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The Invasion of Canaan

During a recent Bible training someone asked this question:

If God ordered the cleansing of Canaan in the Old Testament, and stood behind acts of apparently unprovoked aggression by his people against other nations, might someone claim that he might do so today? Why shouldn't the application of those passages be that it is OK today? And if not, why was it OK then but not now?

It is a vital question, especially when society sees people of other worldviews exactly justifying violence on the ground that it is rooted in their foundational texts. When society is becoming increasingly suspicious and hostile towards ideology and "religion" as a whole, it is all too easy for it tar any who believe in God with the same brush as the suicide bomber. A nasty rhetorical tactic, but one we need to get used to. Of course Christians follow the prince of peace, but that scarecely seems to register with the hostile secularist. The retort has often become "but there were all those acts of ethnic cleansing in the Old Testament - do you stand by those or repudiate them?"

Which leaves difficult exegetical questions. If we repudiate them, why? And where do we stop in saying parts of scripture are no longer relevant? If we stand by them but say the application isn't that it is OK to do the same today, we had better have a good answer when people want to know why not. Else they will assume that we think there are some circumstance in which it might be OK today.

Here are the brief thoughts I gave in answer to the question.

  1. With the invasion of Canaan we are dealing with a unique period in salvation history that evidenced some features and factors that didn’t apply either before Moses or after Jesus. Namely, it is the period in which the people of God are a political entity as well as a people of faith. That was unique in salvation history. Before Abraham and after Jesus we have not been in a situation of having a national people of God who are used by God as his instrument of justice
  2. God gave his people as a political nation for a period to place his lessons of judgment and mercy on the world stage. Jesus clearly takes knowing God away from geographical place (John 4, Matt 28 and elsewhere) and makes himself the locus of God’s people, not the Temple or Jerusalem or the nation
  3. The agent of God’s judgement on God’s enemies during the period between Moses and Jesus was national Israel, particularly under the king – the Son of God. The judgement of God worked internally among God’s people as well as externally. Internally those who sin in Israel died. Externally those who oppose God died. There was no favouritism in his judgement. Neither was there favouritism in his mercy. Those who were outside of Israel but had faith in God were shown mercy and included. Rahab the Canaanite, Ruth the Moabite, Caleb the Kennizite (ie edomite!). The issue was whether they are God’s friends through faith, or rebels against his rule. When Israel corporately denied Yahweh, he threw them out of his land as well
  4. Yahweh owned the Land. It belonged to him. The context for being allowed to be in Yahweh’s land was faith and obedience. However it was occupied by rebels who denied his glory and worshipped false and disgusting gods, sacrificing their children. God was not merely commanding aggression. It was judgement on extreme wickedness. But even the wicked who trusted him were saved, individually as in Rahab, and collectively as in Gibeon (Josh 9). Those rebels who gave up their rebellion could join Yahweh. The question of who was destroyed is also the question of who was part of the bride and who was a rebel. Joshua told them “choose this day whom you will serve.”
  5. The biggest difficulty is not drawing the line of application to Jesus. From the time of his incarnation He is the Israel of God, He is the covenant of God. There is judgement as well as salvation in the New Testament. It is enacted by the Israel of God – Christ – at the end in the final judgement

From these brief thoughts I conclude:

  • No nation today can claim the status for executing God’s judgement that Mosaic covenant national Israel had during the period between Moses and Christ
  • No individual apart from God’s king (or other anointed rescuer, eg Elijah) – and the covenant judicial apparatus under him - had the power to execute judgement, on behalf of the Israel of God
  • The judgement of God is not less in the New Testament. It is greater, as is the salvation. Just like before it will be executed by God’s Israel – now Christ, the King. We therefore call every rebel to come under his banner and trust him for mercy before the judgement happens. The clearest New Testament equivalent of the cleansing of the Land is the consummation in Rev 19-20
  • For an individual, church, nation or other grouping to claim the right to do so today is to usurp the place of God’s Christ
  • It was unthinkable for God to allow the unholy in his land, just like it is unthinkable for him to allow the unholy in his eternal dwelling place – Heaven. Hence an application when we read passages like this is “how important it is for people to be in Christ, in whom they are declared righteous by God.”
May we say today from the Old Testament text: “God tells me that we should do the same”? Or may a nation say “we are right to exterminate another nation, and God justifies it on the grounds of the invasion of Canaan”?

The answer is “no” in both cases


  1. You may enjoy reading "Is God a Moral Monster?" by the Evangelical Philosophers society.


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