This article is the sixth installment in my series “On William Lane Craig’s defense of the Canaanite genocide”. (You can find part five here.) At this point we join the conversation at 10:32 into the podcast when Craig observes:
“When you think how utterly corrupt these Canaanite cultures were — practicing child sacrifice to their gods, cultic prostitution, all sorts of other practices that are detailed in the Old Testament as to why they were ripe for judgment — it seems to me that there is no moral problem in saying that God ordered the extermination of the Canaanite adults.”
I’m going to make two observations here, the first concerning the “reprobate culture” grounds for slaughtering the Canaanites and destroying their society, and the second concerning the parallel between human sacrifice among the Canaanites and the Israelites.
Reprobate culture as the ground for genocide
In his essay “We Don’t Hate Sin So We Don’t Understand What Happened to the Canaanites,” (Philosophia Christi, 11, no. 1 (2009), 53-72) Clay Jones, a professor of apologetics at Biola University, explains just how sinful the Canaanites were based on documentary and archaeological evidence. I’ve heard Bill Craig refer approvingly to Jones’ argument on several occasions
In his essay Jones argues not only that the Canaanites were deserving of complete eradication because of their sin. He also argues that Americans today fail to appreciate how right and proper this judgment was because they have many of the same sins in their culture. In other words, Clay Jones, this mild-mannered professor at a conservative Christian university in suburban Los Angeles, has just presented an argument outlining a rationale for the mass slaughter of the American people from Plymouth Rock to Pacific Beach (with special sorties to be sent out to deal with the hold outs in Alaska and the Hawaiian Islands). How ironic is that?
I critiqued Jones’ essay in “Did God raise up Bin Laden?” At the time I emailed Jones inviting him to reply but I received no response. Let’s just emphasize how extraordinary the implications of Jones’ “reprobate culture” argument is. Imagine for a moment that North Korea invades the United States and slaughters millions as they slowly advance across the nation. (Sounds crazy? Well maybe, but hey the screenwriters of the “Red Dawn” remake seemed to think it was plausible so just humor me.) Would it be possible that their indiscriminate slaughter of all the men, women and children they came upon could be a just judgment on the debauched residents of the lower 48? This isn’t just ironic. It’s insane and extraordinarily offensive.
The centerpiece sin: child sacrifice
If there is one sin that seems to rise above the others as emblematic of the Canaanite reprobation, it is child sacrifice. So it is no surprise that this is the leading moral offense Craig cites when he notes they were ” practicing child sacrifice to their gods”.
The problem is that the entire practice of herem war that the Israelites have undertaken as a means to annihilate the Canaanites is itself a form of human sacrifice. Unfortunately this dimension of the text is often lost on the contemporary reader. And Craig himself seems oblivious to it. Susan Niditch notes that even scholars of the Hebrew scriptures have often overlooked this glaring fact in the text. As she observes,
“Especially neglected are discussions of the ban [or herem], the war demanded by God always including the annihilation of men, women, and children, other times including also the killing of domestic animals, the wanton destruction of whole cities, and the reduction of all cultural artifacts to rubble.” (War in the Hebrew Bible, 8).
As Niditch explains, the entire premise of herem is the complete slaughter of the enemy society:
“Israelites vow their enemies to God as a promise for his support of their successful military efforts. In the majority of texts in Deuteronomy and Joshua, it is assumed that God demands total destruction of the enemy.” (28)
Niditch points us to Leviticus 27:28-9 as outlining the theological understanding for the herem destruction of the enemy:
28 “‘But nothing that a person owns and devotes to the Lord—whether a human being or an animal or family land—may be sold or redeemed; everything so devoted is most holy to the Lord.
29 “‘No person devoted to destruction may be ransomed; they are to be put to death.
It is worth paying special attention to verse 29 because here we see the explicit affirmation that human persons can be committed to the herem sacrifice.
With that in mind let’s return to Deuteronomy 20:16-17:
16 However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. 17 Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you.
The phrase “completely destroy them” refers to the committing of these peoples to the herem.
So here is the conclusion that may surprise many readers.
Part of the reason for punishing the Canaanites is that they sacrificed their children.
The punishment against the Canaanites includes sacrificing their children.
Why doesn’t William Lane Craig make this clear? Why doesn’t he point out that as the Israelites sweep across the land they are engaged in a mass sacrifice?
We read in Joshua that the Israelites:
“devoted the city [of Jericho] to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.” “Then they burned the whole city and everything in it….” (Joshua 6:22, 24)
So God didn’t simply order the killing of the Canaanite adults. Rather, he ordered a giant human sacrifice to rival the ancient Aztecs which would include every man, woman and child to be found in the city as an offering most holy to the Lord. Craig’s representation of what is going on in the text looks to be another case of the apologetic spin doctor at work. Defend the letter of the narrative if you must, but at least represent accurately what it says.