One of the common gambits of the Christian apologists who defend the Canaanite genocide is to insist that the narrative does not provide a general justification for genocide because the circumstances were “unique and unrepeatable”. (For example, that is a description I have heard Paul Copan use on different occasions.) The statement seems to have a dual function of (1) reducing the moral offense at the past genocide of the Canaanites and (2) removing the worry that this view would provide a precedent for God to command genocide again in the future. Let’s consider each of these claims in turn.
The first point is, to use a colloquial expression, a matter of attempting to have one’s cake and eat it too. On the one hand, the apologist wants to affirm that God did command these actions in the past, but on the other, he wants to affirm our moral intuitions that indict these actions unequivocally. The problem, however, is that our moral intuitions do not merely indict frequent or occasional appeals to genocide as if a singularly rare appeal can somehow avoid that same indictment. Rather, those intuitions condemn genocide simpliciter. In this regard, genocide is properly classed with a range of other actions which we reject categorically including rape, torture, cannibalism, and mutilation.
Just imagine a man who defended the morality of raping a woman by saying it was a single event when he was a soldier on the battlefield and experiencing significant emotional stress. While such an “apologetic” might provide mitigating factors when judging the immorality of his rape, they would do nothing to render the act itself moral for our moral indictment is not against the frequency of rape or the presence of particular factors that might make it ‘moral’: rather, it is against rape simpliciter. And so it is with genocide.
This brings us to the second aspect of this defense, namely that limiting genocide to the past should remove the precedent for appealing to it in the future. Here’s why this is a bad response: the apologist at this point is appealing to the unique circumstances of Israel’s history as the basis for this exceptional appeal to genocidal actions in the past and then reasoning that Jesus has now come and those circumstances will not obtain again so we can be confident that God will not again command genocide.
The problem is that the apologist is missing the real issue: they have endorsed the view that God will command genocide in exceptional circumstances. We may grant that the specific exceptional circumstances which provided the condition for genocide in Canaan will not obtain again: that is fully consistent with the fact that any number of other possible exceptional circumstances could obtain in the future. Consequently, the apologist who defends the Canaanite genocide as “unique and unrepeatable” must concede that while those circumstances will not obtain again, other circumstances which warrant genocide might.
Consequently, the defense of the Canaanite genocide as unique and unrepeatable is an apologetic without merit. Apologists need to stop repeating indefensible defenses of the indefensible.