The Religion of the Canaanites

Was the command to exterminate the Canaanites a justifiable act on the part of God, who ordered it, or on the part of people, who partially, at least, obeyed it? Was the episode at variance with the character of God and his people? That it was inconsistent and unjustified both on God's side and humanity's has been so often asserted, that a consideration of the moral and religious character of the Canaanites is a question of utmost importance in solving the supposed theological difficulties that are commonly adduced.

Professor H.H. Rowley, for example, claims that the divine command to destroy the Canaanites in general, or Jericho and its inhabitants in kparticular, and similar episodes in the Old Testament are contrary to the New Testament revelation of God in Christ, and involve the erroneous thoughts of the writers or characters in question about God, which we can now no longer accept as true. Moreover, Rowley claims that such incidents of wholesale destruction contain that which is "spiritually unsatisfying" and involve "dishonoring God."

So, this divine command to exterminate from the face of the earth all men, women, and children belonging to the seven or eight nations of Canaan is one of the most frequently raised objections to seeing God as just and loving in the Old Testament. How can God's fairness and mercy be seen in such blanket and wholesale condemnation of entire nations?

All attempts to mitigate or tone down this command to totally wipe out the population are ruined on the clear instructions of texts like Exodus 23:32-33, 34:12-16, Deuteronomy 7:1-5, and 20:15-18. The presence of the term herem in the sense of "forced destruction" constantly was applied to the Canaanites and thus they are marked for extermination.

Once again we are back to the question, "Will not the judge of all the earth do right?" It is the question Abraham asked of God, just before He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. It would seem clear that the OT does uphold the justice and righteousness of God, even in this command to eradicate the Canaanites. (Of course, consider the question Job's friend asked in Job 8:3: "Does God pervert justice? Does the Almighty pervert what is right?" Job's reply, in Job 9, is, in essence "yes".)

To place the whole question in perspective, let the principle of Deuteronomy 9:5 be cited:

It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but onl account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Therefore, there is no attempt to establish a tacit or real moral superiority for Israel; the text informs us to the contrary in its explicit statements and narratives. The call of Yahweh cannot be traced to Israel's superiority in righteousness or numbers, "but it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which he swore to your forefathers." (Deut. 7:6-8).

Ronald Goetz, with some justification, wonders why it is, then, that "...Israel is helped in spite of her sins, while the Canaanites are destroyed because of theirs?" The answer does not like, as Goetz himself observes in the fact that Israel is vastly more righteous than the Canaanites, for that is indeed a semi-Pelagian Pharisaism (Pelagianism: a fifth century Christian heresy taught by Pelagius and his followers that stressed the essential goodness of human nature and the freedom of the human will. Pelagius was concenred about the slack moral standard among Christians, and he hoped to improve their conduct by his teachings. Rejecting the arguments of those who claimed that they sinned because of human weakness, he insisted that God made human beings free to choose between good and evil and that sin was voluntary. Celestius, a disciple of Pelagius, denied the church's doctrine of original sin. Pelagianism was opposed by Augustine, bishop of Hippo, who asserted that human beings could not attain righteousness by their own efforts and were totally dependent upon the grace of God. Condemned by two councils of African bishops in 416, and again at Carthage in 418, Pelagius and Celestius were finally excommunicated in 418; Pelagius' later fate is unknown [perhaps he changed his name to Robert Schuler]). The answer does not lie in the righteousness of Israel, but it does lie in the increasing degrees of guilt that Canaan accrued. Even Jesus appealed to this principle in dealing with a comparison of cities in his day as judged over against Sodom and Gomorrah (Mat. 10:15). There had been a patient waiting from Abraham's time "for the sin of the Amorite...[to reach] its full measure." (Gen. 15:16)

This is not to say that Israel was permitted or even ordered to treat all other nations the same way, for Deuteronomy 20:10-15 odrders them to offer conditions of peace rather than extermination to all otehrs. However, the verses that follow, namely 16-18, disallowed the same offer to be given to Canaan. In fact, the Hebrew wars with other nations (except Canaan) were designed to be only in self-defense.

