Why God Decreed Extermination for the Canaanites
WHAT a grand liberation it was! Jehovah God freed the Israelite descendants of faithful Abraham from oppressive slavery in Egypt. Miraculously the Red Sea opened, the Israelites escaped through the passageway dry-shod, but their Egyptian pursuers perished when God brought the held back waters down upon them. (Ex. 14:1-31) He explained to the Israelites: “I am Jehovah your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan.”—Lev. 25:38.
In keeping with God’s decree, the Israelites under commander Joshua subjected Canaanite cities to complete destruction when they eventually came into the land. The instructions from God were: “You should without fail devote them to destruction. You must conclude no covenant with them nor show them any favor.” In obedience to this command, “Joshua proceeded to strike all the land of the mountainous region and the Negeb and the Shephelah and the slopes and all their kings. He did not let a survivor remain, and everything that breathed he devoted to destruction, just as Jehovah the God of Israel had commanded.”—Deut. 7:2; Josh. 10:40.
But was it not needlessly cruel to destroy all resisting Canaanites, including women and children? Why did God decree such a complete extermination? Many persons who have read the Bible have wondered about this. While not being critical of God, nevertheless, they have not fully understood the purpose of decreeing total destruction for the Canaanites.
WAY GIVEN THE LAND
Just prior to their entry into Canaan, Moses made clear to the Israelites why Jehovah would back them up in the conquest of the land. He explained:
“Hear, O Israel, you are today crossing the Jordan to go in and dispossess nations greater and mightier than you . . . And you well know today that Jehovah your God is crossing before you. A consuming fire he is. He will annihilate them, and he himself will subdue them before you; and you must dispossess them and destroy them speedily, just as Jehovah has spoken to you.
“Do not say in your heart when Jehovah your God pushes them away from before you this, ‘It was for my own righteousness that Jehovah has brought me in to take possession of this land,’ . . . in fact, it is for the wickedness of these nations that Jehovah your God is driving them away from before you, and in order to carry out the word that Jehovah swore to your forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”—Deut. 9:1-5.
Thus, there were principally two reasons why Jehovah gave the land of Canaan to the Israelites and authorized them to dispossess the Canaanite populations. First, centuries before, God had promised this very land to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And secondly, because of their extreme wickedness the Canaanite people merited destruction.
PROMISED TO THE PATRIARCHS
It was at Jehovah’s instruction that Abram or Abraham packed up his household and left his own country to travel ‘to the country that God would show him.’ The Bible record relates: “Finally they came to the land of Canaan. And Abram went on through the land as far as the site of Shechem, near the big trees of Moreh; and at that time the Canaanite was in the land. Jehovah now appeared to Abram and said: ‘To your seed I am going to give this land.’”—Gen. 12:1-7; 13:14-16.
Later Jehovah God specified the boundaries of the land, and by means of a covenant deeded it to the seed or descendants of Abraham. The Bible says: “On that day Jehovah concluded with Abram a covenant, saying: ‘To your seed I will give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.’” (Gen. 15:17-21) To Abraham’s son Isaac and to Isaac’s son Jacob, Jehovah God reaffirmed this covenant, promising the land to their descendants.—Gen. 26:3-6; 28:13-16.
Certainly Jehovah God, the Almighty Creator, has the sovereign right to give any portion of land to whomever he desires. As the Christian Greek Scriptures explain: God “made out of one man every nation of men, to dwell upon the entire surface of the earth, and he decreed the appointed seasons and the set limits of the dwelling of men.” (Acts 17:26) Yes, God reserved the right to set limits or boundaries for peoples, as the Bible says: “When the Most High gave the nations an inheritance, when he parted the sons of Adam from one another, He proceeded to fix the boundary of the peoples with regard for the number of the sons of Israel.”—Deut. 32:8.
Therefore, to the Israelite descendants of blessed Abraham Jehovah God apportioned the land of Canaan. God had a very important purpose for doing this. He desired to have a special people governed by his righteous laws, and through them to bring forth the Messiah, the savior of obedient mankind. Eventually, by means of this Messianic Son of God, all nations of mankind would have the opportunity to bless themselves.
True, God could have apportioned some other land to Israel, thus making it unnecessary to dispossess the Canaanite people. But by giving this land to Israel he used them as his instruments to destroy the grossly wicked Canaanites.
A LONG HISTORY OF WICKEDNESS
The Canaanites had a long history of wickedness. They descended from Canaan, the grandson of Noah, through Ham. (Gen. 9:18) And apparently Canaan had a definitely corrupt trait, perhaps of a lustful nature, that was manifested by some abuse in connection with his grandfather Noah. Canaan’s father Ham, though having knowledge of this act, either failed to prevent it or to take disciplinary action against the offender. So Canaan received a divine curse. (Gen. 9:20-25) By means of his foreknowledge God could see the bad results in which this evil characteristic would eventually culminate among Canaan’s descendants.
Even by Abraham’s time one segment of the Canaanite population, those residing in the neighboring cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, were so given over to indulgence in loose, immoral conduct in defiance of every law, that God reduced their cities and their whole populations to ashes. Abraham had pleaded in their behalf, but not even ten righteous persons could be found in the cities.—Gen. 18:20–19:29; 9:19; 2 Pet. 2:6-8.
Also indicative of the badness of the Canaanites is the effect upon Isaac and Rebekah that their son Esau’s marriage to Canaanite wives had. The Bible says that these wives were a “source of bitterness of spirit to Isaac and Rebekah” to the extent that Rebekah had ‘come to abhor her life because of them.’—Gen. 26:34, 35; 27:46.
