Canaanite Religion, Israelite Religion

Tim Kimberley recently posted on the question of the commands to exterminate Canaanites in the Bible. In the post, he suggests that the genocide may have been justified since the Canaanites were practicing things like child sacrifice.

The problem is that, historically speaking, the Israelites were Canaanites. The genetic evidence suggests this. The linguistic evidence suggests it. The evidence from pottery and other material culture suggests it. And the evidence likewise suggests that the practices condemned as “Canaanite” in the Bible are ones that the Israelites had themselves practiced since time immemorial.

And so, on the one hand, that means that the threats that are articulated are probably aimed at getting Israelites to stop doing things in the 8th century, rather than wiping out other peoples in an earlier time.

But on the other hand, the rhetoric of genocide is problematic even if it does not reflect historical reality.

But the point I want to make here is one that sometimes gets lost in all the discussions of genocide. The practices that are so strongly condemned as “Canaanite” in the Bible were traditional Israelite ones, whoever else may also have had these traditions. I wonder how that historical state of affairs may change the perspective of some on whether those practices justify people being exterminated.

  • peteenns

    Yup.

  • John David Walters

    When did Israelites practice passing their babies through the fire as offerings to Molech?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      This article rounds up some of the relevant evidence: http://books.google.com/books?id=-WC7UgQHQlcC&pg=PA416&lpg=PA416&dq=molech+melech&source=bl&ots=236zt9k_RG&sig=kGh2wCa7jyysqXQ1GAUPRlyuGok&hl=en&sa=X&ei=5MCMUoCbOcSo2gXK1gE&ved=0CDUQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=molech%20melech&f=false

      It also mentions the fact that it is not clear that “King” was thought to be a different deity than Yahweh or Ba’al or one of the other deities the pre-exilic Israelites worshipped.

      • John David Walters

        All the biblical evidence discussed in that article refers to practices that the Israelites assimilated from surrounding nations, or were disturbing innovations (e.g. Solomon’s turning away to other gods in 1 Kings 11: 5). There is no hint that they were practiced ‘since time immemorial’, or that they ever formed part of the normative core of Israelite religion.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          That is the perspective of these later texts, yes. But the fact that the sons of Israel’s first king had names with Ba’al as the theophoric element, and that in so many other texts the earliest form of the story seems to have no component of criticism for the things later condemned, historians logically deduce that the things criticized later were once deemed acceptable.

          • John David Walters

            What are some examples where the (hypothesized) earliest form of the story has no component of criticism?

            • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

              The use of Ba’al by Saul in his children’s names is a good example – and one can compare Amos and Hosea. The former has none of the sort of criticism of the worship if other deities that Hosea offers only slightly later. The teraphim in David’s home are another example.

              • John David Walters

                That didn’t come through clearly, but I was asking for examples of child sacrifice presented without criticism. Names deriving from other deities and teraphim (whose exact nature and purpose are highly disputed, I might add) are much milder forms of syncretism/assimilation, hardly at the same level as child sacrifice. And the fact that Amos focuses his criticism on ethical matters and not idolatry hardly implies that he accepted it as normative. These seem very slender threads upon which to hang the claim that the Israelites practiced child sacrifice ‘from time immemorial’.

                • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                  Would Ezekiel 20:25-26 count as evidence?

                  But this post was not just about child sacrifice, but about the broader spectrum of things that were later denounced as “Canaanite” but which were Israelite as far back as we can trace in the archaeological record, and textual evidence suggests that these practices were widespread and no one thought them wrong until much later.

                • beau_quilter

                  By the time the current text of the Bible was redacted, certainly, child sacrifice was condemned, but good luck if you’re depending on the bible for an unbiased history of the Middle East. The scholarly consensus of archeologists agrees that Israelites and Canaanites were basically derived from the same indigenous tribes in the region. The biblical names for god, El and Yahweh, are derived from a larger divine counsel of gods worshipped in the region.

