The Problem of Canaanite Children and Collateral Damage (Part 3)

In focus are common apologetic defenses of biblical genocide and the justifications given for them.

Part 2 – Why Christians Need to Respond to Defenses of Biblical Genocide.
Part 4 – We Don’t Understand the “Depravity” of Sin.

In part 5, criteria used to determine what constitutes genocide are produced. However, in this section, a brief definition is helpful.

The term “genocide” derives from two words: the Greek term genos (race, kind) and the Latin cida (killer). Genocide is generally understood to therefore be the extermination of a particular race, culture, or people. Genocide is intentional because the act is deliberate on behalf of an agent (an individual, group, or population) comitted for a specific reason that the agent justifies.

Some acts leading to death are disqualified as genocide. If a school of one-hundred children is set aflame because of an error of an electrician fixing the circuitry and this leads to the death of all the children, it is not considered genocide. The electrician had no intent to kill the children and justify their deaths or why he did so. It was an accident that ended in tragedy.

However, if a man holding a gun walks into the school and opened fire killing everyone, it would constitute genocide. The pupils were deliberately targeted for a reason, whether that be their ethnic, racial, and/or cultural identity, or religious beliefs.

Genocide is considered a moral evil when it is committed.

An Unfortunate Consequence

There is an obvious difficulty for apologetic defenses of Yahweh commanding Canaanite genocide because children and infants were involved. The biblical texts state that along with the rest of the Canaanite and Amalekite populations, the children must also be exterminated. According to First Samuel, Yahweh commands:

Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys” (15:3).

What justifications are offered for Yahweh’s command?

The argument from “collateral damage” states that the deaths of children and infants were unavoidable collateral damage in a just war. If an army intends to destroy a group of terrorists hiding in a village and the only option is to bomb the village, then the death of children and infants is an unfortunate consequence of this action used to achieve a just end.

Is this an adequate justification? The critics disagree and argue that killing children and infants in a war is avoidable. Rather, the Israelites in the biblical texts are explicitly commanded to exterminate the children and infants along with their parents. This extermination of the children and infants is part of the original divine commands which undermines the collateral damage defense.

Canaanite Children as a Threat to Israel

William Lane Craig argues that the Canaanite children posed a threat to the future of Israel as a people set apart for God. Allowing them to live would be dangerous and also argues that killing them will have beneficial effects,

“God knew that if these Canaanite children were allowed to live, they would spell the undoing of Israel. The killing of the Canaanite children not only served to prevent assimilation to Canaanite identity but also served as a shattering, tangible illustration of Israel’s being set exclusively apart for God” (1).

To allow the Canaanite children to live would be the Israelites perpetuating the Canaanite’s abhorrent and wicked culture. This would have been a source of temptation for Israel threatening to lead them astray from Yahweh.

In response, it is not immediately clear that the Canaanite children would have perpetuated the allegedly wicked Canaanite cultural customs. It is not implausible that Canaanite infants and younger children could have been reared in Israelite culture and assimilated.

Craig’s assertion that killing the children “served as a shattering, tangible, illustration of Israel’s being set apart for God” is problematic. Is this really what it takes to be set apart for God? Did being set apart mean that Israel had to partake in the indiscriminate killing of the elderly, men, women, children, infants, as well as animals? Being set apart by Yahweh would have Israel distinguishing itself from its neighbors because of compassion and love, not genocide.

Craig speculates a glorious afterlife for the exterminated infants and children,

“Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation. We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy. Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.”

There is a lack of biblical support for this view because Old Testament texts do not refer to the exterminated Canaanites enjoying a glorious afterlife. Further, there is a scant discussion of the afterlife heaven in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) which indicates that ancient Israel at the time had an underdeveloped notion of an afterlife. An afterlife was not on the Israelite’s mind when they exterminated the Canaanites.


1. Craig, William Lane. 2007. Slaughter of the Canaanites. Available.


  1. One suspects that tales of Yahweh were “colored in” by ancient Israelites who were eager to interpret invading armies, or deadly acts of nature (such as famine or disease), as acts that were instituted by their national deity, Yahweh. Faced with horrors the ancients interpreted them by imagining that their tribal or national god was communicating His “displeasure, wrath, anger and/or jealousy.”

    Even when the ancient Israelites were the aggressors, committing atrocities on surrounding peoples they claimed they were merely obtaining more land because Yahweh was “giving them” such land, and imagined Yahweh was “pleased” with such behavior and had “blessed” them with victory. They gave Yahweh the “praise” when their conquests were successful, but whenever things took a turn for the worse they tried all the harder to standardize and centralize worship to try and quell what they imagined was Yahweh’s “displeasure.” Such “coloring in” was commonplace. After Babylon was plundered by Assyria the next king of Babylon interpreted the invasion as a punishment sent by Babylon’s own high god to teach his people a lesson:

    “[The citizens of Babylon] had oppressed the weak, and handed the weak into the power of the strong. Inside the city there was tyranny, receiving of bribes, people plundering each other’s things, sons cursing fathers in the street, slaves cursing masters, they put an end to offerings [to the gods], they laid hands on the property of the temple of the gods, and sold silver, gold and precious stones… Marduk [the high god of Babylon] grew angry and devised evil to overwhelm the land and destroy the peoples”–c.f., W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (Oxford U Press 1960), p. 5.

    At other times ancient Near Easterners were dumbfounded when their national deity seemed to have let them down during times of suffering. Their national deity remained silent, leaving people with nothing but lamentations. Think of Job, or the Psalmists’ cries for Yahweh to not keep his face hidden, or lamentations. And compare this…

    A Hittite Plague Prayer Offered by the King

    Hattian Storm-god, my lord, and ye, Hattian gods, my lords! A plague ye have let into the land. The Hatti land has been cruelly afflicted by the plague. For twenty years now men have been dying. As for me, the agony of my heart and the anguish of my soul I can no longer endure. When I celebrated festivals, I worshiped all the gods. I never preferred one temple to another. The matter of the plague I have laid before all the gods in prayer, making vows to them (and saying) “Hearken to me, ye gods, my lords! Drive ye forth the plague from the Hatti land! The reason for which people are dying–either let it be established by an omen, or let me see it in a dream, or let a prophet declare it!” But the gods did not hearken to me and the plague got no better in the Hatti land. The Hatti land was cruelly afflicted. Hattian Storm-god, my lord, (and) ye gods, my lords! It is only too true that man is sinful. My father sinned and transgressed against the word of the Hattian Storm-god, my lord. But I have not sinned in any respect. It is only too true, however, that the father’s sin falls upon the son. Because I have confessed my father’s sin, let the soul of the Hattian Storm-god, my lord, and (those) of the gods, my lords, be again pacified! Take pity on me and drive the plague out of the Hatti land! Suffer not to die the few who are still left to offer sacrificial loaves and libations!

  2. Are you serious? No, I am sure you are, but is William Lane Craig? At one and the same time he Claims the Canaanites were so terribly evil that they must be exterminated to protect Israel, and in the next move he sends all the Canaanite children to heaven? At what age does Craig’s free pass end?

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