The Canaanite Conquest and The Corporate Nature of Sin

The Canaanite Conquest and The Corporate Nature of Sin April 3, 2024

In this series, I have been defending the literalist view of the Israelites’ conquest of Canaan. This series was prompted by an interview William Lane Craig did with the YouTube atheist, Alex O’Connor. In that video, Craig defended the attack on the Canaanites by appealing to a version of Divine Command Theory, whereby God’s commands are directly related to His perfect nature. Craig also referenced this 2009 article by Clay Jones, which highlights some of the “abominable practices” of the Canaanites in the land. In my last post, I discussed one aspect of sin which we as moderns do not really comprehend and which mitigates, somewhat, the harshness of God’s command. That was that sin pollutes the earth itself. In this post, I will argue there is a further feature of sin that we fail to grasp  given our modern context and contemporary assumptions. That is the corporate nature of sin.

Sin does not just affect individuals, or the land upon which they sin. Sin also affects groups or communities. It corrupts not just persons, but societies and systems. This corporate nature of sin is yet another reason why the entire Canaanite nation: men, women and even children, had to be either displaced from the land, or, if resistant to retreating, destroyed without mercy (Deut 7:1-2). While this may not fully assuage our sensibilities about this divine command, it should at least put us in a mindset closer to that of the original audience and their context. That is a context, however, that we may also need to take more seriously than we do. For to think that our own, modern way of doing things or of thinking is superior to that of ancient peoples may not necessarily be the case. Any simplistic presumption of human progress often clouds our own contemporary  evils.

The Corporate Nature of Sin

If there is one thing that Leftists, from Rousseau to Black Lives Matter, have understood correctly about wrongdoing, it is the corporate or communal nature of it. When we see Antifa or BLM march in the streets, destroy properties, even fire bomb police precincts, our western, individualistic sensibilities may be offended by such apparent displays of wanton violence. However, the actions of such groups are, as difficult as this may be to modern ears, more in line with biblical thinking than not– at least with Old Testament biblical thinking. In other words, this understanding of how evildoing can corrupt entire systems, and how individuals who seem not to be directly involved in discrete, immoral acts can, nevertheless, be indirectly, or even unwillingly, involved in systemic corruption does have some validity to it.

We might think, for example, of the average German “Bürger” (citizen) during WWII who, although they never directly did anything to harm a Jew, still turned a blind eye as they saw their neighbors being hauled off by the Gestapo. They were innocent in one sense, but indirectly guilty in another. Moreover, although they did not directly act against their Jewish neighbors, they may have tacitly approved of what the Nazis were doing, or, minimally, not been morally or spiritually disposed against it.

It is in this sense that we might say that no matter how misdirected the moral outrage of groups like BLM or Antifa may be, at least there is some outrage there. There is the right kind of emotional reaction to apparent systemic evil, even if their emotions are not being tempered by right reason or are aimed at the wrong system. Conservatives often tend to be too complacent about great sociological evils (like abortion, or the sexualization of our children), and often have to be roused to action.

The French sociologist and theologian, Jaques Ellul, articulated this idea of “social sin” powerfully in his book The Meaning of the City. A city is not just a loose collection of individuals, it becomes a kind of entity itself, an entity that shapes the thoughts and lives of individual members. People speak naturally in such terms when they talk about “being a New Yorker” or what a real “Chicagoan” is like. But while an individual inhabitant of a city is not the city itself, we understand what they mean when they speak in these terms. Ellul explains it this way:

We must admit that the city is not just a collection of houses and ramparts, but also a spiritual power. I am not saying it is a being. But like an angel, it is a power, and what seems prodigious is that its power is on a spiritual plane. The city has, then spiritual influence. It is capable of directing and changing a man’s spiritual life. It brings its power to bear in him and changes his life, all his life, not just his house.

Ellul, The Meaning of the City, 9

Replace “city” here with system or culture, and we get a better sense of why all the Canaanites, even the children, were targets of conquest or “herem.” Ancient religious traditions, even among semitic people, often “laid the first stone of a new town on the body of a human sacrifice offered to the power of the city in order to that his spirit protect the city” (28). In other words, ancient cities were literally dedicated through human sacrifice, which, in the eyes of God, is the greatest abomination of all, since it destroys the image-bearer of the one, true God in the service of a lesser being, a demon-god.

