God’s Compassion: the Ninevites and the Canaanites

Adad Gate, Nineveh (northern Iraq). Partial reconstruction of one of the 15 gates into ancient Nineveh.

“The atheist has it almost right: humans regularly do make gods in their image.  Yet the biblical God isn’t the kind we make up.  He refuses to be manipulated by human schemes.  He makes us all—including his true devotees—uncomfortable, which in the end is what we truly need to overcome our self-centeredness.  ‘Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it’ Matt. 16:25)” (Copan p 193).

Many today find fault with the God of the Old Testament (OT) because they read of the violence He commanded, or they read and accept unlearned and biased commentary about it.  Yet they ignore all that God presents about Himself, the contexts of the situations, and the hugely over-riding context of God’s benevolent plan for mankind.  If the critics used such thought processes with their family and friends, they would have no relationships!  Their assertions and arguments are unscholarly and simple, stemming from an ideology that seeks to eliminate God.

Is God mysterious and some of His ways unknowable?  Yes.  But is God compassionate?  Can we discern that He is compassionate by what is presented in the OT (since God’s compassion is very clear in the New Testament, we are focusing on the OT here) without being accused of only wishful thinking?  Yes, and we can know that God’s compassion was not for the Israelites only.  Perhaps the most obvious example of God’s love and patience outside of Israel involves the Ninevites, since a whole book—Jonah—provides the evidence.   (This book also foreshadows Jesus and His work.)

Now, Jonah is a fun book, especially if you take the time to imagine what is going on and maybe do some research in commentaries.  The gist of the story is that Jonah is called by the Lord to go and convey to the Ninevites—a cruel people and bitter enemies of Israel—that God has seen their evil and it has gone on long enough.  Judgment is coming.  Jonah, knowing that God might be compassionate towards them (instead of destroying Israel’s enemy), ran from the Lord’s calling; “you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2b).

Indeed, after Jonah finally gave the Ninevites the message of God, the Ninevites repented and God did not harm them.  Jonah was so upset about this that he told God that he wanted to die.  This represents man’s view.  But God answered with His view:  “Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well.  Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (Jonah 4:11).

At least some of you came here thinking, “OK, but how can the Canaanites be an example of God’s compassion?”  After all, God commanded the Israelites to destroy many of the Canaanite groups:  Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites (Deuteronomy 7:1-5; they were to leave alone Moab, Ammon, and Edom).  God commanded this through Moses, prior to Joshua leading the Israelites into the “promised” land around the Jordan River.

This command of God’s seems out of character to many people.  The God of the New Testament would not command such a thing . . . would he?  Jesus’ disciples understood that God had made judgments in the past, and when a Samaritan town would not help them at a certain time, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?”  “But Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they went to another village” (Luke 9:54b-56).  Jesus provided another example about how, during this new era, God’s judgment is postponed.  As part of His instructions when sending out his disciples, Jesus said:   “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town.  I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town” (Matthew 10:14-15).

As we saw earlier, the sin and cruelty of Nineveh had gone on long enough when God decided to judge them.  He sent Jonah beforehand, however, to preach to them God’s thoughts, and the Ninevites actually repented.  God therefore held off judgment.  A far different example is that of Sodom and Gomorrah, as mentioned above by Jesus.  God knew those towns were devoid of righteous people, and so they were eventually destroyed because of their overall wickedness.  Yet another example commonly known of is the great flood.  God found the people evil and corrupt, so he gave Noah 120 years to build the ark before the flood waters came.  In all that time, the earth’s inhabitants did not repent.  God is very patient and longsuffering, and does not execute judgment until He knows the point of no return has been reached.

Which now brings us back to the Canaanites.  Way back before the Israelites even traveled to Egypt and subsequently became slaves, God knew of the Canaanite’s evil ways.  While God was making his covenant with Abram (later called Abraham), He told him this prophecy:

“Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years.  But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.  You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age.  In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites ¹ [Canaanites] has not yet reached its full measure” (Genesis 15:13-16; emphasis added).

The Exodus out of Egypt took place around 1446 BC, and they entered Canaan round 1406 BC.  To be clear, Israelites were not being given the land around the Jordan River because they were righteous, but because they were to be an instrument of judgment and because they serve an ultimate future purpose (Deuteronomy 9:5).  Also, since Israel did not keep a standing army and did not pay any soldiers, God was proving to the other nations that He is God and more than able to overcome their “gods.”

