Killing the Canaanites: Why can’t atheists like Richard Dawkins tell the difference between genocide and justified capital punishment?

Critics of Christianity (and Judaism) have said that the God of the Old Testament is worse than Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong put together. Richard Dawkins has famously wrote in his book The God Delusion:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

Dawkins must have had his thesaurus handy when he wrote that, but I digress.

It’s not as if Dawkins and other critics have no basis for these claims. Deuteronomy 20:16-17 reads “… in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction… as the Lord your God has commanded…”

Yeesh. Many Christians are troubled by these passages too, leading some theologians to deny their divine inspiration. After all, Jesus taught enemy-love. On the face of it, the question arises: how is the God of Israel any better than the God of religious terrorists?

According to the Pentateuch (the first five books ascribed to Moses), God promised the land to Abraham. If God promises someone land, then anyone else living there would be a squatter. However there was one catch: his offspring wouldn’t get the land for 400 years.


Because God said, “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” (Genesis 15:16) In other words, they were allowed to stay in the land another 400 years because they had not yet exhausted God’s patience.


However, God himself judged two of their cities for their wickedness shortly after this conversation with Abraham – Sodom and Gomorrah. Ezekiel 16:48-50 says that these cities “had pride, an excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”

And to say they were sexually immoral is an understatement. They tried to publicly gang rape two angels (who they thought were men) that came into the city to rescue Lot and his family. (Genesis 19:4-5) After being drug out of the city, Lot’s daughters got their father drunk and committed incest, demonstrating the city’s corrupting influence. (Genesis 19:31-35)

If you wanted to make a documentary about the Canaanites of Moses and Joshua’s day, it would be rated NC-17 at best. That is because the Canaanite’s gods were into incest, adultery, and bestiality and so they did their best to imitate their gods. There was temple prostitution (that included males and females), bestiality, incest, adultery and the like.

There was also child sacrifice to the bull-headed god Molech that especially angered God. (Deuteronomy 12:29-31) To top it off the Canaanites also practiced witchcraft, sorcery, and necromancy. God told Israel if they didn’t drive these people out they’d assimilate their ways and be vomited out of the land, to use the not so pleasant Bible metaphor. (Leviticus 18, Deuteronomy 18:9-14)

Therefore, when critics say this was genocide, they fail to recognize that God would also judge Israel for the same sins. The Israelites did indeed later adopt the same practices and accordingly were attacked, killed, raped and taken off into other nations after many years and calls to repent from the prophets.

They practiced adultery, incest (Ezekiel 22:11), temple prostitution (1 Kings 14:23-24), child sacrifice and consulted with mediums and fortune-tellers. (2 Kings 21:4-5) This is not to mention their neglect for the poor and their other injustices. (Isaiah 1:17-20)

The point here is this: God doesn’t play favorites. God said that he raised up Israel in part to judge the Canaanites for their sins. (Deuteronomy 9:5) But then God turned around and judged Judah when they did the same thing by letting other nations conquer them. (2 Kings 21:10-16)

So while we may bristle at God’s punishment of these nations, let’s think about it for a second: While we value the freedom of religion here in America, if there was a cult in America that was practicing sex with animals, practicing temple prostitution, incest and child sacrifice and were unrepentantly protecting their right to do so with violence, would we have any problem calling the National Guard to take care of these people?


Well, according to the story, God did. The difference between the children of Israel and the Taliban of today, Muhammad or even some of the Christian crusades are vastly different for one very important reason:

As Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan point out in their book Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God, Yahweh authenticated these divine commands with displays of astonishing public miracles. Exodus 19:9 says of Moses “Behold, I (God) am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever.” So we read that:

  • Israel actually heard God speak from the top of the mountain. (Exodus 19:16-18)
  • They were delivered from Egypt through 10 devastating plagues. (Psalm 78:43-51)
  • They passed through the Red Sea. (Exodus 14:26-31)
  • They were miraculously fed manna from the sky for days. (Exodus 16:35)
  • They miraculously drank water from a rock. (Exodus 17:6)
  • God’s presence was visible to them in the form of a cloud by day and a fire by night. (Exodus 13:21-22)
  • Moses’ successor Joshua parted the Jordan river. (Joshua 3:10-13)
  • Furthermore, when Korah against the authority of Moses they saw them swallowed up alive in the earth. (Numbers 16:32)

When the Israelites refused to go into the land because of fear of dying in war, God said “none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers.” (Numbers 14:22-23). They had seen all these miracles and weren’t conscientious objectors, but unbelieving and fearful rebels.

So the difference here is that Israelite soldier had public evidence that they both heard and saw repeatedly. They had overwhelming proof that God was speaking to them, and God gave them morally sufficient reasons to drive the Canaanites out of the land. This was a one-time call to conquest based on a promise God gave to Abraham 400 years previously. And through their line the Messiah was promised (Genesis 12:3, 49:10).

