Richard Dawkins recently explained why he would not debate William Lane Craig.1 Dawkins does not like that Craig defends God’s commands to the Israelites in the Old Testament to destroy certain people groups that were inhabiting the Promised Land. He claims that Craig has a “dark side” and that “Most churchmen these days wisely disown the horrific genocides ordered by the God of the Old Testament.”
Dawkins quotes Craig on the extermination of the Canaanites and takes issue with Craig defending God’s commands for such actions. In one of my Old Testament text books I came across a perspective (shared below) on the command to exterminate the Canaanites.
The suggestion that God could command anyone to kill another or require the complete extermination of every living being in a city seems offensive or even outrageous. To dodge the problem some have proposed that the God (Yahweh) of the Old Testament cannot be the same as the Father of Jesus Christ of the New Testament. This, of course, runs counter to the teachings of Christ and the apostles, who clearly identify their God with the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and with the God who revealed himself to Moses and the prophets.
A partial answer to this puzzle is the fact that religious “devotion” was a part of the culture of the day. Ancient Near Eastern peoples “devoted” persons and possessions and captives to their gods. That such action was customary does not, of course, make it right, but it does help explain why the Israelites did not think it necessarily wrong. God takes the people where they are, and leads them step by step until at last they will be where God is. Divine revelation is progressive. At this point, the Israelites did not have as their Torah the Sermon on the Mount (“love your enemies”). This understanding of love had to wait for the New Joshua (Jesus) to make it known in his life and death.
But this is not the whole answer. The biblical position regarding the Canaanites is not simply “Exterminate them!” There is good reason behind the command. In Yahweh’s eyes, the Canaanites with their culture and religion were exceedingly evil sinners, who not only committed abominations against God but also sought to entice Israel to join them in these “religious” acts. The discovery of Ugaritic documents at Ras Shamra in Syria has opened up detailed information about Canaanite religious practices. Religious prostitution, child sacrifice, and other features of this religion plagued Israel for centuries, as the books of Kings and of the early prophets bear witness.32
Yahweh, the Israelites were often reminded, is holy, a God who does not tolerate such abominable practices, especially in the name of serving a deity. This was idolatry against both creation and Creator. The Canaanites merited punishment. Further, the purity of Israelite religion had to be preserved. The sensual attractions of Canaanite religion (as at Baal-peor; Num. 25:1) posed a serious threat to Yahwistic life. A surgeon does not hesitate to remove an arm or a leg, or even a vital organ, when life is at stake. The very existence of Israel — and ultimately the salvation of the world — depended upon Yahweh’s blessing.
Admittedly, this is only an interpretation and a partial attempt to justify the difficult biblical position. But there is the verdict of history. The Israelites, sickened by slaughter or seduced by sensual religious rites, ceased exterminating Canaanites, and Canaanite religious practices gradually pervaded Israelite religion. The punishment this brought upon Israel was terrible. Yahweh inflicted on them foreign oppression, invasion, destruction of Israelite cities, and the destruction of Jerusalem and exile from the promised land.
To repeat, Yahweh did not order the Israelites to exterminate all Gentiles but only the Canaanites. This policy was not a permanent or eternal principle. It was intended for an immediate situation, when the Israelites were occupying the land God had promised their fathers. Later, the moral and ethical teachings of prophets such as Amos, Micah, and Isaiah would be presented just as stridently to Israel as the word of Yahweh. Still later Jesus Christ would claim that he came to fulfill the law and prophets. The “devotion” of the Canaanites in the land must be seen against all these factors.2
- Richard Dawkins, “Why I refuse to debate with William Lane Craig,” Guardian, October 20, 2011. ↩
- Lasor, William Sanford; David Allan Hubbard; Frederic William Bush; Leslie C. Allen (1996-06-01). Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament (Kindle Locations 3124-3151). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. Kindle Edition. ↩