How Could a God of Love Exterminate the Canaanites?

Glen Miller


Good Question...

How could a God of Love order the massacre/annihilation of the Canaanites?

[Updated Oct 2k (added a bit more material on the Amalekites, and a short pushback at the end)]

On those very rare occasions when God displays His judgment within human history, it is very sobering and one which we find genuinely disturbing--it reminds us that "ethics" is not just another branch of philosophy!

And even though each recorded case--regardless of scale--SHOULD 'trouble us', the case of God's alleged ordering the Israelites to annihilate the Canaanites has always been particularly disturbing to our 'status quo' of sensibilities. So, I frequently get a letter like this:

The entire concept of a God of justice and mercy ordering the slaughter of thousands of people (many patently innocent) on many occasions I find abhorrent.

This is an issue I have always had profound trouble with and one I suspended judgment on when I began to believe. Lately, though, it has started haunting me again, and I have been searching and praying for an answer or insight. The responses to this problem I have seen so far (God did them a favor, they were like cancer, or God's justice is beyond ours) seem to me to be lame or inappropriate.

Or, in a less conciliatory tone--

The Old Testament paints a picture of a God who is extremely bellicose, giving repeated instructions to "his people" to exterminate other nations, (because he is giving them their "promised land"), and giving them practical assistance on the battlefield.

It is easy to believe that such writings could be the attempted self-justification of a territorially minded people, who excuse their aggression and genocide against other nations as "divine instructions". It is almost impossible to believe that such writings are an accurate description of a God who has infinite love for people of all races.

And finally, a more pointed accusation:

"Is the God of the OT merely sanctioning genocide (nay commanding it)?... isn't this "god" merely an invention for the Jews' own political land-gaining ends?

So, let's look at the passages involved:

When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations -- the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you -- 2 and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. 3 Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, 4 for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD's anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. 5 This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. (Deut 7.1-5)

However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. 17 Completely destroy them -- the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites -- as the LORD your God has commanded you. 18 Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God. (Deut 20.16ff)

These are the kings of the land that Joshua and the Israelites conquered on the west side of the Jordan, from Baal Gad in the Valley of Lebanon to Mount Halak, which rises toward Seir (their lands Joshua gave as an inheritance to the tribes of Israel according to their tribal divisions -- 8 the hill country, the western foothills, the Arabah, the mountain slopes, the desert and the Negev -- the lands of the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites):

9 the king of Jericho one the king of Ai (near Bethel) one
10 the king of Jerusalem one the king of Hebron one
11 the king of Jarmuth one the king of Lachish one
12 the king of Eglon one the king of Gezer one
13 the king of Debir one the king of Geder one
14 the king of Hormah one the king of Arad one
15 the king of Libnah one the king of Adullam one
16 the king of Makkedah one the king of Bethel one
17 the king of Tappuah one the king of Hepher one
18 the king of Aphek one the king of Lasharon one
19 the king of Madon one the king of Hazor one
20 the king of Shimron Meron one the king of Acshaph one
21 the king of Taanach one the king of Megiddo one
22 the king of Kedesh one the king of Jokneam in Carmel one
23 the king of Dor (in Naphoth Dor) one the king of Goyim in Gilgal one
24 the king of Tirzah one thirty-one kings in all. (Joshua 12.7-24)

At first blush, it looks like YHWH is taking the initiative in the matter, and ordering Israel to wipe out 7-10 nations--without pity and without compromise--and that He intends to give these nations' lands to Israel for their possession. At the end of Joshua's military campaigns, a list of 31 conquered kings is given. (The Israelites fail to obey the directive, however, and God faults them for this--and, as He predicted, the Canaanites DO 'entice' Israel into practicing their religion.)

Obviously, there are a couple of GOOD questions hiding in here:

These are NOT simple or light questions (if your heart is in right!), and so we must be VERY thorough in our analysis of the situation. We will need to approach this issue from a number of different sides, to make sure we have seen it clearly and from a large-enough perspective.

We will use the following question-set in analyzing the issue:

  1. Do we have any precedents, paradigm cases, or similar incidents of such orders/actions to annihilate?
  2. Who exactly WERE these people that God wanted Israel to 'exterminate'?
  3. Were there any limits placed upon Israel in this venture, and what was the EXACT content of the orders?
  4. What general principles of God's governance might shed some light on the situation?

Then, I will try to focus any insights we get onto the opening questions.


  1. Do we have any precedents, paradigm cases, or similar incidents of such orders/actions to annihilate?


    There are a few situations in the OT in which something like this either (1) occurs or (2) is ordered: Sodom/Gomorrah, the Flood, and the Amalekites. And we will look at one "anti-Example" that might function as 'control data'--Ninevah.


    There is an obvious pattern here:

    1. The annihilations are judgments.
    2. These judgments are for publicly-recognized (indeed, international and cross-cultural in scope!) cruelty and violence of an EXTREME and WIDESPREAD nature.
    3. These judgments are preceded by LONG PERIODS of warning/exposure to truth (and therefore, opportunity to "change outcomes").
    4. Innocent adults are given a 'way out'
    5. Household members share in the fortunes of the parents (for good or ill).
    6. Somebody ALWAYS escapes (Lot, Noah, Kenites)
    7. These are exceptional cases--there are VERY, VERY few of these.


