Good Question...

How could a God of Love order the massacre/annihilation of the Canaanites?

[Updated Jan 2013 with a link to sources on Deut 21]
On those very rare occasions when God displays His judgment within human history, it is very sobering and one which we find genuinely disturbing--it reminds us that "ethics" is not just another branch of philosophy!

And even though each recorded case--regardless of scale--SHOULD 'trouble us', the case of God's alleged ordering the Israelites to annihilate the Canaanites has always been particularly disturbing to our 'status quo' of sensibilities. So, I frequently get a letter like this:

The entire concept of a God of justice and mercy ordering the slaughter of thousands of people (many patently innocent) on many occasions I find abhorrent.

This is an issue I have always had profound trouble with and one I suspended judgment on when I began to believe. Lately, though, it has started haunting me again, and I have been searching and praying for an answer or insight. The responses to this problem I have seen so far (God did them a favor, they were like cancer, or God's justice is beyond ours) seem to me to be lame or inappropriate.

Or, in a less conciliatory tone--

The Old Testament paints a picture of a God who is extremely bellicose, giving repeated instructions to "his people" to exterminate other nations, (because he is giving them their "promised land"), and giving them practical assistance on the battlefield.

It is easy to believe that such writings could be the attempted self-justification of a territorially minded people, who excuse their aggression and genocide against other nations as "divine instructions". It is almost impossible to believe that such writings are an accurate description of a God who has infinite love for people of all races.

And finally, a more pointed accusation:

"Is the God of the OT merely sanctioning genocide (nay commanding it)?... isn't this "god" merely an invention for the Jews' own political land-gaining ends?

So, let's look at the passages involved:

When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations -- the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you -- 2 and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. 3 Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, 4 for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD's anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. 5 This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. (Deut 7.1-5)

However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. 17 Completely destroy them -- the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites -- as the LORD your God has commanded you. 18 Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God. (Deut 20.16ff)

These are the kings of the land that Joshua and the Israelites conquered on the west side of the Jordan, from Baal Gad in the Valley of Lebanon to Mount Halak, which rises toward Seir (their lands Joshua gave as an inheritance to the tribes of Israel according to their tribal divisions -- 8 the hill country, the western foothills, the Arabah, the mountain slopes, the desert and the Negev -- the lands of the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites):

9 the king of Jericho one the king of Ai (near Bethel) one
10 the king of Jerusalem one the king of Hebron one
11 the king of Jarmuth one the king of Lachish one
12 the king of Eglon one the king of Gezer one
13 the king of Debir one the king of Geder one
14 the king of Hormah one the king of Arad one
15 the king of Libnah one the king of Adullam one
16 the king of Makkedah one the king of Bethel one
17 the king of Tappuah one the king of Hepher one
18 the king of Aphek one the king of Lasharon one
19 the king of Madon one the king of Hazor one
20 the king of Shimron Meron one the king of Acshaph one
21 the king of Taanach one the king of Megiddo one
22 the king of Kedesh one the king of Jokneam in Carmel one
23 the king of Dor (in Naphoth Dor) one the king of Goyim in Gilgal one
24 the king of Tirzah one thirty-one kings in all. (Joshua 12.7-24)
At first blush, it looks like YHWH is taking the initiative in the matter, and ordering Israel to wipe out 7-10 nations--without pity and without compromise--and that He intends to give these nations' lands to Israel for their possession. At the end of Joshua's military campaigns, a list of 31 conquered kings is given. (The Israelites fail to obey the directive, however, and God faults them for this--and, as He predicted, the Canaanites DO 'entice' Israel into practicing their religion.)

Obviously, there are a couple of GOOD questions hiding in here:

These are NOT simple or light questions (if your heart is in right!), and so we must be VERY thorough in our analysis of the situation. We will need to approach this issue from a number of different sides, to make sure we have seen it clearly and from a large-enough perspective.

