Did God commit genocide in killing the Canaanites? This may be one of the most frequent challenges to God. That God himself is a moral monster. People look at the events that take place in the Old Testament and will say “How can you worship a God that acts this way?”. Your God killed thousands of people in taking over the Holy Land. Why would you worship a God that commits genocide?
Was This Genocide?
When we look at this understandably difficult passage, we have to be clear in our thinking on what is actually taking place. First of all, God didn’t kill the Canaanites because they were Canaanites. He killed them because they were evil. Let me say that again. The reason the Canaanites were killed was because of what they did, not who they were.
This is an important distinction. In our modern society we tend to have a picture of what genocide is. It is usually race driven, where a large group of people is killed based simply on their skin color. This is not what is taking place here.
Was This Justified?
So, maybe this wasn’t genocide. But was God justified in killing the Canaanites? After all, how bad could they have been? Well, pretty bad actually. Canaanites practiced human sacrifice, specifically on young children. They would put the child on a statue of their god Moloch that had been heated, and burned the children alive. All the while drums were being beaten to drown out the screams of the child, so the parents didn’t have to hear it.
Pretty gruesome stuff. There are many more examples of the depravity of this society. If you were alive at this time, you would probably be asking “Why isn’t God doing something about this?”. God gave the Canaanites time to repent and change. 430 years to be exact. When they stubbornly refused to change, God rightly punished them.
But What About The Kids?
The hardest part of this episode is the command for the Israelites to kill the children. How could a loving God order the killing of Children?
Again, some context is needed. In the first place, there is most likely some hyperbole taking place here. We know that not all the Canaanites were killed, because they show up later in the Bible. So clearly not everyone was killed.
Secondly, warfare at this time was different than what we are used to. The Canaanites would have known the Israelite army was approaching. Large armies moving in the desert make dust clouds that can be seen for hours before the invading force arrives. Plenty of time to get non-combatants away from the area.
There were most likely children killed though. Depending on the age, if they were on the battlefield, they could be considered combatants. Often women fought alongside the men in these types of engagements, and uniforms were not always worn. You simply couldn’t take the chance that someone on the battlefield wouldn’t attack you given the opportunity.
One final thought on the matter of children being killed. It is gut wrenching for us to think about. But we must remember the society they were being raised in, and what their future held.
So, did God commit genocide in killing the Canaanites? We have seen that genocide was not what was taking place with the Canaanites. The society was judged to be irredeemable. This was an instance of God enacting justice, not of being arbitrary or petty. God is the giver of life. He is justified in taking it when he deems it necessary. It is His right to correct injustice when He sees it.
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