Conquest and Killing of the Canaanites

In their book, entitled The Story of Israel, Pate et al. present four arguments as an explanation of the morality of the conquest and the killing of the Canaanites. First, they argue that the destroying of the canaanites only applied to those in the promised land and so was not a command of genocide and ethnic cleansing.[1] The emphasis was primarily on destroying the military combatants in the promised land and driving out the non-combatant canaanites. When an invading army approached the city, this would prompt the women and children and the population at large to flee from harm’s way. This is a different scenario than a complete annihilation of every Canaanite that breathes.[2] Although Joshua 10:40 states, “So Joshua subdued the whole region, including the hill country, the Negev, the western foothills and the mountain slopes, together with all their kings. He left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded” (NIV), this should be considered exaggerated warfare rhetoric, which was common in the ancient Near East. In fact, a thorough examination of the history, shows that not all the Canaanites were killed or driven out of the land.[3]

The second argument submitted by Pate et al. is that the Canaanite society that was to be destroyed was totally corrupt and immoral.[4] In other words, they had crossed a moral threshold to the point where God intervened with his judgement. Paul Copan writes,

I’m not arguing that the Canaanites were the worst specimens of humanity that ever existed, nor am I arguing that the Canaanites won the immorality contest for the worst behaved peoples in all the the ancient Near East. That said the evidence for the profound moral corruption was abundant. God considered them ripe for divine judgement, which would be carried out in keeping with God’s saving purposes in history.[5]

God’s commands regarding the Canaanites were not arbitrary, and only he could determine when such judgment was required. In the case of the Canaanites, only God understood the depths of their evil and moral corruption, and so he orchestrated his judgement to confront the Canaanites and to protect the Israelites from going down the same path. While God used the Israelites to enact his judgment on the Canaanites, this only came about by divine revelation. Israel was not allowed to go to war with other nations without divine approval. In fact, 1 Samuel 4 describes an incident when the Israelites went into battle with the ark of covenant against the Philistines without God’s approval which resulted in a lopsided defeat by the Philistines. Other disastrous results can be seen at other times in Israel’s history when they go outside the bounds of God’s approval (e.g. Num 14:41-45; Josh 7). God’s call for Israel to go to battle was unique to Israel’s situation, and so a decision for a nation to go to war should not be based on Israel’s battle history.[6]

The next argument is based on Genesis 15:16 which implies that as early as the time of Abraham, the sin and corruption of the Canaanites was an issue. Therefore, God’s judgement on the Canaanites had been delayed to the time of Joshua.[7] This argument is closely related to the previous one in that it is focused on God’s sovereignty, omniscience and timing. According to this argument, the time was not right for judgment and for the driving out of the land. Rather, God with his infinite wisdom waited 430 years to execute his sovereign judgement on the Canaanites. Whereas in the case of the people during Noah’s time (Gen 6:11-13) and in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18-19), God determined that at that time it was right for those people to undergo judgement.[8] Therefore, with this view, judgement on the Canaanites was inevitable, but the Canaanites had hundreds of years to right the ship, which leads to the fourth argument.

The final argument presented by Pate et al. is focused on Rahab and other inhabitants of the land who turn to the one, true God. This argument emphasizes the possibility of the Canaanites turning to God and avoiding his judgement. While Rahab and her family acknowledged God, the Canaanites refused God. Rahab and the Canaanites were not ignorant of God which is evident in Rahab’s statement to the spies,

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 Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below (Josh 2:10-11 NIV).

Therefore, with this information the Canaanites could have repented like other nations that were confronted with the knowledge, power and majesty of God (e.g. Nineveh). Copan writes, “Each time the Israelites circled the city [Jericho] meant an opportunity for Jericho to evade the ban; sadly, each opportunity was met with Jericho’s refusal to relent and acknowledge Yahweh’s rule.”[10] Moreover, God reveals himself through conscience, reason and human experience, and he gives to humanity an internal consciousness of what is good and right. The Canaanites, with a basic understanding of right and wrong (i.e. wrong to offer child sacrifices), could have at the very least been capable of moral improvement from generation to generation which may have delivered them from God’s judgment.[11]

[1] Marvin C. Pate, et al. The Story of Israel: A Biblical Theology, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), 55. [2] Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011), 181. [3] Ibid., 170. [4] Pate et al., The Story, 55. [5] Copan, Is God, 160. [6] Ibid., 161. [7] Pate et al., The Story, 56. [8] Ibid., 56. [9] Copan, Is God, 159. [10] Ibid., 178. [11] Ibid., 162.




