Genocide in the Bible (Canaan’s Conquest)

Genocide is a charge often brought against the Bible by its critics. The destructive campaign in Canaan, they say, is evidence that the God of the Bible is nothing but a bloodthirsty god of war. Such a god is not worth our consideration or our worship since there can be no excuse for the disastrous war crimes perpetrated against the Canaanite people.

This attack is incredibly impactful in our day and age due to the recent genocide perpetrated against the Jews in the holocaust. Nazi Germany hunted down innocent Jews, stole their belongings, and systematically exterminated them. The holocaust is well known and widely accepted as one of the evilest campaigns perpetrated in the 20thcentury. It is the horrible event of the holocaust that colors our understanding of the term “genocide.” We think of a stronger and established nation targeting innocent people for no reason other than their race and then systematically killing them. This understanding is perhaps reinforced with our description of the campaign as the invasion of Canaan by Israel. The language itself seems to imply a race war.

We should understand that this is an in-house issue. If one presumes that God does not exist, then the question of Canaan’s conquest becomes irrelevant. One ancient people slaughtered another and then wrote about it.  Horrible, but not surprising. Suppose one is going to say that this is a challenge to Christianity. In that case, one has to claim an internal contradiction in the Christian worldview (namely that it is contradictory to say that God is “good” and that God ordered the conquest of Canaan). For this reason, we should look at these events from the Christian perspective to see if there is internal inconsistency.

There are many concerns here with addressing.  First, we will see that the circumstances surrounding Canaan’s conquest were nothing like the holocaust.  We will see that God in Canaan is nothing like the Nazis in Germany.  Finally, we will see that neither the holocaust nor the Canaan conquest can pose a challenge to God’s existence.

Was Canaan right to be judged?

We generally know that the Jews were innocent in the events leading up to the holocaust, but the Canaanites were far from innocent. When we examine these peoples’ culture, it is essential to understand that God was justified in condemning them. After all, God had waited 430 years until the sin of the Canaanite people had reached its limit. What were these sins that warranted the sentence of God? Much of what would be known to the original audience has been lost to popular audiences today.

Paul Copan describes the brutal nature of their attitude toward human beings through the lens of their depiction of the goddess Anath.[1]He explains how she would decorate her body with her victims’ body parts and take joy and sensuous delight at their gruesome nature. She is described as being full of laughter with a heart full of joy and washing her hands in human gore before finding something else to amuse her. If this is the nature of the goddess that the Canaanites worshipped, then it is evident that they paid no mind to humanity’s intrinsic dignity.

Copan also describes the immoral nature of their religious practices.[2]He explains how the Canaanites engaged in illicit sexual activities such as incest, homosexuality, bestiality, and adultery. They believed that these activities should be performed on the religious high places to inspire another of their gods, Baal, to copulate and bring fertility to the land. Not only was the immorality of the Canaanites beyond the pale, but it was justified as a religious practice such that it was considered “good.” This speaks to the depraved nature of Canaanite culture.

Most disturbing was the nature of the worship of Molech that was prevalent in the land.[3]We have discovered the remains of trophets (open-air sacrificial pits) in other areas, most notably at Carthage.[4]The term trophet means “roaster” or “place of burning.”. At these sanctuaries, the partially cremated remains of children have been found and inscriptions indicating that they had been living sacrifices. These findings lead us to conclude that the Canaanites sacrificed their children alive by fire in God’s name. With this understanding, it is not a question whether God was justified in judging the Canaanites but wonder at God’s patience in waiting so long to do so. If genocide is the massacre of an innocent people group, Canaan’s’ conquest cannot be considered a genocide.

