I remember the first time I heard this objection. It unsettled me quite a bit. How could a loving God be so malevolent as to command the extermination of an entire people-group (the Canaanites) including men, women, and children (Joshua 9:11-15)? This is one of the most difficult questions confronting Christians. While not all answers will entirely soothe the emotions, there are three points that can help us makes sense of this challenge.
First, God has the right to take life however and whenever He desires. Since God is the author of life, He can take life and give life at His whim. Life is a gift from God. Every moment we exist is a gift from our Creator (Acts 17:24-28). God is under no obligation to sustain the universe or our individual lives. Since God created the world (and everything in it) He can do with it as He desires. Humans cannot take another life because they did not create it. Since we did not give life, we have no right to take it. But since God is the giver of life, He can take it in whatever manner He chooses. It’s His prerogative.
Second, God shows tremendous longsuffering and compassion before executing judgment. When God first told Abraham that his descendants would inhabit the Promised Land, God instructed him that the fulfillment would be significantly delayed until the sin of the Amorites (the people of Canaan) was complete (Genesis 15:16). Why the wait? God was allowing sufficient time for the Canaanites to repent of their evil ways. 430 years was more than enough time for the Amorites to turn to God. Moreover, God promises to spare any nation that turns to God in repentance and abandons its evil ways (Jeremiah 18:7-8). God gave them considerable time to repent, but eventually justice must prevail.
Third, Gods commands must be understood in light of His covenant with Israel. God chose Abraham to be the father of a nation through whom “all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3). Israel was to be a holy nation, set apart from the evil and corruption of surrounding nations (Leviticus 18:30). God was preparing a nation as a vehicle for the coming Messiah, the universal savior (Ephesians 2:11-22). In direct contrast, the Canaanites were involved in witchcraft, divination, child sacrifice, and sexual perversion (Deuteronomy 18:9-11; Lev 18:1-24). Thus, they were the most serious threat to God’s divine plan for Israel. Dr. Paul Copan rightly observes: “Although the biblical commands are themselves considered harsh, not carrying them out would have undermined the very theocracy and plan of salvation God had established” (That’s Just Your Interpretation, Baker Books, 2005, p. 165).
When difficult challenges like this arise, it’s important to remember what we know to be true about God: He is good, patient, loving, and worthy of our trust. We may not understand entirely why he called for the destruction of the Canaanites, but we can rest assured that He has a good reason.
Sean McDowell is head of the Bible department at Capistrano Valley Christian Schools where he teaches Philosophy, Theology, and Apologetics. He is the author of several books on apologetics. Visit his website at http://www.seanmcdowell.org/ .