God as Commander in Chief

I've always had difficulty understanding the extermination of the Canaanites by the Israelites under God's orders. Can this type of war be justified?

This is a difficult question, and there is no quick answer. I can only outline a few elements that should be taken into consideration. We cannot concentrate on a few verses that provide a biblical response; we have to take into account the Scriptures' teachings concerning God, evil, human society, and war and also reject simplistic solutions (e.g., the Old Testament view of God being different from the one in the New Testament; the biblical writer's use of pagan notions, etc.). I will limit my comments to three important arguments.

1. Time Frame: The biblical text indicates that the extermination of the Canaanites was basically limited to a period of conquest. Often God reminded the Israelites of this responsibility, introducing His intentions by saying, "When you cross the Jordan into Canaan . . ." (Num. 33:51, NIV); "When the Lord . . . brings you into the land you are entering to possess . . ." (Deut. 7:1, NIV; cf. Deut. 12:1; 18:9). The Lord didn't expect this to be a permanent characteristic of Israelite warfare. Once the conquest was over, the Israelites were only to be involved in self-defense. There is no biblical support for the practice of "holy war."

2. Morally Justifiable Warfare: Those who go to war intend to win at any cost, and this by itself makes the extermination of the enemy an intrinsic part of warfare. This was clearly the case in the ancient Near East.

Interestingly, the Old Testament makes a special effort to demonstrate that God's command to destroy the Canaanites was not arbitrary or controlled by expansionistic interests. God Himself provided the reason: they were sacrificing their children to their gods, involved in sorcery and witchcraft, and consulting the spirits of the dead (Deut. 18:10-12). Their moral and religious corruption had reached an intolerable level.

Hundreds of years before, the Lord had said to Abram: "In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure" (Gen. 15:16, NIV). By the time of the conquest the sins of the Amorites had reached "its full measure," indicating that God does pass judgment on the nations and their commitment to moral values and proper religious practices (cf. Gen. 18:20-33). God was executing judgment against sin and impenitent sinners.

A second reason for the extermination of Israel's enemies is that if they remained in the land, they would have become instruments of corruption for His people (Deut. 7:4). A holy people required a holy place to live. War was God's attempt to organize a new order based on His principles of justice and love, a land in which peace and security would prevail. Anything that could threaten the divine intention was to be removed.

3. The Israelites as God's Assistants: That God enlisted the Israelites as His instruments in this type of war raises moral and ethical concerns. Had God used the forces of nature, very few would feel that uncomfortable. But He used war.

War is an unavoidable characteristic of a fallen, sinful world. By transforming Israel into a nation with political identity and by declaring Himself to be its king, God and His people were going to be involved in warfare. Their enemies would be other nations that were unwilling to recognize God's moral claim on them and would attempt to exterminate His people. Through the conquest of the land, God trained His people for war in order for them to cooperate with His theocracy in the fulfillment of His divine intentions for them and for the world (Judges 3:1, 2).

We may not completely understand this topic, but there is one thing we know, namely, that God is loving, kind, and just. This biblical picture of God is essential in the discussion of a subject like this one. He is the one who allowed His Son to die in our place, the one who, in an act of love and justice, will exterminate sin and impenitent sinners from our planet in order to create a peaceful and eternal kingdom.

Date: 
11/12/98