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 again in Part 5 and the criteria used to determine what constitutes a genocide, it helps to offer a brief definition now:
The term “genocide” derives from two words: the Greek word genos (race, kind) and the Latin word cida (killer). Genocide typically means the killing of a particular race or people. Intentionality is an important feature. Genocide is an intentional, deliberate act on behalf of some agent (an individual, group, or population) carried out for specific means that the agent justifies.
Some acts leading to death are disqualified as being genocide. For instance, if a school of 100 children is set aflame because of the error of an electrician fixing the circuitry leading to the death of all the children, it would not be considered genocide. It was not the electrician’s intent to kill the children and he did not attempt to justify their deaths. It was an accident that ended tragedy and had no intentionality behind it. By contrast, if a man with a gun walked into the school and opened fire killing everyone, it would constitute genocide. The pupils were deliberately targeted for some reason, whether that be their ethnic, racial, and/or cultural identity, or religious beliefs.
Genocide is a moral evil everywhere it is committed, which most would think is an intuitively obvious moral fact any right functioning person should accept.
An Unfortunate Consequence?
There is no greater difficulty for those defending the Canaanite genocide than the fact 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 (1 Sam. 15:3). What are some justifications for this?
One argument is from “collateral damage.” The deaths of children and infants are considered to be unavoidable collateral damage in a just war. For instance, if a military intends to destroy a group of terrorists hiding in a village, and the only recourse is to bomb the village, then the death of children is an unfortunate consequence of the action used to achieve a just end. The children are collateral damage.
But is this an adequate justification for defending genocide? Critics argue not. One reason is that killing all children and infants in a war is avoidable. The Israelites are explicitly commanded to exterminate the children and infants along with their parents. This is very different from having children get in the way of one’s efforts. The biblical narrative indicates that the extermination of the children and infants is part of the original divine commands and is, therefore not “collateral damage.”
Canaanite Children as a Threat to Israel
Apologist 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. He also argues that killing them would 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).
Craig claims that to allow the Canaanite children to live, the Israelites would be perpetuating their abhorrent and wicked culture, which would have been a source of temptation for Israel threatening to lead them astray from God.
There are several reservations, however. It is not immediately clear, for example, that the Canaanite children would have perpetuated their allegedly wicked Canaanite culture. It certainly seems plausible that the younger Canaanite children and infants could have been reared in Israelite culture and be assimilated.
Craig’s claim that killing the children “served as a shattering, tangible, illustration of Israel’s being set apart for God” is questionable. Is this really what it takes to be set apart for God? Did Israel being set apart mean that they had to partake in the indiscriminate killing of infants to the infirm? More reasonable it is to think that being set apart by God would have Israel distinguishing themselves from their neighbors by exercising compassion and love, not genocide.
Craig then speculates of a glorious afterlife for the murdered 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 is just an attempt to make the morally unpalatable palatable. There is a lack of biblical support for Craig’s view especially since nowhere in the Old Testament texts speaking of the Canaanite genocide is there an indication that the exterminated would enjoy a glorious afterlife. There is little discussion of heaven and hell in the Pentateuch suggesting that ancient Israel at the time had little notion of the afterlife. An afterlife was surely not on Joshua’s mind or that of the biblical authors.
1. Craig, W. 2007. Slaughter of the Canaanites. Available.