“It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 7:7–8)
When critics try to take potshots at the Bible, our response shouldn’t be embarrassment, but laughter. What they thought was an easy hit, is miles off the mark. When they think they’ve blown a whole through the Bible, we snigger because we know the Bible is nowhere downrange of where they’re aiming.
Bible assassins will ridicule the injustice of the conquest of Canaan. They may compare this holy war to the Jihad of Islam. Or they might liken Israel’s actions to the Hutu genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda. The problem is that you can’t aim at such apples and think you’re hitting the Bible’s oranges.
When you read the Bible, you have to read it on its own terms. If it is what it says it is, it changes everything. The Bible says it is the word of God. The Bible says that this God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Israel, is the Creator of all things and that He is sovereign. God plainly spells out the implications of this through the prophet Jeremiah. He is the Potter. We are the clay (Jeremiah 18). God is responsible for every pot made and for every pot smashed. He opens the womb. He closes the grave.
God is responsible for one hundred percent of all deaths all the time. Man may sin in taking a life, but God never sins in using one sinner to take another sinner’s life. Foundationally then, we must understand that the conquest of Canaan was not a matter of ethnic genocide nor the arrogance of one people thinking their religion superior to another’s. In the conquest of Canaan, the holy God of heaven brings righteous judgment to bear on a wicked people (Deuteronomy 7:1–2; 9:4–5).
Israel is to destroy, but they are to be a willing sword in the hand of their God. And God uses this sword against a people whose iniquity is now full (Genesis 15:16). The destruction of Sodom was a preview both of what the Canaanites were to become and what was to become of them as a result. Recall how Abraham pled for that city to be spared if there were found fifty, forty-five, thirty, twenty, even ten righteous souls therein. Lot would be rescued out of Sodom, but Sodom was not to be rescued. Her iniquity was full. the Judge of all the earth does not sweep away the righteous with the wicked. He does what is just (Genesis 18:23, 25). As Sodom was full, so now the land as a whole is full. The land is full of sinners who sin is full. Leviticus 18 speaks of the Canaanites so polluting the land that it vomits them out.
Alongside the critic, what we are often uncomfortable with isn’t the death itself, but the sword used. Such an objection fails to take into account the utterly unique position Israel then enjoyed. Israel was the only absolute theocracy that has or will exist as a geo-political state in this age. She was a rusty sword, but God personally forged her and owned her as His own. Her armies were His armies. These are the oranges you have to deal with.
But that these oranges are not being shot at is most apparent in this: God brings this judgment as mercy. The conquest of Canaan is an act of mercy towards Israel. Deuteronomy 9:4–5 explains,
“Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you. Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”
D.A. Carson comments, “It may be true to say that the Israelites won because the Canaanites were so evil. It does not follow that the Canaanites lost because the Israelites were so good.” Here is where the real rub is. Why should Israel receive mercy and the Canaanites wrath? The funny thing about our cries of injustice are that what we are crying out against is mercy. I will agree that mercy is not fair. It’s merciful. As R.C. explains, mercy is in the category of non-justice, but it is not in the category of injustice. The Potter, Yahweh, has mercy on whom He will have mercy.
And this mercy toward Israel is for the purpose of God’s mercy toward the world. God promised Abraham, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). The God who had His son Israel spill blood, did so only as part of a plan to have His eternal Son spill His own. Through the judgment of Canaan, God was bringing salvation to the world, just as by His judgment on the Son, He brought salvation, purchasing for Himself in mercy a bride from every people, tribe, and tongue. He will return to bring judgment in full, and in its wake, salvation in full, the inheritance of the meek, the earth made new.