Why was God so intolerant of Canaanite religion?

Given the value our culture places on religious tolerance it can be very difficult for us to accept the intolerance we find attributed to God in the Old Testament. Why was God so negative towards Canaanite religion back in ancient times? Why did he forbid Israelites to mix with it? Why did he pass the death sentence on those who practiced it within the boarders of the Promised Land? Surely a God who issued such judgements cannot be just?

We can find this God very difficult to understand. Surely these judgements, judged by our standards, were the epitome of injustice? But before we rush to judgement it is important to get the full story. Before we take offence at judgements cherry picked from the Old Testament it is important to understand the context in which they were written. For if time is taken to read the Old Testament more fully, one may encounter the following verses:

Deuteronomy 18:10
Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft,

2 Kings 10-11
He desecrated Topheth, which was in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, so no one could use it to sacrifice his son or daughter in the fire to Molech.

2 Kings 17:17
They sacrificed their sons and daughters in the fire. They practiced divination and sorcery and sold themselves to do evil in the eyes of the LORD, provoking him to anger.

Psalm 106:37
They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to demons.

Psalm 106:38
They shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, and the land was desecrated by their blood.

Ezekiel 16:20
And you took your sons and daughters whom you bore to me and sacrificed them as food to the idols. Was your prostitution not enough?

Why was God so intolerant towards Canaanite religion, and towards Israelites who indulged in it? Because, amongst other things, he wanted to smash the system of human sacrifice embedded within it. Unjust? Or just karma?

5 thoughts on “Why was God so intolerant of Canaanite religion?

  1. I think at least part of the context of God forbidding Canaanite worship practices was that the nation of Israel was intended to be “a light to the nations” showing the righteousness and wisdom of God to the whole world.
    Isaiah 51: 4 “Listen to me, my people;
    hear me, my nation:
    The law will go out from me;
    my justice will become a light to the nations.
    And Deuteronomy 4:5 See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. 6 Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” 7 What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him? 8 And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?’
    Israel wouldn’t really have been much of an example to anyone if it had adopted child sacrifice and other dreadful superstitions of the Canaanites.
    I’m not surprised God found such practices abhorrent.


  2. fascinating, i’ve just blogged on this a few days before you. http://tinyurl.com/lnvbf9
    i’d love to hear your thoughts on the sermon i preached. i was really unsure whether it was a topic that should be preached, as it’s certainly not gentle jesus meek and mild. yet i think it’s a topic that should be addressed (thinking of your “new christians post” a few weeks ago,


  3. Steve, this sounds very similar to the interpretation of John Howard Yoder, an Anabaptist theologian, ethicist and pacifist whom I greatly admire.
    Similar to Barrett, Yoder draws attention to the “God will fight for us” sayings of the Old Testament, acknowledging the God as Warrior motif inherent within them, but highlighting how they place the emphasis on God acting, rather than humans acting. The implication being, it is unfaithful for the anointed ones of God to move ahead of God and take war into their own hands.
    So, when we come to the comparisons some draw between contemporary abortion and ancient child sacrifices to Molech, when we contemplate possible links between holy war and the abortionist assassinations, I think there is a question we need to contemplate very seriously: does vigilantism equate to taking things into your own hands?
    I am very much inclined to say yes, vigilantism is unfaithful.
    But could a prophet order it? In theory I suppose so, but this would be to ignore a very important thing. Yoder sees the crucifixion-resurrection as the climax to the holy wars of the God of the Israelites. In Jesus we see a king who epitomizes faithfulness; trusting God to the death rather than making war. So who are we to make war on abortionists? Can we think of a greater prophet than Jesus?
    If we take this line of thinking to its conclusion, I think we are left with this: it may be a capital crime in God’s sight, but that’s for God to judge, not us.


  4. Plas Jaramillo said… As you read the Prophet Books in the Bible, one can discern that He desires a wholehearted relationship with His people, i.e., no equivocation or “half-wayness.” If you are “cherry picking” from the world system; you essentially insult God. He judged His people Israel for going to the Egyptians for help instead of Him. Sooooo… to we must serve Him and Him only. Praise God! Hallelujah!!


  5. Plaido, whilst I agree with you broadly, I’d like to add some nuance lest readers confuse the borrowings of “religious syncretism” (which the prophets spoke against) with the borrowings of “gospel contextualisation” (which the apostles practiced). You see, I see evidence in the Bible that God is open to borrowing BUT ONLY SO FAR as it aids communication of his distinctiveness. By way of example I would offer Acts 17, where Paul favourably quotes some Pagan philosophers, in order to make his witness to Jesus and the resurrection more understandable. I also see evidence of borrowings from Pagan culture in Genesis in the development of the polemic against polytheism and pagan-style imperialism. What’s clear in both these cases though is God stays in the foreground, without equivocation. Borrowings which deminish God however, these we must indeed stand firm against.


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