Atheists are known for asking tough questions. That’s what they do. That’s what I did when I was an atheist. I would ask Christians a tough question, then mock them for whatever answer they gave me.

However, tough questions from Christian teens is different. They are already theists. They believe in the God of the Bible. They believe in Jesus Christ. So, when a Christian teen asks questions we need to give them the best answers we can.

That’s what we’re attempting to do in this series, Tough Questions From Christian Teens. We are talking with Christian teenagers and their parents or youth leaders in multiple communities to get some of the toughest questions they have about the God, the Bible, and Christianity.

This next question is one we hear often from atheists and Christians. It is a question that many young people have said led them to leave Christianity and become atheists.

How would you answer your teen if they asked this question? We hope our thoughts will help.

“God’s ordering the Jews to kill every living thing in certain cities (Deuteronomy 20:16-18): Is the above a correct understanding of scripture? If so, how was it right for them to kill the children that must have lived in a city so large?”

Great question!

This sounds pretty extreme, though we’ve seen some similar situations in our recent past (e.g. World War II bombing in Germany, atomic bomb in Japan, defeat of Isis caliphate in Iraq, etc) where it became necessary to destroy cities, villages, etc. because of extreme evil. Even though many believed the actions were justified, some thought what we did in World War II and with Isis was not ‘right’ because of the loss of ‘innocent’ life. That may be similar to your question about the killing of children in the Canaanite cities the Israelites would conquer.

So, how are we to understand something God commanded Israel to do thousands of years ago? We need to start from the beginning of the people groups in question.

Noah had three sons. One of them, Ham, had several sons including Canaan. There is an interesting situation mentioned in Genesis 9 where we first see Canaan mentioned – it includes a curse from Noah –

“And Noah began to be a farmer, and he planted a vineyard. Then he drank of the wine and was drunk, and became uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. So Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him. Then he said: ‘Cursed be Canaan; A servant of servants He shall be to his brethren.’ And he said: ‘Blessed be the Lord, The God of Shem, And may Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Japheth. And may he dwell in the tents of Shem; And may Canaan be his servant.”

Genesis 9:20-27

One important note here is that Noah specifically cursed his grandson Canaan and said that Canaan would be the servant of Shem. We’ll see how that plays into your question as we look deeper into the issue.

Canaan’s sons included Sidod, his firstborn, and Heth. From them came the Jebusite, the Amorite, and the Girgashite; the Hivite, the Arkite, and the Sinite; the Arvadite, the Zemarite, and the Hamathite. The term ‘Canaanites’ seems to include all of those mentioned in the family group. The border of the Canaanites “was from Sidon as you go toward Gerar, as far as Gaza; then as you go toward Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha.” (Genesis 10:15-19)


When you look at a map of those ancient areas it is the area from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River from the brook of Egypt to the Ugarit in Syria to the Euphrates. The word ‘Canaan’ has been found in the Elba Texts from about 2300 BC. The descendants of Canaan apparently moved west of Babel after God confused the languages at the Tower of Babel. Even as Nimrod, a grandson of Ham, took over Babel and areas east of Babel, Canaan, a son of Ham, brother of Cush and uncle to Nimrod, took over areas west of Babel. Both groups would have a big influence over Israel.

Now, concerning Noah’s prophecy that Canaan would be a servant to Shem. Shem was the lineage ancestor of the Israelites, which becomes of interest to your question about God commanding the Israelites to destroy cities of the Canaanites. We go to God’s call of Abram to get some background to that.

“Now the Lord had said to Abram: ‘Get out of your country, From your family And from your father’s house, To a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you And make your name great; And you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, And I will curse him who curses you; And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Genesis 12:1-3

Abram was a son of Terah who was from the lineage of Shem. Terah moved his family from Ur to Haran. He and his family worshipped some of the gods that people worshipped after God scattered the families at Babel. 

The gods of the Chaldeans (Ur) and the Assyrians (Haran) were similar, but often had different names. We know about some of the gods Terah and his family worshipped from Genesis 31 and 35 and Joshua 24. 

The Canaanites were polytheistic (many gods) and some of them are mentioned by name in the Old Testament including Baal, Asherah, Ashtoreth, Molech, Dagon, Chemosh, and Tammuz. 

As we research these ancient gods of the Canaanites we learn how evil and wicked they were. Much of the people’s beliefs centered around fertility worship that mixed human sexuality with agricultural cycles of planting and harvesting. Worship included acts of violence, drunkenness, sexual promiscuity, incest, sodomy, and beastiality. One of the worst aspects in worship of the Canaanite gods was child sacrifice. Molech was a primary god for sacrificing children. 

