The Canaanite Genocide

By Ruth Preston

How can I believe in a God who commanded the Canaanite genocide?

 This question has the potential to generate an exhaustive amount of material due to the seriousness of the content, but also, because of the many subtopics that could be discussed in relation to it. Therefore, this essay will outline in brief the main points of an answer. The question enquires about God’s character: How can we reconcile genocide with a good God? In looking at this question analytically, the answer outlined in this article may not satisfy the enormity of such an event, emotionally or otherwise. Nevertheless, there are a number of considerations that certainly contextualize the destruction of the Canaanites and facilitate an understanding of at least some things about it in the light of what the Bible says as a whole.

This article will not attempt to make the Canaanite genocide sound tolerable. For God does not delight in the death of the wicked (i.e. anyone), and therefore to make this event sound in any way banal would not convey the anguish of Gods heart for lost humanity (Jonah 4). The horror felt when reading about the destruction of Canaan is appropriate. God’s judgment has always been represented as just, but also terrifying. So on the outset it must be clear that this essay will not try to make a fearful event comfortable or convenient, but instead will attempt to explain the reality of God’s judgment against evil.

My presuppositions in answering the question

I am assuming that God exists and the Bible is true. If the questioner does not believe in the existence of God, he/she will (actually) be asking about the religious capacity for war, instead of God’s motives. For if God does not exist, Israel’s belief that they were “commanded by God” is fallacious, and therefore, the motive for genocide must lie with Israel herself. Indeed, if we suppose that God does not exist, the Canaanite genocide becomes a brutal military campaign that can join the many similar events scattered across our unfortunate history, and be condemned as such. However, as the question asks for justification for a Biblical event, and validation for an act of God, it is fair that we take the Biblical account at face value.

God’s justice

The Bible has always seen the conquest of Canaan as an act of God’s justice, by which he was driving out a nation of gross immorality. This was not an arbitrary campaign. The Bible gives us a glimpse of the type of society that God was judging: ‘When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son of his daughter as an offering,’ (Deuteronomy 18: 9-10).

Extra-biblical sources seem to support this analysis. The discovery of the Ugaritic Tablets in 1929 has given us a good idea of the myths and rites used by the Canaanites and have supplemented and supported the Biblical information.

The iniquity of the Canaanite culture was so extreme that it aroused God to act. This is not the first time that this has happened in history, nor the last. If God is good, then he must hate what is evil and deal with it. And this is what God did. Why doesn’t God prevent evil? We have free choice, and choice is a necessary component needed for real love, which is the highest of all human virtues. But if we can choose, we can also choose not to love God, which is a biblical definition of evil (Mark 12:30), for wrong doing flows from the heart. As such, evil exists in us all, but because God is good he has dealt, and will deal with evil; either through the cross on our behalf or directly. That is true for every nation and every person. Naturally, this is not the most popular of ideas, for it makes us all accountable for the things that we do – yet it is a Biblical principle.

 Isn’t the Canaanite destruction Ethnic Cleansing?

Is racism warranted by this biblical event? No. God acts for justice in and through human and non-human agents universally with no distinction. Even when he uses a human agent, as he did with Israel, it does not follow that they will be considered guiltless for his using them. In fact, God said precisely this to Israel: ‘Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people’ (Deuteronomy 9:6). God’s justice, therefore, is not racially differentiated. God made it clear to Israel that he would punish them, as he did the Canaanites, if they followed their practices: ‘And if you (Israel) forget the Lord your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. Like the nations that the Lord makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the Lord your God’ (Deuteronomy 8: 19-20)

And he did do. Israel did pick up the habits of the nations around them, so God sent prophet after prophet to warn Israel of his anger, and his love for them, and combination of feelings that breaks his heart (The book of Hosea). Finally he does to the Israelites what he promised he would do a drives them of the land by the hand of the Assyrians and the Babylonians. God does not fight primarily for races, but for justice.

 Does the conquest of Canaan validate Holy War?

 Likewise, drawing on my previous comments, ‘Holy War’ today cannot be justified by the records of the Canaanite defeat. Since Jesus Christ has died for those who believe in him, God is offering his hand of friendship to the nations through him, and war is not needed, and is directly forbidden if it be in the name of Christ (Matthew 26: 52-56), thus events such as the crusades cannot be substantiated by the Bible.

God’s intention for mankind

Is God a warmonger then? There is a distinction made in the Bible between what was sometimes allowed, and what God ideally intended. For we as humans have choice; and because of this freedom we all have turned our backs on God and chosen what God did not originally intend: ‘We know that Old Testament law has to strike a balance between the ideals of God’s creational standards and the realities of fallen human life.’ (Wright, C. J. H., The God I Don’t Understand, Zondervan, 2008, p.89)

Because we often freely choose what is not good, God has worked in our history and has made concessions to our habits. So I would argue that it is us who are the warmongers, God has made concessions to our free will. Punishment was never an ideal that God wanted, but it is a consequence of our wrongdoing. Indeed God hates death: “As surely as I live,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?”’ (Ezekiel 33:11).

 What do we mean when we say: ‘God is loving’?

The Canaanite genocide often makes people think; How can a loving God do this? But God does not just love; he is holy, just and righteous. If God were to be just and not compassionate, it would mean death for every human immediately upon committing any sin. It is by Gods love that we live and have enjoyment in many things in life; this is known as common grace. But God is also just which means he cannot ignore evil, and he doesn’t. The Bible makes it clear that every wrong act will not be ignored – which puts all of us in a fearful position, (Romans 2:1-5).

But God did the most incredible thing, he showed that his love goes deeper than we could ever fully grasp. On the cross Jesus (God and Man, second person of the Trinity) was punished on our behalf. The Bible says that Jesus willingly bore the wrath of God in our place, so that we can be friends of God. God is just and punishes sin, but loved us so much that he took our punishment and placed it one himself. Consequently, to say: ‘God is loving’ does not mean he does not punish wrongdoing, as can be seen by the destruction of Canaan. Instead it means that God would suffer himself in our place. This love is more extravagant and dynamic than any abstract philosophical ideas of ‘omni-benevolence’. The passionate love of God was displayed supremely on the cross.


– Wright, C. J. H., The God I Don’t Understand, Zondervan, 2008

– Arnold, B., T., Beyer, B., E., Readings from the Ancient Near East, Baker Academic, 2002

– Edwards, L. E. S., Gadd, C. J., History of the Middle East and the Aegean Region 1380 – 1000 B.C, Volume 2, Cambridge University Press, 1975

– Boadt, Lawrence. Reading The Old Testament: An Introduction, The Missionary Socioty, New York, 1984

– Hirschfelder, J.M., The Scripture defended, A Reply to Bishop Colenso’s book, on the Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua, Toronto, 1863

– Show Them No Mercy: 4 Perspectives on God and the Canaanite Genocide, Cowes, C. S., ed. Gundry,

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