Does the destruction of the Canaanite peoples in the Old Testament by the Israelites support genocide? Critics of the Bible and Christianity sure think so. This is a problem that has troubled Christians and has turned some people away from considering the faith. In this post I will argue that this episode in the Bible does not justify or support genocide.
We first of all need to ask what the Biblical context is for destruction of the Canaanites? Are there other incidents in the Bible where the destruction of whole people groups take place. I can think of two, one in the Old Testament and one in the New.
In the Old Testament we have the great flood in the days of Noah. The only ones who survived the flood were Noah and his family. That means all the other people groups, nations, races, etc were destroyed completely. Was this a case of genocide instigated by God? No. The Scriptures do not say God was motivated by ethnic hatred in sending the flood. There is no hint of racism or nationalistic fervor. Instead, the flood is God’s judgment on human sin. God, the great creator of and king and judge over all humanity holds us to account for our moral actions, thinking and heart desires. He brought these people under his judgment because their sins deserved it. It was not genocide.
In the New Testament, we have the example of the 2nd Coming of Christ and the Last Judgment where nations are destroyed. We are told the nations will gather to together and wage war against God and that God will destroy them. Again, the motivation behind the destruction was God’s judgment on sin. It has nothing to do with ethnic prejudice. In fact, we are told that there will be people from every tribe, language, people and nation that will be saved from God’s wrath. Their nationality is no barrier to their salvation and their ethnicity is not the reason for their destruction. It is their sin that brings them under God’s wrath.
I would argue that this is exactly what is happening with the destruction of the Canaanites. In fact, the Scripture tells us it was because of their sin that this judgment came upon them. God was justly punishing them for their moral failures and law breaking. The Israelite army was just the instrument of God’s judgment. It can be seen that the ethnicity of the Canaanites was not the motivation for the judgment in that some Canaanites were saved from the destruction when they turned to the God of Israel in faith, such as Rahab from the city of Jericho. The destruction of the Canaanites was not genocide. It was the just punishment for their sin.
The Old Testament nation of Israel was unlike any nation on earth before or after its existence. It was a theocracy with God as its King. Their destruction of the Canaanites was like an intrusion of the 2nd Coming and Last Judgment into the history of the world. The Israelite army was a foreshadowing of the angel armies that will accompany God when he comes in the final judgment. No other nation has ever had or ever will have the relationship with God that OT Israel had. Their actions are not a guide in any shape, form or fashion for modern nations. It was a foreshadowing of the last judgment.
God told Adam and Eve that the punishment for sin is death. That is the spiritual meaning of death for humanity. It is the testimony that our rebellion against God has failed. It shows our efforts to make ourselves gods equal to God have been futile. It is proves that no man is good. If we were, we would not die. Death is the proof that that we all have fallen short of his glory and deserve his wrath and curse. We do not deserve to live. Every second we live is a gift of God’s grace. God is the one who decides when death, his judgment on sin, comes to everyone. In the case of the Canaanites, God had decided their time had come, not because of their nationality, but because of their sin. The judgment that befell them reveals just how horrible our sins are and how great is God’s wrath on evil, that we should flee the wrath that is to come.
But God is a God whose grace and mercy are as great as his judgment and wrath. God has provided a way to escape his wrath that our sins justly deserve. He himself has borne his wrath for our sins on the cross in the person of Christ. God has waged holy war on himself to save us from it. He offers his forgiveness and eternal life as a free gift to all who will turn to Christ in faith as Savior. He is the one who saves us from the wrath to come. This is the good news of the gospel.
The church, not any nation, is the continuation of Old Testament Israel. Jesus says the church is a spiritual kingdom, not a political one. He forbids the use of violence for the spread of his kingdom. Instead he says the nations will be conquered by the foolish weapons of the preaching of the gospel and the love of his people. Christians are taught to love their enemies, to bless them not curse them, to conquer them with grace and kindness, not the sword. It is the job of Christians to love the nations and see them saved, not destroy them.
While modern nations have the right to the limited use force to maintain order and to protect themselves, none of them have the right to implement the last judgment. Christians rightly condemn and oppose genocide for it is our job to take the gospel to all the nations that they might believe and find salvation in Christ.