                • Jack Collins

                  “That didn’t come through clearly, but I was asking for examples of child sacrifice presented without criticism.”

                  Judges 11.

                  • John David Walters

                    It always seemed to me that there was implied criticism of Jepthah’s rash vow, which cost him his only daughter. Also, there is no indication that this sacrifice was either desired by God or that Jepthah obtained victory as a result of making his vow (the text does say that the Lord handed his enemies over to him, but there is no connection to the vow).

                    • beau_quilter

                      Hmmm … implied criticism … interesting.

    • beau_quilter

      John,

      Take a look at Judges 11:29-40,Ezekiel 16:20-21, Ezekiel 20:31, 2 Kings 17:17-18, 2 Kings 21:2-6, Psalms 106:37-38, Jeremiah 7:30-34.

      These are portrayed as “evil” acts in the Old Testament, but they are still perpetrated by Israelites, and God did not require their genocide.

      • John David Walters

        Well, God did send numerous foreign armies to decimate the country, besiege Jerusalem and eventually send the entire people into exile as punishment, so I’d say he wasn’t exactly treating the Israelites with velvet gloves.

        • beau_quilter

          True. I was just answering your question:

          “When did Israelites practice passing their babies through fire as offerings to Molech?”

          The more you know!

          • John David Walters

            By practice I meant as part of the normative core of their Yahweh-sanctioned religion. I was well aware of the horrific deviations the Bible records when the people descended into idolatry.

            • beau_quilter

              I see … you were already aware of the horrific deviations.

  • Just Sayin’

    Was it to stop Israelites doing certain things in the 8th century or post-exile?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      That’s a good question. It certainly does seem that there was a Yahweh-alone movement prior to the exile – Bernhard Lang has done quite a bit of work on the subject. I’m not entirely sure which elements most likely stem from which period – opposition to child sacrifice is mentioned in both Jeremiah and Ezekiel, although with disagreement between them about whether or not God commanded such things. And so presumably there are details of the post-exilic vision that may be as early as the 8th century if not indeed earlier, some of which arose prior to but not long before the Babylonian exile, and some of which are exilic.

  • Raymond

    So you tell the Israelites to cut open pregnant women and dash the fetuses heads against the rocks because the Caananites were practicing child sacrifice? What?

    • John David Walters

      Psalm 137: 9 is not a divine command about the Canaanites, but a human cry of anguish directed against the invading Babylonians, who forced the people into exile.

  • Susan Burns

    The split in Canaanite society reminds me of what is happening in America today. We are splitting into two distinct societies.

    • Susan Burns

      Why is the motivation for denying health care to poor babies and children in America different from the motivation for the sacrifices of the ancient Canaanites? A segment of American society (usually religious) would deny poor children access to doctors because they fear their own children would receive less care. Canaanites sacrificed the firstborn (of poor people) to ensure the well being of the rest of the children. Of course, no one who reads this blog will agree but I also doubt no one who reads this blog has to worry about a hungry, sick child.

  • http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/ed_babinski/babinski-bio.html EdwardTBabinski

    James, Well put questions! See also,

    The Rise of Monotheism and Israel’s Theological Worldview [Key Articles That Sum Up What Scholars Are Discussing]

    http://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/2010/10/rise-of-monotheism-israels-theological.html

  • Susan Burns

    Killing the first male child allowed Canaanite men to have less competition for breeding females. Less competition means more peaceful society. However, through Pidyon HaBen, the segment of society with the ability to pay was exempt. This unequal treatment was surely a source of revolutionary zealotry.

  • arcseconds

    Surely in addition to hypocrisy, there’s also a small problem with the idea that the correct response to a society that kills some children is to kill every single man, woman and all the children?

    • John David Walters

      What hypocrisy? God devastated Israel and drove the people into exile because of their horrific idolatrous practices (and other things). And the Canaanite conquest was not only about punishing idolatrous practices. It was a one-off historical event with several related but distinct purposes in the divine plan.

