Termites and Caananites

Knowing full well that some atheist will accuse me of justifying genocide, I wanted to look another time at the account of the destruction of the Canaanites upon the entry of the Israelites into the Promised Land as recorded in the Book of Joshua. Naturally, these verses cause a great deal of problems for most people, and they should. To accept blindly the complete and utter destruction of "all of the inhabitants" of various cities (such as Jericho [Jos. 6:21] and Ai [Jos. 8:26]) without being concerned about the extent of the destruction would show a lack of compassion that would be disturbing. However, saying that one should examine the circumstances surrounding the destruction of the peoples is not the equivalent of saying that one should immediately assume that such destruction was definitely wrongful. This is where many knee-jerk atheists make their mistake. While they accuse Christians of being the ones who are unable to see nuances in positions, a total disregard of the reasoning that the destruction of entire groupings of people may be morally acceptable when taking all factors into account shows a lack of careful thought that it is appalling.

I want to begin the examination by discussing termites. In California, whenever a person purchases a home, she is wise to take steps to be certain that the house is not infested with termites. The destructive force of termites, as anyone living in California already knows, is incredible and causes millions of dollars in damage to buildings every year. To buy a home without first removing the termites by fumigating the property is simply asking for trouble down the road.

To a degree, the Israelites were in much the same situation as the California landowner when they entered the promised land. The land that they sought to inhabit was already inhabited by a race of people known as the Canaanites. What is largely ignored about the Canaanites is the fact that they were very, very bad people. In an article by Robert Bowman entitled Joshua's Conquest: Was it Justified? Near the beginning of his article, Dr. Bowman reminds us that the Canaanites were among the very worst people in terms of how they lived their lives:

Critics of the Old Testament's claim that God ordered the killing of whole tribes in Canaan typically neglect the reason expressly stated in the Old Testament: those tribes were depraved beyond redemption (Gen. 15:16; Lev. 18:21-30; 20:2-5; Deut. 12:29-31; etc.). According to the Old Testament, the Canaanites and other tribes in the land widely practiced child sacrifice, incest, bestiality, and other behaviors that almost everyone in history, including today, rightly regard as unspeakably, grossly immoral. If this explanation is even acknowledged, critics often claim that it is a later theological justification for Israel's displacing those peoples from the land. Even many mainstream biblical scholars make this claim.

I have already questioned the conventional wisdom that the wickedness of the peoples of Canaan was an after-the-fact rationalization. However, even if the passages were all composed after the fact, such a response really skirts the issue, which is whether that theological justification was true. If the people of Canaan were akin to the peace-loving, civilized folks of different religions living in our suburban neighborhoods and working in our colleges, hospitals, and fire departments, then the Israelite claim that God had condemned those peoples as hopelessly degenerate would be rightly questioned. On the other hand, if the Canaanites and other peoples in the land were a degenerate society widely practicing bestiality and publicly burning their children to Molech, might not the Old Testament writers have had a point?

Dr. Bowman then examines some of the evidence, scant though it is, and determines that the evidence, to the extent it exists, supports some of the accounts about the Canaanites recorded in the Bible. They were a bad people. Certainly, it is reasonable to believe that they needed to be removed from the Promised Land if the Israelites were to take their God-given place in that area. In other words, the Canaanites were like the termites that needed to be removed from the home -- to leave them there would be simply to ask for trouble in the years ahead.

(Of course, people and termites are very different creatures with it being generally accepted to destroy the latter at will while it is universally agreed that the former should be protected - although under naturalistic beliefs there is little reason to make such a distinction. Still, to the extent that the Canaanites inhabited the lands and brought with them the ability to destroy the foundation of what God was seeking to build through the Israelites, the analogy has some limited value.)

Still, the Israelites did not, in fact, destroy all of the Canaanites. The lingering presence of the Canaanite people and their false religion (which the Israelites erroneously adopted again and again throughout Old Testament history) led to many, many difficulties for the Israelites over the years. As Dr. Bowman notes in the aforementioned article:

Although the Israelites under Joshua gained a measure of dominant control over much of the land of Canaan, they did not eliminate the peoples of Canaan completely and did not cleanse the land thoroughly of the corrupt religious and social practices of the Canaanites. Throughout the periods of the judges, the united monarchy, and the divided monarchy, Baal worship in particular continued to be a problem. One can only imagine how much more difficult it would have been to maintain with integrity any religion of the worship of Yahweh had the Israelites not been as aggressive as they were under Joshua. Elijah's infamously overstated lament that all Israel had abandoned the worship of Yahweh for Baal illustrates just how close Israel came at times to doing just that.

