Richard Dawkins and Driving Out the Canaanites

Richard Dawkins and Driving Out the Canaanites

The account of the Canaanites being driven out came up during Dr. Craig's UK tour. Dr. Craig gives an overview of this often-asked question.

Transcript Richard Dawkins and Driving Out The Canaanites

Kevin Harris: Hey, it's good to have you. Welcome to Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. I'm Kevin Harris. A while back Dr. Craig and I were in the studio discussing Richard Dawkins' public and rather terse response to one of Dr. Craig's articles. Now, the article was on the slaughter of the Canaanites. In past podcasts we've discussed this biblical account of God's using the armies of Israel to drive out the Canaanite nation in judgment upon them. And we weren't able to schedule this particular podcast at the time but are airing it now in light of the issue coming up again during Dr. Craig's recent speaking and debating tour in the U.K. Dr. Dawkins did not show up to debate Dr. Craig, as invited. But even in his absence many Dawkins supporters pointed to the Canaanite controversy and Dawkins' outrage over it. So let's go back to the studio and bring this podcast forward and go over the issue again with Dr. Craig. We begin with Richard Dawkins' short response.

This article by the American theologian and Christian apologist William Lane Craig: I read it and found it so dumbfoundingly, staggeringly, awful that I wanted to post it again. It is a stunning example of the theological mind at work. And remember this is not an extremist fundamentalist picking on the worst case example. My understanding is that William Lane Craig is a widely respected apologist for the Christian religion. Read his article and rub your eyes to make sure you are not having a bad dream.


Dr. Craig: He didn't like it, obviously. [laughter]

Kevin Harris: Obviously not. This article is in response to something that we have dealt with here several times. In fact it's question number sixteen and it's the slaughter of the Canaanites. Now, I've got a stack of paper right here in front of me of printings of emails that we've received and people still ask about this question.

Dr. Craig: Sure.

Kevin Harris: It makes the rounds on the internet, and, now, let me say, quickly, Dr. Craig, that a lot of Christians who spend their time and their lives just reading the New Testament, never really delving into the Old, are thrown by this.

Dr. Craig: Yes.

Kevin Harris: And I say this to our shame. These are passages in the Old Testament, what some people consider are all the old boring parts, and things like that. And what is the problem of the slaughter of the Canaanites?

Dr. Craig: That is the question: what is the problem involved here? Let's understand what the situation is. This is not a general command given by God as to how Israel is to prosecute its wars. These are highly singular commands given to Israel during the conquest of the land of Canaan, or what we today call the land of Palestine. It occurs when Israel is brought out of Egypt through the exodus, and God delivers Israel from slavery, takes them across the Sinai and then into the land of Canaan. And he commands them to drive out the Canaanite tribes, about seven little kingdoms or clans, that are living in the land of Canaan. He commands them to drive them out and to kill every man, women, and child who remains behind to try to fight. And the difficulty is, of course, how can God issue a command like this to these Israeli armies?

I think what makes it so jarring – and I like the way you put it, Kevin – to anybody familiar with the God of the New Testament, or I have to say even with the God of the prophets and other portions of the Old Testament, is alarmed by this and is shocked. It doesn't sound like the merciful, compassionate God that we meet elsewhere in the pages of the New Testament and in the great prophets in the Old. And that should be underscored. I think it's just dishonest when people like Richard Dawkins portray Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, as this moral monster. These highly singular commands need to be read against the background of the whole of the Old Testament, which includes the great moral law that is given by God which is head and shoulders above other ancient near Eastern moral or legal codes, like the code of Hammurabi and so forth. It's against the background of the prophets, which explain God's compassion for the poor and the oppressed and the orphans and the widows. It's against the background of God's commands to Jonah even to go to the city of Nineveh, a non-Jewish city, and proclaim to them God's impending judgment so that they repent, and God bestows mercy upon them, he has compassion on them. It is a story that is highly singular and highly unusual because we've learned from the pages of the Old and the New Testament that Yahweh is a God of justice and compassion and care.[1] And that's why these stories are so troubling when we first read them.

Kevin Harris: Because we can't fathom the execution of men, women, and children, even in various doctrines of war, that the civilians are to be spared.

Dr. Craig: Right.

Kevin Harris: Modern sensibilities certainly rub against those as well. And we hear cases today of genocide in Africa. And so we tend to view this through the lens of the atrocities that man has committed to man throughout time.

Dr. Craig: Sure. These Israeli soldiers would be prosecuted for war crimes if this were to occur today.

Kevin Harris: Now, they were under the theocracy of the Old Testament.

Dr. Craig: Yes, that's right. That's important to understand. This is not a civil or secular government. This is a government at which Yahweh himself was the head of the government. It wasn't a democracy or an autocracy or any other form of human government. This was a government in which God was the head of the government, and therefore is, as I say, highly unusual and highly singular because there is no other human society like that on earth ever since.

