William Lane Craig’s defense of genocide based on a reprobate culture

Posted on 03/02/13 15 Comments

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.

  • http://bilbos1.blogspot.com/ Bilbo

    Even though we disagreed with a decree to destroy eveybody, including all the infants, in America, because we allowed abortions, I think we could understand the reasoning: Americans do not value their unwanted children, therefore Americans do not deserve to have wanted children. We might disagree with that argument, and think that the punishment is rather extreme, but at least I think we could understand it.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      I respect you for having the courage of your convictions and your willingness to share your reasoning. However, I find the implications truly extraordinary and disturbing. I’ll address them in a quick follow-up post.

  • Zeno

    Great post.

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  • AgeOfReasonXXI

    “Craig’s representation of what is going on in the text looks to be another case of the apologetic spin doctor at work”

    Really? Craig is a spin doctor (a hack), apart from being a genocide apologist? N-o-o w-a-y-y

  • mark

    “Defend the letter of the narrative if you must, but at least represent accurately what it says.” Precision? Does it say that they performed a sacrifice? or that the LORD called for such a sacrifice?

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Yes, herem destruction, the offering of the spoils of war to one’s patron deity, is a form of sacrifice.

      I recommend you read Niditch’s book. Also, get a good lexicon and trace through the meaning and definition of “herem” in the OT. Also get some commentaries on Kings to check out one of the most interesting and disturbing of all sacrifice passages, 2 Kings 3:27.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/F6TDUJ27E5VNJDBDM3LNBTOLSI Vincent

    Hi Randal,

    I’d like to critique your logic here. Let’s have a look at Deuteronomy 20:16-18:

    “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. 18 Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God.”

    First, the passage says nothing about offering them up to God, as a sacrifice.

    Second, the footnote in the NIV says that the Hebrew term for “completely destroy” refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the Lord, often by totally destroying them. But handing someone over to God (for punishment) is different from offering them up to God as a sacrifice. We hand murderers over to the State when we impose the death penalty; but that doesn’t mean we offer them up.

    Third, there’s a very good reason why the people killed by the Israelites couldn’t have been sacrificed to God: they were unclean, since their actions were detestable. Time and time again God says that he will only accept clean and perfect animals as sacrifices. Ditto, one would think, for humans.

    Fourth, in Deuteronomy 12:30-31, 18:10, God condemns child sacrifice in the clearest terms. Are you saying the Israelites couldn’t read their own Scriptures? They must have noticed the inconsistency, if it is as you and Niditch portray it. Or are you going to go the way of the 19th century literary form critic, and assume the existence of a bad, barbaric version of Deuteronomy which sanctioned child sacrifice, and which was cleaned up a few hundred years later by people whose sensitivities were more refined, and who inserted some condemnations of child sacrifice? That’s a pretty ridiculous idea, when you think about it: why didn’t they take the bad passages out, if they didn’t like them? And why does moral progress always have to be linear anyway? Why should we assume that the morality of people living in 500 B.C. was any better than that of people living in 1200 B.C.?
    I’ll stop here for now.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Hi Vincent,
      My advice to Mark is the same to you. Please take the time to do a careful word study of “herem”, read Niditich’s book on War in the Hebrew Bible, and take the time to look specifically at the exegesis of 2 Kings 3:27.
      As for your question about moral progress, never have I argued that changes in social mores and perceived virtues and taboos are always for the better. However, if you are keen to defend the slaughter of infants, the elderly and the mentally handicapped in wartime, as it looks you are, then I guess we’ll be parting ways.

      • http://profile.yahoo.com/F6TDUJ27E5VNJDBDM3LNBTOLSI Vincent

        Hi Randal,

        If I bought every book I wanted to buy, I’d go bankrupt in a day. But the verse you cite (2 Kings 3:27) doesn’t seem to contain the word herem. It describes an action by the king of Moab, who offered his son as a sacrifice – an act abominated by God. I had a look at the Biblical commentaries in http://bible.cc/2_kings/3-27.htm and found nothing to support your views.
        I am not “keen to defend the slaughter of infants”; indeed, I have no settled view of these texts. I am also well aware that C.S.Lewis (whom I admire greatly) rejected Biblical inerrancy, partly on account of such texts. He may be right. But if he is right, then I need to know exactly why. And that involves asking some tough moral questions.

        • http://profile.yahoo.com/F6TDUJ27E5VNJDBDM3LNBTOLSI Vincent

          I just had a look at chapter 1 of Niditch’s book online. I have to say it wasn’t very convincing. She leans heavily on her reading of Numbers 21:1-3, which simply says that the Canaanites and their cities were devoted to destruction.

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          2 Kings 3:27 depicts the king of the Moabites sacrificing his son in order to appease his deity Chemosh in order to defeat the Israelites in battle. Immediately after the sacrifice the battle turns against the Israelites. The narrative gives you two basic options. Option 1: Chemosh accepted the sacrifice and helped the Moabites beat the Israelites. Option 2: Yahweh accepted the sacrifice (though it was offered to Chemosh) and he defeated the Israelites as a result. Neither option is very palatable.

  • Breen

    Dr. Rauser, I’ve begun reading your series critiquing Craig’s defense of the Caananite killing and have found it to be insightful; however, I don’t appreciate you degrading a fellow Christian brother by calling him a “apologetic spin doctor.” Name-calling to put down others should have no place in a Christian’s vocabulary, especially when directed toward another believer.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Thanks for your comment Breen. I’m going to blog on it today.

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