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Why would God have Israel kill the women and children of Canaan? Where is the mercy? The Justice? Dawkins and others ask

I receive an email asking me to address the issue of the Israelite purge of Canaan, in particular the command to cut down the women and children as well. The correspondent indicated that this is something he as a Christian struggles with and points out that Richard Dawkins raises the issue as well. I asked for his permission to post my answer, which he gave me, and it follows below:


Dear Correspondent

I think your question ranks up there among some of the hardest questions to deal with. Let me first assure you that doubts are perfectly normal for any thinking person, and if you handle them properly, they can be good opportunities for strengthening your relationship with God. But again, this is a difficult question.

One reason why it is difficult is because to really treat it means writing a whole heck of a lot, so please forgive me if I’m forced to abbreviate. Also, realize that hard questions often have hard answers, and my points will be best be used as a starting point that you will have to continue to think about.
Start first by thinking about why you believe God is merciful and what that means. Mercy means not punishing someone who deserves to be punished. In what sense do these women and children deserve to be punished? What is their crime? Why wasn’t mercy extended to them?

The problem with these questions is that we don’t have enough information to truly handle them. So, you take your reasons for believing that God is merciful and hopefully have some good ones, and you say in this case “I have good reasons for thinking God is just and merciful, so even though I don’t know what their ‘crime’ was, I understand that God knew, and acts appropriately.”

Now, that type of argument is hard to swallow unless we start looking at some examples, and even then it will be hard to swallow. But remember the story of David escorting the Ark of the Covenant and the man slipping, touching the Ark, and having God strike the man down. It is recorded that David is very angry with God here. He is so angry that he refuses to bring the Ark to Jerusalem. (2 Sam 6). This is David we’re talking about, the one of whom it was written that David was a man after God’s own heart. So, Richard Dawkins is not the first to struggle with apparently arbitrary judgments by God. The great man of faith, David, struggled with it as it happened before his very eyes.

So, one would expect that before a judgment like the one inflicted on Canaan is delivered, some opportunity for repentance would have been given, otherwise it’s hard to believe that God is acting justly. What kind of evidence do we have? Well, we do have a couple of similar types of scenarios, but let me focus on just one. The story of Jonah.

In the story of Jonah, God sends Jonah to Assyria, the sworn enemies of the Israelites. Jonah actually disobeys God because, he says, “I knew that you are a gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” (Jonah 4:1). When God does not destroy the Assyrians, Jonah is very angry with God, and God delivers this message to Jonah:

“…Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who can not tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (Jonah 4:11).

Now, the crimes of Assyria are described in detail in a great many places in the Old Testament, so in their case we have some very clear ideas about what they need to be repenting of. But even though they are the enemies of the Israelites, we see that God provides a mechanism for repentance.

Well, what about the Canaanites? The fact is, we don’t really know what ‘mechanism’ he provided to the Canaanites, but by using the example of the Assyrians, we can draw the reasonable inference that he must have done something, even though we don’t know what it is. Do we have any information at all? Yes, we do have some.

Turn in your Bible to Genesis 15. In this chapter, God promises to deliver that area over to Abraham’s descendants. Have you ever wondered why he didn’t just give it to him right there on the spot? Was God unable to do such a thing? There is an important clue in this chapter that helps us consider it at least plausible that God did offer a way for this people to repent. It comes in 15:16….

“In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”

Now it is true that the passage does not indicate to us whether or not God allowed the people in Canaan to repent, but one thing seems reasonable enough- he can’t justly give Abraham this land right now, because it would be unjust at that point to take the land from them, whereas in the fourth generation, it would be. This is consistent with Jonah’s claim that God is slow to anger. Four generations to get their act together, right?

Pharoah was given 10 plagues to prompt his repentance, the Assyrians got Jonah, the Babylonians got Daniel and his friends, and of course the Israelites themselves had prophet after prophet after prophet. We can document a pattern of patience by God.

