This is the tenth installment of my ongoing critique of William Lane Craig’s defense of the Canaanite genocide. For part nine, “The Canaanite genocide as cruel and unusual punishment in extremis,” click here.
We rejoin the podcast at (14:16). Just prior to this point Craig had argued that God did not wrong the Canaanite adults for commanding their slaughter because they were all sinful. As for the children and infants, he was not wrong to command their slaughter (and, presumably, the mentally handicapped as well) because they would receive eternal life in heaven as compensation after they were butchered. And so Craig concludes that the only people who might have been wronged would, ironically enough, be the Israelite soldiers who had been commanded to engage in this horrifying massacre. As Craig says, “They had to go in and kill these people and that would be brutalizing and dehumanizing to do such a thing.”
Now that’s an understatement. The psychological sequalae of participation in standard wartime combat procedures are all overwhelmingly negative. I can hardly imagine what the impact of complicity in slaughtering a civilian population of terrified women and children would be for the average (non-psychopathic) soldier. (For point of comparison, in 2010 a man in Whistler, BC had to slaughter a couple dozen sled dogs after his business declined following the end of the 2010 winter Olympics. The effect on the man was so devastating that he sought financial aid from the government in 2011 based on the alleged impact of PTSD for slaughtering the dogs.) So it would not be saying too much to say that these soldiers would effectively be sacrificing their well being as integrated moral individuals on the altar of psychological and moral integration, a fitting sacrifice for the demand of slaughtering the Canaanites in toto.
This desperate situation prompts an anguished question: why would God demand the unthinkable of his faithful servants? Why would he require them to give up their own minds and souls in the slaughter of the Canaanite population? Here is Craig’s answer:
because nothing could have communicated to Israel in a more powerful way that necessity to stand apart as a people devoted to God and wholly to God and to be separate from the pagan nations that neighbored Israel.
I hope we can all appreciate the extraordinary nature of Craig’s claim. According to Craig, God wanted to communicate to Israel the need to be radically different and distinct from the other peoples of the Ancient Near East. It is for that reason that he advised Israel to slaughter all the elderly men, and pregnant women, all the children and all the infants, all the mentally and physically handicapped and any other Canaanite they might find in the land. It is for this reason that he sacrificed the mental and spiritual welfare of all the poor soldiers that were forced to participate in this bloodbath.
This is an extraordinary claim and we cannot let it go unchallenged. Is it really true that the only possible way that an omnipotent God could communicate to Israel her uniqueness would be through the wanton slaughter of the civilian populations of other peoples?
There are two problems with this claim. The first problem is that this behavior is positively beastly. You don’t need a tenured philosopher in ethics to tell you that it is wrong to slaughter innocent infants and children. Nor do you need a tenured philosopher in ethics to tell you that infants and children are always innocent and that it is deplorable philosophy or theology that would attempt to justify their slaughter.
The second problem is that this claim utterly lacks imagination. This kind of mass slaughter of civilian populations was relatively common in ANE warfare (see, for example, the Mesha Stele which recounts just such a slaughter from a non-Israelite nation.) So common was this kind of killing that some Christian theologians (e.g. Christopher Wright) have suggested that God was accommodating to ANE forms of warfare when he commanded the Israelites to slaughter other people.
This is the point where I wonder to myself: wasn’t there another even more radical way to establish the uniqueness of the Israelites, namely by challenging ANE standards of slaughtering civilian populations? My guide in this thought experiment is the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King. On this point I am aided by Philip Yancey who recounts his own experience growing up in the racist South:
We used to call Martin Luther King Jr. “Martin Lucifer Coon.” We said that King was a card-carrying communist, a Marxist agent who merely posed as a minister. Not until much later was I able to appreciate the moral strength of the man who, perhaps more than any other person, kept the South from outright racial war.
My white colleagues in school and in church cheered King’s televised encounters with southern sheriffs, police dogs, and fire hoses. Little did we know that by doing so we were playing directly into King’s strategy. He deliberately sought out individuals like Sheriff Bull Conner and stage-managed scenes of confrontation, accepting beatings, jailings, and other brutalities because he believed a complacent nation would rally around his cause only when they saw the evil of racism manifest in its ugliest extreme. “Christianity,” he used to say, ” has always insisted that the cross we bear proceeds the crown we wear.” (What’s so Amazing About Grace?)
Looking back, Yancey can see that returning tit for tat, violence for violence, would have been utterly ineffective at bringing profound social change to the Southern states. It is only when King and his supporters brought a peaceable Christ-like response to unprovoked violence and oppression that the mood of the south began to shift. So why would Craig think that the moral economy was completely opposite in the ANE such that the only way to establish and maintain uniqueness would be through shedding more blood by way of even more vicious attack? If a loving embrace has the ability to transform today, didn’t it have that same ability three thousand years ago?