We focus on common apologetic defenses of biblical genocide, and why they do not succeed as providing a rational justification for God commanding genocide.
Part 1 – New Blog Series.
Part 3 – Genocide, the Problem of Canaanite Children & Collateral Damage.
Many Christians, almost always committed to biblical inerrancy, think God commanded the genocide of the Canaanite tribes. Inerrantists have 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 view of biblical inspiration.
Rather than adjust their views of biblical authority and inspiration, the inerrantist’s recourse is to defend biblical genocide. Such defenses are logically problematic and ethically and morally disturbing. Let’s begin by observing several of these issues.
Defenses of biblical genocide offered by apologists like William Lane Craig and Paul Copan are fanciful and speculative. They read into the biblical text what is not there to support points they raise, a hermeneutical error called eisegesis. William Lane Craig’s speculative view that the slaughtered Canaanite infants were sent into a pleasant afterlife qualifies. Rather than reading into the text this pleasant notion of an afterlife, we actually discover that the infants and their parents were viewed as devotional sacrifices to Yahweh (known as herem). Nothing is ever mentioned of an afterlife in this context. Craig reads into the text what isn’t there which can strike one a desperate defense of his obviously morally problematic position. This argument will be revisited again in this series.
Second, apologists justify the most heinous moral atrocities that they (and the rest of us), as morally functioning human beings, would, condemn in any other case. Apologists will condemn the genocide of Jews in Nazi Germany, the Vietnamese in My Lai, and the Tutsi in Rwanda. This they do, but they will not condemn the biblical genocide of Canaanites because it is in the Bible. It is striking just how similar the genocide of the Tutsi is to what we read of the Canaanites. This series will argue that the Canaanite genocide is hardly unique and is justified similarly to other historical genocides. It is striking to think that if one exchanged biblical references to the Canaanites with Tutsi, there would actually be many Christians defending the Rwandan genocide as a moral good. Defending God as a commander of genocide puts the Bible in contradiction with our indisputable moral beliefs that certain acts like rape and genocide are always moral evils.
Apologetic defenses of God commanding genocide will crush the faith of many Christians who, in reading such defenses, will come to see the God of the Old Testament as one of the most unpleasant figures in all religions. Little surprise then that some religious seekers turn away from considering Christianity. If Christians want to defend their faith and make their scripture appeal to readers, interpretations of biblical genocide need to be rethought and articulated, not defended.
Ecclesiastical history has been complicit in moral crimes based on viewing God as a violent figure who demands blood. Jeremy Cott captures the link between the violence in Canaan 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).
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).
Clearly how Christians have behaved in the world has been much influenced by their interpretation of scriptures speaking of a violent and bloodthirsty God. They have appealed to the biblical precedent of divine violence as a means to justify their morally evil behaviors. This is not to suggest that Christians today who believe God commanded genocide are going to go on a killing spree. But it is to say that the threat remains that some believers, like some of their fellow Christians in the past, might be inspired to commit violence based on their reading of scriptures speaking of divine violence. By ejecting apologetic defenses of biblical genocide we remove a powerful ideological repository of genocide rationalization (3).
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.