Why Did God Order the Destruction of Canaan?

Why Did God Order the Destruction of Canaan? March 6, 2024

One of the most contentious and vexing questions of biblical history is God’s ordering Israel to destroy the people of Canaan. This order to annihilate the Canaanites, and other nations within the land of Israel, is presented most clearly in Deuteronomy, chapter 7:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you— and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. But this is how you must deal with them: break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles,[a] and burn their idols with fire. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.

Deut 7:1-6

As challenging as it may be for modern readers to hear, the biblical text is nevertheless quite clear about why the Canaanites had to be destroyed. The destruction of the Canaanites was on account of idolatry.

The Slow Path To Idolatry

Idolatry is the worship of gods, or immaterial beings other than God, who is the Creator. Or, idolatry could just be the worship of objects associated with those beings (in technical terms, Animism as opposed to Polytheism). Either way, idolatry is the gravest possible sin according to the Bible. In fact all sin is, at bottom, a form of idolatry (see Romans 1:18-32): a transgressing of either the first or second commandments. For when some created thing or some created person captures our ultimate devotion, loyalty and love, this thing, or person, becomes a replacement “God.” In becoming a replacement for God, it further becomes the thing that leads to our own destruction.

Because we were made for communion with God, our Father, anything that causes us to move away from God moves us away from our ultimate purpose, or telos. In this process of self-demise, however, we become destroyers in our own right. For when we devote ourselves to something evil, we start to become like it. We start to do things it would have us do.

For the Canaanites, the objects of their false worship were other immaterial beings, other Elohim. Either that, or, even more degrading, the lifeless stone, wood or metal objects that represented them. However, the path toward idolatry is not a straight one, nor is it chosen directly. Like most beliefs, belief in a false god, to include the belief in the need to worship or honor that god, is not voluntary. At least, not directly so. Most of our beliefs are not directly chosen in a moment, rather, we come to believe things over time, as part of a process of belief formation.

The Canaanites, descendants of Ham, were cursed by God on account of Ham’s sin against his father, Noah (whatever that sin may have been). However, in the Bible, as with anything, there is always a slow process toward disbelief, followed by a process of acquiring a false or idolatrous belief. It isn’t as if Canaan simply awoke one day and said to himself “Today I will choose to not follow God, instead I will follow some other god.” It simply doesn’t work this way. Time, events, and the fickle nature of the human heart all contribute to a process of falling away from God and into idolatry.

Moreover, in a time and place with little to no technology (e.g., no mass media, social media, or really media of any kind), the way beliefs changed was through interactions with other people. And here I mean real people and real interactions. Today, our beliefs can be affected more easily, more quickly, and more expediently via the mass distribution of information. In the 1200’s BC, information came through only one of three sources: nature, other people, or God. Aside from direct revelation from God, interpersonal relationship was the most influential form of belief formation possible. And, the most intimate form of interpersonal relationship for the ancients, and still for some of us today, was marriage. It was marriage, therefore, that was not only the best way to propagate true belief to future generations, it was marriage that also presented a real danger to the dissolution of true beliefs and the formation of false and idolatrous ones.

Marriage as The Vehicle for Idolatry

In his commentary on Deuteronomy, Jeffrey Tigay further clarifies the reasoning for the destruction of Canaan:

The reason for the severe treatment of the Canaanites is to prevent the Israelites from intermarrying with them and being lured into the worship of their gods, in violation of the first two commandments.

Tigay, Deuteronomy, 85

There is something about marriage that acts as a vehicle for the degradation of Israelite belief in the one, true God. We see this in other places in the Scriptures, most notably at Baal-Peor in Numbers 25, with Solomon in 1 Kings 11:1-8; and with the returning exiles from Babylon in Ezra 9. While it is speculative as to why it is usually through wives that the degradation of true belief and the formation of idolatrous belief occurs, there may be a clue in the the Fall itself as to why it is through women that spiritual deception often comes.

Paul picks up on the fact that it was Eve who was deceived first in his pastoral letter to Timothy. Right after stating the two most fundamental truths of the Gospel, namely, the identity and activity of God, see 1 Tim 2:5-6 , or the Who God is and what He has done, Paul says this:

12 I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man;she is to keep silent. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.

While the Bible abounds with testimonies of faithful and godly women, to include prophetesses–Miriam, Huldah, Anna– and, of course, Mary herself, the theotokos, it repeatedly hints that women tend to be more open to the spiritual realm than men. After all, it was the women who first believed in Christ’s resurrection, while the men doubted. However, in being more open to the spiritual in general, women may be more open to spiritual suggestion in particular. A man who is a global skeptic about the spiritual, will hardly be susceptible to false spirits. Then again, a woman born again in Christ, whose spiritual senses have been redeemed, may prove quite helpful in times when spiritual discernment is required.

