Monthly Archives: October 2015

Richard Dawkins Defends Pedophilia

I can’t remember which post it was, but the Millennial Catholic alerted me to something Richard Dawkins said a few years ago. Here’s the story from Salon:

In a recent interview with the Times magazine, Richard Dawkins attempted to defend what he called “mild pedophilia,” which, he says, he personally experienced as a young child and does not believe causes “lasting harm.”

Richard Dawkins defending pedophilia… who knew? However, there is something else that I want to draw your attention to. Take a look at what he says in defense of this pedophilia:

I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today,” he said.

Excuse me, Richard? You can’t condemn people of an earlier era by our modern standards? Isn’t that what you do every-freaking-time you condemn the God of the Old Testament for every conceivable crime? And don’t forget, modern standards can’t be applied to other religious atrocities you rant against like the crusades and the witch-hunts. If you can’t judge something that happened 50 years ago by our modern standards, how can you possibly judge events that occurred hundreds or even thousands of years ago? Dawkins, you’re an idiot, a hypocrite, and an insufferable buffoon. The fact that you save your vitriol for Christianity while choosing to defend pedophilia says quite a lot about you.


A World of Hyperbole

Regular readers of my blog will know that I write endlessly about the culture of the ancient world, especially that of the Bible. As I constantly remind my readers, ancient culture is a gateway into better understanding all the nuances of what the Bible teaches. I write about this often because modern, mainstream Christians, skeptics and atheists do not understand just how much our modern culture differs from the culture of the Bible. In addition, we don’t realize just how much influence our culture wields over our interpretations of biblical teaching.

In this post, I want to discuss the ancient cultural value of hyperbole and exaggeration. The ancients used hyperbole and dramatic expression almost to a fault. In fact, as I understand it, many Middle-Eastern cultures still do. Almost 100 years ago, Abraham Rihbany, an American Christian wrote:

The Oriental (Middle-Eastern) piles up his metaphors and superlatives, reinforced by a theatrical display of gestures and facial expressions, in order to make his listener feel his meaning… Just as the Oriental  loves to flavor his food strongly and to dress in bright colours, so is he fond of metaphor, exaggeration, and postiveness in speech. To him mild accuracy is a weakness (p. 83-84

According to Rihbany, who was himself from the Middle East, what matters is the “flavor of what is being said, not the details. At another point in the book, He writes of what an old friend said when Rihbany visited him:

In welcoming me to his house, an old friend of mine spoke with impressive cheerfulness as follows: ‘You have extremely honored me by coming into my abode. I am not worthy of it. This house is yours; you can burn it if you wish. My children also are at your disposal;  i would sacrifice them all for your pleasure’ (p. 91)

Obviously, Rihbany’s friend isn’t endorsing child sacrifice here; it’s  a clear use of hyperbole. Rihbany also notes that this is the world that Jesus lived in as well. Unlike our western culture, Jesus lived in a place where exaggeration and hyperbole were default modes of communication. What mattered was the “feeling” of the message, not the precision of it. Modern Christians and skeptics may chafe at this but modern scholarship confirms Rihbany’s point. In The Handbook of Biblical Social Values, scholar John J. Pilch writes:

Words and language are very important in Mediterranean culture, for they are related to manliness. The man who is eloquent and capable of strong rhetoric is viewed as a strong man… Eloquence involves the skill of verbal exaggeration and over-assertion… Exaggeration is quite common in the culture

This is very different from our culture which values precision and “getting to the point”. Only a little bit of googling is needed to show that modern Christians are heavily influenced by their culture’s distaste for exaggeration and hyperbole. In fact, one guy had the following question on a Christian forum:

exaggerate

Our culture so dislikes hyperbole and exaggeration that he actually has to wonder whether the Bible says anything about. In addition, I googled “verses about exaggeration” and found this:

LIES

Apparently what the Bible says about exaggeration is tied to what it says about lying, i.e. it’s bad. This should be enough to show a clear bias that modern, American Christians have. Generally, they equate lying and exaggeration as one and the same. You can’t exaggerate because that would be lying. The funny thing is that this is much more a product of modern, Western culture than anything the Bible teaches. Bible scholar, John J. Pilch sums it up quite nicely:

A technological society like mainstream Untied States culture is tied to precision. Dramatic orientation, exaggeration, and over-assertion waste precious time by not getting to the point… Creativity, Imagination and boasting… have no place in a society driven by productivity; machines will tolerate no exaggeration, imprecision, or tardiness. Dramatic orientation is suitable for the theater but not for real life.

