Armenia. Cambodia. Rawanda. Bosnia. Darfur. All well-known modern examples of genocide where entire people groups were wiped out (or almost wiped out). These are awful tragedies, worthy of our sorrow and grief.
And yet, ask the critics, is the God of the Bible really any different? When the Israelites entered the land of Canaan, was it not God that commanded them to wipe out all the indigenous people (Deut 20:17)? Is God not guilty of genocide? It makes me think of the famous bumper-sticker quote, “The only difference between God and Adolf Hitler is that God is more proficient at genocide.”
Admittedly, this is a difficult, complex issue. We feel obligated, understandably, to find a way to get God “off the hook” for the deaths of so many people. Many possibilities come to mind for how that might be done. Maybe we’ve misread the passage. Maybe it’s just symbolic. Maybe the Israelites misunderstood God’s command. And so on.
But, in the end, I don’t think we need to get God off the hook. I don’t think he wants off the hook. As painful as this issue is, it highlights what we, and our culture, need to hear more than ever: God is holy, people are sinful, the world is broken, and his judgment is just.
If we are going to rightly understand the destruction of the Canaanites, several principles must be remembered:
First, every human being on the planet deserves God’s judgment not just the Canaanites. Right now, all humans everywhere—from the kind old lady that lives next door to the hardened criminal on death row—are all deeply sinful. And they were born this way. Since birth, all human beings stand guilty, not only for their own sins but for the sin of Adam which has been passed down to them (Rom 5:12). And the penalty for our sin is clear, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23).
So, what does this mean? This means that, at any moment, God could take the life of any human as judgment for their sins. And he would be totally justified in doing so. God owes salvation to no one. And this quickly changes our perspective on the Canaanite conquest. Rather than being surprised that God would finally judge people for their sins (even in great numbers), perhaps we should be shocked that he waits so long to do it. Every one of us is alive and breathing solely by God’s incredible patience and grace.
Second, the timing of God’s judgment doesn’t always match human expectations. Sometimes we think God should judge the most sinful people first and work down the list. But, of course, God doesn’t always work the way we expect. In fact, Jesus made this exact point when he was asked why the tower of Siloam fell and killed a bunch of people. Jesus replied, “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you. But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:4-5).
Ouch. In other words, people don’t have to be the worst of sinners to receive God’s judgment. God is not obligated to judge all people simultaneously.
While the Canaanites were not the only sinful people in the world, and not necessarily even the worst, their sins were quite egregious. God drove them out of the land primarily because their practices were “detestable” in his sight—gross idolatry, use of sorcerers and mediums, sexual perversions, and even sacrificing their own children to the gods (Deut 18:9-14). Despite these practices, God had been incredibly patient with the inhabitants of Canaan for generation after generation, dating back even to the time of Abraham (Gen 15:13-16). But, God’s patience had run out.
Third, God uses a variety of instruments to accomplish his judgment. Sure, God could just miraculously take all the lives of the Canaanites in a single instance. But, he has a history of using various means to bring judgment. Throughout Scripture, such means have included natural disasters, disease and pestilence, drought, economic collapse, and yes, even human armies. At numerous points throughout biblical history God “raises up” a human army to accomplish his purposes. And in the Canaanite conquest, God used the nation of Israel as his instrument of judgment.
It is here that we come to a key difference between the Canaanite conquest and modern day genocide. Yes, both involve great loss of life. And both involve human armies. But the former is done as an instrument of God’s righteous judgment whereas the latter is humans murdering others for their own purposes. On the surface, there may be similarities. But, they are decidedly not the same act.
An example might help. Imagine a scenario where one human injects another human with a deadly toxin which causes that person to die. Is that murder? Well, it depends. If this was done by a gang member who wanted to knock off a rival gang member, then the answer would be yes. But, if this was done by an official at a federal prison who was authorized by the state to administer lethal injection, then the answer would be no.
On the surface, the two acts might look the same. But, everything comes down to whether the taking of life is properly authorized. The issue is not whether a life is taken, but how and why it is taken.
Let me try to draw all of this together. If every human deserves judgment (and we do), and if God is justified in taking a life whenever he decides to execute that judgment (and he is), and if God uses various instruments for that judgment (including human armies), then there is nothing immoral about the Canaanite conquest. Indeed, to object to the conquest would require us to object to all of God’s acts of judgment. Do we also object to Noah’s flood, or to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, or to the plagues on Egypt?
In the end, the conquest of Canaan remains a difficult and complex issue. And yet, if the conquest is viewed within the context of the Christian worldview, rather than from outside of it, then the objections quickly fade away. God’s judgment is just, even if we don’t fully understand it. And if we take that away, then we are left with something other than the God of Christianity.