Did God Deal With The Canaanites And The Amalekites Too Harshly?


The destruction of the Canaanites, in the time of Joshua and the entrance into the Promised Land, and the slaughter of the Amalekites in the days of King Saul, are two events with which many Christians feel uncomfortable, to put it mildly!

And the question arises, how do we reconcile them with what we, as Christians, know about God? How do we reconcile the view of God, which appears to be projected by such events, with the claim that God is a ‘loving God’?

The easy way out!

Of course, we must take an easy way out of the difficulty, by saying that loving someone doesn’t mean never inflicting punishment or causing pain. I imagine that most of us can bear testimony to this, if we think of the ‘love’ we received from our parents, when, as children, we did wrong!

And how many times have you heard that ‘you have to be cruel to be kind’? But, as I say, that would be the easy, and not altogether satisfying, way out of the difficulty.

We must consider some of the solutions that have been suggested

1. The Gnostic Solution.

The Gnostics, who came to the fore in the 2nd century, believed that they had the solution. And, incidentally, we should bear in mind the fact that the word ‘gnostic’, which comes from ‘gnosis’, meaning ‘knowledge’, is a term applied to a wide variety of people who held widely differing views and yet were convinced that they were the ones who knew! They had the deeper knowledge that others lacked.

The Gnostics believed that they could explain these Old Testament problems by saying that the true God, the supreme being had nothing whatsoever to do with them, and we must therefore distance Him from them. In the view of the Gnostics, the inferior God of the Old Testament scriptures was actually hostile to the true God, and HE, the inferior god, not YAHWEH was responsible for the evil in the Old Testament world. Of course, we need not waste our time discussing such an outrageous doctrine!

2. The theories of the theologians.

In the first few Christian centuries, these theologians suggested another easy but equally unacceptable explanation, when they claimed that we should regard the events which are today regarded as ‘moral difficulties’, as ‘allegories’, or ‘symbolic representations’.

In other words, they didn’t really happen! Nothing as described ever occurred! It was not like that at all! God didn’t actually demand the destruction of the Amalekites! We are expected to understand that the story is intended to make us aware of the absolute holiness of a God Who cannot compromise with evil.

This explanation ignores the fact that the destruction of the Amalekites is described in the language of the Old Testament as a very real event, as something that really happened.

3. Modern Expositors.

Modern Expositors dismiss the difficulty by saying that we must realise that the religion of the Old Testament, was a human development and not a divine revelation, and these stories simply reflect how men thought about God in those days.

Well, I think that every Bible student will agree that God’s plan and purpose for mankind. was a gradual revelation. We know that the Old Testament is in fact, the seed plot of redemptive truth. Every aspect of the plan of salvation has its origins in the Old Testament, beginning with the very first promise in Genesis 3:15 ‘And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.’

And that in the Old Testament we see how through the ages God gradually revealed His will, ‘precept upon precept, line upon line,’ an expression that occurs twice in Isaiah, Isaiah 28:10 / Isaiah 28:13.

In fact, let me say something, which may surprise you. There is nothing revealed in the New Testament about the nature of God that is really new. Everything we know about Him, everything, has its origin in the Old Testament, including the fact of the love of God.

Many years ago, I heard it said that ‘The New is in the Old concealed’ ‘The Old is by the New revealed’.

Furthermore, I think we can all understand that, if He had revealed His plan for the redemption of mankind completely, in those early days, it would not have been understood, because the Israelites were spiritually incapable of understanding it.

The essence of the explanation given by some modern scholars is the idea that, because the people of God in the Old Testament misunderstood Him, they acted on their own initiative, doing things which they wanted to do and then either imagining or inventing a command from God for doing them!

Yes! I can see how that might happen because it has happened many times in the course of human history, since Old Testament times. People have invented instructions and messages from God, for doing terrible things. That is exactly how religious persecution begins. But this explanation does not explain the commands from God, which we find in the Old Testament.

Here is the crucial question, did God really say to Joshua, ‘You shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho and its king’? Joshua 8:2

And I think we know what Joshua did to Jericho! We read in Joshua 6:21 ‘They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.’

Now, if God didn’t issue this command, why is it recorded as a command from God in Joshua 8:2? ‘You shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho and its king, except that you may carry off their plunder and livestock for yourselves.’

