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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Grasping at Straws Part One--Evangelicals Defend Genocide

The God of the Hebrew Scriptures commanded his chosen people to kill all the inhabitants of Canaan including women and children. In Deut. 7:2, he says: "you must utterly destroy them . . . and show no mercy to them." In Deut. 20:16, he commands: "you shall save alive nothing that breathes."

If the President of the United States were to announce that God had told him to use the vast military power at his disposal to obliterate, say, the nation of Iran, “saving alive nothing that breathes,” people would assume that he was mad and he would speedily be dismissed from office. No one—well, almost no one—would take seriously the idea that God had instructed him to do this terrible thing. Why not? Because, apart from the obvious fact that such an attack would be contrary to our national self-interest, a genocidal attack on another nation is a moral outrage, and God is generally assumed to be perfectly good in a sense that is incompatible with commanding moral outrages.

Why then, should we not react to the Deuteronomy passages quoted above in a similar way? No doubt the author(s) of Deuteronomy believed that God had commanded a genocidal attack on the inhabitants of the Promised Land. But that is not what a perfectly good God would do. So if we believe that God is, and has always been, perfectly good, why shouldn’t we simply conclude that the human author(s) of Deuteronomy were mistaken?
( Wesley Morriston, Did God Command Genocide? A Challenge to the Biblical Inerrantist, [Philosophia Christi 11 {2009}: 8]).

Christian attempts to defend the wholesale slaughter of the Canaanites reminds me of someone grasping at straws. To grasp at a straw is an idiom that originated from the idea of a drowning man reaching for anything that might save his life. It is an act of total desperation and futility. It is a pitiful sight to behold. Evangelicals are faced with a virtually insoluble problem in trying to explain how a perfectly good and righteous God could order the extermination of whole people groups including women, children and infants, but of course that doesn't stop them from trying.

Dr. Paul Copan is the President of the Evangelical Philosophical Society. He wrote an article attempting to defend the command of Yahweh to annihilate the Canaanites. Its entitled: Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics (Philosophia Christi 10 [2008]: 7–37).

Copan (pp. 25-26) grasps four straws in his attempt to defend the command to commit genocide:

1. The Canaanites were incorrigibly wicked.

2. The Canaanite religion was the object of the annihilation not the people.

3. The language of annihilation was hyperbolic.

4. God is the creator of human life and has the right to take it if he so desires.

Will any of these four straws save Copan and remove the moral stigma associated with the genocide commanded by his God? Let's see.

1. Were the Canaanites really more wicked than any other culture of that period? What exactly were their sins? Morriston (p. 14) writes:
Leviticus 18:19–25 seems to imply that the Canaanites were guilty of: (i) having sexual intercourse with a woman during her menstrual period, (ii) having sexual relations with the wife of a kinsman, (iii) sacrificing some of their children to Molech, (iv) homosexual behavior, and (v) bestiality. It is not clear how these “crimes” are ranked in degree of seriousness. But because of them, Leviticus says that Yahweh is driving the inhabitants out of the land. (It also says that the land itself became “defiled” and “vomited them out.”)

Really? That's it? Yes, the whole society must be extinguished because of four sex sins and the offering of human sacrifices to their deity. The only one of these that modern man would find terribly disturbing are the human sacrifices. Yahweh's problem, however, was not the human sacrifices per se but the fact that they were offered to a competing deity. As a matter of fact, one could argue that Yahweh has no problem with human sacrifices as long as they are offered to him.

In Gen. 22, the Hebrew God commands Abraham to offer up his son Isaac. Some will say that God was just testing Abraham's faith but the fact that Abraham did not recoil at the notion is evidence that he did not consider it to be a contradiction of his God's nature to command it. In Exodus 12, the Hebrew God killed all of the Egyptian first-born as judgment against the gods of Egypt. One could infer that these children were offered up to the God of Israel when they really belonged to the gods of Egypt. It seems that the first-born were often seen as belonging to the tribal god of the people in the Ancient Near East (This is confirmed by Exodus 22:29-30 and 34:20). In Judges 11:30-40, Jephtha sacrifices his daughter as a burnt offering to the LORD in response to a hasty vow. As Morriston (p. 15) writes:
The implications of this sad little story are often missed. Jephtha was the Judge of Israel. If Yahweh had already made it clear to the Israelites that child sacrifice was one of the abominations on account of which the Canaanites were being driven from the land, Jephtha would surely have known this. It would not have occurred to him that a human sacrifice would be pleasing to Yahweh, or that it would help him defeat the Ammonites in battle. The story has a tragic ending because Yahweh does not see fit to intervene, and because Jephtha is obviously afraid of what might happen if he were to break a sacred vow to Yahweh.