Now, what about their crimes? There is less material in the OT about their crimes then the Assyrians, but we can learn quite a bit by examining God’s constant insistences that the Israelites not follow the behavior of ‘other gods.’ (For example, Deut 29:18). Dawkins sees this as blatant jealousy, but I guess he doesn’t know what worship of other gods actually meant in this region. For example, it was believed by the Canaanites that rain was Baal’s sperm and when it rained, he and Asherah were getting it on. (For a site I grabbed to quickly substantiate this, check out http://ww2.netnitco.net/users/legend01/bull.htm. It’s about bull gods in general, of which Baal is an example, and though it only cites some god from India as being understood this way, you get the picture). This is why there was temple prostitution. The people would go to the temple to try to… ahem… get Baal in the mood. Parents would send their children to the temple to be prostitutes, or slaves were used. This is hardly something to be proud of, and under normal circumstances, we’d want God to intervene.

If temple prostitution didn’t work, there was always human sacrifice. This is better documented in the Scriptures. For example, in Jeremiah 32:35, God is condemning the Israelites for doing what the Baal worshipers did: “they built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molech, though I never commanded, nor did it enter my mind, that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin.”

Clearly, God is not happy with human sacrifice, and this was something that the Israelites had gotten directly from the Baal worshipers in Canaan. So, when we talk about the nation of Canaan, it is quite plausible that they really did have it coming. They sold people into temple prostitution and they sacrificed their own children. Dawkins does not appear to be aware of such behavior, but I suppose he would join us in agreeing that a culture that resorts to killing their own children in order to inspire the Bull god to ejaculate on the earth is probably a culture that we’d want God to punish.
The only real link in the chain that we’re missing is the part where we know that God actually tried to bring them to repentance. We know that God delayed the punishment until ‘their sin had reached full measure’ and we know that their sin involved temple prostitution and human sacrifice (not even sacrificing slaves, their own children, for goodness sake), and it probably involved other things, too. We can’t be certain at all that this was an ‘innocent nation.’ It seems to be the opposite.

Now, here you might say, “Ok, but the children? And what about the cattle? What did the cattle do?” The question gets harder and harder, but these are still not the hardest of all. But the underlying principle is that A. He gave them time to repent. B. The nation was involved in some nasty stuff, and C., given God’s conduct towards the Egyptians, the Assyrians, etc, it is reasonable to think that God had probably given them the opportunity to repent… and they didn’t.

The only ‘leap of faith’ here is C, but I think it is reasonable, again citing the pattern of how God dealt with other enemies of Israel, and even Israel itself.

Well, I think this will get you started. No doubt, it is still a difficult pill to swallow. But hopefully this gives you a broader perspective to engage the issue with.

If you don’t mind, can I post your question and my answer on my blog? I put a lot of time into typing it and I think others could use it too.

Feel free to let me know if you have additional questions,
In Christ,
Anthony Horvath
aka Sntjohnny



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    • Mariano on May 20, 2008 at 12:08 pm

    Mr. Horvath,

    I think that you did a great job handling a difficult topic. I wanted to mention Jeremiah 18:8 which states, “If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them.”

    Sadly, tackling these issues from the perspective of people such as Prof. Dawkins cloud the issues by orders of magnitude. This is partly because a mention of Canaan is merely part of a barrage of texts mentioned by Prof. Dawkins around which he peppers condemnation of God and His people. However, the overwhelming majority of every text he mentions are very easy to deal with, generally merely requiring reading one or two verses around the one or two to which he draws our attention.

    Even when discussing God’s jealousy the theological (or commonsensical) point is missed. When we human think of emotions such as jealousy, anger, hatred, et al, we know that they can be based upon misunderstanding, or chemical imbalances in our brains, or pure belligerence. Yet, it is conceivable that there are such things are perfect jealousy, anger, hatred, et al. In God’s case His jealousy is based upon accurate knowledge of the circumstances which make up the interplay between His will, His people, and the people who follow other “gods.” He, unlike us, knows the motivations, the circumstances, the actions, not to mention the goings on in the supernatural realm (demonism, etc.).

