The Canaanite destruction is the major ethical problem in the Old Testament. How can we serve a God who commanded genocide? In this post, we will look at the Torah’s presentation of the Canaanites to see how YHWH viewed the Canaanites in the time before the Conquest of Canaan. As was seen in the previous post on Midian and Amalek, YHWH does not view the Canaanites as unambiguously negative.

Through most of their history Canaan and Israel were opposed to each other. This opposition is introduced in Genesis 34, when Simeon and Levi killed the Hivites living in Shechem after the rape of their sister Dinah. In addition to the narratives of Genesis, the Pentateuch includes several accounts of Israelite battles with the Canaanites on their way to the land of Canaan (Num. 14:39-45; 21:1-3, 21-35).

The opposition between the Israelites and Canaanites corresponds with the Torah’s consistent portrayal of the latter as a sinful people. When Abraham entered the land of Canaan, YHWH promised to bring Abraham’s descendants back to Canaan after the iniquity of the Amorites was complete (Gen. 15:16). Not only did Shechem rape Dinah, but he and his father Hamor attempted to convince their people to allow Jacob and his family to live in their land by describing how they could take all the Israelites property (Genesis 34). The directions about the Canaanites indicate that they worshipped other gods who would be a snare to the Israelites (Exod. 23:20-33; 34:11-24; Num 33:50-56; Deut 7:1-5, 17-26; 20:16-18). The land itself would vomit out the Canaanites because of their sexual immorality and other customs that displeased YHWH (Lev. 18:3, 24-30; 20:22-24). YHWH would drive out the nations in Canaan because of their wickedness (Deut. 9:4-6).

Unlike the Amalekites, the Old Testament does not uniformly speak negatively of the Canaanites. Mamre was an ally of Abraham when he went to defeat the eastern kings to rescue Lot and restore the goods of Sodom. Little is know about Mamre except that he was an Amorite who owned oaks in Hebron near Machpelah (Gen. 13:18; 14:13, 24; 18:1; 23:17, 19). Even in the time when the Amorites were already declared to be sinful and would shortly be in conflict with his grandson (Gen. 15:16), Abraham allied with an Amorite to fight the eastern kings.

Another group of Canaanites are the little known Kenizzites. Nothing is known about them except that they lived in Canaan (Gen. 15:19) and they might have been connected with the Edomites, as Esau had a grandson named Kenaz (Gen. 36:11). However, they do have a famous representative: Caleb the son of Jephunnah, a Kennizzite (Num. 32:12; Josh. 14:6, 14), who was one of the twelve scouts to Canaan. He and Joshua were the only two scouts who brought back a positive report about their scouting mission. The book of Joshua records his conquest of Hebron at eighty-five years old (Josh. 14:6-15). It appears that Caleb’s ancestors had left the Canaanites and became part of the tribe of Judah at some point (Num. 13:6; 34:19). In this instance, we have an example of a Canaanite and his family turning to follow YHWH and becoming a paradigm of faith. Expectations are turned on their head when one of Israel’s great military heroes comes from Canaanite lineage.

In the final post, we will look at implications of this ambiguity for understanding what happens to the Canaanites in the book of Joshua. These posts are an abstract of a published article; see there for more details:

Trimm, Charlie. “Did YHWH Condemn the Nations When He Elected Israel? YHWH’s Disposition toward Non-Israelites in the Torah.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 55 (2012): 521–36.