This reaction against exaggeration, hyperbole, etc is due mainly to our culture and not what the Bible teaches. As I said above, the Biblical world was the exact opposite. Despite this, atheists and self-styled skeptics point to “questionable”  and contradictory verses in the Bible and whine very loudly when they are told that these verses are hyperbole. Here are some examples of how hyperbole is used in the Bible.

29 If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and castit from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. (Matthew 5:29-30)

I know many atheist websites that point to this verse and claim that Jesus is commanding evil or something like that. Out of ignorance, they misread what is clear hyperbole. Jesus is not actually teaching us to cut off limbs; he is using hyperbole to make a rhetorical point.

In another example, we have an atheist who might as well stamp his ignorance onto his forehead when he complains about a verse I’ve covered before:

[Jesus] told his followers to hate their families.

If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children,and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. Luke 14:26

Clearly, this person is either willfully ignorant or stupid if he believes that Jesus actually was teaching his followers to hate is family. As I’ve said before, this is clearly hyperbole used to make the point that Jesus’ followers owed him their primary loyalty.

In addition, we see many instances of exaggeration and hyperbole in the Old Testament. In Exodus, for example, God pronounces judgment on on Egypt and says:

and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the female servant who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the animals. Then there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as was not like it before, nor shall be like it again. (Exodus 11:5-6)

It should be obvious that the incomparable cry of Egypt is clearly hyperbolic. God is not making a statement about a literal cry that will literally be heard throughout the entire Egyptian nation that will never again be equaled. That much should be obvious. Here’s another example, God supposedly makes a promise to Solomon in the Old Testament:

12 wisdom and knowledge are granted to you; and I will give you riches and wealth and honor, such as none of the kings have had who were before you, nor shall any after you have the like. (2 Chronicles 1:12)

Really? Solomon is going to be a greater king than David? What about King Hezekiah?

He [Hezekiah] trusted in the Lord God of Israel, so that after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor who were before him. For he held fast to the Lord; he did not depart from following Him, but kept His commandments, which the Lord had commanded Moses. (2 Kings 18:5-6)

So which one is greater? The village idiots who run the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible would be delighted to call this a contradiction. These buffoons will not see this as the dramatic exaggeration that it is supposed to be. It’s not meant to be taken literally in the sense that King Solomon or Hezekiah really is the greatest monarch to have ever lived in all history.

Whether we like it or not, the authors in the Bible lived in a culture that continually used exaggeration and hyperbole in their communication. As a result, it really shouldn’t be a surprise that the Bible contains plenty of exaggeration and hyperbole. Christians need not be uncomfortable when faced with this. There is nothing wrong with exaggeration and hyperbole. I find it ridiculous that some Christians actually equate hyperbole and exaggeration with lying. Such notions display a complete ignorance of the Bible. In addition, skeptics would do well to avoid using instances of exaggeration and hyperbole as ammunition in their endless and fanatical crusade against Christianity.


Adam and Eve, Myth and Modernism

In a post written awhile back, Free Northerner wrote the following about creationism and the book of Genesis:

Creationists have lost completely their conception of primal/mythic truth. They can not conceive of Truth apart from fact, so their faith rests on a literal interpretation of what is fairly obviously poetical and has a high chance of not being meant to be understood literally. They believe that if creation as written isn’t fact then it can’t be true and therefore the Bible is false and the faith is false…

…As I said recently, “Modernism, in its essence, is the destruction of myth in the human experience and its replacement by fact, often false. Modernism is the entirety of truth being conquered by fact. Buying into the naturalist, materialist world-view is to swallow modernity whole.” To debate creationism as a science is to accept the modern frame.

I think he makes a good point. Our modern culture views truth and fact as if they are one and the same without realizing that literature and “myths” can communicate truths as well, regardless of whether they are fiction or not. Something like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Homer’s The Iliad is able to communicate truths about humanity even if they are fiction or didn’t really happen.

I have recently finished John Walton’s  book, The Lost World of Adam and Eve. The book is a game-changer and I highly recommend it to any who are interested. After reading this book, I believe Free Northerner is more accurate that even he might realize. In short, Walton argues that we are forcing our modern, anachronistic mindsets and motivations onto the Genesis account if we are expecting the bible to “do science”. Walton writes:

In our culture, we think “scientifically.” We are primarily concerned with causation, composition and systematization. In the ancient world they are more likely to think of the world in terms of symbols and to express their understanding by means of imagery. We are primarily interested in events and material realia whereas they are more interested in ideas and their representation (p. 136).

