In my last two posts, we have looked at two major topics that I have done research on for my senior research paper in college. In the first post, the idea of divine command ethics was discussed and then in the second, the problem of evil. I would now like to move on to my third and final part of the research, and that deals with the issue of the Canaanite extermination in the Old Testament. Many modern scholars such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others attack Christianity in this way and argue that the God of the Old Testament cannot be the God of the New Testament. In what follows is my brief and introductory attempt at answering this question. After reading, if anyone would like to discuss further, please email or message me because this issue can go so much deeper.
I would like to remind everyone that in this section specifically, I have quoted some work by Dr. Paul Copan and an Old Testament scholar by the name of Richard Hess. They make some interesting claims about the Canaanite issue, but in the end I am not sure I totally agree with them. It will take more study on the matter.
The attack on God’s morality does not stop with the problem of evil however, but continues with the question of how a loving God can permit a moral atrocity such as genocide? In the Old Testament book of Joshua, readers can find God commanding the Israelite army to basically exterminate a group of tribes collectively known as the Canaanites. “Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword” (Joshua 6. 21). How could an all-loving God that Christians so often talk about be so harsh and destructive in the Old Testament?
Just like the problem of evil, the issue of the Canaanite annihilation is not easy to deal with, even for a strong Christian believer. Since this is such an extreme situation in the biblical narrative, it has been ammunition for some of the world’s leading opponents of the Christian faith. Take Richard Dawkins for example, an Oxford University distinguished professor, he states, “The ethnic cleansing begun in the time of Moses is brought to bloody fruition in the book of Joshua, a text remarkable for the bloodthirsty massacres it records and the xenophobic relish with which it does so” (247).
This quote from Dawkins is not even the most aggressive when it comes to display of emotions from people towards this situation. Consider what Dr. Mirabello has to say about this issue, “Joshua, the legendary warlord who led the armed forces of the “children of Israel” into Palestine, committed war crimes and genocide and destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded” (1). Consider also, another quote from Christopher Hitchens, a journalist who wrote a book titled, God is not Great, “However, one mutters a few sympathetic words for the forgotten and obliterated Hivites, Canaanites, and Hittites, also presumably part of the Lord’s original creation, who are to be pitilessly driven out of their homes to make room for the ungrateful and mutinous children of Israel” (101).
Every one of these quotes convey detailed emotion and dedication to the position they hold. These quotes, however, do not fully communicate the raw passion as well as Richard Dawkins himself does. Again, consider Dawkins on this issue, “The point is that, whether true or not, the Bible is held up to us as the source of our morality. And the Bible story of Joshua’s destruction of Jericho, and the invasion of the Promised Land in general, is morally indistinguishable from Hitler’s invasion of Poland, or Saddam Hussein’s massacres of the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs” (247).
With unsympathetic acquisitions such as these, how can the Christian worldview possibly give an acceptable answer to a situation of this magnitude? There have been a great number of writings dedicated to answering this topic from a Christian perspective. There are several ways in which an answer can be given, but there are two that prove to be beneficial in trying to give an answer.
In the book of Deuteronomy, the writer engages the reader with information as to how the Canaanites were dealt with, “And we devoted them to destruction, as we did to Sihon the king Hesbon, devoting to destruction every city, men, women, and children” (Deut. 3. 6). This passage seems to clearly communicate that every person associated with the Canaanite tribes was executed and that there were none left alive.
In an article by Dr. Paul Copan, a philosopher of ethics from Florida, he suggests that maybe when the Bible speaks of the annihilation of every person, it could be nothing more than just a type of war hype. Consider what Copan says, “I observed in my previous essay that the language of total obliteration is an Ancient Near East rhetorical device, an exaggeration commonly associated with warfare”. If what Copan is saying is true, his analysis proves to be pivotal in answering this objection.
Copan goes on in his article to back up what he is saying by using the Bible itself, “After all, the books of Joshua and Judges themselves make clear that many inhabitants remained in the land”. What Copan is saying becomes evident from a biblical passage found in the book of Judges, “But the people of Benjamin did not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem, so the Jebusites have lived with the people of Benjamin in Jerusalem to this day” (Judges 1. 21).
