The Conquest of Canaan: How Sin Pollutes the Land

The Conquest of Canaan: How Sin Pollutes the Land March 29, 2024

In my last article, I addressed a recent controversy that broke about Israel’s conquest of the Canaanites. In that article, I began a defense of the literalist view of the war against Canaan; one that has recently reemerged in light of an interview that William Lane Craig did with Alex O’Connor, an atheist YouTuber. In that interview, Craig defends the literal view of the conquest based on two major premises: first, that the commands of God are always in alignment with His nature, which is inherently good. And second, that the evil practices of the Canaanites warranted the issuing of God’s command to kill them, to include the women, children and even livestock (assuming the Canaanites did not flee the land first). In this interview, Craig referenced my former professor, Dr. Clay Jones, whose 2009 article, “We Don’t Hate Sin, So We Don’t Understand What Happened to The Canaanites” details some of the abhorrent practices committed by the Canaanites and, as such, makes the second premise that much more vivid.

In this article, I will discuss one aspect of sin, as understood by the ancient authors, that Craig does not develop in his interview with O’Connor. That is the idea that sin pollutes the very land upon which sinful acts are committed. In his interview with O’Connor, Craig mainly is interested in arguing the philosophical case for Divine Command Theory, which, of course, is important. Although one should point out that many have misconstrued Craig’s understanding of DCT to be one grounded solely in the will of God, and not in God’s essence, or nature. This is a kind of DCT that Craig, so far as I can tell, rejects. Unless Craig has changed his views recently, he believes in a modified DCT, which, again, grounds God’s commands not in His will, called voluntarism, but in His being. For a more detailed philosophical articulation of modified DCT, however, I would suggest this book by philosopher C. Stephen Evans.

In the next few posts, however, I will raise five points that mitigate the apparent harshness of God’s command to annihilate the Canaanites. As I stated in the previous post, when I say I am defending the “literalist” view, all I mean is that a) there was a real Moses, b) that this Moses issued a command of God to the Israelites in or around the second half of the 13th-century BC, and c) that this command was to conduct “herem” or “the ban” against the inhabitants of Canaan, to include women, children and livestock. The first point I will make has to do with the nature of sin, namely, that one aspect of sin we do not understand as moderns is the way it functions as an environmental pollutant.

Sin as Pollutant

In the Old Testament, and the New, sin is not merely understood as the breaking of an abstract commandment or law. Rather sin is analogous to a kind of disease or infectious cancer, and it is presented as having almost physical properties in its capacity to affect physical substances. We see this feature of sin as early as Genesis 6 with the story of the Flood:

11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12 And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. 13 And God said to Noah, ‘I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.

Gen 6:11-13

Commenting on verses 11 and 13, Nahum Sarna points out the ontological connection between human immorality and the land itself:

The use of such all-inclusive terms as ‘the earth,’ ‘man’s wickedness,’ and ‘all flesh’ in the indictment of humanity serves to justify God’s actions. The totality of evil in which the world has engulfed itself makes the totality of the catastrophe inevitable.

Nahum Sarna, Commentary on Genesis, 51.

And:

This is how ‘et ha-‘arets was understood in ancient versions. Genesis Rabbi 31:7 interprets that the topsoil of the earth is to be removed. This reflects the biblical idea that moral corruption physically contaminates the earth, which must be purged of its pollution.

Sarna, Genesis, 51. [emphasis added]

We find this idea even earlier in Genesis, when the blood of Abel “cries out [to God] from the ground.” (Gen 4:10). Further, while it may be wise for us to consider how sin might pollute or corrupt the environment in general (as I have written about here), for God’s chosen people, the specific tract of land that mattered was the one promised by God to Israel. This was the covenant land that God promised to Abraham in Genesis 15. It was this earth, this soil, that was being corrupted by the sins of the Canaanites. This is also why God didn’t allow Israel to simply stay in Egypt and have Moses lead a successful peasant revolt against the Pharaohs.

Furthermore, when Israel later begins to practice the same abominations as the Canaanites, she too is run out of the land, “vomited out” even (Lev 18:28). Punishment for the pollution of the earth via sin (not carbon emissions), was an equal opportunity act of the divine will. Regarding the Land, then, Jeffrey Tigay emphasizes the importance of it in his introduction to the Book of Deuteronomy:

All of Deuteronomy looks toward Israel’s life in the promised land. The land of Israel, the focus of God’s promises to the patriarchs, is His ultimate gift to their descendants. It is the place where God’s laws are to be carried out and where a society pursuing justice and righteousness…and living in harmony with God…can be established.

Tigay, Deuteronomy, xvi

In short, sinful actions not only break fellowship with God, who is utterly holy, they abuse oneself, other persons and even defile the very earth upon which we walk, plant our crops, and build our homes. This defilement of the earth is presented most poignantly in the Holiness Code of Leviticus, which connects the pollution of the Land to the worst kinds of sins: sexual misconduct and human sacrifice:

You shall not have sexual relations with your kinsman’s wife, and defile yourself with her. 21 You shall not give any of your offspring to sacrifice them[d] to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord. 22 You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. 23 You shall not have sexual relations with any animal and defile yourself with it, nor shall any woman give herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it: it is perversion.

