Absolute Devotion: The Justice of Israel’s Destruction of the Canaanites

One of the greatest challenges facing Christianity today is that its morality is at odds with that of the culture. And for unbelievers familiar with the Bible, no passage causes more concern than God’s command to the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites, including their women and children.

God’s Command to Destroy the Canaanites

In the Book of Genesis, God promised to give the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants. However, these descendants, the people of Israel, were enslaved in Egypt for 400 years. God brought Israel out of Egypt through the leadership of Moses around 1446 B.C. But it would not be for another 40 years until Israel entered the Promised Land around 1406 B.C.

Prior to entering the land, God gave specific commands to Moses and Israel to “devote” the seven nations of Canaan to “complete destruction”:

When Yahweh your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, and when Yahweh your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them (Deuteronomy 7:1-2; cf. 20:16-18).

This practice is known as “the ban,” or simply by its Hebrew term herem (חרם), which means to “devote” something to God. However, in this context it has the meaning “devote to destruction.” The Israelites were to kill the Canaanites as an offering to Yahweh.

The instruction in Deuteronomy 7:2 uses herem twice for emphasis, an infinitive verb followed by a finite verb (הַחֲרֵ֤ם תַּחֲרִים). There are different ways to translate this—“devote to complete destruction” (ESV), “utterly destroy” (NASB, KJV), “utterly annihilate” (NET). The emphasis is seen in that God’s command involved the wiping out of an entire group of people, including women and children. In carrying out this command, the Israelites destroyed everything in the Canaanite cities—“both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys” (Joshua 6:21).

The destruction of the Canaanites is one of the central themes of the Book of Joshua. Moses died before entering Canaan, but under Joshua’s leadership, Israel carried out God’s command and “devoted” the Canaanites to destruction (Joshua 6:21; 8:26; 10:28, 35-40; 11:11-12, 20-21). Joshua even devoted the giants in the land, the Anakim, to destruction (Joshua 11:21). (The destruction of the giants in Canaan plays a bigger role than is often recognized.)[1] As a precursor to Joshua’s work, Moses and Israel “devoted” the Canaanite king of Arad to destruction (Numbers 21:1-3).

The Justice of the Ban

Critics of the ban accuse God of authorizing “genocide” (the wiping out of an entire ethnic group). However, several points demonstrate that this was a special circumstance that should be distinguished from any other sort of mass killing. Here are four reasons why the destruction of the Canaanites is not only defensible, but was also just.

(1) It was God who commanded Israel to destroy the Canaanites.
The God of the universe gave Israel the instruction to devote the peoples of Canaan to destruction (Deuteronomy 7:1-2; 20:16-18). While humans can and should identify individual persons and actions as evil, only God has the authority to declare judgment on an entire people group. The ban was not on the authority of a human political leader but was a decree from Almighty God, who has authority over all creation. Unlike man, God’s judgment is perfect, and He is able to authorize such judgment. This principle applies to any moral objection one may raise against God’s commands—He is God and therefore the standard for which all morality is to be judged.

(2) God judged the Canaanites because of their wicked deeds (not their ethnicity).
The Canaanites were the descendants of Ham that were cursed by Noah (Genesis 9:25, 27; 10:6, 15-20). It is no surprise then that, even as early as in Abraham’s day, God identified some of the Canaanites (the Amorites) as a wicked people who were storing up judgment for their sins (Genesis 15:16). Later, God explicitly stated that He was driving the Canaanites out “because of the wickedness of these nations” (Deuteronomy 9:4-5). The Canaanites were so evil that the land was said to have “vomited out its inhabitants” (Leviticus 18:25). The preciseness of God’s judgment is demonstrated in that the Israelites were not commanded to kill the women and children of the people outside the land of Canaan (Deuteronomy 20:10-15) but only the people in the land of Canaan (Deuteronomy 20:16-18). However, God was also merciful to Canaanites who repented, such as Rahab from Jericho (Joshua 2). It is of note that God commanded the “devotion” (herem) to destruction of any Israelite who sacrificed to a god other than Yahweh (Exodus 22:20). The wicked deeds of the Canaanites were worthy of death, even if committed by God’s chosen people.

(3) God wanted to protect the Israelites from the wicked practices of the Canaanites, particularly their idolatry.
God commanded Israel to “make no covenant” with the Canaanites. This included His command to not “intermarry” with them, “for they would turn away your sons from following me to serve other gods” (Deuteronomy 7:2-4; cf. Exodus 34:11-16). Instead, Israel was to “show no mercy” to the Canaanites and “break down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and chop down their Asherim and burn their carved images with fire” (Deuteronomy 7:2, 5). The devotion of the Canaanites to destruction would prevent Israel from worshiping their false gods—“that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against Yahweh your God” (Deuteronomy 20:18). These “abominable practices” included child sacrifice and divination (Deuteronomy 12:30-31; 18:9-14). The Canaanites in the Promised Land were the serpent in the Garden that was to be driven out—for the good of God’s people and the purity of worship in Israel. Israel could not just kill the men and take Canaanite women as wives, for this would lead Israel into idolatry. Thus the Canaanite women and children had to be purged. 

(4) The Canaanites initiated aggression against Israel.
The Canaanites knew of Yahweh’s greatness, including His deliverance of Israel from Egypt and the defeat of the two Amorite kings beyond the Jordan (Joshua 2:9-11). Thus the Canaanites could have fled the land or sought to make peace with Israel, though only the Gibeonites did so (and through deception; Joshua 9:1-27). Instead, the Canaanites attacked Israel. Both Israel’s southern and northern campaigns were first initiated by Canaanite aggression against Israel and Gibeon, Israel’s ally (Joshua 9:1-2; 10:1-5; 11:1-5). While Israel appears to have initiated aggression during the central campaign (Joshua 6–8), the city of Jericho is still said to have “fought against” Israel (Joshua 24:11). Scripture teaches that God sovereignly brought about Canaanite aggression—“For it was Yahweh’s doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed, just as Yahweh commanded Moses” (Joshua 11:20). Like God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, He also hardened the Canaanites in order to bring about their judgment. God removed all restraints upon these wicked people so that they would attack Israel. Thus the emphasis of the ban is against those actively hostile towards Israel and Yahweh their God.

No one today would be justified in seeking to wipe out an entire people group. In fact, no one is justified in killing any single person apart from necessary self-defense (including defensive wars) and the just administration of capital punishment. However, evil actions deserve God’s wrath, and God reserves the right to wipe an entire people group off the face of the earth on account of His righteous judgment.

A Type of Judgment on Israel

The destruction of the Canaanites has an important place in the rest of Scripture. God commanded Israel to “devote” to destruction the wicked Canaanites in the Promised Land, but He also threatened to bring herem upon Israel during the days of John the Baptist. God closes the Book of Malachi with this promise:

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of Yahweh comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction [חֵֽרֶם, herem] (Malachi 4:5-6).

The “Elijah” that God spoke of was John the Baptist (Matthew 11:13-14; 17:12; Mark 9:13), who went in the “spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17). The angel’s words about John the Baptist echo the language of Malachi 4:5-6:

And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared (Luke 1:14-17).

John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus while Israel was under the threat of herem (Malachi 4:6). However, Israel rejected the Lord Jesus and thus brought Yahweh’s herem on the land in due time. This destruction of Jerusalem took place by the Romans in 70 A.D., an event that Jesus foretold would happen within the timespan of one “generation” (Matthew 24:34). This event vindicated Christ and shows that God’s threat of herem will come on all who reject Him, including unbelieving people in the covenant community.

A Type of Final Judgment

Both Israel’s herem of the Canaanites under Joshua and Yahweh’s herem of Israel in 70 A.D. point to a greater final judgment. We should see the destruction of the Canaanites as an example of God’s victory over His enemies, but it should also serve as a warning for us all. We all deserve God’s judgment for our sin, and it is only by God’s mercy that we are still alive.

God’s judgment upon Canaan points to a much greater judgment on the last day, when God will throw all evildoers into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:15). Just as God did not allow the wicked Canaanites to dwell in His Promised Land, so God will not allow those who rebel against Him to dwell in the new heavens and earth. Only those who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ will enter the land. Unless we repent and believe in Jesus, God will show us no mercy and we will be devoted to destruction.

The Destruction of Giants in Canaan

[1] Though not the primary point of God’s command, the destruction of the Canaanites included the giants who were in the land. This theme of giants in Canaan comes up several times in the Old Testament. When the Israelite spies saw Canaan, they described some of the Canaanites as people of “great height” and said they are the “sons of Anak” (Anakim) who “come from the Nephilim” (Number 13:32-33; Deuteronomy 1:28; 2:10; 9:2). (I have argued elsewhere that the Nephilim were supernatural giants; see Genesis 6:1-4.)

Joshua cut off the Anakim and “devoted” (herem) them to destruction (Joshua 11:21). Joshua wiped out all the Anakim except in three Philistine cities: “There was none of the Anakim left in the land of the people of Israel. Only in Gaza, in Gath, and in Ashdod did some remain” (Joshua 11:22). Caleb then drove out the sons of Anak from Hebron (Joshua 14:12, 15; 15:14; Judges 1:20; cf. Numbers 13:22).

Joshua and Caleb were two of the twelve spies whom Moses sent to spy out the land of Canaan, the only two who believed that Yahweh would give them victory over the giants in the land (Numbers 13:30; 14:6-9) and thus the only two allowed to enter the land 40 years later (Numbers 14:30). It is therefore fitting that Joshua and Caleb drove out those giants. Joshua drove out the Anakim (Joshua 11:21-22). And Caleb specifically drove out the “three sons of Anak, Sheshai and Ahiman and Talmai, the descendants of Anak” (Joshua 15:14; cf. Judges 1:10, 20), the three sons of Anak mentioned in Numbers 13:22.

It is of note that the giant Goliath was from Gath, one of the three cities where the Anakim remained (1 Samuel 17:4; cf. Joshua 11:22). In addition to Goliath, David and his men killed three other giants, including Goliath’s brother Lahmi, all from Gath (2 Samuel 21:15-22; 1 Chronicles 20:4-8). These four men are described as rafa [רָפָֽה], which the ESV translates as “giants” (2 Samuel 21:16, 18, 20). The description of rafa is related to the word for Rephaim [רְפָאִ֛ים], which is made explicit in the use of Rephaim [רְפָאִ֛ים] in 1 Chronicles 20:4.

This connection makes sense, as the Anakim are “considered” Rephaim (Deuteronomy 2:11, 21). Og the king of Bashan was of the remnant of Rephaim, and he too was a giant (Deuteronomy 3:11; Joshua 12:4; 13:12).

Thus there were giants in the land during the time of the conquest, and Joshua is even said to have “devoted” them to destruction (Joshua 11:21). However, it was David and his men who finished the conquest of the giants (2 Samuel 21:5-22).