Question: I believe God had a good reason to kill the Canaanites. He is sovereign and right. But why did he use the people of Israel as the instrument to kill them — and not just kill them himself? For example, he could have caused the Canaanite women to be barren. This would accomplish the same thing but in a peaceful way. All this “killing” can be a hard sell among people who do not understand the true God.
Answer: What a refreshing question! When it comes to the Canaanites, people usually complain that God was “at fault” … because, no matter who did the actual killing, God gave the command (Deut. 20:16-18) — and that even God was not justified in killing woman and children… or that this was a genocide, etc. But you gave God a “pass” on that… which I appreciate! Instead, you’ve asked about his methodology. Why didn’t God choose something more passive, you ask — like preventing the people who were killed from being born in the first place! After all, an omniscient God knew what was going to happen. So, why allow individuals to be born in the first place — only to kill them in the second place?
That’s a fair question — and the answer is tied-up in a most interesting dance between why God made anything at all — and the limits that volitional beings put on that enterprise… and yes, I said limits. To get a handle on this, try to imagine God “before” he created the universe (that is, causally before, not temporally before — since time did not exist) … and I know that’s a stretch! But ask him this very human question: Why did you bother?
One of our basic assumptions about God is that he is sufficient — that is, he doesn’t “need” anything or anyone outside of himself. As a spirit-being, he doesn’t need any physical things, and as a triune-being, he doesn’t need company. So, why did he do it? Why did he create anything… but especially us? The Bible doesn’t tell us “why” directly… but it gives us enough data to formulate an answer — and I agree with the answer in the Westminster Shorter Catechism on this.
Q. 1. What is the chief purpose for which man is made?
The chief purpose for which man is made is to glorify God, [a] and to enjoy him for ever. [b]
[a]. Psa. 86:9; Isa. 60:21; Rom. 11:36; 1 Cor. 6:20; 1 Cor. 10:31; Rev. 4:11
[b]. Psa. 16:5-11; Psa. 144:15; Isa. 12:2; Lk. 2:10; Phil. 4:4; Rev. 21:3-4
Comment on Q. 1.
The opening question brings us at once to the subject of true religion – what it requires and what it gives. God has made us for a purpose just as everything made by man is made for a purpose. Only as we fulfil the purpose for which God made us can we be happy. Now God made us to glorify him. Of course we cannot add to God's glory because he is entirely perfect, but we can show his glory by doing everything in life as service to him. This means that God must be first in our lives; only as we know and love him can we truly please him. That is why, since sin entered the human race, we can only be brought back into God's family through Jesus Christ. Then we can have real joy in our lives, and look forward to knowing joy that never ends after this life. Looking for happiness apart from your Maker – 'doing your own thing' – is a dead end.
Consider the two primary purposes for humankind from the above — to glorify God and to enjoy God. Could just any created object do this? How about a mountain? Now, the fact that God could create a mountain shows that he is worthy of glory… but the mountain itself can neither glorify God nor enjoy him. How about a tree? No… same deal. Trees point to God as a worthy creator… but they cannot glorify or enjoy him. How about if God made people just like us… except… make them incapable of not glorifying God? Wouldn’t beings like that give God glory? Not at all. In fact, that new version of us wouldn’t be any better than a tree. You see, even God cannot have it both ways… not when those ways are mutually exclusive.
What this means for God is that he cannot receive true glory without the risk of true sin. Therefore, the price of glory (in this current world of redemption — not in the new heavens and new earth) is enduring the risk of rejection. How do you think God feels when those at the pinnacle of creation thumb their noses at him… because such rejection is unavoidable.
Activities like giving glory and fellowshipping are — by their very natures — volitional. They require that a person choose to glorify God… or chose not to glorify God. Furthermore, there can be no guaranteed outcome… although we should be a little careful here. If humans have true volition, then it is still possible that 100% of the people will chose God — and this is certainly true among some smaller groups of people. But this is indecently true and not necessarily true. In groups where every person is redeemed, it just happened that everyone chose God; it was not designed as such. In fact, in every case, it is necessarily possible the every person could have rejected God instead.
The technical name for this type of volition is “libertarian free will” — and I’m obviously no Calvinist. Just be aware that many people will disagree with my views on free will. But I am convinced that the most important factor of what makes us human is our volition — not our biology — and that creation itself makes no sense in its absence.
People often misunderstand God’s power. Some think that a being who can do “anything” can do illogical things, too… as if they were a subset of “everything.” That’s not true. God must be God. Therefore, God cannot do non-God stuff… like make a rock so big that he can’t move it… or make a volitional being who will always choose to do right. Since God must follow the rules of logic (or else be non-God), there are plenty of things that God cannot do… like force his will on the Canaanites.
God was very fair with the Canaanites. They had plenty of opportunity to find him over the years (Rom. 1:18-25) — but acutely so in Joshua’s day. In fact, God’s miracles and Israel’s subsequent victories were common knowledge among the people. Therefore, “all who live in this country” knew that the juggernaut of God’s judgment was coming in the form of Israel… and so I must ask, where was the repentance? Where were the white flags? Where was the bowing of the knee to immanent truth and judgment?