Walton goes on to describe what this means for the book of Genesis using a very interesting analogy. He compares two images of the night sky: a picture taken by the Hubble Space telescope and Van Gogh’s The Starry Night

pictures

Walton writes:

People would never consider doing astronomy from the van Gogh and could not do so even if they wanted to; the image contains nothing of the composition or position of stars. At the same time, we would not say that it is a false depiction of the night sky. Visual artists depict the world imagistically, and we recognize that [van Gogh’s] depiction is independent of science but not independent of truth… Imagistic history, like that preserved in Genesis, is to history as The Starry Night is to a Hubble photograph.

If this is the case, how exactly do we look at the creation story? We come from a scientific culture that is concerned with fact; therefore we are inclined to think about material origins and the mechanisms that were used to create this world. We then read Genesis as describing just that, the material origins and mechanisms that created the world. However, is that what the Genesis story is really claiming? Walton argues that no, the Genesis account is not a scientific treatise on the material origins of the planet. Therefore we shouldn’t treat the account as such.

Well, then what is the Genesis account trying to do? Walton argues that the first chapter of genesis is an account of the functional origins of the universe, rather than the material origin. To borrow one of Walton’s illustrations, let’s imagine a house. A house is not a home. You can have a house completely built with it’s walls, carpeting and flooring already in place; however, it is not the same thing as a home. When does a house become a home? When the residents move in and begin to live there. Walton argues that Genesis is not telling us how the house was constructed, rather, it is telling us how the house became a home. There is much more to this than I can write here, so I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Walton’s book if your interest is piqued.

Regarding the account of Adam and Eve, Walton affirms that they are indeed historical figures, however,  Genesis isn’t really interested in them as historical figures. In other words, Genesis is not a biography of Adam and Eve. According to Walton, Genesis treats Adam and Eve as archetypal figures and uses them to illustrate truths about humanity. Thus, what was true for Adam is also true for us. Let’s use Genesis 2:7 to help illustrate Walton’s argument:

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)

Now the question we must ask ourselves is whether this verse is actually referring to the literal, material creation of a single man from literal dust. Walton highlights a few problems with this interpretation:

The most basic way to think about dust would be to view it as part of the chemical composition of the human body. That approach immediately has several drawbacks. First, the Israelites would not be inclined to thinking in terms of chemistry. They would have no means to do that, and therefore they had something else in mind as they considered this detail. Second, we would have to consider it flawed chemistry from our vantage point, in that dust could hardly be considered the primary ingredient of the human body.

A common alternative to thinking in terms of chemistry is to understand the statement in the text as referring to craftsmanship. In this way of thinking, the imagery is of a “hands-on” God who has fashioned his creature with loving care and then bestowed on him the breath of life. The major problem with this is that the ingredient chosen would not make sense if the main idea were craftsmanship. One shapes clay, not dust. The latter is impervious to being shaped by its very nature. (p. 72-73)

An alternative interpretation would be that the dust here refers to mortality. What the text is doing here is highlighting Adam’s mortality in order to illuminate the truth about our own mortality. In other word, just as Adam was mortal, so too are we. We see this emphasized later when God tells Adam that he is dust and that to dust Adam shall return (Genesis 3:19). Now, I know that many reading that will immediately chafe at such a statement. How could Adam be mortal before the fall? After all, death came into the world because of sin, that’s what Paul says. This contradicts what Paul is says in the New Testament. Now, I have no intention of defending Walton’s theory against every objection that could come up. I’ll simply direct those interested to pick up a copy of Walton’s book and read it thoroughly before objecting. That said, I will provide an answer to this specific objection.

Walton provides some persuasive textual evidence for Adam being created mortal. For example, the text mentions that the tree of life was in the garden. The fact that God provided one suggests mortality because immortal people have no need for a tree of life. What about Paul? Walton has this to say:

Now, lest we think that Paul’s statement (Romans 5:12) might be out of sync with Genesis, we out to look more carefully at what [Paul] is affirming. In Genesis, we find that people are cast from God’s presence when they sin and that a cherub is posted by the entry to the garden to prevent access to the tree of life (Genesis 3:24). If people were created mortal, the tree of life would have provided a remedy, an antidote to their mortality. When they sinned, they lost access to the antidote and therefore were left with no remedy and were doomed to die (i.e., subject to their natural mortality). In this case, Paul is saying only that all of us are subject to death because of sin: sin cost us the solution to mortality, and so we are trapped in our mortality. He is therefore not affirming that people were created immortal and is precisely in line with the information from Genesis (p.73-74)

Of course other objections are also brought up. How can creation be good if death existed before the fall?  Again, if you really are interested in understanding Walton’s interpretation of Genesis, I highly recommend you read Walton’s book. Walton deals with this objection and many others while also shedding some much needed light on the more confusing passages. I bring this book to your attention for two reasons. First, I think it is a fascinating book that offers and intriguing interpretation of Genesis, original sin and how that fits in with what Paul teaches in the New Testament. The author of Genesis is much more interested in showing us who we are as humans and our relationship to God rather than offering a scientific explanation of the origins of the world. Now, before anyone gets ahead of themselves, I’m not saying I completely agree with Walton on this; I simply think this is an interesting interpretation that Christians should think about.