Therefore, Jehovah God purposed to set a limit upon the Canaanite badness, during which time it would become obvious to any honest observer that they were deserving of destruction. That period paralleled the time during which God was preparing a people for his name from among Abraham’s descendants. Note how Jehovah informed Abraham about the future movements of his posterity: “In the fourth generation they will return here, because the error of the Amorites [apparently the strongest Canaanite tribe] has not yet come to completion.”—Gen. 15:16.
Thus Jehovah had been long-suffering. He had been undeservedly kind to those corrupt and wicked tribes of Canaan, permitting them to squat in a fruitful land, a “land flowing with milk and honey,” and pollute it with all of their abominations. Now the day of reckoning approached. They had refused to reform. They must take the consequences.
WICKEDNESS REACHES ULTIMATE
But were the Canaanites really that wicked to merit extermination? Did the women and children also have to be wiped out? Was it in harmony with God’s justice and love to subject those people to such complete destruction?
The Bible reveals that the Canaanites were indeed that wicked. After commanding the Israelites to avoid incest, fornication and other such practices, God commanded: “You must not allow the devoting of any of your offspring to Molech. . . . And you must not lie down with a male the same as you lie down with a woman. It is a detestable thing. And you must not give your emission to any beast to become unclean by it, and a woman should not stand before a beast to have connection with it. It is a violation of what is natural. For all these detestable things the men of the land who were before you have done, so that the land is unclean.” (Lev. 18:2-23, 27) Yes, child sacrifice, incest, sodomy and bestiality were the way of life of the Canaanites! In addition, they practiced magic, divination, sorcery and other things detestable to God.—Deut. 18:9-12.
The Canaanite religion was extraordinarily base and degraded, their “sacred poles” evidently being sex emblems and many of the rites of their “high places” involving gross sexual excesses and depravity. No wonder God ordered their extermination! If even the women and children were allowed to remain, they would entice the Israelites to practice immoral, false worship.—Ex. 23:24; 34:12-17; Num. 33:52; Deut. 7:3-5; 20:16-18.
From secular sources, particularly the ancient documents discovered in 1929 at Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit) on the Syrian coast, much has been learned about the gross immorality of Canaanite worship. Baal is presented as the most prominent of the gods, and Astarte or “Ashtoreth” as a prominent goddess, even as the Bible record shows to have been the case.—Judg. 2:12, 13; 6:25-32; 10:6; 1 Sam. 7:3, 4.
A god of fertility, Baal is described as going through recurrent cycles of dying and reviving, corresponding with the seasonal cycles of growth and decay or dormancy of the vegetation on earth. Thus, Baal’s coming to life again to be enthroned and mated with his wife, considered to be Ashtoreth, was celebrated with licentious fertility rites at the autumnal new year. Worshipers gave themselves up to drunkenness and sexual orgies of unrestrained debauchery, believing that their sexual intercourse helped to bring about the full awakening and mating of Baal with his wife.
Although Ashtoreth was represented principally as a fertility goddess, she also symbolized the qualities of violence and war. Thus Professor John B. Noss in his book Man’s Religions, notes of her: “She sometimes took sword in hand, sprang naked upon a horse, and rode forth to bloody slaughter.” Among the Philistine inhabitants of Canaan, Ashtoreth was apparently a goddess of war, since the armor of defeated King Saul was placed in the temple of the Ashtoreth images.—1 Sam. 31:10.
Archaeological finds have pointed to the gross immorality associated with the worship of Ashtoreth. Halley’s Bible Handbook, 1964 printing, page 161, says of such finds: “Also, in this ‘High Place,’ under the rubbish, Macalister found enormous quantities of images and plaques of Ashtoreth with rudely exaggerated sex organs, designed to foster sensual feelings.
“So, Canaanites worshipped, by immoral indulgence, as a religious rite, in the presence of their gods; and then, by murdering their first-born children, as a sacrifice to these same gods.”
How despicable! Can any person properly find fault with God for ordering the extermination of such immoral, wicked people? Unger’s Bible Dictionary, page 912, observes: “Canaanite religion with its orgiastic nature worship, the cult of fertility in the form of serpent symbols, sensuous nudity and gross mythology are revealed in their stark reality in these texts [discovered at Ras Shamra]. No longer can critics accuse the God of Israel of injustice in ordering the extermination of these debilitating cults.”
IN KEEPING WITH GOD’S JUSTICE AND LOVE
The Canaanites knew forty years in advance of Israel’s coming and had powerful evidence that Almighty God was with them. (Josh. 2:9-21, 24; 9:24-27) However, with the exception of Rahab and her family and the cities of the Gibeonites, those who came in for destruction neither sought mercy nor availed themselves of the opportunity to flee, but instead chose to harden themselves in rebellion against Jehovah. So there was no injustice on God’s part in ordering the execution of such stubborn opposers.—Josh. 11:19, 20.
The decreed extermination of the Canaanites was actually a loving command of Jehovah God, and by failing to carry it out completely the Israelites suffered greatly. For the continued presence of the Canaanites among them brought infection into Israel that, in the course of time, undoubtedly contributed toward more deaths (not to mention crime, immorality and idolatry) than the decreed extermination of all the Canaanites would have produced had it been faithfully effected.—Num. 33:55, 56; Ps. 106:34-43.
By his execution of the Egyptian armies in the Red Sea, his fiery overthrow of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and his decreed extermination of the wicked inhabitants of Canaan, Jehovah God reveals that he will not tolerate wickedness indefinitely. Therefore, how happy we can be that very soon, by means of his chief executioner Jesus Christ, he will destroy this wicked system of things and usher in a new order of righteousness!—2 Thess. 1:6-9; Rev. 19:11-21; 2 Pet. 3:13.