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Why Did God Tell the Israelites
To Kill Everyone in the Promised Land?

Mark Twain once said, “Most people are bothered by those Scripture passages which they cannot understand. But for me, the passages in Scripture which trouble me most are those which I do understand.” 

One of the most troubling passages in the Old Testament concerns the delivery of the Promised Land to the children of Israel after the 40 years in the desert.  The plain reading of the scripture is that God directed Joshua to drive out the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites from their homes and cities and to put them under the ban, i.e., to put them to the sword, man, woman, and child. The directive given to the Israelites and the reasons for it are found in a number of passages, but the three of the clearest are probably these (New English Bible):
In trying to understand why God gave the Israelites what seems to be such an uncharacteris­tically harsh order, we must remember two fundamental truths.  First, God punishes wickedness.  And second, God has a plan and a strategy for the salvation of the universe. 

Part I:  God Punishes Wickedness

Three major points are clear in the scripture passages quoted above:

Why?  Why would the LORD our God, whom we know to be just, long-suffering, and merciful, want to destroy these nations?

The answer is clearly given in the third passage cited above:  because they were wicked.  The peoples of Canaan practiced one of the most vicious, degrading, and dehumanizing religions of recorded human history.  Furthermore, they were great proselytizers, pulling even the Israelites, the chosen people of the Living God, time after time into their revolting practices.  Among their religious observances were these:[1]

(They also practiced female cult prostitution and idolatry, but these are less unusual in the non-Judeo-Christian tradition.)

Some of these practices are recorded in archeological records as well as in the Bible.  Several years ago a traveling exhibit of Phoenician floor mosaics came to Albuquerque.  The Phoenicians were masters of this art, and they were essentially the same people as the Philistines, worshipping the same gods.  We were teaching Old Testament at the time, and we thought it might be a good idea to take the class on a field trip to see the exhibit.  I had read the newspaper article about the exhibit carefully, so we decided to check it out prior to taking the whole class.  I knew what we would be seeing; nevertheless, when I came to an urn containing the remains of a ten-year-old child who had been burned alive as a religious offering, I had to control my stomach.  I suggested that not all the class members would want to go to the exhibit, and several of them chose not to.

In the event, the Israelites were either unable or unwilling to drive out or destroy these nations.  Far from destroying their religions, the Israelites embraced them.  They fell into apostasy, and God punished them as a means of correction.  First there was a period of about 400 years, described in the book of Judges, during which various tribes of the Israelites fell into apostasy at various time.  Each time, God allowed the sinful tribes to be oppressed for a period by one or another of the nations of Canaan.  During the period of the united kingdom, Solomon built many shrines and temples to the gods of these nations, and the Israelites were punished by the splitting apart of the kingdom and a prolonged civil war (1 Kings 11:1-11).  The ten tribes of the kingdom of Israel continued the apostasy of following the religions of Canaan, and they added their own brand of idolatry by creating shrines at Dan and Bethel (1 Kings 12:28-31).  Under Ahab and Jezebel, Baalism was made a state religion alongside the worship of God (1 Kings 16:31-32).  Eventually God punished the kingdom of Israel by driving them out of the land and destroying them:  “… what I meant to do to them I will do to you.”  Baalism and the golden calves at Dan and Bethel were never as serious a problem in the southern kingdom of Judah as they were in the north, but the reforms of King Josiah show the appalling depths to which the Judeans fell (2 Kings 23:4-20).  The only thing that saved the southern kingdom of Judea from final destruction was God’s promise to David (2 Sam. 7:16; 1 Kings 11:13).  Even so God inflicted a terrible punishment upon them—exile and the destruction of most of the people (2 Kings 25:1-25; 2 Chron. 36:14-21).[2]

In the same way that God worked in the historical process to punish the Israelites, God used history to punish the nations of Canaan for their wickedness.  God’s first choice as the agent of their punishment was the Israelites.  The Israelites failed fairly miserably at this assignment, and it was finally completed by other nations that God chose as his tools.  The Assyrians destroyed the peoples of northern Canaan along with the kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C., when God used Assyria to punish the ten tribes for embracing the religious practices of Canaan (2 Kings 17:5-23).  The Babylonians destroyed the peoples of southern Canaan along with the kingdom of Judea in 589 B.C., when God used Babylon to punish and purify the tribes of Judah and Benjamin for the same sin (2 Kings 24:3-4).  Finally, the Romans destroyed one of the last great strongholds of the Canaanite religions, Carthage, in 146 B.C., when God used the Roman Empire to prepare the world for the spreading of the Gospel.

Part II:  God Is Bringing About the Salvation of the Universe

God has a plan for the salvation of the universe.  In brief, this plan is to reconcile sinful humanity to himself through Jesus Christ (Col. 1:15-20; Eph. 1:9-10; Lk. 2:29-32; Gen 12:1-3; Isa. 51:6c, 8b, 52:10, 56:3-8).  The plan is being implemented in several strategic phases.  Phase 1 was the selection of Abraham and Sarah to be the foundation of a great nation, a mighty people that would have an intimate relationship with God (Gen. 12:1-3).  Phase 2 was the ministry of Jesus Christ on earth (Gospels).  Phase 3 is the ministry of the current incarnation of Christ, the Church, on earth (Acts through present day).  Phase 4 will be the second coming of Jesus to head up all things in himself for a final, complete, and eternal reconciliation to God the Father.