Understanding the O.T. Historical Books

The Historical books present narratives that span close to 1000 years of history and are not merely history for the sake of history, but they are history from God’s perspective and thus are theological in nature. The historical books “tell about God’s repeated in-breaking into history whether by dramatic accounts of miracles, or by God’s speaking directly to his people, or by his indirect presence visible in the providential outworking of events.”[1] God reveals himself in history in order to place himself at a real place and time on the historical timeline. Many ancient religious texts are mythical in nature, but the Bible portrays God in relationship with a particular historical people at a historical place and time. This gives credibility to the narratives and how they depict God.

God reveals himself through history, and history reveals and confirms the character of God. While history reveals “many ups and downs, twists and turns”, God remains the same in his character.[2] As God’s self-revelation, the historical books impart knowledge about God and instruction on relating with him. They are didactic in the sense that they explain who God is by recording what he has done throughout human history. By the patterns and cycles throughout the generations, people can understand God and how he relates to humanity.[3]

God uses history to lead his people, and he desires that they will learn from history so as not to repeat the failures of past generations. He continually reminds his people of past historical events where he was faithful, and so he urges them to follow him in the present and to not harden their hearts and act like those in the past who lived in disobedience and rebellion.

Thus, the historical books are strategic self-revelation by God with the purpose of showing the ways he has acted throughout history in order to fulfill his covenant promises and his salvation plan. God has a plan for history and intervenes to guarantee that his plan is accomplished. God and his overarching story should always be the primary focus when studying the historical books.[4] Andrew Hill and John Walton write,

the text continually points us to patterns, themes, and motifs that we ought to see as weaving the historical tapestry into a picture of the sovereign God of the covenant. The significance of each thread is the contribution it makes to the tapestry; by itself the thread has little to offer. The quality of its color has no intrinsic value, but its function in the tapestry helps to create dimension and hue.[5]

[1] David Howard Jr., “Introduction to the Historical Books” (ESV: Study Bible Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2007), 386. [2] Ibid., 385. [3] Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 2009), 159. [4] Ibid., 159. [5] Ibid., 159.


The Time of the Judges in Context

While considering the moral lessons from the time of the Judges, there is both a repetitious cycle and a downward spiral. The repetitious cycle and the downward spiral of disobedience, sin, evil and moral chaos started at the beginning of Genesis in the Garden of Eden, and it gets worse from there. Genesis 6:5 states, “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (NIV).  Then several generations later the Israelites are again in moral chaos. Deuteronomy 12:8 states, “You shall not do according to all that we are doing here today, everyone doing whatever is right in his own eyes” (ESV). Again several generations later the book of Judges also reports moral chaos and evil, “And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (2:11; 3:7,12; 4:1; 6:1; 10:6; 13:1) and in 17:6 and 21:25 “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (ESV).

Throughout this history God shows patience and love towards his people by disciplining and restoring them. Thus, he protects them from a quick downward spiral to destruction and oblivion. The book of Judges fits within this narrative, but takes on a new form and level of moral chaos. The Israelites ceased to remove the Canaanites from the land which resulted in continual interaction with Baal worshippers; thus, they were constantly tempted to forsake Adonai and worship Baal. Eventually, they apostatized and worshiped Baal and the other gods of the Canaanites. This led to the Israelites adopting Canaanite practices which led to all types of sin, lawlessness, darkness and oppression among God’s people. They completely abandoned Adonai and their lives became identical to the Canaanites. Adonai raised up Judges to deliver his people and restore them to a proper relationship, but most of the judges were not immune to apostasy, and so they too became corrupt and wicked.

Thus, there is a downward progression of evil and wickedness during this era, but it is part of a downward trajectory that has been taking place throughout the story of God’s people. The time of the flood and the time of the Judges present much of the same issues when it comes to disobedience, sin, evil and moral chaos, and so herein lies the point for a repetitious cycle in the book of Judges. Whatever takes place in the the time of the Judges needs to be viewed within the larger Old Testament narrative.   

Winter Time Reflection

Glorify the Lord, O chill and cold,

drops of dew and flakes of snow.

Frost and cold, ice and sleet, glorify the Lord,

Praise him and highly exalt him forever.

(Benedicite, Omnia Opera Domini)

As a new resident of Minneapolis from Seattle, this stanza has become a mantra for me. While I like the idea of four seasons (actually two…winter season and road construction season…as the saying goes here in Minnesota), this winter so far has been bitterly cold which is a shock to my west coast body temperature. Many times I have asked the question, “what am I doing here? This is a legitimate question to ask when we consider decisions that we have made or situations we encounter in our lives, but there is more to the question because it is the question that God often asks us throughout our lives. This is the Elijah question from 1 Kings 19:9 where God asks “What are you doing here, Elijah?” This was a self-reflective question presented to Elijah. He was prompted to consider his heart, to check his motives and attitude, to reflect on where he was at in his relationship with God. We should consistently practice the same introspection in our lives. Thus, when I experience the uncomfortable moments or the challenging moments in my life to the point where I ask the question, “what am I doing here?” I should ask the question again. I should rephrase it with a God focus. In the midst of the freezing cold, where is my heart? What is God doing in my life? In the midst of vigorous and challenging graduate studies, instead of cynically asking, “what was I thinking?” I should ask the question, how is God using my studies to draw me closer to him and to further his kingdom? As the winter elements glorify the Lord, so my life should praise him and highly exalt him forever. Next time I’m brushing the snow off my truck in below zero temperatures, I will have a better perspective on what the snow and I are doing here.  