Copan’s argument, though persuasive, does not fully do the trick. So what if everyone was not killed, what about the ones who were? Were small children and women included in the killings? Copan, in the same article, quotes and Old Testament scholar named Richard Hess. Copan suggests, “Hess’s research has led him to conclude that the ban (war commands from God) refers to the ‘total destruction of all warriors in the battle not noncombatants”.
It seems now that Copan’s argument comes full circle. Copan suggests that the command to “kill all” in the Old Testament does not literally refer to all, but is a “rhetorical device”. If Copan’s biblical interpretation holds together then it becomes difficult to label what happened to the Canaanites a true genocide as critics suggest. However, though Copan’s argument is good, it only holds up on one front. There is still the question of why God would command the Israelites to go to war with the Canaanites and cause intense fighting in the first place. How does a Christian answer this question?
There are many Christian scholars who say that in order to answer an objection of this magnitude; it is wise to call upon a method of theological study known as “Biblical Theology”. C. Stephen Evans, a professor of philosophy at Baylor University defines Biblical Theology as, “An attempt to develop theology out of the study of biblical texts” (114). When applying his definition to the Canaanite issue, it would be wise to see what the biblical narrative as a whole has to say about the problem. Once the broader picture of the Bible is seen, then it will clear up any misconceptions that people may have of the issue.
Dr. Iain Duguid, professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, states, “the Israelites acted as the agents of God’s righteous judgment against sinners” (107). Taken at face value, this statement seems a bit judgmental on the part of Duguid, but this is an example of how the practice of good biblical theology will help. Just as it is explained in the beginning of this essay that human nature, according to the Christian perspective, is naturally prone to evil, this same concept is also applied to the Canaanite tribes. Just every person born throughout all of history is born at enmity with God; there is no difference for the Canaanite people.
When considering possible reasons for why God would command such an order for the Israelites to do, the primary question that comes to mind is why God would do this to innocent people. Though this is a great question, it assumes that the Canaanites were in fact, innocent people. Just by nature the Canaanites were evil and in active rebellion against God. Furthermore, the Canaanites we involved in some nasty practices that anyone would see as evil. Dr. Walter Kaiser, academic dean, professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, suggests,
“Why then were the Canaanites singled out for such severe treatment? They were cut off to prevent Israel and the rest of the world from being corrupted (Deut. 20. 16-18). When a people starts to burn their children in honor of their gods (Lev. 18.21), practice sodomy, bestiality, and all sorts of loathsome vices (Lev. 18.23, 24, 20.3), the land itself begins to “vomit” them out as the body heaves under the load of internal poisons (Lev. 18.25, 27-30)” (268).
As a holy God, just as the Bible suggests God is, it is by His holy nature that God is in total opposition to evil and rebellion. This is why the Bible makes the claim that God is a just and righteous God. By the very fact that the Canaanites were evil, makes it perfectly clear as to why God would pronounce judgment on them. The Canaanites were deserving of a just judgment.
This brings this third objection to its final question. Why did God use Israel to execute judgment? Was it because there were better than everyone else? The answer to that is no, and the bible actually makes it clear as to why God used Israel. This passage comes from the book of Deuteronomy,
“Not because of your righteousness of the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Deut. 9.5).
The answer becomes apparent now, it is not that the Israelites are better, but that God is actively and rightfully judging the nations as they deserve. The same goes for the nation of Israel to at the time. They too, for practicing evil deeds, are judged by God. Just as Dr. Tremper Longman, a professor of Old Testament, suggests, “It would be wrong to say that God was on Israel’s side pure and simple” (175). Israel was in covenant with God and if Israel somehow “broke” covenant with God, they too would be judged for their wicked ways. Consider what would happen to Israel in the event of breaking covenant with God,
“The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You shall go out one way against them and flee seven ways before them. And you shall be a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth” (Deut. 28. 25).
In review of this last section, many concepts have been learned. It is very difficult for any reader of the Old Testament to breeze by stories of war and extermination without questioning, but a deeper look into the matter reveals true facts of the matter. It is quite possible that not every person from the Canaanite tribes were wiped out, but only the combatants fighting the war. It has also been made clear that not one person is innocent to begin with and that God is a righteous judge who judges truthfully. With these ideas in mind, a light in the distance can be seen to make way out of this problem.