Question: "Why did the Israelites take the Canaanites as slaves instead of destroying them as they were instructed?"
Answer: Joshua 17:12–13 notes, “The Manassites were not able to occupy these towns, for the Canaanites were determined to live in that region. However, when the Israelites grew stronger, they subjected the Canaanites to forced labor but did not drive them out completely.” Why didn’t the Israelites completely destroy the Canaanites as God had commanded?
Judges 1:27–33 also describes the failure of the Israelites to complete the conquest of the land through removing the Canaanites. Verses 27–28 states, “Manasseh did not drive out the people of Beth Shan or Taanach or Dor or Ibleam or Megiddo and their surrounding settlements, for the Canaanites were determined to live in that land. When Israel became strong, they pressed the Canaanites into forced labor but never drove them out completely.”
At the height of their power during this time, the Israelites made the Canaanites slaves rather than wiping them out. Perhaps the Israelites believed putting these people into forced labor was more beneficial than destroying them, though the text does not directly mention a reason. However, it is clear from Judges 2 that this decision was part of Israel’s disobedience that led to additional problems.
In Judges 2:1–3 the angel of the Lord delivers a message to Israel: “I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land I swore to give to your ancestors. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall not make a covenant with the people of this land, but you shall break down their altars.’ Yet you have disobeyed me. Why have you done this? And I have also said, ‘I will not drive them out before you; they will become traps for you, and their gods will become snares to you.’” These Canaanites would remain in the land and serve as enemies to the Israelites, a thorn in their side for years to come. The struggles recounted in the Book of Judges are the result of the incomplete obedience in the Book of Joshua.
It is clear that God did not choose Israel as His people because they were the most faithful but because of His love for them (see Deuteronomy 7:7–8). God chose to fulfill His covenant with Abraham and his descendants, bringing Israel into its land despite its many failures.
While it is easy to look back and note the weaknesses of the ancient Israelites, their example illustrates our need for God as well. Despite God’s many blessings, we fail Him, too. That is why God sent His perfect Son, Jesus Christ, to be the substitute for our sins. Through faith in Him, we can have a relationship with God today as well as eternal life (John 3:16; Ephesians 2:8–9).