William Lane Craig and The Canaanite Genocide

William Lane Craig and The Canaanite Genocide March 26, 2024

Recently, an online debate flared up regarding the biblical conquest of the Canaanites, or what some have even called the Canaanite Genocide (according to the modern use of the word). The debate started when online atheist YouTuber, Alex O’Connor, interviewed Richard Dawkins. In that interview, O’Connor pressed Dawkins about why he doesn’t debate Christian apologists or philosophers, many of whom O’Connor seems friendly with. Dawkins, in typical pompous fashion, said that he doesn’t have time for such people, and, unprompted by O’Connor, brought up the highly regarded philosopher of religion, William Lane Craig. The reason Dawkins gave for not wanting to debate Craig was because of Craig’s views on the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites, something I have recently written about here and here.

In light of Dawkins attack on Craig’s view, or dismissal of it, O’Connor then had Craig on his podcast to offer him the opportunity to defend the view. Craig takes the conquest of Canaan as a literal, historical event and, as such, was put in the position of having to defend it morally. This is no easy task, especially given God’s command to slaughter women, children and even the irrational, and therefore presumably innocent, livestock. In response to that interview, Capturing Christianity’s Cameron Bertuzzi had two Christian thinkers on his channel: Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin and the pseudo-progressive theologian Randal Rauser to discuss both Craig’s view on the Canaanites and their own views.

Clay Jones and the Literalist View

In all these discussion, one name that continued to come up was Clay Jones, a former professor of mine, and someone who has also defended the view that the command to destroy the Canaanites should be taken literally, and that it is for good reasons that God issued such a commanded. On Jone’s view, the main reason we balk at such a command today is because of our modern desensitization to radical evil, or, as the title of his 2009 article puts it, because we don’t “hate sin.” In this series of articles, I will defend the literalist view. I have already discussed in two previous articles what the book of Deuteronomy says about why God commanded the destruction of Canaan, as well as God’s warnings to Israel, his chosen instrument of justice in this case, should they do the same.

However, I will not argue about the reliability of the text itself, which certainly can be done. Instead, for sake of argument, I will take on the harder task, namely, assuming the text is predominantly literal. This means I will assume the following points:

  • an actual, historical Moses existed
  • sometime around the mid 13th-century BC (taking the late date for the Exodus), he articulated God’s command to the Israelites to utterly destroy the Canaanites and re-settle the promised land if the Canaanites did not first leave
  • That the Israelites tried this, but ultimately did not succeed

The alternative, higher critical route would be to argue that the texts about the conquest are much later accounts and that the conquest itself never occurred in any real, historical sense.

Instead of addressing these textual and hermeneutical issues, I will address the reasons why, if the conquest was a literal, historical event (as opposed to a later allegorization or “spiritualized” piece of religious didacticism), the conquest and command of annihilation was morally permissible, and, perhaps, even desirable.

This is, of course, not an easy task and it will take a few installments. First, however, we should make two qualifying points about the ch-r-m, or “ban”: 1) the conquest of the Canaanites is absolutely unique, and 2) the use of the term “genocide” to describe this unique event is inappropriate.

Caveat #1: The Uniqueness of The Canaanite War

The first caveat to this defense of the literalist view is the absolute uniqueness of the event in question. The ban against the Canaanites is exceptional in biblical history and theology. Citing Gerhard von Rad’s classic study on the idea of “Holy War” (Holy War in Ancient Israel), Jeffrey Tigay explains how the biblical view of Israel’s war against Canaan often gets confused with later conceptions of holy war, usually of the Islamic type:

Unfortunately, the term ‘holy war’ gives the mistaken impression that this type of war was fought for the purpose of spreading one’s religion and suppressing others….It was nothing of the sort. In fact, the idea of spreading Israelite religion to foreigners and compelling them to accept it is completely foreign to the [Hebrew] Bible. The Bible looks forward to the time when other nations will recognize the Lord’s superiority, and ultimately abandon other gods, but it expects this to be a voluntary action on their part in repose to the witnessing the Lord’s greatness.

