Did God Command Genocide in Canaan?

Joshua and Israelites

Joshua and the Israelite People / Korolingischer Buchmaler, ca. 840

A lot of atheists are deeply offended by the God they don’t believe exists.

He commanded Joshua and Israel to obliterate Canaanite civilization by killing every man woman and child within their promised boundaries. At least one has asked, “How is it possible to believe in a good God after reading the book of Joshua?”

Read the rest of the Bible!

God did not command Israel to commit genocide. He commanded Israel to execute capital punishment. Canaanite society finally disappeared from history at the hand of the expanding Babylonian empire centuries later.

More people died during those centuries because of Canaanite practices than Israel should have killed in a single generation.

The sin of the Canaanites

Child sacrifice to Molech

Child offered to Molech to be burned alive. King Solomon built a temple to Molech.

“Canaanite” is a collective term for a number of related tribes, described in various scriptures as “the Kennites, Kenizzites, Kadomites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, and Jebusites” (Genesis 15:19-21)

Abraham moved from Ur of the Chaldees to the land of the Canaanites. God promised that his posterity would inherit it.

During Abraham’s lifetime, God destroyed the Canaanite towns of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham had pleaded with God for the city and God promised to spare it if he could find ten righteous people in it (Genesis 18:22-32).

He found one: Abraham’s nephew Lot.

Two angels met Lot in the city gate, and Lot, supposing them to be ordinary travelers, invited them to spend the night in his house. Men from all over the city surrounded the house, bent on homosexual gang rape of the two strangers (Genesis 19:1-29).

God did not destroy the city for that reason. It was ripe for destruction long before that night. After Israel went into exile, corrupted by Canaanite practices, Ezekiel declared that Israel and Sodom were sisters.

He wrote, “Now this is the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned with the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen” (Ezekiel 16:40-50).

Notice that the arrogant and uncaring attitude came first, and the detestable things—like homosexual gang rape—occurred as a result. These two verses exactly fit Paul’s indictment of the entire human race:

  • We all know God, but neither glorify him nor give thanks.
  • Instead of worshiping the God who created us, we worship the work of our hands and believe ourselves so clever for making them.
  • We developed sinful desires, and God gave us permission to indulge in them. That indulgence led to a depraved mind.
  • We want exactly what we want when we want it, whether it’s good or wicked. If someone gets exactly what he wants, it requires thwarting someone else.
  • We have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed, depravity, envy, murder, strife, and malice. And incidentally, some of us became homosexual through that process. Others prefer different depravity, so we judge each other (Romans 1:16-32).

That’s a general description. Canaan’s particular crimes included not only general violence and sexual licentiousness, but also killing babies, burning them alive as sacrifices to their idols.

God’s mercy to the Canaanites

The Harlot of Jericho and the Two Spies / James Tissot (1896-1902)

The Harlot of Jericho and the Two Spies / James Tissot (1896-1902)

When God made covenant with Abraham, he said his descendants would be slaves in a foreign land and endure great hardship, partly because “the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure” (Genesis 15:16).

The sin of Sodom had reached its full measure, but it took centuries before the rest of Canaanite civilization reached that depth of depravity.

Abraham’s contemporaries saw how he worshiped God and saw how their gods didn’t punish him. His presence among them gave them opportunity to emulate his worship.

The book of Job was written centuries later, but set in Canaan during the time Abraham’s descendants were in Egypt. His story must have made quite an impression to be handed down from generation to generation until it became the literary masterpiece we now possess.

The Canaanites could have observed and become like Job, or for that matter, his three friends and the young man who wandered past to comment on their debate. They could have observed and taken after any number of righteous people whose names are not recorded but must have certainly lived before their sin reached full measure.

They didn’t. They sank into depravity until they could sink no lower.

Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt to the border of Canaan. There they turned back and refused to invade the land. They wandered in the wilderness for 40 years until everyone of that generation died.

Then Joshua sent spies to Jericho, and a local woman told them

I know that the Lord has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below. – Joshua 2:8-11

For 40 years, they knew that Israel was coming. For 40 years they knew that Israel’s God was Lord of heaven and earth, and that therefore their gods were a sham. For 40 years they could have repented of their wickedness and chosen to worship the living God.

Instead they chose to keep killing and raping each other, conducting orgies for worship services, and burning their children alive to honor despicable and cruel gods. They were truly a society fully deserving capital punishment. Israel failed its mission.

Eight centuries of preventable bloodshed

destruction of jerusalem by nebuchadnezzar

Destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuzaradan of Babylon / William Brassey Hole

Israel shared the land with the Canaanites from the conquest in about 1400 BC until Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and carried the surviving Israelites to Babylon in 586 BC. The difference between those two dates is roughly 800 years.

I haven’t been able to find any estimate of the population of Canaan at the time Joshua began his invasion. Even the size of the Israelite army presents a puzzle.

Let’s just arbitrarily say that Joshua invaded a land with a million inhabitants. The important fact, though, is not the number, but that the Israelites failed to drive them all out of the land. (And they were not commanded to kill Canaanites outside their own land.)

Israel soon adopted Canaanite practices. At times only a minority of Israel did so, but during the last hundred years or so of the kingdom, even the priesthood set up pagan idols and altars–in God’s temple. Few people attempted to call the nation back to the true God.

The sin of the Canaanites so thoroughly corrupted Israel that God had to destroy the kingdom and remove the entire Israelite population from the land for 70 years.

  • How many Israelites perished at the hands of enemies from Canaanites to Babylonians during that time as the outcome of the curse of the law?
  • How many children (both Canaanite and Israelite) were sacrificed to Canaanite gods in that 800-year span?
  • How many men and women (both Canaanite and Israelite) were brutalized by gang rape?
  • How many murders happened in Canaanite society simply because they had no law that forbid it?
  • How many (both Canaanite and Israelite) suffered ill health and died prematurely because of having been born of incestuous relationships?
  • How many (both Canaanite and Israelite) died attempting to have sex with animals?
  • Whatever the law of Moses forbade, chances are the Canaanites practiced it. How many people (both Canaanite and Israelite) suffered ill health and died in 800 years of disobedience?

If those numbers added up only to the million hypothetically wiped out in the conquest, it would average out to 1200-1300 annually. Surely the number of people who died because Israelite’s failure to execute God’s judgment on an irredeemably evil society amounted to much more than that. Military setbacks alone accounted for more deaths than that in single battles.

America has become like the Canaanites

Christ's return

The Last Judgment / Stefan Lochner (15th century)

The people who express such outrage at God’s command to wipe out Canaanite civilization do not burn burn children alive, but they approve of the slaughter of unborn babies through abortion.

They approve of all the same sins for which the Canaanites came under judgment.

Like the Canaanites, they seek to infiltrate God’s people and woo them into depravity, with, unfortunately, similar success. The US is on a downward moral spiral that only divine intervention can halt.

God is still Lord of the universe. God still condemns sin. God still mercifully provides opportunity to repent and return to him. God will pour out his wrath in judgment again when sin reaches its full measure. It’s because of his grace and mercy that we are not already consumed.

All illustrations are public domain. Some came from Wikimedia Commons.


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