Saturday, March 13, 2010

Did God Command Genocide? (Part 4) The Case for the Prosecution

This post is part of my series on Wes Morriston's discussions of theistic morality. For an index, see here.

I am currently working my way through an article entitled "Did God Command Genocide?"

In Part 1, I sketched Morriston's argument: according to Deuteronomy, God commanded the Israelites to utterly destroy the Canaanites; God, being good, would not do this unless he had morally sufficient reasons for doing so; he is unlikely to have had such reasons; thus, the bible must have got it wrong.

In Part 2, I covered Paul Copan's attempt to justify God's command. As we saw, Copan's argument turned on the claim that the Canaanite's were incorrigibly wicked. In Part 3, I covered Morriston's responses to the charge of incorrigible wickedness.

In this final part, I cover some final concerns about the command to utterly destroy the Canaanites and sum up the argument against biblical inerrancy.

Moral Corruption
One concern not addressed to this point is the effect that the command would have had on the Israelites. William Lane Craig, in his attempt to justify the slaughter, sees this as a key worry. The problem is that in ordering the genocide, God may have been hampering the moral development of the Israelites. Craig responds with two claims:

  • In the cultural milieu of the Ancient Near East (ANE), war and violence were commonplace. God was not asking the Israelites to do anything that might induce agonies of conscience.
  • God needed to demonstrate to the Israelites how serious was their calling to be the chosen people. What better way to do this than to order an ethnic cleansing? Craig himself says "Yahweh is not to be trifled with...if Israel apostasizes the same could happen to her."
Let's take these rationalisations one at a time.

First, it may well be true that the ANE was a brutal time and place. But this does not address the central question: was God's command morally justified? After all, God was not shackled to the morality of the ANE. His own laws advocated the ideal of neighbourly love. So he clearly expected more from the Israelites than the perpetuation of moral brutality.

Second, the idea that genocide was the best way to demonstrate Yahweh's seriousness seems strange. God could have simply written that message on the heart of every Israelite (Jer. 31:33). And furthermore, reinforcing the morality of the ANE does not seem like a good way to set the chosen people apart from the other tribes in the area.

Neither of Craig's rationalisations get God off the hook.

What About the Children?
The Simpsons has probably lost its status as the gravity well of pop culture references. But I am sure most people remember how Revered Lovejoy's wife would, when any crisis presented itself, often shout hysterically "won't someone please think of the children?" On this occasion, such hysteria is warranted: why the slaughter of the Canaanite children?

One justification of their slaughter is that it was an unfortunate unintended consequence of a morally necessary act. In other words, they were the "collateral damage" of a "just war". 

Now we have already questioned the moral necessity of the genocide, but let's take it that the case has been made. For the collateral damage argument to be salient, it would need to shown that the death of the children was inadvertent. This does not fit with the command made in Deuteronomy. There, the slaughter of children was directly ordered.

An alternative justification, coming from William Lane Craig, is that it would have been dangerous to allow them to live. They would have formed a fifth column that would have destroyed the Holy Land from within.

This argument presumes that the Canaanite children would have perpetuated the wicked Canaanite culture. This seems to be an affront to the autonomy of the children: they are not even given the opportunity to escape the Canaanite system.

Additionally, the remainder of the bible makes it clear that the Israelites were constantly being tempted by other religions and intermarrying with other cultures. So the destruction of Canaanites did not in fact solve the problem of cultural contamination.

The final justification for slaughtering the children is that death wasn't all that bad. They entered into an incomparable state of joy in heaven.

Morriston responds by pointing out that this is a highly unbiblical view. The early Israelites did not have a well-worked concept of the afterlife (hell or heaven). The covenant of the Pentateuch is clearly concerning with earthly welfare.

But perhaps we are not limited to this early view. Perhaps biblical inerrantists can appeal to the full sweep of biblical doctrine. In doing so, they seem to make the following argument:
God is good. God would not harm the Canaanite children. Given the necessity of harming them in wiping out the Canaanite religion, he must have done something wonderful for them in the afterlife.
Morriston responds by saying this logic could support an alternative argument:
God is good. The brutal eradication of the Canaanite children would be bad for both them and their attackers. So God would not command anyone to kill those children.
And this second argument is, after all, the argument Morriston is trying to make.

Summing Up
The argument made by Morriston was that the alleged divine command to carry out a genocide of the Canaanites, as described in Deuteronomy, is prima facie evidence against biblical inerrancy. Why? Because it is unlikely that God had morally sufficient reasons for commanding genocide.

We have examined the attempted rationalisations of the command and found them all wanting. Morriston's original argument still stands.

Let me close with some personal reflections. One thing that struck me in writing this series is how the arguments of the inerrantists force you into the worst kind of racist propaganda: the Canaanites were incorrigibly wicked, the only solution was a complete ethnic cleansing, not even the children could be saved because they were tainted by the Canaanite culture.

I can easily imagine similar arguments rationalising the Holocaust.

It is disturbing that anyone tries to present such an apologia for a morally contemptuous act.


  1. John d. I think there is an unfinished sentence in your post.

    "This argument presumes that the Canaanite children would have perpetuated the wicked Canaanite culture. This seems to be an affront to"

    It's an affront to what?

    PS: With post series such as this your blog keeps getting better and better.

  2. I thought of the Holocaust analogy as well while reading through this post, and I think it cannot be overemphasized. If the Nazis could use your arguments to justify divine approval for the Holocaust*, you're doing something wrong.

    *E.g. the analogue of the child sacrifice claim could be the rumor that Jews have rituals in which they drink the blood of German infants.

  3. Great posts on great topics. I'm very much enjoying your blog, John!

  4. Thanks exapologist. I enjoy your blog too!

  5. "God knew that if these Canaanite children were allowed to live, they would spell the undoing of Israel." -- William Craig Lane

    If God had such a reason to kill them, his genocides were both morally questionable and ineffective since, in spite of this killing, the Israelites constantly incorporated neighbouring religious practices to God's great disapproval.

    Wes makes this point on page 19, but I think it is worth repeating. Does Craig ever respond to these criticisms or does he remain silent?