The Social Dynamics of Sin

While it still may be hard to understand the killing of children, although the age of said children might matter, we have to think in corporate terms to understand the attack on Canaan. Just as Christians today baptize their children “in the name of Jesus” or orthodox Jews bar-mitzvah young boys into their religious and ethnic community, why would we not think that Canaanites baptized or anointed their young into the religion of Baal: a religion whose abominations I will discuss in a future post, but that you can read about in detail here.

Today’s social groups may be organized around political or economic ideologies, which may seem more anodyne than religious systems. However, even there, we have seen how these systems have played out in history, especially when we look at the rise and fall of Communist nations, for example, and the atrocities against humanity committed within them an in their name. Ancient social groups were organized not around politics or economics, but around cultic religion. For the Canaanites, the society was organize around the worship of their gods, and the practices associated with them. These sinful practices of the society affected every individual, even those who may have been resistant–like, for example, the prostitute Rahab– or even entirely sentient: an infant, animal, or the mentally handicapped.

In his classic treatment of the individual and society, Moral Man and Immoral Society, Reinhold Niebuhr articulates this principle of social morality:

The individual character of conscience does not preclude the determination of most moral judgments by the opinions of the group. Most individuals lack the intellectual penetration to form independent judgments and therefore accept the moral opinions of their society. Even when they do form their own judgments there is no certainty that their sense of obligation toward moral values, defined by their own mind, will be powerful enough to overcome the fear of disapproval. The social character of most moral judgements and the pressure of society upon the individual are both facts to be reckoned with.

Niebuhr, 36-37 [emphasis added]

The Canaanites that many moderns would claim to be innocent, like the women or children, were, to some degree, complicit with the “social morality” derived from the worship of Baal and the practices associated with that system of religious belief. Again, this was a system which included human sacrifice, abhorrent sexual practices like bestiality and pedophilia, and other cruelties against man and nature. It is not implausible to think that for most of the Canaanites, with some exceptions, these things were simply “the norm” and not to be questioned. After all, God had allowed the corruption of this entire society to develop over a 400-year period.

Moreover, if we look at how our children are being corrupted in our own culture, especially in the area of sexuality, it is not that hard to imagine what kind of adults they will turn out to be and what ideas about morality they will have. Just ask any Hitler Youth or African child soldier who grew up. In his treatment of the dynamics of sin, Cornelius Plantinga (yes, Al’s brother) says:

Like cancer, sin kills because it reproduces. As every counselor knows, one of the most typical settings for this awful fruitfulness is the family. Apples do not usually fall far from the tree. Children not only look but often act like their parents. Alcoholics, for instance, often spring from alcoholic parents and tend, in turn, to marry alcoholic spouses to produce still more alcoholic children. Sexist families tend to reproduce sexism, to send it like a disease through the family tree so that in every spreading branch of it men want to control and patronize women. Similarly for racism, ethnic hatred, nationalism, xenophobia, hatred of homosexual persons, and many other bigotries.

Plantinga, Not The Way It’s Supposed to Be, 55.

What do we think Canaanite families were like if, for example, the parents regularly practiced human sacrifice and bestiality?

Corporate Sin and Punishment in The Biblical Text

Corporate sin and punishment in the Bible is ubiquitous, however. It is not reserved for one group or the other. Israel herself is punished as a people group just as the Canaanites were. We see the historical memory of the corporate punishment of Israel most explicitly in the prayer of Ezra in Ezra 9.

After a devastating exile of the entire Israelite nation, an event that sent most of the population to a far-off country, and that was executed through a pagan and cruel nation, Ezra returns to the land only to see the same kinds of actions being performed that had caused the exile to begin with! As a priest in the service of YHWH, Ezra repents on behalf of the entire people of Israel. His prayer is riddled with first person, plural pronouns (which I have highlighted here):

At the evening sacrifice I got up from my fasting, with my garments and my mantle torn, and fell on my knees, spread out my hands to the Lord my God, and said,

‘O my God, I am too ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. From the days of our ancestors to this day we have been deep in guilt, and for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been handed over to the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as is now the case. But now for a brief moment favour has been shown by the Lord our God, who has left us a remnant, and given us a stake in his holy place, in order that he may brighten our eyes and grant us a little sustenance in our slavery. For we are slaves; yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery, but has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to give us new life to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us a wall in Judea and Jerusalem.

