Of all the evil verses in the Bible, some of the worst must be the ones in which God orders his chosen people to slaughter and utterly exterminate the Canaanites who were living in the promised land, commanding them to kill men, women and children and to show no mercy to anyone under any circumstances. Passages like these are why Thomas Paine said of the Old Testament, “…it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon, than the word of God”.
Any person of conscience, I hope, should have come to realize by now that genocide is the blackest of evils. Any person or text that defends it is morally depraved and unworthy of being taken seriously by good people. But since these verses still exist in the Bible, there are still apologists who tie themselves in knots trying to defend them – trying to defend the conclusion that genocide is sometimes an acceptable and justified act.
Let’s begin with this article from Rational Christianity, which discusses the genocides of the Old Testament specifically in relation to the Canaanite children. It admits that the children “did not share the guilt of their parents”, but insists that the Israelites were still right to slaughter them:
Why were the children killed, if they weren’t guilty? Apparently, they were considered as morally neutral, since they weren’t yet old enough to be held accountable or to have done much right or wrong. While not as corrupt as their parents, they were part of the society that was judged, and shared its earthly (though not its eternal) fate.
So, even though the children weren’t guilty, the society they lived in was guilty, and since that society was sentenced to be destroyed for its crimes, the children were doomed to be destroyed along with it for the crime they weren’t guilty of. Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?
This apologetic is just a restatement of one of the Old Testament’s more barbaric notions, the idea of “corporate guilt”, which claims that people bear the responsibility for things done by other members of their nation or tribe. This is a bloody and primitive superstition. A “society” as a whole cannot be guilty of anything: only individuals can be guilty for the acts they commit.
Next up, we have Wayne Jackson of Apologetics Press, who in this article offers the time-tested defense that the Canaanites were too evil to be allowed to live:
The Canaanite religion was a horribly brutal system as well. For instance, the goddess Anath is pictured as killing humans by the thousands and wading knee-deep in blood. She cut off heads and hands and wore them as ornaments. And in all of this gruesomeness, the Baal-epic says that her liver was swollen with laughter and her joy was great.
What a horrible image! Anath must have been an unimaginably evil goddess. Good thing she’s completely different from Yahweh, who will crush people underfoot until his robes are splattered and stained with their blood [Isaiah 63:3], who will kill so many people with his sword that the land will be “soaked with blood” [Is. 34:7], who demands that dead bodies be hung from trees to please him
[Exodus 25:4] [Numbers 25:4], and who will “rejoice” to inflict all these punishments and many others on the objects of his wrath [Deuteronomy 28:63], laughing and mocking all the while [Proverbs 1:26].
The only difference between these savage Ancient Near East war deities, of course, is that Christians believe Yahweh to be the true god, and thus his mass slaughters were perfectly acceptable, even praiseworthy, while Anath was a false goddess and therefore the slaughters undertaken in her name were a vile and depraved crime. If Anath had any worshippers today, no doubt they’d take the opposite view.
As for the children, Jackson claims that the Israelites were doing them a mercy:
Would it not have been infinitely worse, in view of eternity, had these children grown to maturity and adopted the same pagan practices as their parents?
Although he doesn’t explain this further, the argument is apparently that it was better to kill the children while they were young and innocent, rather than allow them to grow up and become sinners who would end up damned. It’s interesting for a Christian apologist to accept this, since they always reject the identical reasoning for abortion.
The third apologist is Gregory Koukl of Stand to Reason. Koukl admits that “on an emotional level I am troubled when I consider this”. Nevertheless, he resorts to the inevitable fallback that human moral standards don’t apply to God, and that he can kill people however he wants and whenever he wants:
So I’m arguing first that it’s God’s prerogative to take life when He so chooses, and second that the means He uses to take that life is a matter of His prerogative as well. Whether it’s by disease, or mishap, or hailstones, or the angel of life, or the sword of a Jewish soldier, the means is up to Him. It’s His prerogative.
In this instance, I’ll grant that the apologists have a point: in their theology, God is responsible not just for the genocidal deaths of the Canaanites, but for every other painful and brutal death in the world as well. Why they imagine that this makes the problem better, rather than worse, I can’t say.
I think the preponderance of evidence from the same historical record–the Old Testament–is that God is good… This gives us good reason to trust Him. And if we have good reason to trust Him, then when we see things that seem to go against our sense of goodness and justice, it seems only fair to give the benefit of the doubt to [him]…
The moral double standard comes neatly packaged in a paragraph. When the Bible records God acting in ways that are good, we should count those to his credit. But when the Bible records God acting in ways that are evil (sorry – “that seem to go against our sense of goodness and justice”), those do not count against his character, because we should just trust that he is good. All positive evidence is to be trusted; all negative evidence is to be dismissed. The verdict is built into the process from the beginning. Human criminals only wish they could be judged by such a standard!
I don’t want to sound like I’m praising myself too highly, so let me make it plain that I don’t claim any superior moral virtue for myself. I make mistakes and sometimes use poor judgment, like everyone else. But I think I’m basically a good person, and one of the ways I can tell is that I don’t find myself making excuses for genocide. Granted, this is not a very high standard – which makes it all the more shocking that so many Christian apologists don’t meet it.
There’s a moral cliff here, and the apologists have walked right off the edge. No matter how you got to this point, no matter how slippery the slope or how reasonable your arguments seem, if you’ve come to the position of defending genocide, that ought to be a clue that you’ve done something wrong. The conclusion that genocide can be morally justified ought to be a reductio ad absurdum against any argument that you used to get there.
But because these apologists don’t see this, they’ve wandered into a dangerous trap. They’re forced to believe that not even genocide can be immoral if God commands it. This is an extremely dangerous position to advocate, because then the question of whether to commit such an act reduces to the question of whether God has in fact commanded it. What this amounts to is the total surrender of one’s own conscience – laying aside your moral sense and submitting your will to any authority figure who’s sufficiently charismatic to convince the masses that God speaks through him – and that is how crimes like genocide always begin. The apologists have not learned this hard-won lesson of history. By justifying the evils of the past, they leave the road wide open for those same evils to reoccur in the future.