Welfare for the poor
I have received this question about the Bible: It seems that slavery was condoned in the Bible and there were forced marriages with captive women, which seems inconsistent with a God who is against abortion and offers forgiveness to sinners … I ask these hard questions for myself as well as unbelievers who use this to justify their hatred of God and the Bible.
According to the dictionary, a slave is a person who is completely dominated by their owner and works without payment. The word “slavery” implies hardship, exploitation and lack of freedom. Slaves are different to servants or employees who are paid a wage and have the freedom to leave their employment. Let’s look at what the Old Testament has to say on this topic.
“Slavery” in the Bible
Slavery was prevalent in ancient times. People could become slaves due to poverty or warfare or being born to slaves (Ex. 21:4; Eccl. 2:7). The English word “slave” or related words occur in 65-310 verses in the Bible, depending on the translation (see below). Translations with lower frequency use the word “servant” where the others have “slave”. The Hebrew word is “ebed” (Strongs #5650), which describes one who serves another as a slave.
The Old Testament describes the history of the Israelites, who were God’s chosen people. Their first instance of slavery was when Joseph was sold to the Ishmaelites who in turn sold him to Potiphar in Egypt (Gen. 37:28, 36; 39:17, 19). This included being imprisoned for over two years (Ex. 41:1; Ps. 105:17). After he was freed, his father’s family moved to Egypt because of a famine.
Before this time, God told Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved in a foreign country, which was Egypt (Gen. 15:13-14; Acts 7:6-7). As they felt threatened by Jacob’s numerous descendants, the Egyptians subjected them to slavery (Ex. 1:6-14). Under their slave masters the Israelites constructed buildings and worked in the fields. They were beaten by the Egyptians (Ex. 2:11; 5:14). It was forced labour and a life of oppression, suffering and misery (Ex. 2:23; 3:7; 5:6, 10, 13, 14; 6:6). This continued during the 40 years when Moses was in Midian. After they cried to God for help, He promised to deliver them from the slavery (Ex. 2:23-25; 3:7-10; 6:6-8). The Israelites were finally delivered after the ten plagues and God miraculously lead the exodus towards Canaan (Ex. 13:20-22).
Afterwards they were to remember they were slaves in Egypt (Dt. 16:12; 24:22) and that God brought them out of slavery in Egypt (Ex. 20:2; Lev 26:13; Dt. 5:6, 15; 6:12, 21; 7:8; 8:11; 13:5, 10; 15:15; 16:12; Dt. 5:6, 15; 6:12, 21; 7:8; 8:14; 13:5, 10; 15:5; 24:18; Josh. 24:17; Jud. 6:8; Jer. 34:13; Mi. 6:4). At the Passover festival they celebrated their release from slavery (Ex. 13:3, 14).
The Israelites then travelled to Canaan where they eventually divided into two kingdoms, with Israel in the north and Judah in the south. At times they were enslaved by the Arameans (Syrians), the Phoenicians (Tyre & Sidon) and Philistia (2 Ki. 5:2; Joel 3:4-6, Amos 1:6). Over a 10-year period the Assyrians attacked Israel until they were conquered and deported to Assyria (2 Ki. 15:29; 17:3-6; 18:9-12; 1 Chron. 5:26). This was God’s punishment for their idolatry (2 Ki. 17:7-23). So the Israelites were slaves to the cruel Assyrians.
Then the Assyrians attacked Judah, but God delivered them (2 Ki. 18:13-19:37). Later Isaiah predicted that they would be conquered and deported to Babylon (2 Ki. 20:16-18). This was fulfilled when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and took prisoners back to Babylon where they were captive for at least 70 years (2 Ki. 24:12-1; 25:1-21; 2 Chr. 36:20). Next they were slaves to the Persians (Ez. 9:7-9; Neh. 9:36-37), followed by the Syrians and Egyptians in the inter-testament period. In fact from this time until 1948, Judea was always ruled by other nations.