Clearly, the Israelites would have been better off if the wicked Canaanites had been completely removed from the Promised Land. They were like a cancer in the land that needed to be cut out completely for the body to remain healthy. They were like the termites who, if left in place, could severely damage -- perhaps even destroy -- the house of Israel.

Could they be converted? To answer this, one needs to consider the overall goodness of God. God does not take the destruction of people lightly. As demonstrated early in Genesis when God personally smote (because His chosen people had yet to develop into the nation that could act on His behalf) the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, he showed his desire to spare a group of people even if there are a very small number of people who can be seen as "righteous."

Abraham came near and said, "Will You indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will You indeed sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

So the LORD said, "If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare the whole place on their account."

* * *

Then he said, "Oh may the Lord not be angry, and I shall speak only this once; suppose ten are found there?" And He said, "I will not destroy it on account of the ten."
Genesis 18:23-26, 32.

These verses reflect the absolute absence of righteousness in the societies of Sodom and Gomorrah. Not even ten people in those cities could be found who would be considered righteous. This leads to the conclusion that God does not punish unjustly, and refrains from meting out punishment when the righteous may be slain with the unrighteous. Bible Commentator Matthew Henry points out:

God’s general good-will appears in this, that he consented to spare the wicked for the sake of the righteous. See how swift God is to show mercy; he even seeks a reason for it. See what great blessings good people are to any place, and how little those befriend themselves that hate and persecute them.”
Matthew Henry Commentary on Genesis 18, available through The Blue Letter Bible (http://www.blueletterbible.org/).

Moreover, the Old Testament shows that God gave the wicked peoples of that world an opportunity to turn from their wicked ways and surrender to God’s people before any attack. As shown at many times throughout the Old Testament, and as highlighted in the account of Jonah, when God has decided to punish a culture, he sends them advance notice. He will send prophets telling them what He is about to do, and asking them to repent. Jonah went to Nineveh to tell the people of that city that God was to destroy them. They listened and repented and God did not destroy them. Thus, it is a good probability that the Canaanites had plenty of notice of what would happen if they continued in their rebellious and evil ways.

Also, under the rules of war that the Israelites operated, they gave the Canaanites every opportunity to surrender prior to the actual attack. And it is almost certain that few women or children were left behind. As noted by Norman Geisler:

“[M]ost of the women and children would have fled in advance before the actual fighting began, leaving behind the warriors to face the Israelites. The fighters who remained would have been the most hardened, the ones who stubbornly refused to leave, the carriers of the corrupt culture. So it’s really questionable how many women and children might actually have been involved anyway.

“Besides, under the rules of conduct God had given to the Israelites, whenever they went into an enemy city they were to first make the people an offer of peace. [Deut. 20:10:10-13] The people had a choice: they could accept that offer, in which case they wouldn’t be killed, or they could reject the offer at their own peril. That’s appropriate and fair.”

Thus, contrary to the assertion of skeptics, the destruction of the Caananites was not an evil. It was the Canaanites who were evil, and it was the judgment of God through the Israelites on the Caananites in those cities were led to their destruction. We can be confident that the people destroyed were irredeemably wicked and unrighteous. We can be confident that there were no righteous people among those destroyed. We can be confident that God sent them prior notice of their destruction, and that he gave them opportunity to repent and surrender even up to the date of the actual battle. The destruction that fell upon them was the result of their absolute and utter unrepentant evil, and their decision to continuously attack and attempt to annihilate the chosen people of God.

Thus, to the extent that someone suggests that the Israelites should simply have tried to share the land with these people, they fail to take into account two very important factors: (1) the Canaanites opposed their entry into the land and wouldn't co-habitate the land with the Israelites and (2) the continuing presence of the Canaanites was damaging to the Israelites.

Obviously, the Canaanites had to go for the Israelites to be at peace in their new home. If the Israelites had simply attacked the Canaanite cities, destroyed their armies and allowed the inhabitants to flee, I doubt that the removal of the Canaanites under those circumstances would have caused the same hullabaloo that the verses call because they report that the Israelites destroyed all of the inhabitants of the towns -- young and old, men and women. Was this really necessary?

I want to answer the question two ways. First, I want to note that such destruction may have been necessary because the Israelites needed to clean the land of the evil of the Canaanites. Consider: if the Israelites had destroyed only the soldiers, what would they have done with the inhabitants of the towns? Sent them on their way? Odds are that these people would have moved elsewhere for a time until they regained their strength and then returned to press the attack. Certainly, that's what appears to have happened often with the Philistines. They couldn't bring the people into their camps because God, for reasons of His plan of salvation, had decreed that the savior was to come from the Jewish people who needed to be kept separate and apart. Besides, if they brought in the Canaanites, these Canaanites would have brought their despicable practices into Israel with them and led to even greater violations of the laws of God than occurred even after they were mostly destroyed.

