakites were left in Israelite territory” (v. 22). Joshua’s reference in verse 21 to the “hill country of Judah” and “hill country of Israel” only furthers the conclusion, says Heiser, that both major campaigns of the conquest were to rid the land of the malevolent supernatural-human hybrids. The command to destroy the Canaanites, then, was essentially a command to destroy the Anakim. The people, then, did not have to die, but perhaps the Anakim did.
Drive Out the Canaanites
What, then, was Israel to do with the humans of Canaan? As already alluded to above, it seems that their main objective was not to destroy the Canaanites, but to drive them out of the land. Paul Copan posits that the whole point is to drive people out of the land, not kill them (unless there is no other choice). Copan points to Exodus 23, which says that God will “wipe out” various groups in the land of Canaan (v. 23). But then Yahweh clarifies what that means:
I will send my terror ahead of you and throw into confusion every nation you encounter. I will make all your enemies turn their backs and run. … Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land. … I will give into your hands the people who live in the land, and you will drive them out before you. Do not make a covenant with them or with their gods. Do not let them live in your land or they will cause you to sin against me, because the worship of the gods will certainly be a snare to you.Exodus 23:27, 30, 31b-33
Webb and Oeste point out that many of the texts commanding Israel to destroy the Canaanites also describe within the same breath the driving out of Canaanites. What’s more, Copan actually shows that the language of dispossession occurs three times morefrequently than destruction language does, leading him to logically conclude “that the dominant ‘intended effect’ was for the peoples in the [Promised] [L]and to migrate somewhere else.” In the end, writes Copan, “The text therefore continually and repeatedly states that the Canaanites will not be exterminated in the sense that the Israelites are to kill every man, woman, and child in Canaan. Rather, it states they are to be driven out.” In Webb and Oeste’s view—seeing how both of these descriptions run side by side in the text—the goal of these invasions is of primary importance, not the means. The goal, says Webb, is the exclusive worship of Yahweh on sacred space in a new Eden.
The Walking Dead?
To further illustrate the hyperbolic nature of this type of literature, it might be helpful to also highlight the people who show up in the Bible who are supposed to be dead due to their alleged “destruction.” Sometimes this even happens within the same breath, such as in Joshua 10:20, or there are protracted battles with people who had already been “destroyed” or “driven out,” such as in Joshua 10:39, 11:21-22, and 15:13-14. In these texts, everyone from Debir is “utterly destroyed,” though later the Anakites in Debir must again be “utterly destroyed.” Later, even more Anakites are destroyed in Hebron and other areas, leaving “no Anakim” in Israel, though later Caleb “drove out” the Anakites from Hebron (interestingly, we see in texts like these that even the dreaded Anakites are often “driven out” rather than “destroyed”). Examples like this abound in this area of Scripture. The Book of Joshua describes certain groups in Joshua’s southern battles as having “no survivors” after completely destroying the Canaanites there. However, later depictions show that the Ephraimites “did not dislodge the Canaanites living in Gezer; to this day the Canaanites live among the people of Ephraim but are required to do forced labor” (Joshua 16:10).
Joshua’s warning in his first farewell speech against having relations with Canaanites remaining in the land would seem to be fairly good testimony that the totality of destruction is not quite what it seems (Joshua 23:7). Remember that these are not sources external to the biblical source showing that the Old Testament was wrong in its assessment and is, therefore, a fraud. Rather, these are sources within the same book, sometimes within the same sentence, that seem comfortable with describing people as “totally destroyed” with “no survivors” who nonetheless are still present and very much alive. “To this day,” the author of Judges laments, “the Jebusites live [in Jerusalem] with the Benjamites” (Judges 1:21). This disappointment is not because the Canaanite Jebusites live, but because they dwell in the land of Israel, threatening to influence Israel in the ways of their culture of death and weaken the Israelite community and its relationship to God.
Some of the Canaanites are even invited into the people of Israel. Of course, the most obvious example is Rahab, who survives the battle in Jericho due to her protection of Israel’s spies. But other examples exist, so explains Longman:
While it is speculative and a bit of wishful thinking to imagine large parts of Canaanite society coming over to the Israelite side, there are a number of non-Israelite names in later Israelite history that may indicate that their numbers were not small. Among the most obvious are Caleb (the Kenizzite), the judge Shamgar ben Anat (Anat being a Canaanite goddess), Uriah the Hittite, and perhaps even the people of the Canaanite city of Shechem as a whole [who were part of Israel’s covenant renewal ceremony in Joshua 8], and there may be many more whose names or identifiers do not make their Canaanite background obvious.
God’s command to destroy the Canaanites, properly understood, is not quite what it appeared to be at first glance. However, there is an even more difficult example of this sort of warfare elsewhere in the Bible. Next we turn to the Amalekites.
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Image: Chaokun Wang (b. 1992), “depropagation,” 2020
 Walter Elwell, et. al. (eds.), Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 406.
 You can find a partial list of these transgressions in Leviticus 18. Toward the end of this list, Yahweh states, “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. … And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you” (vv. 25-25, 28).
 Fr. Thomas Hopko, “War and Violence in the Old Testament,” Ancient Faith Ministries, December 22, 2010, https://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/hopko/war_and_violence_in_the_ot.
 Tremper Longman III, Confronting Old Testament Controversies (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2019), 199.
 Ibid., 200.
 Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan, Did God Really Command Genocide? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014), 65.
 Ibid., 62.
 Ibid., 67.
 Ibid., 68-69.
 William J. Webb and Gordon K. Oeste, Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric? Wrestling with Troubling War Texts (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 150.
 Ibid., 163.
 Ibid., 138.
 Copan and Flannagan, 132.
 Richard S. Hess, “War in the Hebrew Bible: An Overview,” in Hess and Elmer A. Martens (eds.), War in the Bible and Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008), 30.
 Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 175-77.
 John H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), 170-71.
 Ibid., 179ff, 189.
 Ibid., 173.
 Ibid., 176-77.
 Ibid., 193.
 Ibid., 170.
 Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 204-05.
 Ibid., 209.
 Copan and Flannagan, 77.
 Webb and Oeste, 232-34. They point to the previously cited Exodus 23 passage along with Deuteronomy 7:1-2, 16-17, 22-24; 9:3-4; 12:29-30; 19:1-2; 31:3-5; 33:27; Joshua 23:4-5; 24:8, 12.
 Copan and Flannagan, 80. Emphasis original.
 Ibid., 80.
 Webb and Oeste, 244-61.
 See more texts like this in Copan and Flannagan, 86-87.
 For more details and examples, see Webb and Oeste, 158.
 Longman, 197.