We focus on common apologetic defenses of biblical genocide and argue that they do not succeed as providing a rational justification for God commanding genocide.
A common justification of the Canaanite genocide is what we term “irredeemable” or “reprobate” culture. The Canaanites were so morally corrupt and degenerate that they were beyond redemption, thus providing a rationale for extermination. According to apologist Paul Copan,
“So Yahweh fought on behalf of Israel while bringing just judgment upon a Canaanite culture that had sunk hopelessly below any hope of moral return…Yahweh issued his command in light of a morally-sufficient reason – the incorrigible wickedness of Canaanite culture” (1).
Copan argues that the only answer to such a culture is mass extermination. There are a number of details we should consider, however.
First, we would want justification for this assertion. Making an argument for why genocide of any population group is morally permissible is, to put it mildly, an exceptional argument. What justification is there that the Canaanites were the most morally degenerate people? Some apologists point to the moral atrocities committed by the Canaanites as evidence of their degenerate nature. An objection, however, is that the Canaanites were hardly, if at all, any worse than the other civilizations in their ancient world. Wesley Morriston agrees writing that there “is nothing uniquely “Canaanite” about them. All, or nearly all, of these practices—from sexual intercourse during a woman’s menstrual period to homosexual behavior to bestiality—are still common. Is there any real reason to believe that these things were more common among the Canaanites in the ancient world?”
More likely it is that the biblical authors are deliberately depicting their Canaanite enemies in a negative light, thus portraying them in a way that is not entirely fair. One should remember that the Israelites were the supposed exterminators of the Canaanites and we only have their testimony bearing witness to the Canaanites themselves. We have to rely on the killers of the Canaanites to learn about the Canaanites. Should it surprise us that they might be unfairly represented in the texts of their killers?
One of the contributions of critical approaches to the biblical texts is to observe the propagandist character of the accounts. According to Morriston, the Old Testament texts should not by themselves be,
“sufficient to convince those who are not already committed to believing that whatever the OT says about the Canaanites must be true. After all, the only historical record of the conquest of Canaan that we have was written by the victorious party in a war of conquest, and it is hardly surprising that they thought that their actions were fully justified, and that they were sanctioned by the God they worshiped.”
According to Old Testament scholar Peter Enns, the biblical descriptions of the Canaanites are “an exaggeration for the purpose of painting their enemies in a negative light – let’s call it “hamartiographic hyperbole” (hamartia = sin). In modern language, propaganda–which the authors euphemistically refer to as “literary expressions for rhetorical effect”” (2). Thom Starke claims that any evidence of the genocide of the Canaanites “is lost to history” and that we only learn of these events through “the memories of their killers – the Israelites.”
Evidence of the Canaanite culture, beliefs, and practices appear to leave out much of what the biblical authors say about them. This suggests that the biblical authors had limited knowledge of the Canaanites. For instance, translations of the Ugaritic texts do not suggest the Canaanites being a particularly “debauched” or “cruel” culture (unless one sees the common ancient practice of animal sacrifice as cruel). The texts inform us that these people worshiped many gods, with El being the creator and leader of the Ugaritic pantheon, and that animals were sacrificed to these gods. Strikingly absent from the Ugaritic texts are references to child sacrifice or ritual prostitution, and any of the abominations mentioned in Leviticus 18 (3).
Moreover, child sacrifice and ritual prostitution were certainly practiced outside of Canaan. This would render dubious God’s moral outrage against a uniquely debauched and wicked culture as being the explanation as to why God decided to exterminate them. Rather, the issue was the land, the purity of the land, and the fact that the Canaanites were located in the land the Israelites wanted and thought was theirs by divine right. Enns explains,
“They [the Canaanites] were contaminating the land that God set aside for the Israelites since the days of Abraham and so had to be exterminated. Take any other people group and put them in the land of Canaan, and they would be the ones tasting Israelite steel, and their immorality would be described as the worst ever. Take the Canaanites and put them somewhere else, and we’d never hear about them. The Canaanites’ main sin was their street address. That is why they had to be eliminated” (4).
Another issue critics have with the reprobate culture argument is that it does not make sense. Apologists like William Lane Craig have argued that a major moral atrocity deserving of judgment was the Canaanite practice of child sacrifice. Craig articulates,
“When you think how utterly corrupt these Canaanite cultures were – practicing child sacrifice to their gods, cultic prostitution, all sorts of other practices that are detailed in the Old Testament as to why they were ripe for judgment – it seems to me that there is no moral problem in saying that God ordered the extermination of the Canaanite adults” (5).
One can agree that child sacrifice is a moral crime. But how does God, according to Leviticus 27:28-9, Deuteronomy 20:16-17, and Joshua 6:21 deal with this crime? He deals with by exterminating everyone, including the infants of the Canaanites.
This ancient warfare tactic is called herem, the extermination of an entire people (the elderly, men, women, children, infants, and animals) and the destruction of cities as devotion to God. Susan Niditch explains that herem was,
“the war demanded by God always including the annihilation of men, women, and children, other times including also the killing of domestic animals, the wanton destruction of whole cities, and the reduction of all cultural artifacts to rubble” (6)
“Israelites vow their enemies to God as a promise for his support of their successful military efforts. In the majority of texts in Deuteronomy and Joshua, it is assumed that God demands total destruction of the enemy” (7).
Herem was just one of several warfare strategies used by Israel against their enemies. Other included tricksterism, the ideology of expediency, and non-participation (8).
If one follows the logic, God is judging the Canaanites for partaking in child sacrifice by ordering the Israelites to kill Caananite children. This is like like setting fire to a factory committing the environmental crime of deforestation by burning down the entire forest along with the factory. Can it be any more obvious that the God whom Christians believe is rational and immune to terrible strategies did not command the extermination of the Canaanites?
A final issue with the reprobate culture argument is that it entails the killing of infants and small children. Copan argues that for these infants and children, extermination was a form of mercy killing: “Death would be a mercy, as they would be ushered into the presence of God and spared the corrupting influences of a morally decadent culture” (9).
Challenging Copan is that according to the conquest narratives, what the Israelites partook in was far from “mercy” killings. Rather, the entire culture, men, women, children, and infants were exterminated in devotion to Yahweh. Further, on what grounds are children and infants irredeemable? This should strike one as a far to simplistic generalization as if every Canaanite was exactly the same.
1. Copan, P. Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? Evangelical Philosophical Society. Available.
2. Enns, P. 2015. The Canaanites weren’t the “worst sinners ever”: engaging Copan and Flannagan on Canaanite extermination. Available.
3. Hillers, D. 1985. “Analyzing the Abominable: Our Understanding of Canaanite Religion,” in The Jewish Quarterly Review 75: 253–69.
4. Enns, P. 2014. The Bible Tells Me So. p. 51.
5. Craig, W. 2012. Richard Dawkins and Driving Out the Canaanites. Available.
6. Niditch, S. 1993. War in the Hebrew Bible: A Study in the Ethics of Violence. p. 8.
7. Ibid. p. 28.
8. Niditch, S. 1993. Ibid. p. 151-155.
9. Copan, P. Ibid.