I receive an email asking me to address the issue of the Israelite purge of Canaan, in particular the command to cut down the women and children as well. The correspondent indicated that this is something he as a Christian struggles with and points out that Richard Dawkins raises the issue as well. I asked for his permission to post my answer, which he gave me, and it follows below:
I think your question ranks up there among some of the hardest questions to deal with. Let me first assure you that doubts are perfectly normal for any thinking person, and if you handle them properly, they can be good opportunities for strengthening your relationship with God. But again, this is a difficult question.
One reason why it is difficult is because to really treat it means writing a whole heck of a lot, so please forgive me if I’m forced to abbreviate. Also, realize that hard questions often have hard answers, and my points will be best be used as a starting point that you will have to continue to think about.
Start first by thinking about why you believe God is merciful and what that means. Mercy means not punishing someone who deserves to be punished. In what sense do these women and children deserve to be punished? What is their crime? Why wasn’t mercy extended to them?
The problem with these questions is that we don’t have enough information to truly handle them. So, you take your reasons for believing that God is merciful and hopefully have some good ones, and you say in this case “I have good reasons for thinking God is just and merciful, so even though I don’t know what their ‘crime’ was, I understand that God knew, and acts appropriately.”
Now, that type of argument is hard to swallow unless we start looking at some examples, and even then it will be hard to swallow. But remember the story of David escorting the Ark of the Covenant and the man slipping, touching the Ark, and having God strike the man down. It is recorded that David is very angry with God here. He is so angry that he refuses to bring the Ark to Jerusalem. (2 Sam 6). This is David we’re talking about, the one of whom it was written that David was a man after God’s own heart. So, Richard Dawkins is not the first to struggle with apparently arbitrary judgments by God. The great man of faith, David, struggled with it as it happened before his very eyes.
So, one would expect that before a judgment like the one inflicted on Canaan is delivered, some opportunity for repentance would have been given, otherwise it’s hard to believe that God is acting justly. What kind of evidence do we have? Well, we do have a couple of similar types of scenarios, but let me focus on just one. The story of Jonah.
In the story of Jonah, God sends Jonah to Assyria, the sworn enemies of the Israelites. Jonah actually disobeys God because, he says, “I knew that you are a gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” (Jonah 4:1). When God does not destroy the Assyrians, Jonah is very angry with God, and God delivers this message to Jonah:
“…Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who can not tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (Jonah 4:11).
Now, the crimes of Assyria are described in detail in a great many places in the Old Testament, so in their case we have some very clear ideas about what they need to be repenting of. But even though they are the enemies of the Israelites, we see that God provides a mechanism for repentance.
Well, what about the Canaanites? The fact is, we don’t really know what ‘mechanism’ he provided to the Canaanites, but by using the example of the Assyrians, we can draw the reasonable inference that he must have done something, even though we don’t know what it is. Do we have any information at all? Yes, we do have some.
Turn in your Bible to Genesis 15. In this chapter, God promises to deliver that area over to Abraham’s descendants. Have you ever wondered why he didn’t just give it to him right there on the spot? Was God unable to do such a thing? There is an important clue in this chapter that helps us consider it at least plausible that God did offer a way for this people to repent. It comes in 15:16….
“In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”
Now it is true that the passage does not indicate to us whether or not God allowed the people in Canaan to repent, but one thing seems reasonable enough- he can’t justly give Abraham this land right now, because it would be unjust at that point to take the land from them, whereas in the fourth generation, it would be. This is consistent with Jonah’s claim that God is slow to anger. Four generations to get their act together, right?
Pharoah was given 10 plagues to prompt his repentance, the Assyrians got Jonah, the Babylonians got Daniel and his friends, and of course the Israelites themselves had prophet after prophet after prophet. We can document a pattern of patience by God.
Now, what about their crimes? There is less material in the OT about their crimes then the Assyrians, but we can learn quite a bit by examining God’s constant insistences that the Israelites not follow the behavior of ‘other gods.’ (For example, Deut 29:18). Dawkins sees this as blatant jealousy, but I guess he doesn’t know what worship of other gods actually meant in this region. For example, it was believed by the Canaanites that rain was Baal’s sperm and when it rained, he and Asherah were getting it on. (For a site I grabbed to quickly substantiate this, check out http://ww2.netnitco.net/users/legend01/bull.htm. It’s about bull gods in general, of which Baal is an example, and though it only cites some god from India as being understood this way, you get the picture). This is why there was temple prostitution. The people would go to the temple to try to… ahem… get Baal in the mood. Parents would send their children to the temple to be prostitutes, or slaves were used. This is hardly something to be proud of, and under normal circumstances, we’d want God to intervene.
If temple prostitution didn’t work, there was always human sacrifice. This is better documented in the Scriptures. For example, in Jeremiah 32:35, God is condemning the Israelites for doing what the Baal worshipers did: “they built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molech, though I never commanded, nor did it enter my mind, that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin.”
Clearly, God is not happy with human sacrifice, and this was something that the Israelites had gotten directly from the Baal worshipers in Canaan. So, when we talk about the nation of Canaan, it is quite plausible that they really did have it coming. They sold people into temple prostitution and they sacrificed their own children. Dawkins does not appear to be aware of such behavior, but I suppose he would join us in agreeing that a culture that resorts to killing their own children in order to inspire the Bull god to ejaculate on the earth is probably a culture that we’d want God to punish.
The only real link in the chain that we’re missing is the part where we know that God actually tried to bring them to repentance. We know that God delayed the punishment until ‘their sin had reached full measure’ and we know that their sin involved temple prostitution and human sacrifice (not even sacrificing slaves, their own children, for goodness sake), and it probably involved other things, too. We can’t be certain at all that this was an ‘innocent nation.’ It seems to be the opposite.
Now, here you might say, “Ok, but the children? And what about the cattle? What did the cattle do?” The question gets harder and harder, but these are still not the hardest of all. But the underlying principle is that A. He gave them time to repent. B. The nation was involved in some nasty stuff, and C., given God’s conduct towards the Egyptians, the Assyrians, etc, it is reasonable to think that God had probably given them the opportunity to repent… and they didn’t.
The only ‘leap of faith’ here is C, but I think it is reasonable, again citing the pattern of how God dealt with other enemies of Israel, and even Israel itself.
Well, I think this will get you started. No doubt, it is still a difficult pill to swallow. But hopefully this gives you a broader perspective to engage the issue with.
If you don’t mind, can I post your question and my answer on my blog? I put a lot of time into typing it and I think others could use it too.
Feel free to let me know if you have additional questions,