Did God Really Command Genocide in the Old Testament?

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We have heard it said, God is Good! Yet how can God be good if he ordered Israel to destroy the Canaanites? Did God command genocide?

Consider some verses that describe God’s character and how God looks toward all ethnic groups including those that oppose him:

Ezekiel 33:11 God does not delight in the death of the wicked.

Romans 5:8 God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

2 Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance

Psalm 145:8-9 The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made.

Genesis 18:18 All the nations (ethnic groups) of the earth shall be blessed in him.

Revelation 7:9-10 …every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

As you think about the above verses, let’s consider if the character of God described above aligns with the destruction of the Canaanites.               

Canaan is an area of land in and around modern-day Israel. In the Old Testament, multiple people groups dwelt in the land of Canaan: the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites (Exodus 23:23; Deuteronomy 7:1-2; Joshua 3:10). These Canaanites were aware of God (Joshua 2:10-11; 9:9) but chose to act wickedly for hundreds of years. During this time, God patiently warned the Canaanites about their wickedness (Genesis 15:13–16) and the destruction it would bring. However, the people would not relent nor repent from their evil.

What exactly were the Canaanites doing? It was a laundry list of evil that included witchcraft, sexual perversions, and human sacrifice.  

In Deuteronomy 12:31 Moses said Canaanites “burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.”

Pictured above is an illustration of a god the Canaanites worshiped. Depending on the statues design, worshipers would place fire on or inside a statue to heat it up. Worshipers would then start singing loudly in order to cover up the screams of a child they would place in the burning arms of the statue until the child was deceased.

God intervened to put a stop to these evil practices. Why? Because punishing evil is not unloving.

In Deuteronomy 9:5 God said, “Not because of your (Israel’s) righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations (Canaanites) the Lord your God is driving them out from before you.”

God sent Israel into the land of Canaan not because Israel was better than Canaan. Rather, it was because the people in Canaan were wicked. God was stopping it.  

Does “destroy” really mean destroy?

God told the Israelites to “destroy all the inhabitants of the land” of Canaan (Joshua 9:24). Today people have often wondered what God intended by the phrase “destroy all the inhabitants”. There are two common views. View #1 It’s a literal command to kill everyone or #2 It’s language for intimidation in warfare.

View #1 Literal Command to kill everyone. God is able to give and take life at any moment. God doesn’t owe anyone a single day. Every day is a gift and God is just to judge at any moment. If the people in Canaan are wicked and God wants to judge them, he can. He was more than gracious for warning the Canaanites for hundreds of years. If Canaanites repented, God would have spared their lives. Rahab the Harlot lived in Canaan. She turned to God as Israel invaded her land. Today we know Rahab the Canaanite Harlot because she is in the direct lineage line of Jesus Christ. God was very gracious to Rahab.

View #2 Language for intimidation in warfare. Historians refer to this as “hagiographic hyperbole”. Athletes often try to intimidate their competition to achieve victory. Before a competition an athlete may intimidate their opposition by saying “I am going to crush you” or “I am going to destroy you”. Surely a competitor isn’t going to literally crush or kill someone, but such rhetoric has been known to cause one’s competition to play below their ability. Competitors want an advantage. This is why teams prefer to play games in a home stadium rather than away. The chants of a home crowd can give a team the upper hand.

In the case of Israel, the command to “destroy” (Josh 9:24) the competition, is an intimidation tactic to discourage and defeat their enemy. Consider Deuteronomy 12:30, God tells Israel to “destroy” the Canaanites. Deuteronomy 12:29 tells us that “destroy” means to “push them out of their land”. Destroy does not necessarily mean kill everyone.

Another reasons some theologians believe God’s command to destroy is for warfare intimidation is because God gave Israel laws on how to handle relationships with Canaanites in preparation for Israels move into Canaan. Why would God write laws describing how to handle relationships with Canaanites if God wanted Israel to kill them all? It seems silly to order the killing of everyone, then turn around and tell Israel how to treat other people groups. Leviticus 19:33-34

One final thought…

If you struggle with God calling Israel to attack Canaanites, consider one more point. In the 1940s, America and its allies were involved in World War Two. Why? Nazi Germany was killing civilians by the thousands. America, along with other nations, chose to fight to spare life. Was it right for America and its allies to take a stand to destroy Nazi Germany? Was it right to stop them from murdering millions of People? I don’t know a single person that would argue that America and its allies should have allowed Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany to continue. Stopping the annihilation of innocent people is noble, good, loving and just. Romans 13:1-5 says God permits governments to use their power to protect life. If it’s okay for America to stand up and stop Hitler, is it okay for God to stop the wickedness of the Canaanites? For hundreds of years Canaanites murdered thousands of people. If we think its okay for us to stop evil, can it be okay for God to desire the same?

Further Resources.  “Is God A Moral Monster” or “Did God Really Command Genocide” by Paul Copan. Paul Copan is a recommend author by Ravi Zacharias Ministries. Feel free to look for YouTube teachings from Paul Copan on God as a moral monster or genocide. He has several videos you can view, like this one here.