Why then were the Canaanites singled out for such severe treatment? They were cut off to prevent Israel and the rest of the world from being corrupted (Deut. 20:16-18). When a people starts to burn their children in honor of their gods (Lev. 18:21), practice sodomy, bestiality, and all sorts of loathsome vice (Lev. 18:23, 24, 20:3), the land itself begins to "vomit" them out as the body heaves under the load of internal poisons (Lev. 18:25, 27-30). Thus, "objection to the fate of these nations ... is really an objection to the highest manifestation of the grace of God." Green likens this action on God's part, not to doing evil that good may come (though that does seem often to be God's methodology: the ends justify the means), but doing good in spite of certain evil consequences, just as a surgeon does not refrain from amputating a gangrenous leg even though in so doing he cannot help cutting off much healthy flesh.

But there is more. Green observes that "...We may object to God's doing immediately and personally what we do not object to his doing mediately, through providence. Now nothing is more certain than that providence is administered on the principle that individuals share in the life of the family and of the nation to which they belong; and that, consequently it is right that they should participate in its punishments as in its rewards....Though many innocent persons could not but suffer, it was right, because of the relation in which they stood to the guilty, that this should be so."

One more observation must be made here. Every forcast or prophesy of doom, like any prophetic word about the future except those few promises connected with the Noahic, Abrahamic, Davidic and New Covenants (which are unconditional and dependant solely on God's work of fulfillment), had a suppressed "unless" attached to them. At that moment that nation turns from its evil way and repents then at that time the Lord would relent and cease to bring the threatened harm (cf. Jer. 18:7-10). Thus Canaan had, as it were, a final forty-year countdown as they heard of the events in Egypt, at the crossing of the Reed Sea, and what happened to the kings who opposed Israel along the way. We know that they were aware of such events, for Rahab confessed that these same events had terrorized her city of Jericho and that she, as a result, had placed her faith in the God of the Hebrews (Josh. 2:10-14). Thus God waited for the "cup of iniquity" to fill up -- and fill up it did without any change in spite of the marvelous signs given so that the nations, along with Pharaoh and the Egyptians, "might know that he was the Lord."

The destruction of the Canaanites was on the same principle as the whole world was judged (except for eight persons) in the Deluge or the five cities of the plain (including Sodom and Gomorrah), or Pharaoh's army. Usually those who object to these events are those who deny any compatibility of the doctrine of eternal punishment of the wicked with the mercy and love of God.

God's character and the acts he requires are fully consistent with everything that both testaments would lead us to expect in our God. The problem usually centers in a deficiency in our view of things and our ability to properly define terms or grasp the whole of a subject.

Canaanite Morality (an oxymoron)

Despite the paramount import of Canaanite morality and religion in the realm of theology and general Biblical studies, little was known about the subject 70 years ago except taht which, on the one hand, could be gleaned from the Bible, which, however, was ample enough for faith and on the other hand, that which was preserved in the Graeco-Roman authors, which was meager enough from the scholar's viewpoint.

Philo of Byblos

The main source of knowledge about Canaanite religion before the new sources became available after 1930 (primarily the Ugaritic materials) was Philo of Byblos, the Greek name of ancient Gebal on the Mediterranean (Josh. 13:5, 1 Kings 5:18), forty-two miles north of Sidon. Philo lived around 100 AD. He was a native Phoenician scholar and gathered data for a historical work called Phoenikika or "Phoenician Matters", designated "Phoenician History" by later Greek scholars. According to Porphery and Eusebius, Philo translated the writings of an earlie Phoenician named Sanchuniathon, who was supposed to have lived at a very remote age, whom W. F. Albright placed between 700 and 500 BC. Sanchuniathon in turn supposedly got his material from one Hierombalus under Abibal, king of Berytus, who is said to have flourished before the Trojan War.

