Here we will focus on common apologetic defenses of biblical genocide and the justifications given for them, and why they do not succeed as providing a rational justification for God’s commanding genocide.
Although we look at a more specific definition of genocide a little later in part 5 of this series as well as the criteria one employs to determine what constitutes a genocide, it would be best to provide a brief precursor of what it is as we begin this series.
The term “genocide” derives from two words: the Greek word genos (race, kind) and the Latin word cida (killer). Genocide thus typically means the killing of a particular race or people. Intentionality is an important feature of genocide. This simply means that genocide is an intentional, deliberate act on behalf of some agent (an individual, group, or population) that is carried out for specific means however justified. In this way some acts are disqualified as genocide. For example, if a school of 100 school children is set aflame as a result of an error on the part electrician working on the circuitry and all the pupils succumb to the flames, it would not qualify as genocide. Why? Because it was not the electrician’s intent to kill the school children. It was an accident that ended in a great tragedy. However, if a gunman walked into the school and opened fire killing everyone for a specific reason then it would constitute genocide. The pupils in this case were deliberately targeted for some reason, whether that be their ethnic, racial, and/or cultural identity, or religious orientations.
Now, genocide is a moral evil, everywhere and anywhere it is committed. This I take to be a moral fact that is intuitively obvious, and one that any functioning human being should agree on.
An Unfortunate Consequence?
There is almost no greater difficulty in accounting for the Canaanite genocide than the fact that in the mix were children. The biblical texts explicitly state that along with the rest of the Canaanite and Amalekite populations the children must too be exterminated (1 Sam. 15:3). What are some of the common justifications for this?
One is the argument from “collateral damage.” However, that the death of the Canaanite infants and children should be considered “collateral damage” in a “just war” should not be accepted as an adequate explanation. In this sense “collateral damage” is an unfortunate consequence but one that is both necessary and unavoidable. For example, if an army wants to destroy a group of extremely dangerous and bloodthirsty terrorists hiding in a village, and the only recourse is to bomb the village in which they are hiding, then the death of children is an unfortunate, sad consequence of the action used to achieve a just end.
However, independent of one’s personal views of this reasoning, it is not compatible with the Old Testament narratives of genocide. Why? Because the Israelites are explicitly commanded to exterminate the children along with their allegedly wicked parents. This is quite contrary to charging into a village and having children get in the way, rather, the slaughter and extermination of the children is part of the original divine intention and commands, hence not mere “collateral damage.”
Canaanite Children as a Threat to Israel.
Philosopher William Lane Craig argues that the Canaanite children posed a threat to the future of Israel as a people set apart for God. He argues that allowing them to live would be dangerous, and that slaughtering them would even 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).
He argues that by allowing the Canaanite children to live the Israelites would be perpetuating their abhorrent and wicked Canaanite culture. This would have continued to be a source of temptation for Israel, threatening to lead them astray from God. However, this strikes one as quite unlikely. Most obvious is that it is not immediately clear that the Canaanite children would have perpetuated their Canaanite culture. In fact, it would seem more plausible that the younger Canaanite children and infants could have been brought up within Israelite culture and assimilated as a result.
The second point of concern is in Craig’s claim that killing the children “served as a shattering, tangible, illustration of Israel’s being set apart for God.” Is this, however, really what must be done to be set apart by God? Was Israel’s being set apart suggestive that they had to undertake in wholesale and indiscriminate slaughter of populations from the infant to the infirm? In fact, to the contrary, being set apart by God, by which Israel was to distinguish themselves from their neighbours, ought to have been an exercise is advocating compassion and love, not genocide!
Craig then goes on to speculate of a glorious afterlife for the slaughtered 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.”
This, however, seems to be clutching at straws through an attempt to make the unpalatable as palatable as possible. There is an obvious lack of biblical support for Craig’s view especially given that nowhere within the Old Testament texts chronicling the Canaanite genocide are there any instances suggestive that the exterminated would enjoy glorious afterlife. In fact, there is little discussion of heaven and hell in the Pentateuch which is suggestive that ancient Israel at the time had little notion of the afterlife. Rather the Pentateuch presents a Covenant between Yahweh and the people of Israel in which “earthly” success (good crops, long life, healthy livestock, military success, and numerous children) is promised to the obedient, and in which the disobedient are threatened with the opposites. Thus, little, if nothing, is known of “heaven’s incomparable joy” and their perspective on life, while obviously not “naturalistic” in the contemporary sense, is certainly an “earthly” one.
1. Craig, W. 2007. Slaughter of the Canaanites. Available.