Second, I think Free Northerner makes a very good point. We’ve lost our sense of “mythic/primal” truth and have become obsessed with facts and science; they are the only things that matter now. The fact that we are looking for science in a text that arguable has none says more about our modern obsessions than anything else. We’ve, in essence, ingested the poison of modernity which tells us that scientific fact is all that matters. As a result, we’ve lost our sense of the divine, of beauty, of mythic truth and much more. There is so much more that can be said on this subject but we’ll end with Free Northerner’s powerful thought:

Science discovers fact, mundane truth, but it doesn’t discover Truth and it cannot create Truth, it cannot even create truth. To elevate science above its place is to destroy reason and Truth.


God Ordering Genocide

I noticemany skeptics and atheists whining about God supposedly ordering genocide in the Old Testament. This episode is used by many as proof of a wicked and evil God. Take a look at what Richard Dawkins has to say:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

I don’t have the time to respond to all of Dawkins’ stupidity, but this should suffice for now:

Dawkinsignorant

Look at me, I’m Richard Dawkins, I can use big boy words

I’ve decided to write a bit about this episode because I see it repeated everywhere with so many people completely ignorant of both ancient history and culture. I’ll be honest, the passages in question used to bother me quite a bit as well; however, learning historical, textual and cultural context of the passages sheds light on many things. I hope that any other Christians who are bothered by the passages or have no idea how to talk about them find some answers here. Be warned though, because this will be a much longer post than usual. Furthermore, I will only be concentrating on the destruction of the Canaanites. There are many other episodes skeptics and atheists will point to to demonstrate the wickedness of God but I don’t have the space to address those concerns as well. I might do so in a future post. Finally, note that I will be using Glenn Miller’s fantastic essay on the subject as a template in addition to writing my own thoughts. I highly recommend Glenn Miller’s essay to any who want more details.

I.  The Commands Function as Judgments.

Let us begin with God’s actual commands:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land which you go to possess, and has cast out many nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than you, and when the Lordyour God delivers them over to you, you shall conquer them and utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them nor show mercy to them.Nor shall you make marriages with them. You shall not give your daughter to their son, nor take their daughter for your son. For they will turn your sons away from following Me, to serve other gods; so the anger of the Lord will be aroused against you and destroy you suddenly. But thus you shall deal with them: you shall destroy their altars, and break down their sacred pillars, and cut down their wooden images,[a] and burn their carved images with fire. (Deuteronomy 7:1-5)

16 “But of the cities of these peoples which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance, you shall let nothing that breathes remain alive, 17 but you shall utterly destroy them: the Hittite and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite, just as the Lord your God has commanded you, 18 lest they teach you to do according to all their abominations which they have done for their gods, and you sin against the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 20:16-17)

I have to hand it to the skeptics and atheists, when reading these verses out of context, it really does sound like God is ordering genocide. Apparently the Israelites are to utterly destroy these nations. However, even here, we see a hint of something larger at play. Verse 18 shows that God is giving these commands to destroy because “otherwise [the Canaanites] will teach you the evils of their religion”. Interesting, I wonder what those evils might be… we’ll come back to this later.

In his essay, Glenn Miller highlights other events that function as quasi-precedents. He points to the Flood, Sodom & Gomorrah, the Amalekites and Ninevah. Let’s look, for example, at Sodom and Gomorrah. Here’s what God says when he tells Abraham of his intentions to destroy the cities:

20 And the Lord said, ‘Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grave, 21 I will go down now and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry against it that has come to Me; and if not, I will know.’ (Genesis 18:20-21)

Here, there is mention of an “outcry” against the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah suggesting that whatever crimes both cities were guilty of, they were international in scope. Furthermore, Abraham actually saved the city earlier and he, along with his nephew Lot, attempted to ‘preach’ to the cities (Genesis 14). With both Abraham and Lot living in the area, the cities had access to ‘truth’ for about 25 years before their destruction.Glen Miller puts it in these terms:

It is important to note that (1) they had plenty of access to ‘truth’ (at LEAST 25 years); (2) their crimes were perverse, public, and the cause of international protest/outcry to God(!); (3) the annihilation was a judgment; (4) God was willing to spare the innocent people–if any could be found; (5) children living in the households of their evil parents apparently died swiftly in the one-day event (instead of being killed–as homeless orphans–by a combination of starvation, wild beasts, exposure, and disease; or instead of being captured and sold as slaves by neighboring tribes, for the older ones perhaps?); (6) the one innocent man and woman are delivered (along with their children of the household).

