In this article, we examine an apologetic defense justifying God’s commanding the genocide of the Canaanites. We will argue that this argument from the moral corruption of the Canaanites is problematic.
God Commands the Israelites to Slay the Canaanites in Their Land
Deuteronomy says when “the Lord your God delivers them over to you, you shall conquer them and utterly destroy them” (7:2). In chapter 20 we read that “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” (v. 16-17). In Joshua, the Canaanites are to be “utterly destroyed”; “all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword (6:21). Nothing in Canaan was to be left alive; in the words of Old Testament scholar Peter Enns,
“The destruction was to be complete: every man, woman, and child was to be killed. The book of Joshua tells the story of Israel’s carrying out God’s command in city after city throughout Canaan” (1).
The Argument From Moral Corruption
Perhaps the most common argument for God’s instructing the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites is because they were morally corrupt and therefore deserving of this punishment. They must be eliminated because of their immorality, like bestiality, incest, and sacrificing children to the gods. The logic here is that God is the ultimate judge over human life and because of his uncompromising intolerance of sin, he is justified in judging the Canaanites this way. As one theologian argues: “What that implies is that God has the right to take the lives of the Canaanites when He sees fit. How long they live and when they die is up to Him.” In the words of another defender,
“God ordered the destruction of the Canaanites because of the corrupting influence they would have if their false religious system were allowed to survive. Unfortunately, Israel disobeyed God and did not utterly destroy these pagan peoples. This disobedience eventually led to their own captivity” (2).
Responding to the Argument From Moral Corruption
But there are several reasons to question this justification. A first reason is that what we find in the biblical books of Deuteronomy and Joshua is propaganda. We need to acknowledge the propagandist nature of our biblical texts. The Canaanites in these books are caricatured. They are caricatured by those who waged war on them. Because the Israelites wished to justify their taking of the land of Canaan, in which the Canaanites dwelled, it is unsurprising that the biblical writers refer to them as detestable and defiled, as vomited out of their land, (Lev. 18:24), and as abhorrent abominations sinning against the Lord (Due. 20:17-18).
In essence, what we have to rely on are the caricatures of the Canaanites by the alleged killers of the Canaanites. Might it not cross our minds that they are not being fairly represented in the biblical texts? We do not suggest that the Israelites were like Adolf Hitler, but Hitler proves an appropriate analogy: might Hitler not have represented the Jews fairly in his writings and speeches? Might the Hutu in Rwanda have caricatured the Tutsi in an unfavorable light to justify their genocide? Enns suggests that the biblical descriptions of the Canaanites are,
“an exaggeration for the purpose of painting their enemies in a negative light – let’s call it “hamartiographic hyperbole” (hamartia = sin). In modern language, propaganda–which the authors euphemistically refer to as “literary expressions for rhetorical effect” (3).
A second problem with the argument from moral corruption is that the biblical propaganda does not mesh well with what we know about Canaanites culture from limited historical artifacts. For example, translations of the Ugaritic texts do not suggest the Canaanites to have been a particularly debauched or cruel culture (unless one sees the common ancient practice of animal sacrifice as cruel). The texts do tell us that these people worshiped many gods, with El being the creator and leader of the Ugaritic pantheon, and that animals were sacrificed to these gods. However, strikingly absent from the Ugaritic texts are references to child sacrifice or ritual prostitution, and any of the abominations mentioned in Leviticus 18 (4).
A third issue is that the Canaanites were hardly, if at all, any worse than the other civilizations and cultures in their ancient world. As Enns writes: “For one thing, giving Canaanites first prize in the “worst sinners ever” contest is a caricature, and a bit of propaganda” (5).
The case for the unique moral corruption of the Canaanites is weakened by the fact that child sacrifice was common in this piece of the ancient world. In the Bible, for example, we read of King Mesha of Moab who is losing a battle against a coalition of forces led by Israelites. In response, he sacrifices his own son on the city walls to appease his god Kemosh to gain victory. This worked and the forces withdrew and Mesha was saved. This suggests that other people sacrificed children, not just the Canaanites. But God didn’t wipe these peoples off the face of the Earth. We also have the biblical episode of Abraham and Isaac where child sacrifice appears to be an act with which God is fine. God instructs Abraham to kill his son Isaac as a sacrifice. As Enns explains, “At the last second God puts a stop to it, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t serious. God was testing Abraham, as the story tells us, to see how obedient he was—and it wouldn’t have been a real test if there wasn’t a real chance that Abraham could have gone through with it” (6). Finally, we have one of Israel’s last judges, Jephthah, promising God that he will sacrifice whatever walked out of the door of his house if God gives him victory in battle. Jephthah’s daughter comes out and after a mourning period God receives his sacrifice.
This all suggests the child sacrifice was not unique to the Canaanites but to many cultures and peoples. The real issue here is not that the Canaanites were uniquely morally corrupt (they weren’t), but they had what the Israelites wanted. The Israelites wanted the land of Canaan because they believed God had promised it to them. Certainly, if we were to put any other group or culture in this land, they would also have been represented by the biblical writers as the vilest and most morally corrupt people on the face of the Earth.
A fourth reason offsetting this argument is from the internal inconsistencies. In view here is God sending the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites because of their practice of child sacrifice. But God’s actions make no sense at all. Essentially he is judging the Canaanites for the sin of child sacrifice by commanding the Israelites to murder all the Canaanite children anyway (1 Sam. 15:3). It is to judge this awful practice by committing that same practice. Did God somehow overlook this?
It is certainly the case that the killing of the children in the land is a tough issue for apologists to overcome, but some have attempted to justify it. For example, some argue that the children were infected by their parents’ wickedness, so God was just to kill them, too. Of course, the Bible does not say this. But what the Bible does certainly indicate is that the children, along with everyone else (including the elderly who we have little reason to think could put up much of a fight), were in the land that the Israelites wanted. But some have argued that it was justified for the Israelites to kill the children because it would prevent them from growing into Canaanite soldiers who could retaliate. But this is offset by the awkward detail that in the book of Exodus, Pharaoh provides the same reason for throwing male Israelite babies into the Nile to drown. Does the omniscient God of the Israelites reason no better than the evil and fallible Pharaoh of the book of Exodus? Moreover, why should we consider the children, especially the infants, as being irredeemable? It is not at all clear that the infants and children would have grown up to perpetuate Canaanite culture or later wage war with the Israelites. It also seems plausible that the younger Canaanite children and infants could have been brought up in Israelite culture and assimilated. Peter Enns concludes,
“To sum up: Why did God single out the Canaanites for extermination? The factor that distinguished the Canaanites from everyone else, the reason they “deserved” to be exterminated, wasn’t their immorality, but the fact that they (like everyone else) were an immoral people who occupied the land God promised to give the Israelites” (7).
In this article, we argue that the God of the Israelites, who the biblical writers claim commanded them to slay the Canaanites, was a tribal deity, at least at this stage in their history, who reflected the aspirations of the Israelites as a tribal people.
- Craig, William. 2007. #16 Slaughter of the Canaanites. Available.
- Stewart, Don. n.d. Why Did God Order the Destruction of the Canaanites? Available.
- Enns, Peter. 2015. The Canaanites weren’t the “worst sinners ever”: engaging Copan and Flannagan on Canaanite extermination. Available.
- Hillers, Delbert. 1985. “Analyzing the Abominable: Our Understanding of Canaanite Religion.” The Jewish Quarterly Review 75:253-269.
- Enns, Peter. 2014. The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. New York: HarperCollins. p. 65.
- Enns, Peter. 2014. Ibid. p. 65.
- Enns, Peter. 2014. Ibid. p. 67.