What’s it like to be a slave? In Psalm 123 the captives in Babylon plead to God for deliverance. They had endured contempt and ridicule from the Babylonians.
So God used slavery to get the Israelites out of Egypt so they could settle in Canaan. He also used slavery as punishment for their idolatry in Canaan. In more recent times, He used the Nazi holocaust, which was worse than slavery, to give Judea back to them in 1948.
When a criminal is convicted of a serious crime, they are sentenced to gaol where they lose their freedom. Gaol or prison is a form of slavery, which I will call penal slavery.
The earliest mention of slavery in the Bible is when Noah cursed Canaan; “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers” (Gen. 9:24-27NIV). The descendants of Canaan were extremely wicked (Gen. 15:16; Dt. 9:4-5; 18:9-13). That’s why they were cursed to be slaves. Because of their wickedness, the Canaanites were to be driven from their lands or destroyed when the Israelites settled in Canaan (Ex. 23:23, 31). But some Canaanites remained in the land and these were used by Solomon to built the temple, the palace, and the city walls (1 Ki. 5:15; 9:15-22; 2 Chr. 2:17-18; 8:1-9; Eccl. 2:4-7). Also the Gibeonites (Canaanites who deceived the Israelites) were woodcutters and water carriers for the tabernacle (Josh. 9:23-25). So the prediction was fulfilled when the Canaanites were slaves to the Israelites. In this case the Canaanites were better off than otherwise – as they hadn’t escaped to another country they should have been killed during the Israelite invasion of Canaan.
The Canaanite slavery to the Israelites and the Israelite slavery to Babylonia were both examples of penal slavery. A thief who couldn’t make restitution for their crime was also to become a penal slave (Ex. 22:1-3).
How other nations treated slaves
Samson lived when the Israelites were ruled by the Philistines. He had great strength and killed many Philistines. When the Philistines finally captured Samson they gouged out his eyes and bound him with bronze shackles in prison where he worked grinding grain (Jud. 16:21). That was slave labor!
When the Ammonites besieged an Israelite city, they would only agree to a treaty if the right eye of the Israelites was gouged out (1 Sam. 11:2). Fortunately that didn’t happen! Also, when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, they put out king Zedekiah’s eyes and bound him with bronze shackles and took him to Babylon (Jer. 39:7).
When the Amalekites attacked Israel, they abandoned an Egyptian slave when he became ill (1 Sam. 30:13). After he had been without food or water for three days, David gave him food and water.
Other nations were slave traders – they traded slaves for merchandise (Ez. 27:15). So these nations were cruel to their captives.
How Israelites were to treat slaves
So far we have seen that because slavery was prevalent in ancient times, it is recorded in the Bible. Just because something is mentioned in the Bible doesn’t mean that God approved it. But what does God say to His chosen people about slavery?
If we can’t meet the repayments on a car or house, they are repossessed. If we are made bankrupt, we are restricted from business ownership and overseas travel and required to repay our debts before we can be discharged. In a world without government welfare and charities, God put laws in place to protect poor Israelites (Lev. 25:35-38). They were to be helped with no-interest loans and sold food at cost. So a Jew could not profit from the poverty of a fellow Jew. But God also put some other provisions in place.
“If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then they and their children are to be released, and they will go back to their own clans and to the property of their ancestors. Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God” (Lev. 25:39-43).
Here we see that a Jew could repay their debt though physical labor. But they were to be treated as household employees or indentured servants, not as slaves. In this way, adults or children could become slaves to pay debts (2 Ki. 4:1; Neh. 5:4-8).
“If any of your people—Hebrew men or women—sell themselves to you and serve you six years, in the seventh year you must let them go free. And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today” (Dt. 15:12-15; Ex. 21:1-4; Jer. 34:14).