There’s another reason we shouldn’t think of Canaan’s conquest as a “genocide.” Typically, we get the concept that the Israelites exterminated the whole people group (including all members) due to the language that states as much in Joshua (see Joshua 10 and 11). As Copan points out, this was more likely exaggeration rhetoric typical in the day than an accurate description of the carnage’s extent.[5]Consider, for example, that Joshua later refers to the Canaanites who were utterly destroyed later in his book (see Joshua 14, 15, and 27). We see a similar treatment of the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15, who reappear in 1 Samuel 27, 1 Samuel 30, and 1 Chronicles 4. If the writer understood that the entire population was wiped out, why does he refer to them later?  The answer is that this sort of language was just a way of saying that the victory was complete, not that all of the losers were killed.  Copan points out that this sort of exaggeration rhetoric is certainly not unique to the Bible. He cites similar language among the Egyptians, Syrians, Moabites, Hittites, and Assyrians. The point is that these authors were not trying to give an accurate description of the losers’ fate but to convey the idea of total victory. The custom was to use this sort of rhetoric in describing military victories; no one took it literally. As Copan points out, we have similar language in sports commentary in our day. A commentator may say that one team slaughtered another, but none of us will understand him to mean mass murder has occurred.

Was it God’s place to pass judgment?

In considering God’s right to order conquest, we need first to understand God’s prerogative as it pertains to life. Remember: if we’re looking for internal contradictions in the worldview, then we need to understand the view.  Life is a gift from God (see Ecclesiastes 12:7), and everyone in the world belongs to God because they are his creation (see Psalm 24:1). Christians also believe that God is the sustaining cause who keeps us alive (see Colossians 1:17). For these reasons, it is impossible for God to “take” a life in the sense of taking something from a person. Instead, God ceases to give life.

Imagine a friend whom you’ve been helping financially. Perhaps you are giving this friend $5 per day, every day, for weeks on end. If you decide one day to stop giving your friend the money, have you wronged him? Certainly not since it had been a gift all along. He may be surprised by your decision (if he has grown accustomed to the income), but he cannot say that you have wronged him. You never owed him the money (it was a gift), so you cannot be accused of wrongdoing because you cease to give it continually.

In the same way, God cannot be accused of wrong because he stops giving us life. He never owed us life, and so he has not wronged us if he stops providing it. The man who has only 30 years cannot accuse God because he did not have 31, no matter how many years God may give to another man. God didn’t owe the Canaanites more life than he gave them.

We can think of this another way by considering a loan of something to a friend, say a lawnmower. Your friend may use the lawnmower every week so that he comes to depend on it. However, if you were to ask for the lawnmower’s return, could you be accused of wronging your friend? Certainly not. The lawnmower was yours all along, so you may call it due whenever you like.

In the same way, God may call our lives due whenever he chooses without doing us wrong. Our lives, such as they are, belong to God and not to us. This is also true of the Canaanites. Their lives belonged to God, and He cannot be accused of wrongdoing because he has called their lives due.

An argument against God is an argument against evil.

If God does not exist, then neither the holocaust nor the conquest in Canaan is evil. This is because of the grounding problem of objective morality. If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist. There is no foundation for objective morality. Christians believe this as do many atheist philosophers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, and Friedrich Nietzsche.[6]If God does not exist, then nothing can be objectively evil. We are nothing but combinations of atoms and molecules that came together for no particular purpose and will come apart again without rhyme or reason. If God does not exist, then nothing that we do matters, nor can any activity we engage in be genuinely evil. If God does not exist, then genocide is not “evil” because there is no such thing. Our recognition that genocide, such as occurred in the holocaust, is evil, provides us with good reason to believe that God exists.

Conclusion

We started by pointing out that the question of Canaan’s conquest is an internal question to Christianity. We have shown that the conquest has been erroneously labeled as genocide. God had a righteous reason to judge the Canaanites, and it is entirely his prerogative to have done so. Even apart from the Canaanites’ evil, God cannot be accused of evil in any event that he calls back the life he has given to people. Finally, we have seen that only if God exists is it even possible that things such as genocide can be evil. As it turns out, the very impulse that has caused the critic to challenge God’s existence over Canaan’s conquest is evidence that God exists.

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[1] Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011.

[2]ibid.

[3]Williams, Stephen N. “Could God Have Commanded The Slaughter of The Canaanites?” Tyndale Bulletin, 2012: 161-178.

[4]Smith, Jr., Henry B. “Canaanite Child Sacrifice, Abortion, And The Bible.” Journal of Ministry and Theology, 2013: 90-125.

[5]Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011.

[6] Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. Wheaton, IL: Good News Publishers, 2008.