The Slaughter of the Canaanites: Why It's a Big Deal

I was doing some research for a forthcoming post when I came across an article by my favorite apologist punching bag, William Lane Craig, about the slaughter of the Canaanites as described in the book of Deuteronomy. This story, in which an army of Israel completely slaughters an entire culture — men, women, and children — at the behest of God is often held up by skeptics as a example of the perverse barbarism of the Old Testament god and a perfect illustration of the inconsistency of God's moral character in the bible. In this article over at, Dr. Craig attempts to rationalize this act of genocide and, in doing so, displays such disregard for logical fallacies and such wanton hypocrisy that I felt compelled to write a response. Just like all the Bible verses where God condones and commands slavery, the selling of girls into sexual slavery, the subjugation of women, and atrocious acts of cruel and unusual punishment for the most bizarre of offenses, the idea that a perfect loving god would command an army of his "chosen" people to slaughter women and children rightly does not sit well with inquisitive Christians, and it's important to illustrate why Craig's rationale is so wrought with fallacies.

Relative morality 101

You may have heard some people... well, mostly Christians, actually... say that there is a difference between "murder" and "killing". Certainly we think that taking the life of another human being against their will is acceptable in some circumstances. We don't expect our soldiers to defend our country with water guns and wiffle bats. There are probably many circumstances any of us can imagine in which taking the lives of not just one, but many people is justified for the "greater good".

The irony of this, though, is that this distinction between "killing" and "murder" is precisely what moral relativism is — it's the belief that the act of taking the life of another person against their will is justified in some circumstances but not in others. To put it in more elementary terms, whether it's wrong to take the life of another person against their will is relative to the circumstances. But if we take something like murdering a child, it gets more difficult to justify. Most of us would have a hard time imagining a circumstance in which killing a child could be considered to be for the "greater good"; perhaps the best we could do is to imagine something like a bombing, in which children may be killed or mutilated, but we view their circumstance as a tragic version of "collateral damage". It's not quite the same as saying that we set out to kill and mutilate children.

The Slaughter of the Canaanites

In this story, which like most things in the Bible probably didn't even happen (as Craig concedes in his article), God commands his army of chosen people to slaughter a lot of innocent people. This isn't "collateral damage" here; God specifically decrees that everyone must die — including women and children. They didn't have bombs back then either, so this righteous army would have been going from house to house taking the sword to these innocent people in a macabre and bloody slaughter. So, let's examine how ol' Dr. Craig thinks such atrocities are justified:

I’ve often heard popularizers raise this issue as a refutation of the moral argument for God’s existence.  But that’s plainly incorrect.  The claim that God could not have issued such a command doesn’t falsify or undercut either of the two premises in the moral argument as I have defended it:

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.

2. Objective moral values do exist.

          3. Therefore, God exists.
In fact, insofar as the atheist thinks that God did something morally wrong in commanding the extermination of the Canaanites, he affirms premise (2).  So what is the problem supposed to be?

I've spent a fair bit of time addressing the fallacy of "objective morality" in other posts, so I don't need to get into detail here, but it is sufficient to point out that merely holding some kind of moral judgment is not an affirmation that such judgments are "objective". Let's continue...

According to the version of divine command ethics which I’ve defended, our moral duties are constituted by the commands of a holy and loving God.  Since God doesn’t issue commands to Himself,  He has no moral duties to fulfill.  He is certainly not subject to the same moral obligations and prohibitions that we are.  For example, I have no right to take an innocent life.  For me to do so would be murder.  But God has no such prohibition.  He can give and take life as He chooses.

Dr. Craig puts himself in a bit of a bind here. His whole argument for "objective morality" rests upon the notion that certain things are just wrong, and that we know this at some intuitive level. We know that it is just wrong to take a sword to an innocent child. But Dr. Craig is saying here that morality is whatever God chooses it to be, and because God is perfect and good — indeed, that God is goodness itself — if God commands people to do something that offends our supposedly objective moral intuitions, it must not only be the right thing to do, but one could deduce that it is the best thing to do. So, if God were to appear before Dr. Craig and command him to sodomize, murder, then cannibalize a six-year-old, Dr. Craig would be obligated to not only to do it, but to do it believing that it was absolutely the most moral thing to do. Of course no one expects that to happen, and it's an over-the-top scenario, but it's logically sound for the sake of example. You can pick any act, any atrocity no matter how unthinkable, and say that if God commands it, it is wholly justified and good. This same logic could be used to defend all of the other atrocities in the Bible — the slavery, the barbarism, the misogyny, and all the rest.