One recent worldwide study demonstrates statically what most historians of religion have known for centuries, namely, that women are more religious than men. Some contemporary social scientists even try to ground this discrepancy in biological make-up:

Noting similar gender differences in other countries, mainly in Europe, some social scientists have argued that women are universally more religious than men across all societies, cultures and faiths.2 More controversially, a few sociologists have theorized that the gender gap in religion is biological in nature, possibly stemming from higher levels of testosterone in men or other physical and genetic differences between the sexes.3

Pew, The Gender Gap in Religion Around the World

Whether this religious tendency is grounded in the biochemical nature of the female body, or whether it is itself a purely spiritual blessing, or burden, women carry is unclear. To be open to the spiritual realm is not in itself a bad thing, it is merely a dangerous one. Of course, to be open to the spiritual is a necessary component of any genuine faith, as Paul also reminds us:

14 Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are discerned spiritually. 15 Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.

Still, the idea in Deuteronomy is fairly clear: the Canaanites must be killed so that no intermarrying occur, primarily of the Israelite men marrying the Canaanite women (we would expect that most of the Canaanite men would be killed in battle anyway). Although the male children must also die, since they too could lead the Israelite women astray (v. 3).

Justifying The Destruction of Canaan: Idolatry and Moral Depravity

God’s command to destroy the Canaanites, however, is not only grounded in their false beliefs about who God is. If the Canaanites only had a false belief about God, or even if they worshipped other gods in spite of knowing who the real God was, God would not have commanded their destruction. What ultimately justifies the command of annihilation is not belief alone. Rather, it is the practices and activities that that false belief leads to that warrants destruction.

The false gods of the Bible are not mere egoists. They are not satisfied in merely receiving worship from foolish men who treat them as if they were God. Rather, these false gods, or what Paul calls “cosmic powers” and “spiritual forces” (Eph 6:12, NRSV) also aim to harm those who worship them. Where God aims to make humanity whole again, to bring men and women to their ultimate potential as creatures, the false gods of the world are dead-set on mankind’s destruction. This cosmic plan of evil manifests itself in what the Bible often refers to as “abominations.” The destruction of the Canaanites must be unconditional, because their idolatry has lead to evil and degrading actions:

According to [Deuteronomy] 20:18, the aim of this unconditional requirement [of destruction] is to rid the land of Canaanites, who might influence Israelites to adopt their abhorrent rites, such as child sacrifice and various occult practices…Note that it is particularly abhorrent rites, and not beliefs, that prompt this policy. By itself, worship of astral bodies and other gods by Canaanites and other pagans is not counted against them as a sin, since Deuteronomy holds that God assigned such worship to them.

Tigay, Deuteronomy, 470

In sum, it is the depraved actions that idolatry leads to, not the idolatry itself, that calls for the execution of divine justice. These actions are not trivial, they include human sacrifice, magic, and the occult arts, like necromancy. Deviant sexual practices also fall into this category of abomination. Finally, any religious object associated with these practices must also be destroyed, the thing itself being defiled by the rituals in which it was used (v. 5). One must note, however, that this is not “genocide” as some modern commentators would argue. For the same punishments will accrue to Israel if they fall into the same activities. The Canaanites are not being punished for being “of Canaan.” This is “sinocide” not genocide.

The Destruction of Canaan As A Warning for Our Times?

For well over three generations now belief in God has waned in the West. This is a statistically proven social fact. However, the first generation or two of generic disbelief, both in Europe, Canada and the United States specifically, still practiced morally what it no longer believed in metaphysically. As Nietzsche pointed out, the form of religion lingered on in the West even after its churches had become “tombs and sepulchers” (or now, discos!).

However, the inevitable path to idolatry has moved into a new phase, from disbelief in God, to belief in other gods (the “spiritual” but not religious movement) to the normalization of that which before God is still abominable. Child sacrifice (abortion), sexual deviancy, witchcraft and the occult are not only with us but are part of us. They are ingrained in our culture, and have been popularized. We believe and practice them unreflectively. While God’s command to destroy the Canaanites was singular in history, it is nevertheless the case that any land given over to idolatrous depravity will inevitably reap what is has sown. In Genesis 15, God tells Abraham that the sin of the Canaanites (Amorites) was not yet complete. In other words, it was not yet deserving of God’s wrath. That wrath, however, did eventually visit the Amorites when Joshua and the Israelites came into the land many generations later.

Are All Nations Doomed for Destruction?
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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