Before the spies lay down for the night, [Rahab] went up on the roof and said to them, “I know that the Lord has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed.” (Joshua 2:8–10, NIV)
Note how the people misused their free will: First, they had knowledge of God’s workings and advanced warning of Israel’s approach… yet none fled. Second, God is longsuffering — so how long had he been working with this people before he dropped the hammer? God gives people time… but long-suffering is not forever-suffering. Third, God never says “no” to the sincerely repentant. He accepted Rahab’s request — and she and her house were spared! Since she knew enough to ask for mercy, I assume that the others didn’t want to.
Fourth… and sadly, though… in an environment that hardened against God, the vast majority of their children would not choose to come to God as adults. In those cases, their early deaths were their salvation…and a caution here: this is a ray of light in a dark story — not a call to methodology.
God gave the people of Canaan the same advantages as all other people. But if the cosmos, the inner voice and common sense aren’t enough to motivate people to change, that’s proof of free will. The people chose destruction… and we need to see that. But this only answers one-half of your question… the part about why God could not “make” the Canaanites act a certain way. But it doesn’t answer, why did he “make” the Canaanites at all… and that will be the other half.
The problem with answering this half of the question is that we can’t separate it from the more basic questions like, why did God make any-body at all? Why did he make any-thing at all? Or even more fundamentally, why is there something rather than nothing? See all the trouble you caused!
By now you should see how human volition is critical to (even definitive of) humanity itself. But it is functionally important, too, because God works with sinners through their sin. In fact, that’s how regular people become his people. Now, we’ve already addressed the risks posed by volition for both God and humanity, so if God eliminated this component of redemption, there could be no faith. But God’s very purpose for creation is to redeem an optimal number of volitional human beings… or why bother creating anything? God has nothing to prove to himself… I mean.. I’m sure that he knows he can make stuff… and the spirit-world knows him intimately… yet he created anyway. Why?
The part that is hard for us to get our emotional heads around is that this process requires God to create a huge number of people (estimated to have been 108 billion in 2011) — some of whom will necessarily be lost… and this seems harsh! But God is kind of “stuck” here: a world without volitional beings would not be worth making… and the fact that human beings must have free will (or else they could not prove what needs proving) means that a lot of them will reject God.
Therefore, it’s all or nothing on two fronts for God: If he creates anything then that creation must include volitional people (or else why bother?) And once human beings are created, God cannot micro-determine their lives and steer them to faith. Volitional beings must be free to choose their every action. There is no such thing as a 99% volitional human being. It’s all or nothing.
However, God does determine our starting places — and that seems pretty sensible… because none of us has any control over if we are born, when we are born, where we are born and to whom we are born. And this is the point where you suggest that God adjust his creation by preventing certain births. But even a population-wide adjustment would be individually deterministic on God’s part. This is still problematic — and here’s why.
For God to go ahead with any creation, he had to accept the full-on risk of creating the number of human beings that would result in optimal redemption. But note that I did not say maximal redemption. Even God cannot ensure that 100% of his human beings would worship him — because, for worship to be worship, people must choose to do it… and some people simply won’t. So, if God refused to accept the losses intrinsic to human worship, creating the universe would have been pointless… but he did create it! Why? Because, even if only one volitional human worshipped him, the state of his glory would be greater than if none did… but human volition will not allow him to just run those numbers up.
So, once we understand that a certain number of losses is required for something to be optimal — and that an omniscient God knows every possible contingency — fewer Canaanites would not be acceptable. God achieved this optimal number through much pain — his and ours — and any number less would mean “less” glory for God… and for a maximal God, “less” is not even possible — let alone desirable.
Once God gave creation the thumbs-up — and although he would be personally immanent and active in his creation — he had to let it run its course… and there are certain expectations in a world designed to address the problem of sin: not every person will choose God. So, if we wound up with all 108 billion people being saved… then the game was rigged! Either free will was a mere illusion or the outcome was predetermined. Either way, we’d be puppets, not humans.
What this means for your question is, if God were to “adjust” how many people he created (and when and where) beyond his initial creative moment, he would be correcting a bad decision… which God never makes. Any God worthy of the name knows every possible future contingency (counterfactuals) perfectly. Since time does not restrict God, he will have already seen our responses to our trials in real time! And just as he knew at the start how many atoms the universe should contain to yield the perfect earth, so he knows the exact number of people needed for him to receive the greatest possible glory. This is why it is an empty exercise to second-guess God.
God allowed every one of the Canaanites to be born for the same reasons he allows everyone else to be born: so that they may find him and enjoy a relationship with him forever. The fact that the Canaanites blew it is not on God; that’s on them. But what of the killings? We who serve God are sometimes called to be the agents of his wrath… and no one likes that job. But if we do not answer that call… then that’s on us. There are only optimal results in this world… not perfect ones. Those await the new creation.