Debt slaves were to be released after working six years or in the Sabbath Year or in the Year of Jubilee if that came earlier (Dt. 15:1-11). This meant that they could not be enslaved for more than six years. They were not to be perpetual slaves. The reason they were to be released was because God said, “the Israelites belong to me as servants. They are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt” (Lev. 25:55). The slave was to be released with provisions to ensure they didn’t fall straight back into debt. The NIV Bible calls this slave a “servant”, presumably because they are treated more like an employee than a traditional slave. As employees like servants don’t sell themselves to their employer, this is a form of slavery which I will call debt slavery. It is like a debt repayment scheme. After the work was done, they were freed. After all, Solomon said that“the borrower is slave to the lender (Prov. 22:7).
“But if your servant says to you, ‘I do not want to leave you,’ because he loves you and your family and is well off with you, then take an awl and push it through his earlobe into the door, and he will become your servant for life. Do the same for your female servant” (Dt. 15:16-17).
In this instance, we have a debt slave who is about to be released. Instead, they chose to continue working for their master or owner because of the good conditions and lack of oppression. This is a form of household slavery which I will call voluntary slavery. As noted earlier, the NIV calls this type of slave a “servant”. The hole in their earlobe was the sign of a voluntary Jewish slave.
Prisoners of war are captive to the victors (Num. 31:7-9; Dt. 20:14; 21:10). This is a form of slavery which I will call captive slavery. For example, the Jews were captives of the Babylonians. As the Israelites were not meant to enslave Canaanites and they didn’t usually get involved in distant wars, this would not have been a significant source of slaves in Israel. But when God used Israel to punish wicked nations, the survivors were often captive slaves. The Canaanites mentioned previously were captive slaves. Also, captured Ammonites were Israel’s laborers (2 Sam. 12:31). Such captives could be taxed by their new ruler and used to provide labor and military forces (2 Sam. 8:2).
The Israelites slaves were to come from other nations, not from Israel (Lev. 25:44-46). When the kingdom of Israel defeated Judah they intended to take the men and women as slaves (2 Chron. 28:5-15). But after they were confronted, the Judeans were freed. However, the Jews did have Jewish slaves when Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem and one of the reasons for the Babylonian captivity was that the Israelite salves had not been released after serving for six years, as God had commanded (Jer. 34:8-22).
Captive slaves were often penal slaves. For example, Israelite idolatry led to Philistine and Ammonite oppression (Jud. 10:6-10; 13:1). This captivity was part of God’s judgement of wickedness.
Rights and privileges
In all the above cases, the owners of Jewish slaves were commanded, “Do not rule over them ruthlessly” (Lev. 25:43, 46, 53). What a contrast to the cruelty of other nations in Biblical times and in world history!
The Jews were to give a foreign slave refuge and protect fugitive slaves rather than returning them to an owner (Dt. 23:15-16). Slaves were to share many of the privileges of others in the household. They were to rest on the Sabbath day and could eat the Passover if circumcised and celebrate Jewish festivals (Ex. 12:44; 23:12; Dt. 5:14; 12:12; 16:10-11, 13-14). A priest’s slave could eat of the offerings, which was prohibited for an employee (Lev. 22:10-11).
Although foreign debt slaves could be bought and owned as a person’s property and passed on to subsequent generations (Lev. 25:44-46), they were to be loved and treated as fellow citizens (Lev. 19:34; Dt. 10:19).
What about allowing a slave to be beaten (Ex. 21:20-21, 26-27)? Slaves were given similar rights to free citizens; the punishment for mistreating a slave was the same as for a free person. There were laws giving punishment if a slave was injured or killed and if a man slept with another’s female slave (Lev. 19:20-22). There was a penalty of death for kidnapping an Israelite into slavery (Ex. 21:16; Dt. 24:7).
