Those who reject the claims of Christ are going to reject the Bible as a whole, so we are not surprised when we find non-Christians questioning the stories and teachings of Scripture. We are living in a funny age, however, when even many professing Christians want to cast the Bible in a negative light. It is not uncommon to find people who claim to be followers of Christ calling the character of God into question or rejecting the truthfulness of entire portions of Scripture because they believe certain biblical stories and events are contrary to God’s mercy. The story of the invasion of Canaan is one of those stories that prompts many people, including many professing Christians, to question the Scriptures. Charges that “God commanded genocide” are frequently uttered. I responded to that charge and why it is false in the first four parts of this series.
Even after responding to the charge of genocide, however, we still need to consider how the story fits into the broader biblical revelation of the character of God. Truthfully, the command to eradicate the Canaanites troubles many believers who have a high view of Scripture. Part five of this series looked at some things in the story itself that are evidences of God’s mercy even in the midst of judgment, helping us to see that the Lord was merciful even to the Canaanites. In this article, we will consider other aspects of God’s character that should make the story less problematic for those of us who submit to the Bible as God’s Word.
The Problem Is Us
When we encounter something that troubles us in Scripture, we are tempted to think that the problem is with the text or with the God who revealed it. In reality, the problem is us. Since God’s character defines what is good and right, the problem is never God or what He has said; rather, the problem is our misunderstanding or our refusal to believe that what God has said is true.
When it comes to the story of the invasion of Canaan, Dr. Derek Thomas said it best when he remarked that part of the reason so many people find the story ethically difficult is because we have such a low view of sin.1 To put it another way, we all too often do not really believe we are unholy and that God is holy.
My intent here is not to pick on anyone. I cannot tell you how many times I have failed to understand the depth of my sin and the degree to which God is opposed to it. But the biblical authors, at least when they set the text to writing, did not have the same problem. The prophet Habakkuk, for example, notes that God is so pure that He cannot even look at evil (Hab. 1:3). Habakkuk’s point is not that wickedness is invisible to God but that the Lord cannot tolerate evil in His holy presence. The Lord must destroy evil. He is thoroughly opposed to it.
What We Deserve
Habakkuk was talking not only about the “big sins”—murder, adultery, grand theft, etc.—when he said that God cannot tolerate sin in His presence. Scripture is clear that there is no sin so small that it does not deserve the wrath of God. Romans 1:18–3:20 tells us that the wrath of God is revealed against wickedness, and what does that wickedness include? Yes, it includes “big sins” such as murder and sexual immorality, but it also includes things that most people would not view as such a big deal, such as gossip and minor acts of disobedience that all children commit against their parents. Sin deserves judgment, so God owes sinners only His wrath. In fact, God has imposed death—both physical and spiritual—as the judgment for sin. This was first revealed to Adam (Gen. 2:17), but to this very day all of us know in our heart of hearts that everyone who practices sin actually deserves to die (Rom. 1:32). “The wages of sin is death” (6:23).
This, by the way, applies not only to adults but also to infants and children. One of the more troubling aspects of the invasion of Canaan for many people is that God commanded the Israelites to “save alive nothing that breathes” (Deut. 20:16–18), which includes the children. This seems strange because many people believe that children are wholly innocent. However, while Scripture tells us that young children do not sin to the same degree as adults do because of their relative lack of knowledge and experience (1 Cor. 14:20: “Be infants in evil”), it never tells us that children are innocent. Even the youngest among us is deserving of death because we are born in Adam and are reckoned guilty in him (Rom. 5:12–20). Adult sinners may be worthy of a greater degree of punishment in hell than children because adults have sinned more than most children, but children are still guilty and deserving of judgment.2
Given this reality, what all of us (except Christ) deserve is nothing less than death. That we exist at all is a testimony to the grace and patience of God. He could wipe us out at any moment, and we would have no just reason to complain. The real “problem,” as it were, regarding the destruction of the Canaanites is not why the merciful God imposed such a judgment. Instead, the more pressing question is why the holy God does not execute such judgments more often. He certainly could. But He does not because He is gracious.
A Foretaste of the Judgment to Come
Because we are sinners, we tend to take things for granted. One of the basic sins of the human race is ingratitude (Rom. 1:21). Over time, we tend to become less grateful for the regular blessings we receive unless we consciously work at maintaining an attitude of thanksgiving. Every day that God sustains our existence is a day we do not deserve, but because this blessing is so consistent, we tend to not look at it as a blessing. We come to think, often unconsciously, that we do not actually deserve destruction. A story like the destruction of the Canaanites can be shocking to us because it describes what is so irregular. God tends to wait a long time to execute His wrath so dramatically, and we can be fooled into thinking He will never execute it at all. But we must never let ourselves believe that for long. Scripture promises a final judgment and a lake of fire to all sinners who have not trusted in Christ Jesus (Rev. 20:11–15). As great as the wicked, impenitent Canaanites suffered at the hands of the Israelites, it cannot be compared to the eternal suffering that awaits all those who continue to refuse to bow the knee to the Lord. The invasion of Canaan, in which God executed His wrath in an immediate and dramatic fashion, was a foretaste of the judgment to come. But a greater wrath lies ahead, and there is only one way to escape it—by trusting in Christ alone. Ultimately, then, the invasion of Canaan, for the people of God, is an act of grace. It was gracious for God to destroy the enemies of His people then, but it is also gracious for God to give this story to His people for all generations. It points to the judgment to come, and in so doing reminds us that God will not abide sin forever. It encourages us to look for reconciliation to the holy Lord so that we will not suffer an even worse and eternal judgment.
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on the conquest of Canaan and was first published on February 21, 2017. Previous Post. Next post.
- Derek W.H. Thomas, “If God Is Good, How Could He Command Holy War?,” filmed June 2010 in Orlando, Fla., in Tough Questions Christians Face: 2010 National Conference, produced by Ligonier Ministries, 44:11, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/conferences/tough-questions-christians-face-2010-national/if-god-is-good-how-could-he-command-holy-war. ↩︎
- There is debate in the Reformed tradition over whether God actually sends some infants to hell. We do not have space here to rehearse the disagreement over whether God saves all infants or only some infants. What we must agree on, however, is that any infant who is saved is saved not because the infant is innocent but because the infant, though guilty of sin, has been given the grace of God. There is no “age of accountability” at which young children become guilty of sin. They are guilty from the moment of conception. ↩︎