Why Did God Call for the Extermination of Groups of People?

Deuteronomy 7:1–2 (ESV)

“When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, 2 and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.”

If you have ever encountered an individual who opposes God, it is likely that this part of the Bible will come up in conversation. It is certainly difficult at first glance to see how a loving God could wipe out women and children, alongside the men who opposed Israel. Because of this apparent hatred of certain people, it is most important we devote some thought to ascertain why this had to happen. For a believer, we MUST always be prepared to defend our faith (1 Peter 3:15), and that includes not just the words in the New Testament, but in the actions in the Old Testament as well.

Working through this systematically, we must first note that no one stands righteous before God (Psalm 51:5; Romans 3:10), and this includes women and children. It is only through His infinite mercy that any of us are alive right now. As much as we wish to believe our children are innocent angels, we are looking at them from a different perspective: we see their innocence from a worldly point of view while God sees all humanity tainted from Original Sin. Additionally, as Creator, God is sovereign over all lands and can choose who to place and who to displace. This means that God has the ultimate rights over the land of Canaan, and that he has the right to bring the Canaanites to judgment for their moral condition and deeds.

Since all people are sinners, all are rightly subject to God’s judgment. In Deuteronomy 7:10, we see the judgment decreed to nations who hate Him. It is also important to note that this hatred was not just a recent occurrence: God was extremely patient with the people of Canaan and withheld His wrath for centuries (Genesis 15:16).

So why did God despise that Canaanites?

The nations of the land of Canaan were punished because of their extreme wickedness, not because of their ethnicity. Their practices were considered by God “abominable” (Leviticus 18:30; Deuteronomy 18:9-15). By His infinite mercy, God allowed these nations time to turn from their evil, yet they never did.

Only through complete annihilation would Israel be kept pure from allowing such practices to infiltrate their ranks which would result in turning from God to worship false gods and idols (Deuteronomy 20:17-18). This is also something I covered in my post on being unequally yoked.

A couple of other points worth noting:

1. The Israelites had specific rules for warfare, distinguishing between battles fought against cities outside the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 20:10-15) and those fought within the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 20:16-18).

2. There are examples of Canaanites surviving because of their belief in the God of Israel, such as Rahab and her family (Joshua 2:8-14), and even through the deception of the Gibeonites (Joshua 9: 1-27).

Thus, the killing of all Canaanites, including the children, served as a preventative measure against assimilating with the Canaanite way of life and as a stark reminder that Israel was to be set apart exclusively for God. It was not about ethnic cleansing.

So, if you ever encounter someone who brings this up as a way to oppose God and the Bible, recognize that this conquest of the Canaanite nations was in complete harmony with God’s perfect, holy, and loving nature. This is an example not of genocide from a vengeful God, but of the supreme longsuffering of God, holding back judgment for centuries, until their iniquity was complete.

Let not your own iniquity keep burning hotter each day. Turn to Him today.