    Now, an obvious question comes up here. Do we have ANY EVIDENCE that the annihilation of the Canaanites falls into the above pattern? Do we have any reason to believe it was an exceptional case, a judgment for exceptional violence and evil?

    Very definitely.

    The biblical text gives us several indications that this campaign is such a judgment:


    So this annihilation was a judgment...but what was so 'bad' about the Canaanites (and Amorites)? Which brings us to the next point...

  2. Who exactly WERE these people that God wanted Israel to 'exterminate'?

    What do we know about the Amorites, and the Canaanites (often used interchangeably)? What data do we have from the sources (archeology, classical writers, ANE literary remains, biblical passages)?


    1. Prior to Abraham, the land of Syria-Palestine enjoyed a very high culture, dominated by the kingdom of Ebla.

      "By the latter part of the Early Bronze Age Ebla (Tell Mardikh) in northwestern Syria had become a city-state of 260,000 people, with lesser "vassal" cities forming a far-reaching empire. It was the center of a vast commercial network, and records of its enterprises contain the earliest mention of such biblical cities as Salim, Megiddo, Gaza, Hazor, Lachish, and Joppa. An indication of the city's sophisticated planning is the audience court of the royal palace, which both architecturally and functionally mediates the space between the quarters with private residences and those with administrative offices." (ISBE, s.v. "City", p.707)

    2. But something happened...something disrupted this advanced civilization...something destroyed the cities...something violently did international damage, driving nations from their homes, reducing this area to 'village life' again:

      "Sudden and violent destruction occurred throughout much of the ancient world ca. 2300-2100 B.C. Palestinian civilization returned to the village level, with many E.B. sites abandoned and others left unfortified, a situation that continued through the early stages of the Middle Bronze period (until ca. 1950 B.C.). While many factors may have been involved, especially significant were Egyptian raids and mass population movements, at the center of which were the Amorites."(A.C. Myers, ISBE, op. Cit.)

      And again, K.N. Schoville (POTW:164):

      "The urbanization of Canaan in the Early Bronze Age II (ca. 2900-2700), illustrated by sites such as Arad and Ai, declined during the Early Bronze Age III, which ended about 2300. Walled cities were destroyed or abandoned, and urban culture gave way to a pastoral, village way of life over the next two centuries, Early Bronze Age IV (about 2300-2000). The reasons for such drastic changes are unclear, but three possible causes may be suggested: (1) Egyptian military action, (2) changing environmental factors including overpopulation, or (3) an invading horde of Amorites. The Amorites would have destroyed the urban centers and established the variant lifestyle characteristic of the period until urbanization flowered in the subsequent Middle Bronze Age II."

      [There were probably two invasions by Amorite peoples--the one we are discussing here is the earlier, non-urbanized Amurru--cf. ISBE:s.v. "Canaan", p. 588]


    3. The Amorites were a distinctly war-culture, as well. They show up--by the name of Amorites-- in conquest texts as early as 2200 B.C. (EBLA3:90), and by their other names in many, many places.

      "The Semitic Amorites are the best known: in Mesopotamian sources they are the mar-tu (Sumerian) and amurru (Akkadian), both of which words mean "west," and they are referred to as desert people who "know not grain." In the third millennium B.C. the conquests of Sargon of Akkad (2371-2316) extended to "the upper sea," meaning that he must have marched west to the Mediterranean. In the second millennium the Amorites established their First Dynasty in Babylon in which Hammurabi (1792-1750) was the most famous king; contemporary with that dynasty there were Amorite kings in Mari on the Middle Euphrates. At Jericho and other sites in Canaan cultural changes toward the end of the third millennium suggest the influx of new nomadic tribal people, probably Amorites. According to Ezekiel 16:3 Jerusalem was founded by a combination of Amorites and Hittites. Under Moses the Israelites found the Amorites in the hill country around Kadesh-barnea (Deut. 1:19-20), then conquered two Amorite kings, Sihon and Og, in Transjordan (Deut. 4:46-47). Joshua in turn overcame the Amorite kings of the five cities of Jerusalem, Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish, and Eglon (Josh. 10:5). In time Amorites and Canaanites were no doubt so mingled as to be indistinguishable, and the name Amorite was used as a general term for the inhabitants of the land, which could equally well be called the land of the Amorites (Josh. 24:15) or the land of the Canaanites." (Finegan, MM:121-122)

    4. [The Canaanite peoples were brilliant engineers, and put their skills to use building war-culture cities. Their sites include very heavily fortified cities, and advanced design war-chariot ramps and gates. (ISBE: s.v. "Canaan", p.588; POTW:176f; ECIAT:95)]

    5. Not only did these peoples do destruction on an international scale, but they also were constantly fighting internally [MM:129; ECIAT:193-194]

    6. Not only did the Amorites do wholesale destruction to the cities and the peoples, but they somehow also debased the 'better' polytheism of the pre-Amorite-invasion Canaanites. The pantheon of Ebla was prior to (by a thousand years) and yet essentially the same as, that of Canaan (EBLA2:79-89). Eblaite religion was your 'normal' polytheism of the ANE, but with some advanced traits. Pettinato points to one (EBLA0:178-179):

      "The second innovation is represented by the Eblaite conception of the divine. In spite of widespread polytheism, it seemed to be coupled with henotheism and an abstract idea of God. Above all, the principal god, Dagan, was raised to a role of superiority that touched upon uniqueness."

