Welcome to part 5 of this series. We will focus on common apologetic defenses of biblical genocide and the justifications given for them, and why they do not succeed as providing a rational justification for God’s commanding genocide.
A common justification of the Canaanite genocide is what we could term as “irredeemable” or “reprobate” culture. The charge is that the Canaanites were so morally corrupt and degenerate that they were beyond redemption, thus providing a rationale for extermination. According to 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 that of mass extermination. There are a number of things we should consider here, however.
Firstly, we would obviously want justification for this assertion. After all, 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 of people? Some apologists have pointed to the moral atrocities committed by the Canaanites as evidence of their degenerate nature. However, the issue I have with this is that the Canaanites were hardly, if at all, any worse than the other civilizations in their ancient world. 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?”
It would seem far more likely that the biblical authors are deliberately depicting their Canaanite enemies in this way, thus likely portraying them in a way that is not entirely fair (after all, the Israelites were alleged to be the exterminators of the Canaanites and we only have their testimony bearing witness to the Canaanites. In other words, we have to rely on the killers of the Canaanites to learn about the Canaanites. Should it surprise us that they might be unfairly described?). In fact, one of the contributions of critical approaches to the biblical texts is to observe the propagandistic nature of the accounts. Morriston explains that 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 explains that any evidence of the genocide of the Canaanites and Amelakites we have to go on “is lost to history,” and that we only learn of these events “in the memories of their killers – the Israelites.”
In fact, evidence of the Canaanite culture, beliefs, and their practices seem to leave out much of what the biblical authors say about them (which is limited itself suggesting that the biblical authors had limited knowledge of the Canaanites). For instance, translations of the Ugaritic texts does not seem to suggest the Canaanites being a particularly “debauched” or “cruel” culture (unless one sees the common ancient practice of animal sacrifice as cruel). The texts do tell 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. However, strikingly absent from the Ugaritic texts are references to child sacrifice or ritual prostitution, and any, any of the abominations mentioned in Leviticus 18 (3).
Moreover, child sacrifice and ritual prostitution were certainly practiced outside of Canaan, thus suggesting doubt on 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 in the land that the Israelites wanted and believed 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).
The other issue some critics have note with the reprobate culture argument is that it does not appear to make sense. Apologists, like William Lane Craig, have argued that one of the central moral atrocities deserving of judgment is the fact that the Canaanites practiced child sacrifice. As per Craig,
“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).
We can no doubt agree that child sacrifice is a horrendous crime and sin, however, how does God, according to Leviticus 27:28-9, Deuteronomy 20:16-17, and Joshua 6:21 deal with it? By exterminating everyone, including the infants of the Canaanites and the hill tribes!
This ancient warfare tactic is what is known as ‘herem,’ the extermination of entire people (men, women, children, and animals) and the destruction of cities as devotion to Yahweh as a ritual sacrifice. Scholar 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). It is worth noting that herem is but one of several warfare tactics employed by Israel against their enemies alongside tricksterism, the ideology of expediency, non-participation etc. (8).
So, if we follow the logic, God is essentially judging the Canaanites for partaking in child sacrifice by ordering the Israelites to sacrifice 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 God, of whom we believe is rational and not susceptible to conjuring up terrible plans (we examine this in some more detail later in this series), did not command the extermination of the Canaanites?
The final problem with the reprobate culture charge is that it entails the slaughter of infants and small children. Copan argues that for these infants and children extermination was a form of mercy killing in that “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 issue here is that according to the conquest narratives what the Israelites partook in was hardly “mercy” killings. Rather, the entire culture, men, women, children, and infants, were exterminated in devotion to Yahweh (herem). Second, on what grounds are children and infants irredeemable? Surely this should strike one as a far to simplistic generalization as to be taken seriously as if every Canaanite was exactly the same (see part 3 for more on Canaanite children).
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.