There is a very natural question that arises in the 21st century mind when we read the account in the Old Testament of the Israelites taking the promised land – “What about the poor Canaanites who were living there?” The question is inflamed even further when we read not only that they were dispossessed of their land but “devoted to destruction” (Deut 7). The Hebrew word used here is charam, meaning “to curse, annihilate, or destroy.” Why would God devote these people to complete annihilation?
I have heard many different men trying to explain this unfortunate episode in the history of Israel. There are two phrases that you will commonly hear being used in these discussions: hyperbole and accommodation. I’ll explain what is meant by them and also try and give what I think is a more biblical rational.
Upon reading a verse like Deut 7:2:
“and when the LORD your God delivers them 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”
some commentators will interpret the language as hyperbole (meaning it is exaggerated and not to be taken literally). Evidence that is given for this interpretation is that in many of the towns the residents were not all put to death. They argue that this is the language of conquest and so the violence is exaggerated and comparable to the kind of language other military conquerors would use.
Another interpretative lens that is applied is that of God’s “accommodating” nature. That is to say that God reveals himself to us and interacts with us at a level which is comprehensible to us in our finite, language-bound, culture-bound minds. In the same way that a father may use baby talk and play horse-horse in order to relate to his toddler son, God accommodates himself to us and interacts with us in ways which are meaningful to us. So in the context of Israel, the nations around them grew in prominence and power through military conquest. The thinking goes that God blessed Israel in a way that they interpreted “blessing” which was to conquer other nations even though God himself did not approve of such a mindset.
While there may be some basis for truth in these arguments I believe there is a much more pertinent aspect to the nature of God’s character that I feel these arguments neglect. There is an underlying assumption that permeates much of the discussion on this topic that can be quite misleading and even tarnish the true nature of God, which is that God loves all mankind and it has always been this way. God has never discriminated against people based on their ethnicity, it is only on the basis of morality that God discriminates.
God makes his reason for destroying the residents of Canaan quite clear in Leviticus chapter 18 –
“Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the foreigners residing among you must not do any of these detestable things, for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.” (lev 18:24-28)
What offended God about these people was not that they were “in the way” of his purposes for Israel or that God blessed Israel but cursed every other nation simply because they were “other”. It was through the Torah that God revealed his definition of evil to Israel but that did not excuse other nations from committing the same evils.
There is a very important truth here that is perhaps lost on the modern reader – God hates evil wherever it be found. When Israel went on later to commit the same sins as the nations before them they were judged according to the measure of their sins as well. For Israel this resulted in the Assyrian exile and Judah went into exile in Babylon. The same word ‘charam’ is applied to Israelites guilty of idolatry and even though the penalty was not always meted out according to the law, God’s judgement surely followed in one form or another. God’s judgement on an evil nation could be anything from crop failure, drought or famine to more serious judgements of terminal illnesses, plagues and conquest.
What relevance does this revelation of God have for us today? Did Jesus even reveal the same God? We know from scripture that God is good and he does not change. By virtue of this fact he cannot abide evil. Through his son Jesus, God has made a way for our evil to be atoned for (through the substitutionary death of Jesus) and for us to be filled with his spirit and thereby slowly transformed from the inside out, from evil to good. Jesus explained it like this,
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:16-18)
Through our rejection of God and his morality we have invited the pain that defines our world today. The good news is that God is patient in delaying his final and ultimate judgement, he was at that time and he still is in our time. God said to Israel in Gen 15:16 regarding the Canaanites “In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” His will is repentance and reconciliation before it is judgement. In his mercy God has given humans an opportunity to take his offer of salvation extended through Jesus. The promise is that one day he will make all things new and it will be a kingdom populated by those who have been ‘born again’ by his spirit, a world free of evil and judgement.