The Conquest of Canaan

By Phil Hobbs

One of the frustrating things about Scripture is that it isn’t written to gratify our curiosity.

There are many things passed over in silence that we would very much like to hear about, and so many contrasts between the two Testaments. People go so far as to talk about the bad-tempered “Old Testament God” versus the more presentable “New Testament God”.  You can see what they mean; more people get killed in the Old Testament, and  a lot of the time God seems to approve.  However, there is a deep unity in the character of God as revealed by the whole Bible, Old Testament and New Testament.  Perhaps we can see this best by looking at the hardest question of all: the conquest of Canaan. Here’s what the Scripture says:

Then the LORD said to Abram, ”Know of a surety that your descendants will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years….And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete. …To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites,the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.

( Gen 15:13, 16, 18-21, RSV, emphasis added).

When the LORD your God brings you into the land which 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 greater and mightier than yourselves, and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them; then you must utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them, and show no mercy to them. You shall not make marriages with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons. For they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods; then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and hew down their Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire. For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth.

( Deuteronomy 7:1-6, RSV)

Why did God tell Joshua and the Israelites to destroy the inhabitants of Canaan utterly: men, women, children, cattle, and even furniture? It seems horrible: conditioned as we are by television, we easily imagine a terrified child fleeing for its life, only to be overtaken and cut down by a blood-spattered warrior with a broadsword. Is that really something our God would demand? It’s worth sitting for a minute to let the image sink in: the God of Love, the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus Christ the Son, ordering whole peoples wiped out: why?

The text gives the reason: to prevent them from corrupting the people of God and dragging them down in their own ruin.   They were going to fall anyway, and this way would at least limit the damage.  That’s pretty tough stuff, but if we look, we can begin to see the God that we know even here.

The Genesis passage shows that God did not act precipitately—He gave the Caanaanites hundreds of years to change their ways. Forbearance is one of God’s qualities. Over and over in Scripture we see Him calling and calling people to repentance, forgiving seventy times seven times before finally bringing judgement. Since that’s the sort of God he is, we may be confident that He did the same with the Canaanites.  We can’t judge the doctor without knowing the case; but what disease could need so terrible a surgery?

Television has taught us to think in pictures, so that we chronically confuse what is visible with what is real. We’re not good at keeping invisible realities in mind, and this prevents us from seeing the true horror of sin.  But then we make too much of our eyes.  As the Nicene Creed says,  God is the maker of all things, visible and invisible. Love is invisible; honour is invisible; peace is invisible.  God too is invisible to us, for a time; and without these invisible things, even life seems worthless.  Some invisible things are far more valuable than the solid and the visible things we spend so much time seeking.

Because people live forever, God’s concern is mostly for our heavenly glory rather than for our earthly comfort.  In the circumstances, it seems that he best thing He could do for the Canaanites was to wipe them off the face of the Earth. Perhaps we can begin to see why.

The first clue is the shocking character of Canaanite paganism (caution: this section is not for weak stomachs). We are specifically told that it involved ritual prostitution and child sacrifice: “passing their children through the fire to Molech.”  This isn’t an after-the-fact excuse or an example of victor’s justice: it’s been demonstrated archaeologically.

The Philistines and the people of Sidon and Tyre were Phoenicians, sea people, who founded the colony of Carthage in the western Mediterranean sometime in the early 8th century BC, at the time of the divided monarchy in Israel. The Carthaginians kept very close links with their mother city, Tyre. They sent her annual tribute even at the height of their power, when they had far outstripped her and could even challenge Rome for the control of the Western Mediterranean.  Thus it is reasonable to suppose that Carthaginian religious practice was similar to that of the Philistines and other Canaanites.

These Phoenicians worshipped the god Baal-Hammon, leaving chilling archaeological evidence. A tophet (a precinct dedicated to child-sacrifice) has been discovered at Carthage. It is more than two acres in extent, packed nine layers deep with urns holding the burned bones of babies and young children—approximately 20,000 of them—sacrificed in the terrible cult of Baal-Hammon and his consort Tanit. Over the few centuries that this tophet was used, this is an average of perhaps one child sacrificed per week.

Some have tried to interpret the tophet as an ordinary burial ground; but many of the urns contain bones from more than one child, and many bear inscriptions containing the word MLK, meaning sacrifice, which is the biblical Molech. (Semitic languages are written without vowels.) In historical times, sometimes hundreds of children were sacrificed at once. According to the ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, at the siege of Carthage by Agathocles in 307 BC, the Carthaginians burned alive two hundred children of the best families, and three hundred adult volunteers. who repented for having offered slave children rather than their own.

And then there was the cult prostitution.  From a human perspective, this seems much less vile, but the reality is otherwise. Canaanite cult prostitution has left little archaeological evidence, but it is mentioned by ancient historians,[1] its underlying fertility myths have been preserved for us to read,[2] and apparently similar practices survive into our own day. The devadasi of south India are temple dancers and prostitutes devoted to Krishna, and their history gives us a clue to the nature of cult prostitution.

