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The Blue Letter Bible

Don Stewart :: Why Did God Order the Destruction of the Canaanites?

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Don Stewart

One of the difficult problems posed by events recorded in the Book of Joshua in the Old Testament concerns the destruction of the Canaanites. When the children of Israel entered the Promised Land they destroyed the Canaanites as ordered by the Lord. The Bible tells what happened when the Israelites conquered Jericho:

And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword (Joshua 6:21).

Why did God order everyone destroyed including women, children, and animals? Does this not show a cruel and warlike attitude?

We Must Understand The Historical Situation

While the loss of innocent life is something that is to be deplored, the situation must be understood with the following background in mind. The nation Israel was chosen to be a witness to the world of the true and living God. The Israelites were to live in the Promised Land surrounded by the heathen nations, yet they were not to be influenced by the other nations' religions. God instructed His people that they were not to take to themselves any of the elements of the false pagan religions.

The Promised Land in which the Israelites were to settle was populated by the Canaanites who had corrupted and perverted God's truth. They had corrupted themselves to the place where they were beyond saving. Had any been permitted to live, they would have infected Israel with their moral depravity.

Israel Was To Be A Witness

Before Israel could establish itself in the region as a witness to the one true God, all remnants of the pagan culture had to be destroyed. The failure to totally eliminate all of the pagans in the Promised Land eventually led to the nation's downfall in the times of the Judges.

Then the angel of the Lord came to Gilgal to Bochim, and said: I led you up from Egypt and brought you to the land of which I swore to your fathers; and I said, I will never break my covenant with you. And you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall tear down their altars. But you have not obeyed my voice. Why have you done this? Therefore I also said, I will not drive them out before you; but they shall be thorns in your side, and their gods shall be a snare to you (Judges 2:1-3).

God ordered the destruction of the Canaanites because of the corrupting influence they would have if their false religious system were allowed to survive. Unfortunately, Israel disobeyed God and did not utterly destroy these pagan peoples. This disobedience eventually led to their own captivity.

The Canaanites Were Not Innocent Victims

The people that lived in Canaan were not ignorant of the God of Israel. Many times the impression is given that God ordered the Israelites to swoop in and destroy innocent people. But these people were neither innocent nor ignorant. They had heard about the God of Israel but had rejected Him.

When two spies were sent to spy out the Land of Promise they were told by Rahab the prostitute.

I know that the Lord has given you the land, that the terror of you has fallen on us and that all the inhabitants of the land are fainthearted because of you. For 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 the two kings of the Amorites who were on the other side of the Jordan, Sihon, and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. And as soon as we heard these things, our hearts melted; neither did there remain any more courage in anyone because of you, for the Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath (Joshua 2:11).

They had heard of the true God but had rejected Him. Consequently, their entire society acted in a sinful way. The Apostle Paul spoke of these people:

Although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man-and birds and four-footed beasts and creeping things. Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshipped the creature rather than the Creator (Romans 1:21-25).


The inhabitants of Canaan were neither ignorant nor innocent victims of an angry God. They had been committing terrible sin knowing full well of the true and living God. Because they rejected Him and His forgiveness God harshly judged them.

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