Kevin Harris: We've done some podcasts on this before and I'd like to expand it as much as we can. I think your article is very thorough here. And another thing: I'm not getting a lot of help here from the questions. Nobody has really said what they don't like about it.

Dr. Craig: That's the puzzling thing to me, Kevin. As I read the responses on the forum, people were unconvinced or they were appalled – Dawkins says this is the theological mind at work – but it wasn't clear to me exactly where my answer was in error, or unconvincing. I explained that this objection doesn't do anything to undermine the existence of God or the truth of Christianity, that at best this is an attack upon biblical inerrancy. It's saying that somehow the biblical authors got it wrong when they said that God commanded the Israelite armies to do this because God couldn't do such a thing as a morally perfect being. And so what this is, it's a critique of biblical inerrancy. It's saying either these conquests never happened, these are just legends that never really occurred, or else that the Israelite army, carried away by its nationalistic fervor, thought that God was on their side and was commanding them to do these things when in fact he wasn't. In either case one would say that the Bible has a mistake in it here. In terms of what is the force of the objection, if we let it go through, if it is a good objection, what does it prove? What it would prove would be that the Bible has an error in it; that biblical inerrancy isn't right, and that would force us to adjust our doctrine of inspiration. But it wouldn't prove that God doesn't exist; it wouldn't prove Jesus didn't rise from the dead; it wouldn't prove that Christ wasn't the incarnation of God. So I think that's entirely convincing, what I said in terms of the force of the argument.

Kevin Harris: Yes. Now, we went the direction in the podcast of saying, well, we can maintain inerrancy, as well, because there are plausible reasons in view of God's sovereignty, his sovereignty over life, his use of the theocracy of Israel, and his judgment of horrible nations, that we can see God's hand here.

Dr. Craig: It seems clear to me, Kevin, that there isn't any moral problem here in God using the Israeli armies to bring judgment upon the Canaanite adults. It says in Genesis that God had allowed Israel to stay in Egypt for four hundred years because the iniquity of the Canaanites was not yet complete. It was not until these cultures were so utterly reprobate and ripe for judgment that God finally brought the Israelites out of Egypt and ordered these armies to go into Canaan and dispossess the people of the land.

One thing I would like to add to my answer that I didn't have in the original answer that I've since come to see, is that God's command was not actually to just go into the land and exterminate everybody. Rather the command was to drive the people out of the land, to drive the Canaanites out of Canaan, and take possession of the land for the Jewish state. There was no command to pursue the Canaanites and hunt them down and kill them if they left. What God wanted to do was to annihilate the Canaanite nation states, to destroy them as nations by dispossessing them of the land. So most of the Canaanites probably fled before the oncoming Israeli armies.[2] It was only those who chose to remain behind and fight that were utterly devoted to destruction. Had they had the good sense to leave there was no command to pursue them and to hunt them down and kill them. So the Canaanites who were devoted to destruction were only those who chose to remain behind to resist the incoming armies.

Kevin Harris: We know from history that the women and children often fled ahead of the battle; they got out of town.

Dr. Craig: Yes, exactly. When you think of how utterly corrupt these Canaanite cultures were – practicing child sacrifice to their gods, cultic prostitution, all sorts of other practices that are detailed in the Old Testament as to why they were ripe for judgment – it seems to me that there is no moral problem in saying that God ordered the extermination of the Canaanite adults. So the only moral question that seems to me to remain, and it is difficult, is the children.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, what about the children?

Dr. Craig: How could God order the children of these Canaanite tribes to be destroyed rather than saying, well, you shall adopt the children, spare the children, adopt them, allow them to grow up amongst yourselves and to be part of your nation? And my answer to that is that I think the correct one is that God as the author and giver of life has the authority to give and take life as he sees fit. And for many children, we know, die in infancy. God doesn't allow them to have a full and normal adult life, he takes them home to himself when they are young, when they're children. And so God has the right to take the lives of these Canaanite children should he so will. And I think that the reason God willed their destruction is that he knew that if these children were allowed to live and to grow up in the context of Jewish society this would have a corrupting influence upon the Jewish state, leading it to apostatize and fall away from the true God, the God of Israel, and to follow false gods of Canaan and other pagan nations. And in fact we know that this was true because that's exactly what happened. The people did not carry out faithfully God's commands to annihilate all the people. They did allow their sons and daughters to be given in marriage to some of these Canaanite young people, and it did have a corrupting effect upon Israel leading to apostasy and falling away from God. And thus in one sense much greater tragedy in terms of eternal values than what would have happened had the children all been destroyed. What we need to keep in mind is that by having the children destroyed I believe these children went immediately to heaven, because people who die in infancy before they reach an age of accountability are to be saved.

Kevin Harris: There are Old and New Testament verses that really indicate that, Bill. I think a real good case can be made for that.

