Frequently, the account of the Israelites’ conquest of the land of Canaan is lifted up as Exhibit A in the argument for why the God of the Old Testament should be denounced as a moral monster. Is there any warrant to this claim? Was the conquest of the promised land unjust? If so, the God of the Old Testament would be directly implicated. It was Yahweh himself who commanded his people to engage in this conquest that was to involve the complete annihilation of several people groups (Dt 7:1-2; 20: 16-18).
In order to discern whether or not the conquest was unjust, we should first define what justice is. Justice, simply put, is right-ness, or righteousness. Therefore to execute justice is to set the world at rights. If this is so, was it just, or right, for the Israelites to annihilate the Canaanites?
When we look into this account a little further, we see that it is not the case that the Canaanites were simply sitting around innocently enjoying their fig trees and grape vines when they were suddenly blind-sided by an invading army. Instead, we see that the Canaanites were living in debased, wretched sin, sin that was so heinous that it fully deserved the divine wrath that was poured out by way of the invading Israelite army. Not only that, but we also find that God actually was slow to anger (Ex 34:6) in the case of the Canaanites, as evidenced by Genesis 15:16 below:
Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.
What exactly were the sins of the Amorites (who lived in Canaan and thus also called Canaanites)? Deuteronomy 12:31, which is clearly speaking of the sins of the Canaanites from the surrounding context, answers this question:
You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the LORD hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.
According to Deuteronomy, the Canaanites were actually charged with doing every abominable thing that the LORD hates. More specifically, they were lighting their own kids on fire in the name of their false gods. When we step back and examine the conquest of the land of Canaan in this context, it seems a bit easier to swallow. In fact, it even seems just.
Before we think, though, that God dealt with the Canaanites in a way that was uncharacteristically harsh, we need to recall that God dealt with the sins of Israel in much the same way a few hundred years later through the invading armies of Assyria and Babylon. After living in sin that resembled the sins of the previous land tenants, Israel was similarly decimated and expelled from their own land. But we should observe that this only happened after many decades of the prophetic ministries of several individuals who were God-sent to plead with the Israelites to repent by turning from their evil ways and forsaking their false gods and worship the living God. God was patient and forbearing with the Israelites, but Israel failed to heed his warnings of impending judgment, and eventually they were forced to drink the cup of God’s wrath.
Are we like the Canaanites and the Israelites? Are we involved in wickedness and sin, ignoring God who is patiently enduring our sin? Have we forgotten that God’s kind forbearance is meant to lead us to repentance (Rom 2:4)? The Canaanites did not turn from their evil, and neither did the Israelites. And eventually they suffered the terrible wrath of God. These accounts were written down that we might learn from them, for another day of reckoning is foretold of in Revelation 19:
Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.
On this day, you and I will find ourselves in one of two positions: we will either be behind the King of kings and Lord of lords as members of the heavenly army which has come to conquer and retake the land and put down the rebellion; or else we will be fleeing in terror, unable to escape before the one whose robe is dipped in blood, out of whose mouth comes a sharp sword which is ready to strike down the nations.
Let us heed these words and accept the invitation given by this same King at the end of the Revelation, the same Jesus who does not desire that any should perish, but that all might come to repentance (2 Pet 3:9):
I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star. The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.