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Joshua 6:21 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
21 Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword.
Deuteronomy 2:34 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
34 So we captured all his cities at that time and devoted to destruction every city, men, women, and children. We left no survivors.
Deuteronomy 3:6 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
6 And we devoted them to destruction, as we did to Sihon the king of Heshbon, devoting to destruction every city, men, women, and children.
The Hebrew (נַעַר naar) here in Joshua 6:21 can refer to a child of any age from infancy, through weaning, to late adolescence (Ex 2:6; 1Sa 1:24; 2Ki 2:23). The Hebrew (טַף taph) in Deuteronomy is a different word, which refers to little children, that is, offspring that are very young, to the point that they are unable to walk long distances easily, nor has their moral values been fully developed at this age to know right from wrong. (Deut. 1:39). The historical record reveals that the men, women, children, old and young of the Canaanite cities captured by the Israelites were to be reduced to complete destruction. (Num. 21:1-3, 34, 35; Josh 6:20-21; 8:21-27; 10:26-40; 11:10-14) This has rightly brought about concern from Christians that the Hebrew Old Testament seems to be inundated with a sense of cruelty and senseless slaughter. The issue that should concern Christians, however, is whether God’s sovereignty (right to rule) over the earth and His created inhabitants is accepted or not. This is one of the top three Bible difficulties that will not satisfy all. There are unreasonable, irrational Bible critics that will never accept that God exists, miracles, supernatural powers beyond humans, who will reject reasonable, rational responses out of hand. Therefore, this explanation is not for them. Let’s deal with the destruction of the adults first, which would include the age of accountability (twelve) and older.
We begin by stating that the Canaanites, as archaeology and historical records show, were a vile, evil, abominable, wicked, hideous people, even to the point of child sacrifice. – Leviticus 18:21, 24-26.
Then, we must consider that God had shown patience with these vile people for 400-years. He had given them every chance to repent and change their ways, just as he had done with Nineveh that was also slated for destruction in the days of the prophet Jonah. However, Nineveh repented and was spared. Nevertheless, the Ninevites relapsed and again back into their evil vile ways again. And so, they too saw their destruction. The Canaanites had every chance to repent. God’s foreknowledge needs to be appreciated here. In Genesis, God had cursed Canaan and foretold that 400 years later the people of Abraham would take the land of the Canaanite for their egregious sin. This shows us that God had already foreseen what the people were going to be like 400-years in the future and that they had not heeded his warning.
The Bible says of God, “… with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” And reassuringly, God himself said: “For I, Jehovah, do not change” (James 1:17; Malachi 3:6, UASV)
13Though I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, yet if he trusts in his righteousness and does injustice, none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered, but in his injustice that he has done he shall die. 14Again, though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ yet if he turns from his sin and does what is just and right, 15if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has taken by robbery, and walks in the statutes of life, not doing injustice, he shall surely live; he shall not die.
Regardless of all that one has done throughout their life, it is their standing in God’s eyes at the time of the divine judgment, which God considers. Therefore, God goes on to say through Ezekiel,
14 Again, though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ yet if he turns from his sin and does what is just and right, 15 if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has taken by robbery, and walks in the statutes of life, not doing injustice, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 16 None of the sins that he has committed shall be remembered against him. He has done what is just and right; he shall surely live.
God is perfect and therefore does not make mistakes in his dealings with his creation. However, he can have a change of attitude or intention as regards how humans react to his warnings. God can go from the Creator of humans to that of a destroyer of them because of his unrepentant wickedness and failure to heed his warnings. On the other hand, if they repent and turn from their wicked ways, he can be compassionate and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in loyal love; and he will “reconsider” the calamity that he may have intended. (Genesis 6:6; Exodus 32:14; Joel 2:13) The account and prophetic words in Genesis concerning the future of Canaan were relative, not absolute. They were relative as to whether Canaan would continue on their course that would lead to their destruction.
We also need to not blame Joshua and the Israelites, as they were simply following the commands given by God. Therefore, if one wants to question anyone’s justification, it should go to the Creator of heaven and earth. In the case of the adults from the age of consent upward, it was a necessary action to destroy the people for the very reason God gave; they would be a bad influence and defile God’s people, leading them down the path to false worship. Another case of God’s foreknowledge comes true. This is exactly what happened because the Israelites did not destroy everyone.
Now, as for the killing of the little children, it is God’s foreknowledge that we do not possess, which allowed him to see what these ones would become later in life. If we recall, when God was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, which contained little children, Abraham took the angelic representative to task. “Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” Again he spoke to him and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” He said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” – Genesis 18:24-32.
The presence of God’s foreknowledge really does not prejudice anything about whether something will occur or not. Therefore, those who think that foreknowledge is incompatible with freedom are simply quite mistaken. What we need to understand is this, if little children were not to return to the vile, wicked ways of their forefathers; then, God would not have foreknown this because it would not have been on the timeline. In addition, as long as that statement is true, their returning to wickedness or not returning to wickedness, God’s foreknowledge does not prejudice anything with respect to their free will choice to later become a wicked vile people again.
God can see the timeline, similar to the way that a man in a helicopter looking down on a parade. Just as the man in the helicopter can see things before he gets to the spectators, so too, God can see down the timeline to things that have not taken place yet. God knew way back in Genesis 3:15 when it was prophesied that the serpent (Satan) was to bruise Jesus and that Satan’s agent for doing so was going to be Judas Iscariot.
Just because God has the ability to see down the timeline, this does not affect the Canaanites’ free will choice that was yet to come. Moreover, just s God would not have destroyed one righteous person in Sodom and Gomorrah, including little children, he would not have done so in Canaan. There just wasn’t found in the adults and in the future of the little children. In 1884, a priest was standing on the bank o a river when a four-year-old boy fell in and was sure to drown. The priest jumped in and saved the boy from certain death. If the priest had had God’s foreknowledge, he would have just let the little boy drown. Why? Because that little boy was Adolf Hitler. No one would challenge that as being imbued with a spirit of cruelty and wanton slaughter.