Destruction of the Canaanites

Why did God command the destruction of the Canaanites in the book of Joshua?

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Well, the question why God called Joshua to destroy the Canaanites in the book of Joshua is probably one of the most difficult questions in all of the Old Testament for people to answer because, if you put it this way, it's like this: It's Yahweh talking to Joshua — and Yahweh is, of course, the incarnate Jesus, and you probably had a quiet time with him this morning — and so, the same God said, "I want you to go destroy men, women, children, chickens, goats, sheep, everything," let's just say with the town of Jericho. There are other towns, but complete destruction. And the word, the technical word is "devoted to destruction," right? Devote this city to destruction. And there's a Hebrew word tied to that. It's called cherem— that is probably always the biggest question that we have when we read Joshua. It's like, wow, this is intense, and it was the will of God, and all that. And I think that the way to answer that is to go back to the basics of the land belongs to Yahweh — Yahweh has a universal claim on the land. It belongs to him, like the whole earth. It is a universal claim. And Yahweh is holy. But Yahweh wants to dwell with his people because he wants to redeem them from their unholiness, but he has to dwell with them. That's his desire, to be among his people. So, you see the clash — the holiness of Yahweh versus the unholiness of the people. And in this case it's the Canaanites. But you've got to set that story over a larger backdrop. Is it just the Canaanites who are unholy? No. It's everybody. From Genesis, we know that the Fall affected everybody. All the descendants of Adam and Eve have been impacted. And to this day, this continues; the unholiness that we carry in the face of a holy God is a perennial problem. So, we shouldn't single out the Canaanites because we're all unholy. And it's very clear in the book of Joshua that holiness is something that Yahweh has, and if someone is on his side, they're going to be on his side because they have become holy themselves, by Yahweh's means. By Yahweh's means. You look at the conquest of Jericho; what is the conquest of Jericho? It's just a ritual. There's no warfare there. They're just sanctifying themselves by walking around the city with the priests, the trumpet and the ark, and so they're sanctifying the site because it's preparing for Yahweh's holiness to come down. And Yahweh's holiness is not arbitrary, because he is making that message of judgment known in advance to the Canaanites inside Jericho. They have a chance to be saved from Yahweh establishing his holiness. They have ample times. They have the whole time from the time they leave Egypt for forty years and then the conquest in Transjordan of Heshbon, the city of Heshbon. They have heard all of it. How do we know that? Because of that woman prostitute that says that; "We have heard. We know what's coming." But she's the only one in her family that responds to that call to repent. So, Yahweh, the "unfairness" of Yahweh, it has to be mitigated. Actually, there is no unfairness because they've had the call to turn from unholiness to holiness and they have chosen not to take it, except for that one person in the city of Jericho. And that one person is actually saved. And so, yeah, the destruction of the Canaanites, it's the death and violence caused by sin. It's the extent of how our sinfulness has impacted the world. It's very, very sad. And let's finish with one more point on this, because that's the main point. Don't assign blame to Yahweh, because Yahweh himself took that death and violence on himself at the cross. He took that cherem upon him. He became cherem for us so we wouldn't have to face that destruction, those of us who have put our faith in Jesus. So, the claim of unfairness by God? No, he took that upon himself so we wouldn't have to be cherem and devoted to destruction ourselves. And when that hits home and you realize, I'm a Canaanite. If it wasn't for the grace of God, I am a Canaanite devoted for destruction, and it was only by the grace of God and the mercy of God in Christ that I've been spared. And our message is to proclaim that message of salvation, that the whole world is cherem, the whole world is unholy, and we go and proclaim a message of salvation, and we hope we're going to have a whole bunch of Rahabs responding to the message.

Answer by Dr. Thomas Petter

Dr. Tom Petter is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.