Many people take issue with the idea that God commanded the Jewish nation to initiate war against the Canaanites, ordering them to wipe them out and take their land for their own. Not only have some people rejected Christianity over this, but it has even spurred some Christians to leave the faith. Are the critics of the Old Testament and Christianity in general correct when they accuse God of genocide and of slaughtering those who don’t worship Him? How do we as apologists reconcile the God of love with an alleged religious bigot and racist ethnic cleanser?
In researching my book, Prophecy of the Heir, a literary apologetics novel that spans the entire Old Testament through angelic and demonic eyes, I discovered what I believe is a sound defense for God’s actions, which I hope will help those who struggle with this subject matter.
1. 400 Years to Repent
In Genesis 15:13 and 16, when God promises Abraham that He will give the land of Canaan to his descendants, He informs him that it will not take place for another 400 years because their sins “do not yet warrant their destruction.”
What sins was God referring to? History indicates that child sacrifice was rampant in Canaan. Years later, when the Israelites were in the land and began worshipping false gods, it was not until they started sacrificing their children that God sent the Babylonians to take them captive. When it comes to the murder of the innocents, God does not spare even His own people. Why should it come as a surprise then that He would punish the Canaanites for the same crime?
We don’t hear of complaints against God concerning the destruction of Nineveh, the people of whom were given only 3 days to repent, because they were spared due to “turn(ing) from their evil ways and stop(ping) all their violence (Jonah 3:7-10). Note that it doesn’t say they destroyed their idols, or converted to worship of Yahweh. It merely states they were spared judgment for halting their violence. They were never threatened punishment for worshiping false gods.
Why did God give the Canaanites so long to repent? Evidently, He had no desire to wipe them out, and hoped that future generations would stop the violent atrocities learned from their parents. And it should be noted that he warned Abraham that during those 400 years, He would allow His own people to be enslaved (subjected to maltreatment, labor death-camp conditions, and infanticide). It should be noted the similarities in the life of Christ, that God loved those “who were yet sinners” so much that He would allow His own Son to suffer in the hope that mankind would repent.
Nineveh had the prophet Jonah to warn them, but whom did the Canaanites have? In the heart of Canaan was the city Salem, and its king was Melchizedek, a priest of God Most High (Gen 14:18). Though we know little of Melchizedek, many biblical historians have speculated that He was Noah’s son Shem. If this is the case, the Canaanites were contemporaries with one who had lived in the pre-flood world, who witness firsthand the atrocities of the Nephilim and God’s punishment against the violence that had saturated the world. But regardless of who he was, as king, it is inconceivable that He had little influence in the Canaanite cities surrounding his own, and as the first known priest of God, it is equally doubtful that he did not exhort the peoples around him to forsake violence and child-sacrifice, and to turn to God.
3. Sodom and Gomorrah
Whereas Nineveh was a city that was spared God’s judgment, Sodom and Gomorrah were not. As Sodom and Gomorrah were part of Canaan, why were they not given the same 400 years to repent as the rest of Canaan? In Genesis 18:20-21, God tells Abraham, “I have heard a great outcry from Sodom and Gomorrah, because their sin is so flagrant. I am going down to see if their actions are as wicked as I have heard. If not, I want to know.”
Many critics are quick to point out that this “flagrant sin” was homosexuality, and that this passage is proof of God’s homophobia. However, nowhere in the Bible does it say that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah due to homosexuality. In fact, Ezekiel 16:49-50 cites exactly why God destroyed these cities: “Sodom’s sins were pride, gluttony, and laziness, while the poor and needy suffered outside her door. She was proud and committed detestable sins, so I wiped her out, as you have seen.”
Though “detestable sins” is not specific (and other translations use the word abominations), the only mention of homosexual behavior in connection to Sodom was the attempted homosexual gang-rape of the two angels searching for enough righteous people in the cities to spare them from judgment. And once again, nowhere in the list of their sins was the worship of false gods.
So why were these cities not given the same 400 years to repent? Perhaps He feared their “flagrant sins” would hold more sway over the other Canaanite cities than Melchizedek’s influence. By eliminating them, He intervened in the course of human history and stacked the odds in the favor of Canaanite repenting.
4. Fire and Brimstone versus War
Would people take as much issue with God if he specifically mentioned He was punishing the Canaanites for child-sacrifice, and had “rained down fire and brimstone” on them rather than using war as his tool of judgment?
It is very possible they would not, and Moses even accosts the Israelites about just that in Deuteronomy 9:4-6: “After the LORD your God has done this for you (given you the land of Canaan), don’t say in your hearts, ‘The LORD has given us this land because we are such good people!’ No, it is because of the wickedness of the other nations that he is pushing them out of your way. It is not because you are so good or have such integrity that you are about to occupy their land. The LORD your God will drive these nations out ahead of you only because of their wickedness, and to fulfill the oath he swore to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. You must recognize that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land because you are good, for you are not—you are a stubborn people. Know, then, it is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stubborn people.”
5. Prisoners of War
As an aside, I would like to briefly mention God’s treatment of war when not as a course of punishment but as an inevitable action of mankind. In 2 Kings 6:22, an army that had repeatedly raided towns and villages of Israel, killing men, women, and children, sought to kill the prophet Elisha. When they were apprehended, the King of Israel asked Elisha if they should be executed. The prophet’s response? “Of course not!” Elisha replied. “Do we kill prisoners of war? Give them food and drink and send them home again to their master.”
In closing, I hope to have shown reasonable evidence that the destruction of the Canaanites had nothing to do with religious bigotry or ethnic cleansing, and that at every turn, God sought ways to spare them as He did with Nineveh, Sodom, and Gomorrah.