    If I may, and I hate to advertize myself at your expense but I do so in the name of apologetics. I hoped to point out that I have responded to quite a large number of texts brought up by Prof. Dawkins, as well as Dan Barker and Sam Harris. If you are so inclined, I will direct you to a few of my essays. I hope that you will find that I have written on various difficult topic brought up by difficult people in a manner commensurate with being wise as serpents and harmless as doves.

    On Prof. Dawkins:
    Planting God More Firmly on His Throne

    The Apostle Thomas: Patron Saint of Scientists?

    On Sam Harris:

    Sam Harris’ Mythunderstandings

    Sam Harris: Instigator At Large

    Let Him Who is Without Faith Cast the First Stone

    On Dan Barker:
    Why Freethought?

    Dan Barker’s Scriptural Misinterpretations and Misapplications


    • Frank on February 19, 2009 at 9:17 am

    Think back to Canaan. Giant grapes… GIANTS that made Joshua’s scouting party look like ants.

    These were not “human” peoples. Research the term nephilim. It’s key to understanding this passage.

    Here’s a good starting point. I hope it helps.


    • Anthony on February 19, 2009 at 9:59 am

    Thanks Frank, but I don’t agree that the nephilim have anything to do with this passage. A careful reading of the Genesis 6 passage DOES NOT link the Nephilim with the ‘sons of God’ and ‘daughters’ of men, it only says they were on the earth at that time. Here is the passage:

    “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days- and also afterward- when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.”

    The text DOES NOT say that the Nephilim were the product of the sons of God and the daughters of men. It only gives us a time frame- the Nephilim were on the earth when this other thing went down. Moreover, the next sentence does not portray the Nephilim in any nefarious light. It calls them heroes… and, well, men.

    I am aware of the other interpretations and speculations on this matter. I think we are right to wonder about what it means by ‘when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them.’ However, the text DOES NOT say these children were the Nephilim. It provides a time frame, no more.

    It would be like saying, “The Horvaths were on the earth in those days- and also afterward- when the Clintons were in office and did all sorts of nasty stuff. They were heroes of old, men of renown.”

    As you can see from this example, the mention of Clinton’s nasty stuff doesn’t mean that the Horvaths were involved. And of course, they weren’t. 🙂

    • scott turner on February 23, 2009 at 7:39 pm

    God ordered the Canaanites time on earth be shortened. Through his mercy , those whom He chooses and who have faith will continue to live.
    Why not feel similar sympathy for the women and children of Sodom, Gomorrha, etc? Is it because He shortened their time here through His direct action , as opposed to using men?
    I think the answer is a matter of perspective . God created human life on earth and can and will shift it to the spiritual world when He sees fit to do so. We all know this.
    To me the only challenging question here is \Why did God decide to use men to wreak judgement on Canaan by ending their term here on earth, as opposed to doing it Himself in a supernatural or perhaps natural way?\
    Is it possible more suffering would have resulted had the women and children been kept alive longer? Is it possible future wars and conflicts may have erupted from their offspring causing even more to suffer? Was the act of dropping the two nuclear bombs on Japan in world war II a merciful act or not ? Although so much misery resulted – didn’t it stop an even more miserable direct invasion from occuring?
    God ending ones time on earth is never a cruel act on His part. He created life and He ends it , this is His authority. We are not allowed as humans to end life because we didn’t create it and have no authority to do so.
    Is there a need to \justify \ God’s decision by explaining how particularly sinful the Cannanites were ? Is there any of us who don’t deserve to die? Is it just the \how\ and \when\ of this incident that we are questioning?

    • David on July 22, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    God wanted the Israelites to be a separate people in many ways. This is just speculation on my part, but perhaps there was a genetic aspect to this. If the children of the Canaanites lived, when they got older they would have intermarried with the Israelites, and there were genetic flaws he didn’t want passed on.
    The command to kill the cattle still raises some difficulties, however.

    • bryon on December 31, 2011 at 2:45 pm

    Let’s ot forget that our thoughts are not like God’s thoughts, our ways, not like God’s ways. God sees the whole picture from beginning to end. The Canaaites were an evil people doing wicked things. The children would more than likely grown to do the same wickedness as their fathers. God knew this beforehand and knew they would be in heaven with him and be spared eternity in hell. Something to think about.

