Tuesday, October 11, 2011

God v. the Canaanites: a Miscarriage of Justice?

     In his October 10, 2010 editorial in USA Today, columnist Tom Krattenmaker discusses the presence of verses in both the Bible and the Quran that seem to sanction violence.  As far as the Bible goes he mentions one episode in particular, the conquest of Canaan by the invading Israelites, in which the native population was annihilated.  Mr. Krattenmaker calls the description of this in the Book of Joshua (he seems to be quoting Josh. 6:21, describing the destruction of Jericho) an "appalling account" and "not exactly inspirational."
     Mr. Krattenmaker makes reference to a book by Randy Frazee entitled The Heart of the Story, in which Frazee points out that the Amorites (one of the native peoples affected by the mass destruction)  were destroyed because of their sins.  Mr. Krattenmaker counters, however, by citing another book, Laying down the Sword: Why We Can't Ignore the Bible's Violent Verses, by Prof. Philip Jenkins, in which Prof. Jenkins argues that there is no evidence that the Canaanites were any worse than any of the other ancient peoples.  Prof. Jenkins contends according to Mr. Krattenmaker, that the Old Testament was written at a time when people had "a vastly different moral understanding of violence and its justification."
     Prof. Jenkins' contention implies, of course, that the biblical text is not divinely inspired.  Presumably it is a human production that reflects the commonly held values of its own time and place.  Thus, according to Prof. Jenkins' own moral understanding, God could not in reality have given the Israelites any such command to annihilate the Canaanites.  The biblical account reflects an unfortunate misunderstanding of what God actually expects.     
    For those of us who accept the Bible as divinely inspired, however, the Book of Joshua cannot be dismissed as "an appalling account" that arose from "a vastly different moral understanding of violence."  Mr. Frazee is right.  The Bible explicitly states that the annihilation of the Canaanites was a just retribution for their sins.  What these sins were is spelled out in Leviticus chapters 18 and 20.  It is significant that the evils mentioned center on licentious sexual practices and infanticide.  God calls these practices "abominations."
     But what of Prof. Jenkins' contention that the Canaanites were no worse than any other ancient people?  That may be perfectly true.  What is not true, however, is that God does not punish other peoples for their sins.
     God assures us in His Word that He is perfectly just.  We can see a partial demonstration of His justice throughout history.  Nation after nation has been destroyed by war, famine, natural disaster, and disease.  Where now is Assyria or Babylon, or ancient Rome?  All gone, in the dust bin of history, as are the Third Reich and the Soviet Union in more recent times.  But the complete and final demonstration of God's justice will not come until the end of history, when Christ returns to judge the entire earth.  Then each person will receive exactly what he is due,, and no one will be able to complain that he is being treated unfairly.  The Law of God has been revealed so "that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God" (Rom. 3:19, NKJV).
     The question is, are we any better than the Canaanites?                                                                                                                                                  


  1. Luke Chapter 13 1 There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And Jesus answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things? 3 I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.4 Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.

  2. I may someday write a more detailed commentary on this episode since it is often cited by atheists as a reason that the Bible cannot be taken seriously as a guide to morals. The criticism, of course, implies that we human beings are essentially innocent, when, of course, we are not. The fact that God destroyed ONLY the Canaanites, and not the rest of us along with them, is a sign of His mercy.