      Their religious praxis was likewise somewhat refined--relative to the other ANE nations--but somehow got 'changed' into the rather debased practices which we will below see were done in the Canaan of Israelite times. What influenced this cultural shift in praxis?

      "Nevertheless, the vicissitudes in political fortunes, after the collapse of the Early Bronze Age civilization in Canaan, were accompanied by the settlement of new peoples (Amorites, Hurrians, and others). These new settlers brought about innovations and changes to the culture of Canaan." (EBLA2:89)

    7. So, they were apparently into 'international violence', but what about these religious practices that YHWH seemed to be referring to in Deut 12.31: You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshipping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates..


      Notice that the problem is NOT SO MUCH the 'other gods', but the religious RITUALS that are so bad.

      So, what data do we have about their practices. Let's start with the biblical data, and check it against any archeological and extra-biblical literary data.


      • The Biblical Data...

        The LORD said to Moses, 2 "Speak to the Israelites and say to them: `I am the LORD your God. 3 You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices. 4 You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the LORD your God. 5 Keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them. I am the LORD.
        6 "`No one is to approach any close relative to have sexual relations. I am the LORD.
        7 "`Do not dishonor your father by having sexual relations with your mother. She is your mother; do not have relations with her.
        8 "`Do not have sexual relations with your father's wife; that would dishonor your father.
        9 "`Do not have sexual relations with your sister, either your father's daughter or your mother's daughter, whether she was born in the same home or elsewhere.
        10 "`Do not have sexual relations with your son's daughter or your daughter's daughter; that would dishonor you.
        11 "`Do not have sexual relations with the daughter of your father's wife, born to your father; she is your sister.
        12 "`Do not have sexual relations with your father's sister; she is your father's close relative.
        13 "`Do not have sexual relations with your mother's sister, because she is your mother's close relative.
        14 "`Do not dishonor your father's brother by approaching his wife to have sexual relations; she is your aunt.
        15 "`Do not have sexual relations with your daughter-in-law. She is your son's wife; do not have relations with her.
        16 "`Do not have sexual relations with your brother's wife; that would dishonor your brother.
        17 "`Do not have sexual relations with both a woman and her daughter. Do not have sexual relations with either her son's daughter or her daughter's daughter; they are her close relatives. That is wickedness.
        18 "`Do not take your wife's sister as a rival wife and have sexual relations with her while your wife is living.
        19 "`Do not approach a woman to have sexual relations during the uncleanness of her monthly period.
        20 "`Do not have sexual relations with your neighbor's wife and defile yourself with her.
        21 "`Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.
        22 "`Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.
        23 "`Do not have sexual relations with an animal and defile yourself with it. A woman must not present herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it; that is a perversion.
        24 "`Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. 25 Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. 26 But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the aliens living among you must not do any of these detestable things, 27 for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. 28 And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you. 29 "`Everyone who does any of these detestable things -- such persons must be cut off from their people. 30 Keep my requirements and do not follow any of the detestable customs that were practiced before you came and do not defile yourselves with them. I am the LORD your God.'" (Lev 18, repeated in Lev 20)

        The LORD said to Moses, 2 "Say to the Israelites: `Any Israelite or any alien living in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech must be put to death. The people of the community are to stone him. 3 I will set my face against that man and I will cut him off from his people; for by giving his children to Molech, he has defiled my sanctuary and profaned my holy name. 4 If the people of the community close their eyes when that man gives one of his children to Molech and they fail to put him to death, 5 I will set my face against that man and his family and will cut off from their people both him and all who follow him in prostituting themselves to Molech. (Lev 20.1ff)

        You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshipping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods. (Deut 12.31)

        10 Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, (Deut 18.10)

        They shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, and the land was desecrated by their blood. (Ps 106.38--about Israel!)

        There were even male shrine prostitutes in the land; the people engaged in all the detestable practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites. (I Kgs 14.24, cf. also Deut 23.17--No Israelite man or woman is to become a shrine prostitute.)

        So, the list of Canaanite "religious" practices included:

        1. Child sacrifice (with at least some of it in fire)
        2. Incest
        3. Bestiality
        4. Homosexual practices
        5. Cultic prostitution--both male and female.

      • Let's see if the extra-biblical data supports the biblical material.

        1. Child sacrifice (with at least some of it in fire)

          Sadly, Yes.

