#331

August 19, 2013

Once More: The Slaughter of the Canaanites

Dear Dr. Craig,

First allow me to add my voice to the chorus of praise for your work and ministry. In my own case, I had recently been drifting in a decidedly liberal direction, willing to merely accept skeptical criticisms of the bible and Christian theology rather than seeking to formulate a genuinely robust defense for beliefs which I had held to be true. I was conquered by their arguments simply because I was ignorant to the reasoned alternative.

I have since joined a Reasonable Faith Chapter in Melbourne and have become a avid listener of your podcasts. You have helped to propel me toward a more orthodox and sound approach to issues such as the reliability of the Gospels and the historicity of the Resurrection. It is very exciting and rewarding, and I thank you for that.

However, upon listening recently to your thoughtful response to the question of the slaughter of the Canaanites in the Old Testament, I felt that here was a point at which I could not abandon the liberal interpretation: that the Israelites were merely mistaken in their interpretation of God's will. While I was intrigued by your account, I could not accept it.

Firstly, to your point that this kind of command is not typical of the God of the Old Testament. Here, I agree with you, however, surely if God is found to have committed even a single act that is less than morally perfect, He cannot be God. However, this point is not central to your argument, and I take it that you were merely attempting to assert some sense of balance to the heated rhetoric which often pervades these issues.

Secondly, you claim that, in issuing this command, God has not contravened any moral obligations, as, a divine being can be subject to no such obligations. He has not wronged them. I think you are quite correct in this, however, surely the concern here is not that God has failed to obey certain moral obligations, but that He has failed to act in accordance with his moral character. A morally perfect Being could not issue such a command. He has breached no obligations, but rather, it is simply an impossibility.

Thirdly, I must confess that your remarks concerning the Canaanite children had me squirming with discomfort. However, no doubt you would say that whether or not a proposition appeals to us has no bearing on whether or not it is true. That would be a fallacy. Nonetheless, it does seem that the notion that the killing of a child could be considered a kindness on the grounds that it would be assured a place in Heaven seems to have deeply troubling implications. Why should we withhold such a reward, if that is what it is, from any child? Whether or not such an act is commanded, it seems that this reasoning stands on its own. Either the death of a child is to be welcomed on these grounds or it is not.

Ultimately it seems to me that the troubling implications for the Doctrine of moral perfection, and the apparent contradictions with New Testament teachings on morality, violence and unity with the Gentiles demands that we regard such passages as essentially mythological. We simply have better philosophical reasons to dispute the accuracy of this Text than we have historical reasons for accepting it.

Thanks for your time,

Daniel

Australia

It’s wonderful to read a rational response to my defense of the historicity of the conquest narratives, Daniel! The typical response has been just heated emotional denunciations with no rational interaction with the moral theory I defended in QoWs ##16 and 225. (Readers who are unfamiliar with that defense are advised to read those answers as background to this one.)

First, let me commend you for seeing that this issue is an in-house debate among Jews and Christians. If it is the case that God could not have issued the commands in question, that goes no distance toward proving atheism or undermining the moral argument for God; it at most implies a liberal doctrine of biblical inspiration, such that inspiration does not imply inerrancy.

Let me now comment on your points in order.

1. I agree that “if God is found to have committed even a single act that is less than morally perfect, He cannot be God.” But it’s worth remembering that the reason the conquest narratives are so puzzling is that God’s character in the Old Testament is so morally elevated that it’s hard to understand how He could issue such commands, especially after the story of Abraham’s bargaining with God over Sodom and Gomorrah. He is not the villain that the new atheists make Him out to be.

2. I’m very gratified that you agree with me on my Divine Command Theory of ethics. I think this goes a very long way toward resolving the problem. God does nothing morally wrong in issuing these commands. Rather the whole question devolves, as you note, to this: has God failed to act in accordance with His perfect moral character? The task of the biblical believer is now to show that in issuing these commands God does nothing out of character with a perfectly just and loving being.

3. You apparently agree with me that God’s judgment of the Canaanite adults is consistent with God’s being perfectly just and loving, given how unspeakably debased these people were. So it all comes down to the children. Is taking their lives consistent with the character of a perfectly just and loving being? Well, why not? My claim is that in taking these children home early, God does them no wrong. Indeed, He may actually prevent their eternal damnation by snatching them out of a depraved Canaanite culture.

You object to this by saying,

the notion that the killing of a child could be considered a kindness on the grounds that it would be assured a place in Heaven seems to have deeply troubling implications. Why should we withhold such a reward, if that is what it is, from any child? Whether or not such an act is commanded, it seems that this reasoning stands on its own. Either the death of a child is to be welcomed on these grounds or it is not.

But your question is easy to answer. The reason we should withhold such a reward is that God has issued a command “Thou shalt not kill,” so that we have a moral prohibition against killing the innocent. We have no right to play God; it is He and He alone who has the prerogative to give and take life. Yes, the death of a child brings great good to that child. That’s why we are comforted at funerals of children. But there’s nothing in my moral theory that implies that we should bring about this great good (I’m not a utilitarian!). In fact, my moral theory entails that we have a moral duty not to take the life of a child or of any innocent person. God has forbidden us doing so, and anyone who presumes to do so commits a great evil. This is right in line with the teaching of the New Testament, as well as the Old.

So where’s the problem? As I said before, the only people I can think of who are possibly wronged by God’s issuing so extraordinary a command is the Israeli soldiers tasked with carrying it out. But then I have presented a defense of God’s giving them such a command in view of His providential purpose for Israel. In short, I don’t think there are any insuperable philosophical objections to taking the text as historical.