The “Slaughter” of the Canaanites Re-visited

Dear Dr Craig,

You are becoming increasingly known as "the apologist who defends genocide and infanticide in the Old Testament", mainly due to your Q&A response on the question of the Canaanites.

Many people seem to react emotionally, without engaging with the detail of your arguments and without providing their own moral foundations on which their outrage can stand.

However, I've been hearing recently that the Old Testament accounts of these killings used exaggerated language. This was mentioned at an apologetics conference I attended recently, and I'm told it's even in Paul Copan's new book (haven't been able to read it yet, however).

In particular, it's being said that language about "killing all women and children" was typically and culturally "over-the-top", and that it's not necessary to interpret the text to mean that they were all *really* slain.

You, however, defend a more literal account: that God did order the deaths of the women and young children.

How have you made sure that you're not mistaken? Or, to put it another way, is this not an opportunity to avoid burdening yourself with needing to defend the view that God ordered the mass killings of women and children?

It's a tricky one, and an emotive topic, but I'd love to know what you think especially about these accounts of "exaggerated language".

Many thanks again,


United Kingdom

I’ve seen those kinds of responses, too, Peter, and find them disappointing because they fail to grapple intellectually with the difficult questions raised by such stories. Emotional outbursts take the place of rational discussion, leaving us with no deeper understanding of the issues than before we began.

I find it ironic that atheists should often express such indignation at God’s commands, since on naturalism there’s no basis for thinking that objective moral values and duties exist at all and so no basis for regarding the Canaanite slaughter as wrong. As Doug Wilson has aptly said of the Canaanite slaughter from a naturalistic point of view, “The universe doesn’t care.” So at most the non-theist can be alleging that biblical theists have a sort of inconsistency in affirming both the goodness of God and the historicity of the conquest of Canaan. It’s an internal problem for biblical theists, which is hardly grounds for moral outrage on the part of non-theists. If there is an inconsistency on our part, then we’ll just have to give up the historicity of the narratives, taking them as either legends or else misinterpretations by Israel of God’s will. The existence of God and the soundness of the moral argument for His existence don’t even come into play.

The topic of God’s command to destroy the Canaanites was the subject of a very interesting exchange at the Evangelical Philosophical Society session last November at the Society of Biblical Literature Convention in Atlanta. Matt Flannagan defended the view put forward by Paul Copan in his Is God a Moral Monster? that such commands represent hyperbole typical of Ancient Near Eastern accounts of military conquests. Obviously, if Paul is right about this, then the whole problem just evaporates. But this answer doesn’t seem to me to do justice to the biblical text, which seems to say that if the Israeli soldiers were to encounter Canaanite women and children, they should kill them (cf. Samuel’s rebuke of Saul in I Sam. 15.10-16).

Old Testament scholar Richard Hess took a different line in his paper: he construes the commands literally but thinks that no women and children were actually killed. All the battles were with military outposts and soldiers, where women and children would not have been present. It is, in fact, a striking feature of these narratives that there is no record whatsoever that women or children were actually killed by anyone. Still, even if Hess is right, the ethical question remains of how God could command such things, even if the commands weren’t actually carried out. Whether anyone was actually killed is irrelevant to the ethical question, as the story of Abraham and Isaac illustrates.

So even if Copan is right, I’m still willing to bite the bullet and tackle the tougher question of how an all-good, all-loving God could issue such horrendous commands. My argument in Question of the Week #16 is that God has the moral right to issue such commands and that He wronged no one in doing so. I want to challenge those who decry my answer to explain whom God wronged and why we should think so. As I explained, the most plausible candidate is, ironically, the soldiers themselves, but I think that morally sufficient reasons can be provided for giving them so gruesome a task.

There is one important aspect of my answer that I would change, however. I have come to appreciate as a result of a closer reading of the biblical text that God’s command to Israel was not primarily to exterminate the Canaanites but to drive them out of the land. It was the land that was (and remains today!) paramount in the minds of these Ancient Near Eastern peoples. The Canaanite tribal kingdoms which occupied the land were to be destroyed as nation states, not as individuals. The judgment of God upon these tribal groups, which had become so incredibly debauched by that time, is that they were being divested of their land. Canaan was being given over to Israel, whom God had now brought out of Egypt. If the Canaanite tribes, seeing the armies of Israel, had simply chosen to flee, no one would have been killed at all. There was no command to pursue and hunt down the Canaanite peoples.

It is therefore completely misleading to characterize God’s command to Israel as a command to commit genocide. Rather it was first and foremost a command to drive the tribes out of the land and to occupy it. Only those who remained behind were to be utterly exterminated. There may have been no non-combatants killed at all. That makes sense of why there is no record of the killing of women and children, such as I had vividly imagined. Such scenes may have never taken place, since it was the soldiers who remained to fight. It is also why there were plenty of Canaanite people around after the conquest of the land, as the biblical record attests.

No one had to die in this whole affair. Of course, that fact doesn’t affect the moral question concerning the command that God gave, as explained above. But I stand by my previous answer of how God could have commanded the killing of any Canaanites who attempted to remain behind in the land.