          Let's look at some of the scholarly descriptions of the data:

          "Its origin (human sacrifice) must be sought, evidently, in Canaanite culture (in the broad sense). Punic and Neo-Punic inscriptions contain the expressions mlk 'mr (transcribed mokhomor in Latin) and mlk 'dm. Very probably, these phrases mean respectively 'offerings of lamb' and 'offering of man', and refer to the sacrifice of an infant, or of a lamb as substitute. This interpretation is supported by a find in the sanctuary of Tanit at Carthage, where archaeologists have discovered urns containing burnt bones of lambs and goats, and, more often, of children. There is, too, a famous text of Diodorus Siculus (Biblioth. Hist. XX 14): in 310 B.C., when a disaster was threatening Carthage, the inhabitants of the town decided it was due to the anger of Kronos, to whom they had formerly sacrificed their finest children: instead, they had begun to offer sickly children, or children they had bought. Thereupon, they sacrificed two hundred children from the noblest families. There was a bronze statue of Kronos with outstretched arms, and the child was placed on its hands and rolled into the furnace. Whether the details be true or false, the story is evidence of a custom to which other classical authors also allude.

          "These inscriptions and texts are of late date, but the molk offering is mentioned in two steles from Malta belonging to the seventh or the sixth century B.C. The sacrificial term has not so far been found in inscriptions from Phoenicia proper, but child-sacrifice was practised there: a fragment of Philo of Byblos cited in Eusebius (Praep. Evang. I 10) says that the Phoenicians had an ancient custom--'they offered their dearest children in a way full of mystery' when danger threatened the nation. Porphyry (De abstin. II 56) says that the Phoenician History written by Sanchuniaton and translated by Philo of Byblos was full of stories about child-sacrifices offered to Kronos in times of calamity. These texts furnish the connecting-link with the story told by Diodorus Siculus, and we may mention also the reference to the king of Moab's offering his son as a holocaust when his capital was under siege (2 K 3 : 27).

          "The sacrifice of children, then, by burning them to death probably made its way into Israel from Phoenicia (note: the main transmitter of Canaanite culture) during a period of religious syncretism. The Bible mentions only two specific instances, and they are motivated by the same exceptional circumstances as the Phoenician sacrifices: Achaz 'made his son pass through the fire' (2 K I6: 3) during the Syro-Ephraimite War, and Manasseh did the same (2 K 2I: 6) when confronted with some Assyrian threat which is not mentioned in the Books of Kings but which may be alluded to in 2 Ch 33:11f. Yet the custom must have been fairly wide- spread to have deserved the condemnations uttered by Deuteronomy, Leviticus and the Prophets. Though Phoenician texts properly so called do not mention the word, it is possible (we say no more) that the sacrifice was called molk in Phoenicia, as in Carthage, and that it came into Israel under this name." (AI:445-446).

          Archeological evidence is firm and growing. Child sacrifice burial grounds are called tophet in the literature, and they occur throughout Palestine and the Phoenician empire. Ahlstrom mentions sites "at 'Atlit, Tell el-Far'a (S) and Tell el 'Ajjul in Palestine" (HAP:688, n.2). He gives a description of one monument depicting child sacrifice (HAP:op. cit.):

          "The archaeological excavations at Punic Pozo Moro in Spain show a monument with a ritual scene with a god (with an animal head) on a throne and a table in front of him. He holds with one hand a pig lying on its back and in the other hand he has a bowl with the head and the feet of a little child (?) sticking up. He holds this bowl in front of his mouth. To the right there is another bowl, and a god with an animal head (horse?) holding a knife in his right hand above the bowl ready to slaughter the child. The scene (in a neo-Hittite style) shows both animal and child sacrifices as food for the gods."

          New sites recently found include Gezer, Tyre, and numerous 'high places' (POTW:171, Is 57.5-7).

          These child sacrifices were practiced not only during religious ceremonies (as most of the above were), but also during times of crisis (esp. warfare) and as dedication offerings at the building of cities/houses (i.e. "foundation sacrifices"; cf. AI:442). So Stern (ZPEB, s.v. "war, warfare" p. 895):

          "Further, to secure God's aid, the troops would make sacrifices prior to battle--sometimes even human sacrifices...This custom seems also to have been taken from earlier Canaanite traditions, for in many Egyp. reliefs from the late kingdom, depicting the capture of towns in Pal., the besieged are shown throwing their children from the walls in seeking the gods' favor."

          Notice that unlike so many other aberrant practices (e.g. sorcery) of the Canaanites, THIS WAS NOT widely shared by the other ANE cultures--it was a rarity. This evil was specifically Canaanite/Amorite. [Pushback:""But, hey, what about Abraham?!--Didn't God order HIM to sacrifice his kid? Isn't this a little inconsistent, pal?!"]

        2. Incest.

          Incest was likewise NOT an acceptable ANE practice. For example, the famous Laws of Hammurabi contain several sections on this issue (Para 154-158; LCMAM:110-111) as do the Hittite law codes (laws 189-191; LCMAM:236).

          The only external data about Canaanite practice we have here (you can imagine how difficult it would be to leave archeological traces of this around!) comes from the religious myths and 'role models' of their gods. [It must be remembered that the religious rituals of ancient cultures were generally 'reenactments' of divine activities. For example, when a religious myth would have one god impregnating another--producing "spring"--the humans would "re-enact" this with the cultic prostitutes.]