An interesting note about the sin of ‘sodomy’ is that the name comes from the Canaanite city of Sodom. That’s where Abram’s nephew Lot moved his family. God told Abram about His plan to destroy Sodom and another Canaanite city, Gomorrah. Abram was concerned about his nephew and family living in Sodom, so he bargained with God. You can read about that in Genesis 18. You can read about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19, including saving Lot and his daughters from destruction.

God called Abram to leave Haran and move his family to “the land of Canaan.” When they arrived in Canaan they arrived at Shechem, “as far as the terebinth tree of Moreh.” That’s where God appeared to Abram and said – “To your descendants I will give this land.’ And there he built an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him.” (Genesis 12:7) 

Abram moved to the mountain east of Bethel and pitched his tent with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. As we look at ancient maps we get a good picture of Abram’s journey from Haran to Shechem to Bethel. Bethel and Ai were located several miles north of Jerusalem. 

God told Abram that He would give the land of the Canaanites to his descendants –

“… from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates— the Kenites, the Kenezzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.”

Genesis 15:18-21

Something very interesting happened as God was making His unconditional covenant with Abram that pertains to what we’re looking at now. God told Abram – 

“Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years. And also the nation whom they serve I will judge; afterward they shall come out with great possessions. Now as for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a good old age. But in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”

Genesis 15:13-16

We know that the nation that would afflict the descendants of Abram was Egypt, but the Amorites are also mentioned in the same verse. Notice that God said Abram’s descendants would return to the land “in the fourth generation” .. “for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” 

Going back to what we saw in Genesis 10, the Amorites came from the lineage of Canaan –

“Canaan begot Sidon his firstborn, and Heth; the Jebusite, the Amorite, and the Girgashite; the Hivite, the Arkite, and the Sinite; the Arvadite, the Zemarite, and the Hamathite.” 

The next time we see the Amorites mentioned is in Genesis 14 when kings were battling each other. The Amorites were described as dwelling in Hazezon Tamar. 2 Chronicles 20:2 identified Hazezon Tamar as En Gedi, which was located about 35 miles southwest of Jerusalem. 

The Amorites were a warrior people, as were many other peoples of that time. As Jacob was on his deathbed in Egypt he said this to his son Joseph – 

“Then Israel said to Joseph, ‘Behold, I am dying, but God will be with you and bring you back to the land of your fathers. Moreover I have given to you one portion above your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Amorite with my sword and my bow.”

Genesis 48:21-22

Notice the prophecy that God would bring Joseph and his brothers (the Israelites) “back to the land of your fathers.” That was the land of Canaan.

The Amorites worshipped other gods and their wickedness was great. However, at the time of Abram, the iniquity of the Amorites was “not yet complete.” It would be many years before that time of completed iniquity would come – a time determined by God since the Amorite iniquity was against Him.

It may also be helpful to remember that Amorite children grew up to be Amorite adults whose iniquity would continue to worsen. The Amorite iniquity God spoke about to Abram would be ‘completed’ hundreds of years later when God spoke to Moses and Joshua. Using the term ‘children’ in an argument can mislead unless we consider the history of a people, especially in light of how they sinned against God. The iniquity of the Amorites God spoke about to Abram and the iniquity of the Amorites God spoke about to Moses and Joshua occurred over a period of hundreds of years and several generations.

That time finally came and God called to Moses from the burning bush – 

“And the Lord said: ‘I have surely seen the oppression of My people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows. So I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land to a good and large land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites and the Hittites and the Amorites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites. Now therefore, behold, the cry of the children of Israel has come to Me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Come now, therefore, and I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring My people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.”

Exodus 3:7-10

When Moses and the Israelites left Egypt and were in the wilderness, God explained more about His plans for the Amorites and others in the promise land –

“But if you indeed obey His voice and do all that I speak, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries. For My Angel will go before you and bring you in to the Amorites and the Hittites and the Perizzites and the Canaanites and the Hivites and the Jebusites; and I will cut them off. You shall not bow down to their gods, nor serve them, nor do according to their works; but you shall utterly overthrow them and completely break down their sacred pillars.”

Exodus 23:22-24

Notice that God said He would “cut them off.” God told the Israelites not to bow down to or serve their gods or do according to their works. That covered all of the abominable things the Amorites and other Canaanite peoples were doing.

What was Israel to do? “… you shall utterly overthrow them and completely break down their sacred pillars.” God not only didn’t want Israel to participate in worshipping the false gods of the promised land, He also wanted Israel to utterly overthrow them and completely break down their sacred pillars. The spiritual wickedness was a primary purpose God had in having His people overthrow the Canaanites. Wickedness and violence came from their spiritual worship of false gods. The iniquity of the Amorites had become complete and God would use His people, Israel, to deal a blow to their terrible sin against Him.

Previous Tough Questions

You can read answers to other tough questions from Christian teens here.

Next Time

In the next part of our special series, Tough Questions From Christian Teens, we will continue to address the question of  whether it was right for Israel to kill children.

Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.