And according to the accounts, Israel’s own enemies knew of these miracles. (Numbers 22:5) Rahab – who put her faith in the God of Israel and was spared – said “I know that the Lord has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt.” (Joshua 2:9-10) So the Canaanites knew that a.) that God had given them the land and b.) God worked great miracles in delivering them and they still remained in the city to fight. They could have fled, or they could have repented as Rahab did. (Hebrews 11:31)

Violent Jihadists, Christian Crusaders and Christian American settlers who slaughtered indigenous people in the name of God had no such signs to lead them to conclude they were justified in taking lives. Muhammad’s conquests were done on the basis of private revelation. None of his followers had experienced any of the miraculous demonstrations that is claimed in Israel’s history. No nation or people has ever experienced anything like this.


So the idea that the conquering of Canaan is genocide is a misnomer. It scores some rhetorical points for sure – I mean who wants to be associated with genocide? – but under closer inspection, this is divine capital punishment and not ethnic cleansing or killing in the name of baseless religious differences.

These Israelite men did not carry out these acts blindly, the commands of Moses were attested to with through a period of miracles that were public to friend and foe alike. God also acted supernaturally in the conquering process in the battle of Jericho. (Joshua 6:20) And the sentencing they carried out was against horrible acts of sin – bestiality, incest, child sacrifice and the like – after God put up with it for over 400 years.

Again, I have to ask – if a cult worshipped deities that promoted incest, prostitution, adultery, bestiality, and child sacrifice, wouldn’t most nations rightfully condemn them? And when Israel fell into the same sin, they were judged with similar severity, including their own children being slaughtered.

Now the skeptic might complain “you’re assuming these narratives are true!” But that just begs the question against miracles. But more importantly, the objection the skeptic is raising is that the Bible believer is committed to holding that God makes morally repulsive commands. I’m not arguing for the reliability of the Old Testament accounts here, I’m arguing that they’re not immoral like the skeptic likes to claim. You can’t remove the main character out of the book (God) and then attack the story. That would empty the narrative of meaning.

What about the kids?

This is obviously the most challenging uncomfortable part of these passages. How could God command the brutal murder of innocent children?

First of all, when a human being murders someone, they’re removing that person from the earth for selfish and hateful reasons. God’s command of the killing of the Canaanite children wasn’t made out of selfish and hateful reasons. He was judging that nation for their sin. Remember that the firstborn of Egypt also lost their lives because the nation refused to repent. The children in the great flood also lost their lives.

Secondly, Earth is one singular plane of existence. The Bible speaks of other planes of existence, such as heaven and hell. While there is no explicit scripture that says all children go to heaven, given their moral innocence, there are biblical reasons to think that they would. (Deut. 1:39, Isaiah 7:16, 2 Sam 12:23, Luke 18:16-17)

Theologians Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson write, “Although their reasons may differ depending on other theological commitments, and although some of their reasons are better than others, evangelicals generally agree that [deceased infants] will be in heaven.”

In having these children killed, God doesn’t end their existence, he simply removes their physical life — which he gave them as a gift — and he moves them to a heavenly plane of existence. Had he left things as they were, these children would have likely adopted the lifestyle of their fathers and condemned themselves to hell. A few short years living in a horribly evil environment and then hell to follow compared to an eternity with God just doesn’t really stack up.

Someone might say that this kind of reasoning also justifies abortion and infanticide, but again, unless someone has miraculously-confirmed divine commands, then they have no right to claim that God told them to do such a thing. And remember, what happened to Canaan also happened to Israel when they imitated their idolatrous and wicked practices. (Dt. 28:54-57) Even King David lost a son as a judgment after murdering Uriah and having an adulterous relationship with Bathsheba. (2 Samuel 12:14)

Finally, these cities would have probably been aware of the Israelites coming. If they had small children, they were able to flee.


Clay Jones of Biola University has looked at the killing of the Canaanites extensively and I think he hits the nail on the head – we don’t like the killing of the Canaanites because we don’t hate sin as God does. In fact, if you look at our culture we look an awful lot like the Canaanites.

That’s just to name a few of the crazy things we have in common with the Canaanites. John Wesley prophetically said, “What one generation tolerates, the next generation will embrace”. This clearly happened with Israel because they failed to drive out the Canaanites as they were commanded. (Judges 1:28) Ironically and sadly, the very denomination Wesley is credited for founding is now dividing over the issue of homosexuality.

Jones’ conclusion in his paper We Don’t Hate Sin So We Don’t Understand What Happened to the Canaanites, brings it home:

“We do not appreciate the depths of our own depravity, the horror of sin, and the righteousness of God. Consequently it’s no surprise that when we see God’s judgment upon those who committed the sins we commit, that complain and protest arises within our hearts: “This is divine barbarism” or “This is divine genocide” But studying these things over the years has led me to wonder if the Canaanites might not stand up at the Judgment and condemn this generation.”

That’s quite an indictment but I can’t help but think it’s true.


Did God Really Command Genocide? By Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan.

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