          For example, in the Ugaritic corpus (Canaanite), there is the story of an incestuous El:

          "The second myth is often called 'The Birth of the Good and Gracious God.' It opens with a banquet at which wine flows freely. The text is divided into sections, the tenth being the last and most crucial. El is about to create two women who will become either his wives or daughters, depending on his ability to impregnate them. He creates these females and seduces them, and they both become pregnant. One bears a child called Dawn (Shahar), and the other a child called Dusk (Shalim). Later, El makes love to these same women and they produce seven sons between them. These sons are 'the good and gracious gods.' They are destined to be gods of fertility, and are first suckled at the breasts of 'the Lady' (Asherah, wife of El?)." (NIEBF: 130).

          With such deities to emulate, there is little wonder that God described this Canaanite practice as being very, very real.

        3. Bestiality.

          Here we have the same situation as above--it is forbidden in other ANE codes (e.g. Hittite laws 187-188; LCMAM:236), but shows up in the Canaanite mythology, with Baal as the role model this time.

          Baal is generally pictured in human form, and is often accompanied by a bull or rides upon a bull. (He is sometimes pictured as a bull as well, but this is in drawings, not in literary texts.) In one Ugaritic text, Baal, on his way to the underworld, has sexual relations with a young heifer (NIEBF:129; ANET:p139):

          Puissant Baal complies.
          He desires a calf-cow in Dubr;
          A heifer in Shihlmemat-field;
          Lies with her times seventy-seven,
          [...]...times eighty-eight.

          [See also the summary statement in ISBE: s.v. "Crimes", where it is linked to "certain pagan rites and mythology"]

        4. Homosexual practices

          This appears to be an issue unique to Israel. Homosexual practice was generally not outlawed in the ANE, and certainly tolerated in the ANE in private life (MWR:190-192). It was also part of cultic practice (which we will treat below).

          But Israel's God condemned this behavior in EVERY culture in which it was mentioned (!): ANE (i.e. Sodom), Canaanite and Egyptian (i.e. Lev 18:3), Israelite (Lev 18, 20), Roman (Rom 1), Hellenistic (I Tim 1.9), and Greek (I Cor 6.9). [I have always found the claim that Judeo-Christianity's lack of acceptance of homosexuality as a morally legitimate sexual expression was merely a cultural stance--not 'timeless' or 'transcultural'--to be a bit weak, in light of the above list of cultures. The range of times/cultures included in the list above--many of which ACCEPTED it as 'okay'--would certainly count as very strong evidence for a moral 'universal/transcultural' conviction against the practice.]

          What IS interesting about this though, is that of all the practices we have in the list above, this is the ONE practice that is NOT represented in the religious literature. So Bottero, in MWR:92: "in mythology and theology we have not the slightest certain example of homosexual relations between gods."

        5. Cultic prostitution--both male and female.

          The use of male and female prostitutes is also attested and sanctioned (to some extent) throughout the ANE (MWR:189-190), and clearly so in Canaanite sanctuaries (AI:384). So, NIEBF:130:

          " The Bible and the Canaanite texts at Ugarit use the words qadesh and qedesha which mean 'holy one'--the first masculine, the second feminine. At Ugarit these 'holy ones' were homosexual priests and priestesses who acted as prostitutes.

          "We find strong Hebrew reaction against this 'cultic prostitution' in passages such as Leviticus 19:29, 'Do not prostitute thy daughter, to cause her to be a whore,' and Deuteronomy 23:17, 'There shall be no whore(qedesha) of the daughters of Israel, nor a sodomite (qadesh) of the sons of Israel.' One of Josiah's reforms was 'to break down the houses of the sodomites' (2 Kings 23:7)."

          What is important for us to note here is that this sacred prostitution was NOT unquestioned by the surrounding cultures. Remember that in the paradigm cases of annihilation we looked at, the culture was UNIFORM--ALL the people (save a handful) were proponents and transmitters of the "values" of that culture. There were no rebels, or dissidents, or minority voices.

          However, in THIS situation we have the Canaanite culture TOTALLY SOLD OUT to religious prostitution, but NOT SO the entire ANE! Von Soden, cited above, points out in footnote 36 that there was major dissent about such practices:

          "Inscriptions of the kings Merodachbaladan II and Nabonidus of Babylonia, as well as the Erra myth..., contain references to a type of revolution in Uruk around 765, during the reign of the king Eriba-marduk. This revolution was not caused by social conditions alone, but rather was directed against the cultic practices of the temple of Eanna and the cult prostitutes there; it had only temporary success."

          There was no such recorded "protest" in Canaanite--but rather, an 'evangelistic' posture in favor of it that reached (successfully) deep into Israel!


      • Conclusion:

        "By 1400 B.C. the Canaanite civilization and religion had become one of the weakest, most decadent, and most immoral cultures of the civilized world. Many of its repulsive practices were prohibited to Israel in Leviticus 18. In view of the sexual perversions listed, it is more than likely that venereal diseases ravaged a large part of the population. Hence stern measures were required to prevent decimation of the Israelites by the spread of these and other diseases such as malaria and smallpox. Contagion would be possible by sudden fraternization before immunity could develop. (ZPEB: s.v. "Joshua", p. 707).

