THE COMMAND TO DRIVE OUT THE CANAANITES—Num. 33:50-56

“And the Lord spake unto Moses in the plains of Moab by Jordan near Jericho, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: when ye are passed over Jordan into the land of Canaan: then ye shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. . . ”

The command is repeated in somewhat different language at Deut. 7:2: “And when the Lord thy God shall deliver them (the Canaanites) before thee: thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them. . . .”

This, then, was the task awaiting the people of Israel encamped in the plains of Moab: to smite, utterly destroy, drive out the Canaanites. The history of the conquest of the land of Canaan has given great offence to the opponents of Christianity, to primitive heathen and Jews, and to English Deits and German rationalists. The Manichaeans classified it among “the many cruel things which Moses did and commanded,” and which went to prove, according to their view, that the God of the Old Testament could not be the God of the New. Eichhorn, among others, in his introduction, p.403 (in Keil’s Commentary on Joshua) uses strong words, exclaiming in moral indignation: “How impious is the narrative of the Book of Joshua! It makes God not only give way to the Israelites, against all right, the land of Canaan, which the Canaanites as the first occupants most justly held, but also sketch out a horrid plan for its conquest, and directly order the most dreadful bloodshed and the total extinction of the Canaanites. Who can reconcile this with even a partially correct view of the Godhead?”

Fairbairn cautions against meeting the objections of the infidel by wrong methods of defense, such as attempting to soften down the rugged features of the Scripture narrative, by affirming the execution of judgment upon the Canaanites was only designed to take effect in case of their refusing to surrender, and their obstinate adherence to idolatry; but that in every case peace was to be offered to them on the ground of their acknowledging the God of Israel, and submitting to the sway of their conquerors.”

This caution certainly should be heeded. To soften down the Word of God is to mutilate the text of the Scriptures. The word of God must be proclaimed but not distorted to render it acceptable to unbelieving man.

To say that Joshua had to come to the Canaanites with overtures of peace and that the ban that rested upon these tribes would have been lifted and their lives spared had they made him answer of peace, is not only to soften the rugged features of the narrative but to set aside God’s Word. Deut. 20:10 scq. reads: “When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it. And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee. And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it: and when the Lord thy God shall deliver it into thy hands, thou shalt smite every man thereof with the edge of the sword. . . .” Thus shalt thou do with all the cities which are very far off from thee, which are not of the cities of these nations, but of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee.

A distinction is here made between the peoples “which are very far off, those dwelling outside the promised land and the tribes infesting Canaan. Not the former, but the latter only were under the ban of God. To the former the armies of Israel had to proclaim peace, which, if rejected, returned to its proclaimers, and the city was destroyed. This points to the instructions given by Christ to the church of the New Dispensation: “And into whatsoever city or town you shall enter, enquire who in it is worthy; and there abide till ye go thence. And when ye come into a house, salute it. And if the house be worthy, let your peace come upon it: but if it be not worthy, let your peace return to you. And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet. Verily I say unto you, it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, than for that city” (Matt. 10:11 scq.).

But to the Canaanites Joshua might not proclaim peace. They were cursed, reprobated, and therefore doomed to destruction. And therefore also they resisted to the end. So we read at Joshua 11:18 scq. “And Joshua made war a long time with all those kings. There was not a city that made peace with the children of Israel, save the Hivites the inhabitants of Gibeon: all other they took in battle. For it was of the Lord to harden their hearts, that they should come against Israel in battle, that he might destroy them utterly, and that they might have no favor, but that he might destroy them, as the Lord commanded Moses.”

But before they could be destroyed, they had to become wicked and sinners before the Lord exceedingly in order that he might be justified. And this they were. Their abominations were of a kind that might be said emphatically to cry to heaven—such idolatrous rites as tended to defile their very consciences, and the habitual practice of pollutions which were a disgrace to humanity. The land is represented as no longer able to bear the mass of defilements which overspread it, as even vomiting out its inhabitants.” And they knew the judgments of God, that “they which commit such things are worthy of death.”

Had they truly repented, they would have had favor. The righteous, certainly, are not destroyed. And the penitent are righteous men. True, peace might not be proclaimed to them. For God was not for them but against them. Yet, certainly, the judgment could not take effect, had they surrendered, put away their idols and turned to the Lord. The above quotation from Joshua is an indirect statement to this effect. God, assuredly gives favor unto all whom he redeems and saves from their sins. As to the Canaanites, He was determined to destroy them and that they should have no favor. Therefore, instead of moving them to repent, He hardened them, and in agreement herewith commanded Joshua to proclaim them no peace. This is different than saying that they would have been destroyed, though they had turned to the Lord. Certainly had they repented and turned to the Lord they would have been saved. For the penitent are the elect, the righteous. Their god does not destroy. But they were reprobated and therefore received no grace to repent, but instead were hardened in preparation of their final doom. Being reprobated Joshua was forbidden to proclaim peace to them.