So, what should they have done? What was the alternative? Assuming that the people of Israel were to have this land, what else were the Israelites to do besides for completely destroy the inhabitants that would have protected themselves from further attacks and would have kept the evil influences of the Canaanites from corrupting the Israelite society (which, even in the limited form in which it survived following Joshua's conquest, remained a corrupting influence despite the killing of all of the inhabitants of a couple of towns)? I note that the people who object to the attacks have nothing to say on this point. They want to assert that the Israelis were wrong to attack.

Personally, I think that the judgment of an omniscient God that the Canaanites were more like termites than like people carries more weight than the attacks by the skeptics who simply refuse to give serious consideration to anything that would portray God as both merciful and just.


Steven Carr said…
If the Canaanites practiced child sacrifice, then the Canaanite children must be killed.
Richard said…
With the deity on one's side, anything is permissible. A justification that's still used effectively today by the various adherents of bronze-age Middle-Eastern superstition.

Reasoning for this position professes a serious lack on humanism.

When God sanctions killing, the people listen.
BaldySlaphead said…
As his evidence for the wickedness of the Canaanites, Dr Bowman says:

"According to the Old Testament, the Canaanites and other tribes in the land widely practiced child sacrifice, incest, bestiality, and other behaviors that almost everyone in history, including today, rightly regard as unspeakably, grossly immoral."

I wonder whether you can shed any light on whether, since Abraham was fully intending to sacrifice his own child to God, and since Lot's daughters get him drunk and rape him, it is okay for the Isrealites to be culled too?

Or does beastiality make all the difference?

I'm not entirely sure that I am able to follow the subtleties of your argument, you see. To me, you come across like someone desparately trying to defend the indefensible with cataclysmically feeble post facto rationalisations, but I'm sure I must be missing something...

Aren't I?
Anonymous said…
BK said:

“Knowing full well that some atheist will accuse me of justifying genocide”

That’s because you ARE justifying genocide, and I would think that theists would recognize that as well. You are arguing that “the destruction of entire groupings of people may be morally acceptable when taking all factors into account” and comparing an ethnic group to termites and saying they deserved to be wiped out. That’s what people do when they justify genocide. You just think that your justification of genocide is better than others because you think God said to do it.
Jason Pratt said…
Yep, I recognized that, too, Anon (fwiw).

They've got some good points, Bill.

Though, as far as double-standards are concerned: according to the same largescale story, the people of Israel did also receive warnings to shape up or be shipped out (so to speak), on pretty much the same terms. And when they didn't shape up, the pagans were called in by God (according to the same overarching story) to do much the same thing to Israel as Israel had done to other people, and with basically the same results.

That doesn't solve the theological/ethical problems involved, but it does at least provide a more accurate story context to complain about. {s}

Relatedly, yes as a matter of fact when the Israelites started and kept on doing widescale things along the lines mentioned by Baldy, after receiving numerous warnings to stop with warning about what would happen if they didn't stop, with those warning occuring over simlarly long periods of time, then they got nuked, too.

So far as the particular examples Baldy mentioned go: the parallels to the situation are tenuous at best. In the case of Lot's daughters, there is no editorial sanction commentary on that as I recall (if anything they are condemned for having done it); and they aren't a widescale culture in the process of doing such a thing over multiple generations being given warnings to quit it or be zorched. So no, even on the ground of the story there would be no justification for "the Israelites" to be culled, too, from that. Where parallels _do_ hold, though, then the story relates similar warnings and cullings being given. (That's because, despite Bill's frequent wording, the Israelites weren't in fact all that righteous. {s})

In the case of Abram and Isaac, Abram apparently believed God would either call a halt to it or at worst resurrect Isaac almost immediately; either that or (in the story) he just flat lied to his servants about expecting _both_ of them to return from Moriah. (The text doesn't clarify either way.) And in point of fact God does call a halt to it, in the story. Moreover, the story would lose the force of its point if the sacrifice was supposed to be considered a standard operating procedure; on the contrary, it's supposed to be considered confusing and horrifying that God would ask for such a thing. Admittedly, the story could have proceeded with Abram questioning whether he had really gotten a legitimate command from God on this; though that wouldn't have gone for much if his thought had been 'because I was promised a son and now I have to give him up!' instead of 'this man has done nothing wrong, so why would God want him killed?'