    8. So, we have international and extreme violence and unusually decadent (and destructive/dangerous) religious practices. What other data do we have about them (or the other nations in the list)?


      We have a few more pieces of data--most of it bad--about these city-nations.

      • The Canaanites have a 'bad' reputation already around the time of Abraham.


        In surveying the historical mentions for the name "Canaan", Schoville points out that the 2nd mention of the name occurs in a derogatory context (POTW:158):

        "An eighteenth-century letter from Mari provides the next evidence for the name in a phrase that connects 'thieves and Canaanites'"

        Although some understand this pejorative reference being to 'rebellious soldiers' (HAP:58), others note that "commonly in Hebrew the root means 'to be abased, put down, subdued,' etc." (ECIAT:168n192). Latter meanings of the root and close-derivatives center around "merchant" (e.g. Job 41.6; Prov 31.24; Is 23.8) [ISBE: s.v. "Canaan", p.585]. In collocation with 'thieves', it MIGHT connote "cheat"--a meaning that would fit well with their deceptive practices in Joshua 9!

        A textual piece of data to support this "cheat" understanding, might be the actions of the Hittite group in Genesis 23. (Remember, the scattered Hittite groups in Palestine at this time were subsumed under the term 'Canaanite' as is evident from comparing Gen 27.46 with 28.1.) In Gen 23, Abraham's wife Sarah has died, and he needs to buy a burial field. Ephron the Hittite takes advantage of Abraham's grief and need to secure burial property quickly, and charges him an incredibly exorbitant 400 shekels of silver for a field (cf. Jer 32.9), AND saddles him with the 'property taxes and dues' that went with "whole-lot" land ownership. (Abraham had only wanted to buy a 'cave'--not the whole field.) If this was the typical 'merchant ethic' of the Canaanites, then no wonder they were grouped in with 'theives'!

      • At the time of Jacob, the Hivites had some interaction with the Hebrews--one of the Hivite leaders raped Dinah, a daughter of Jacob in Gen 34, and tried a subterfuge to accumulate all of Jacob's possessions!
      • At the time of Moses, Israel is trying to march through Transjordan--on the 'neutral' Kings Highway. They peacefully approach the king of the Amorites with a standard 'passage through' request, but is met with abject hostility. The encounter is narrated in Numbers 21.21ff:

        Israel sent messengers to say to Sihon king of the Amorites: 22 "Let us pass through your country. We will not turn aside into any field or vineyard, or drink water from any well. We will travel along the king's highway until we have passed through your territory." 23 But Sihon would not let Israel pass through his territory. He mustered his entire army and marched out into the desert against Israel. When he reached Jahaz, he fought with Israel. 24 Israel, however, put him to the sword and took over his land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, but only as far as the Ammonites, because their border was fortified. 25 Israel captured all the cities of the Amorites and occupied them, including Heshbon and all its surrounding settlements.

        This was simply an unprovoked attack (with his ENTIRE army?!) on Israel. Notice also that Sihon the Amorite had taken this territory from Moab by force already (Num 21.26)!

      • We have ANOTHER unprovoked attack in Numbers 21: When the Canaanite king of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that Israel was coming along the road to Atharim, he attacked the Israelites and captured some of them.
      • We also know that "Canaan" (between the times of Abraham and Joshua, roughly) was basically synonymous with Egypt's territory in Palestine! [Cf. ISBE: s.v. "Canaan", p.586: "Thus, the general picture that emerges from the scattered data is remarkably consistent Canaan is a general name for the Asian holdings of Egypt."; see also the detail in POTW:159ff]. As such, they would have known quickly about the Exodus victory (e.g. Josh 2.8-11) AND had an interest in subjugating/destroying Israel for the Pharaoh.


      So, even the additional available data supports a very negative and abusive view of the Canaanites, Amorites, and Company...

    9. But...they also had had a long exposure to truth and influences to 'moderation' (even though they obviously did not heed them at all!).
      • We have seen above that Canaan drew heavily from the purer stock of Eblaite theology and culture. This would have been a long-term influence to moderation.
      • The outstanding figure of Melchizedek ministered right in the middle of them, during the times of Abraham--and may have been an Amorite himself!


        The story of Melky is given in Genesis 14. He is a king-priest of Salem (Jerusalem) and imparts additional theological knowledge to Abe! Awesome figure in biblical history. What is interesting is that he was right in the middle of the Amorite presence, and would have been quite a beacon to those peoples.

        But also very intriguing is the notion that he could quite possibly have been an Amorite himself. In Ezek 16.3, the prophet rebukes the Jebusites of Jerusalem with these words: `This is what the Sovereign LORD says to Jerusalem: Your ancestry and birth were in the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite. (and again in 16.45). This would argue that Melky was either Amorite or Hittite.


