Knowing full well that some atheist will accuse me of justifying genocide, I wanted to look another time at the account of the destruction of the Canaanites upon the entry of the Israelites into the Promised Land as recorded in the Book of Joshua. Naturally, these verses cause a great deal of problems for most people, and they should. To accept blindly the complete and utter destruction of "all of the inhabitants" of various cities (such as Jericho [Jos. 6:21] and Ai [Jos. 8:26]) without being concerned about the extent of the destruction would show a lack of compassion that would be disturbing. However, saying that one should examine the circumstances surrounding the destruction of the peoples is not the equivalent of saying that one should immediately assume that such destruction was definitely wrongful. This is where many knee-jerk atheists make their mistake. While they accuse Christians of being the ones who are unable to see nuances in positions, a total disregard of the reasoning that the destruction of entire groupings of people may be morally acceptable when taking all factors into account shows a lack of careful thought that it is appalling.
I want to begin the examination by discussing termites. In California, whenever a person purchases a home, she is wise to take steps to be certain that the house is not infested with termites. The destructive force of termites, as anyone living in California already knows, is incredible and causes millions of dollars in damage to buildings every year. To buy a home without first removing the termites by fumigating the property is simply asking for trouble down the road.
To a degree, the Israelites were in much the same situation as the California landowner when they entered the promised land. The land that they sought to inhabit was already inhabited by a race of people known as the Canaanites. What is largely ignored about the Canaanites is the fact that they were very, very bad people. In an article by Robert Bowman entitled Joshua's Conquest: Was it Justified? Near the beginning of his article, Dr. Bowman reminds us that the Canaanites were among the very worst people in terms of how they lived their lives:
Critics of the Old Testament's claim that God ordered the killing of whole tribes in Canaan typically neglect the reason expressly stated in the Old Testament: those tribes were depraved beyond redemption (Gen. 15:16; Lev. 18:21-30; 20:2-5; Deut. 12:29-31; etc.). According to the Old Testament, the Canaanites and other tribes in the land widely practiced child sacrifice, incest, bestiality, and other behaviors that almost everyone in history, including today, rightly regard as unspeakably, grossly immoral. If this explanation is even acknowledged, critics often claim that it is a later theological justification for Israel's displacing those peoples from the land. Even many mainstream biblical scholars make this claim.
I have already questioned the conventional wisdom that the wickedness of the peoples of Canaan was an after-the-fact rationalization. However, even if the passages were all composed after the fact, such a response really skirts the issue, which is whether that theological justification was true. If the people of Canaan were akin to the peace-loving, civilized folks of different religions living in our suburban neighborhoods and working in our colleges, hospitals, and fire departments, then the Israelite claim that God had condemned those peoples as hopelessly degenerate would be rightly questioned. On the other hand, if the Canaanites and other peoples in the land were a degenerate society widely practicing bestiality and publicly burning their children to Molech, might not the Old Testament writers have had a point?
Dr. Bowman then examines some of the evidence, scant though it is, and determines that the evidence, to the extent it exists, supports some of the accounts about the Canaanites recorded in the Bible. They were a bad people. Certainly, it is reasonable to believe that they needed to be removed from the Promised Land if the Israelites were to take their God-given place in that area. In other words, the Canaanites were like the termites that needed to be removed from the home -- to leave them there would be simply to ask for trouble in the years ahead.
(Of course, people and termites are very different creatures with it being generally accepted to destroy the latter at will while it is universally agreed that the former should be protected - although under naturalistic beliefs there is little reason to make such a distinction. Still, to the extent that the Canaanites inhabited the lands and brought with them the ability to destroy the foundation of what God was seeking to build through the Israelites, the analogy has some limited value.)
Still, the Israelites did not, in fact, destroy all of the Canaanites. The lingering presence of the Canaanite people and their false religion (which the Israelites erroneously adopted again and again throughout Old Testament history) led to many, many difficulties for the Israelites over the years. As Dr. Bowman notes in the aforementioned article:
Although the Israelites under Joshua gained a measure of dominant control over much of the land of Canaan, they did not eliminate the peoples of Canaan completely and did not cleanse the land thoroughly of the corrupt religious and social practices of the Canaanites. Throughout the periods of the judges, the united monarchy, and the divided monarchy, Baal worship in particular continued to be a problem. One can only imagine how much more difficult it would have been to maintain with integrity any religion of the worship of Yahweh had the Israelites not been as aggressive as they were under Joshua. Elijah's infamously overstated lament that all Israel had abandoned the worship of Yahweh for Baal illustrates just how close Israel came at times to doing just that.
Clearly, the Israelites would have been better off if the wicked Canaanites had been completely removed from the Promised Land. They were like a cancer in the land that needed to be cut out completely for the body to remain healthy. They were like the termites who, if left in place, could severely damage -- perhaps even destroy -- the house of Israel.
Could they be converted? To answer this, one needs to consider the overall goodness of God. God does not take the destruction of people lightly. As demonstrated early in Genesis when God personally smote (because His chosen people had yet to develop into the nation that could act on His behalf) the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, he showed his desire to spare a group of people even if there are a very small number of people who can be seen as "righteous."
