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Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites

Divinely-Mandated Genocide or Corporate Capital Punishment?

Paul Copan 
Philosophy and Ethics
Palm Beach Atlantic University
Palm Beach, Florida


Of the various Old Testament (OT) ethical issues, Yahweh's command that Israel kill the Canaanites strikes us as the weightiest. In this issue of Philosophia Christi, Wes Morriston and Randal Rauser highlight this theme in reply to my earlier essay, "Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?"[1]  I am grateful for their comments and for the opportunity to respond to the key questions they raise. Since their objections overlap somewhat, I shall simply list and respond to the major concerns as I see them. In doing so, I shall touch on the contributions made by comrades-in-arms, Clay Jones and Joseph Buijs, whose supportive essays also appear in this issue.[2] 


1. Incorrigibly Wicked?

Morriston challenges the claim that the Canaanites were really that wicked or that they were incorrigibly so and thus deserving God's judgment: "the evidence of incorrigible wickedness is nonexistent."[3]  However, Clay Jones's essay documents and reinforces my point that this was indeed a wicked people. God was willing to wait over 400 years because "the sin of the Amorite was not yet filled up" (Gen. 15:16). In Abraham's day, no reason yet existed for dispossessing them. The land was not ready to "vomit them out" (Lev. 18:25). Only after Israel's lengthy enslavement in Egypt would the time finally be ripe for the Israelites to enter Canaan?"because of the wickedness of these nations" (Deut. 9:4?5).[4]  Meredith Kline reminds us that the judgment on the Canaanites is an "intrusive phenomenon" of eschatological ethics into the period of common grace, anticipatory of a final judgment when God finally establishes justice on a cosmic scale.[5] 

Now, I am not arguing that the Canaanites were absolutely the worst specimens of humanity that ever existed, nor am I arguing that the Canaanites were the worst specimens of humanity in the ancient Near East (ANE). However, the evidence adduced by Jones sufficiently reveals a profound moral corruption, and we are not surprised to read that they are ripe for divine judgment in keeping with God's salvation-historical purposes. Nor are the Canaanites uniquely singled out for divine judgment in the Scriptures; prophetic oracles abound concerning Yahweh's threats of judgment on nations that had also crossed the moral threshold. Furthermore, we should not think that God no longer judges nations today?even if we may not be able to determine this precisely.[6]  However, I shall say no more on this topic but shall let Morriston direct any remaining objections to Jones!

2. Morally Culpable?

Morriston wonders if the Canaanites were really "morally culpable."[7]   After all, they were just practicing their religion, which was passed on to them from the previous generation. Surely the Canaanites "deserve . . . enlightenment about the true nature of God and about His requirements for human beings."[8]  However, history shows that nations and civilizations have been capable of moral reforms and improvements. This suggests that humans are not necessarily cut off from all moral ideals and insights through general revelation to help improve upon what was handed down to them. Furthermore, a passage such as Amos 1?2 suggests that moral "enlightenment," though suppressed, was available to Gentile nations surrounding Israel. There, God threatens judgment against the nations surrounding Israel not because they were merely "practicing the religion of their parents," but because they stifled compassion, suppressed their conscience, and carried out particularly heinous acts. They should have known better. The Canaanites were "disobedient" (Heb. 11:31)?a term indicating a moral awareness of wrongdoing but a refusal to turn from it.[9]  Paul affirms that those without special revelation still have the capacity (through conscience) to distinguish right from wrong (Rom. 2:14?15). Paul's point is nicely illustrated in the appendix to C. S. Lewis's Abolition of Man: moral codes of many cultures across the ages are strikingly similar at key points?honoring parents, being faithful in marriage, not stealing, not murdering, not bearing false witness, and so on.[10]  Furthermore, despite their immersion in Canaanite ways, Rahab and her family (Josh. 2) are a clear sign that other Canaanites could have preserved their lives if they had humbled themselves before Israel's God, who had convincingly delivered his people from Egypt with signs and wonders and demonstrated his reality and surpassing greatness (Josh. 2:9?11).

Speaking of Rahab, we can reject Morriston's claim about what the text "plainly" says (that Rahab was being "prudent rather than pious"). Joshua's literary strategy, in fact, devotes much attention to Rahab's responsiveness to Yahweh, including her assisting the spies (chapter 2). In chapter 6, the number of words mentioning her and her family's being spared (86 words) are roughly the same as those devoted to describing Jericho's destruction (102 words)?an indication of Yahweh's willingness to receive any who turn to him.[11]  Contrary to Morriston's charge that Rahab would "sell out her own city in order to save her own skin,"[12]  she simply realized that God was with the Israelites, and she aligned herself with reality. Rahab is no more "selling out" than those Germans disenchanted with Hitler who joined the Allied cause.

Rahab's embracing Yahweh and finding salvation illustrates the theme of Exodus 34:6: Yahweh's gracious, compassionate character extends salvation to all and relents from judging, whether Canaanite or?much to Jonah's dismay?Ninevite (Jon. 4:2) or those from any "nation" that "turns from its evil" (Jer. 18:7?8). Yahweh desires that the wicked turn rather than die (Ezek. 18:31?32; 33:11). And when Israel and Judah reached a point of no moral and spiritual return ("until there was no remedy"), God judged them severely (2 Chron. 36:16; cp. 2 Kings 18:11?12; 1 Chron. 5:23).

Yahweh's ban (herem), then, was not absolute. Carrying out herem did not entail the refusal of mercy, as we see in Rahab's case. The possibility of salvation was not a violation of the ban.[13] 

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