What about forced marriages? Marriage contracts allowed a family to find a better life for their daughter (Ex. 21:7-11). In a world when most marriages were arranged by the parents, a young girl could be sold as a maidservant so she could be a potential wife or concubine in a wealthy family. The payment could be viewed as a bride price that was paid to the parents of the bride. She was adopted until the marriage was completed. If she became a concubine or wife in a wealthy family she would be better off than in poverty. In this case the woman was to be treated in the same way as any wife or concubine; she was not a sex slave. Whether or not she became a concubine or wife, her rights and privileges were to be protected.
When the Israelites were travelling to Canaan the Moabite and Midianite women enticed the Israelite men into idolatry and immorality (Num. 25:1-18). This resulted in a plague that killed 23,000 Israelites in one day (1 Cor. 10:8). God told the Israelites to take vengeance on the Midianites. So an army of 12,000 men killed all the Midianite soldiers and captured women and children (Num. 31:1-47). But Moses said that because it was the women who had caused the Israelites to sin, they must be killed and only the virgin women kept as the spoil of battle (Num. 31:18, 25-47). These women probably became household slaves; there is no evidence that they were forced into marriage. After all, it is recorded that there were slave girls in David’s household (2 Sam. 6:20, 22).
An Israelite could marry a foreign female prisoner of war if she was not a Canaanite (Dt. 21:10-14). The marriage was of a probationary nature because he could let her go wherever she wished if he was not pleased with her. However, he could not sell her as a slave. This form of captive slavery seems like forced marriage, but it would probably be better for the woman than slavery in a foreign nation. What would you rather be: a wife or a slave? The woman who was released from the marriage also seems to be better off than a slave because she could “go wherever she wished”.
Liberation from slavery
Slaves long for deliverance and release from slavery and suffering into a life of freedom and joy. Debt slaves could be released and redeemed by the payment of a ransom price. If girl slaves didn’t become a concubine or wife, they could be redeemed (Ex. 21:8). The value of a slave was 30 pieces of silver, similar to the amount paid to Judas Iscariot (Ex. 21:32; Mt. 26:15)!
God redeemed (freed) the Israelites from slavery in Egypt (Ex. 6:6; Dt. 7:8). Jeremiah predicted that God would also redeem them from captivity in Babylon (Jer. 31:11). If Jews were slaves to a foreigner living in Israel, they could be released in the Year of Jubilee or earlier if they were redeemed by a relative (Lev. 25:47-55).
God’s attitude to slavery in the Old Testament is like His view of divorce. Jesus said, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (Mt. 19:8). Both slavery and divorce were not God’s plan, but He gave practical ways to deal with them.
The Old Testament regulated “slavery” in Israel by removing the oppression, cruelty, exploitation and racism that is usually associated with it. Instead they were to be treated as employees and given opportunities for liberation. “Debt slavery” was a form of welfare, an employment contract that was a repayment scheme which saved the poor from starving and was so good that it could lead to “voluntary slavery”, which was a form of lifetime employment. “Penal slavery” and “captive slavery” were sentences for wickedness. In all these cases there was a loss of freedom for the good of the person and society.
So “slavery” in Israel was different to that in other nations. This type of “slavery” was different to what is usually called slavery, which makes it difficult to translate the Hebrew word “ebed” (Strongs #5650). As we don’t have an English word for it, many Bibles use the word “servant” instead of “slave”.
Slavery was an important part of Jewish history. Joseph was a slave who reached an exalted position. Jesus took “the very nature of a servant (or the humble position of a slave)” when on earth, but has now been exalted to the highest place (Phil. 2:7-9). The Jewish Passover was a celebration of their liberation from slavery in Egypt. The Lord’s Supper is a celebration of our liberation from slavery to sin.
So debt slavery as described in the Old Testament is largely an example of God’s compassion for the poor and disadvantaged people in their community.
Written, February 2013
Promise and judgment
Recently I was asked this question about the Bible: I was wondering, what about the parts of the Bible that say that God ordained for the Israelites to slaughter so many people. Yes, I understand that was God’s judgment on a wicked people, but that doesn’t explain slaughtering innocent children, and in some cases of wiping out a people. It seems inconsistent with a God who is against abortion and offers forgiveness to sinners. I agree that wholesale slaughter of nations seems incompatible with a God of love and mercy. It’s an argument that is often brought against the Old Testament.
