God and the Canaanites: A Recent Study Reopens an Old Controversy

Why did God command genocide in the Bible? How wicked were the Canaanites? Were the Canaanites actually destroyed? These and other questions have long surrounded discussions of the peoples and events described in the Old Testament, and the controversies have now been reignited thanks to a new study making the news.

Those living in Lebanon today “derive most of their ancestry from a Canaanite-related population,” according to a new study reported in the American Journal of Human Genetics (AJHG). The study sequenced five genomes from individuals dated to 3,700 years ago — individuals who lived in a major Canaanite city on the Eastern Mediterranean coast. The study also included genomes of 99 individuals from present-day Lebanon. The conclusion drawn is that “the ancient Canaanites were not wiped out, as the Bible suggests, but went on to become modern-day Lebanese.”

The study has put many Christians on the defensive. Headlines concerning the study suggest that the Bible’s credibility is in question. The Telegraph’s headline (predictably picked up by Yahoo!) proclaimed: “Study disproves the Bible’s suggestion that the ancient Canaanites were wiped out.”

Of course, the study does no such thing. Far from the implication of The Telegraph headline, the Bible’s credibility is bolstered by this study. For one, let’s not overlook the rather obvious fact that the study further verifies the historicity of a people group written about in the Bible. It’s yet another nail in the coffin to those who blithely dismiss the Bible as nothing but myths and fairy tales. For another, the study corroborates the Old Testament’s reports that the Israelites often disobeyed God when it came to their interaction with the Canaanites. The Old Testament makes clear that the Canaanites lived on in the Southern Levant – something this study substantiates.

Isn’t it interesting that a study confirming the Bible is misrepresented as undermining it?

This particular study, however, calls attention to parts of the Bible that, for many, undermine its moral credibility – even if its historical or textual reliability remain intact. Did God command genocide against the Canaanites? And what does that say about His nature?

The best way to tackle issues like this is to address them point-by-point. And that’s what we shall do here.

Knowledge of history should precede commentary on history

Most people who cry crocodile tears over the Canaanites know nothing about them. And they often know nothing about ancient history in general. Taking the latter point first, Paul Copan, a Christian theologian and author, has provided excellent insight into both the nature of as well as the language often associated with warfare in the Ancient Near East. Citing not only the exaggerated language common in the ANE but also the biblical record itself (which has language of total destruction in one passage followed by the same people popping up in a later text), Copan argues that there’s “more nuance – and a lot less bloodshed” than many Christians and critics realize. For more on this angle, I encourage you to read Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God by Paul Copan.

As for the Canaanites themselves, set aside any imaginative picture you may have of peace-loving innocents communing with nature and singing “We are the world.” The harsh reality is that the Canaanite tribes and nations engaged in child sacrifice, violent brutality, sexual deviancy, and idolatry. They were far from innocent. And, according to the biblical text, were given over four centuries to repent of their wicked ways.

Condemnation of Canaanite genocide requires an objective moral standard

In The God Delusion, atheist Richard Dawkins famously describes the “God of the Old Testament” as “the most unpleasant character in all fiction.” He lists out many of these (as he sees them) “unpleasant” qualities, including that God is allegedly “petty,” “vindictive,” “racist,” “infanticidal,” and “genocidal.” Dawkins’ assessment of God’s commands regarding the Canaanites is that Jehovah is a “bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser.”

These morally loaded terms seem inappropriate absent any kind of objective standard. As philosopher William Lane Craig writes: “I find it ironic that atheists should often express such indignation at God’s commands, since on naturalism there’s no basis for thinking that objective moral values and duties exist at all and so no basis for regarding the Canaanite slaughter as wrong.”

Picture a game of American football. The rules are developed by the NFL owners and then enforced by the referees. Those rules are external to the players and the coaches. But imagine if there were no NFL owners or referees, and instead you’re left with just the players on the field. It would be one team’s word against the other, and in many cases, one player’s opinion against another as to what is “right” and “proper” and what is “wrong.” No one would be “offsides” (at least not objectively speaking). No one could credibly call an “Unnecessary Roughness” or “Unsportsmanlike Conduct” penalty. There would be no objective rules, only opinions.

This is not to say that those who don’t believe in God can’t act morally. On the contrary, there are many people who deny God’s existence and yet who live more ethically commendable lives than others who believe in God.

The point is that, with a naturalistic framework, there’s no objective standard for morality. There’s nothing that “sticks.” Remove God and you remove any objective rules.

Accordingly, what God commanded with respect to the Canaanites may be “unpleasant” (to use one of Dawkins’ adjectives), but we can’t say it was wrong – not in an atheistic or naturalistic framework.

Judging based on only some of the facts is improper and unfair

If you’re going to judge the God of the Bible for His actions, you must take into account all that the Bible says of His nature. And, in this case, all that’s said about His relationship with the children of Israel.

First, the Bible makes clear that God had a unique relationship with ancient Israel. His command to the Israelites to drive the Canaanites out of the Promised Land was, in the words of biblical scholar Paul Copan, a “unique, unrepeatable historical situation.” Anyone today who takes God’s instructions to Joshua regarding Jericho and concludes this is how God wants us to treat people today should be immediately and strongly corrected.

It’s also pertinent to remind people that, far from any “ethnic cleansing” allegation, God was an equal opportunity Judge. He often judged His own people throughout the Old Testament. And He floods the whole world in Genesis 6! The Canaanites were hardly the only ones to experience divine judgment.

Finally, you must acknowledge that the biblical God is all-knowing and understand all of His commands in that context. To do otherwise is to be deceptively selective and irrational. This means, for example, that God knew everything about the Amalekites when He ordered King Saul in I Samuel 15 to “go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them.” It’s admittedly horrifying to read God tell Saul (via the prophet Samuel) to “kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey,” but your reaction to that command must take into account God’s omniscience. Otherwise, you’re not really judging God. You’re judging an inaccurate caricature of God that you have imagined.

God and God alone has the right to judge and take life as He sees fit

We finally come to the real crux of the matter. God is the only entity in the universe qualified to judge. We are finite and flawed. Any human judge or jury must deal only with the evidence that is before them. That evidence is often incomplete, disputed, and sometimes misunderstood. And human judges and juries are themselves flawed sinners. By contrast, God is perfect and knows everything. He knows the actions and thoughts of every human being – past, present, and future. God knows everything about every person, every tribe, every culture, every nation, and every situation. This qualifies Him and Him alone as the judge.

God knows when a person has reached the point that he or she will not repent from evil. He alone knows when a society’s culture has become so thoroughly corrupt and depraved that all hope for redemption is extinguished. He alone knows these things. We don’t. He does. This was true with the Israelites and the Canaanites. And it’s true today. And therefore, the wise choice for us is to accept God’s judgment as holy, just, and final.