Wesley Morriston – Did God Command Genocide? A Challenge to the Biblical Inerrantist

Wesley Morriston – “Did God Command Genocide? A Challenge to the Biblical Inerrantist”
https://spot.colorado.edu/~morristo/Did … nocide.pdf

His bio:
https://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/peo … -morriston

At some point, any thoughtful Christian who believes the Bible to be “inerrant” must come to terms with the harsh and sometimes shocking behavior of the God of the Old Testament (OT).

I’m not an inerrantist and this thread does not assume inerrancy of the Bible, so right off the bat his arguments do not apply. But, I’ll still address his paper in light of this.

Here is his argument:

Here is a more careful formulation of the argument that I wish to discuss.

(1) God exists and is morally perfect.
(2) So God would not command one nation to exterminate the people of another unless He had a morally sufficient reason for doing so.
(3) According to various OT texts, God sometimes commanded the Israelites to exterminate the people of other nations.
(4) It is highly unlikely that God had a morally sufficient reason for issuing these alleged commands.
(5) So it is highly unlikely that everything every book of the OT says about God is true.

I agree with premises 1, 2 and 3. I disagree with premise 4. If premise 4 is wrong, then the conclusion does not follow.

I believe that this argument constitutes quite a strong prima facie case against inerrancy.

I have other arguments against inerrancy, but I do not believe this argument would be a good argument against inerrancy.

If the claim that God is perfectly good is taken as a nonnegotiable given, then (4) is the controversial premise.


Morriston first addresses Paul Copan’s arguments:

Let us begin our investigation by taking a close look at a prominent Christian philosopher’s attempt to make sense of the some of the most morally problematic passages in the OT. In a recent paper, provocatively titled, “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics,” Paul Copan defends the God of the OT against the harsh charges made by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens.

In the case we are concerned with, Copan plainly thinks that God had a “morally sufficient reason” for wanting a lot of Canaanites dead. For one thing, Copan says, the Canaanites, both men and women, were “incorrigibly wicked” and “morally depraved.”

Morriston’s issue is really about the Canaanite children:

Even if it is granted that all (or nearly all) of the Canaanites in the relevant historical period were “incorrigibly wicked,” that they deserved to be wiped out, and that drastic methods were required to separate God’s Chosen People from them, many people will still recoil at the brutal treatment of the Canaanite children.

Copan responds with it as collatoral damage and the children would go to heaven:

Copan responds in two ways. First, he invokes a “war analogy,” speaking of the deaths of the children as “collateral damage” in a just war against an evil power. Second, he postulates a glorious afterlife for these children—one in which they come to know the true God, to recognize the justice of his purposes, and to see Him as having rescued them from a corrupt and “morally decadent” culture.

Morriston responds with:

It is quite a stretch to suppose that the God who ordered that all be destroyed would have been displeased if all had been destroyed. After all, it was precisely the failure to destroy all the targets of the genocide that prevented one of the very things that God was supposed to be trying to do—namely, destroy the Canaanite religion. This left the Israelites in the exact situation that God was allegedly trying to change—namely, one in which they were continually tempted to intermarry with the surrounding people and to join them in the worship of their gods. According to the biblical record, the Israelites repeatedly succumbed to this temptation and were repeatedly punished for it. Indeed, ten of the twelve tribes were eventually lost—assimilated, presumably, to the surrounding culture.

The Canaanites were not all destroyed. So what led to the Israelites committing the same sins as the Canaanites was because some were left to influence them.

Assuming that God’s desire to destroy the Canaanite religion by destroying Canaanites was a legitimate one, why would He choose such an inefficient means of accomplishing this aim? It is only too easy to imagine more effective ways for the Almighty to remove the Canaanites from the picture.

This is the same tactic as the skeptic’s omnipotence argument. Since God is omnipotent, surely there must be some other way that God could’ve done it that is perfect so that skeptics can morally agree with it.

If it’s easy to imagine a more effective way, what way would that be that does not appeal to the supernatural?

He then talks about child sacrifices:

It will be worth spending a bit of time on the subject of child sacrifice, since the charge that the Canaanites engaged in this practice is often cited as one of the principal reasons for their destruction.

But the charge relating to child sacrifice is particularly interesting since there is evidence for thinking that during this same period, child sacrifice had a place in the repertoire of Israelite religious practices.

