The Need to Respond to Apologetic Defenses of Biblical Genocide (Part 2)

In focus are common apologetic defenses of biblical genocide commanded by God.

Part 1 – God and Biblical Genocide: Critiquing Apologetic Defenses.
Part 3 – Genocide, the Problem of Canaanite Children, and Collateral Damage.

Many Christians committed to biblical inerrancy affirm the accuracy of biblical statements describing Yahweh commanding the genocide of the tribes in the land of Canaan or, according to Jewish belief, the Promised Land in ancient Palestine.

Inerrantists construct a framework of biblical interpretation that does not accept the possibility that Yahweh might not have communicated the commands ascribed to him by a biblical author. That view threatens to derail the inerrantist’s view that the Bible “is without error or fault in all its teaching“.

Rather than adjust views of biblical authority and inspiration, the inerrantist defends biblical genocide commanded by Yahweh. For most, these defenses are ethically and morally disturbing.

Apologetic defenses offered by William Lane Craig and Paul Copan are dubious as they appear to read into the biblical texts what is not there.

For example, Craig’s speculation is that the slaughtered Canaanite infants were sent into a pleasant afterlife. Instead, the biblical texts teach that these infants and their parents were viewed as devotional sacrifices to Yahweh. This is called herem and in these biblical texts includes men, women, and children. Nothing is mentioned of an afterlife in this context, which makes Craig’s defense appear problematic. This argument is revisited in this series.

Further, apologists justify moral atrocities that morally functioning human beings would condemn in any other instance. For example, the genocide of Jews in Nazi Germany, the Vietnamese in My Lai, and the Tutsi in Rwanda. These condemnations are obvious. But when the biblical texts are in focus, the same apologists will not condemn the biblical genocide of Canaanites described therein. The biblical and other genocides mentioned are similar in many aspects. This series argues that the Canaanite genocide is not unique and similar to other historical genocides.

It appears not unlikely, hypothetically, that if the biblical references to the Canaanites are exchanged with Tutsi many Christians would defend the Rwandan genocide as a moral good because Yahweh commanded it for whatever reason the biblical texts say he did. Critics argue that Yahweh commanding these acts put these sections of the Bible in obvious contradiction with the indisputable moral beliefs that certain acts like rape and murder are moral evils.

Apologetic defenses of Yahweh commanding genocide arguably undermine the faith of many Christians who, after reading such defenses, will view Yahweh as a particularly unpleasant and offensive God and the inerrantist defenses of them as distasteful and contrived. Many Christian scholars and theologians therefore consider approaching the issue in ways not dictated or constrained by inerrantist premises.

Unfortunately, church history has been complicit in moral crimes based on perceiving Yahweh as a violent God who demands sacrifice and blood. Jeremy Cott identifies the entanglement between the violence meted upon the tribes of Canaan and historical Christendom,

“When the Israelites invaded the land of Canaan, slaughtering the in-habitants (Jos. 11:20), raping women who were the mere booty of war (Dt. 20:14), putting whole towns to the edge of the sword, leaving “nothing that breathed” (Dt. 20:16; Jos. 11:11, 14; cf. 1 Sam. 15:3), they believed that they were the elect of God. When the Carolingians, led by Charlemagne in their project of Christianizing northern Europe, marched into Saxon territory, hanging 4500 people in a single day, they believed that they were the elect of God. The Crusaders, as we know, were animated by a similar inspiration” (1).

Theologian and ethicist John Howard Yoder recognizes that “for centuries, at least from the time of Augustine to the age of Enlightenment, mainstream Christians took for granted that the ancient Hebrew model does count as justification for Empire and genocide” (2).

Although this connection between biblical genocide and Christendom does not constitute an argument against an inerrantist interpretation of the Bible, they do indicate how Christians have behaved has been influenced by their interpretation of biblical scriptures. These texts are the same ones inerrantists defend today.

None of this suggests that Christians who believe Yahweh commanded genocide will go on killing sprees. The socio-historical context of the Middle Ages was vastly different from modern secular Western contexts today and does not legally allow violence to be committed against members of other faiths.

Critics nonetheless maintain that rejecting apologetic defenses of biblical genocide removes a powerful ideological repository of genocide rationalization, which is why responses to it are imperative (3).


1. Cott, Jeremy. 1984. “The Biblical Problem of Election”. Journal of Ecumenical Studies 21(2). p. 201.

2. Yoder, John Howard. 1992. “Texts that Serve or Texts that Summon? A Response to Michael Walzer”. Journal of Religious Ethics 20 (2):229-234. p. 230.

3. Rauser, Randal. 2009. ““Let Nothing that Breathes Remain Alive”: On the Problem of Divinely Commanded Genocide”. Philosophia Christi 11(1):27-41. p. 39.


  1. There seems to be a difference between Nationalism in Israel, and the universalism of Christianity based on the teaching of Jesus toward all people. Love, feed, forgive and pray for your enemy; compared to an eye for an eye.

  2. I agree with most of what you said, but you seemed to leave the elephant sitting in the living room, which is the lingering question: If we cannot trust what the Bible says about God commanding genocides and rapes, why should we trust it on anything else? Similar questions arise concerning slavery, which seems to be condoned in many Biblical verses, and no where specifically condemned in either the old or new testaments. Rationalizations by some apologists that Biblical slavery was more like indentured servitude; however, this seems belied by verses that seem to condone slaves being bought and sold, or saying that if a person beats a slave and they do not die in a day or two, they shall not be punished. Moreover, many slave holders once cited the Bible in their defense, just as some post-Biblical genocide committers used the Bible to justify their heinous actions. But again, if you say that we should disregard the apparent Biblical approval of slavery, why trust the rest of it? The excuse “those were different times,” which I’ve heard used to defend both slavery and genocides in Biblical times, seems quite lame, as if God adjusts his morality to a particular era.

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