We will use the following question-set in analyzing the issue:

  1. Do we have any precedents, paradigm cases, or similar incidents of such orders/actions to annihilate?
  2. Who exactly WERE these people that God wanted Israel to 'exterminate'?
  3. Were there any limits placed upon Israel in this venture, and what was the EXACT content of the orders?
  4. What general principles of God's governance might shed some light on the situation?

Then, I will try to focus any insights we get onto the opening questions.


  1. Do we have any precedents, paradigm cases, or similar incidents of such orders/actions to annihilate?



    There are a few situations in the OT in which something like this either (1) occurs or (2) is ordered: Sodom/Gomorrah, the Flood, and the Amalekites. And we will look at one "anti-Example" that might function as 'control data'--Ninevah.

    There is an obvious pattern here:
    1. The annihilations are judgments.
    2. These judgments are for publicly-recognized (indeed, international and cross-cultural in scope!) cruelty and violence of an EXTREME and WIDESPREAD nature.
    3. These judgments are preceded by LONG PERIODS of warning/exposure to truth (and therefore, opportunity to "change outcomes").
    4. Innocent adults are given a 'way out'
    5. Household members share in the fortunes of the parents (for good or ill).
    6. Somebody ALWAYS escapes (Lot, Noah, Kenites)
    7. These are exceptional cases--there are VERY, VERY few of these.

    Now, an obvious question comes up here. Do we have ANY EVIDENCE that the annihilation of the Canaanites falls into the above pattern? Do we have any reason to believe it was an exceptional case, a judgment for exceptional violence and evil?

    Very definitely.

    The biblical text gives us several indications that this campaign is such a judgment:

    So this annihilation was a judgment...but what was so 'bad' about the Canaanites (and Amorites)? Which brings us to the next point...
  3. Who exactly WERE these people that God wanted Israel to 'exterminate'?

  4. What do we know about the Amorites, and the Canaanites (often used interchangeably)? What data do we have from the sources (archeology, classical writers, ANE literary remains, biblical passages)?

    1. Prior to Abraham, the land of Syria-Palestine enjoyed a very high culture, dominated by the kingdom of Ebla.
    2. "By the latter part of the Early Bronze Age Ebla (Tell Mardikh) in northwestern Syria had become a city-state of 260,000 people, with lesser "vassal" cities forming a far-reaching empire. It was the center of a vast commercial network, and records of its enterprises contain the earliest mention of such biblical cities as Salim, Megiddo, Gaza, Hazor, Lachish, and Joppa. An indication of the city's sophisticated planning is the audience court of the royal palace, which both architecturally and functionally mediates the space between the quarters with private residences and those with administrative offices." (ISBE, s.v. "City", p.707)
    3. But something happened...something disrupted this advanced civilization...something destroyed the cities...something violently did international damage, driving nations from their homes, reducing this area to 'village life' again:
    4. "Sudden and violent destruction occurred throughout much of the ancient world ca. 2300-2100 B.C. Palestinian civilization returned to the village level, with many E.B. sites abandoned and others left unfortified, a situation that continued through the early stages of the Middle Bronze period (until ca. 1950 B.C.). While many factors may have been involved, especially significant were Egyptian raids and mass population movements, at the center of which were the Amorites."(A.C. Myers, ISBE, op. Cit.)
      And again, K.N. Schoville (POTW:164):
      "The urbanization of Canaan in the Early Bronze Age II (ca. 2900-2700), illustrated by sites such as Arad and Ai, declined during the Early Bronze Age III, which ended about 2300. Walled cities were destroyed or abandoned, and urban culture gave way to a pastoral, village way of life over the next two centuries, Early Bronze Age IV (about 2300-2000). The reasons for such drastic changes are unclear, but three possible causes may be suggested: (1) Egyptian military action, (2) changing environmental factors including overpopulation, or (3) an invading horde of Amorites. The Amorites would have destroyed the urban centers and established the variant lifestyle characteristic of the period until urbanization flowered in the subsequent Middle Bronze Age II."
      [There were probably two invasions by Amorite peoples--the one we are discussing here is the earlier, non-urbanized Amurru--cf. ISBE:s.v. "Canaan", p. 588]