Incidentally--or not so incidentally perhaps--I recall that the Isaac-sacrifice story contexts indicate that Isaac was old enough to be considered a responsible adult, and was willingly going along with the plan with a similar faith in God. So the parallels weaken from that angle, too.

It should also perhaps be noted that there is a minor but real and recurring theme, running through the larger-scale story, that God's intentions toward people who have to get thrashed are the same whether those people are Jews or Gentiles: and there are major recurring themes of the notion that Israel is punished by God as a nation so that those who are punished may repent and be restored in the resurrection. God then is acting with the same intentions toward the other people. (This appears to be the ground for why St. Paul later believes all Israel will be saved, even those who have already stumbled; and then as a corollary why he therefore has hope for the salvation and reconciliation for all people, even those who have already stumbled and been punished. Of course that's a minority interpretation among Christians throughout history, but still it's there. {shrug})

I repeat that I am not bringing up the further story details in order to "justify genocide". I'm making no argument pro or con along that line by doing so; I'm just adding extra information for making an informed complaint about.

But admittedly, if I _was_ going to do so in order to justify a particular genocide, I would try not to imply that atheists/sceptics are being unreasonable or unfair in accusing me of justifying genocide. {s}

Kevin Rosero said…
Good comment, Jason. I really agree with the perspective you've laid out, in terms of the context: it's helpful to point out that Israel suffered something like the near-destruction of the Canaanites (only a remnant of Israel was left, to use Biblical terms). One thing that is necessary in judging any event in the past is to recover its context. What did the actors think they were doing? Then we can ask, what do we think they were doing? But it's important not to lose the distinction. In this case, one of the consequences of losing the distinction is that Christians (or Jews) feel that critics of the Bible are simply content to judge the Bible by their own standards; hence the war of words. But if you establish first that Israel thought it was doing something which according to the standards of the time (pre-Christ, as BK has said many times) could justly befall any people (including herself), then the conversation stands a chance. Then the conversation proceeds according to how historians are careful to judge any event of any time period: according to the standards known at the time, not later or unknown standards. If we're only criticizing an event according to our standards, then all we are doing is engaging in social commentary, expressing our own beliefs about how our society should be -- and this is desirable, even imperative; but it's not dispassionate analysis of the Bible.

But I do find that the analogy of the Canaanites with termites is troubling -- partly because I do not think it is Biblical. The Bible doesn't say that the Canaanites have ceased to be human -- that they've ceased to be created in God's image. Only humans, in the Bible's view, can participate in such things as human sacrifice -- it is only with humans that such things are a moral offense. It is only humans who have been given the capacity to know God (at least, to know Him as only humans can), and in a sense it is only they who can commit the egregious sin of defying Him. Termites are just dumb animals doing their thing; they will never do anything less or more than what they do, and have not been asked to do anything other than what they do. Killing termites, or any dumb animal, is nothing in the Biblical worldview; sacrifice of animals is fully sanctioned as something routine. It's nothing to think about; it cannot be tied to any sin of the animal and does not need to be. They are simply lesser creatures.

That's why I think this modern analogy with termites is troubling (and even more so, the analogy with cancer), not merely because I do not accept that the Canaanites were non-human, but because I think there is much in the Bible that goes against it. Not living up to your nature is the sin, and an analogy between humans and anything of a non-human nature can only obscure (minimize, de-emphasize) both the sinful behavior and the good nature of these people.
Jason Pratt said…
I very much agree with your comments, too, Kevin. Though in fairness, while the termite (and cancer) comparisons trouble me, too, I did notice that Bill tried pretty hard to stringently qualify how far that comparison was to be carried (and no further) for illustration.

Also, in favor of the sceptics, I'll add that I think they have a legitimate right to be concerned about the question of developing standards. (A parallel discussion featuring the Joshuan genocides, or at least the reports and sanction thereof, happens to be occuring over at DangIdea right now, in several posts.)

After all, the divinely sanctioned butt-kicking of the unrighteous didn't cease with the coming of Christ. On the contrary, He warned that it was certainly coming, first to Israel and then to the pagans; and He was going to be directly involved both ways. Of course, there is no report in the NT canon about it actually _happening_ to Israel (one of the strongest pieces of evidence, albeit an admittedly negative evidence from silence, that the texts all predate 70), but Christians and Jews (and even some Gentiles!) all pretty much agreed afterward that God sent the Romans to throw down Israel during the revolution. We're talking exactly the same kind of thrashing that happened to Israel (via Gentiles) and to Gentiles (via Israel) in the OT, with all the same tragedies involved. Moreover, RevJohn is pretty explicit that the butt-kicking isn't over and the Gentiles are going to get it next if they don't shape up (or more specifically because they aren't going to shape up--but then Israel was warned much the same thing in advance by Moses, too, in the OT story.) Not incidentally, mistreatment of the Jews factors strongly into that warning.

