Among modern skeptics, the popular accusation against the inspiration of Scripture stems from God’s command to the Israelites to annihilate the Canaanites. In Deuteronomy, God commands the Israelites to “save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction…the Canaanites…as the LORD your God has commanded” (Deuteronomy 20:16b-17). While other groups are listed, the Canaanites receive the most attention and will be the focus of this paper. How is one to respond to the accusation that the Old Testament is not inspired because of the inclusion of such commands demanding the destruction of groups such as the Canaanites? This paper will offer a rebuttal to such an accusation. This paper will argue that God’s command for the destruction of the Canaanites fits in well with the attributes of God’s goodness and justice when properly understood, therefore rendering such passages of Scripture as inspired. First, the paper will build a case for the goodness of God and moral accountability that God provides for all people, including the Canaanites. Then, the paper will investigate the justice of God as it relates to societies such as the Canaanites. The first section will examine God’s goodness and moral accountability.
Goodness of God and Moral Accountability
Critics deny Old Testament inspiration because God’s command for Canaanite destruction defies God’s goodness. For some, it would seem that God’s command for destruction adds to the conundrum of theodicy. R. A. Torrey denotes, “There are few things in the Bible over which more intelligent readers have stumbled, and over which infidels have more frequently gloated and gloried, than God’s command that certain people should be utterly exterminated.” The great challenge to modern readers of the Scripture is that it would appear that such a command would ascribe evil to the nature of a good God. That is, can the God who issues such commands in the Old Testament be the same God whose Son says “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45, NIV)?
Before one could answer the nature of inspiration of particular Old Testament texts in question, one must first define the “goodness of God.” The goodness of God holds several facets in its definition and is not as easy as the casual skeptic may infer. Millard J. Erickson offers an exceptional definition as he denotes that God’s moral purity, which is an element of God’s goodness, “includes the dimensions (1) holiness, (2) righteousness, and (3) justice.” Justice is an element of God’s good nature and will be engaged in the following section of the paper. This section will engage with what is meant by God’s holiness and righteousness.
The first of God’s morally pure characteristics was noted to be God’s holiness which is, as Erickson denotes, involves what “Louis Berkof called the ‘majesty-holiness of God’… [and] the other aspect of God’s holiness…his absolute purity or goodness.” Yahweh, being the holy God as He is, cannot tolerate evil. The prophet Habakkuk notes that God possesses “purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong” (Habakkuk 1:13). Jesus also notes that concerning the final resurrection that those who have done evil will be raised “to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:29).
The second aspect of God’s moral purity relates God’s righteousness, which Erickson notes is “God’s holiness applied to his relationships to other beings.” But, if this is the case, did God defy His holiness by commanding the destruction of the Canaanites? It would not seem to be the case if the Canaanites were doing evil and knew better. The forthcoming section on justice will more thoroughly address the evil of the Canaanites. Seeing that God is a holy and righteous God, if the Canaanites were committing great acts of evil, one must inquire, “Did they know to do better?” The apostle Paul denoted that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them” (Romans 1:18-19). From Paul’s statement, all human beings are held accountable to God. Paul Copan also notes that the Canaanites were given sufficient time to change their ways, “According to the biblical text, Yahweh was willing to wait about 430 years…In other words, in Abraham’s day the time wasn’t ripe for judgment on the Canaanites; the moment wasn’t right for them to be driven out and for the land to ‘vomit them out’ (Lev. 18:25 NET).” Thus, one can conclude that the Canaanites not only knew to act better than what they did (implying that the Canaanites were evil); the Canaanites were seemingly given opportunities to change their wicked ways. Yahweh is certainly demonstrated as being a God of forgiveness. Yahweh extended forgiveness to Nineveh in the book of Jonah after they repented. Thus, from the evidence provided, the Canaanites were responsible for their own demise. The previous section discussed the first two attributes of God’s morally pure nature. The forthcoming section shall examine the third attribute of God’s morally pure nature: God’s justice.
Justice of God and the Evil of the Canaanites
Norman Geisler denotes, “Bible critics charge that such ruthless destruction of innocent life and property cannot be morally justified. It seems contrary to God’s command not to kill innocent human beings.” This accusation from the critics, of course, does not take into consideration the attribute of God’s justice. Erickson states, in relating to the course that God not only acts “in conformity with his law, but he also administers his kingdom in accordance with it…His justice is his official righteousness, his requirement that other moral agents adhere to the standards as well.” The Bible lists several references to God’s impartiality (i.e. Lev. 19:15; Luke 20:21; Acts 10:34; Rom. 2:11; Gal. 2:6; Eph. 6:9; Col. 3:25; and James 2:1). Simon Peter even notes that the Lord is delaying Christ’s return because God is “patient toward you, not wishing that any should come to perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). As noted earlier, the Canaanites were given chances to repent but failed to do so, implying that the Canaanites were evil. But, one must inquire, “Just how evil were the Canaanites?”