But, if the order really did come from God, then the destruction was carried out on God’s orders!

The only reasonable and honest conclusion to which we may come is that God did, indeed, give instructions for the destruction of both Canaanites and Amalekites. God also sent the flood, and God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities of the plain. And the only way in which this obvious conclusion may be avoided is to deny that the Old Testament is a divinely inspired record. Deny the truth of the record and that is something I, for one, am not prepared to do!

So, we are back to square one!

We still have to face the problem, and we still have to try to understand it, without drawing a conclusion. which commits the mistake of accusing God of injustice! Just what is the solution? How do we explain these accounts of wholesale destruction and death?

Let me also remind you that both the flood and the destruction of Sodom and the cities of the Plain, two events of the same kind, were events endorsed by Jesus as actually having occurred, Luke 17:26-30. And, as for the destruction of the Canaanites, you will find a very plain and explicit reference to that event in Deuteronomy 20:16-18.  (It is recorded twice in that book).

Now, consider this!

The Book of Deuteronomy was a book to which Jesus often referred and which he therefore endorsed! Indeed, when you consider the number of times he referred to it, you might even say that it was one of his favourite books. In the Gospel, according to Luke, the Lord speaks of such events as judgements from God. And this we must accept.

But then, someone says, ‘Yes! But when Joshua and his men killed the Canaanites, and when Saul killed the Amalekites, children also died. They also were slaughtered. They, too, were put to the sword. Surely the children could have been spared?’

Well, leaving aside the question as to whether or not it would have been an act of mercy to leave the children alone in the world if all the parents and grown-ups had been killed, there is this to consider. Physical death is by no means the greatest evil that human beings may experience. There are things worse than death. I should have thought that, in a world as cruel and depraved as ours is today, we, at any rate, would understand this!

It might be argued, therefore, that, under those circumstances, it could be regarded as a greater mercy to remove the children from that corrupt Canaanite society, rather than leave them to grow up to be affected by the depravity.

Look at these facts

Firstly, there is no doubt that the tribes of the land of Canaan who were the descendants of the son of Ham, had become utterly degenerate, just as God had predicted they would, away back in Genesis 9 and were infected by an evil which had to be dealt with as a whole. Genesis 9:22-27.

Furthermore. there was another hint concerning this depravity, given by God to Abraham, when in Genesis 15. He told Abraham that his descendants the Israelites, would become slaves in Egypt; but would remain there, until they could receive the land which God had promised, ‘because the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet full!’ Genesis 15:13-16.

The wickedness of the inhabitants of Canaan must reach its lowest depths before God took action. that wickedness is not a matter of supposition or conjecture but is something, which has been historically and archaeologically established. It was like a cancer, which had affected the entire people, and for that reason, it had to be rooted out, lest it affects the children of Israel through whom the Saviour of the world must ultimately come.

Just to give one example of Canaanite depravity, remember that the Amalekites were Canaanites because they believed in human sacrifices, they offered their children in sacrifice to their idols. Cemeteries have been discovered in which the bodies of babies have been found, who had been slaughtered and stuffed into earthenware jars.

As for Sodom, what do you suppose God was trying to make Abraham understand when He promised that He would spare the city, if just ten righteous could be found in it? Was he not pointing out to Abraham, just how evil the cities of the plain had become?

Lot certainly had no success in improving the morals of the inhabitants, even though he had become the chief spokesman for the city of Sodom. He had become, virtually Lord mayor of the city, sitting at the gate, welcoming visitors as the city’s chief representative!

On the contrary, Lot appears to have been infected by their depravity. What happened when the two visitors arrived in the city, to spend the night as the guests of Lot? What does it say for the morality of the city of Sodom, when that night, it seemed natural to Lot to send out his two daughters to be abused by the mob, in order to spare his visitors?

Considered in this light, I think we can see that the destruction of these inhabitants of the Promised Land, was an act of judgment from God, because of their wickedness. This comes out very clearly when we look at l Samuel 15, where Saul is commanded to ‘totally destroy’ the Amalekites. 1 Samuel 15:3.

Certainly, to us, that sounds appalling, ‘totally destroy’ but the Hebrew text is much stronger than even that! The word, which has been translated as ‘totally destroy’, is the word ‘herem’, which means, ‘put under the ban’. Anything, which was declared herem, was said to be ‘devoted to God’ and could not be redeemed, but had to be killed. In other words, the Amalekites were to be regarded as accursed.