      • Abraham also lived among these peoples, and had close relationships with both Amorites (e.g. Gen 14.7,13) and Hittites (e.g. Gen 23). Esau actually married Hittite wives (also called 'Canaanite'), but this was a bad experience for the family (Gen 26.34-35 with 27.46-28.1). So, there would have been numerous points of contact (in generally friendly settings--but cf. Israel's fight with Amorites in Gen 48.22) in which worldviews would have been 'discussed'.
      • Of special significance would be the words of Melky upon the victory by Abraham and his Amorite allies (Gen 14.18): Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, 19 and he blessed Abram, saying, "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. 20 And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.". This statement that God had fought for Abram--in such a victory of striking proportions!--would surely have registered with his Amorite companions (Gen 14.13), and been remembered in their legends.
      • The Canaanites/Amorites would have witnessed God's judgment on Sodom and the cities of the plain! Abraham had delivered those cities from a Mesopotamian king in Gen 14 (and perhaps the Amorite cities in v.7), only to see them destroyed in Gen 19. Abraham (and Lot) were witnesses to the theological understanding of a highly visible (and internationally applauded, no doubt!) action by God. The peoples of the Land should have taken notice and warning.
      • The above items are 400 years+ before the 'judgment' on them begins!
      • During the 400 years in Egypt, the Canaanites would have had much interaction with Egypt, much of which probably "went through" Goshen--the place of the Hebrews. They also were probably in constant contact with Joseph (and the tribes) during the early famine years. (It is likely that Egyptian influence into Palestine was expanded due to this commercial interaction.)
      • During the 400 years, the Canaanites would have still been surrounded by offspring of Abraham--through Ishmael and Esau, not to mention that of Lot. The nations of Moab, Ammon, Edom would have preserved early traditions about Elohim for 'exchange' with the nations.
      • Immediately after the Exodus, word 'got out' about the Hebrews, and made its way into Canaan. By the time Israel made it to Jericho, a common prostitute in the city could say (Josh 2.9ff: "I know that the LORD has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. 10 We have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. 11 When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone's courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.).


        Rahab had heard about the Exodus (some 40+ years earlier), the conquest of the Amorite Kings Sihon and Og (a few months earlier), and the land-grant promise by YHWH(!)--given 400 years earlier. News traveled fast back in those days, so they probably had at least 40 years notice of Israel's coming. [Remember that Amalek knew of the Exodus WITHIN DAYS and attacked Israel.]


      • Likewise, after the drying up of the Jordan and before the fall of Jericho, the whole land of Palestine knew and individuals could have begun migrating (as was common in those days). So Joshua 5.1f: Now when all the Amorite kings west of the Jordan and all the Canaanite kings along the coast heard how the LORD had dried up the Jordan before the Israelites until we had crossed over, their hearts melted and they no longer had the courage to face the Israelites..


      There was an abundance of information for these people--perhaps even MORE THAN the other nations around them had!--but they did not respond appropriately. (The other nations in the ANE seemed to respond to 'available' truth with a degree of moderation and correspondingly did not develop the ruthless, cruel, and degenerate practices of their Canaanite neighbors.)


    Summary: These nations show up in archeology and literature as a uniquely evil and destructive civilization, whose culpability is increased due to the abundance of truth and religious warnings which they were confronted with, and had access to. In contrast to the vast majority of surrounding nations, the Canaanite/Amorite cultures would not act responsibly and prudently, in matters of foreign relations and domestic practice. The result was a destructive and malignant force, in an already difficult ANE historical setting. If the nations of that day could have had a vote on who to 'destroy', they all would have voted for the Canaanite/Amorite culture.

  3. Were there any limits placed upon Israel in this venture, and what was the EXACT content of the orders?


    First, I want to look at the limits placed on the Israelites--the boundary-statements. What limits did God place on these marching orders? How exhaustive was the command-set? What implications might we draw from these?


    So, this obviously was NOT a war of unrestrained lust, greed for expensive goods, or even "empire-building"--God did NOT tolerate those attitudes. For example, in Joshua 7, an Israelite DID take some of the expense idol pieces, and God held the entire community responsible for this breach.

    Second, I want to look at the EXACT CONTENT of the instructions. What EXACTLY was ordered? What were the possible responses available to the Canaanites & Co.?


    Summary: The Israelites had been promised a specific area of land, since the time of Abraham. Most of the local indigenous peoples were either descendants of Abe or very familiar with the traditions of those people. When the "time had come," God judged the Canaanites and decreed for them to be expelled from the Land. Their tenure was up--they were evicted. New tenants were moving in. The Canaanites were given decades and decades of notice--in many ways and at different times. And they understood clearly--all the records we have of their understanding of their plight is TOTALLY in line with the Land-Grant of YHWH.

    With the 'eviction notice' published, the Canaanites could decide to either vacate the premises peacefully or deal with military force. If they vacated peacefully, they could choose their locations, mode of travel, and not have to deal with unpleasant military overseers. If they choose to challenge Israel's God and His expressed intentions, then they did so with complete knowledge of His power--as displayed in Egypt.

    Even though they were the 'scourge' of the earth at that time--by international consensus--God did not desire to annihilate the people. His expressed intentions were to move them away from His people. He gave them ample opportunity to leave peacefully before Israel arrived, and even allowed the bulk of the 'less institutionalized' to have a little longer. His people were not instructed to hunt them down in neighboring nations at all.