    5. The Amorites were a distinctly war-culture, as well. They show up--by the name of Amorites-- in conquest texts as early as 2200 B.C. (EBLA3:90), and by their other names in many, many places.
    6. "The Semitic Amorites are the best known: in Mesopotamian sources they are the mar-tu (Sumerian) and amurru (Akkadian), both of which words mean "west," and they are referred to as desert people who "know not grain." In the third millennium B.C. the conquests of Sargon of Akkad (2371-2316) extended to "the upper sea," meaning that he must have marched west to the Mediterranean. In the second millennium the Amorites established their First Dynasty in Babylon in which Hammurabi (1792-1750) was the most famous king; contemporary with that dynasty there were Amorite kings in Mari on the Middle Euphrates. At Jericho and other sites in Canaan cultural changes toward the end of the third millennium suggest the influx of new nomadic tribal people, probably Amorites. According to Ezekiel 16:3 Jerusalem was founded by a combination of Amorites and Hittites. Under Moses the Israelites found the Amorites in the hill country around Kadesh-barnea (Deut. 1:19-20), then conquered two Amorite kings, Sihon and Og, in Transjordan (Deut. 4:46-47). Joshua in turn overcame the Amorite kings of the five cities of Jerusalem, Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish, and Eglon (Josh. 10:5). In time Amorites and Canaanites were no doubt so mingled as to be indistinguishable, and the name Amorite was used as a general term for the inhabitants of the land, which could equally well be called the land of the Amorites (Josh. 24:15) or the land of the Canaanites." (Finegan, MM:121-122)
    7. [The Canaanite peoples were brilliant engineers, and put their skills to use building war-culture cities. Their sites include very heavily fortified cities, and advanced design war-chariot ramps and gates. (ISBE: s.v. "Canaan", p.588; POTW:176f; ECIAT:95)]

    8. Not only did these peoples do destruction on an international scale, but they also were constantly fighting internally [MM:129; ECIAT:193-194]

    9. Not only did the Amorites do wholesale destruction to the cities and the peoples, but they somehow also debased the 'better' polytheism of the pre-Amorite-invasion Canaanites. The pantheon of Ebla was prior to (by a thousand years) and yet essentially the same as, that of Canaan (EBLA2:79-89). Eblaite religion was your 'normal' polytheism of the ANE, but with some advanced traits. Pettinato points to one (EBLA0:178-179):
    10. "The second innovation is represented by the Eblaite conception of the divine. In spite of widespread polytheism, it seemed to be coupled with henotheism and an abstract idea of God. Above all, the principal god, Dagan, was raised to a role of superiority that touched upon uniqueness."
      Their religious praxis was likewise somewhat refined--relative to the other ANE nations--but somehow got 'changed' into the rather debased practices which we will below see were done in the Canaan of Israelite times. What influenced this cultural shift in praxis?
      "Nevertheless, the vicissitudes in political fortunes, after the collapse of the Early Bronze Age civilization in Canaan, were accompanied by the settlement of new peoples (Amorites, Hurrians, and others). These new settlers brought about innovations and changes to the culture of Canaan." (EBLA2:89)
    11. So, they were apparently into 'international violence', but what about these religious practices that YHWH seemed to be referring to in Deut 12.31: You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshipping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates..



      Notice that the problem is NOT SO MUCH the 'other gods', but the religious RITUALS that are so bad.

      So, what data do we have about their practices. Let's start with the biblical data, and check it against any archeological and extra-biblical literary data.

    13. So, we have international and extreme violence and unusually decadent (and destructive/dangerous) religious practices. What other data do we have about them (or the other nations in the list)?



      We have a few more pieces of data--most of it bad--about these city-nations.

