Why did God tell the Jews to kill all the Canaanites?
The book of Joshua presents most readers with a troubling question: how can a God of love command his followers to destroy an entire nation of people? The Canaanites had lived in their land for centuries before Joshua and his people came to claim it for themselves. While some in Canaan fought against God’s people and were destroyed as a result (cf. the battle of Ai, 8:14ff), others did not attempt armed aggression against Israel. The people of Jericho, for instance, retreated inside their city walls and mounted no attack against the Jews. Nonetheless, following divine orders, the Israeli soldiers “destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys” (6:21).
The God of Joshua also required a similar kind of wrathful judgment against his own people when they sinned. Following the battle of Jericho, a soldier named Achan took in plunder “a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a wedge of gold weighing fifty shekels” (7:21). He did so in direct disobedience to the divine command that “All the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron are sacred to the Lord and must go into his treasury” (6.19).
For this sin, the Israeli army was defeated in the first battle of Ai. When Achan admitted his disobedience, he and his family were taken to the Valley of Achor where they were stoned to death and then burned (7:25).
Such vengeance sounds very little like the God who is love (1 John 4:8), the One who would send his own Son to die on a cross in place of our disobedient race. How are we to reconcile the first Joshua with the Second? Four facts may help us.
Facts to remember
First, the Promised Land belonged to God before the Canaanites established temporary residency there. It had always been his plan to give this land to the descendants of Abraham: “In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here” (Genesis 15:16a). The Lord did not take from the Canaanites that which was “theirs”—he reclaimed that which was his according to his foreordained purposes.
Second, the Canaanites lived in wicked rebellion against the will and purposes of God. The Lord had predicted that Abraham’s descendants would claim the land when “the sin of the Amorites” reached its “full measure” (Genesis 15:16b). This “full measure” of sin was attained by the Canaanites in the generation leading to the Jewish conquest.
Moses warned his people about these sins they would encounter upon entering the Promised Land: “Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead” (Deuteronomy 18:10-11). He stated that anyone who practices such sins is “detestable to the Lord,” and explained that “because of these detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you” (v. 12). Those who were conquered by Joshua and his armies were not innocent victims, but wicked sinners who received the judgment their transgressions had warranted.
Third, the blood retribution practiced by ancient tribal culture required the Jewish armies to destroy not only the soldiers of their enemies, but their families as well. So long as one member of a family remained, that person was bound by cultural law to attempt retribution against the enemies of his people. Such unrest and hostility would have persisted throughout the nation’s history, with no possibility of peace in the land. What appears to be genocide was actually the way wars were typically prosecuted.
Fourth, in these formative early years of Israel’s history it was imperative that the people be kept from the influence of sinners without or within their nation. The holy God who gave them their land would uproot them from it if they rebelled against him (Deuteronomy 28:63-68). This warning came to pass centuries later at the hands of Assyria and then Babylon, and ultimately in the national destruction wrought by Rome in the first century of the Christian era.
And so God had to bring severe judgment against Achan, lest he and his family spread the cancer of their disobedience within the nation. He ordered his people to destroy all they found within Canaanite civilization, lest it continue to tempt them to disobedience and eventual destruction. We find similar severity during the formative years of the Christian movement in God’s judgment against Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11).
God does not change. But his purposes are fulfilled in different ways at different times in redemptive history. Justice required retribution against the sinful Canaanite civilization. And his salvation plan required a purified nation through whom he could bring the Messiah of all mankind. When Christ came, Joshua’s leadership of conflict and conquest was fulfilled.
Now we are taught to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors (Matthew 5:44). Not because God has changed, for such love proves that we are “sons of your Father in heaven” (v. 45). Rather, because such love expresses his grace toward us and all mankind.
Was it fair that Israel destroyed the residents of Canaan? If God were fair, none of us could see his perfect heaven. We are all spiritual Canaanites, saved from eternal wrath only by the love of our Creator. Think back to your last sin. Admit that this one transgression warrants the judgment and condemnation of a holy God. And thank God that he is not fair.