The Thorny Issue of Cleansing the Land of Promise


One of the biggest difficulties when reading the Old Testament is how to deal with Israel entering the Promised Land and conquering the people that lived there before they got there. In order to understand the situation clearly, it is important to address a couple presuppositions to this issue. 

Creator of All

First of all, the biblical narrative starts with God creating all peoples. That is, every ethnic group in the world was created by God. The Lord gives life and the Lord is at liberty to take life (Job 1.21; 1Sam 2.6). This is probably the most important point in understanding God’s actions in the world and our need to receive, submit, acquiesce, and any number of synonyms for being receptive to God’s ways. We must always hold in front of us: “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psa 115.3; Psa 135.6).

The reason to constantly remind ourselves of the Lord’s sovereignty is due to the fact that our autonomy is constantly at war with it. We are called to put to death the desires that once defined us and embrace the freeing reality of God’s reign in the world. The difficulties we have stem from our unhappiness with this truth. We must remind ourselves daily that this is our Father’s world, and rest in that thought rather than warring against his benevolent will.

A Chosen People

After this, we must understand the role of Israel in the plan of salvation. God chose a moon-worshipper named Abram to be the recipient of his grace. Independently of anything that Abram did—in spite of what he did, the Lord looked kindly on him and plucked him out of the pagan land of Ur (aka Babylon). 

He heard the cry of Abraham’s descendents in the land of Egypt and freed them from slavery. The stipulations and the statutes given to his people were intended to guide them and give detailed instructions on how to conduct themselves as his chosen people in the Land of Promise. That is, like a parent with a child who gives details on what obedience looks like, God gave Israel his Law to help them know how to live in a land surrounded by temptations. If you want to hear more on this, listen to the first part of my message on Deuteronomy 5-6: “Love is the Fountain of Obedience”. 

In order to be in the people of God, you had to undergo physical circumcision. You had to follow the dietary prescriptions. You had to physically demonstrate that you were holy (that is, set apart) from other ethnicities and devoted body, mind, and soul to the covenant-keeping Lord. Thus, the chosen people were marked ethnically and physically. 

A Temporary People

One of the greatest difficulties in biblical studies is how we ought to understand the Newness of the New Testament in comparison to the Old Testament. Jesus said not one iota or dot will pass away from the Law until it all fulfilled (Matt 5.18). Jesus did not come to replace the Old Covenant Law. He came to fulfill it. That is, as a cup is filled to the brim, Jesus came to bring to completion all that the purposes of the Law. [For more on the purposes of the Law, listen to my sermon on Deuteronomy 4: “Confirmed by God’s Oath”]. 

With that being said, the New Testament is clear that the Law was always meant to point to something greater, Someone. “The law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (Heb 10.1). “(For the Law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced” (Heb 7.19). “They serve a copy and shadow of what is in heaven” (Heb 8.5). It’s as if the prescriptions and prohibitions of the Law were a shadow that our eyes trace along and then look up to the sun to see the reality that is Christ. 

Discriminating Destruction

It’s necessary to do all that preliminary work before we get to the issue of what is called “the ban”—that is, the command to clean the Land of Promise of the Canaanites, et al. Notice that there are several things that provide parameters for the ban. First of all, Israel is not to wipe out all people indescriminately. They are told from the beginning of Deuteronomy not to destroy the Edomites — their ethnic cousins descending from Esau (Deut 2.1-8). Nor were they to kill the Moabites — their ethnic cousins descending from Lot (Deut 2.8-25).

This leads to a second point in the ban. Israel was only supposed to clear away the Land when God directs them to do so. That is, they are not given a blank check on who to annihilate. They are given specific instructions by God. Therefore, this is not some a priori justification for them to kill everyone they wanted. It is clear that there were specific reasons given for why certain people and why not others. 

Third, and a point that brings all three previous points together, is the unrighteousness of the Canaanites, et al. The Canaanites were descended from Canaan, who is the son of Ham, who was the accursed son of Noah for his unrighteous act against his father after the Flood. As their covenant head, they were under his curse, but their culpability was due to their own disobedience of their Creator’s laws—presumably his Natural Revelation, although his Special Revelation would have been passed down from Noah to Ham to Canaan (otherwise, Ham would never have known why he was cursed in the first place!).

The sin of the Canaanites is well-documented. In this sense, it would have been ungracious and injustice to let the wicked perpetuate their violence. (The picture at the top of this post represents such violence. It shows the practice of child sacrifice to the Canaanite god, Moloch). Don’t we feel the same ire against those who kidnap children and force them into sex trafficking and slavery?!? Don’t we feel the same anger toward the Nazi regime for killing millions of Jewish people? What about the perpetual violence against women around the world? In this way, God was not only meting out justice for the wickedness of Canaan, he was preserving his people from temptations to sin and run after the child-sacrificing idolatry that had plagued the land.

We ought to be slow to indict God. He stands over all things as Creator and is ever-present in it to preserve and protect those he loves. Instead of thinking that God is wrong, we must seek to understand “If God commanded this, why?” Instead of being quick to adjudicate: “That’s horrible! I can’t believe it!”

Gospel Grace

Our difficulties with the ban reveal to us our presumption and entitlement and taking for granted the even more heinous death known in history—the crucifixion of the Son of God. Do we really believe that Jesus was not only sinless, but also promoted grace toward his neighbor? Do we really believe that Jesus loved perfectly and promoted the flourishing of others? If so, then why do we breeze over the fact that this perfect one was humiliated and murdered? Why do we balk at the fact that child murderers were cleansed from the Land of Promise, but readily accept that Jesus was murdered for no wrongdoing?

Articles for Further Study:

“The Canaanites: Genocide or Judgment”

“Killing the Canaanites: A Response to the New Atheism’s “Divine Genocide” Claims” 

“What Made It Okay for God to Kill Women and Children In the Old Testament?"

“Why Did God Command the Children of Israel to Kill Every Man, Woman, and Child in the Promised Land?”

Matt Wireman