Mercy and Judgment in Canaan

Holding the scales of justice

Holding the scales of justice

Recently, I took a look at the conquest of Canaan from the standpoint of judgment. The Israelites typically killed everyone in the cities they conquered, young and old, man and woman, presumably children and infants too. Why? Was it necessary to be so harsh? How do we square a loving God with his commands to kill so completely?

The Carnage

The story begins in Joshua 6 with the destruction of Jericho. It's a bloody story. Verse 17 gives the instruction to kill everyone but Rahab and her house:

Now the city shall be doomed by the Lord to destruction, it and all who are in it. Only Rahab the harlot shall live, she and all who are with her in the house, because she hid the messengers that we sent. Joshua 6:17

Just a few verses later we see the Israelites doing exactly as told. Not only are all the people massacred, but the city's livestock as well. All life is wiped out:

And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword. Joshua 6:21

Does "young and old" really include children and infants? Apparently so. Deuteronomy 20:10-18  makes a clear exception in verse 14 for women and "the little ones" when a city is outside of the Canaan inheritance. No such exception is made for cities within the inheritance. All  are to be killed says verse 16: "Let nothing that breathes remain alive."

God as Judge

We're taught to think of God as  a loving father. That's a comfortable way to think about God, but it isn't the complete picture.  Psalm 75:7 says that "God is the judge". He is a loving father, but also a judge, and his role of judge can leave us a little uneasy. Deep down we know we are sinners, and the idea of facing judgment isn't something we like to think about.

Fortunately, God is a just, or righteous  judge.  Psalm 7:11 uses those terms to tell us that God's behavior as judge is justifiable and morally right. Scripture is our authority in all things. It is God who defines what justice is to begin with, and God is consistent with himself and unchanging (Malachi 3:6).

Note: Some translations of Psalm 7:11 use the term just; others use the term righteous. The terms are synonymous.

Pattern of Judgment

What is the pattern of judgment that God follows? I decided to examine that question with respect to children, since it is the little children whom most commonly trouble us when reflecting upon the invasion of Canaan. I chose the first five judgments that came to mind, without examining them first. For each one I looked at the instrument God used, and also at who and what were affected. Following is what I found:

Exile from Eden.  Genesis 3:23. God was the instrument here. He personally delivered the judgment. Adam and Eve were affected, and their children, and on down the line until today.  Psalm 51:5  says we are sinful from conception.

Worldwide Flood. Genesis 7:17-23. Water was the instrument of judgment. Parents were affected. Their children were affected, even their infants and the unborn who were conceived but still in the womb. Even animals and plants shared in the watery consequences of this judgment.

Tower of Babel. Genesis 11:5-9. God is again the direct instrument. Interestingly, the pronoun "us" is used in the phrase "let us go down", telling us that at least two of the three parts of the trinity were involved. Who was affected? Everyone. Parents and their children too, even the infants. Presumably young children and infants followed their parents.

Note:  Children and infants going with their parents is a reasonable assumption. God's goal was to disperse people over the earth, and not to wreck the family unit which he himself designed as the core of society.

Sodom and Gomorrah. Genesis 19:24-26. Burning sulfur is the instrument in this dramatic judgment against evil. Everyone in the target cities was affected: men & women, their children, their infants, the conceived but not yet born. Even the animals and plants were hit.

Handwriting on the Wall. Daniel 5:30-31. Cyrus the Great was the instrument. Belshazzar was affected in that he was killed. Everyone else in the kingdom was affected in that they suddenly found themselves under the new King Darius.

The pattern, especially in the first four judgments, is sobering: As the parents go, so go their young children. When God judged Sodom and Gomorrah, the children shared in the judgment of their parents. When God judged in Noah's day with a flood, the children shared in the judgment of their parents.

Note: Did Belshazzar have children? We can't know for certain either way. Scripture is silent on that point.

We who are parents share an astounding responsibility before God. We are to "train up a child" (Proverbs 20:6), and we must ourselves be right with God before we can train our children to be so. For a parent to be in rebellion toward God is a double failure – not only is the parent lost, but the child also.

God's Mercy

Where is God's mercy in all this? It begins some 400 years earlier. In Genesis 13:14-17 we read of God giving the land of Canaan to Abram and his descendants:

14  And the Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him: “Lift your eyes now and look from the place where you are—northward, southward, eastward, and westward; 15  for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever.  16  And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if a man could number the dust of the earth, then your descendants also could be numbered.  17 Arise, walk in the land through its length and its width, for I give it to you.”  Genesis 13:14-17

Just a couple chapters later Abram asked for a sign. How would he know that God would give him this land? Abram got his sign, and along with it news of a 400-year delay:

13  Then He said to Abram: “Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years.  14  And also the nation whom they serve I will judge; afterward they shall come out with great possessions.  15  Now as for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a good old age.  16  But in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” Genesis 15:13-16

"The iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete." God is patient! He could see where the Amorites were headed. But they hadn't gotten there yet. God allowed his very own chosen people to wallow in Egypt four hundred years, giving the Amorites every chance to turn from their ways, but they did not, and so finally God's judgment fell upon them.

Note: And what was the sign? You can read about that in verses 13 and 17-18.

By the way, who were the Amorites? They were the Canaanites, or at least a portion of them. The Amorites were descended from Canaan (Genesis 10:15-16). They were evidently powerful, lived in Canaan, and the term Amorite  tended to be  used interchangeably with Canaanite.  Sumerian texts from that era referred to "The Land of the Amorites".

God's judgment against the Canaanites was along the same lines as that against Sodom and Gomorrah. The outcome was to be the same – destruction! Only the instrument was different. Against Sodom and Gomorrah God used fire and stone. Against the Amorites and the Canaanites God used his chosen people of Israel. As the parents went, so went the children.

Sin is harsh. We are born sinful (Psalm 51:5). We all deserve death. (Romans 6:23). We are alive today by God's forbearance and grace (Romans 2:4). Our one hope is through Jesus (John 14:6). We can take hold of the salvation Jesus provides so freely (Ephesians 2:8), or not. Whichever way we choose, the ramifications can extend beyond us to affect our families and our children.