Jeffrey Tigay, Deuteronomy, 430

In other words, Israel’s conquest of Canaan cannot be seen as a precedent for religious warfare aimed at conversion. Israel was supposed to occupy the land and, after that, live in holiness so that other nations would be drawn to her and, in virtue of her righteous living, be drawn to her God. Once the land of Canaan was purged of its evil, there were to be no more wars initiated by Israel. Israel was supposed to live peacefully in the land, worshipping Yahweh and enticing others to take note of her goodness and fruitfulness, and to see how the land benefitted from God’s presence and Israel’s faithfulness to God’s laws. Israel’s God was not in the business of empire-making. He was interested in righteous, peaceful and harmonious co-existence under His name and in accordance with His laws. For more detail on how this was supposed to function, one can listen to Old Testament scholar Markus Zehnder speak about ancient immigration here.

The idea of evangelism to the nations only first arises with Christianity, specifically with Jesus’ numerous commands to his disciples to go forth to the nations and spread the Gospel. The most explicit of these is found at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, traditionally known as “The Great Commission”:

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

Matt 28:16-20

Of course, the history of Christian evangelism and discipleship to the nations has been mixed. Some evangelism of the Gospel to pagan nations was adulterated by worldly and secular powers. This led to real historical atrocities. However, this is by no means the entire story of the global spread of the Gospel, as many anti-colonialist voices would have us believe. Just as the ugliness of some Christian missionary endeavors have been understated, so too have examples of the faithful spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ been radically under or misrepresented by Christianity’s opponents. History is always a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. But to focus exclusively on the bad and the ugly is simply a political move and not a truth-seeking one.

Regardless of the history of Christian missions, the Old Testament is quite clear about the nature of the conquest of the land by Israel: this was a singular event in the history of God’s people and unique in the divine economy. Just like God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Issac, was a unique and unparalleled command of child sacrifice, so too was God’s command to annihilate the Canaanites. The former was averted on account of Abraham’s faith. The latter, as we know from Scripture itself, was only ever partially executed. Other mitigating factors about the extent of the conquest can be read about here.

Caveat #2: The War against Canaan Is Not Modern Genocide

While some scholars have argued that Israel’s war against Canaan is analogous to modern genocide, I think this is a tendentious claim for one obvious reason. That reason is contained in the word itself, namely, in the prefix genos. Here genos (where our word “genetic” comes from) relates specifically to ethnicity, or people group. But, as we see throughout the Old Testament, ethnicity or people group is not a relevant factor when it comes to God’s attitude towards people. God is, as per Peter, no “respecter of persons” in this sense (Acts 10:34-43). God did not choose Israel, moreover, based on any inherent quality or special feature intrinsic to the Israelites (Deuteronomy 6-7). Nor did God command Canaan’s destruction based on any intrinsic feature of the descendants of Ham.

Further, Israel herself is placed under the same religious and moral conditions that the Canaanites, and any others in the land, are placed under. In fact, if anything, Israel bears the greater sin when they are punished due to the fact of God’s personal revelation to Israel (Rom 2) and giving of the Law. There is no divine nepotism here. If Israel does what the Canaanites do, they incur the same punishments. Later, after Israel has settled in the land, they will experience almost the same exact thing the Canaanites experienced at the hands of Israel: expulsion from the land by an external, military force. In the 6th century it will be through Babylon that God works his justice, and it is Israel that will be annihilated, enslaved and displaced. Why? Because they fell into the same beliefs and practices as their predecessors. However, being ethnically distinct from them, it follows that ethnicity is irrelevant to God’s justice.

Is WLC Right about The Canaanites Conquest?

Conclusion: The Conquest Was A Unique, Non-Genocidal War

In the next article, I will discuss five factors which may attenuate the apparent harshness of the divine command. But, for now, I think it is safe to conclude that the conquest of Canaan God commanded, as harsh as the command of herem (total annihilation) may be, was a) a singularly unique command in biblical history, never meant to be repeated, and b) was not an example of genocide, regardless of what modern scholars working in the aftermath of actual genocides like Armenia, the Holocaust and Rwanda might say.

About Anthony Costello
Anthony Costello is an author and a theologian. He has a BA in German from the University of Notre Dame (1997), an MA in Apologetics (2016) and MA in Theology (2018) from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. He has published articles in academic journals such as Luther Rice Journal of Christian Studies and the Journal of Christian Legal Thought. In addition, Anthony has made chapter contributions to Evidence that Demands a Verdict, edited by Josh and Sean McDowell and has published several articles for magazines such as Touchstone and made online contributions to The Christian Post and Patheos. Anthony is a US Army Veteran, former 82D Airborne paratrooper and OEF veteran. You can read more about the author here.
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