At the time of the conquest under Joshua, Canaan was a land of city-states, each king owned the land and distributed it as he wished. It was a feudal system, with each king independent and fighting each other. These once influential kingdoms were considerably decadent when Joshua began his campaign. The challenge was that each stronghold had to be conquered as a separate nation. However, the separate kingdoms united for retaliation against Israel, the five Amorite kings for example.
Archaeology has revealed a culture of fine arts and elaborate architecture. Pottery was renowned and a favourable geographical position encouraged trade with Egypt, Northern Mesopotamia and Cyprus.
The land was much coveted by the super-powers, either as an advance base for future expansion or as a base of resistance to counter or discourage any idea of invasion. At the time of the conquest (1400 - 1200 BC), Egypt was protecting Canaan, but was weak. The Tel El Amarna letters (clay tablets) record correspondence between Canaanite kings and Egypt regarding the threat of invasion. The invaders have been possibly identified as the Hebrew people.
The ethical problem raised by the genocide commanded by God can be answered by taking a closer look at the Canaanite religion.
Through archaeology, the second millennium BC Canaanite religious system has become notorious for its depravity. The Phoenician and Canaanite religions were almost identical. It was essentially a nature religion, in which the gods and goddesses were closely associated with the natural cycle of the seasons.
The religion was a crude and debased form of ritual polytheism, the sensuous fertility cult, involving worship of a particularly lewd and orgiastic kind. It proved to be more influential than any other nature religion in the Near East, ensnaring the nation of Israel.
Sacrifices were offered to the gods for two purposes: The first was to appease the god's wrath, an act of propitiation. The second was to to strengthen the god, to enable him to bless those who worshipped him. Prized gifts resulted in greater blessing from the god, particularly when first-born male children were sacrificed.
There were many gods, these were the main ones:
El with his consort Asherah
El’s son Baal with his consort Anat
Baal was in conquest with Mot, the god of misfortune)
The most important items in a Canaanite sanctuary were the altar, the stone pillar (male deity) and the wooden pole (female deity). These sanctuaries were on the tops of hills - the high places, which are often mentioned in OT. Canaanite religion appears also to have incorporated aspects of religion from the surrounding nations into its own worship, including Teshub-Hepa - the Hurrian storm god and consort; the Oriris/Isis cult from Egypt; Shamash the Sun god; Ishtar - the bloodthirsty goddess of love and war; and Tammuz - the fertility god from Mesopotamia.
The male deities
El was the original leader of the pantheon. El was a common name for a God and was used for any divine being, including the God of Israel (Gen 16:13, 21:33, 31:13, 35:7). El was a rather shadowy figure who was worshipped as "father of man" and the "father of years". He was the creator of creators and dwelt at "the source of the two deeps". His instructions were conveyed by messengers, to add to his remoteness. His consort was Asherat (wife), the counsellor of the gods, and known to the Israelites as Asherah.
The principal and more active deity was the fertility deity Baal (meaning: master, owner, lord, or husband), sometimes known as Haddu or Hadad, the god of rain and storm. Baal succeeded El as the head of the Canaanite gods. He lived in the lofty mountainous regions of the remote northern heavens. Statuettes portray him as the storm deity, wearing a short skirt and horned helmet (symbolising his strength and fertility), standing with a mace in his upraised hand and a thunderbolt at his left side. His titles included Zabul (Lord of the earth) and Aliyn (The One who prevails).
The name "Baal" normally described a local deity, together with a local name, for example: Baal of Peor (Num 25:3) or Baal-hermon (Judge 3:3). These were seen as gods of a locality, controlling the fertility of agriculture, beasts and mankind in that limited geographical area. Worship was needed to secure their favour, especially in a dry area like Palestine, with little rainfall and few springs. Baal also described the great nature god, sometimes referred to in plural (1 Kg 18:18). It was most significant that Elijah began his ministry of conflict with the prophets of Baal by declaring that it would not rain (1 Kg 17) - a direct challenge against Baal, the god of rain.
The Baal and Anat cycle described Baal's struggle with Mot, the deity of death, drought, barrenness and misfortune, who challenged the kingship of Baal. At the height of the summer drought (when the land was dying and parched), Baal had to yield to Mot and descend to the underworld realm and was slain. Anat, the consort of Baal, revenged herself by killing Mot, after which she planted his body in the ground. Baal then recovered and a period of prosperity followed, followed once more by the resurgence of Mot. This cycle reflected the alternation of the seasons in the agricultural year. This myth was acted out each year, with accompanying magic. The recovery of Baal and marriage to Anat was the most important event of the year. The worship involved grossly sensuous rites accompanying the sacred marriage in which ritual prostitution of both sexes was a prominent feature.
The female deities
It is difficult to distinguish between the different goddesses. There appear to be three goddesses, being forms of the great goddess of love, motherhood and war.