Ugaritic Poetry

The abstract of Phoenician mythology which has been preserved from Philo through Eusebius (like biblical notices on the same subject) used to be commonly regarded with suspician by critical scholarship and considered as mostly an invention by Philo, without any independent value as a source of knowledge of Phoenician religion. This skeptical attitude as disappered as a consequence of the recovery of religious epic literature of Ugarit on the north Syrian coast (1927-1937).

These significant poetical texts discovered by D.F.A. Schaefer in a series of campaigns have shown that the gods of Philo bear names in large part now well-known from Ugarit as well as from other sources. The Philo myths are characterized by the same moral abandon and primitive barbarity with fondness for descriptive names and personifications that are found at Ugarit.

The new sources of knowledge indicate little change in the content of Canaanite mythology between c. 1400 BC and 700 BC. Many details of Philo's account, not only in the matter of the names of deities, but in the mythological atmosphere as well are in complete agreement with the Ugaritic myths and late Phoenician inscriptions. Scholars are, therefore, justified in accepting, at least provisionally, all data preserved by Philo that do not involve subjective interpretation on his part.

The Canaanite Pantheon

As the myths of ancient Ugarit indicate, the religion of the Canaanite peoples was a crude and debased form of ritual polytheism. It was associated with sensuous fertility-cult worship of a particularly lewd and orgiastic kind, which proved to be more influential than any other nature religion in the ANE.

Canaanite deities, on the one hand, present remarkable fluidity of personality and function, so that it is often extremely difficult to fix the particular domain of different gods or to define their kinship to one another. Physical relationship, and even sex, change with disconcerting ease. This is one of the grossly irrational aspects of Canaanite religion, indicative of its corrupt nature. On the other hand, Canaanite deities have for the most part etymologically transparent names, a fact which seems to point to the Canaanite pantheon as representing a cruder and more primitive type of polytheism.

Miscellaneous epigraphic and literary sources reveal the names of the chief gods and goddesses of numerous Canaanite citaies in various periods. The Ugaritic deities are now best known because of the hundreds of religious texts dating from the fifteenth and early fourteenth century BC which were found in a library housed in a building situated between Ugarit's two great temples, one dedicated to Baal and the other to Dagon. The divinities which figure in the mythological texts from Ugarit were evidently not peculiar to the city, but were current among all Canaanites, since they brear only a vague relationship to the most popular deities worshipped in the city itself.


El is the name by which the supreme Canaanite deity is known. This is also a name by which God is called in the Old Testament -- El, the God (Elohim) of Israel (el elohe yisrael: Gen. 33:20). In most prose it occures more often with an adjunct: El Elyon (the most high God, Gen. 14:18), El Shaddai (traditionally, God Almighty, Gen. 17:1), El Hai (The living God, Josh. 3:10), and very commonly in the plural of majesty, Elohim. In Hebrew poetry El is much more frequent, where it stands quite often without any adjunct (Ps. 18:31, 33, 48; 68:21; Job 8:3).

The word El is a generic name for "god" in Northwest Semitic (Hebrew and Ugaritic) and as such it is also used in the Old Testament for heathen deities or idols (Ex. 34:14; Ps. 81:10; Is. 44:10). The original generic term was 'ilum; dropping the mimation and the nominative case ending (u) becomes 'el in Hebrew. It was almost certainly an adjectival formation (intransitive participle) from the root "to be strong, powerful" ('wl), meaning "The Strong (or Powerful) One."

In Canaanite paganism the el, par excelence, was the head of the panthon. As the god, El was, in accordance with the general irrationality and moral grossness of Canaanite religion, a dim and shadowy figure, who, Philo says, had three wives, who were also his sisters, and who could readily step down from his eminence and become the hero of sordid escapades and crimes. Philo portrays El as a bloody tyrant, whose acts terrified all the other gods, and who dethroned his own father, murdered his favorite son, and decapitated his own daughter. The Ugaritic poems add the crime of uncontrolled lust to his morbid character and the description of his seduction of two unnamed women is the most sensuous in ANE literature (much of Ugaritic literature is R rated at best).