The context of the Israelite invasion of Canaan begins with Abram who was in the 20th generation of life on earth. Abram was given many promises including that his descendants would be a great nation, the Jews who were God’s special people on earth. They were to be different and separate to the other nations: “you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be His people, His treasured possession” (Dt. 7:6NIV). The Israelites were given special laws to follow, including “You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices” (Lev. 18:2-3).
In the 10th generation, Noah cursed his grandson Canaan (Gen. 9:25), which was an act of divine judgment. As the Old Testament is an account of God’s dealings with the nation of Israel, we will see that Israel as God’s representatives on earth was to be involved with the judgment of the sins of the Canaanites.
When Abram travelled to Canaan, God told him, “To your offspring I will give this land” forever (Gen. 12:7; 13:15; 17:8; 1 Chron. 16:15-18). God confirmed this promise in a covenant: “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it” (Gen 15:7). The promise was repeated to Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses (Gen. 50:24-25; Ex. 6:8). This was an unconditional promise (Ps. 105:8-11). It was like a grant given by a king to a loyal subject.
What land would they receive? “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates— the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites” (Gen. 15:18-21). They were to be given the land of Canaan that was occupied by these nations.
When would this happen? “Know for certain that for 400 years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there (Egypt). But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions … In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure” (Gen. 15:13-16). So under the leadership of Moses, the Israelites would leave Egypt and travel to occupy Canaan. Note that the timing of being given the land was when the sin of the Amorites was fully developed. This is explained in Deuteronomy, “it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is going to drive them out before you” (Dt. 9:4).
Sins of the Canaanites
The Bible describes the wickedness of the Canaanite nations: “When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you” (Dt. 18:9-12).
Their sexual immorality is described in Leviticus 18 as detestable. The Israelites were told “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants” (Lev. 18:24-25). They were also warned against child sacrifice to the god Molek (Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5) and against religious prostitution (1 Ki. 14:24; Dt. 23:17).
So the Canaanites were characterised by extreme wickedness, like the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. They have been likened to a cancer in society. In such situations, God gives a warning of His judgment. In the days of Abraham they had the witness of Melchizedek the king-priest of Salem (Jerusalem) (Gen. 14:19-20) and the judgment of Sodom and Gormorrah (Gen. 19:1-29).
Before Jericho was destroyed, Rahab told the spies, “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. When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Josh. 2:8-11). They knew about God’s promise – the land grant – made over 400 years before and were fearful because of the exodus 40 years beforehand when the God of the Israelites defeated the Egyptians, who were the most powerful nation at that time. This fear had been predicted (Ex. 15:14-17). They also knew about the Israelites recent military victories. Most people would flee when their country was invaded by a stronger army (Jer. 4:29; 6:1). The Amorite and Canaanite kings were also afraid because they knew that God had dried up the Jordan river so the Israelites could cross over (Josh. 5:1). As the Israelite invasion would be gradual (“little by little”), the Canaanites had plenty of time to escape (Ex. 23:30; Dt. 7:22). So they knew what was coming and they could either repent of their ways or escape by migrating out of the land of Canaan.
God had promised that the Israelites would occupy the land of Canaan. When we look at how this is described in the Bible we see two kinds of words: the Canaanite nations were both “driven out” and “destroyed”. What does this mean? We see that the Canaanites had a choice, either migrate before the Israelites arrive or be executed. It was an eviction, not a genocide. This meant that the wicked Canaanite culture and nation was to be destroyed, but most of the people could be assimilated into the surrounding nations. Also, it was to protect the Israelites from being influenced by the Canaanite idolatry and wickedness.