10 ‘And now, our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken your commandments, 11 which you commanded by your servants the prophets, saying, “The land that you are entering to possess is a land unclean with the pollutions of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations. They have filled it from end to end with their uncleanness. 12 Therefore do not give your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons, and never seek their peace or prosperity, so that you may be strong and eat the good of the land and leave it for an inheritance to your children for ever.” 13 After all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, seeing that you, our God, have punished us less than our iniquities deserved and have given us such a remnant as this, 14 shall we break your commandments again and intermarry with the peoples who practise these abominations? Would you not be angry with us until you destroy us without remnant or survivor? 15 O Lord, God of Israel, you are just, but we have escaped as a remnant, as is now the case. Here we are before you in our guilt, though no one can face you because of this.’

Ezra 9:5-15

Did Ezra himself commit any of these sins? No, he did not. Yet, he acknowledges the social nature of these transgressions against a good and holy God, and, as such, includes himself in the community of sinners.

Now, before anyone chomps at the bit to defend the idea of white people having to apologize for their “whiteness” in our modern context, or those church leaders who did that very thing, it must be made clear that Ezra is not apologizing for being Jewish (or Israelite). He is apologizing for the sins of the people, not their ethnicity or, God forbid, skin color! This does mean, however, that today’s minister or priest is right in apologizing for the Church’s role in things like slavery or Racism. But the Church and “white people” are not identical. There is nothing inherently evil about white people, or any ethnic group. Evil, sin, is part of us all in virtue of being simply human and in Adam.

Is Sin More Than Just Individual?

Christ as the Locus of The World’s Sin

The corporate nature of sin is, therefore, not located in any one people or group. This is a great lie which has caused enormous human suffering, and, as alluded to above, still permeates today. Sin, as it has been said from the pulpit over the years, is the great “leveler” of men– along with its close companion: death. Paul tells us quite clearly in Romans that “all have fallen short of the glory of God,” and that “no one is righteous, no not even one” (Romans 3:11-12). If we were to stop here, and recognize this fact, we would end in despair. However, even then, it would be better for us in this life to recognize the corporate sinfulness of our universal, human nature. At least then, we might start not to see others as that different from ourselves. This could mitigate the compounding of the sin that we struggle with. For the world to say collectively: “we are all sinners!” would indeed be a step in the right direction.

However, historically, we have no good reason to think that human beings will ever collectively see their own evil as opposed to blaming groups within the human family as the locus of that evil. That is itself part of the sinfulness of our nature. It is part of the curse upon human beings to always shift blame. We see it immediately after Adam’s fall in Genesis 3:

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ 10 He said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’ 11 He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ 12 The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.’ 13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent tricked me, and I ate.’ 14

It is because of this corporate fall into sin, this original sin, that man alone cannot fix the problem. If humanity as a whole is broken, if the nature every individual shares is corrupted, then who within that community can repair what has been done? The only adequate answer ever given to this question has been the person and work of Jesus Christ: the incarnation of the divine in human flesh. Jesus is made the locus of all human sin, that of the Canaanite and the Israelites, of the Russians, the Americans, the Chinese, of everyone people group and every individual in every group that has ever lived. And it is in that moment of dereliction on the cross that God Himself assumes the evils of the world on our behalf, and, in so doing, opens the door for our nature to be redeemed.

In this series, I have defended the idea that the killing of the Canaanites was justified. First, because it was a unique event in history. Second, because it was not based on ethnicity, but on evil actions. Third, because sin, unlike our modern conception of wrongdoing, is not merely law-breaking but has the feature of being like a disease or pollutant that corrupts not only us, but even the land upon which we walk. Here, I have pointed out one more feature of sin that we forget about in the modern era, namely, its corporate or social nature. This still may not mitigate all the tension surrounding the divine command to conduct “herem” against the Canaanites. However, in the next post I will discuss yet another feature of sin that we should take seriously, and, if we did, we might better understand God’s command.

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