While in practice it often has little religious content, its specifically cultic aspect is quite different from ordinary fornication. This is because the participants consciously take on the aspect of the gods: Tanit or Baal-Hammon or Ishtar or Tammuz or Krishna. The prostitute-priestess is worshipped as the goddess, and the visitor is also worshipped as the god. Thus besides sexual impurity, cult-prostitution is an act both of idolatry, in worshipping a created being in the place of God, and of the worst sort of blasphemy, in accepting that worship.[3]

Canaanite paganism was very durable indeed: even though Carthage was completely destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC, the cult of Baal-Hammon and Tanit survived into the Christian era in the North African hinterland. The Roman emperor Tiberius, a pagan himself, finally stamped it out by executing all of its priests. Its virulence is also demonstrated by the way it took root in Israel, despite clear prohibitions in the Levitical law against even its seemingly most innocent practices, such as cooking a goat in its mother’s milk, or mixing wool and flax in weaving cloth, or kissing one’s hand to the moon. Paganism in the rulers led to the persecution of faithful Jews, the murder of the prophets, and eventually to the fulfillment of all the covenant curses, including the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions and the near-extinction of the Israelites.[4]

God’s attitude towards Canaanite idolatry can be seen in the book of Jeremiah, where Israel is described as an adulteress, degraded and scorned by the lovers she she ran after. God’s covenant with Israel is described in the Old Testament as a marriage; Israel’s adultery was pursuit of false gods.

God had been teaching these barbarians just what sort of God he is.

As it says in the Ten Commandments, God is jealous.  Do not misunderstand; God is the source of all things, and does not need us in the way we need each other.  His jealousy is not the green-eyed dragon of possessiveness or domination, but is protective, rising to defend his marriage and his spouse from disaster.  Good husbands don’t just sit by while somebody seduces their wives; well, neither does God.

It appears from Scripture and archaeological evidence that the Israelites did wipe out most of the Canaanites; yet even so, overcome by the Baal-worship of the remnant, perhaps brought in by Phoenicians like Queen Jezebel, the Israelites were very nearly wiped out in their turn (but not quite).

It is difficult to recover where the allure of this cult lay: perhaps in its orgiastic festivals. But perhaps it was its darker side. Perhaps dark gods seem best in dark times—for if they demand much, will they not also deliver much? The horrible virulence of their religion perhaps makes it possible to recognize our God’s hand in their destruction. After all, He treats us the same way. He loves us, and is jealous for us; like a good shepherd, He will not let us go easily.

God forgives and forgives. Over and over, He forgave Israel even when their repentance was cheap, when their hearts weren’t changed but they’d been defeated in war and were desperate. He submitted to being treated like a pagan deity for a time: something to be appeased, not loved, and otherwise ignored.  God’s promises are true: alone of all the ancient peoples of the Levant, the Israelites are still around, speaking the same language, in the same place.

But his patience has limits.  When our loved ones have deadly addictions, we eventually have to get tough with them, precisely because we love them. God’s attitude towards spiritual adultery and murder has not changed; not only was Israel punished, but Jesus says the same to us: “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” ( Matthew 5:29-30).

It is sobering to realize that God was only a little gentler with Israel than with the Canaanites: after all, He was the one who sent Nebuchadnezzar to conquer Jerusalem. The obvious implication is that we are liable to be in the same spot ourselves, which is a very uncomfortable notion.

Our real problem with the Old Testament is not that its God is different, but that He is the same. We may try to forget what the New Testament says about God’s judgement, but there’s a lot of very tough stuff in there, and reading the Old Testament makes it hard to overlook. The prophets say, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life”.

Death wasn’t part of God’s original plan; it entered the world through the Fall, first the fall of Lucifer and then the fall of Man.  All sorrow and death follows from this marring of God’s initial intention.  When He gave us free will, He really meant it, and we chose death.  The whole subsequent history of the world consists of God working everything towards the goal of reclaiming us from death.  We all die, and most of us die in pain and sorrow—sometimes a lot of us die at once, sometimes we go one by one.  God is there with us all the way; he shares our living and our dying, and He is sovereign over it all.

He created us; He sustains us each moment; and despite our rebellion and evil, He has redeemed us, bought us back, at the price of His own life.  On the Cross, Jesus Christ freely took our death upon Himself so that we might live forever.

God is Lord of our life and of our death.  One day, we will have to stand before Him and give an account of ourselves. On that day, Jesus will say to you and to me, “Well done, good and faithful servant… enter into the joy of your master” or “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoer”. [5] The God of Love is also a God of Judgement. The two are not separable: perfect love, perfect goodness, is the most beautiful and the most terrible thing of all. Whether we see beauty or wrath when we come before God depends on our basic attitude. If we put ourselves first, and serve gods of our own making, we choose condemnation. If we love God and thereby love our neighbours, we choose blessing; both last forever. There is no third possibility; either we cling to our sin and get dragged down by it, or we let Jesus pay for it and go free.

It is a hard spiritual truth that our eternal destiny is very much more important than our temporal suffering.  God gives us life, and walks with us all our road, sharing every joy and sorrow;  He loves us too much to leave us as we are.

[1] Herodotus, Histories, Book I (5th C BC), Lucian of Samosata, Concerning the Syrian Goddess, Ch. 6 (2nd C AD)
[2] See, for example, D. Wolkstein and N. Kramer, Innana, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer, Harper, New York, 1983; B. Foster tr., The Epic of Gilgamesh, Norton, 2001; Sanchuniathon, quoted in Eusebius, Preparatio Evangelica, Chapter IX; and the Ba’al cycle found in Ugarit.
[3] The cult of the Roman Emperors—”the abomination of desolation”—also gave divine honours to a man, and this was one of the causes of the Jewish Revolt of AD 70.
[4] See for example Jeremiah 6-7.
[5] Deuteronony 30:19; Matthew 25:21; Matthew 7:23.