Part 1 – New Blog Series.
Part 3 – Genocide, the Problem of Canaanite Children & Collateral Damage.
I wish to make it well known at this point that it is not my intention to undermine the faith of my fellow Christians. It might seem as if I am given that this series is likely going to challenge a number of assumptions Christians share. Rather, as a believer myself I wish for all of us to come to a better understanding of our faith, to grapple with the though moral and ethical questions within our often problematic scriptures, and thus find reasonable conclusions that are both biblical and God honouring. This is a tough order and one that I believe is important to undertake.
As I briefly hinted at in part one of this series, I don’t actually believe that God commanded the genocide of the Canaanites. This is a conclusion that I haven’t just sucked out of my thumb, so to speak, and as this series goes on I will reveal the several lines of evidence (biblical, theological, and ethical) that render this conclusion basically certain to me.
However, many of my fellow Christians, almost always committed to biblical inerrancy, really do think God commanded the genocide of the Canaanite tribes in Joshua and elsewhere. The reason is because inerrantists have so constructed a framework of biblical interpretation that the possibility that God might have not commanded or said something ascribed to him by a biblical author threatens to derail their entire system. Thus, rather than adjust their views of biblical authority and inspiration, their recourse is to try and defend biblical genocide on several grounds. We will examine a number of these given that I have found such defenses to not only be logically problematic but also ethically and morally disturbing. I am not the only apologist to view their conclusions in these ways, and will be making reference to a number of prominent Christian thinkers of whom I find provide compelling defeaters of the arguments presented by Christian defenders of biblical genocide.
Now, apart from the merely historical challenges and problems relevant to the Old Testament conquest narratives of Joshua, I find there to be several very relevant and important reasons to oppose apologetic defenses of biblical genocide.
Firstly, I find the defenses offered by the likes of William Lane Craig and Paul Copan as incredibly fanciful and speculative. They often read into the biblical text what isn’t there in order to support the points they raise, a hermeneutical flaw known as eisegesis. For example, William Lane Craig’s speculative view that the slaughtered Canaanite infants were heralded into a pleasant afterlife (as if this somehow lessons the nature of their terrible demise) clearly qualifies given the infants along with their parents were viewed as devotional sacrifices to Yahweh (known as “herem”), and nothing is ever mentioned about an afterlife in this context. To defend Craig’s view one must therefore read into the text what isn’t there which, to many, is illustrative of a desperate defense of his position. We will be examining this argument and its weaknesses in a later post to this series. Nonetheless, I find that Christian defenders of biblical genocide seem to do great injustice to the biblical texts.
The second issue is that defending divine biblical genocide is pastorally and spiritually destructive. What apologists do is attempt to justify the most heinous moral atrocities that they, and every other morally functioning human being, would unreservedly condemn in any other case. And I find many Christians to be incredibly inconsistent here. Unless their hearts are pure evil they outright condemn the genocide of Jews in Nazi Germany, the Vietnamese in My Lai, and the Tutsi in Rwanda. They do. But they don’t, however, condemn the genocide of Canaanites and hill tribes of Canaan because they find it in the Bible. In fact, it is amazing just how similar in many ways the genocide of the Tutsi was to that of Canaanites (we will also see that the Canaanite genocide is hardly unique and is justified by the biblical authors in the same way as the perpetrators of other historical genocides). It is also crazy to imagine that if we exchanged biblical references to the Canaanites with Tutsi that we’d actually have many Christians (pastors too!) going all out to defend the Rwandan genocide as a moral good (because they deserved it, or along similar lines) or on the basis of a really a troubling and problematic understanding of God’s sovereignty.
Thus, defending God as a commander of genocide puts the Bible in flat out contradiction with our indisputable moral beliefs that certain acts like rape and genocide acted out on real flesh and blood human beings are always moral evils. On the defenses offered by divine genocide apologists, struggling Christians, seekers, and believers in general will find the God they meet in the Old Testament biblical scriptures one of the most unpleasant gods in all religions. We can’t then be surprised when seekers turn away from Christianity, struggling Christians lose their faith, and long time believers fall into doubt. I must then object to biblical defenses of genocide because they have damaging effects on real people.
My other issue is one that stems from ecclesiastical history through how the church has been complicit in incredible moral crimes on the basis of viewing God in this way. Scholar Jeremy Cott best encapsulates the historic link between the violence in Canaan on the part of the Israelites and 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).
Similarly John Howard Yoder, a late theologian and ethicist, 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).
Many Christians within the church throughout history have appealed to the biblical precedent of divine violence as a means to justify heinous and morally evil actions. This is not at all to say that Christians like Copan and those who accept his arguments are going to pick up guns and go on a killing spree. Rather, the problem is that just as a morally problematic view of scripture has led to violence in the past so it can be done again tomorrow or sometime in the future. Thus, by rejecting apologetic defenses of biblical genocide we remove a powerful ideological repository of genocide rationalization (3).
Now, I believe many others could bring forth several more points to bolster my concerns as outlined above that I’ve perhaps missed or skipped over, but I think on the basis of these few considerations we can move forth in this series aware of the problems defending biblical genocide can have.
1. Cott, J. 1984. “The Biblical Problem of Election,” in Journal of Ecumenical Studies. p. 201.
2. Yoder, J. 1992. “Texts that Serve or Texts that Summon? A Response to Michael Walzer,” in Journal of Religious Ethics. p. 230.
3. Rauser, R. 2009. ““Let Nothing that Breathes Remain Alive”: On the Problem of Divinely Commanded Genocide,” in Philosophia Christi. p. 39.