Now, this puts a different complexion on what happened to these people. Their death was neither a tribal nor even a political matter.

There was a religious significance to it

1. This was a decree from the God who is righteous and who never errs in His justice, and it was a decree issued because of the wickedness of a people whose wickedness, at this distance, is quite beyond our comprehension, and on which, therefore, we should be careful not to sit in judgement.

2. At the same time, it was an act of mercy to Israel, because of the possibility of their becoming affected, infected, by this wickedness when they went to take possession of a land which God had already promised to give to them, was very real.

3. If you read Leviticus 18, a grim, unpleasant chapter, to be sure, which sets out a terrible catalogue of immorality, you will see that, if God had not dealt with these Canaanites in the way that He did, the danger of the Israelites being contaminated would have been very real indeed.

4. And we should always bear in mind the part Israel was to play in God’s plan for the salvation of all mankind.

5. Let me remind you that the depraved practices which are described in ugly detail in those books, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, were not practised by the Israelites when they were in Egypt. But they did exist in the land of Canaan, to which they were travelling, and which they were to inhabit. For this reason, the Israelites were commanded to destroy these people.

Of course, I suppose it is easier to accept God’s use of the forces of nature as a way of executing judgement than to understand His use of humans. But God also knew the needs of His people. He knew their character. And, harsh as it may appear at first glance, He also knew, that these grim events would serve as warning and lessons to the Israelites, driving home the fact that He, the God of holiness, would not tolerate in them, the sort of behaviour of which the Canaanites were guilty.

He said, on one occasion, ‘you shall be holy, for I, Yahweh am holy’.

This directive is found three times in Leviticus. For instance, Leviticus 20:26 ‘You are to be holy to me because I, the LORD, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.’

We, today, often talk about ‘hating sin, but loving the sinner’. This is something we, as Christians, are expected to have learned from the Lord Jesus Himself. But I don’t think that, in Old Testament times, people understood this concept, or even felt that way! I seriously doubt if they could love the sinner whilst hating his sin. It seems that their philosophy was very basic, you either hate both or you love both! You must either destroy both or make terms with both.

But there is one fact which is almost invariably overlooked, and which may reveal something which we frequently find in the history of the Israelites. Even though the command to destroy the Amalekites and the Canaanites were given, it is clear it was not completely obeyed immediately.

Because the Israelites were themselves unfaithful to God, when they occupied the land of Canaan, He allowed pockets of the Canaanite tribes to remain in the territory which had been allocated to and taken over by the various tribes of Israel.

They were to act as ‘thorns in their flesh’, to be sources of constant irritation and annoyance. And they were allowed to live among the Israelites because it is stated very clearly in the Book of Judges that the Israelite tribes ‘could not drive them out’.

Remember they had gained amazing victories over people who lived in strong, walled cities. But now, although these Canaanite tribes had been broken and were no longer the threat they had originally constituted, they managed to hang on in the territories, that Joshua had allocated to the Israelites. Having said this, the presence of the remnants of the Canaanites did not constitute the threat, which they would otherwise have done.

And to draw this matter to a close, there is ample evidence, in the books of Samuel and Kings, that, in the case of the Amalekites also, many of them fled and sometime later, reformed and became strong enough to wage what you might call ‘a running battle’ with David when he became king. You may see this from 1 Samuel 27-30 and 2 Samuel 1+15.

Indeed, on one occasion, after a raid on Israelite held territory, the Amalekites made off with David’s two wives, and he had to launch a rescue mission to bring them back. 1 Samuel 30.

And as for all those Canaanites who were to have been wiped out by Joshua, I wonder how it came about that when David came to the throne, there, were Canaanites, 2 Samuel 15:8.

However, these inhabitants of Canaan did eventually disappear. The reference to the final destruction of ‘the rest of the Amalekites’, is found in 1 Chronicles 4:43.

‘They killed the remaining Amalekites who had escaped, and they have lived there to this day.’

One thing which is abundantly clear from the record, the alleged total ‘annihilation of the Canaanites and the Amalekites’, so often used as an example of the harshness of the God of the Old Testament, did not really take place in the days of King Saul, during whose reign the command was given.



"Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship."