Did God Command Genocide?

October 25, 2017

 

Summary: Did God Command Genocide? Is God a terrorist? What is the difference between ISIS and the book of Joshua? In this article, we reveal the startling truth behind these questions, bringing fresh light to new atheist objections. Click here to subscribe to future posts.

Defaming God

 

In his seminal work, The God Delusion, evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, wrote the following: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction…” [1]

 

Richard Dawkins is contestably, the world’s most famous living atheist. He is the “leading light of the new atheist movement” which sees itself as at war with the faith. [2] Amongst his colleges, Dawkins has delivered, perhaps, the most searing comments of them all, arguing that scripture itself is the proof that the God of the Old Testament is anything but good. 

 

God, writes Dawkins, is “…jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; [an]…infanticidal, genocidal…capriciously malevolent bully.” [3] Wasting little time, Dawkins straightly states that the God of the Bible is a pernicious delusion, guilty of “Rivers of…ink [and] blood…” squandered in countless efforts to appease him. [4] 

 

Comments, such as these, have halted mannerly discourse. Christians, in fact, struggle hard not to agree with them. Indeed, given the wanton barbarism of ISIS, one could be hardly tempted to blame them. For how (so goes the argument) could God command his people to slaughter, even babies, at Canaan? And what is the difference between such a God, and the one bidding ISIS to fulfill his commands? 

    

Today, these questions are hardly addressed, not just by Christians, but by pastors who avoid them. Scared to respond, for fear of irruption, many now shrink before the pressures that face them. So then what is the truth about the God of Joshua, who commanded his people to seize lands by force? Is it even moral to defend such histories in light of recent developments now so close at hand?   

 

So What's the Difference?

 

Several months ago, I happened to face these matters personally. I was preaching at a church on a crisp Sunday morning. The topic of my message had nothing to do with the rather thorny subject of “ethnic cleansing.” Following the service, I remained to engage the entire congregation in Q + A. It was then that the question arose from a woman, burdened with the challenge of leading her children in the faith.  

  

“Ben, my kids are offended at ISIS,” she began. “As you know, the group is all over the news. They conquer cities, forcing conversions, slaughtering every person who attempts to resist them. The problem,” she continued, “arises whenever we come to the parallel stories at Canaan. Frankly, I’m lost to explain to my children why the God whom we preach is the slightest bit different.” 

 

Hearing her story, I instantly knew—her question had been more than just maternally driven. The challenges for her were deeply personal. She wondered how to grapple with the issues herself.   

 

Recalling the scriptures, I thus quickly understood. For these were some of the most troubling texts. As scripture reminds: “You must completely destroy…the…Canaanites…as the Lord your God has commanded…” (Deu 20:17; ESV) Other passages carry similar intent, calling for strict obedience to the violence of these texts. Such chilling statements, especially for skeptics, are horror-inducing and seem altogether mad. 

 

Turning to the woman, I therefore hastened to respond. For despite apparent impasses, the issues were resolvable. In fact, quite surprisingly, these questions only serve to expose the great problems which lie at the root of these objections. In practice, they only seem to survive where biblical and historical evidences are flatly ignored. This is the larger problem with these atheistic challenges. They reject all counter answers in order to win their “moral war.” 

 

I therefore responded by pointing out the cardinal issue. I alluded to the hypocrisy so often missed in these objections. For regarding the wars at Canaan, it is interesting to note that the majority of detractors seem to ignore our period texts. As scholar, Wesley Morriston wrote: “the most…up-to-date [sources do] not provide evidence of a particularly ‘debauched’…culture…” [5] Frankly, such statements appear eerily disinterested in acknowledging the bloody practices which were common before the wars. 

 

Yet, a broader survey reveals a history that is shocking. Ancient writer Plutarch, for example, plainly brings it to light. Commenting on the Phoenician (i.e. Canaanite) human sacrifices, he noted that the areas before the altars were typically “noisy.” [6] According to record, shrill flutes and drums were sounded so that “…the cries of the wailing [babies] should not reach the ears of the people.” [7] Clearly, such comments only demonstrate the point that modern liberal dissenters are simply out of touch with history.  

 

On the other hand, conservative scholars note: “…[when the Phoenicians] wished to succeed in [war]…[they] would vow by one of their children….A bronze image…was set up among them, stretching out its cupped hands above a bronze cauldron….As the flame burning the child surrounded the body, the limbs would shrivel up and the mouth would appear to grin as if laughing.” [8] Here then are the very acts which Richard Dawkins has decried—namely, exterminating infants in the name of religion. 

 

Lest the irony of the point be lost here, it should be noted that this was common. Scholar, Shelby Brown, for example, described it as “infanticide.” [9] The death toll would thus have been enormously high, and would even have included the killing of children as old as age four! Later pagan practices which borrowed from the period involved slaying children old enough to have been counted a family heir. [10] The level of depravity was therefore, simply outrageous—enough to arouse a civilized nation to arms and even to war. 

 

I therefore explained to the woman the broader picture. I revealed why the doubts of her children were deeply mis-conceived. For when considering these brutal practices against the backdrop of modern law, it quickly becomes apparent that these were crimes against humanity. Hence, it would have been immoral for a nation not to respond. The horrors of Canaan were simply beyond imagination. As surviving texts reveal, the people’s rank disregard for the sacredness of human life was almost totally universal. 

 

"My Kids Won't Listen!"

 

Examining the woman’s face, however, I could see that she wasn’t quieted. Somehow, my answers had failed to reach her deeper questions. She wondered not just why the Canaanite people deserved to die, but specifically, how to explain it to her modern-minded children. For popular critics, the likes of Dawkins, have hushed such histories, poisoning opinions, as they do, against the scriptures. Still others have shockingly shamed western readers for being “snobbish” and for failing to be sensitive to ancient cultic “morals.” 

 

But such grotesque arguments only destabilize modern objections. They remove all grounds for referring to God as a moral-monster. For if the Canaanite practices were truly justifiable, why (we question the critics) complain about the God of scripture at all? The entire argument is self-refuting. The controversy is only fueled by the ignorance of its proponents. The question therefore is not: Is God a terrorist for wiping out Canaan? Rather, the question is: Do terrorists deserve to die? 

 

In an October 2016 article published by National Geographic, writer, Daniel Stone, interviewed photographer, Moises Saman. [11] The headline of the article provocatively read: “How One Man Captured the Horrors of ISIS.” [12] The many vivid photos portrayed the mid-east struggle, showing how the terrorist group sets up it’s torture chambers. The absurdity of it all is simply overwhelming. Hardly anyone would deny that these people deserve to die. 

 

Hence, at the risk of sounding pedantic—Canaan was a monster show. It was a world which had fully sunken to the basest moral levels. The fact that our society would fault God or Israel for intervening says more about our depraved culture than it does about the Bible. Nor do the complaints that the Canaanite children were killed in the process do anything to impune the moral character of God. In reality, such occurrences are simply collateral damage—the unavoidable outcome of engaging in a just war. 

 

About this, Paul Copan questions: “…what of terrorized mothers trying to protect their…children while [the Israelites]….invade?” [13] He then answers by noting that a cause is morally justifiable (for example stopping Hitler) even if civilians are killed in the process. [14] This, he candidly refers to as the “unfortunate collateral damage” that naturally comes with engaging in such scenarios. [15] It is, as the apologist notes, an example of God’s purposes being fulfilled, despite the numerous terrors of war. 

 

Incidentally, this is why Israel never singularly "targeted" babies. Rather, infant casualty was merely tolerated, as in the firing of Ai (see Jo 8:19-20). The city was set ablaze in order to strike fear into the heart of the enemy. Evidently, the tactic worked as Israel “…struck…the men of Ai.” (vs. 20-21; ESV) 

 

Finally, the charge of genocide is simply inadmissible. For there is no biblical evidence that all the Canaanites died. In fact, the sacred text expressly commands the Israelites to drive them out. This was clearly part of the larger pattern, purpose and plan of God. As scripture records:

 

“When you pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you…” (Nu 33:51-52; ESV; emphasis mine)

 

Conclusion:

 

In closing, it should be noted that Dawkins' argument is misdirected. It sadly passes over critical moral issues. For if objections, such as these are truly justifiable, then no cause, however noble, could preponderate civilian casualties. Hence, wars fought for reasons, such as the abolition of slavery, would themselves be abominable if tolerant of infant death. But that would only preclude the possibility of resisting the spread of gratuitous evil by means of force. 

 

On a personal note, let me say that this has been one of my most disturbing articles for me to write. I simply cannot express in words at times the depth of my revulsion. Yet as I slowly turned the issues, over and over, the conclusions I have written here seem wholly unavoidable. I therefore see these accounts as a parallel to the allied forces which stormed the beaches of Normandy, fighting to stop Hitler’s Reich. When the dust finally settled, the will of God was accomplished, as a grossly wicked people was struck down in the fight. 

 

Therefore, fellows saints, may God keep you faithful to his word. May he use you to answer unswervingly for Jesus. And through the power of his Spirit, may he cause you to grow in your ability to faithfully witness to the power of his name. Amen.

 

——————

End Notes:

[1]. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Great Britain: Bantam Press, 2006, pg. 31.

[2]. Gary Wolf, Wired Magazine; The Church of the Non-Believers, 2006. 

[3]. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Great Britain: Bantam Press, 2006, pg. 31.

[4]. Ibid. pg. 33

[5]. Wesley Morriston, Philosophia Christi, Did God Command Genocide? A Challenge to the Biblical Inerrantists. Pg. 18

[6]. Plutarch De Superstitione 13. Quoted by John Day, A God of Human Sacrifice in the Old Testament (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 89.

[7]. Ibid. 

[8]. Kleitarchos, scholia on Plato’s Republic 337a, quoted in Day, Molech, 87. See Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan, 234–44 for a significant discussion of the nature and archaeol- ogy pertaining to child sacrifice.

[9]. Shelby Brown, Late Carthaginian Child Sacrifice and Sacrificial Monuments in Their Mediterranean Context (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic: 1991), 14.

[10]. Ibid. 

[11]. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/proof/2016/10/moises-saman-isis-qa/

[12]. Ibid. 

[13]. Paul Copan, “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics,” Philosophia Christi 10 (2008): 26.

[14]. Ibid. 

[15]. Ibid. 

[14]. Ibid. 

[15]. Ibid. 

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