Like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Miller notes that the other events follow a similar pattern:

    1. The annihilations are judgments.
    2. These judgments are for publicly-recognized (indeed, international and cross-cultural in scope!) cruelty and violence of an EXTREME and WIDESPREAD nature.
    3. These judgments are preceded by LONG PERIODS of warning/exposure to truth (and therefore, opportunity to “change outcomes”).
    4. Innocent adults are given a ‘way out’
    5. Household members share in the fortunes of the parents (for good or ill).
    6. Somebody ALWAYS escapes (Lot, Noah, Kenites)
    7. These are exceptional cases–there are VERY, VERY few of these.

The example of Nineveh is an interesting one. Nineveh was the capital the Assyrian empire, a nation known for its brutality and cruelty. God commands Jonah to preach to the them and get them to repent, otherwise the whole city would be destroyed. Much to the surprise of Jonah, the people of the city actually repent and, true to his promise, God spares them. This infuriates Jonah who wanted them destroyed. If God chose to spare Ninevah because they repented, then could not the same be said of the Canaanites? Obviously we must ask whether the Canaanites fit into this pattern. Were they guilty of any evils and, if so, did they refuse to repent. Let’s see if the biblical text gives us anything.

“Do not think in your heart, after the Lord your God has cast them out before you, saying, ‘Because of my righteousness the Lord has brought me in to possess this land’; but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out from before you. (Deuteronomy 9:4)

24 ‘Do not defile yourselves with any of these things; for by all these the nations are defiled, which I am casting out before you. 25 For the land is defiled; therefore I visit the punishment of its iniquity upon it, and the land vomits out its inhabitants. (Leviticus 18:24-25)

12 For whoever does these things is detestable to the Lord; and because of these detestable things the Lord your God will drive them out before you. (Deuteronomy 18:12)

From these verses we can see quite clearly that the Canaanites were guilty of “detestable things”. Furthermore, it is for these things that they are being destroyed/driven out. From this we can safely assume that the destruction of the Canaanites was intended as a judgement for their wickedness. Furthermore, not only where the Canaanites committing great evil, they had a heavy corrupting influence on those around them as the above passage from Deuteronomy 7 makes clear. Thus, the Canaanites were being destroyed for two reasons. First, they guilty of evil deeds and, second, they influenced those around them to commit the same evil deeds. Obviously this brings us to the next big question. Who exactly were these people and what were they doing that was so detestable to God?

II. A Snapshot of Canaanite Culture

We again begin with the Biblical text. In Leviticus 18, God gives the Israelites a list of practices, mostly sexual in nature, that are forbidden to them. Notice, however, that this entire list is prefaced with a general warning:

“Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘I am the Lord your God. You shall not do what is done in the land of Egypt where you lived, nor are you to do what is done in the land of Canaan where I am bringing you; you shall not walk in their statutes. (Leviticus 18:2-3)

We see that God is telling the Israelites to not follow in the footsteps of the Canaanites and commit similar kinds of acts. What follows is a list of Canaanite practices which the Israelites were forbidden from copying.  Here are a few of the practices:

No one is to approach any close relative to have sexual relations. I am the Lord. (Leviticus 18:6)

Do not dishonor your father by having sexual relations with your mother.She is your mother; do not have relations with her. (Leviticus 18:7)

Do not have sexual relations with your sister, either your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether she was born in the same home or elsewhere. (Leviticus 18:9)

Do not have sexual relations with your son’s daughter or your daughter’s daughter; that would dishonor you. (Leviticus 18:10)

Do not have sexual relations with your father’s sister; she is your father’s close relative. (Leviticus 18:12)

Do not have sexual relations with your mother’s sister, because she is your mother’s close relative. (Leviticus 18:13)

Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the Lord. (Leviticus 18:21)

Do not have sexual relations with an animal and defile yourself with it. A woman must not present herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it; that is a perversion. (Leviticus 18:23)

Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. (Leviticus 18:24)

…and if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you. (Leviticus 18:28)

From this list alone, a picture of Canaanite culture begins to emerge. They practiced incest, child sacrifice, bestiality and cultic prostitution. We also see God holding the Israelites to the same standard as he holds the Canaanites: if they followed these forbidden practices, they too would be driven out from the land in the same manner. Miller offers evidence from archaeology and extra-biblical literature confirming this image of the Canaanites. In other words, the biblical authors aren’t just making this up.