Despite all this, El was considered the exalted "father of years" (abu shanima), the "father of man" (abu adami), and "father bull", that is, the progenitor of the gods, tacitly likened to a bull in the midst of a herd of cows. Like Homer's Zeus, he was "the father of men and gods."


Baal was the son of El, and the reigning king of the gods, dominating the Canaanite pantheon. As El's successor he was enthroned on a lofty mountain the the far northern heavens. Often he was considered to be "the Lord of Heaven" (Baal-shamem); but sometimes distinguished from the latter, as in Philo, Baal was the god of the rain and storm, whose voice could be heard reverberating through the heavens in the thunder. He is pictured on a Ras Shamra stela brandishing a mace in his right hand and holding in his left hand a stylized thunderbolt ending in a spear head.

In Ugaritic literature Baal is given the epithet Aliyan, "the one who prevails". As the giver of rain and all fertility, he figures prominently in Canaanite mythology in his struggle with Mot (Death), the god of drought and adversity. In his grapple with Mot, he is slain. As a consequence, a seven year cycle of scarcity ensues. Thereupon the goddess Anath, the sister and lover of Baal Aliyan, goes in search of him, recovers his body and slays his enemy, Mot. Baal is then brought back to life and placed on Mot's throne so that he ma insure the revival of vegetation for seven years. This is the central theme of the great Baal Epic of Ugarit.

Besides the king of the gods and the storm god, Baal was the god of justice, the terror of evildoers. He was also called "the son of Dagon", the grain god, who was athe cheif deity of Ashdod (1 Sam. 5:1-7) and who had temples at Ugarit and Gaza (Judges 16:23).

At Ugarit Baal's consort was his sister Anath, but at Samaria in the ninth century BC Ashera appears in that role (1 Kings 18:19). Different places at different periods arranged the pantheon somewhat differently, but the picture by and large was fairly stable. The name ba'al itself in Northwest Semitic (Hebrew, Phoenician and Ugaritic) is the common noun for "master" or "lord" and accordingly, like 'el, "strong one", could be applied to various gods. Actually, however, from an early period (by at least the 15th century BC) the ancient Semitic storm-god Hadad (Akkadian Adad) became "the lord" par excellence.


A combination of the sister and spouse of Baal, was one of a galaxy of three Canaanite goddesses whose character gives a hint of the depths of the moral depravity to which the Canaanite cults sank. The other two are Astarte and Asherah. All three were patronesses of sex and war -- sex mainly in its sensuous aspect as lust, and war in its aspects of violence and murder. The depraved character of Canaanite religion is indicated by the character of Anath. An Egyptian text of the New Kingdom period described Anath and Astarte as "the great goddesses who conceive but do not bear."

Another equally viscious characteristic of Anath worship was the fiendish savagery of the composite goddess. A fragment of the Baal Epic (II.7ff) shows her indulging in a massacre of old and young alike:

She smites the people of the seashore

Destroys mankind of the sunrise....

She piles up heads on her back

She ties up hands in her bundle....

Anath gluts her liver with laughter

Her heart is filled with joy.

Egyptian texts represented Astarte and Anath as goddesses of violence and war, showing them naked astride a galloping horse, waving weapons of battle.

Interestingly enough, Anath was given the epithet of "virgin" and "the Holy One" (qudshu) in her invariable role of a sacred prostitute. This term qudshu, "the Holy One" is related to the biblical term translated "holy". It is important to recognize that among Semitic poeples the idea of "holiness" was applied to anything that had been dedicated to the service of a deity. The moral connotation of the term is a later, derived, concept. Even in the OT, its usage is often just in the sense of "separated" to God.

Anath is represented often as a naked woman bestride a lion with a lilly in one hand and a serpant in the other. The lilly represented sex appeal and the serpant represented fertility.