But what did the Canaanites do that was so bad?  They did those things God forbade in Leviticus 18:  incest, sodomy, bestiality, and sacrificing children (by burning them alive) to the god Molech.  The Amalekites had done additional damage by murdering the slower persons at the end of the Israelite line while they traveled from Egypt; the Amalekites had acted wickedly and purposefully worked against God’s reputation.  It should be noted that God did not order the destruction of any people for a lack of faith in Him, but for horrendous moral behavior (see Amos 1 -2 for more on God’s thinking).

The judgment of God against the peoples of Canaan had at least two purposes, and His purposes have compassion.  One is that, sooner or later, evil needs to be dealt with and justice served, and the Canaanites were given plenty of time to change their ways.  A great deal of wickedness was removed from the earth, or would have been sooner, if God’s commands were actually carried out.  A great compassion, as I see it, is that God was trying to put a stop to the systematic and torturous murder of innocent children.  Second, God’s compassionate plan for the redemption of all willing humans rested on the survival of Israel.  God warned again and again that if the Canaanites were allowed to survive, and if Israel intermarried with them, that they would sin and turn from God.  This indeed happened often, as God said.

It is mentioned above that not all Canaanites were killed, even though God commanded their destruction.²  This is where it becomes imperative that God’s word is read carefully.  While God commanded the destruction of seven Canaanite tribes in Deuteronomy 7:1-5 (and other places), a bit further down in Deuteronomy God said:  “The LORD your God will drive out those nations before you, little by little. You will not be allowed to eliminate them all at once, or the wild animals will multiply around you” (7:22).  Indeed, archaeological evidence shows that Canaanite culture and religion were nonexistent in Israel by 1000 BC, about 400 years after Israel entered that land.

To conclude, God is the God of all and God loves all, not just Israel (or Christians).  However, He is also just and knows of the suffering  people experience from evil.  In Old Testament times God pronounced prophecies and judgments, oftentimes with warnings.  In the case of Nineveh, the people repented and God did not execute judgment.  At other times, Israel itself committed evil, did not repent, and God judged them.  In the case of the Canaanites, God saw their evil ways and also foresaw their lack of repentance; He used Israel as His instrument of judgment against them.  In this Christian era (the beginning of which depended on the survival of Israel), God seeks to save the lost prior to His judgment and eventual renewal of the whole earth.  Since Adam and Eve fell from grace, God has been working on His plan of redemption for all willing humans and even nature itself.  His periodic elimination of evil historically, and His compassionate interventions otherwise, all work toward drawing His rebellious but beloved creation back to Himself.

Notes

  1. Amorite and Canaanite are basically interchangeable, referring to peoples that lived in the “land of Canaan.”  Canaan was a son of Ha, who was a son of Noah.  Amorite could more specifically refer to those dwelling in the hills, while Canaanites were those in the valleys.
  2. So what do we make of the book of Joshua, then, where in contradiction to other biblical passages, it is claimed that Joshua destroyed the Canaanites?   Bible scholar Nicholas Wolterstorff has studied Joshua and it’s relation to other biblical passages that clearly indicate that Canaanites survived Joshua’s attacks (Flannagan 255-286), and came to a number of instructive conclusions.  Foremost is that Joshua is hagiographic and includes hyperbolic war language that is basically identical to that used by other regional nations, and thus should not be taken literally.   When reading Judges and other books that mention the Canaanites, books that read like regular history, we can take them literally as opposed to Joshua’s military claims.In addition, the words used for “destroy” and “drive out” are interchangeable and perhaps confused.  The same language was used of Adam and Even being driven out from the Garden of Eden; obviously, they weren’t destroyed (other similar passages involve Cain and King David).  Leviticus 18:26-28 also mentions the driving out of the Canaanites, not their destruction.   Yet another consideration is what the bible says about the Amalekites.   In 1 Samuel we read of God ordering the utter destruction of the Amalekites, and then King Saul carrying that order out.  However, later in the same book (!), we read of King David running into living Amalekites–there was even an Amalekite army!  It becomes obvious that the bible contains the exaggerated war rhetoric of those times.  However, while these explanations serve to placate critics over issues of God-ordered genocide, they seem to overly dismiss God’s legitimate role of all-knowing judge.
  3. This article was edited at various times and expanded in January 2015.  It was originally published by the author at Examiner.com.

Sources:  Copan, Paul, Is God a Moral Monster? (Baker Books 2011); Flannagan, Matthew, “Did God Command the Genocide of the Canaanites?” in True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheism (Kregel Publ.s 2013, pp 255-286);  Kaiser et al., Hard Sayings of the Bible (InterVarsity Press 1996); The Bible (NIV 1984).  Image:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Nineveh_Adad_gate_exterior_entrance_far2.JPG

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