Why Were the Israelites Ordered to Kill the Inhabitants of Canaan?
Question: Do you know why the Israelites were ordered to kill all the people in the promised land, right off the top of your head, the short answer? I was wondering [about this] after we had the study on Samson. How do you reconcile that with "Thou Shalt Not Kill."?
Response: That is a good question. Considering that God takes lives every day, since all human beings die, the command obviously does not apply to God Himself. Death, we must remember, is God's just judgment against sin and the penalty exacted for Adam's disobedience in the garden. We all must undergo death sooner or later, so whether the inhabitants of Canaan died "naturally" then or a few years later is one and the same and really makes little difference. Specifically God was judging the Canaanites at that time, the Scripture says, for their gross idolatry, divination, witchcraft, sorcery, and mediums, i.e. those who call up the dead. In fact God says these "detestable practices" are the very reason they were driven out, as the following text in Deuteronomy affirms:
"When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. 10 Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in [a] the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, 11 or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. 12 Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD, and because of these detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you . 13 You must be blameless before the LORD your God." (Deut 18:9-13)
But it is critical that we always remind ourselves that God did not select Israel (or us for that matter) because they were better or more numerous then these other peoples (Deut 7:7). He simply set them apart to redeem them because of the covenant he made with their forefathers out of his sheer grace as the Bible confirms:
It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the LORD your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 6 Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.
7"The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, 8 but because the LORD loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the LORD brought you out by a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt."
Speaking of Egypt, if you recall, when Israel left Egypt at the Passover, they had to paint lamb's blood on their doors so the angel of death would pass over their home. If they did not paint the blood of the lamb, their firstborn would have been taken just like the rest of the Egyptians. Likewise, God warned the Isralites "But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live. And then I will do to you what I plan to do to them.' "(Numbers 33:55-56). So from this we can surmise that the Israelites deserved judgment just like the others. This can serve to remind us that we should not ourselves call judgment down from God on others since it is only the grace of God in Jesus Christ which makes us to differ from anyone.
The lesson, I suppose, we can learn from all this is that, in this life, some get justice while others get mercy ... either way, God gets the glory. Again, those in the land (whom God commanded the Israelites to slaughter) justly deserve death, as do we ... but God has had mercy on us, since Christ has suffered the penalty of death and the wrath of God in our place. At that time in the OT, God had Israel under his direct theocracy and He called them to carry His just judgment out against these idolaters. Although "Thou Shalt not Kill" is in place as a commandment there are plenty of biblical refereces where God commanded the Israelites to put their own people to death for certain types of disobedience (like idolatry). When it is a judicial act, taking a life might have been warranted while other reasons were not. Apparently the slaughter of the Canaanites was one such judicial act. As Christians our instructions to advance the gospel and "make disciples" is never to take up the sword to do so, and so genocide is not ever part of our specific mission. But be certain, genocide will occur on the Last Day on all those who do not know Christ and who disobey the glorious gospel (2 Thessalonians 1:8). That day is coming:
"He will soon be invading with His armies. He is offering pardon in advance of His invasion and should you receive the pardon and ally yourself with Him now before He invades, when he comes you will be considered HIs ally and He will raise you to Kingship. The alternative is to be under the wrath of the king. It is not some kind of religious option. It an announcement that a new king is on the throne and he'll be invading. The gospel is not an invitation to an array of a buffet style choices, it is a command. Will you heed the command? Jesus is Lord, repent and believe." (William Wilder)