Abraham came near and said, "Will You indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will You indeed sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”Genesis 18:23-26, 32.
So the LORD said, "If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare the whole place on their account."
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Then he said, "Oh may the Lord not be angry, and I shall speak only this once; suppose ten are found there?" And He said, "I will not destroy it on account of the ten."
These verses reflect the absolute absence of righteousness in the societies of Sodom and Gomorrah. Not even ten people in those cities could be found who would be considered righteous. This leads to the conclusion that God does not punish unjustly, and refrains from meting out punishment when the righteous may be slain with the unrighteous. Bible Commentator Matthew Henry points out:
God’s general good-will appears in this, that he consented to spare the wicked for the sake of the righteous. See how swift God is to show mercy; he even seeks a reason for it. See what great blessings good people are to any place, and how little those befriend themselves that hate and persecute them.”
Matthew Henry Commentary on Genesis 18, available through The Blue Letter Bible (http://www.blueletterbible.org/).
Moreover, the Old Testament shows that God gave the wicked peoples of that world an opportunity to turn from their wicked ways and surrender to God’s people before any attack. As shown at many times throughout the Old Testament, and as highlighted in the account of Jonah, when God has decided to punish a culture, he sends them advance notice. He will send prophets telling them what He is about to do, and asking them to repent. Jonah went to Nineveh to tell the people of that city that God was to destroy them. They listened and repented and God did not destroy them. Thus, it is a good probability that the Canaanites had plenty of notice of what would happen if they continued in their rebellious and evil ways.
Also, under the rules of war that the Israelites operated, they gave the Canaanites every opportunity to surrender prior to the actual attack. And it is almost certain that few women or children were left behind. As noted by Norman Geisler:
“[M]ost of the women and children would have fled in advance before the actual fighting began, leaving behind the warriors to face the Israelites. The fighters who remained would have been the most hardened, the ones who stubbornly refused to leave, the carriers of the corrupt culture. So it’s really questionable how many women and children might actually have been involved anyway.
“Besides, under the rules of conduct God had given to the Israelites, whenever they went into an enemy city they were to first make the people an offer of peace. [Deut. 20:10:10-13] The people had a choice: they could accept that offer, in which case they wouldn’t be killed, or they could reject the offer at their own peril. That’s appropriate and fair.”
Thus, contrary to the assertion of skeptics, the destruction of the Caananites was not an evil. It was the Canaanites who were evil, and it was the judgment of God through the Israelites on the Caananites in those cities were led to their destruction. We can be confident that the people destroyed were irredeemably wicked and unrighteous. We can be confident that there were no righteous people among those destroyed. We can be confident that God sent them prior notice of their destruction, and that he gave them opportunity to repent and surrender even up to the date of the actual battle. The destruction that fell upon them was the result of their absolute and utter unrepentant evil, and their decision to continuously attack and attempt to annihilate the chosen people of God.
Thus, to the extent that someone suggests that the Israelites should simply have tried to share the land with these people, they fail to take into account two very important factors: (1) the Canaanites opposed their entry into the land and wouldn't co-habitate the land with the Israelites and (2) the continuing presence of the Canaanites was damaging to the Israelites.
Obviously, the Canaanites had to go for the Israelites to be at peace in their new home. If the Israelites had simply attacked the Canaanite cities, destroyed their armies and allowed the inhabitants to flee, I doubt that the removal of the Canaanites under those circumstances would have caused the same hullabaloo that the verses call because they report that the Israelites destroyed all of the inhabitants of the towns -- young and old, men and women. Was this really necessary?
I want to answer the question two ways. First, I want to note that such destruction may have been necessary because the Israelites needed to clean the land of the evil of the Canaanites. Consider: if the Israelites had destroyed only the soldiers, what would they have done with the inhabitants of the towns? Sent them on their way? Odds are that these people would have moved elsewhere for a time until they regained their strength and then returned to press the attack. Certainly, that's what appears to have happened often with the Philistines. They couldn't bring the people into their camps because God, for reasons of His plan of salvation, had decreed that the savior was to come from the Jewish people who needed to be kept separate and apart. Besides, if they brought in the Canaanites, these Canaanites would have brought their despicable practices into Israel with them and led to even greater violations of the laws of God than occurred even after they were mostly destroyed.
So, what should they have done? What was the alternative? Assuming that the people of Israel were to have this land, what else were the Israelites to do besides for completely destroy the inhabitants that would have protected themselves from further attacks and would have kept the evil influences of the Canaanites from corrupting the Israelite society (which, even in the limited form in which it survived following Joshua's conquest, remained a corrupting influence despite the killing of all of the inhabitants of a couple of towns)? I note that the people who object to the attacks have nothing to say on this point. They want to assert that the Israelis were wrong to attack.
Personally, I think that the judgment of an omniscient God that the Canaanites were more like termites than like people carries more weight than the attacks by the skeptics who simply refuse to give serious consideration to anything that would portray God as both merciful and just.