Sin-Exile-Restoration (Cycle Repeat)

Covenant faithfulness describes God’s history and relationship with humans. Covenant unfaithfulness describe Israel’s history and relationship with God. The Israelites disobeyed God regularly and were often caught up in idol worship (sin).  God showed great patience, mercy and faithfulness by sending prophets to the Israelites in order to call them to repentance. However, the people of Israel rejected and ignored the prophets while refusing to repent. God continued his attempts to get their attention by exposing them to his judgement (exile). God’s discipline was focused on bringing the people back into a proper relationship with himself. He wanted to restore and bless them, but they needed to fulfill their part of the covenant by obeying God’s law. At times, Israel did repent and live according to the covenant which resulted in experiencing God’s rest and blessings (restoration), but over and over again the pattern of disobedience and idolatry would continue. All the while, God continued to be faithful to his covenant showing great love, commitment and concern for his people (Pate et al. 18-22).  

Sin-Exile-Restoration in the Lives of Abraham and Jacob    

God made a covenant with Abram where his promised him a son as an heir that would lead to many offspring. God said to Abram, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:2-3 NIV). Abram believed God and expectantly awaited a son through his wife Sarai.

However, Genesis 16 described a situation where Abram and Sarai’s faith began to weaken. While attempting to become pregnant, Sarai remained barren and was aging. She began to doubt that she would have children, and so she presented an idea to Abram that involved him sleeping with her servant Hagar. This was common in the ancient near east where a wife could give her servant to her husband as a concubine or as a wife in order to produce offspring. Thus, Abram agrees and takes Hagar as a wife rather than a concubine, which may have been an attempt by Abram to legitimize the situation. Nevertheless, Abram slept with Hagar and she became pregnant. This doubting of God to provide a son through Sarai and their self-sufficiency and problem-solving actions apart from God led to family dysfunction and confusion (sin). They were unsure if this new child birthed by Hagar fulfilled God’s promise, and so they were questioning God’s covenant promises and floundering in their relationship with him (exile).

God visits and confronts Abram in his confusion and family dysfunction and restores him into a proper covenantal perspective. God restores by renaming Abram (אַבְרָם) to Abraham (אַבְרָהָם) and Sarai (שָׂרַי) to Sarah (שָׂרָה), and he further restores by reiterating his promise regarding a son who would come from Sarah (Gen 17). After meeting with Abraham, God fulfilled his promise within the year by giving Abraham and Sarah a son named Isaac (Gen 21), thus restoring his covenantal relationship with Abraham (restoration).

Another way in which the theme of sin-exile-restoration appears in the patriarchal narratives is during the life of Jacob. The beginning of his story is defined by deception and stealing (sin), where he manipulates situations in order to take from his brother Esau (Gen 25; Gen 27). Jacob’s selfish and deceptive behavior eventually causes him to run (exile) from his brother Esau who wants to kill him, and while on the run, he gets tangled up with a man named Laben who swindles him out of 14 years of his life (Gen 29).  Then, he is forced to run from Laben who also threatens his life (Gen 31). Nevertheless, through this time God begins to restore Jacob by providing him wives, offspring and material possessions. He leads Jacob to restore his relationship with his brother Esau and eventually restores Jacob’s stability in the land while reiterating his covenant promises (restoration).

Sin-Exile-Restoration During the Wilderness Period

The Israelites were led by God through Moses and Aaron into the wilderness on their way to the promised land. As they approached the promise land, they sent spies to observe the land and the people living there. Upon returning from their spy operation, the majority of the spies gave a negative and fatalistic report about their chances of surviving within the land. The Israelites heard this and began to oppose and rebel against Moses and Aaron. Ultimately, they were opposing, rebelling and sinning against God (sin). This was a regular occurrence throughout their travels in the wilderness, and so God allowed them to wander in the wilderness for 40 years (exile). Many of the Israelites died in the wilderness, but God restores Israel by leading the next generation of Israelites to the outskirts of the promised land and then restores by reiterating his covenantal demands through a second giving of his law (Deuteronomy) (restoration).

Pate, C. Marvin, et al. The Story of Israel: A Biblical Theology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004.