Who Were the Canaanites, and Why Did God Order Their Destruction?

Borrowed Light
Who Were the Canaanites, and Why Did God Order Their Destruction?

A band of raiders are holding hostage a group of women and children. They have been abusing them for days and there is no end in sight. Word of their plight comes to an elite team of special op soldiers. The soldiers infiltrate the base of the men, killing each of them, and rescuing the women and children.

A group of settlers are happily farming in their fields. Young and elderly, men and women, are working the fields. They have little to no political affiliation, they are just simple people hoping to live out their days in their fields, loving their families, and doing honest work. Suddenly a plane from a neighboring country is seen over the horizon. Within moments the entire village is razed. Every member of that community is declared dead.

We laud the soldiers in the first story has heroic but recognize the planes in the second story as evil. When we are addressing the Canaanites, what group do they belong to? Are they in the category of evil raiders, or uneventful settlers? There isn’t an easy answer to these questions but as we explore more about the Canaanites, perhaps we can come to a bit more clear of an answer.

Who Were the Canaanites?

The Canaanites descend from the grandson of Noah, Canaan. He was cursed because of his sin against Noah (Genesis 9:20-25). In Genesis 10:15-19 we read of 11 groups in the area of Syria and Palestine that descended from Canaan. Thus, at times the Canaanites point to a specific group of people (Joshua 11:3) but also it can refer to any of those who are mentioned in the Genesis 10 table of nations. This is why many scholars today consider the Canaanites more of an ethnic unit than a nation, per se. Some even consider them to be a specific social class (merchants). But much of these references is based upon Egyptian and Mari history.

What specifically was considered Canaanite territory? Walter Elwell helpfully draws the geographical boundaries for us:

“The first six [of the 11 people groups from Genesis 10] evidently occupied territory at or south of Sidon, whereas the others lived farther north. The northerners mostly settled on the edge of the coastal plain; in the south, settlement spread eastward to the upland areas. To the north, Canaan extended to Latakia, just south of Ugarit, and inland to Hamath. To the south, Canaanite territory stretched to the Negeb desert area, with no clear boundaries. OT references specifically placed the Canaanites in western Palestine’s valleys and coastal areas; the upland country was occupied by Amorites and other peoples.”

But what kind of people were the Canaanites? It seems from God’s promise to Abraham that they were wicked and idolatrous people. In Genesis 15:16 the LORD made reference to the Canaanites when he said, “the sin of the Amorites (Canaanites) has not yet reached its full measure.” God was waiting to fulfill his justice against this people. And it seems that as history trudged along, the Canaanites became increasingly wicked.

Where Do We See the Canaanites in the Bible?

Canaan, the progenitor of the Canaanites, first appears in the story of Noah as one who did not cover their father’s shame. The Canaanites next appear in the table of nations. From this point forward they serve as the backdrop to the promise of Abraham. It is the land where the Canaanites dwell that God promises to give to Abraham. This is the role they play throughout this part of the Old Testament narrative. We see the Canaanites play a prominent role in the early pages of the Bible.

In Numbers 13, when the spies report back of the strong people who have large fortified cities, it is the Canaanites whom they are referring to. These are the people of the land and the ones that it will require God’s strength to conquer. During the Exodus and wilderness period, they also serve as a threat to the religious purity of the Israelites. Their polytheism and godless living held out a temptation to the devotion to the God of Israel.

The Canaanites appear most prominently, though, in the story of Numbers and Joshua as the conquest of Israel. When most talk about the Canaanites, it is their destruction which serves as the topic of conversation. In Joshua 6:1 we read that “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.”

But why did this happen? Did God order this? Was this the Israelites taking the land of innocent bystanders? Is this more like the story of the rescue from raiders or bombing a people group who were minding their own business?

What Happened to the Canaanites?

The destruction of the Canaanites is a difficult story within Scripture. It does not seem to fit with the narrative of God aiming to bless the nations through Abraham – genocide doesn’t seem to fit that storyline. So how do we make sense of this story?