Here is one scholarly description:

Its origin (human sacrifice) must be sought, evidently, in Canaanite culture (in the broad sense). archaeologists have discovered urns containing burnt bones of lambs and goats, and, more often, of children (at Tanit, Carthage). There is, too, a famous text of Diodorus Siculus: in 310 B.C., when a disaster was threatening Carthage, the inhabitants of the town decided it was due to the anger of Kronos, to whom they had formerly sacrificed their finest children: instead, they had begun to offer sickly children, or children they had bought. Thereupon, they sacrificed two hundred children from the noblest families. There was a bronze statue of Kronos with outstretched arms, and the child was placed on its hands and rolled into the furnace. Whether the details be true or false, the story is evidence of a custom to which other classical authors also allude…

The sacrifice of children, then, by burning them to death probably made its way into Israel from Phoenicia (note: the main transmitter of Canaanite culture) during a period of religious syncretism. The Bible mentions only two specific instances, and they are motivated by the same exceptional circumstances as the Phoenician sacrifices… Yet the custom must have been fairly wide- spread to have deserved the condemnations uttered by Deuteronomy, Leviticus and the Prophets. Though Phoenician texts properly so called do not mention the word, it is possible (we say no more) that the sacrifice was called molk in Phoenicia, as in Carthage, and that it came into Israel under this name.” (Ancient Israel: 445-446).

In fact, child sacrifice burial grounds have been found throughout Palestine and the Phoenician Empire. Glen Miller notes that this was not something that was commonly practiced by other Ancient Near Eastern Cultures. It was “specifically Canaanite”.

Similarly, both incest and bestiality were forbidden in other ancient law codes and is likely unique to Canaanite culture. Most of the data supporting this comes from Canaanite religious mythology. Miller tells us that:

The only external data about Canaanite practice we have here (you can imagine how difficult it would be to leave archaeological traces of this around) comes from the religious myths and ‘role models’ of their gods. It must be remembered that the religious rituals of ancient cultures were generally ‘reenactments’ of divine activities. For example, when a religious myth would have one god impregnating another–producing “spring”–the humans would “re-enact” this with the cultic prostitutes.

So when you read Canaanite mythology describing a god having sex with his daughters or a deity having sex with a cow, remember that these acts were supposed to be reenacted during religious ceremonies. When the Bible shows God commanding the destruction of the Canaanites, these are the being being destroyed. They sacrificed infants and children, they practiced ritual incest and bestality. Lovely people, indeed. This sexual degeneracy would also lead to other problems as noted here:

By 1400 B.C., the Canaanite civilization and religion had become one of the weakest, most decadent, and most immoral cultures of the civilized world. Many of its repulsive practices were prohibited to Israel in Leviticus 18. In view of the sexual perversions listed, it is more than likely that venereal diseases ravaged a large part of the population. Hence stern measures were required to prevent decimation of the Israelites by the spread of these and other diseases such as malaria and smallpox. Contagion would be possible by sudden fraternization before immunity could develop. (Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, 707).

In addition to these problems, the Canaanites were “a distinctly war-culture” who brought about wholesale destruction of cities and people. They also fought with each other constantly. The point of all this is to show that the Canaanites weren’t just a harmless, innocent group of people people minding their own business until God decided to wipe them out just because. The evidence shows that the Canaanites were a decadent, destructive civilization that caused much misery to those around them. In addition, they had plenty of access to the truth and influences to moderation, they just ignored it. Here are a few more points Miller makes

  • During the 400 years, the Canaanites would have still been surrounded by offspring of Abraham–through Ishmael and Esau, not to mention that of Lot. The nations of Moab, Ammon, Edom would have preserved early traditions about Elohim for ‘exchange’ with the nations.
  • Immediately after the Exodus, word ‘got out’ about the Hebrews, and made its way into Canaan. By the time Israel made it to Jericho, a common prostitute in the city knew of the Israelites, their battles, God, his drying of the Red Sea, and could say that “When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below”.
  • Rahab had heard about the Exodus (some 40+ years earlier), the conquest of the Amorite Kings Sihon and Og (a few months earlier), and the land-grant promise by YHWH(!)–given 400 years earlier. News traveled fast back in those days, so they probably had at least 40 years notice of Israel’s coming.
  • There was an abundance of information for these people–perhaps even MORE THAN the other nations around them had!–but they did not respond appropriately. (The other nations in the ANE seemed to respond to ‘available’ truth with a degree of moderation and correspondingly did not develop the ruthless, cruel, and degenerate practices of their Canaanite neighbors.)

