Sunday, February 1, 2015

Was The Genocide Of The Cannanites In The Bible Justified?

It seems that for some Christians the genocidal conquests mentioned in the Old Testament are a constant thorn in their theology. I can definitely see the need for one to want to distance themselves from actually believing they were historical events commanded by an omnibenevolent deity. The most rational interpretation of those text that I think a Christian can have, as I've said many times, is the minimalist view that doesn't regard them as divinely inspired. Thom Stark's view is a prime example. In his book Is God a Moral Compromiser? he critiques the idea that the genocide on the Canaanites was justified by any reasonable moral standard.

When theists argue that the Canaanites "had it coming to them" because they performed child sacrifice, or they performed ritual sex acts, I like to kindly remind them that the Canaanites had no pact with Yahweh to solely worship him or to obey any of the Mosaic commandments. See, the thing about divine command theory (for those theists who advocate for it) is that "the morally right action is the one that God commands or requires." This means that in the absence of any divine revelation or command, a person has no objective moral duties to abide by. Him and his society are therefore free to do as they please, whether that includes child sacrifice or ritualistic prostitution. So if the Canaanites indeed did these things, they were not violating any moral laws set down by Yahweh, and were therefore innocent of any of the charges the Israelites used to justify their genocide against them.

And Stark knows this. Aside from the fact that the Israelites also once practiced child sacrifice (exodus 22:29) as the Canaanites did (but unlike the Canaanites they did so only to Yahweh), on page 32 Stark writes:

I’ll just note two problems here: (1) God never sent any prophets to Canaan to warn them of their coming destruction; not in Abraham’s time, not in Moses’s, and not in any time in between. The only thing he sent to Canaan was military spies. (2) He had to wait until their punishment was “fully deserved”? We’re talking about baby killing here. At what point is a baby’s slaughter “fully deserved”? And if Copan is going to cite “original sin” (though I’m not claiming he will), then everybody in the whole world “fully deserved” to get slaughtered. And their slaughter would have been just as “fully deserved” in Abraham’s time as it was in Moses’s.

On page 33 he continues:

(2) The text never says anything like Copan’s idea that the Canaanites were “beyond redemption.” In fact, as I pointed out a couple times in Human Faces of God, the story of Jonah flies in the face of this idea. In Jonah, the Assyrian capital city of Nineveh is described as so thoroughly wicked that the stench of their immorality rose all the way up to heaven. But God sent them a prophet, and guess what happened! They repented, immediately. God sent no prophet to Canaan. Just spies and barbarian soldiers. As I’ve argued in the book, the author of Jonah was articulating a position on God’s nature that was in direct contention with the theology and ideology of the authors of the conquest narratives and of xenophobes like Ezra and Nehemiah.

On page 211 Stark notes that the narrative seems to suggest that the destruction of the Canaanites via Yahweh's genocidal command was predetermined such that many possible ways that he could have prevented it were ignored.

The fact is, God sent no one to Canaan to warn them of their coming judgment. Noah preached. Jonah preached. But Moses didn’t preach. The only people God ever sent into Canaan were not prophets but military spies. God never intended to give Canaan a chance. Never issued them any sort of warning. And why? Because he had promised that land to the descendants of Abraham. So when Copan says the Canaanite conquest was a “last resort,” he must have meant to say “only resort.” 

Stark also mentions how much better a position Christians would be if they viewed these genocidal takes in the Old Testament as hagiographical stories, and not historical accounts.

Copan would do much better to follow Evangelical scholar Douglas Earl, who recognizes the fictional nature of these conquest narratives and argues that they are hagiography—stories told not for their historical value but for their moral value. (309)

To Christians and Jews who want to maintain some sort of biblical inerrancy and tell me that their god Yahweh is the paradigm of objective moral goodness, they have, in Ricky Ricardo's words, a lot of 'splainin' to do. Given an objective of ridding the land of Canaan of the Canaanites so that the Israelites could have it, I can think of many more compassionate ways Yahweh could have achieved this that are more compatible with omnibenevolence. Namely, Yahweh could have made the Canaanites painlessly disappear, or made them infertile, or he could have prevented their origin in the first place. Or, as Stark notes, he could have sent them a prophet or a revelation, as had been successful other times. But, some Christians and Jews will never learn and they will unknowingly continue to help the destruction of their religion by driving a wedge between reason & evidence and the dogmatic theology they refuse to jettison.

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