One attempt to rescue God from the story of the Canaanites is to say that Israel did this all on their own. They wanted land. They took it. End of story. The only problem with this “out” is that it is not the way the Bible reads. In other places in Scripture where people did what displeased the Lord, we read of that in the narrative. But the exact opposite happens with this story. In The God I Don’t Understand, Christopher J.H. Wright says it well:

“On the contrary, the refusal of the exodus generation to go ahead and do it (in the great rebellion of Kadesh Barnea in Numbers 14), and the failure of the following generations to complete the task properly, are condemned as disobedience to God’s will (Ps. 106:24-35).

It is clear from the narrative that God ordered the Israelites to take the land. He gave it into their hands. It is God who is given credit for the fall of Jericho. As much as it might help our comfort, we cannot remove God from the story of the destruction of the Canaanites. But what do we do with this story?

John H. Walton in his excellent book The Lost World of Israelite Conquest gives twenty-one propositions to the make the argument that herem (what God ordered) was not so much an order to kill everyone by the sword but instead is more about rooting out ethnic identity—it was about taking away their godless community. A fitting illustration might be to say it could be compared to the Ally invasion of Nazi Germany (I am indebted to The Bible Project for this illustration). Or to use our illustration previously, this would be akin to destroying a band of raiders in order to rescue others. But Walton is quick to note that this narrative isn’t about punishing the Canaanites:

“…we have to stop imagining the purpose of the conquest account is to teach us that God’s ideal of goodness involves us going out and killing Canaanites (or whomever they represent today) and then either adopting that idea or rationalizing it away by embellishing the text so that killing Canaanites seems good according to our own logic.” (Walton, 29)

Though there is much to commend in Walton’s work, I lean more towards the explanation of Christopher J.H. Wright. There is language of Canaanite guilt and God’s judgment. The Scriptures point out the evil of Canaanite society for a reason. Certainly, it is to juxtapose it with that which is expected of Israel, but it’s also to set the stage for the just judgment of God against their wickedness. And it’s not a far stretch to see Genesis 15 even as a warning or a call to repentance for the Israelite neighbors. Wright explains it well:

“The degraded character of Canaanite society and religion is more explicitly described in moral and social terms in Leviticus 18:24-25; 20:22-24 and in Dt 9:5; 12:29-31. It includes the sexual promiscuity and perversion particularly associated with fertility cults as well as the callousness of child sacrifice. This is reinforced in the historical texts, with additional notes about social oppression and violence (1 Kings 14:24; 21:26; 2 Kings 16:3; 17:8; 21:2). Now if we take all these texts seriously as part of God’s own explanation for the events that unfold in the book of Joshua, we cannot avoid their implications. The conquest was not human genocide. It was divine judgment.” (Wright, 93)

Ultimately, though, the Canaanite conquest isn’t supposed to make sense. It’s supposed to be unsettling. War isn’t part of the Garden of Eden. We see in Christ that even stories like the Israelite conquest of the Canaanites is redeemed. 

How Does the Story of the Canaanites Point to Jesus?

Whether your view is closer to Walton or Wright the point is clear—the conquest was about establishing God’s kingdom and driving out sin and unbelief. This is also the mission of God through Jesus Christ. He is replacing all sin and unbelief with passionate worship of Jesus. He is rescuing and redeeming all that is broken and putting in its place peace. Yes, this means that conquest of evil is necessary. But Jesus conquers through the cross. His violent death will eventually put an end to all violent deaths.

Sin is serious and carries with it consequence. That is part of what we can learn from this story. But we would be remiss not to point to Jesus Christ. Even here in the story of the Canaanites, we can see God’s intention to bless the nations through the seed of Abraham. God will get his people to the promise land. That’s the point.

The story of the Canaanites is a difficult one to reckon with. We do well to let the Bible speak for itself and even allow our questions at times to remain unanswered. God is rescuing people from every tribe. He is ending all sin and unbelief (even in our own hearts) and he is ultimately doing it through the self-sacrifice of His Son. When we wrestle with stories like this, we must come to the conclusion that the judge of the earth will do what is right. This is a sure and certain promise.

Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Canaan, Canaanites. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 1, p. 406). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

Photo credit: Unsplash/Hasan Almasi

Mike Leake is husband to Nikki and father to Isaiah and Hannah. He is also the lead pastor at Calvary of Neosho, MO. Mike is the author of Torn to Heal and Jesus Is All You Need. His writing home is http://mikeleake.net and you can connect with him on Twitter @mikeleake. Mike has a new writing project at Proverbs4Today.