In order words:

These nations show up in archaeology and literature as a uniquely evil and destructive civilization, whose culpability is increased due to the abundance of truth and religious warnings which they were confronted with, and had access to. In contrast to the vast majority of surrounding nations, the Canaanite/Amorite cultures would not act responsibly and prudently, in matters of foreign relations and domestic practice. The result was a destructive and malignant force, in an already difficult ANE historical setting. If the nations of that day could have had a vote on who to ‘destroy’, they all would have voted for the Canaanite/Amorite culture.

In summary, we have an extremely vile culture, worse than ISIS, that had a corrupting influence on those around them. They were cruel, aggressive and decadent. They practiced wanton destruction and cruelty, bestality, incest, child sacrifice and cultic prostitution. Furthermore, Miller notes that even the “Canaanite” appears in ancient sources as an insult; Canaanites were likely seen as evil even by the neighboring nations. This is the nation/culture that the Israelites were commanded to destroy. Personally, I see the Canaanites as an ancient parallel to modern-day ISIS. You see Americans on both sides of the political spectrum as well as people from other countries all calling for its destruction. My guess is that the destruction of the Canaanites would have been similar in some ways to the destruction of ISIS.

III. God’s Commands

Now that we know what kind of people the Canaanites were, what exactly did God tell them to do? Miller lists the commands in bullet-point form. See his essay for more details.

  • Unlike the early Amorites, Israel was NOT supposed to destroy the cities and buildings. The main exception was Hazor–the ‘nerve center’ of Canaanite culture and trade (Deuteronomy 6:10)
  • Unlike the Egyptians they were NOT supposed to destroy the vegetation and the trees. (Deuteronomy 20:19)
  • They were restricted from attacking Esau’s land (Deuteronomy 2:4)
  • They were restricted from attacking Moab (Lot’s descendants) (Deuteronomy 2:9)
  • They were restricted from attacking Ammon (Lot’s descendants) (Deuteronomy 2:19)
  • They were NEVER allowed to take the cultic objects–with the precious metals and stones (Deuteronomy 7:25)
  • They were REQUIRED to offer peace to nations at a distance (Deuteronomy 20:10-16)
  • There were restrictions on how Israelite men treated female war captives. Scholars have noted that this was an unparalleled benevolence toward women, in Ancient Near Eastern warfare. (Deuteronomy 12:10)
  • This obviously was NOT a war of unrestrained lust, greed for expensive goods, or even “empire-building”–God did NOT tolerate those attitudes. For example, in Joshua 7, an Israelite DID take some of the expense idol pieces, and God held the entire community responsible for this breach.

Furthermore, Miller notes that the commands differ in their actual content as well. Take this list for example:

As Miller notes, there is a huge difference between destruction and dispossession. According to Miller, dispossession words are used three times as often as destruction words suggesting that the overall intended effect was for the people to migrate elsewhere. Dispossession would refer to those who ran away before the Israelites got there while destruction would refer to the fate of those who stubbornly stayed behind. Accordingly, the plan was to destroy the nations and drive out the individuals. Again, Miller states that

With the national and cultic centers destroyed (along with the staunchest, die-hard defenders of that culture inside those cities), the culture would simply dissipate and evaporate in the land. As other cultures absorbed individual Canaanite families and groups, the Canaanite cultural depravity would not have had the critical mass to perpetuate itself… the culture would have simply “died from starvation”

This fits in very well with the social values of the ancient world I’ve described elsewhere. In short, the ancients were group-minded; they placed high priority on the survival of the group rather than the individual. Therefore, values such as conformity and “going along with the group” was of extreme importance. A depraved culture like that of the Canaanites needed to be destroyed in order stop its corrupting influence. Simply trying to change the culture by converting a few people wouldn’t work so well when conformity was considered a virtue. In addition, it was intended that those who chose to leave would migrate elsewhere and be absorbed into less depraved cultures.  In essence, my extremely limited knowledge of ancient cultural attitudes confirms Miller’s point.