Dr. Craig: Well, I think so, too. And in any case it's at least possible, which would again give us grounds for saying that this was in fact an act of mercy.

Kevin Harris: Spare them the rigors of paganism.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, and eternal damnation in fact when you think about what would happen if they grow up, Israel apostatizes and falls away and then itself needs to be judged in a similar way to the nations of Canaan. So I don't think God does any wrong to these children in ending their lives soon, bringing them home to himself, and in that way preserving Israel from ultimate apostasy and destruction, or at least from it coming on sooner than it would have had they allowed them to live.

So whom does God wrong in this situation, is my question. He doesn't wrong the adults because they deserved judgment, they deserved destruction. He doesn't wrong the children because God has the right to take and give life as he wants to. And it actually results in a better situation for the children, namely, eternal life and happiness rather than probably misery and ultimate destruction, maybe even damnation and then the apostasy of Israel as a whole. So whom does he wrong? Well, as I said in the article, the only people that I could think of that he would wrong in doing this would be the Israeli soldiers themselves who had to carry out such awful things.

Kevin Harris: They had to do it. Oh my goodness.

Dr. Craig: Yes, they had to go in and kill these people, and that would be brutalizing and dehumanizing to do such a thing. And so you could say, well, that's whom he has wronged. But my argument there is that it's not clear even that he has wronged them in commanding them to do these things because nothing could have communicated to Israel in a more powerful way the necessity to stand apart as a people devoted to God and wholly to God and to be separate from the pagan nations that neighbored Israel.[3] When you read these Levitical laws that God gave to the people of Israel, they sound so weird to us today: don't mix linen and wool in the same garment; don't put meat and milk on the same plates; don't eat animals that have cleft hooves, and things of this sort. And when you look at these strange laws the motif that consistently runs through them is the motif of not mixing things. Don't mix things with that. And what these are, I think – and I think commentators say this as well – is that these laws are a reminder to Israel not to mix with these pagan nations around them. But to come apart as a holy people chosen and devoted to God, and therefore to come out and be separate from them. And the destruction of even the Canaanite children so that they could not grow up and inter-marry with Israeli children is a reminder in the most graphic terms of exactly the same truth.

So I ask, again, whom does God wrong in ordering this? I can't think of anybody that is wronged by God doing this, and it seems to me that God has the right to do this as the author and giver of life. So I ask: where is the problem? It's insufficient to simply say 'this is the theological mind at work,' as Dawkins does. You've got to deal with the case and show me whom God has wronged.

Kevin Harris: We view it also through the lens of horrible situations like Andre Yates, who drowned her five children allegedly because God told her to. She drowned her five children in a bathtub in Houston, Texas. And so we view this through those lenses, taking the life and death away from God and putting it into the hands of a fallen human being.

Dr. Craig: And that's your point you emphasized. We're talking here about a theocracy in which God was the head of the government and therefore instituted laws that were reflective of his absolute holiness and purity that, in fact, made the laws such a burden to Israel that they found it difficult to bear.

Kevin Harris: Critics of this don't realize as well that they're undermining a major blessing available to them as well by the fact that Israel would be a blessing to all nations.

Dr. Craig: Good point.

Kevin Harris: The Messiah would come through Israel. That's why God is taking such care, and that's why there's not to be that mixture, not to be that pagan influence. More is at stake than just God's people. The human race, Bill; the human race.

Dr. Craig: Good point. It's more than just Israel; it it the entire human race and the plan of salvation that God had instituted that depended upon preserving the integrity of Israel during this preparation phase for the Messiah. And so when you look at it in those terms I think that you can see that this is not some sort of angry capricious God, but these are the acts of a God who is doing things for morally sufficient reasons, for greater goods that out-balance the pain and the suffering that might be involved, and that in fact he does not morally wrong anybody, I think, in issuing these commands.

Kevin Harris: Can we say anything about no longer being under that theocracy.

Dr. Craig: Sure. What this means, and this has broader implications, is that no government is under such a theocracy anymore. Israel gave up being under God's rule to have a king and so forth. And similarly with our governments today. And so no one should imagine, because in the Old Testament law you have certain Levitical laws about penalties and capital crimes and so forth, that these are laws that are to be instituted today. These reflect, I think, God's severe judgment and holiness on these sins, but that doesn't mean that we're to institute these as laws of the land today in our democratic republic.

Kevin Harris: Thank you so much for listening today, and please go to for more on this topic. And by they way while in the U.K. Dr. Craig also recommended our friend Paul Copan's book Is God A Moral Monster? It's a thorough treatment of what we've discussed today, so you may want to pick it up. And please bookmark our web community if you haven’t, and take part in the resources available to you, as well as the amazing things happening all around the world through Dr. William Lane Craig and Reasonable Faith. I'm Kevin Harris; we'll see you next time.[4]

[1] 5:07

[2] 10:03

[3] 15:00

[4] Total Running Time: 19:48 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)