How dare He command the slaughter of innocent people! Not attempting to show that their accusations assume an absolute moral standard, which they can only get from God, let us attack the presupposition that the Canaanites were innocent. There are three good reasons to believe they weren’t blameless:
1) Israel had a legal right to the land of Canaan.
- God is the owner of the whole earth (Exodus 13:5; Ps 24:1). Therefore, he has the right to give and take away
- Israel was not playing a life-sized game of Risk. God had forbidden them from conquering other nations. For God gave this land to their patriarchs not to Israel (Deut 2:4-6)
- The story of the Conquest is directly linked to the story of Genesis. A few hundred years before Joshua the Lord had promised to give the land to Abraham (Gen 12:1-3; 17:8; 26:3; 28:13). In fact the patriarchs of Israel began possessing parts of the land in their day (Gen 23:17-20; 33:19-20).
- The Canaanites were trespassers and they knew it. A reading of the story of Rahab and the Gibeonites shows that, at least parts of, the Canaanites knew the works of God and that the Lord had given the land to Israel (Josh 2:9-10; 9:24).
2) The Canaanites were being judged for their wickedness.
- God gave them over 400 years to repent (Gen 15:13-16)
- The Canaanites could not get any more wicked. Leviticus 18 lists out their sins that include: incest, adultery, bestiality, ritual prostitution, homosexual acts, and child sacrifice [Duet 12:29-31]. In Biblical theology sometimes people can become so wicked that they are unable to repent. This is what Paul calls the depraved mind (Romans 1:28) or a deluding influence sent by the Lord (2nd Thess 2:11).
The Lord was worried about the Canaanites potential corrupting influence if Israel assimilated.
- He constantly warned them that bad company corrupts good morals (Deut 20:18; 7:4; Exod 23:33; 34:15-16).
- The Lord was ok with Israel allowing peripheral nations to assimilate into them (Deut 20:10-15). But if Israel, a smaller people, cohabitated with the great in number Canaanites then Israel would eventually become de facto Canaanites.
- Thus, in a sense, the Canaanites were so wicked that God could consider them guilty before the fact of corrupting Israel
On last important note to mention is that God allowed those who rejected Canaanite practices to be assimilated and considered an Israelite. Most miss this point by only reading the Biblical text on the surface. Any non-Israelite who wanted to accept the covenant God made could become a bon a fide Israelite.
- He established this at the very beginning before the Exodus (Gen 17:7-14; Exodus 12:38, 42-49; cf. Rom 4)
- Rahab was accepted into the Covenant and is part of Jesus’ lineage (Mt 1:5). She obviously had great faith in Yahweh (Joshua 2:11; James 2:25)
- Caleb had Canaanite forefathers (Num 32:12; John 14:6, 14; Cf. Gen 15:18-20). Yet he was 1 of 2 (Joshua) who were not condemned in the wilderness but allowed into the Promised Land because of his great faith (Num 14:24).
- The Shechemites forsook Canaanite ways to become part of Israel. We see them at a covenant renewal ceremony celebrating it alongside the Israelites (Joshua 8:33-35).
In conclusion we see the Canaanites were far from innocent. They were occupying a land that was not their own. They did not deserve the land due to their great wickedness. They were, for the most part, past the point of repentance and would only serve as a snare for the Israelites. Yet God, in his wonderful grace allowed those Canaanites who did not go along with the status quo, but instead wanted to follow the Living God, to become part of the covenant He made with Israel.