The Meat of Issue

What Craig's argument does here is undermine his stalwart "objective morality" argument. Of course, we really only need a bit of evolutionary biology and cognitive psychology to do that, but Dr. Craig makes it easy even from a philosophical standpoint. If certain acts can be justified in certain circumstances, then the morality of performing such an act is relative to the circumstance. And although Dr. Craig likely doesn't believe that God is about to tell any modern person to commit genocide and slaughter children, he still believes that, no matter how counter-intuitive it seems, Christians should accept that in this relative circumstance, it was the most righteous thing to do. If our moral intuitions cannot be trusted — that is, if God can step in and command his followers to do something that is clearly counter to such moral intuitions, and his followers must accept this counter-intuitive command as being not merely permissible but righteous — then our moral intuitions are not objective or reliable. Craig's arguments create an equally salient problem, though, in addition to further undermining what was already a fallacious argument. If our moral intuitions cannot be trusted, if what is right is based entirely on what God says it is at any given moment rather than the needs of human solidarity, then morality is arbitrary. More specifically, God's morality is arbitrary. It's like putting an asterisk on the ninth commandment, and tacking a footnote onto the scriptures:

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.*

*This commandment is subject to suspension by the Lord Your God if He deems it to be necessary given extenuating circumstances that may arise.

Dr. Craig keeps going though, saying that the Canaanites were chosen for genocide because they were really bad and they totally had it coming:

By the time of their destruction, Canaanite culture was, in fact, debauched and cruel, embracing such practices as ritual prostitution and even child sacrifice.  The Canaanites are to be destroyed “that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God” (Deut. 20.18).  God had morally sufficient reasons for His judgement upon Canaan, and Israel was merely the instrument of His justice.

Of course, one might reasonably ask by what measure the tribe of Israel was so righteous. They subjugated women, sold girls into sexual slavery, kept slaves and were allowed to beat them mercilessly, performed ritual animal sacrifices, waged holy wars on tribes that worshiped rival gods and subjected the offenders of bizarre "crimes" to brutally cruel executions — all the while claiming that God told them to do those things. Who, for example, can forget this old pearl of ancient wisdom:

A priest's daughter who loses her honor by  committing fornication and thereby dishonors her father also, shall be burned to  death.  (Leviticus 21:9)

A young girl is handed the "punishment" of not just death, but being burned to death, for pre-marital sex? And notice, too, the misogyny in the scripture: the offense was not that the girl defiled herself, but that she "dishonored" her father. The people of Israel weren't exactly standing on pedestals of righteousness. The Canaanites were off worshiping different gods and committing their own share of atrocities, so old Yahweh decided that, unlike the Israelites, the Canaanites were not worth a vigorous, miracle-laden intervention and should just all be killed. Even those little kids were too corrupt for righteous Israel, as Dr. Craig feebly attempts to rationalize:

But why take the lives of innocent children?  The terrible totality of the destruction was undoubtedly  related to the prohibition of assimilation to pagan nations on Israel’s part.  In commanding complete destruction of the Canaanites, the Lord says, “You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons, or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods” (Deut 7.3-4).  This command is part and parcel of the whole fabric of complex Jewish ritual law distinguishing clean and unclean practices.

At this point, not much more needs to be said. The fallacies and hypocrisy in Dr. Craig's reasoning are appalling. The scriptures themselves, are appalling. But perhaps one thing that needs to be pointed out is that, as Richard Dawkins queried rhetorically in The God Delusion when he asked what the criteria is for interpreting the Bible, Dr. Craig's detailed defense of genocide is still, at best, an arbitrary interpretation. No objective criteria or methodology exists for interpreting the Bible correctly, which is precisely why, even after 2,000 years, nobody can agree on which version of Christianity is the correct one.


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