Why did God command Israel to destroy the Canaanites?

Some of the more troubling passages in the Old Testament are God’s commands to Israel to completely destroy the Canaanite nations. In Deuteronomy 7:2 God commands, “And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them.” God gave no exceptions. The Israelites were not to allow the Canaanites to stay in the land. They were not to make treaties with them or make them their servants. They were to drive them completely out of the region. If a nation waged this kind of war today their actions would be called war crimes and genocide. A previous article discussed the justice of God in condemning the Canaanties and why the Israelite’s actions were not criminal or immoral. Why did God condemn the Canaanites? What did they do that was so bad?

The Bible points to several reasons for God’s command to destroy the Canaanites. In Genesis 15 God told Abraham his descendants would not be given the land of Canaan for four hundred years because “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.” God’s command to annihilate the Canaanites is directly related to their sins. The destruction of the Canaanites was the just judgment of God on them for their wickedness.

What sins did the Canaanites commit? The Bible’s describes the Canaanites as irrepresible idolaters. The idolatry of the Canaanites was of the grossest kind and involved frequent child sacrifices. (Leviticus 18:21) For example, the Canaanites offered their children to Molech. The idols of Molech were often formed in the shape of a bull with a hollow interior. The statue was heated with fire. Parents would place their child inside the idol, burning the child to death. Child sacrifice appears to have been a regular feature of Canaanite idolatry. The idolatry of the Canaanites also involved ritual fornication and prostitution. Baal was a fertility god who the Canaanites believed needed to be awakened by the sexual activity of his worshipers. These vile practices attempted to make fornication and prostitution sacred. The Canaanite religion was immoral and violent. God judged them through Israel for their depraved worship of false gods.

God’s displacement of Canaan for Israel was also merciful. He drove out the Canaanites so the worship of His name would be at the center of the world and all the world would know He is God. God chose Israel so the entire world would know Him. God brought Israel out of Egypt and into Canaan so the entire world would know His power. (Joshua 4:24) In 2 Kings 8 King Solomon declared that the whole world would hear of God’s great name. In His wisdom, justice and mercy, God judged Canaan for their sin and placed His people in a central location so the world would know that He is God.

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