For example, God said, “I will give into your hands the people who live in the land, and you will drive them out before you” and “I will wipe them out” (Ex. 23:23, 31). The people were to be banished or killed and their idols destroyed. To avoid idolatry, there were to be no treaties and intermingling: “Do not make a covenant with them or with their gods. Do not let them live in your land or they will cause you to sin against Me, because the worship of their gods will certainly be a snare to you” (Ex. 23:32-33). More detail is given in Deuteronomy and Numbers: “you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them” (Dt. 7:2-3); “drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images and their cast idols, and demolish all their high places. Take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess” (Num. 33:52-53); “in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the LORD your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God” (Dt. 20:16-18).
So the Canaanites were to be driven out of the land (Lev. 18:24-25) and those who refused to leave were to be executed as judgment of their wickedness and to minimise the chance of the Israelites catching their wicked ways. It was an expulsion, not an extermination. As some always escaped and migrated elsewhere, there were no instances of “wiping out a people”.
Later when the Israelites followed the idolatry of the Canaanites, they were also evicted from Canaan and deported to Babylon (Lev. 18:28)!
Was this fair? Was it consistent with the ways of God?
God’s revelation to those who have not heard the gospel
According to Paul, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Rom. 1:18-20).
This passage describes people like the Canaanites. They could see the works of God in the created world. A creation requires a creator, it can’t create itself, and it doesn’t happen by accident or just by the physical laws of this world. The immensity and magnificence of the created world requires a creator with power and knowledge that greatly exceeds those of humanity. This should be obvious. There is no excuse for not realising that a powerful being has made the universe.
However, people rejected and suppressed this truth and foolishly worshipped idols (Rom. 1:21-32). Their gods were created things instead of the One who created everything. This led to sexual immorality and other sinful behaviour. That’s why the Canaanites were under God’s wrath and judgment. God was fair, He had revealed Himself in His creation and then He waited 400 years while the Israelites were in Egypt. God was patient in judgment (2 Pt. 3:9). He allowed evil to run its course and allowed plenty of time for repentance. Instead of turning to God, the Canaanites turned to increased sinfulness. Physical death was one of the consequences of the sin of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:19). In this instance, people died prematurely during the Israelite invasion. This means of death discontinued after the Israelites were defeated and captured by the Babylonians. After their captivity, God’s people were not required to kill so they could occupy the promised land.
In the instance of Sodom and Gomorrah, God said he would not destroy these cities if there were ten righteous people there (Gen 18:32). As He enabled Lot’s family to escape this destruction and Rahab’s family to be protected at Jericho (Josh. 6:25), we can infer that all the Canaanites who died had rejected God’s revelation and decided to stay and oppose the Israelites.
What about the children?
We have seen that the Canaanite inhabitants, including children, were either driven out or killed to prevent intermarriage and idolatry (Dt. 7:3-4; 20:16-18). Otherwise, the children who were killed would have probably followed the ways of their parents who were the leaders and those deeply involved in the Canaanite culture.
Also, with respect to idolatry, God said He punishes “the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (Ex. 20:5; 34:7; Num. 14:18; Dt. 5:9). Here we see that children suffer the consequences of their parent’s actions, which is also the case today. For example, if parents are involved in crime or drugs or are alcoholics, it affects the lives of their children. As they lived in extended households, more generations of the Israelites and Canaanites were victims of their family circumstances than would be the case today. For example, Achan’s family were stoned because of his disobedience – the plunder was put under the family tent (Josh. 7:20-25). Household members share in the fate or fortune of the parents, like collateral damage in a war. The fate of the Canaanite children depended on whether their parents migrated out of Canaan or stayed there. On the other hand, Rahab’s family were saved because they were in her house when Jericho was destroyed – they shared in Rahab’s fortune. We should blame the parents and not God for the “slaughtering of innocent children”.
The Bible teaches that we are sinful from birth: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5; 58:3). We are all sinners (Rom. 3:10, 23). So children are never innocent in the sense of being sinless. This is serious because spiritual death is a bigger issue than physical death.