      So, even the additional available data supports a very negative and abusive view of the Canaanites, Amorites, and Company...
    15. But...they also had had a long exposure to truth and influences to 'moderation' (even though they obviously did not heed them at all!).
    16. There was an abundance of information for these people--perhaps even MORE THAN the other nations around them had!--but they did not respond appropriately. (The other nations in the ANE seemed to respond to 'available' truth with a degree of moderation and correspondingly did not develop the ruthless, cruel, and degenerate practices of their Canaanite neighbors.)

    Summary: These nations show up in archeology and literature as a uniquely evil and destructive civilization, whose culpability is increased due to the abundance of truth and religious warnings which they were confronted with, and had access to. In contrast to the vast majority of surrounding nations, the Canaanite/Amorite cultures would not act responsibly and prudently, in matters of foreign relations and domestic practice. The result was a destructive and malignant force, in an already difficult ANE historical setting. If the nations of that day could have had a vote on who to 'destroy', they all would have voted for the Canaanite/Amorite culture.
  5. Were there any limits placed upon Israel in this venture, and what was the EXACT content of the orders?



    First, I want to look at the limits placed on the Israelites--the boundary-statements. What limits did God place on these marching orders? How exhaustive was the command-set? What implications might we draw from these?

    So, this obviously was NOT a war of unrestrained lust, greed for expensive goods, or even "empire-building"--God did NOT tolerate those attitudes. For example, in Joshua 7, an Israelite DID take some of the expense idol pieces, and God held the entire community responsible for this breach.

    Second, I want to look at the EXACT CONTENT of the instructions. What EXACTLY was ordered? What were the possible responses available to the Canaanites & Co.?

    Summary: The Israelites had been promised a specific area of land, since the time of Abraham. Most of the local indigenous peoples were either descendants of Abe or very familiar with the traditions of those people. When the "time had come," God judged the Canaanites and decreed for them to be expelled from the Land. Their tenure was up--they were evicted. New tenants were moving in. The Canaanites were given decades and decades of notice--in many ways and at different times. And they understood clearly--all the records we have of their understanding of their plight is TOTALLY in line with the Land-Grant of YHWH.

    With the 'eviction notice' published, the Canaanites could decide to either vacate the premises peacefully or deal with military force. If they vacated peacefully, they could choose their locations, mode of travel, and not have to deal with unpleasant military overseers. If they chose to challenge Israel's God and His expressed intentions, then they did so with complete knowledge of His power--as displayed in Egypt.

    Even though they were the 'scourge' of the earth at that time--by international consensus--God did not desire to annihilate the people. His expressed intentions were to move them away from His people. He gave them ample opportunity to leave peacefully before Israel arrived, and even allowed the bulk of the 'less institutionalized' to have a little longer. His people were not instructed to hunt them down in neighboring nations at all.

    Israel was severely restricted in the Conquest. They were not allowed to be simple 'land grabbers' or 'wealth seekers' or 'self-righteous' or 'land scorchers' or 'international empire builders' or 'captive-abusive'. At the same time, they were to eliminate the threat of Canaanite destructive influence (both spiritual and physical) if called upon.

    And God allowed no double standards. When Israel began to look like 'Canaanites', God judged them IN THE SAME WAY...and 'vomited' them from the Land as well. This expulsion was also accompanied by the harsh measures of warfare faced by the Canaanites.

    The punishment of the Amorites/Canaanites was thus one of 'deportation'--NOT one of genocide.

  7. What other general principles of God's governance might shed some light on the situation?



    Here I want to survey some of the other governance structures that are present in this issue.


Now, let's restate our opening questions and try to summarize the above material in response...

