The command to exterminate the Canaanites was an occasional command, not an application of a general rule relevant to all people throughout history. What should be quite clear is that God does not command us to violate the Crucial Moral Principle, even if the killing of Canaanites did.
But even this more limited thesis is not as clear as it seems. Merciless slaughter is not how the biblical text portrays the situation. While some Canaanites may have been innocent (like the children), the Bible does not portray the Canaanites in general as innocent of any serious wrongdoing. Three features of the narrative make this plain.
Feature 1: Israel’s Legal Ownership of Canaan
First, the text indicates that the Canaanites are occupying land of which Israel has legal ownership, and without the consent of the owner. The command of destruction only applied to those cities that had been given the Israelites as an inheritance. They were prohibited from conquering neighboring nations such as Moab, Ammon, and Edom. The Canaanites are squatters on Israel’s land, so Israel had a right to drive them out or dispossess them in a way in which they do not have a right to drive out others. God had promised Abraham and his descendants the land, telling him he would be a blessing and his name great. The land was given as a means to bless the whole world and reverse the curse of Babel. God would use the land to call all nations to himself. This is repeated six times in Genesis and is clearly a central dimension of Israel’s election. Abram would even give Lot the most valuable acreage. The making of a great name is predicated on an act of generosity rather than legal entitlement. Because of his generosity and willingness to share the land with others, Abram (later Abraham) and his offspring were given eternal title to the land.
The commands occur in the context of the Canaanites living on land that Israel’s ancestors had lived on, owned property in, and to which they had legal title for the purpose of establishing a community through which salvation would be brought to the world. The Canaanites are, strictly speaking, trespassers. Rahab admitted she knew the Lord had given the Israelites the land and that a great fear of the Israelites had fallen on the Canaanites, so that “all who live in this country are melting in fear of you. We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt” (Gen. 2:9-10). Similarly the men of Gibeon tell Joshua they were “clearly told how the Lord your God had commanded his servant Moses to give [Israel] the whole land” (9:24).
So the Israelites weren’t conquering or attacking an innocent nation and stealing their land; rather, Israel is repossessing land that already belongs to them and evicting people who are trespassing on it and refusing to leave.
But what of the charge that history is written by the winners, who rationalize their own behavior? First off, this appeal is circular. The very claim being considered is whether the Bible is trustworthy because it commands extermination. To assume unreliability is there while interpreting the text and using that interpretation against its reliability is to assume what one wants to prove. Moreover, it also fails to address the issue being discussed: whether one who accepts the Bible as the Word of God, and hence authoritative, is committed to holding that God commands the killing of innocent people.
What if the Israelites were in the land, and another group attacked them claiming divine justification for doing so? Problems with this scenario are at least twofold: first, they implicitly deny the historicity of authoritative, though challenging and perplexing, divinely mandated events. Second, such questions ignore the entirety of the biblical narrative. To remove a fully wise, good, and just God from the Canaanite warfare accounts in scriptures and then attack that narrative would be to gut and destabilize it.
Feature 2: Israelite Refugees and the Sins of the Amorites
Despite being given the land, Abram and his descendants couldn’t take immediate occupation. 400 years of captivity would come first. Two things are noteworthy here. First, the nation of Israel will gain possession of the land only after they have been oppressed in Egypt for several generations. The Israelites were refugees who had experienced hundreds of years of oppression in a foreign land and needed a place to live; they were attempting to gain a homeland.
Second, in spite of having a legal title and a divinely approved claim on the land, Abram and his descendants could not take immediate and total occupation of the land. They had to wait until the “sin of the Amorites” had “reached its full measure.”
So during the days of the patriarchs, Abraham’s offspring were forbidden to engage in violence against the Canaanite nations occupying the land. It’s only when certain immoral practices had been culturally entrenched in the Canaanites for centuries without repentance that Israel would be permitted to drive them out.
Centuries later, we read in the Pentateuch, Israel is divinely authorized to take the land because the Amorite iniquity was finally complete. Deuteronomy states that Israel could drive out the nations on account of their wickedness, including incest, adultery, bestiality, ritual prostitution, and homosexual acts; and, most significantly, Deut. 12:29-31 singles out child sacrifice as particularly abhorrent, against which the Prophets, Psalms, and historical book had inveighed.
Feature 3: Corrupting Influences and the Risk of Assimilation
The text also repeatedly warns of the corrupting influence of the practices of Israel’s neighbors on the embryonic Israelite nation in the land of Canaan. Ex. 23:33 is explicit: “To not let them live in your land or they will cause you to sin against me, because the worship of their gods will certainly be a snare to you.” The Hebrew scriptures take seriously this life-and-death struggle for Israel’s own national and spiritual integrity. We could rightly argue that anything threatening to tear apart the moral and spiritual fabric of Israel could be compared to acts of treason in our own day.
So, contrary to Bradley, the Bible does not portray the Canaanites in general as innocent of any serious wrongdoing. If the Israelites lived in their midst and freely intermingled among the Canaanites, Israel’s own identity, integrity, calling, and destiny would be undermined—a scenario comparable to treason.
Finally, there are also hints in the text that Canaanites who rejected these kinds of practices were to be spared and could live in the land among the Israelite community. Three examples:
The tavern-keeper who was exempted from death at the hands of the Israelites. Contrary to Morriston’s claim that Rahab was just trying to save her own skin, the evidence suggests otherwise. The wording of her confession is found in only two other places in the OT: Moses’s confession in Deut. 4:39 and Solomon’s confession in I Kings 8:23. Rahab states that she and the whole country of Canaan had heard of God’s miraculous signs and wonders in the exodus and knew that God had given the land to the Israelites. As the story unfolds, Rahab shows strong faith in God and is saved from destruction. The contrast with Achan is also telling. The juxtaposing of these episodes with their similar language and linguistic parallels leads many commentators to conclude that the author here is making an explicit point: it is faithfulness to God’s commands (or lack thereof)—not one’s ethnicity—that makes one a true Israelite, or makes one subject to destruction. Hebrews 11 interprets Rahab’s story this way—that she was saved by her response of faith.
Though part of one of the nations marked for destruction, Caleb too was saved after following the Lord wholeheartedly.
At Shechem, those who heard the Law being read included not only the assembly of Israel but also the strangers who were living among them.
So the Canaanites are not in general portrayed as innocent. They are trespassers. Their dominance meant Israel couldn’t live in the land alongside them without being absorbed into a culture engaging in abhorrent practices. Yet the text suggests that Canaanites who turned from these practices could be spared. So Bradley’s picture is misleading.
Israel too is told that if they themselves act in the same way as did their enemies, they too would be vomited from the land. Indeed, as the narrative continues, God tolerated Israel’s continual and repeated violations of the covenant in their engaging in these practices for several centuries before sending both Israel and later Judah into exile.