The male prositutes consecrated to her honor were called qadesh (Deut. 23:18, 1 Kings 14:24, 15:12, 22:46). The feminine qedesha is also found (Deut. 23:18, Hosea 4:14)


The goddess of the evening star, was like Anath and Ashera concerned with sex and war and was not always clearly distinguished from them. In Egypt Anath and Astarte were even fused into one deity called Antart, while in later Syria their cult was displaced by that of a composite deity: Anat-Ashtart (Atargatis). Like Anath, Astarte was both a mother goddess and a divine courtesan, and she shares all the latter's moral turpitude. (She was also known as Ishtar in Persia, and the name Esther is a form of this word. Additionally, the English word "star" comes from this name).


She was the wife of El in Ugaritic mythology, and is the goddess who is also called Athirau-Yammi: "She Who Walks on (or in) the Sea". She was the cheif goddess of Tyre in the 15th century BC, and bore the appellation qudshu, "holiness." In the OT Asherah appears as a goddess by the side of Baal, whose consort she evidently became, at least among the Canaanites of the south. However, most biblical references to the name point obviously to some cult object of wood, which might be cut down and burned, possibly the goddesses' image (1 Kings 15:13, 2 King 21:7). Her prophets are mentioned (1 Kings 18:19), and the vessels used in her service referred to (2 Kings 23:4). The existence of numerous symbols, in each of which the goddess was believed to be immanent, led to the creation of numerous forms of her person, which were described as Asherim. The cult object itself, whatever it was, was utterly detestible to faithful worshippers of Yahweh (1 Kings 15:13), and was set up on the high places beside the "alters of incense" (hammanim) and the "stone pillars" (masseboth). The translation of asherah by "grove" in some translations follows a singular tradition preserved in the LXX and the Vulgate which apparently connects the goddess' image with the usual place of its adoration.


Mot means "death", and he was Baal's enemy. He is the god of the dead and all the powers that opposed life and fertility. He was the favorite son of El, and the most prominent enemy of the god Baal. Mot was the god of sterility and the master of all barren places. Traditionally Mot and Baal were perpetually engaged in a seasonal struggle in which Baal, like many similar harvest deities, was annually vanquished and slain. Mot, however, was annually vanquished and killed by Baal's sister and lover Anath, who thus aided Baal's resurrection.


Or Resheph (from Hebrew reshef, "the burner", or "the ravager"), an ancient West Semitic god of the plague and of the underworld, the companion of Anath, and the equivalent of the Bablylonian god Nergal. He was also a war god and was thus represented as a bearded man, brandishing an ax, holding a shield, and waring a tall, pointed headdress with a goat's or gazelle's head on his forehead. Resheph was worshipped especially at Ras Shamra (Ugarit), Byblos, and Arsuf (later Apollonia, near Yafo); under the title Mikal (or Mekal) he was also worshipped at Beth-shean in eastern Palestine and at Ialium in Cyprus. Resheph was usually believed to be related to Mot, the god of sterility and death, but he also seems to have been a god of well-being, plenty, and fertility, and in that respect he may have been a form of the god Baal.

Shulman (or Shalim)

The god of health. The name is related to the Hebrew word shalom, which means "peace" or "prosperity".

Koshar (Hothar)

The god of arts and crafts. He seems to be related to the Hebrew kosher, which means "fit" or "proper".

The General Character of Canaanite Cults

The Ugaritic literature has helped reveal the depth of depravity which characterized Canaanite religion. Being a polytheism of an extremely debased type, Canaanite cultic practice was barbarous and thoroughly licentious. It inevitably had a most serious retarding and debilitating effect on every phase of Canaanite cultural and community life. It was inescapable that people should gravitate to the moral level of the sordid gods they worshipped, or rather that the gods were a reflection of their society. "Like gods, like priest; like prist, like people" expresses a law that operates unfailingly.

Canaanite Cults Utterly Immoral

The brutality, lust and abandon of Canaanite mythology is far worse than elsewhere in the ANE at this time. And the astounding characteristic of Canaanite deities, that the had no moral character whatsoever, must have brought out the worst traits in their devotees and entailed many of the most demoralizing practices of the time, such as sacred prostitution, child sacrifice and snake worship.

