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What about the Canaanites?

Updated: Feb 14, 2022

Over the past few weekends, we have been talking about some Old Testament characters in the books of Joshua and Judges. As a thoughtful reader of these books will notice, there is a lot of killing and destruction by the Hebrews of the people who are living in the land.

God ordered the Israelites to “drive out” the inhabitants of Canaan from their homeland. Here we have essentially what today would be considered “ethnic cleansing.” While most people would consider it legitimate to engage in war to defend their homeland, most would not see it as legitimate to go to war to confiscate someone else’s homeland.

What are we to make of this?

We could say that the Old Testament is a primitive book which contains barbaric statements and practices which cannot be accepted anymore. It was a different time! But this is not a thoughtful explanation and contains a number of issues.

For example, we can clearly see this type of behavior breaks the sixth and eighth commandment. [Exodus 20:13, 15] So how are we to make sense of this “taking of the land” with the “keeping of the Law?”

The problem is that God allowed the Israelites in Joshua and Judges to do what He forbids people to do all throughout the rest of the Bible.

So why does God allow this exception here? And, why can’t this part of the Bible be used to support “Holy Wars” today?

  • This war was not based on race or ethnicity. The purpose of the mission was to break down the altars of the idols, tear down the high places and evict pagan worship from the Promised Land. [Judges 2:2]

  • This was was not about Imperialistic Expansion. The Hebrews were not allowed to take spoils of war. For example, in the battle of Ai, Achan took some of the spoils of war and it cost him his life. [Joshua 7:1-26] The Israelites were told to totally destroy the spoils of the land, this was meant to be a cleansing operation.

  • God has the right to judge people in any way He sees fit. Sometimes God used a foreign nation to judge His own people. [Habakkuk 1:5-11, Deuteronomy 28, Genesis 15:13-16] God used the Canaanites, the Babylonians and other nations to Judge His people. The nation of Israel was routed and relocated by the Babylonians, God’s instruments of judgment, for 70 years, because of their unbelief.

  • God used the nation of Israel to judge the Canaanites. [Joshua 1:1-9] This is what we are seeing in the book of Joshua and Judges. Israel is not more righteous, they are merely God’s instruments of judgment. You can read the book of Judges to get an idea of the lack of spiritual depth of the Israelites. God has the right to be the ultimate judge of how, when and where judgment will take place.

  • God gave specific, verbal revelation to the Israelites to evict the Canaanites. God knows the end from the beginning. He alone has the right and the knowledge to see persons who will be condemned on Judgement Day when His Son returns. God, who is the Judge of all, can determine to begin to mete out justice on anyone now, rather than later. He is not required to wait for the Last Day.

This was a specific mandate given by God to His People for a very specific purpose. This is not a mandate for His followers today. We have no basis for a “Holy War” today. We are called to follow the ten commandments, this is our default ethical standard.

More than that, we are called to love God with all that we have and all that we are, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. These are the Great Commandments we are called to follow today.

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” — Matthew 22:36–40

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