- The Biblical accusation against Canaanite religion and ban on inter-marriage
The overarching Biblical accusation against the Canaanites is that they were guilty of ‘abominations’. Amongst those abominations was that of human sacrifice – specifically child sacrifice, Deuteronomy 12:.32: ‘…for every abominable act which YHWH hates they have done for their gods; for they even burn their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods.’ Again, in chapter 18:9ff, we read of the practices of the Canaanites in relation to infant sacrifice:
When you enter the land which YHWH your God gives you, you shall not learn to imitate the detestable things of those nations. 10.There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, 11.or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. 12.For whoever does these things is detestable to YHWH; and because of these detestable things YHWH your God will drive them out before you.
It is clear from these texts that the Canaanite religion was occultic in nature, and involved child sacrifice. From what is stated in Leviticus 18.21ff, it is appears that alongside child sacrifice, the Canaanites also practised homosexuality and bestiality:
You shall not give any of your offspring to offer them to Molech, nor shall you profane the name of your God; I am YHWH. 22.You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination. 23.Also you shall not have intercourse with any animal to be defiled with it, nor shall any woman stand before an animal to mate with it; it is a perversion. 24.Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled. 25.For the land has become defiled, therefore I have brought its punishment upon it, so the land has spewed out its inhabitants.
It also appears that that the Canaanites practised temple prostitution (of both sexes), Deuteronomy 23.17-18, cf. Genesis 38:21, 1 Kings 14.24: ‘There were also male cultprostitutes in the land. They did according to all the abominations of the nations which YHWH dispossessed before the sons of Israel.’ There is a further implication in Leviticus 18 that the Canaanites practised incest, with the possible implication of paedophilia:
6.None of you shall approach any blood relative of his to uncover nakedness… 7. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, that is, the nakedness of your mother. She is your mother; you are not to uncover her nakedness… 9.The nakedness of your sister, either your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether born at home or born outside, their nakedness you shall not uncover. 10.The nakedness of your son’s daughter or your daughter’s daughter, their nakedness you shall not uncover; for their nakedness is yours.
The very fact that the Israelites are commanded not to have sexual relations with their grandchildren may point to a ban on paedophile activity. What is significant is that v3 begins the passage with this injunction: ‘nor are you to do what is done in the land of Canaan where I am bringing you; you shall not walk in their statutes.’ Furthermore, v24, warns that the Canaanites practised these abominations: ‘Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled.’ Essentially, Leviticus 18 bans Israelites from performing sexual activities common to the Canaanites – and these included adultery, incest and probably child molestation. After all, if the Canaanites thought it right to sacrifice children, they probably would not have balked at sexually abusing them.
Thus, according to the Bible, Canaanite religion was devoid of ethical content. Harrison describes it as a ‘crude and debased form of ritual polytheism. It was associated with sensuous fertility-cult worship of a particularly lewd and orgiastic kind…’This, as we have seen, involved the use of sacred prostitutes.Wenham quotes G. E. Wright on this issue: ‘The amazing thing about the gods … in Canaan, is that they had no moral character whatsoever… Worship of these gods carried with it some of the most demoralizing practices then in existence. Among them were child sacrifice…’
Such was the depravity of Canaanite religion, they were to be destroyed and no inter-marriage with them was permissible (save for people like Rahab who had already gone over to the side of YHWH):
When YHWH your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you,2 and when YHWH your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.3 You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons,4 for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of YHWH would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.5 But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and chop down their Asherim and burn their carved images with fire.
Given that Rahab and her family were taken into Israel, it is clear that the ban on inter-marriage was not ethnic, but religious. Canaanite religion and culture was not simply polytheist – it was sexually abusive, not least to children, and also abusive in that it practised child-sacrifice. Remember that it was no new cult but centuries old – an entire civilisation was committed to its values. It was irreformable, as were its people. Even its children were infected with its values – they were like ‘the Cubs of the Caliphate’ under the Islamic State group (IS) who actually participated in executions and boasted of their murderous intent. Again, unlike IS, the Canaanite culture and religion was centuries old, and the children thereof would have been infected with their religious, sexual and murderous depravity, and been a continual threat to both the spiritual and physical well-being of Israelite children.
To some extent, albeit perhaps not so great, such depravity also affected certain peoples neighbouring Palestine, e.g. 2 Kings 3: ‘26 When the king of Moab saw that the battle was going against him, he took with him 700 swordsmen to break through, opposite the king of Edom, but they could not.27 Then he took his oldest son who was to reign in his place and offered him for a burnt offering on the wall. And there came great wrath against Israel. And they withdrew from him and returned to their own land.’ From the Moabite Stone of King Mesha, which is dated c. 840 B.C., we know that their vernacular was very similar to the Canaanite language. It confirms that their god (or chief god) was Chemosh. Judges 11.23-24 indicates that Chemosh was also a god of Ammon. In 1 Kings 11.7 we read: ‘Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites…’ The same terminology ‘abomination’ is used for these two gods as for the religion and practises of the Canaanites, indicating the nature of their religion. In Numbers 25 it is implied that the Moabites also worshipped Baal – unless they identified Chemosh with him, perhaps. Deuteronomy 23 is clear about relations with Moabites and Ammonites, which affected marital relations – unless, of course, individuals from those nations forsooktheir religion for YHWH (e.g. Ruth):
3 “No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of YHWH. Even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of YHWH forever,4 because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. 5 But YHWH your God would not listen to Balaam; instead YHWH your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, because YHWH your God loved you. 6 You shall not seek their peace or their prosperity all your days forever.
The Phoenicians, of course, were exactly the same people as the Canaanites in Palestine, and worshipped the same gods, principally Baal. The Aramaeans worshipped Rimmon, who was identified with Baal. The Midianites were not a single people but were at most, a tribal league dwelling in the region called Midian: …‘they are also related to or associated with the Edomites, Kenites, Ishmaelites, Hagarites and Kenizzites while there are at least connections with Amalekites and Moabites, and perhaps with Ammonites. All in all, they are an amorphous and complex grouping.’Along with ethnic diversity, there was also religious distinction. Jethro seemed to have worshipped YHWH in some way. The reference to Baal-Peor in Numbers 25 suggests that some Midianites at least worshipped Baal. The context suggests that such worship involved sexual immorality:
While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab.2 These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods.3 So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of YHWH was kindled against Israel.4 And YHWH said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people and hangthem in the sun before YHWH, that the fierce anger of YHWH may turn away from Israel.”5 And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you kill those of his men who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor.”
6 And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel, while they were weeping in the entrance of the tent of meeting… 16 And YHWH spoke to Moses, saying, 17 “Harass the Midianites and strike them down, 18 for they have harassed you with their wiles, with which they beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of the chief of Midian, their sister, who was killed on the day of the plague on account of Peor.”
Note that Israelites who committed whoredom with the Midianites were executed. The words of v18 imply that the Midianite women seduced the Israelites into both immorality and idolatry: the two were inter-connected – the idolatrous worship of Baal involved sexual immorality.
We will continue this discussion in part 2.
Harrison, Old Testament Times, p. 167.
Ibid., p. 168.
Wenham, John, The Goodness of God, (Leicester: IVP), p. 126, quoting Wright, G. E., and Filson, F. V., The Westminster Historical Atlas to the Bible, (London: 1945), p. 36.
Dumbrell, William J., ‘Midian: A Land or a League?’, Vetus Testamentum, Vol. 25, Fasc. 2, No. 2a. Jubilee Number (May, 1975), p. 323.