Why Did God Command the Israelites to Destroy the Nations in the Land of Canaan?

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Image by Vlad Ropotica. Adapted for Redemption of Humanity. Used under licence.

Last edited on 13/Jan/2021

The Bible’s Answer

God’s Commands

When God commanded the children of Israel to conquer the Promised Land, he told them that they must devote every person in the cities to complete destruction by the sword:

But in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, 17 but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the LORD your God has commanded, 18 that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the LORD your God. (Deuteronomy 20:16–18

And at the seventh time, when the priests had blown the trumpets, Joshua said to the people, “Shout, for the LORD has given you the city. 17 And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the LORD for destruction. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall live, because she hid the messengers whom we sent. … 21 Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword. (Joshua 6:16–17, 21)

Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. 3 Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey. (1 Samuel 15:2–3)

But such passages as these can be troubling not only for non-Christians, but also for Christians, too. Why would God allow such a violent thing to happen by his own permission? And doesn’t this contradict his gracious and merciful nature? Actually, it doesn’t.

The Wickedness of the Canaanites

The Bible tells us why God gave these commands in the following passage:

Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you. 5 Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. (Deuteronomy 9:4–5)

God did not just decide to command the Israelites to destroy all the inhabitants of Canaan simply because he promised Abraham that his descendants would inherit it; he commanded them to do it because the Canaanites were wicked, evil, sinful people. The following passages tell us about some of the perverse, evil things that the inhabitants of Canaan committed on a regular basis, including: incest, adultery, bestiality, homosexual relations, sorcery, divination, necromancy, and child sacrifice:

None of you shall approach any one of his close relatives to uncover nakedness. I am the LORD. … 19 “You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness while she is in her menstrual uncleanness. 20 And you shall not lie sexually with your neighbour’s wife and so make yourself unclean with her. 21 You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD. 22 You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. 23 And you shall not lie with any animal and so make yourself unclean with it, neither shall any woman give herself to an animal to lie with it: it is perversion. 24 “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, 25 and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. (Leviticus 18:6, 19–25

“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. 10 There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practises divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer 11 or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who enquires of the dead, 12 for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD. And because of these abominations the LORD your God is driving them out before you. 13 You shall be blameless before the LORD your God, … (Deuteronomy 18:9–13)

These passages tell us that because of these perverse sins, God was commanding the inhabitants of that land to be destroyed. These commandments are not war-related; they are related to judgement. God is bringing judgement upon these sinful nations, because he is a God of justice. God was being just by punishing these nations.

God Is a Patient and Merciful Judge

As a matter of fact, God gave the Canaanites four centuries to repent of their evil, and yet they still refused to (“here” in the passage refers to Abraham’s homeland, Canaan):

Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgement on the nation that they serve, and afterwards they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete. (Genesis 15:13–16)

To the contrary, when the people of Nineveh were given the chance to repent of their sins, they did, and so God had mercy on them and spared them of punishment:

Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. … When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. (Jonah 3:1–5, 10)

Therefore, if the nations in the land of Canaan had repented of their sins, then the Lord wouldn’t have sent Israel in to wipe them out.

Why The Inhabitants Had to be Destroyed

The reason why all the inhabitants were to be destroyed was because even if a sinful remnant were left, they would have led the children of Israel away from the Lord to serve false gods. God warned his people of this, but each time they did not heed his warnings:

They were for the testing of Israel, to know whether Israel would obey the commandments of the LORD, which he commanded their fathers by the hand of Moses. 5 So the people of Israel lived among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 6 And their daughters they took to themselves for wives, and their own daughters they gave to their sons, and they served their gods. (Judges 3:4–6

And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals. 12 And they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the LORD to anger. 13 They abandoned the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth. (Judges 2:11–13)

What About the Infants?

The men, women, and old people of the land had all their lives to repent, but what about the infants and young children who were killed during God’s judgement on the land, carried out by Israel? They still did not have the intellectual capacity to make informed decisions, nor were they given a chance. While this is difficult to come to terms with, there are different possibilities as to what could have happened if the infants and children remained.

The babies and children who were left either would have grown up resenting Israel, and been a stumbling block to them, they would have led the Israelites astray through their false gods, as God warned would happen if the inhabitants lived with them, or the infants would have been subject to their parents’ perverse lifestyles and harmed by them. God knew of all the misfortunes and disasters which would have happened, had the future generation of the inhabitants of Canaan remained. For whatever the exact reasons, his sovereign decree was for the greater good.

What Happens to Infants Who Die?

The Bible is silent on the issue about what happens to babies (or very young children) who die before they believe. However, what we do know is that God takes no pleasure in the death of anyone, whether they are seemingly innocent or wicked.

Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn, and live. (Ezekiel 18:31–32)

Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ezekiel 33:11)

We also know that God loves justice and righteousness; the Bible teaches that he is a God of justice and faithfulness, and that all of his judgements are fair.

He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the LORD. (Psalm 33:5

The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he. (Deuteronomy 32:4

Therefore the LORD waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the LORD is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him. (Isaiah 30:18)

In light of what the Bible teaches about God’s nature, while we do not know the true fate of those children who died without faith, all we can say is that they were sent into the hands of a loving, merciful God, who loves justice. He will judge them fairly, and he knows the right thing to do with them, according to his omniscience and infinite wisdom. He has it all figured out. That is all we can say. The same goes with all other people who die. God will judge them fairly, without partiality, and only according to what they deserve. God’s judgement upon the nations in Canaan was just, and there was nothing immoral about it, because they refused to turn from their evil ways. In fact, God’s nature is the source of all moral values, and he is the very standard of what is good (1 John 1:5; 4:8, 16); he can, therefore, only do what is good.

Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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