Judges can be a disturbingly dark and tragic book. We see the people of God sliding into apostasy, becoming like the pagans they were told to destroy from out of the land.
But the book of Judges really begins in Genesis, for that is where we have the record of Canaan’s cursing after Ham’s sing against his father, Noah (Genesis 9:20-28). The Canaanites became the inhabitants of the land God promises to Israel, and throughout Genesis and Exodus, the people who descended from Canaan persecuted the people of Israel and engaged in unimaginable wickedness.
The question before we get into the book of Judges proper is simply this, Why would God insist upon killing every last Canaanite? (Deuteronomy 7:1-6, 20:16ff.) All because their fore-father, Ham, looked upon a naked, drunk Noah? Not only that, God commanded the destruction of everything: man, woman, child, and even animals.
Those are important questions to ponder because skeptics raise those commands of God as a reason why He shouldn’t be worshiped. Anytime modern, Islamic atrocities by jihadists are perpetrated, critics will say God’s OT commands to destroy the Canaanites is really no different. God is basically commanding the genocide of innocent people critics will argue.
Yet is that truly the case?
Back in Genesis 15:12-16, God gives a unique prophecy to Abraham. He tells him,
12 Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, terror and great darkness fell upon him.
13 God said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years.
14 “But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve, and afterward they will come out with many possessions.
15 “As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a good old age.
16 “Then in the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.”
Note verse 16 that speaks to the iniquity of the Amorites not yet being completed, or full. The word “Amorites” is also a general description of the Canaanites. It is all of those nations and tribes living in the land promised to Israel. According to God’s word, Abraham’s people would not be brought in the land until the iniquity is full. What would essentially be another 650 years, over half a millennium.
Fast-forwarding to the time immediately before the conquest, God says through Moses in Deuteronomy 9:1-6 that Israel was being brought into the land specifically as a military instrument of divine judgment against those nations. Verses 4 and 5 state,
4 “Do not say in your heart when the LORD your God has driven them out before you, ‘Because of my righteousness the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,’ but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is dispossessing them before you.
5 “It is not for your righteousness or for the uprightness of your heart that you are going to possess their land, but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD your God is driving them out before you, in order to confirm the oath which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
God describes those nations as practicing wickedness, or evil.
So the question is, what sort of wickedness? What exactly were their iniquities God was judging?
Idolatry. Idolatry reflected their religious beliefs. The Canaanites believed the forces of nature are expressions of divine presence and activity. In order to prosper in their daily lives, such as raising animals, crops, having families, or gain victory in military conquests, the right god had to be identified. Their worship was designed to encourage that particular god to favor the person or people. Elaborate rituals and ceremonies were enacted to appease that god and to bend its will toward the tribe or nation.
El was the head god. He was a powerful father figured, but was impersonal and had no real interest in human affairs.
His wife was Asherah, who was also worshiped. She was something of an environmental mother nature figured who was worshiped in groves of trees, particularly evergreen trees, that were planted and cultivated for the purpose of creating a sacred site. When there was revival in Israel, one of the first things done to drive out the false gods was to cut down the groves or burn the Asherah.
Baal was their son who became the storm god, the one who brought rain and crops. He threatened El and was said to have struggled victoriously against the gods of the sea, the rivers, and death. After defeating his foes he took Asherah (at his father’s behest) as his consort. Their incestuous relationship produced his sister, Anat.
It was believed the rain was Baal’s semen that fertilizes the earth. Hence, the rituals of the Canaanites would dramatize that myth and were highly sexual. To engage in the idolatry of the Canaanites was best described in Scripture as “whoring after other gods.”
Incest. Because Baal commited incest with his mother, his sister, and even his daughter, it became a practice of the Canaanite culture. Recall Lot’s daughters who committed incest with him. They were raised in the influence of a Canaanite region called Sodom and Gomorrah.
Adultery. As I noted, Canaanite religion involved sexual rituals, many of which that employed the use of temple prostitution. The story of El committing adultery with two goddesses became a ritual that was to be repeated five times by the company and the singers of the assembly gathered to worship.
Child Sacrifice. One of the more disturbing elements of the Canaanite worship was the sacrifice of children to Molech, the Canaanite god of the underworld. He was pictures as an upright, bullheaded idol with a human body. Basically a minotaur. The belly was designed as a furnace. A child would be laid upon the outstretched arms of the image. It wasn’t only infants, but children as old as four would be roasted alive on that demonic idol.
Historian, Plutarch, who allegedly witnessed one of those horrifying services, describes how the whole area before the statue was filled with a loud noise of flutes and drums so that the wailing children agonizing in the heat could not reach the ears of the people.
Homosexuality and Bestiality. There is no surprise those two depraved acts would occur because their gods practiced those perversions. The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is evidence of the practice of homosexuality.
Now we understand why God was bringing judgment upon Canaan. The Canaanites were not innocent cabbage farmers minding their own business. Their culture was utterly depraved. They performed wickedness that is in some respects even worse than the atrocities done in our modern day in areas controlled by ISIS. That is why God outlines those sins in Leviticus 18 and declares them as terrible abominations.
Sadly, as we will see in Judges, Israel began to adopt those practices when they fell away from their covenant faithfulness to the LORD.