Killing Canaanites - a Bloodthirsty God?
Updated: May 3, 2019
Critics of the Bible claim that the God of the Old Testament is bloodthirsty and vengeful. He does not appear to be the loving Father that Christians claim He is. One example is God commanding Israel to kill the inhabitants of Canaan:
Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’” -- I Samuel 15:3 (ESV)
Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword. -- Joshua 6:21 (ESV)
This seems cruel and unnecessarily violent, but the Bible describes repeatedly that these people were so vile and such an abomination to God, that they had to be destroyed. God warns Israel not to contaminate itself by living among or intermarrying with any of the tribes or nations associated with Canaanite (Phoenician) religion. (listed in Deuteronomy 7:1)
Even though God had given the Canaanites many generations to repent, they had invited evil to contaminate them physically, mentally and spiritually. God is just and slow to anger. If these people had to be destroyed, we must assume they were beyond redemption. (Please note that only God can judge when a person or group of people is beyond redemption. Only He knows the heart. The Israelites were only carrying out God's instructions).
The four hundred years that Israel spent in Egyptian captivity was partly to give the Canaanites time to repent, because “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete”. -- Genesis 15:16b)
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, … -- Deuteronomy 9:5a (ESV)
Ancient Greek and Roman manuscripts, along with archaeological discoveries have given a clear picture of the religious practices of the Canaanites. These sources agree with and prove the Biblical accounts. The Canaanite tribes worshiped the gods Baal, Asherah (Ashtoreth) and Molech, who are mentioned throughout the Old Testament. Rituals to honor these and other gods involved child sacrifice, sexual and fertility rituals, bestiality, temple prostitution, worship of nature and phallic idols.
Canaanite religion was practiced in an area called a Tophet, or high place. Tophet’s were places of sacrifice that involved the burning of living infants. A metal statue of the god Molech with outstretched arms was heated red hot. The child to be sacrificed was placed in the arms of the idol until it was roasted alive. The body would then fall into a pit below the idol to be cremated. The ashes and bones were gathered together into a jar and buried on the Tophet.
Archaeological digs on a Tophet in Carthage (northern Africa) revealed over 25,000 of these jars. The most valuable sacrifice was of a first-born child. Some Canaanite’s would buy slave children for sacrifice, but this was not considered to be as effective.
Until the 20th century, the idea that the Canaanites did these things was rejected as impossible. It was claimed that the Greek and Roman records were a politically motivated smear campaign. But the Bible is clear that these horrible practices were common among the Canaanites. Even though archaeological evidence supports the Biblical account, some still refuse to believe that a culture could have sustained such practices over such a long period of time without total collapse.
The Old Testament mentions Asherah poles or trees numerous times. Although there is no clear description of these objects, ancient sources seem to describe fertility idols of the goddess Asherah, or giant phalluses (probably both). Certain trees and sacred groves of trees were also devoted to the worship of this goddess.
Since Asherah was the goddess of fertility, her worship required sexual rituals and bestiality. Some men would castrate themselves to achieve the “honor” of being temple prostitutes. They would live in the temples of Asherah, dress in women’s clothing and prostitute themselves as a form of worship. Because of bestiality and other horrific sexual practices, God ordered the destruction of the livestock because even the animals had been defiled.
God knew that if Israel was not obedient in destroying these people, they would be pulled down to their level. That is exactly what happened. Fortunately, there were still a few faithful people among the Israelites who continued to worship God.
“When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. -- Deuteronomy 18:9-12 (ESV)
Many Israelite kings tolerated Canaanite religion, including Solomon. Eventually Israel became so entrenched in pagan worship that the ancient Greeks did not recognize them as a separate people from the Canaanites. One of the most evil Israelite kings to follow Canaanite religion was Manasseh. His practices are described in II Kings 21:
And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.
- He rebuilt the high places that Hezekiah had destroyed. (Tophets)
- He sacrificed his own son by burning
- He erected altars for Baal and made an Asherah
- He set up an image of Asherah in the house of the Lord
- He consulted fortune tellers, mediums and necromancers
- He built altars for pagan worship within the courts and the Temple of God
… and Manasseh led them astray to do more evil than the nations had done whom the Lord destroyed before the people of Israel.
Later, King Josiah destroyed the idols and cleansed the Temple. This account reveals more about the corruption of the Israelites in II Kings 23:
- Burned all vessels used in the Temple for the worship of Baal and Asherah
- Destroyed the Asherah idol from the Temple, burned it and beat it to dust
- Broke down the houses of the male cult prostitutes who were in the house of the Lord (they were living in the Jerusalem Temple)
- Deposed the pagan priests and sacrificed them on their own altars
- Destroyed the Tophets so that no further child sacrifices could be performed
- Broke down the pagan altars that Manasseh had placed in the Temple
- Defiled the high places that King Solomon had built for Asherah
God wants repentance and is amazingly patient, but He will not tolerate this kind of sin indefinitely. The question to ask is not “Is God bloodthirsty?” but “How could He be so patient and merciful?”