Why Did God Wage War Against the Canaanites?
“Completely destroy all the people: the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, as the LORD ordered you to do.”—DEUTERONOMY 20:17, TODAY’S ENGLISH VERSION.
“Be peaceable with all men.”—ROMANS 12:18.
DO THOSE Bible verses seem contradictory to you? Many struggle to reconcile God’s command to destroy the Canaanites with the Bible’s admonition to be peaceable.* (Isaiah 2:4; 2 Corinthians 13:11) To them, these instructions seem morally inconsistent.
If you could discuss this subject with God, what would you ask him? Consider five common questions and the Bible’s answers.
1. Why were the Canaanites displaced? The Canaanites were, in a sense, squatters in a land that did not belong to them. How so? Some 400 years earlier, God had promised the faithful man Abraham that his descendants would possess the land of Canaan. (Genesis 15:18) God kept that promise when he caused the nation of Israel, which descended from Abraham, to occupy the region. Of course, some might protest that the Canaanites already lived there and therefore had a right to the land. But surely, as the Sovereign of the universe, God has the ultimate right to determine who will live where.—Acts 17:26; 1 Corinthians 10:26.
2. Why did God not allow the Canaanites to coexist with the Israelites? “They should not dwell in your land,” God warned regarding the Canaanites, “that they may not cause you to sin against me. In case you should serve their gods, it would become a snare to you.” (Exodus 23:33) The prophet Moses later told Israel: “It is for the wickedness of these nations that Jehovah your God is driving them away.” (Deuteronomy 9:5) Just how wicked were those nations?
Immorality, pagan worship, and child sacrifice were widespread in Canaan. Bible historian Henry H. Halley notes that archaeologists excavating the area “found great numbers of jars containing the remains of children who had been sacrificed to Baal [a prominent god of the Canaanites].” He adds: “The whole area proved to be a cemetery for new-born babes. . . . 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. It seems that, in large measure, the land of Canaan had become a sort of Sodom and Gomorrah on a national scale. . . . Archaeologists who dig in the ruins of Canaanite cities wonder that God did not destroy them sooner than he did.”
3. Were there not other wicked people on earth at the time? Why single out the Canaanites? God has selectively executed sinners on many occasions. When “the earth became filled with violence” in Noah’s day, God caused a deluge that wiped out all but one family—Noah’s family. (Genesis 6:11; 2 Peter 2:5) God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah when the sin of their inhabitants became “very heavy.” (Genesis 18:20; 2 Peter 2:6) And he pronounced judgment against the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, “the city of bloodshed,” although he spared that city when its inhabitants repented from their bad ways. (Nahum 3:1; Jonah 1:1, 2; 3:2, 5-10) As for the Canaanites, God destroyed them in order to protect Israel, the nation that would eventually produce the Messiah.—Psalm 132:11, 12.
4. Did not the Canaanites’ destruction conflict with God’s love? On the surface, God’s exterminating the Canaanites might seem inconsistent with his love. (1 John 4:8) However, that love becomes quite apparent when we take a closer look.
God knew long beforehand that Canaan’s inhabitants were headed in the wrong direction. Yet, instead of immediately wiping them out, he patiently allowed 400 years to pass until their error had “come to completion.”—Genesis 15:16.
When the sin of the Canaanites reached the point where all hope of improvement was gone, Jehovah brought their end. Even so, he did not blindly execute all Canaanites. Why? Because not all were beyond reform. Those willing to change, such as Rahab and the Gibeonites, were shown mercy.—Joshua 9:3-11, 16-27; Hebrews 11:31.
5. How could a God of love destroy any humans? That question is understandable, for the destruction of human life is not pleasant to contemplate. Really, though, it was God’s love that impelled him to take such drastic measures against the wicked. To illustrate: When a patient develops gangrene, doctors often have little choice but to amputate the infected limb. Few would enjoy performing such a procedure, but a good doctor knows that the alternative—the spread of infection—is worse. Because he cares, he carries out this unpleasant task for the good of his patient.
Similarly, Jehovah did not enjoy destroying the Canaanites. He himself says: “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” (Ezekiel 33:11, Darby) At the same time, he purposed for the nation of Israel to produce the Messiah, the one who would open the way to salvation for all those exercising faith. (John 3:16) Thus, God simply could not allow Israel to become infected by the disgusting practices of the Canaanites. He therefore ordered the Canaanites to be cut off, or evicted, from the land. In so doing, God demonstrated outstanding love—love that moved him to perform an unpleasant task for the benefit of his faithful worshippers.
Value for Us
Does the record of the Canaanites’ destruction have value for us today? Yes, for Romans 15:4 states: “All the things that were written aforetime were written for our instruction, that through our endurance and through the comfort from the Scriptures we might have hope.” How does what happened in Canaan instruct us and give us hope?
These accounts teach us much. For example, God mercifully spared Rahab and the Gibeonites when they turned to him in faith. This reminds us that anyone who truly wants to please God can do so, regardless of his background or past sins.—Acts 17:30.
Accounts of the destruction in Canaan also give us hope by providing us with a preview of what God will do in the near future. They assure us that he will not allow evil to snuff out good completely. Rather, the Bible affirms that he will soon act to destroy all wicked ones, whereas he will deliver those who love him into a righteous new world. (2 Peter 2:9; Revelation 21:3, 4) At that time, these comforting words will be fulfilled: “Hope in Jehovah and keep his way, and he will exalt you to take possession of the earth. When the wicked ones are cut off, you will see it.”—Psalm 37:34.
In this article, the term “Canaanites” refers to all the nations God ordered Israel to displace.
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Does the Bible Condone Human Warfare?
Does God’s commanding Israel to destroy the Canaanites justify human warfare today? No, for at least three reasons:
▪ No earthly nation today has special favor with God. When the Israelites rejected Jesus as the Messiah, they ceased to represent God in any official capacity—including that of executioners. (Matthew 21:42, 43) Jehovah thus held the Israelites to the same standard as other nations. (Leviticus 18:24-28) From that time on, no earthly nation could rightly claim to have God’s backing in warfare.
▪ Jesus clearly indicated that his followers would not engage in warfare. When warning of an impending attack on Jerusalem, he instructed his disciples not to stay and fight but, rather, to flee, which they did. (Matthew 24:15, 16) Instead of taking up arms, true Christians put their complete trust in God’s Kingdom, which will soon remove all wickedness from this earth.—Daniel 2:44; John 18:36.
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Rahab’s example shows that anyone who truly wants to can please God