Yes, the Israelites also practices child sacrifices.

He then quotes Exodus 22:

One piece of evidence for thinking that the Israelites did not believe that Yahweh disapproved of child sacrifice can be found in Exodus 22:29c–30, which is most naturally interpreted as a prescription for sacrificing one’s firstborn son.

The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. You shall do likewise with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall be with its dam; on the eighth day you shall give it to me (emphasis added).

Have no idea what he means by “most naturally interpreted”, but nobody I know of interprets this passage to mean killing the firstborn.

Another example he brings up is Jephtha:

Further evidence for thinking that during this early period the Israelites thought that the sacrifice of a child might win them favor with Yahweh is provided by the notorious case of Jephtha’s foolish vow. Jephtha promises that if Yahweh will “deliver the Ammonites into his hand,” he will sacrifice as a “burnt offering” whoever first comes out to meet him after the battle (Judg. 11:30–40).

What is described in the Bible doesn’t mean it is prescribed commandment. Just because someone does something in the Bible doesn’t mean God commanded them to do it.

The implications of this sad little story are often missed. Jephtha was the Judge of Israel. If Yahweh had already made it clear to the Israelites that child sacrifice was one of the abominations on account of which the Canaanites were being driven from the land, Jephtha would surely have known this.

Likewise David was a king of Israel and he knew taking another person’s wife was wrong, yet he still did it.

The story has a tragic ending because Yahweh does not see fit to intervene, and because Jephtha is obviously afraid of what might happen if he were to break a sacred vow to Yahweh.

We can have all sorts of guesses about this. Perhaps as well Jephtha secretly wanted her daughter dead and it was done to justify killing her.

But obviously what we do see in stories like this is vows were important and child sacrifices were not uncommon.

If the Canaanites had been “driven out” partly because they practiced human sacrifice, and their land had been given to a people set apart for the service of a God who abhorred and forbade human sacrifice, it is odd that at this late date the Israelites themselves still did not know that such sacrifices could not possibly be efficacious.

Whether or not child sacrifices are efficacious is not really the issue. The issue is has Yahweh commanded the Jews to do child sacrifices? I argue no.

Interestingly, the only passage that God commands a child sacrifice is with Abraham in Gen 22. But Morriston only makes a parenthetical reference to it and never really talks about it:

(Recall that it is partly for his willingness to sacrifice Isaac to Yahweh that Abraham is praised in Genesis 22:16!)

He then goes on to talk about other sins:

So much for human sacrifice. The other abominations mentioned in Leviticus 18 are all of a sexual nature. It is striking that there is nothing uniquely “Canaanite” about them. All, or nearly all, of these practices—from sexual intercourse during a woman’s menstrual period to homosexual behavior to bestiality—are still common. Is there any real reason to believe that these things were more common among the Canaanites in the ancient world?

There is nothing Canaanite about child sacrifices as well. We even practice that to this day, but just under another label.

He talks about other sins, but it is belaboring the point. It is clear the Canaanites committed sins.

Perusal of the most accurate and up-to-date translations of the Ugaritic texts does not provide evidence of a particularly “debauched” or “cruel” culture—unless you count animal sacrifice as “cruel”!

No doubt about that. Nobody is going to claim their standard practices are debauched or cruel.

As for child sacrifices, actually it occurs more frequently in “advanced and civilized” countries, rather than “primitive and cruel” cultures.

It still does not follow that the Canaanites were incorrigibly wicked—that there was nothing the Almighty could have done to turn them from their wicked ways.

Not sure what would constitute something as being “incorrigibly wicked”. Would it even make a difference if it was just “normal wickedness”?

Had God sent a “Jonah” to preach to the Canaanites? Had they refused to listen? If so, there is no record of it.

Perhaps not. But all people have a common sense of morality.

He brings up William Lane Craig and his arguments. Morriston agrees the actions of the Israelite soldiers were comparable to other ANE cultures.

Craig is making two claims here. The first is that life in the ANE was “brutal.” I take it that he means to remind us that in the wars of this period of history, no distinction was made between combatants and noncombatants. Women and children were killed or enslaved. Genocidal attacks were not uncommon, and the concept of corporate guilt was unproblematic. Whole nations/cities/tribes were held responsible for the behavior of individuals.