      • beau_quilter

        Oh, so killing children is OK if it’s a one-off part of a divine plan?

        • John David Walters

          What do you mean by ‘OK’?

          • beau_quilter

            Well, specifically, I mean that ancient tales of god-commanded genocide are a reflection of the ethnocentric morality of ancient tribes; but most societies today recognize the immorality of genocide in any context.

      • Birch Wind

        “God devastated Israel and drove the people into exile because of their horrific idolatrous practices (and other things).” — yeah so how does that make sense? The Canaanites (apparently) sacrificed children and gave offerings to golden calves.. sooo. KILL THE WHOLE BLOODY LOT OF ‘EM! MAN WOMAN AND CHILD! *pffft*

  • Maxadolf

    Is there a philological link between the origin of cannibalism and the Canaanite practice of child sacrifice?

  • Stephen

    Any thoughts on the idea that the Deuteronomist(s) turned the mlk offering into a foreign deity (Molech) as part of throwing the (delegitimizing) kitchen sink at a cultic practice (and presumably the cultic specialists offering it) whom the Deuteronomist(s) didn’t like and were competing with?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Not really, other than that it is a serious possibility.

      • Stephen

        On the other hand…the Deuteronomist(s) are so accurate, even-handed, circumspect, self-reflective, and ethical that they couldn’t possibly have done something like that… ; )

  • Caleb G.

    And let’s not forget the command to place the city of Jericho under “the ban”. The Israelites were to “devote to destruction” (herim) the entire population of Jericho – men, women, children, and animals. Other places in the Pentateuch and in ancient near eastern literature use the word “herim” for sacrifices to a god. So ironically because the Canaanites were practicing child sacrifices, the Israelites were to sacrifice (herim) the entire Canaanite population to Yahweh.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Pieret/100000023960330 John Pieret

    Okay, as a non-believer, I’m something of an outsider to this discussion but does anyone else find it strange that, when YHWH ordered Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt sacrifice, Abraham didn’t even go “Wut?”

    I know … obedience to God and all that … but not even a “Did I hear you right?” or “But that’s what nasty Canaanites do”?
    The authors of Genesis didn’t seem to think it was such a problem to sacrifice your children.
    Now, why an omniscient God would need to “test” Abraham is another matter …

    • John David Walters

      Biblical literature is laconic and highly selective. Often emotional impact is conveyed by the very silence of the narrative about it. See Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative.

  • Kullervo

    Is committing genocide a more evil act than killing the same number of people chosen at random from different nations?

    • beau_quilter

      Why do you ask?

    • arcseconds

      I suggest that in this case and other cases like it, comparisons are, to a considerable extent, odious.

  • beau_quilter

    From Finklestein’s and Silberman’s “The Bible Unearthed”, based on a survey of archeological consensus:

    “The process that we describe here is, in fact, the opposite of what we have in the Bible: the emergence of early Israel was an outcome of the collapse of the Canaanite culture, not its cause. And most of the Israelites did not come from outside Canaan — they emerged from within it. There was no mass Exodus from Egypt. There was no violent conquest of Canaan. Most of the people who formed early Israel were local people — the same people whom we see in the highlands throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages. The early Israelites were — irony of ironies — themselves originally Canaanites!”

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Here is a piece in the Huffington Post that relates to this topic: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/valerie-tarico/polytheism-and-human-sacr_b_777340.html

    • beau_quilter

      This is a great interview. I’m going to buy Stark’s book now.

    • Birch Wind

      Oh, an absolute gem. So glad I stumbled across THIS article so that I heard about THAT one! I love where he says ” I think that the truth should be used as ammunition against fundamentalist varieties of Christianity and Zionist Judaism, because such strands of the faith wreak so much havoc on the world. If they can use lead bullets to defend their ideologies, I think that justifies using truth-bullets to put as many holes as possible in their propaganda.” – Thom Stark


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