Many cannot reconcile how a loving God could command the killing of the Canaanites in the Old Testament. I don’t like it any more than you do, but having just completed a course at Biola on why God allows evil, I understand it much better now. Here are four main reasons why this terrible event occurred in Israel’s history (this is not an exhaustive explanation by any means):
1. During the time of the Canaanites, Israel was commanded to conquer the land in order to protect the seed (see Gen. 3:15) which carried with it the promise of the future hope in the lineage of Jesus Christ. Thousands of years later, we question God’s goodness in ordering such an act. However, when examining the Biblical meta-narrative, we can see God’s hand working in history to cause the fulfillment of the coming Messiah. The salvation of humanity was to come through Israel’s lineage, and if the Canaanites continued in their immoral practices, it is a high probability that they would have raised up generations of Canaanites to conquer and eventually exterminate through syncretistic worship, the nation of Israel—protector of the seed. The Canaanites would have tried to exterminate every last Jew, similar to what Hitler tried to do in World War II.
Let’s put this scenario in a modern context. During World War II, Winston Churchill declared that the war was for the “survival of Christian civilization.” The very way of life was being threatened globally. A decision was made to end the madness by bombing civilian population centers, including the devastating nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Why is it fair that we dropped a nuclear bomb, killing children along with adults, in World War II? Most Americans still feel these were necessary acts to preserve our way of life. Thousands of years from now, without understanding the historical context, what will people think of this act?
2. God hates sin. The first of the Ten Commandments shows he hates idolatry, and the Canaanites were famous for this sin. Canaanites were polytheists, and their idolatrous practices included incest, adultery, child sacrifice, homosexuality, and bestiality. The sin of idolatry has been lost on us today because such overt acts are not part of westernized culture. Idolatry has become much more subtle. Today, for example, people do not bow down to golden calves directly, but indirectly some certainly do! Many love money more than anything else, giving their life to the pursuit of it. (Yes, they do not literally bow down in a religious ritual of worship to money, but their actions show that money is their sole passion.) One of the main reasons God hates idolatry is that to worship something (meaning anything you devote your whole heart to) made from human hands is worthless, and if you follow after what is worthless, you become worthless (see Jer.2:5).
3. God is sovereign, and in this case, he meant to destroy everything (even the cattle-because they were used in bestiality practices), and he cannot tolerate sin. He has every right to order the utter destruction! We don’t like to hear that, because we often want to minimize our own sin. We must remember that God wants us to be holy; thus, we should read the Old Testament in light of what “holy and set apart” means. The people who have trouble understanding this are putting God in a box, and making their own standard of how they think God should judge. It’s important to note that this is the only time in Israel’s history that God ordered destruction on this scale, and it was to clear the land, make it holy for Israel to live in, and protect the seed.
Still, it is hard to consider that everyone perished in this judgment. Children were involved, just like in war, and suffered the consequences of their parents’ acts. Anger for this harsh punishment should be directed instead at their caregivers for not considering the consequences their actions had on the community because they were warned numerous times (see Hosea 13:16; Amos 7:17). The Lord had predicted that Abraham’s descendants would claim the land when “the sin of the Amorites” (Canaanites were their direct descendants) reached its “full measure” (see Gen 15:16b). This “full measure” of sin was attained by the Canaanites in the generation leading to the Jewish conquest. God allowed the Canaanites to sin, often using them to teach Israel obedience. He demonstrated grace in that their sin would point to the ultimate redeemer, Jesus Christ. God is the standard of good, and if he allowed the children to live, it is highly likely that the children would carry on with the generational sin of their Canaanite parents.
4. Lastly, the blood retribution practiced by ancient tribal culture required the Jewish armies to destroy not only the soldiers of their enemies, but their families as well. So long as one member of a family remained, that person was bound by cultural law to attempt retribution against the enemies of his people. Such unrest and hostility would have persisted throughout the nation’s history, with no possibility of peace in the land. What appears to be genocide was actually the way wars were typically prosecuted.
When studying any Biblical story, keep in mind the times in which it was written and the cultural influences of that age. A thousand years from now, just think how people may perceive our history—it’s not easy to fully understand what life was like looking back at an age that has long since past.