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Why Would God Command Israel to Destroy All the Canaanites?

One of the parts of the Old Testament that bothers people, including plenty of Christians, is Yahweh’s command for Israel to destroy the inhabitants of Canaan. Under Joshua, the people of God were to wage war with the Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites, and other “ites” who lived there. They were to destroy these people, take their land, and settle there.
The Lord warned Israel that, should they disobey, these idol-worshiping people would become as barbs in their eyes and thorns in their sides (Numbers 33:55). And, as any reader of the Old Testament knows, that is precisely what happened. If you’re interested, check out the first few chapters of Judges to see how badly this failure impacted Israel. God’s people tried to be married to Yahweh and have a fling (or three) on the side with Baal or Asherah or one of the other Canaanite deities.
The Lord, whose name is Jealousy, was not amused. The Canaanites did indeed become “thorns” in Israel’s side. It turns out that God knows what he’s talking about.
Here are four brief things to bear in mind about the destruction of the Canaanites:
1) It was a just judgment. Generations before, God had told Abraham that “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Gen. 15:16). For several more centuries, the various inhabitants of the land were “filling up” their iniquity, like 55-gallon drums full of toxic chemicals. Just as the Lord was patient before the Flood, wanting recalcitrant sinners to repent, but they did not, so the Lord was incredibly patient with the Canaanites, who persisted in idolatry. In the end, the true God whom they had defied brought them to judgment. Things are no different, by the way, as we await the final judgment. God wants all to repent and be saved, but, sadly, many will not and will face a judgment they deserve.

2) Along these same lines, Israel was the instrument of God. This was not coldblooded, revenge killing. Nor was it a greedy and illicit seizure of land. The sword of the Israelites was the sword of the Judge of heaven and earth. They were executing divine justice not human decisions.

3) The land of Israel, and especially the sanctuary, was the replacement Garden of Eden. Just as Adam and Eve had been charged to guard the Garden—a vocation they failed to do, with cosmically disastrous consequences—so the Israelites were to guard the land, to purge it of serpentine evil forces that would seek to woo them into lies.

4) Finally, the destruction of these peoples is an unforgettable picture of how God deals with sin: in totality. The Lord was not interested in ridding 95% of the land of Canaanites. When it comes to evil, God is an all-or-nothing deity. In a most unexpected way, therefore, the command to purge the land completely of Canaanites was a foreshadowing of the crucifixion, where God dealt once and for all, completely, with sin. Not most sin. Not almost all sin. But all sin. Jesus wasn’t just whipped or beaten or thrown in jail to suffer. No, he died. He went all the way into death so that sin might be taken care of all the way for us.

Written by Chad Bird, 1517 Scholar