Three Bible verses teach that young children are not accountable for their sin. Firstly, when the Israelites rebelled and refused to enter Canaan, they were punished with all their army except Joshua and Caleb dying while they wandered 38 years in the desert. At this time God promised that their young children would enter Canaan, “And the little ones that you said would be taken captive, your children who do not yet know good from bad—they will enter the land. I will give it to them and they will take possession of it” (Dt. 1:39, Num. 14:31). Because they did not yet know good from bad, they were not responsible or accountable for the Israelites’ disobedience.
Secondly, when the king of Judah was being attacked by the kings of Syria and Israel, he was given a sign that his enemies would be defeated by Assyria. Isaiah was to have a son and before he “knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right” the land of the two kings will be laid waste (Isa. 7:14-16). Children who are not accountable do not know the difference between right and wrong or good and evil. They are not yet aware of their sinful condition or God’s cure.
Thirdly, when God rebuked Jonah, He similarly distinguished between children and adults,“And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” (Jon. 4:11).
At what age can a child respond to God’s revelation in creation (Dt. 1:39; Isa. 7:15-16)? It is the age at which they can understand the issue and respond to the work of the Holy Spirit in their life (Jn. 16:8-9). It is when they can recognise His works of creation and choose to accept, honour and thank Him (Rom. 1:21). Those who die at a younger age go to heaven rather than be condemned to spiritual death.
Jesus “is the atoning sacrifice for … the sins of the whole world’ (1 Jn. 2:2). As a loving and merciful God, it is reasonable to assume that He accepts Christ’s payment for the sin of those who are unable to understand God’s revelation and their sinful state such as young children. After all, Abraham said, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25). Once children reach the age of God-consciousness, they are accountable for their sin.
Lessons for us
What can we learn from this (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:6, 11)?
Clearly, Israel’s God was greater than the false Canaanite gods, showing that there is only one true God (Isa. 43:10-12).
God kept His promise to the Israelites. It was a unique time when God established His kingdom across Canaan for a period of about 800 years, which was a foretaste of His future promised kingdom over all the earth for 1000 years. Also, God has given Christians many spiritual promises in the New Testament which He will also fulfil.
God punished the extreme wickedness of the Canaanites. This reminds us that sin has consequences. It results in physical and spiritual death. The only remedy is that eternal life is available for those who accept Christ’s gift of salvation.
God warned the Canaanites of the coming invasion and gave them plenty of time to escape. Today, the gospel message goes out and God is patiently waiting for people to turn to him (2 Pt. 3:9).
Household members, including children, shared the fortunes of their parents. We need to realise that our actions can have consequences for others.
Canaan was Israel’s promised inheritance, which was gained by their faith and obedience and lost by their disobedience. After being rescued (redeemed) from Egypt, because of their backsliding, most of the Israelites died before they reached Canaan. They succumbed to the temptations and trials of this sinful world. Canaan symbolises our present spiritual inheritance. God has given us many spiritual promises in the Bible. By claiming these and living lives in obedience to Scripture, we will be rewarded in heaven at the Judgment Seat of Christ. Let’s resist the temptations and claim God’s promises like the Israelites who claimed Canaan. It’s not easy, but God has supplied our weapons including; the truth in the Bible, our righteousness, the gospel, our faith in God, God’s salvation, the Bible and prayer (Eph. 6:10-20).
God’s main aim was to destroy the Canaanite religion, not the Canaanite people. This was to protect Israel from idolatry and the sins that were associated with idolatry. Likewise, we are told to flee idolatry (1 Cor. 10:1-14). When we are tempted, God will also provide a way out so that we can endure it. Christians are to be separate from all forms of sin, wickedness and idolatry such as are practiced by unbelievers. We are to flee from these like the Jewish exiles fled from idolatrous Babylon (2 Cor. 6:17).
So this unique period in history reminds us that God keeps His promises and judges sin.
Written, October 2012