    Israel was severely restricted in the Conquest. They were not allowed to be simple 'land grabbers' or 'wealth seekers' or 'self-righteous' or 'land scorchers' or 'international empire builders' or 'captive-abusive'. At the same time, they were to eliminate the threat of Canaanite destructive influence (both spiritual and physical) if called upon.

    And God allowed no double standards. When Israel began to look like 'Canaanites', God judged them IN THE SAME WAY...and 'vomited' them from the Land as well. This expulsion was also accompanied by the harsh measures of warfare faced by the Canaanites.

    The punishment of the Amorites/Canaanites was thus one of 'deportation'--NOT one of genocide.

  4. What other general principles of God's governance might shed some light on the situation?


    Here I want to survey some of the other governance structures that are present in this issue.


Now, let's restate our opening questions and try to summarize the above material in response...

When we restate the pattern of our 'control data'--judgments that seem to be 'true annihilations'--and correlate that pattern with the Conquest data, we see similarities AND differences:

  1. The annihilations are judgments [But the conquest judgment was a deportation, not an annihilation.]
  2. These judgments are for publicly-recognized (indeed, international and cross-cultural in scope!) cruelty and violence of an EXTREME and WIDESPREAD nature. [This applies to the Canaanites, plus the additional 'load' of long-term "being a curse" to Israel.]
  3. These judgments are preceded by LONG PERIODS of warning/exposure to truth (and therefore, opportunity to "change outcomes").[This applies to the Canaanites extensively.]
  4. Innocent adults are given a 'way out' [This is very true here--in additional to the extensive warnings, plenty of time&space is given to allow migration before Israel arrived. We even have one example of a non-migration exception--Rahab--which suggests there might be others that were not recorded.]
  5. Household members share in the fortunes of the parents (for good or ill). [This is true here as well--everyone in Rahab's house was spared--whether they were good or evil!]
  6. Somebody ALWAYS escapes (Lot, Noah, Kenites). [In our case, the mass of people that migrated north to Phoenicia, Rahab+household, plus Gibeonites (although through deception).]
  7. These are exceptional cases--there are VERY, VERY few of these. [We have two other cases structured after this deportation--that of Israel and Judah--after the same standards and structures.]


Pushback: You say that the people of Canaan and the others should have left because the land was promised to Isreal.  That's like someone coming to my house and telling me to get out because God told him that he could have it.  And then blaming me because he had to kill me to "accomplish God's will." In short, it isn't realistic to expect that people will uproot and leave their home.  Even the most peaceful folks will fight when home is what's at stake.

Fortunately, in the ancient world the situation was much more clear than the situation you describe at the doorstep!. Each nation/state/city had their main god that was supposed to protect that specific spot of land. The bigger the country, the bigger and more powerful the god had to be. If a foreign people came to you and said "our god wants to take over your land" the only real was to know whose god was bigger (and therefore which claim was 'legitimate') was to fight. If your god won, then obviously their statement about 'change of ownership' was bogus or irrelevant. If they won, of course, the opposite was true--and off you go (assuming they didn't kill you in the process).

But in some cases there was a short-cut to know whether their god would beat your god--by checking the "stats" and applying the "transitive law". If you knew, for example, that  your god A (deity of a local Canaanite city-village), could be easily beaten by god B (the god of Egypt, the mightest nation on the planet), but that god B (Egypt) was recently beaten by a more powerful god C (God of the Hebrews), then you could easily make the A<B<C connection, and know that a head start on moving north to Phonecian might be a good idea. The fact that this had been forecast for centuries earlier, and told around all the nearby city campfires didn't hurt its credibility either...nor did the stories of the Hebrew ancestor Abraham, whose exploits against the 5 Kings were still stories of wide circulation and awe...

In other words, the Israelite claims were not simple "one-off prophetic" declarations of "mine!"--but had a long history of circulation, and were substantiated (in their minds) by the awesome victory over the mightiest nation and pantheon on earth--that of Egypt. Under circumstances like this--given the way the ancients understood deity--it would be extremely realistic to expect them to uproot and move their home. There actually would be no better way to communicate the certainty of that future than by such an extraordinary event as the Exodus, if well-publicized (which it was). If God was trying to give them a 40-year 'early warning', this was the most effective way possible to help them see the reality of that future, and give them almost a generation to prepare and build a new life/home somewhere else (south or most likely, north).

Conclusion: Judgment is called God's "strange work" in the OT prophets. What for us humans is the problem of "why does God not do anything about evil and cruel people" is simply the other side of His patience with us. He hopes that we will accept a love of the truth and a commitment to value. In love, He deliberately "believes the best" (I Cor 13).

What started out as the "Unfair genocide of the Canaanites" ended up as the "Less-than-they-deserved punitive deportation from the land"--filled with patience and mercy and 'second chances'. It was nonetheless a judgment, and nonetheless involved death--as it later would be repeated to His people.

Far from being the "genocide of an innocent people for land-hungry Israelites", it was instead the "firm, yet just--and even a little merciful to the masses--removal of a people from a tract of land, mostly through migration."

glenn miller, 2/8/97, Oct 2000