We also cannot forget that, in the ancient world,  most groups were nomadic and migrated a lot. Therefore, migration wouldn’t have been as difficult a thing to imagine for them. Again, Miller writes:

Migration was a fact and a way of life and not that big of a deal in that time period…  With very little notice, whole tribes could migrate in days… In nearby Greece, during the Archaic period, entire cities migrated to avoid conquest… The Canaanites had decades of notice–authenticated by the miracles of the Exodus–and any sane ones probably did leave before Israel got there. Abandoned city structures are common all over the Ancient Near East and Ancient Middle East from that period.

Those who stubbornly remained in the cities and faced the Israelites would have been the “carriers” of the diseased culture and had to be wiped out to ensure its extinction. Miller writes that:

A dispossession of Canaanite population appears to be a more ‘humane’ way of reducing the international impact of an already internationally-despised culture, without having to kill the majority of the carriers of that culture.

Therefore we can conclude that this annihilation language really refers to the Canaanite nation and culture as a whole. It is the nations and culture that are to be utterly destroyed. Those that migrated out of the city when given the chance were spared and only the stubborn “carriers” of the Canaanite culture  who stayed behind would have been killed. That way, the decadent and corrupt culture would lose its influence and be destroyed. Those that stayed behind would end up dooming themselves and their families.

Of course, skeptics are likely to bring up the fate of the children of the parents who stayed behind. These would have been killed for something that was the fault of the parents. This is true, but there are also some points to think about. We must remember that children always share in the fortune of their parents whether for good or ill. We see this happening today as well. The parents lose their jobs and become homeless, their children share in that misfortune. A pregnant mother abuses drugs and alcohol which leads to her baby’s birth defects. A father kills his wife and goes to prison while the children are sent into foster care and neglected. In short, the actions of the parents always affect their children for better or worse; it’s a fact of life.

What about the Israelites? Couldn’t they simply spare the children or “adopt” them into their nation, so to speak? Such a question betrays an extreme ignorance of the type of lives that ancient people lived. Let me highlight a few bits of information that will hopefully put things into a better context. Ancient life was a daily struggle for survival. A majority of people almost never had enough food to eat and were usually malnourished. Resources were extremely scarce… to the point that the Israelites couldn’t even take on these children even if they wanted to. If you barely had enough to support your family, how could you take on more dependents? Lifeboat ethics really comes into play here.

Then why not just let the children go? They obviously didn’t do anything wrong. Why kill them. Again, this question also doesn’t take into account the historical context. Let’s suppose you have two siblings, a boy and a girl. Their parents were killed in battle and they were left alone. The Israelite soldiers leave the siblings alone and leave. What now? The boy and girl are scampering alone in the ruins of the only home they knew. Where will they get food and water? Who will protect them from roving bands of marauders and slave-traders? These slave-traders and bandits would have kept the girl as a sex-slave after gang-raping her and killed the boy if they did not do the same to him.This is what the children faced if they were left alone. Now you tell me, would you rather perish quickly at the hands of the Israelite soldiers or face a slow death from starvation, dehydration or bandit cruelty?

Suppose you walk through the desert and find someone in the process of a slow and miserable death. There is nothing you can do to save him. You’re both far away from any kind of help. Furthermore, any attempts to move the man would only prolong his eventual death and agony. You take out your gun and shoot the person in the head. Is it violent? Yes. Is it brutal? Absolutely. However, it’s also the most humane thing to do in light of the circumstances. Most of us live in comparative luxury and have never had to make these sorts of decisions and can’t possibly understand what it must have been like for the ancient people.

IV. Conclusion

Our very brief survey of these “genocide” passages should, hopefully, paint a different picture. This was not simply God commanding genocide on a bunch of people because he felt like it. Furthermore, it was not motivated by any sort of imperialistic ambitions as some believe. Miller concludes with the following:

What started out as the “Unfair genocide of the Canaanites” ended up as the “Less-than-they-deserved punitive deportation from the land”–filled with patience and mercy and ‘second chances’. It was nonetheless a judgment, and nonetheless involved death–as it later would be repeated to His people.

It is crucial that we remember how big a difference our lives are now from those of the ancients. An average Joe lives in more luxury than the kings of the past. So before we are tempted to whine about perceived injustices, we must remember just how different ancient life was. Furthermore, skeptics and atheists who complain about these so-called horrors in the Old Testament would do well to to learn a bit about ancient history and culture before they open their mouths. Many of them know very little about historical and cultural context of the Bible and believe that just pointing to a verse that looks bad out-of-context is enough to completely disprove Christianity.

I hope that those genuinely curious about this event in the Old Testament come away with a deeper understanding of what really went on. Furthermore, when confronted with claims of “divinely-sanctioned genocide” that many ignorant skeptics and atheists make, you’ll have an answer for them.