Of course the ultimate human sacrifice is the offering of Jesus, God's son, as the payment for man's sins. Romans 8:32 says: He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? . As I have argued in a previous post, the death of Jesus must be seen in light of the Ancient Near Eastern belief that to sacrifice one's son was the ultimate offering to a deity.

So it doesn't appear that the Canaanites were really any worse than any other peoples of that time. As a matter of fact, in Deut. 9, the LORD himself seems to say that the Israelites are really no better than the people they are dispossessing.

2. Copan's contention that it was really the Canaanite religion not the people who God was determined to eliminate is far-fetched. If that was really God's intention then why does he say to kill everything that breathes? Once again, Copan is drowning and grasping at straws.

3. Copan's next straw is to say that the universal language is really hyperbolic (see my discussion here). He says that it was just the customary language used with regard to warfare in the Ancient Near East (ANE). But as Morriston responds: It is quite a stretch to suppose that the God who ordered that all be destroyed would have been displeased if all had been destroyed (p. 12). In addition, it fails to take into account the concept of חֵרֶם (cherem) in ANE warfare. I have addressed this in other posts, see here and here, so I will not go into detail here. I must, however, cite this perceptive comment by Randal Rauser regarding the slaughter of the Canaanites:
…they constitute ritual human sacrifices to Yahweh within Israel’s holy war. The Hebrew word herem is pivotal here as it refers to the consecration of something to God by being consigned for destruction. The Israelites believed that God had consigned the Canaanite men, women, and children to herem so that the slaughter constituted a religious act of worship, a mass human sacrifice on a scale rivaling the ancient Aztecs (Let Nothing that Breathes Remain Alive, [Philosophia Christi 11 {2009}: 32).

4. Copan's final straw is to appeal to God's sovereignty. God is the creator of life and therefore he has the right to end it (presumably anyway he desires). Morriston (p. 19) replies to this contention:
Let us turn next to what Copan describes as the “crux” of the issue—to his claim that, as the author of human life, God has a right to take it when He pleases. This may be so, but by itself it does nothing to demonstrate that God had a morally sufficient reason for commanding the Israelites to practice genocide. And that, surely, is the true “crux” of the issue.

On the face of it, there is quite a lot to be said against commanding the Israelites to engage in such brutal behavior. Slaughtering countless women and children would surely be bad for their moral development. By commanding them to practice genocide God would, in one very important respect, be encouraging them to stay on the same moral level as their “brutal” neighbors in the ANE.

When evangelicals are pushed into a corner, they will often resort to saying that God is sovereign and can do whatever he wants. The point, though, is that the evangelical's sovereign God is also supposed to be perfectly good and holy. His sovereignty cannot be used to trump his goodness. If it is, then there is an internal contradiction in the nature of the evangelical's God.


  1. Good Post! Really liked those last few sentences. Say, will you ever be writing a book?

  2. Another excellent post which resonates with me. I've independently had similar interactions on many occasions. Along with the passage in Deuteronomy, more of the same can be found in Joshua and I believe 1 Samuel. I'm particularly reminded of my favorite example, YHWH's instruction to King Saul that he utterly annihilate the Amalekites, but along with the usual deployment for the blood of all humans, he inexplicably demands the slaughter of all livestock as well.

    The counterpoint in my own experiences have typically included one or more of the same four you've reported, though among the rank and file, #1 and #4 are most popular. I'm not so sure why #4 is so popular as this serves only to call into question the goodness of YHWH and to vividly demonstrate the flawed nature of the Divine Command Theory of morality. As for #1, I can't bring myself to understand how this makes sense to even the most devout Christian. Is incorrigible wickedness purported to be a genetically heritable trait, or perhaps the "dome of Evil" is somehow lingering over the land?

    Regarding your human sacrifice retort, the Jephtha example is another of my favorites. I recall years ago when I was reading through the bible from cover to cover (something I never actually did as a Christian) I was surprised by this story, which clearly was depicting a human sacrifice to YHWH. My understanding was mirrored by various commentaries on the story. I suppose it will not be a surprise to you that this story is subjected to a feat of superhuman gymnastics by Tektonics (the illustrious J.P. Holding) who contends that Jephtha is merely "sacrificing" his daughter to a life of clerical servitude. I don't buy this at all, primarily because that's not the impression given in the story, but also because this just isn't plausible to me in the pre-temple era. But then, Holding can often be seen grasping at straws.

  3. Ollie,

    Thanks for the kind words. Yes I am working on a book but it will probably take a year to complete.

  4. Chris,

    Thanks for the comments. Yes there are several passages in the OT where genocide is commanded. 1 Sam. 15 records the episode with the Amalekites.

    I have more to say on this subject which will be posted tomorrow.