When we restate the pattern of our 'control data'--judgments that seem to be 'true annihilations'--and correlate that pattern with the Conquest data, we see similarities AND differences:
  1. The annihilations are judgments [But the conquest judgment was a deportation, not an annihilation.]
  2. These judgments are for publicly-recognized (indeed, international and cross-cultural in scope!) cruelty and violence of an EXTREME and WIDESPREAD nature. [This applies to the Canaanites, plus the additional 'load' of long-term "being a curse" to Israel.]
  3. These judgments are preceded by LONG PERIODS of warning/exposure to truth (and therefore, opportunity to "change outcomes").[This applies to the Canaanites extensively.]
  4. Innocent adults are given a 'way out' [This is very true here--in addition to the extensive warnings, plenty of time&space is given to allow migration before Israel arrived. We even have one example of a non-migration exception--Rahab--which suggests there might be others that were not recorded.]
  5. Household members share in the fortunes of the parents (for good or ill). [This is true here as well--everyone in Rahab's house was spared--whether they were good or evil!]
  6. Somebody ALWAYS escapes (Lot, Noah, Kenites). [In our case, the mass of people that migrated north to Phoenicia, Rahab+household, plus Gibeonites (although through deception).]
  7. These are exceptional cases--there are VERY, VERY few of these. [We have two other cases structured after this deportation--that of Israel and Judah--after the same standards and structures.]

Pushback: You say that the people of Canaan and the others should have left because the land was promised to Israel.  That's like someone coming to my house and telling me to get out because God told him that he could have it.  And then blaming me because he had to kill me to "accomplish God's will." In short, it isn't realistic to expect that people will uproot and leave their home.  Even the most peaceful folks will fight when home is what's at stake.

Fortunately, in the ancient world the situation was much more clear than the situation you describe at the doorstep!. Each nation/state/city had their main god that was supposed to protect that specific spot of land. The bigger the country, the bigger and more powerful the god had to be. If a foreign people came to you and said "our god wants to take over your land" the only real way to know whose god was bigger (and therefore which claim was 'legitimate') was to fight. If your god won, then obviously their statement about 'change of ownership' was bogus or irrelevant. If they won, of course, the opposite was true--and off you go (assuming they didn't kill you in the process).

But in some cases there was a short-cut to know whether their god would beat your god--by checking the "stats" and applying the "transitive law". If you knew, for example, that  your god A (deity of a local Canaanite city-village), could be easily beaten by god B (the god of Egypt, the mightest nation on the planet), but that god B (Egypt) was recently beaten by a more powerful god C (God of the Hebrews), then you could easily make the A<B<C connection, and know that a head start on moving north to Phonecia might be a good idea. The fact that this had been forecast for centuries earlier, and told around all the nearby city campfires didn't hurt its credibility either...nor did the stories of the Hebrew ancestor Abraham, whose exploits against the 5 Kings were still stories of wide circulation and awe...

In other words, the Israelite claims were not simple "one-off" prophetic declarations of "mine!"--but had a long history of circulation, and were substantiated (in their minds) by the awesome victory over the mightiest nation and pantheon on earth--that of Egypt. Under circumstances like this--given the way the ancients understood deity--it would be extremely realistic to expect them to uproot and move their home. There actually would be no better way to communicate the certainty of that future than by such an extraordinary event as the Exodus, if well-publicized (which it was). If God was trying to give them a 40-year 'early warning', this was the most effective way possible to help them see the reality of that future, and give them almost a generation to prepare and build a new life/home somewhere else (south or most likely, north).

Conclusion: Judgment is called God's "strange work" in the OT prophets. What for us humans is the problem of "why does God not do anything about evil and cruel people" is simply the other side of His patience with us. He hopes that we will accept a love of the truth and a commitment to value. In love, He deliberately "believes the best" (I Cor 13).

What started out as the "Unfair genocide of the Canaanites" ended up as the "Less-than-they-deserved punitive deportation from the land"--filled with patience and mercy and 'second chances'. It was nonetheless a judgment, and nonetheless involved death--as it later would be repeated to His people.

Far from being the "genocide of an innocent people for land-hungry Israelites", it was instead the "firm, yet just--and even a little merciful to the masses--removal of a people from a tract of land, mostly through migration."

glenn miller, 2/8/97, Oct 2000

From: The Christian ThinkTank...[] (Reference Abbreviations)