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:
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, 2 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.3 Nor shall you make marriages with them. You shall not give your daughter to their son, nor take their daughter for your son. 4 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. 5 But thus you shall deal with them: you shall destroy their altars, and break down their sacred pillars, and cut down their wooden images, 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:
- The annihilations are judgments.
- These judgments are for publicly-recognized (indeed, international and cross-cultural in scope!) cruelty and violence of an EXTREME and WIDESPREAD nature.
- These judgments are preceded by LONG PERIODS of warning/exposure to truth (and therefore, opportunity to “change outcomes”).
- Innocent adults are given a ‘way out’
- Household members share in the fortunes of the parents (for good or ill).
- Somebody ALWAYS escapes (Lot, Noah, Kenites)
- 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.
4 “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:
2 “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘I am the Lord your God. 3 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.
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.