    • Alex on January 1, 2012 at 1:21 pm


    To say simply that “God’s ways are not like our ways” closes off the possibility that anything humans ascribe to God could ever be legitimately considered by human beings to be bad. In reality, human beings have ascribed an awful lot of things to God over the centuries, and we have often sought to justify our own most monstrous acts by claiming that God supported them. The terrorists on September 11th appear to have honestly believed God to be on their side.

    This notion that we should not evaluate actions ascribed to God is therefore harmful. First, it is deeply disrespectful to God’s goodness. You can’t praise someone’s “goodness” if that goodness is not recognizable as such to humankind. Second, it destroys any distinction between God and the Devil and between good and evil, because a given evil action could be ascribed to God, and we would then be forced to call it good purely because a book tells us to ascribe the act to God. Third, it therefore destroys, in fact, any reason to worship Him.

    It is not enough to say, Oh, the Canaanites were wicked people, the end. The first book of Samuel tells us very clearly that the Amalekites of Saul’s day were to be killed for what their ancestors had done to the Israelites’ ancestors half a millennium before. It doesn’t say anything about what the Amalekites of Saul’s day were personally doing. (Some isolated actions are described elsewhere, and one presumes that they are generally at war at the time, but there’s nothing that would enable us to evaluate the guilt of the people killed at Saul’s order.) It’s all about hereditary guilt, and the writer of 1 Samuel is entirely comfortable with that. It also specifies that those to be killed must include “the infants at the breast”. One can legitimately question here whether what the soldier doing the killing heard from his general who heard an order from Saul who heard Samuel say that God wanted this, was really from God at all.

    Nor is it acceptable to say, “The children would more than likely grown to do the same wickedness as their fathers”. That is certainly not for you to judge, nor for the soldiers who did the killing. I am sorry to have to make the analogy, but it is precisely the same argument – the “nits make lice” argument – used by Heinrich Himmler to explain why he would not spare the children of Jews in the Holocaust. This is bad, bad company for any Christian to keep in the arguments they make. It would mean that the only moral distinction between what Himmler ordered and what Samuel ordered would be that the author of 1 Samuel says that one of them was ordered by God. The God I love and worship would not do such a thing.

    Nor do you know whether the infants ended up in heaven or in hell. The writer of 1 Samuel involves all Amalekites in the common hereditary guilt, and it is a modern interpretation not in the Bible that finds killing the infants to be especially objectionable and in need of special arguments to save God’s honor. If you can’t find this to be a good action without making stuff up beyond what the Bible says, then I venture to suggest that you should adopt a more skeptical attitude as to whether the writer of 1 Samuel was right in ascribing this order to God.

    It is not for soldiers here on earth to decide that they must kill everybody and let God sort them out. In the event that these orders did come from God at all, the soldiers doing the killing were acting on orders at least three steps removed from God, not based on direct revelation. They ought to have questioned their orders, and refused to perform them.

    As for Anthony’s revulsion at the sexuality of Canaanite religion,
    we don’t execute people for believing that rain is the sperm of Baal, or for anything at all that they believe. Hindus are as free to live as anyone else, and some Hindu rituals I have seen would make your eyes pop. I don’t make room in my Christianity for executing unbelievers, and I don’t care whether it was three thousand years ago or whether it’s today on my street.

    So I suggest very strongly that you do not simply dismiss the moral objections that many people have to such passages.

  1. […] Now to the question, “Do babies who don’t believe in Jesus go to hell?”  A loaded question, if ever there was one.  My ‘bad faith’ debater described above rarely conjures up this question, because to piece it together, you have to have some actual knowledge of the Scriptures, and make some attempt to piece together a logically cogent worldview.  This question usually surfaces on the lips who have attempted to reconcile difficult teachings within Christianity, without pre-judging it.  Which is ironic, because this is a question that is even harder than the one often raised, about why God called upon Israel to destroy the Canaanites, including women and children. […]

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