Some critics of the Bible complain that Joshua must have killed numerous innocent Canaanite adults during the conquest recorded in Joshua 1-12. Because of this, what Joshua did was nothing more than genocide. But the biblical picture is painted quite differently, and if we are going to accuse Joshua of killing innocent Canaanites, shouldn’t we at least read what the Bible actually says?
Paul Copan and Matt Flannagan, in their book Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God, fill in the background for us so we can see what the true biblical picture is.
First, the Bible clearly states that the land where the Canaanites were living had been given to Abraham and his descendants, by God, hundreds of years before the conquest.
Israel had legal title to the land of Canaan based on the promise God had made to the patriarchs (Deut. 20: 16). The Canaanites were essentially trespassers or squatters (Josh. 2: 9– 11). The ultimate goal of Abraham’s calling was to bring blessing to the nations, and this promise includes permanent possession of the land (which, as Scripture progresses, expands into possession of the new heaven and new earth by God’s people).
Second, “Israel had to wait many generations— including having to endure slavery in Egypt— before it could take possession of the land because the Canaanites were not yet sufficiently wicked to judge (Gen. 15: 16).”
By the time of Joshua’s conquest, their wickedness had reached the point where judgment would finally occur. God waited hundreds of years for the Canaanites to repent, but they never did.
Copan and Flannagan add, “During the days of the patriarchs, Abraham’s people were forbidden to engage in violence against the Canaanite nations occupying the land.”
Third, the kinds of
wicked acts (Deut. 9: 4– 5) the Canaanites engaged in were not trivial: incest, adultery, bestiality, ritual prostitution, homosexual acts, and most significantly, child sacrifice (Lev. 18; Deut. 12: 29– 31). Most of these acts are illegal, even in modern Western nations. Any group practicing these actions would not be tolerated even in contemporary liberal societies, and in some jurisdictions, violators would be sentenced to death.
Israel’s own occupation of the land was conditional; Israel too would be ‘utterly destroyed’ if it engaged in the defiling practices of the Canaanites (Lev. 18: 25– 28). Indeed, later the Israelites would be judged— removed from the land through exile— because they violated the terms of the covenant.
Fifth, and maybe most importantly, we have many indications from the Bible that God spares those who are truly repentant, those who truly love Him. Copan and Flannagan offer several examples of Canaanites who were spared and who became members of Israel.
In part 2 of this series, we will look at these examples.