We focus on common apologetic defenses of biblical genocide, and why they do not succeed as providing a rational justification for God commanding genocide.
Another common defense of God commanding genocide, as presented by William Craig and Paul Copan, is that the Canaanites’ wickedness was a threat to Israel. The late apologist and inerrantist Gleason Archer likened the Canaanites, and their children, to a cancer that ought to be eradicated, “Just as the wise surgeon removes dangerous cancer from his patient’s body by use of the scalpel, so God employed the Israelites to remove such dangerous malignancies from human society” (1).
One might feel saddened for the allegedly cancerous Canaanite infants and toddlers who were culled like livestock along with their mothers and fathers. Nonetheless, justifications of this nature have been used in numerous historical genocides. It was used against the Vietnamese in My Lai, the Jews in Nazi Germany, and the Tutsi in Rwanda. As Thom Stark notes, the only evidence we have to go on for the Canaanite genocide comes down to us “in the memories of their killers – the Israelites” (2). He goes on to explain that “in the books of Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua, the Canaanites are depicted much like the Jewish people would later be characterized in Nazi propaganda… unclean, uncivilized, inhuman, hostile, subversive, and godless… history is written by the victors” (3)
Randal Rauser is of a similar view, saying that the justification of the slaughter of the Canaanites as “required to protect the Israelites from the wickedness of the Canaanites” is a common justification for any genocide: “As I have noted in my writings on this topic elsewhere this idea that a people must be eliminated because they produce a serious threat to the well being of the other group is a common justification for genocide. (Remember, the Jews were branded “vermin” in WW2, the Tutsis were branded “cockroaches” in Rwanda 1994.) So it is here that the Canaanite slaughter is justified by presenting the Canaanites as an imminent threat to the Israelite people” (4). Hitler, in fact, likened the Jews to “a cancer on the breast of Germany,” an analogy likely stemming from the fact that his own mother died from breast cancer (5). Nonetheless, Christian scholar Eric Seibert presents a helpful template that encapsulates the common justifications of genocide all of which appear strikingly apparent in the biblical events (6). These are namely,
(i) Divide: first you distinguish between an in-group and out-group while attributing a superior authority or ontological status to the former;
(ii) Demonize: next you accuse the out-group of promoting an injustice, inequality, or threat over against the in-group;
(iii) Destroy: finally, you implore the in-group to redress the injustice, often with a divine or transcendent imprimatur
This process begins with a drawn emphasis of division between the “in-group” and “out-group” (7). An in-group, for example, would describe their efforts and status as good and righteous while at the same time distinguishing and characterizing their opponents, the out-group, as evil and unrighteous. Subsequently, an in-group presents the out-group as being a threat to their well-being. Thus, the in-group seeks to establish itself as a superior authority to redress both the present inequity as well as the ongoing threat, and sometimes violence is seen as a necessary measure. Often at this point, the in-group begins to engage the out-group violently, and this violence can take on various forms. It can, as in the case of Canaanites and the Tutsi, be genocide via wholesale extermination, ethnic cleansing, torture, and imprisonment. Arguably, one of the most powerful justifications for acts of genocide is religious in nature in which an in-group believes that their deity has chosen them as an instrument to visit his punishment upon an out-group.
This seems an appropriate description of what we find in the biblical accounts. The Israelites, as the in-group since we only have their testimony, identify themselves as superior and characterize the Canaanite, as the out-group, as being a despicable and wicked people. The author of Lev. 18:24–27, for example, has God saying that the land in which the Canaanites live has been “defiled” by their presence in it, that it “vomits” them out because of their “abominations” (also see Genesis 15:16). Moreover, the Israelites believed that they were chosen by God to take ownership of this land that other tribes and people lived in (Gen. 15:18–21). They further establish the Canaanites as an out-group be suggesting their imminent threat lest Israel gets infected by them (Deut. 20:16–18). In this way it would seem that Archer’s justification of the genocide of the Canaanites for them being a “cancer” is like justifying the slaughter of European Jews on the basis of Hitler’s Mein Kampf manifesto. If we swapped “Canaanites” with “Jews” in the Old Testament, and Joshua with Hitler, we would have Archer defending Hitler on the basis that the Jews cancerous, including their infants and children.
The internal inconsistencies in the biblical accounts attempting to justify the invasion of Canaan and the slaughter of its inhabitants is what strongly suggest the human invention and fabrication of these stories. If we take these stories as historically accurate then we must conclude that God is a lousy strategizer. For instance, the Israelites claim that God is judging the Canaanite practice of child sacrifice for they we allegedly sacrificing their children to Molech (Lev. 18:21). God’s plan, however, is to not only kill all the Canaanite parents but their children and infants too. In other words, God is judging the Canaanites for practicing child sacrifice by killing their children.
But God’s terrible strategies are found elsewhere. Going on what the biblical authors tell us, God wanted to eradicate the Canaanite religion and identity because they were a major threat to Israel. But here God, given his want to eradicate the Canaanites (we learn that they were not fully wiped out (Judg. 3:1–4)), is spectacularly unsuccessful, a point not missed by Wesley Morriston,
“It was precisely the failure to destroy all the targets of the genocide that prevented one of the very things that God was supposed to be trying to do—namely, destroy the Canaanite religion… Assuming that God’s desire to destroy the Canaanite religion by destroying Canaanites was a legitimate one, why would He choose such an inefficient means of accomplishing this aim? It is only too easy to imagine more effective ways for the Almighty to remove the Canaanites from the picture. More to the point, it is clear that if this was God’s plan, it was spectacularly unsuccessful” (8).
I think this overriding human component to the biblical story sticks out like a sore thumb and can be missed by readers who have not looked deeper into the apologetic justifications for the Canaanite genocide.
The Israelite justifications for killing the Canaanites is like any other genocide in human history. Second, the internal inconsistencies present within the texts is far more suggestive of human invention as opposed to God actually commanding the Israelites to commit genocide. Thom Stark offers a fitting conclusion,
“[T]hese accounts reflect a standard ideology that Israel shared with many of its ancient neighbors, and I read them as products of ancient culture, rather than products of pure divine revelation” (9).
1. Archer, G. Encyclopedia of Biblical Difficulties. p. 121.
2. Stark, T. 2011. Human Faces of God. Location. Location: 3351
3. Stark, T. 2011. Ibid. Location: 3353
4. Rauser, R. 2013. Holy War in the Bible: A Review. Available.
5. Proctor, R. 1997. The Nazi War on Cancer. p. 45-50.
6. Seibert, E. 2012. The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy. p. 104.
7. Rauser, R. 2009. ““Let Nothing that Breathes Remain Alive”: On the Problem of Divinely Commanded Genocide,” in Philosophia Christi.
8. Morriston, W. 2009. “Did God Command Genocide? A Challenge to the Biblical Inerrantist,” in Philosophia Christi. p. 13.
9. Stark, T. 2011. Ibid. Location: 3372