24 Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, for by all these practices the nations I am casting out before you have defiled themselves. 25 Thus the land became defiled; and I punished it for its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. 26

Commenting on the Levitical injunction against such defilement, Baruch Levine says:

The interdependence of the people and the land is a prominent theme in prophetic teaching. Those who violate the code of family life commit an outrage that defiles the land–which, in turn, will spew them out….It is as though the land, personified, is angered by its defilement at man’s hand.

Levine, Leviticus, 123

Moreover, once the land is saturated with the pollution of evil, God cannot be, in any personal way, present:

To retain the nearness of God it was necessary [for Israel] to provide a sacred environment acceptable to Him. It was feared that if the purity of the earthly environment were compromised, God would become enraged and withdraw His presence from His people, often punishing them as well.

Levine,  xxv.

In sum, our more modern sense of sin as mere “law breaking” is a deficient view of the ontological reality of sin. Sin is not abstract, but concrete. It affects all our relationships: to God, to man (including ourselves) and to nature. Those effects are always corrosive, and, as such, require cleansing, or kipper. Levine comments on this need for expiation:

‘To expiate,’ is central to ancient Israelite worship because it relates to divine forgiveness. Its basic sense is that of cleansing, of washing away impurity and sinfulness.

Levine, xviii.

According to Genesis 15, God was going to allow a period of roughly 400 years for the Amorites (Canaanites) to change their ways, and to desist from defiling the land. If they had done so, they could have been spared. However, the biblical evidence we have suggests that they chose not to do so. In this way, the Canaanites might be rightly seen as an ancient example of environmental abusers. The Canaanites sin was as much violence against the environment as against each other– not in virtue of dumping toxic waste into the Jordan, but on account of dumping babies into the fire of Molech.

Finally, the agent that God would choose to cleanse the land (not the ethnicity) was Israel.  Further, we know that the cleansing was not an ethnic one, as I pointed out in the previous article, but a moral and spiritual one. In one sense, Israel is analogous to today’s radical environmentalists, ready to commit violence against those who are violating the goodness of the creation. Perhaps it stretches the analogy too far to imagine a bronze-age, fiery-eyed Greta Thunberg standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Joshua and Caleb ready to pounce on the Amorites. However, perhaps there is something there for us moderns to think about.

Does Our Sin Destroy the Earth?

Jesus and The Cleansing of Sin

In this defense of God’s holy justice against sin, it would be imprudent not to mention Good Friday, the very day in history upon which sin was, once and for all, destroyed. It is also timely, since today is Good Friday and, as such, we celebrate the blood of Christ cleansing us from the corrupting effects of sin. This cleansing takes place first in the forensic, historical act of Jesus taking on the sins of the world, and nailing them to the cross via his own body (Col 1:20; 2:14). This crucifixion in a particular place, Israel, and moment in time, circa 32 AD, acts as the cleansing agent for sin. It is the healing ointment for evil and the anti-pollutant to the environmental corruption of our souls. In Christ, God assumes all the punishments for sin Himself on our behalf and for our reclamation.

However, one must appropriate this cleansing formula. If one does not, but instead chooses to remain in the land of the flesh, the land of sin, then like the Canaanites who remained in the land, we too will share the same fate: destruction. For sin always destroys, and, it is always a self-destruction.

As such, Old Testament scholar Charlie Trimm, commenting on the historical events of the Conquest of Canaan, reminds us who are living on the other side of the Christ event that we are not in the role of the Israelites, but are, rather, like the Canaanites:

Hermeneutically, as we read the Old Testament we have to be cautious about reading ourselves with the “good guys” of the text and seeing those who are judged as the “other”….We should not condemn for the Canaanites without first reminding ourselves that their fate is what we deserve as well. We are not “better” than the Canaanites. 

Trimm, “YHWH and Genocide? Reflections on an Unpleasant Topic in the Old Testament”

However, if we realize what we actually are, and how we not only pollute but are polluted, then we can be cleansed by the blood of the Lamb and, in so doing, we can begin to participate in the healing of the land: both the land that is our own body, and the land in which that body resides.

In the next post, I will discuss the second point that mitigates the apparent harshness of the herem, namely the corporate nature of sin.

About Anthony Costello
Anthony Costello is an author and a theologian. He has a BA in German from the University of Notre Dame (1997), an MA in Apologetics (2016) and MA in Theology (2018) from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. He has published articles in academic journals such as Luther Rice Journal of Christian Studies and the Journal of Christian Legal Thought. In addition, Anthony has made chapter contributions to Evidence that Demands a Verdict, edited by Josh and Sean McDowell and has published several articles for magazines such as Touchstone and made online contributions to The Christian Post and Patheos. Anthony is a US Army Veteran, former 82D Airborne paratrooper and OEF veteran. You can read more about the author here.
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