The Canaanites were evil, foremost, in their idolatrous practices. Chisholm denotes concerning the Canaanites, that they “believed that Baal was king among the gods (under the ultimate authority of the high god El). With the aid of the goddess Anat, Baal had defeated the chaotic sea and death…was the source of human fertility and agricultural prosperity. This is why Israel found Baal so appealing.” Yahweh had demonstrated His power over Egypt in providing various judgments as it pertained to the Egyptian pantheon. Thus, as Chismoth notes, people should have known that it was “suicidal to challenge His royal authority.”
Second, the Canaanites were evil in their practices. Copan notes particular areas of Canaanite evil in stating that “the Canaanites deities engaged in incest…adultery (temple sex), bestiality, homosexual acts (also temple sex), and child sacrifice were also permitted…Let’s add to this the bloodlust and violence of the Canaanite deities. Anath, the patroness of both sex and war…drank her victims’ blood and sat surrounding by corpses.” The Canaanites were by no means innocent as they engaged in the practices of their gods. In essence, the Canaanites were a wicked society that tended to have substantial influence upon God’s people.
God’s goodness cannot permit evil to linger. This does not indicate that God was happy about ordering such commands. It appears that, as William notes, “Divine commands can thus be issued with a heavy heart—indeed, with the heaviest of hearts…command and permission are relative, not absolute, contrasts.” It is also important to note, as Copan states, that “strong archaeological evidence that the targeted Canaanite cities, such as Jericho and Ai, were not population centers with women and children but military forts or garrisons that protected noncombatant civilians on the hill country…occasionally female tavern-keepers…could be found in these citadels.” The critic may claim that such commands to annihilate and/or drive out certain peoples are evil. However, in understanding the evil and depravity of wicked societies, one must ask, “Could God could remain good while allowing such evil to transpire without judgment?” God’s good nature is interlocked with God’s justice. God was justified in calling for warfare against the Canaanites as God often uses nations as an instrument to deliver justice (e.g. Romans 13:4). Otherwise, evil will continue unabashed, will envelop surrounding societies, and will eventually engulf the world. It may be said that God would not have maintained His goodness had He not ordered for an evil society to be defeated.
This paper has defended the Old Testament texts that denote God’s command to destroy the Canaanites as inspired by demonstrating that such a command fits with the understanding of God’s goodness and justice. Because God is good, God cannot allow evil to continue its course. The Canaanites were demonstrated to have been an evil people who were idolatrous, sexually immoral, and extremely violent. Therefore, God was justified in His actions to order the invasion. Therefore, questionable Old Testament passages maintain their inspirational veracity, indicating that God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament.
The preceding represents the academic work of the author. The contents have been run through SafeAssign. Therefore, as one should always do, be sure to cite any portion of this post in articles and especially academic work.
Copyright 2015. Brian Chilton
Berkof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953. In Millard J. Erickson. Christian Theology, 2nd Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998.
Chisholm, Robert B, Jr. “Yahweh Versus the Canaanite Gods: Polemic in Judges and 1 Samuel 1-7.” Bibliotheca Sacra 164, no. 654 (April 1, 2007): 165-180. Accessed February 12, 2015. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.
Copan, Paul. “Are Old Testament Laws Evil?” In God is Great, God is Good. Edited by William Lane Craig and Chad Meister. Downers Grove: IVP, 2009.
__________. Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011.
Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology, 2nd Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998.
Geisler, Norman L. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1999.
Torrey, R. A. Difficulties in the Bible: Alleged Errors and Contradictions. Willow Grove: Woodlawn Publishing, 1998.
Williams, Stephen N. “Could God have commanded the slaughter of the Canaanites?” Tyndale Bulletin 63, no. 2 (January 1, 2012): 161-178. Accessed February 12, 2015. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.
 All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, comes from the English Standard Version. Wheaton: Crossway, 2001.
 That is to say, how can a loving, powerful God coexist with a world full of evil?
 R. A. Torrey, Difficulties in the Bible: Alleged Errors and Contradictions (Willow Grove: Woodlawn Electronic Publishing, 1998).
 Scripture marked NIV comes from the New International Version (Grand Rapids: Biblica, 2011).
 Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 310.
 Louis Berkof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953), 73, in Millard J. Erickson, Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 311.
 Erickson, 311.
 Erickson, 313.
 Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 159.
 Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 113.
 Erickson, 314.
 Robert B, Chisholm, Jr. “Yahweh Versus the Canaanite Gods: Polemic in Judges and 1 Samuel 1-7.” Bibliotheca Sacra 164, no. 654 (April 1, 2007): 169, accessed February 12, 2015.
 Ibid., 170.
 Copan, Is God a Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament God, 159.
 Stephen N. Williams, “Could God have commanded the slaughter of the Canaanites?” Tyndale Bulletin 63, no. 2 (January 1, 2012): 172, accessed Febuary 12, 2015.
 Paul Copan, “Are Old Testament Laws Evil,” in God is Great, God is Good, William Lane Craig and Chad Meister, eds (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009), 145-146.