By Clay Jones
The “new atheists” call God’s commands to kill the Canaanites “genocide,” but a closer look at the horror of the Canaanites’ sinfulness, exhibited in rampant idolatry, incest, adultery, child sacrifice, homosexuality, and bestiality, reveals that God’s reason for commanding their death was not genocide but capital punishment. After all, the Old Testament unequivocally commands that those who do any one of these things deserves to die. Also, God made it clear in His conversation with Abraham regarding the Canaanite cities of Sodom and Gomorrah that He knows who would or would not repent, and in the case of those cities, not one person would heed the warning and even Lot’s family had to be forcibly pulled away from the coming destruction. In Leviticus 18 God then warns Israel that if they commit similar sins that the land would similarly “vomit” them out. Later when Israel disobeys God and allows the Canaanites to continue to live among them, the corruptive and seductive power of Canaanite sin results in the Canaanization of Israel. Subsequently, God sent prophets to warn Israel of their coming destruction, but they didn’t repent and God said that they became “like Sodom to me” and He visited destruction on Israel for committing the same sins. This again reveals that God’s motive isn’t genocide, but capital punishment. That we commit similar sins today renders us incapable of appropriate moral outrage against these sins and thus we accuse God of “genocide” to justify our own sinfulness.
Richard Dawkins and other new atheists herald God’s ordering of the destruction of Canaanite cities to be divine “ethnic cleansing” and “genocides.”1 With righteous indignation, Dawkins opines that the God of the Old Testament is “the most unpleasant character in all of fiction.”2 But was the killing of the Canaanites an example of divine genocide? If you think the Canaanites deserved to die because of their own wickedness, Dawkins will zealously compare you to acting like the Taliban.3 A closer look at several key facts will help explain God’s reason for the destruction of the Canaanites and reveal how our own sinfulness demonstrates our incapacity to judge rightly.
That atheists are incapable of judging spiritual matters leads some Christians to wonder why we even need to answer them at all, especially if they lack any objective, moral, or epistemological foundation for their claims. Moreover, most atheists do not customarily condemn the very practices that God condemns, for example, idolatry, adultery, and homosexuality. Predictably so, their values conflict with what God hates.
Concerning the destruction of the Canaanites, atheists especially like to exploit the Christian condemnation of genocide. They reason something along these lines: (1) Christians condemn genocide. (2) Yahweh’s command to kill the Canaanites was an act of divine genocide. (3) Therefore, Christians should condemn Yahweh for commanding genocide.
The second premise is false, however. Part of the goal of this essay is to offer evidence to show that God had good reason to command Israel to kill the Canaanites. In Leviticus 18 and elsewhere, for example, the Bible reveals that God punished the Canaanites for specific grievous evils. Also, this wasn’t the entire destruction of a race as God didn’t order that every Canaanite be killed but only those who lived within specific geographical boundaries (Josh. 1:4). Canaanite tribes (especially the Hittites) greatly exceeded the boundaries that Israel was told to conquer. And since, as we will see, He punished Israel when they committed the same sins, what happened to the Canaanites was not genocide, but capital punishment.
This wasn’t merely punishment, however. God sought to reveal His standards of righteousness to a thoroughly corrupted humankind, and He chose Israel out of the nations to exhibit the requirements for relationship with Him (Deut. 4:5–8). Before He redeemed humankind, He needed to unambiguously demonstrate what exactly He was redeeming them from: a blatant and unrestrained evil that resulted in a worthless, nasty, and cruel existence. God knows what is best for humankind, but He allowed free creatures to rebel and find out on their own that He is right. If Jesus had died to redeem humankind prior to humankind’s comprehending the depth of their sin, then people would question the need for Jesus’ death. Why would Jesus die for basically good folk? God waited to redeem humankind until…
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