Many questions arise surrounding the biblical account of judging the Canaanites found in the Old Testament. One such question is, “Does God hate the Canaanites?” It is easy to see how someone could get this impression with the judgment spoken regarding these people. Here are two such passages:
. . . 2 and when the LORD your God delivers them [the Canaanites] before you and you defeat them, then you shall utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them and show no favor to them. Deut 7:2
No mercy is recorded in this passage but only a command for the complete destruction of these people. And also,
16 Only in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. 17 But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the LORD your God has commanded you, 18 so that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the LORD your God.
In this passage various Canaanite groups are named and, with the goal of leaving nothing alive that breaths, it seems that God has little if any love for the Canaanites. God appears bent on exterminating this group leaving little room for divine love.
God Loves All
As is often the case with objections directed at the Bible, such a conclusion is premature and inaccurate. To begin with, it is true that God judged the Canaanites. This judgment is based upon the wickedness of these people. The Canaanites engaged in a wide array of sensual activities and even went so far as to perform child sacrifice (details of their debauchery are found in Leviticus 18).
However, divine judgment upon such wickedness does not rule out divine love. Scripture makes it clear that God is also prepared to refrain from judging a wicked nation, such as the Canaanites, if the people will genuinely repent. Jeremiah 18:7-8 states,
7 At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; 8 if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it.
In short, even a nation as wicked as the Canaanites could repent and enjoy God’s relenting of the coming judgment. Such is the promise of a God who is,
6 compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; 7 who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin. Exodus 34:6b-7a
God loves all people, regardless of their moral status, and is willing to forgive them. However, all people need to repent of their sin and embrace God on His terms.
God Loves the Canaanites
While the previous section can be generally applied to all people, and thus the Canaanites as well, there is direct evidence showing God’s love for the Canaanites specifically. One piece of evidence is just how long God waited before bringing judgment upon them. God did not judge the Canaanites on the first night of their wickedness. Nor did He judge them after one year, nor even one hundred years. Even though the Canaanites engaged in nearly every possible deviant sexual practice as well as child sacrifice to a false god while the kids were still alive (see Leviticus 18), God showed great loving-patience and restraint before judging this sinful group by enduring over four centuries of their wickedness.
Notice what Genesis 15:13-16 says,
13 God said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. 14 “But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve, and afterward they will come out with many possessions. 15 “As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a good old age. 16 “Then in the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.”
Usually, those who promote objections avoid the context to find out what is said on a matter. Here we see some important information. First, God tells Abram that the Jews will be enslave and oppressed for four centuries before obtaining the Promised Land (yes, Israel). It is after this time, after hundred years, that the Amorites (one of the Canaanite peoples, see Deut 20:16-18 above) will be judged (and thus the others too).
In other words, the God of the Old Testament showed great patience and love for this wicked people with the goal of providing time for their repentance. When this grace was used and abused in some of the most vile ways, then God sent judgment. God’s goal was for a restored relationship with the Canaanites rather than judgment.
Another factor to keep in mind is the limited nature of God’s judgment upon this wicked group. If God’s goal was to eradicate the Canaanites, then He had a poor plan and poor implementation of that poor plan.
To begin with, God’s stated goal was to drive the Canaanites from the land and not exterminate them (as the inaccurate genocide claim can infer). Exodus 33:2 tells us,
I will send an angel before you and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite.
Clearly, the goal of driving people out, through war or other means, is a far cry from genocidal tendencies.
Another reason that makes limited judgment clear is that the war on the Canaanites was generally limited to just key cities. Deuteronomy 20:16, as noted above, reads, “Only in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes.” If the Canaanites leave, then they would not face God’s judgment through war. Of course, if they repented of their sin, they would not only avoid this judgement but be brought into a loving relationship with God. However, the reality of sin and the need to repent is usually not a topic of conversation for many who object to divine judgment upon the Canaanites.
Rahab the Canaanite in Special Role
Not only does God love everyone (including the Canaanites) generally, and not only does God show extreme patience towards the Canaanites in particular (allowing over 400 years for them to repent), God also shows love for them in several ways but also by allowing Rahab the Canaanite to play a very special, even cherished, role in salvation history.
The life of Rahab the harlot, as well as the life of her family, was spared by the Israelites when they attacked Jericho because she helped two Jewish spies escape (Joshua 2). If the Israelites wanted to commit genocide, they would not spare the lives of any Canaanites. However, Rahab did see the error of the Canaanites and the righteousness of the Israelites resulting in her spared life.
But the amazing nature of God’s love towards this Canaanite harlot does not end here. Little did Rahab know but she ended up being a part of the linage of Jesus Christ Himself (Matt. 1:5). If God did not love the Canaanites as a whole, then having one as a descendant of the Messiah is out of place.
What is more, not only is Rahab part of the lineage of the Savior, she also has a place in the famed “Hall of Faith.” In this great chapter of faith, Rahab is upheld as an example of quality faith (Hebrews 11:31). She is listed along side the greatest people of faith including Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses (to name but a few). This Canaanite woman, previously engaged in an immoral lifestyle within a wicked society, finds forgiveness from the Lord and remains an example for all to read.
If God did not love the Canaanites, He could have easily eradicated all of them. Instead, He showed the Canaanites great patience before sending His judgement, made provisions for them to repent, and even provided a special place in salvation history for a Canaanite woman (Rahab). These are the earmarks of a God in love with the Canaanites. Claims to the contrary simply do not take these facts into account.
At this point, another issue needs to be mentioned. Often those opposing Christianity do not allow room for God to judge. In other words, they become judge of the holy Lord God Almighty, which they seem just fine with, while denying Him any right to judge people. This is simply backwards. People are not in a position to deny God His role as Judge. If a view of God denies this role, then that view is simplistic and naive.
Time to Talk
While there are many other issues to cover regarding the Canaanites, the point here stands: God shows great love for the Canaanites. When considering the issue of God’s love for the Canaanites (and any others for the matter), the following questions, and others like them, may prove helpful for talking with your youth.
- If God is not allowed to judge wickedness, then who is? Upon what basis is this person/group able to legitimately base a judgment?
- Is 400+ years a long enough time for God to show “patience” toward the Canaanites for their detestable acts? Instead of being unloving and impatient with them, does 400+ years seem like a long time? Would you be inclined to wait over four centuries? How does looking at the issue in this light change the issue a bit?
- Are there sin (evil acts) which God should judge a nation for? If so, what are they? If so, then is God justified in judging them (even if we do not fully understand His timetable)?
- If you saw people killing children in religious acts, would you be inclined stop them? Should they be arrested, judged, and punished?
- In what fashion does God show love to people today in spite of the presence of sin? How should God be viewed in light of not immediately judging everyone for their sin?