In focus are common apologetic defenses of biblical genocide commanded by Yahweh, the Supreme deity of the ancient Hebrews.
A common justification for the Canaanite genocide at the hands of incursions by the Hebrews described in the biblical texts is the Canaanite “irredeemable” or “reprobate” culture. The Canaanites were morally corrupt and degenerate and they were beyond redemption, therefore 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 a culture of this kind is mass extermination. Several considerations are in order.
First, one would want justification for this assertion. Any argument for why genocide of a population group is morally permissible is an exceptional argument which, one might think, is to put the matter mildly. What justification is there that the Canaanites were the most morally degenerate people?
Some apologists identify moral atrocities committed by the Canaanites as evidence of their degenerate culture. An objection, however, is that the Canaanites were not if at all any worse than the other civilizations in their ancient world and historical context. Philosopher 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?”
Likely the biblical authors are deliberately depicting their Canaanite enemies negatively and possibly portraying them in a way that is prejudiced. The Hebrews were the putative exterminators of the Canaanites and historians only have their testimony about the Canaanites. The historian therefore has to rely on the exterminators of the Canaanites to learn about the Canaanites.
One of the contributions of critical approaches to biblical texts is to observe the propagandistic nature of some of them. According to Morriston, the Old Testament texts is not 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.”
Old Testament scholar Peter Enns writes that 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 asserts that any evidence of the genocide of the Canaanites “is lost to history” and that historians only learn of the events through “the memories of their killers – the Israelites.”
The biblical authors leave out much of what historians know of the Canaanites, which suggests that the authors had limited knowledge of the Canaanites. For example, translations of the Ugaritic texts do not indicate the Canaanites being a particularly “debauched” or “cruel” culture unless one considers the common ancient practice of animal sacrifice as cruel. The Canaanites worshiped many gods, with El being the creator and leader of the Ugaritic pantheon, and animals were sacrificed to them. Absent from the Ugaritic texts are references to child sacrifice or ritual prostitution, and any of the abominations mentioned in Leviticus 18 of the Pentateuch (3).
Child sacrifice and ritual prostitution were practiced outside of Canaan which, critics argue, renders dubious Yahweh’s moral outrage against a uniquely debauched and wicked culture as being the rationale as to why Yahweh decided to exterminate them and command his foot soldiers to do so. Rather, the issue was the land which, unfortunately for them, was inhabited by Canaanite tribes. The Hebrews wanted this land and they believed it 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).
A further challenge a critic raises is that the reprobate culture argument does not make sense. William Lane Craig, and other apologists, 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).
Child sacrifice is obviously a moral crime. But how does Yahweh according to Leviticus 27:28-9, Deuteronomy 20:16-17, and Joshua 6:21 deal with this depravity? He does so by exterminating all the Canaanites, including their infants and children. Was this lost on Yahweh or is Yahweh inconsistent?
Yahweh’s judging the Canaanites for partaking in child sacrifice by ordering the Hebrews to kill their children is like setting fire to a factory for its environmental crimes of deforestation by burning down the entire forest along with the factory. Obviously, the plan would be a spectacular failure should that happen.
This ancient warfare tactic is called herem, the extermination of an entire population including the elderly, men, women, children, infants, and animals, and the destruction of cities as devotion to Yahweh. 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 one of several warfare strategies used by Israel against its enemies. Other included tricksterism, the ideology of expediency, and non-participation (8).
Paul Copan would still maintain, despite the obvious inconsistency of the biblical story of Yahweh’s command to exterminate infants and children, that such a “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).
The uncomfortable detail is that the Hebrews were not occupied with “mercy” killings as the biblical texts are clear that the entire population including children and infants were exterminated in devotion to Yahweh.
The claim that infants and children were irredeemable is not obvious and needs justification.
1. Copan, Paul. n.d. Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? Available. [the linked article initially published by the Evangelical Philosophical Society on its website has since been removed]
2. Enns, Peter. 2015. The Canaanites weren’t the “worst sinners ever”: engaging Copan and Flannagan on Canaanite extermination. Available. [article still up as of 06 February, 2023]
3. Hillers, D. 1985. “Analyzing the Abominable: Our Understanding of Canaanite Religion”. The Jewish Quarterly Review 75(3): 253-269.
4. Enns, Peter. 2014. The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. San Francisco: HarperOne. p. 51.
5. Craig, William Lane. 2012. Richard Dawkins and Driving Out the Canaanites. Available. [article still up as of 06 February, 2023]
6. Niditch, Susan. 1993. War in the Hebrew Bible: A Study in the Ethics of Violence. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press. p. 8.
7. Niditch, Susan. 1993. Ibid. p. 28.
8. Niditch, Susan. 1993. Ibid. p. 151-155.
9. Copan, P. n.d. Ibid.