The Israelites were instructed by God to completely destroy the Canaanite people when they entered the Promised Land. However, the biblical account shows that the Israelites did not fully carry out this command. Instead of destroying the Canaanites, the Israelites took many of them as slaves.
This apparent contradiction between God’s command and the Israelites’ actions has puzzled Bible readers for centuries. A close examination of the relevant biblical passages provides some insight into why the Israelites disobeyed God’s instructions regarding the Canaanites.
God’s Commands to Destroy the Canaanites
On several occasions as the Israelites prepared to enter Canaan, God clearly commanded them to completely destroy the indigenous Canaanite nations living there. For example:
- Deuteronomy 7:1-2 – “When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction.”
- Deuteronomy 20:16-17 – “But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded.”
It is clear from verses like these that God expected the Israelites to annihilate the Canaanites – men, women, and children. They were not to make treaties with them or intermarry with them, but to completely remove their corrupt pagan influences from the Promised Land.
Taking Canaanites as Slaves Instead of Destroying Them
Despite these clear commands, the book of Joshua records that the Israelites did not completely wipe out the Canaanites. For example:
- Joshua 9:3-27 – The Israelites made a treaty with the Gibeonites, one of the Canaanite peoples, after being deceived by them.
- Joshua 16:10 – The Canaanites persisted in living among the Ephraimites in Gezer.
- Joshua 17:12-13 – The Manassites did not dislodge the Canaanites living in their territory.
- Judges 1:27-36 – Many Canaanite groups, including the Canaanites, Amorites, and Jebusites continued living in the territories of the Israelite tribes.
Furthermore, instead of exterminating the Canaanite peoples as commanded, in many cases the Israelites enslaved them. For example:
- Joshua 9:23 – The Gibeonites became woodcutters and water carriers for the tabernacle.
- Judges 1:28 – The Israelites made the Canaanites laborers and forced them into slave labor.
- 1 Kings 9:20-21 – Solomon conscripted the Canaanites as slaves.
- 2 Chronicles 8:7-8 – The Israelites ruled over and exacted tribute from the Canaanites but did not destroy them.
Clearly, the Israelites disobeyed God’s command to completely eliminate the Canaanites and instead exploited many of them as forced laborers.
Why Did the Israelites Spare and Enslave the Canaanites?
Why did the Israelites fail to carry out God’s instructions to utterly destroy the Canaanite nations? Several factors may have contributed to this:
Military Strength of the Canaanites
The Canaanite city-states were heavily fortified and had access to iron chariots, giving them military superiority over the invading Israelites (Joshua 17:16-18). The Israelites may have felt unable to completely conquer all Canaanite territory and so resorted to making partial treaties and extracting tribute.
Ease and Profit of Slavery
It was easier for the Israelites to subjugate the Canaanites as laborers and exact financial gain from them rather than expending the effort to fully expel or destroy them. Keeping the Canaanites alive as slaves provided an economic advantage for the Israelites.
Intermarriage with Canaanites
Some Israelites intermarried with Canaanites, making them more reluctant to wipe them out completely (Judges 3:5-6). These bonds of marriage and family led to assimilation with the very people Israelites were supposed to remove.
Disobedience and Spiritual Apathy
The Israelites were prone to disobedience and lack of zeal for God’s commands. Their failure to fully conquer Canaan likely flowed from spiritual apathy, worldliness, and lack of faith in God’s power (Joshua 18:3).
Avoidance of God’s Judgment
Allowing Canaanites to live apart from Israelites or as laborers decreased the chances of assimilating with their immoral culture and bringing God’s judgment on themselves.
Keeping Canaanites at a distance through slavery or letting them remain in unconquered regions postponed a potential judgment for intermingling with them. This excuse of postponing God’s judgment is seen in the following passages:
- Exodus 23:29-30 – God promised the Israelites that He would not drive out the Canaanites in one year or the land would become desolate and wild animals would multiply against them.
