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

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When we look at the Canaanite religion and what was going on, on the ground, so to speak, there are numerous things that we would describe as wicked, things that the Old Testament, things that Israelite ethics and morals would call wrong. Fertility cults were rampant; sexual immorality was common; child sacrifice was common. And underneath all of this, we see there is a resistance to the will of the Lord, a resistance to God as Creator. And so, cherem is tied to this notion of creation. The Lord is the creator of all lands, not just the people of Israel and the land that they inhabit at the time; the Lord is the creator of all lands, and he has designated the ways in which they are to live, the ways in which they can bring peace and justice and righteousness to one another, and the actions of the Canaanites are inhibiting this. There is a resistance to the will of the Lord as Creator. And finally, an interesting point brought up by John Goldingay recently is that the Lord is not so much asking Israel to destroy the Canaanites because the Canaanites have the wrong religion. No, the question is, again, is moral and ethical in nature. What the Canaanites are doing is abhorrent to the Lord. The question of religion has almost always missed the mark because religion, be it Israelite or whomever, has never saved. Religion does not save. It does not now; it hasn't ever. The proper religion was not what caused Rahab to suddenly change her mind. Rahab did not say to the spies, "Oh, your mode of thinking, your theological categories are better than mine. I'm going to convert." It wasn't religion; it was response. The proper response was one of faith. When one looked at what was going on around them, and then one heard the stories that Joshua and the spies told — this is the hand of the Lord, the Lord is the one doing these things — the response of Rahab was one of faith and obedience. This is the response that Israel has always been called to and the response that the world, through Israel, is called to take part in as well.

Answer by Dr. Seth Tarrer

Dr. Seth Tarrer is Visiting Assistant Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages at Knox Theological Seminary. Dr. Tarrer received his M.Div. from Beeson Divinity School and his Ph.D. from University of St. Andrews. He is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature and has taught at seminaries in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Medellin, Colombia. He is the author of “Reading with the Faithful: Interpretation of True and False Prophecy in the Book of Jeremiah from Ancient Times to Modern.”