The tactic that God chooses to use in carrying out His overall strategy is to work through the historical process.  He developed a nation—Israel—with whom he could have a relationship, to whom he could teach ethics and morality, and through whom he could send the Christ into the world.  Along the way he also blessed and made great other nations descended from Abraham—Moab, Edom, and Ishmael, although these nations were not the one chosen to implement the overall plan.  He used other nations—Egypt, the nations of Canaan, Syria, Assyria, Babylon, and others—to direct and mold Israel in the same way that a metalworker uses the fire.  After the vessel is poured, the fire may be put to other use, or it may be put out.

Notice here that God’s strategy and tactics manipulate nations.[3]  God does not manipulate persons.  Any person who chose to renounce other gods and throw in his or her lot with Israel participated in God’s plan for the history of Israel, just as any person who chooses to join the Church[4] participates in salvation in Jesus Christ.  It is clear that the Israelites did not kill every person, even when they destroyed the nation to which the person belonged.  During the destruction of Jericho, Rahab and her entire family were spared (Josh. 2, 6), and indeed they became so intimate a part of Israel that she is listed as an ancestress of Jesus (Mt. 1:5).  The Hivites of Gibeon made a treaty with the Israelites,[5] and the entire group became a part of Israel (Josh. 9).  A cooperative Hittite family was allowed to go and build a new city (Judg. 1:26).  The Jebusites remained among the Jews in Jerusalem (Judg. 1:21).  During the period of the judges, Ruth the Moabitess refused to leave Naomi and became one of the most famous Jewesses of all time, the great-grandmother of David (Ruth 4:22) and an ancestress of Jesus (Mt. 1:5).  These individuals chose to cast in their lot with God and Israel and thus became a part of God’s plan.


Many of the members of the nations of Canaan remained among the Israelites in spite of God’s plan, not because of it.  Many persons of the Canaanite, Hittite, Amorite, Perrizite, Hivite, and Jebusite nations were left, even though they had not chosen to join Israel (Judges 3:5).  For example, although many Canaanites were put to forced labor, they were neither killed nor driven out (Judges 1:27-33).  Many Amorites were also put to forced labor (Judges 34-35).  These remnants of the Canaanite religionists did not renounce their gods, and they repeatedly led the Israelites into apostasy (Judg. 3:6, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings).

God’s plan for the salvation of the universe will not be thwarted; however, it can be delayed when individuals and nations reject their own part in it.  What would have happened if Joshua and the Israelites had obeyed God’s command to put to the sword all the nations of Canaan, sparing only those like Rahab who wished to become part of God’s plan?  Four hundred years of cyclical apostasy under the judges would almost certainly have been avoided.  The division of the nation into the northern and southern kingdoms, a result of Solomon’s apostasy, probably could have been avoided.  The destruction of the kingdom of Israel might have been avoided.  The Exile might have been avoided.  All these historical events were a direct outgrowth of the failure of the Israelites to follow God’s commands:  “Drive out all its inhabitants as you advance, destroy all their carved figures and their images of cast metal, and lay their hill-shrines in ruins” and “pull down their altars, break their sacred pillars, hack down their sacred poles and destroy their idols by fire.”  In spite of repeated warnings and chastisements they failed in their obligation to be “a people holy to the Lord your God,” and in consequence God’s plan was delayed and the Israelites were punished.

And the nations of Canaan?  Even if they had not been in the company of the Israelites and thus exposed to the teachings of God for the better part of 1500 years, Paul says they should have known better:

For all that may be known of God by men lies plain before their eyes; indeed God himself has disclosed it to them.  His invisible attributes, that is to say his everlasting power and deity, have been visible, ever since the world began, to the eye of reason, in the things he has made.  There is therefore no possible defense for their conduct; knowing God, they have refused to honour him as God, or to render him thanks.  … They boast of their wisdom, but they have made fools of themselves, exchanging the splendour of immortal God for an image shaped like mortal man, even for images like birds, beasts, and creeping things.  For this reason God has given them up to the vileness of their own desires, and the consequent degradation of their bodies, because they have bartered away the true God for a false one … They know well enough the just decree of God, that those who behave like this deserve to die….  (Romans 1:19-32, New English.  See also Romans 2:12-15.)

Nevertheless, the nations of Canaan continued in their sin until they were destroyed through the historical process.  For a thousand years, God’s plan for the punishment of their wickedness was delayed.  But it was not thwarted.

[1] Many of these example actually cite instances of Israelite adoption of the Canaanite practice.

[2] After the Exile, the Jews finally gave up worshipping other gods and became radically monotheistic.  About time.

[3] God’s strategy and his use of nations is discussed in detail by Forster and Marston.

[4] I.e., the body of Christ, not the organization.

[5] By trickery, in the tradition of Jacob.

Copyright 2003, 2012 by Regina L. Hunter. This page has been prepared for the web site by Deanna Rains.

Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

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