- Deuteronomy 7:22 – God would drive out the Canaanite nations gradually so that wild animals did not overrun the Israelites.
cycle of sin-judgment-repentance
The book of Judges depicts cycles of Israel falling into idolatry and sin, then being oppressed by enemies, crying out to God, and being delivered by judges God empowered. Allowing Canaanites to remain in the land led to a repeat of this cycle.
Rather than fully removing the source of temptation and idolatry, the Israelites fell into the sins of the very nations they were told to eliminate. Yet God in His mercy raised up judges to rescue His people when they repented.
Consequences of Failing to Destroy the Canaanites
The Israelites’ refusal to completely conquer and destroy the Canaanites as God commanded had several negative consequences:
Corruption by Canaanite religious and cultural practices
Having Canaanites remaining among them or in proximity to them led to the Israelites adopting the evil practices of Canaanite religion, including idolatry, temple prostitution, and child sacrifice (Psalm 106:34-39).
Repeated cycles of judgment and oppression by enemies
Allowing the Canaanites to live in the land led to repeated discipline from God through allowing foreign oppressors to subjugate Israel when they embraced Canaanite idolatry and immorality (Judges 2:1-3).
Failure to experience the full blessing of rest in the Promised Land
God promised the Israelites rest from their surrounding enemies in the land of Canaan. The presence of unconquered Canaanites and their periodic oppression of Israel meant that Israel failed to gain the full measure of rest God intended (Joshua 23:12-13).
Eventual exile from the Promised Land
Israel’s final capitulation to the sinful influence of the Canaanite religion and culture resulted in God severely judging them by sending them into exile out of the land of promise (2 Kings 17:7-23).
God’s Response to Israel’s Disobedience
Although Israel failed to fully carry out God’s instructions regarding the Canaanites, God did not entirely withdraw His blessing from them. Throughout the time of the Judges, He proved faithful when they would repent and cry out to Him for deliverance from oppressing enemies. God showed mercy despite their failure in driving out the Canaanites completely.
At the same time, Scripture is clear that Israel’s disobedience had painful consequences. God allowed the persistent presence of the Canaanites to test and discipline His people (Judges 2:20-23). Even when delivering them from Canaanite oppression, God would chastise Israel for their lack of trust and obedience (Judges 3:1-2).
God would sometimes renew the command to drive out all Canaanite inhabitants from the land (Judges 2:1-5). Other times He would use Israel’s enemies as a rod of correction to turn His people back to Himself (Psalm 106:40-46). Either way, God remained faithful to His covenant promises to Abraham despite Israel’s unfaithfulness.
Lessons for God’s People Today
This history of Israel’s failure to fully destroy the Canaanite nations yields valuable lessons for Christians today:
- Obedience brings blessing while disobedience results in discipline and hardship.
- God is patient and merciful, but His people cannot presume upon it.
- Compromise with ungodly cultural influences leads to spiritual corruption.
- God remains faithful to His purposes even when His people are unfaithful.
- God graciously responds to repentance and sincere prayer for help.
- He can bring deliverance from any situation of bondage to sin.
Just as He worked mightily on behalf of His people Israel though they were undeserving, He powerfully works through the saving blood of Christ for the redemption of any who turn to Him.
The Canaanite nations were deeply corrupted by idolatry and evil practices. God commanded the invading Israelites to completely destroy them to avoid the inevitable effects of being morally contaminated by their influence. However, the Israelites disobeyed and failed to eliminate the Canaanites, even choosing to enslave many of them.
This disobedience stemmed from several factors – Canaanite military strength, economic profit from slavery, intermarriage, spiritual apathy, and trying to postpone God’s judgment. Nevertheless, it was still a lack of trust and obedience toward God.
Because the Canaanite presence persisted, the Israelites fell into idolatry and sin which resulted in repeated discipline and oppression by enemy nations. Israel ultimately lost rest and blessing in the Promised Land. However, God remained faithful in disciplining and delivering His people according to His covenant promises.
This history provides modern believers with the sober warning to avoid compromise with worldly influences that can corrupt us. It also displays God’s patience while emphasizing the blessings of obedience and the fruit of repentance and prayer. Through it all, it reveals God’s faithfulness to graciously accomplish His redemptive purposes.