Canaanite Cults Effete and Corrupt

Such an effete and corrupt religion could have no other than a devitalizing effect on the population. So vile had the practices of the Canaanites become that the land was said to "vomit out its inhabitants" (Lev. 18:25) and the Israelites were warned by Yahweh to keep all his statutes and ordinances "that the land," into which he was about to bring them, would not "vomit" them out (Lev. 20:22). The character of the Canaanite religion as portrayed I the Ugaritic literature furnishes ample background to illustrate the accuracy of these biblical statements in their characterization of the utter moral and religious degeneracy of the inhabitants of Canaan, wo were accordingly to be decimated and dispossessed.

The Character of the Canaanite Cults Justifies the Command to Destroy Them

It is without sound theological basis to question God's justice in ordering the extermination of such a depraved people or to deny Israel's integrity as God's people in carrying out the divine order. Nor is there anything in this episode or the devotion of Jericho to destruction that involves conflict with the New Testament revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

God's infinite holiness is just as much outraged by sin in the NT as it was in the OT, and the divine wrath is not less in the NT against those who refuse the forgiveness provided by Christ. Consider what Jesus said to and about the scribes and Pharisees who opposed him, the fate of Annanias and Sephira, or the rather apocalyptic judgments describe in Revelation.

The principle of divine forbearance, however, operates in every era of God's dealings with people. God awaits till the measure of iniquity is full, whether in the case of the Amorite (Gen. 15:16) or the antediluvians consumed by the Deluge (Gen. 6) or the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19). But God always gives a way to repent and avoid the judgment (consider God's words in Ezekiel 33, as an example -- "God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather, that the wicked turn from his evil ways.")

In the case of the Canaanites, instead of using the forces of nature to effect his punitive endes, he employs the Israelites to be his ministers of justice. The Israelites were apprized of the truth that theywere the instruments of the divine judgement (Joshua 5:13-14). In the light of the total picture the extermination of the canaaites by the Israelites was just and employment of the Israelites for the purpose was right. It was, frankly, a question of destroying or being destroyed, of keeping separated or of being contaminated and consumed.

Canaanite Cults Dangeroulsy Contaminating

Implicit in the righteous judgment was the divine intention to protect and benefit the world. When Joshua and the Israelites entered Palestine in the 14th century (or 13th), Canaanite civilization was so decadent that it was small loss to the world that in parts of Palestine it was virtually exterminated. The failure of the Israelites to execute God's command fully was one of the great blunders which theycommitted, as well as a sin, and it resulted in lasting injury to the nation (Judges 1:28, 2:1-3).

In the ensuing judgment the infinite holiness of Yahweh, the God of Israel, was to be vindicated saliently against the dark background of a thoroughly immoral and degraded paganism. The completely uncompromising attitude commanded by yahweh and followed by the leaders of Israel must be seen in its true light. Compromise between Israel's God and the degraded deities of Canaanite religion was unthinkable. Yahweh and Baal were poles apart. There could be no compromise without catastrophe.

W.F. Albright wrote:

It was fortunate for the future of monotheism that the Israelites of the conquest were a wild folk, endowed with primitive energy and ruthless will to exist, since the resulting decimation of the Canaanites prevented the complete fusion of the two kindred folk which would almost inevitably have depressed Yahwistic standards to a point where recovery was impossible. Thus the Canaanites, with their orgiastic nature-worship, their cult of fertility in the form of serpent symbols and sensuous nudity, and their gross mythology, were replaced by Israel, with its nomadic simplicity and purity of life, its lofty monotheism, and its severe code of ethics. In a not altogether dissimilar way, a millennium later, the African Canaaanites, as they still called themselves, or the Carthaginians, as we call them, with the gross Phoenician mythology which we know from Ugarit and Philo Byblius, with human sacrifices and the cult of sex, were crushed by the immensely superior Romans, whose stern code of morals and singularly elevated paganism remind us in many ways of early Israel. (Note: the Romans were apparently descended from Japheth, so their destruction of Carthage was a fulfillment of Gen. 9:27).