The names Astarte and Ashtoreth (plural Ashtaroth), meaning "Queen of heaven" appear to be used in the OT as a generic term for female fertility deities (1 Sam 7:3). Worship of these female deities was widespread over the ancient world up to Roman times, when they were known as Aphrodite (Greek), or Venus (Roman).
Asherah was the consort of El (1 Kg 18:19). Various cult objects and symbols were associated with the worship of Asherah, in which she was thought to reside. The most prominent appears to have been some object of wood such as the image of the goddess herself, which was erected beside the altars of incense and cone pillars of the Canaanite shrines. It was held in abhorrence by the faithful Israelites, who cut them down and burned them. In the KJV, the Hebrew name "Asherah" is rendered "grove", relating the cult object to the place it was worshipped.
Anat or Anath
The character of Anat shows the depraved nature of Canaanite religion. She was the sister and spouse of Baal. Anat was the goddess of love (fertility) and war. Both Anat and Astarte were described as the great goddesses who conceive but do not bear. Jeremiah's home town of Anathoth contains the name Anat. Anat lamented over Baal's descent to the underworld and took vengeance on Mot. This vengeance is described in terms appropriate to the harvesting, winnowing, roasting, grinding and sowing of corn. She make the autumn and winter seasons yield their fruits.
Cult objects such as lilies (representing sex appeal) and serpents (symbolic of fertility) were associated with the sensuous worship of Anat. Prostitution with extremely perverted sexual acts was a central part of the religious life. In contrast to Egyptian goddesses who were always clothed, Canaanite figurines were naked with exaggerated sexual organs. Vast number of these fertility figurines have been discovered in archaeological excavations.
Canaanite Religion - a stumbling block for the Israelites
It is easy to see how tempting it would be for the Israelites, used to a nomadic desert existence, only used to flocks and herds, to adopt the god and goddesses of the land, especially as the fertility and fruitfulness of the land appeared to depend on them. As the people settled to a more agricultural lifestyle, they felt the need to call on Baal to ensure that the rains would fall. It is also likely that the nomadic Israelites felt inferior to the well-developed society of the Canaanites. They continued to worship Yahweh, who was considered only as one of many gods, the god of Israel.
The sordid and debased nature of Canaanite religion stood in marked contrast to the high ethical ideals of Israel. The absolute lack of moral character in the Canaanite deities made such corrupt practices as ritual prostitution, child sacrifice and licentious worship the normal expressions of religious devotion and fervour. There could be no compromise between the morality of the God of Israel and the debased sensuality of Canaanite religion. Therefore God commanded the Israelites to utterly wipe out the inhabitants of the land. The failure of the Israelites to do this caused great problems for the next 1000 years as they intermarried with the Canaanites and attempted to worship both the Baals and Yahweh.
Molech or Moloch
Molech was a deity associated with Ammon (1 Kg 11:7), where it is described as "the abomination of the Ammonites". Worship of Molech involved child sacrifice, described as "making a son or daughter pass through fire as an offering to Molech" (2 Kg 23:10, also Jer 7:31, 19:5). Even kings of Judah were involved in this, Solomon built a high place for Molech east of Jerusalem (probably on the Mount of Olives) (1 Kg 11:7), others like Ahaz (2 Chr 28:3), and Manasseh (2 Kg 21:6, 2 Chr 33:6) were condemned for sacrificing their sons. Worship of Molech took place at places known as a "Topeth" (= "fire pit" in Syriac). One Topeth was in the valley of the son of Hinnom, SW of Jerusalem (2 Kg 23:10, Jer 32:35). Josiah was commended for destroying the high places of Molech during his reforms (2 Kg 23:10,13).
Chemosh was the god of the Moabites (1 Kg 11:7), where it is described as "the abomination of the Moabites". The Moabites were called the people of Chemosh (Num 21:29, Jer 48:46). Worship of this god also involved child sacrifice (2 Kg 3:27). Solomon erected a high place for Chemosh in Jerusalem (1 Kg 11:7), which was finally destroyed by Josiah (2 Kg 23:13).
Dagon was the god of the Philistines. Some people suggest that it was a sea god, half man and half fish. Otherwise it was a fertility god, the Philistine version of the Baals. The Philistines claimed that Dagon had given Samson into their hands (Judges 16:23), and rejoiced at the temple to Dagon in Gaza. When the Philistines capture the ark of the covenant from the Israelites, they placed it in the temple to Dagon in Ashdod (1 Sam 5:2). The presence of the ark caused trouble in Ashdod, including the destruction of the image of Dagon (1 Sam 5:3-5). Saul's head and armour were captured by the Philistines and placed in the temple to Dagon, before they were recaptured by the Israelites (1 Chr 10:10).