This is one reason why I don't hold to the pre/post-Christ distinction often employed as a reassurance that such things are a dead issue 'today'. Uh, no, they aren't. (Though admittedly trying to make such a distinction is better than trying to make a reassurance along the common line exemplified by WLC in his debate with Keith Parsons back in the 90s: that Jesus would never do such a thing. So, we're supposed to be going Arian in our theology??!)

But of course, if there's a continuity, then we can't say sceptics have no right to be worried; including about potential (or past actual) abuses of that continuity. I don't think the solution is to try to argue for a discontinuity, though.

Anonymous said…
Something that is usually presupposed by both sides in this discussion is that physical death is the worst possible thing that can happen to a person, which seems to me to be essentially materialistic. To someone who believes in an afterlife, physical death is only a transition to something else. If we compare this transition to something we understand - the birthing process, for example - we can easily see that sometimes a forced early delivery is a merciful, life-saving act.

Likewise, the premeditated complete removal of such a depraved community may be purely merciful; and not only to those around them, but to the Canaanites themselves. This is especially true if you believe that there is mercy and grace available on the other side of the grave.

This point of view may be seen as justifying genocide, but it only justifies it from someone (namely God) who has foreknowledge and the ability to extend that mercy and grace.
Jason Pratt said…
Well, and it's a meaning of "justified" which involves "being made fair". Which is a very Biblical meaning. {s!}

It is not, however, what most Christians mean by "justified", or "justice" or anything of that sort. (_I_ mean that, but most Christians don't. We're routinely taught it must mean something else.)

It's still a tough bit of meat to swallow even in that case, of course. But I don't think it's supposed to be easy to swallow, even if God intends with good hope to raise the Amelekites and redeem them.

It should be noted in any case, that if (orthodox, or even merely modalistic) Christian theology is at all correct, God Himself shares the punishment of the Amelekites, along with them, suffering it with them. He does it from all eternity, and did it once and for all in history, with the Son showing us the express revelation of the Father on the cross: becoming sin for our sake, as St. Paul very daringly says in the early chapters of the Colossians Epistle.

Anyway, thanks for the comment Ahswan. {s} God's grace to you.

Anonymous said…
I just happened on this site and I must say this post is so weak and full of errors that it would be laughable if it weren't for the fact that you take yourself seriously. Here's a little challenge. Go to any university library (not your local Christian bookstore) and see if you can find any books on the history of Egypt that confirm the story of Exodus. The Egyptians kept very detailed records of everything that happened. If several million slaves left the country overnight it would have devastated their economy for decades. Yet nowhere do you find any record of this astonishing event. No record either of those ten nasty things God supposedly did to the Egyptians . There were some large and historically important empires in the middle east at the time of the supposed Exodus. None of them has any record of a gigantic tribe of people wandering the desert. Nobody noticed a monstrous fire blazing in the night where the Jewish people were camped. Based on the numbers given in the Bible, if you put them in rows of 100 people, with 20 feet between each row, the procession would have been well over a hundred miles long, and yet they gathered themselves into tribes to camp in well ordered groups each night. I have to give you folks credit, you're doing an amazing job of defending a fantasy which you think is the work of an omnipotent God. Good luck with your quest of defending the absurd. You'll need it as common sense continues to spread across the planet.
Anonymous said…
i have seen this kind of political comment before, in rwanda Hutu children would be given school work like, if your neighbours village is full of x number of cockroaches and the other village has y cockroaches how many do you need to kill? So for Israel to survive in its god given land it is alright and god given to kill off the 'termites'.
Jason Pratt said…
Omigod!! One figure inflated in a fashion consonant with how other historical chronicles of the time routinely inflated figures for purposes of emphasis (as confirmed by those books in those university libraries), is enough of a little challenge to {sob} utterly shatter my {weep} faith... {bawl!}

Fortunately, common sense continues to spread across the planet. It even sometimes filters down into sceptical complaints, or so I occasionally find. Occasionally.

Jason Pratt said…
Incidentally, I did appreciate the Rwanda comment. Even though it had to be made in contravention to the total limitations set to the analogy by Bill in his post, I can't really blame a critic for criticising the analogy, either. He was setting himself up for it. {shrug}

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