This is plainly correct. In their historical/cultural context, the ancient Israelites were not more brutal than their neighbors. Israelite warriors who slaughtered women and children would not have been doing anything especially unusual or morally suspect.

Morriston however then invokes the omni-perfection of God for his counter:

But what he fails to see is that the point about the moral sensibility of the ANE (and of ancient Israel) does not speak to the principal issue, which concerns God’s behavior. God is not stuck with an ANE moral sensibility. He is supposed to be perfectly good.

It is again constructing a picture of how God should act, much like the omnipotence arguments.

Philosophically, this argument doesn’t make any sense because on what basis can he justify his sense of morality to judge God? Why should God have to abide by his sense of morality? Is there a higher ethical standard than God that he must abide by? That means such a standard preceeded God’s existence or is transcendent above God, which neither makes sense in a Christian worldview.

Emotionally, I can empthize with the argument though. If God is capricious and invokes violence for no justification, then it’s not a God worth worshipping.

A just and loving God could hardly want His Chosen People to be cruel or to be indifferent to the sufferings of other peoples.

As I will argue later, actually Yahweh wants his chosen people to take care of the weak and marginalized.

Loving God and neighbor is the heart and soul of biblical morality.

I agree.

A perfectly good God—a God who wants the nation of Israel to be “a light to the nations” (Isa. 42:6)—would surely want to push the Israelites in the direction of greater love and compassion. He would want His people to extend the title “neighbor” to all persons, and not merely to members of twelve chosen tribes.

Yes, but also they are to be a light of holiness. Even when they failed this and fell into sin, the nation of Israel was judged.

Surely one of the worst things God could do for the moral development of the Israelites would be to command them to engage in wholesale slaughter!

If it’s without a justified reason, yes I agree. But in the case of the Canaanites, and even Israel, they were judged because of their sins.

On Craig’s understanding of the situation, God wants to send two messages: (i) that He is “not to be trifled with,” and (ii) that Israel is to be a people “set apart” for the service of God and God alone.

Not sure if Craig is arguing for this. But I don’t think it’s relevant to Marriston’s argument and to his initial premises.

Morriston then discusses the biggest issue for him – the innocent children:

I turn at last to the case of the innocent Canaanite children. They, at any rate, did not deserve to be “devoted to destruction”! How could a just and loving God have commanded such a thing?

I acknowledge having children killed is a tragedy.

Copan offers it is a consequence of collateral damage:

“Collateral damage” is brought about when the means used to attain a just end have consequences that are unintended (though they may be foreseen).

Though I don’t necessarily agree collateral damage is the right terminology to use. It implies children were indirectly killed. But in reality, they were directly killed, so it’s not collateral damage per se. However I do think it’s an unfortunate consequence of warfare. Children dying in war was not unusual in the ancient near east, or even in modern times.

Regarding the sinfulness of the Canaanites, did they know any better?

But if all that the Canaanite wickedness consists in is practices that Yahweh finds repugnant—temple prostitution or child sacrifice or (above all) the worship of other gods—they may have adopted those practices simply because they did not know any better.

If child sacrifice was not considered morally evil by them, then why do we modern people think it’s wrong for them to kill children in battles?

What they do deserve, I would say, is enlightenment about the true nature of God and about His requirements for human beings. Once that is granted, we can begin talking about moral culpability.

If simply teaching people instills moral culpability, wouldn’t this just be subjective morality instead of objective morality?

Morriston concludes with:

As I see it, the evidence of Canaanite “wickedness” relies entirely on the OT texts and even there is sometimes quite problematic. As far as I can see, the evidence of incorrigible wickedness is nonexistent.

Evidence from the Bible and extra-Biblical sources show the Canaanites practiced child sacrifices, as well as other sins. So, premise 4 is incorrect:
“(4) It is highly unlikely that God had a morally sufficient reason for issuing these alleged commands.”

He does not argue “wickedness” did not exist, but only “incorrigible wickedness” does not exist. However, there is no definition offered of what is meant by incorrigible wickedness, just like he offers no definition of what is meant by an omnipotent or omni-perfect God.

As long as there are sins, it is a morally sufficient reason to judge people. If people are innocent and are judged purely on race or nationality, then is is not a morally sufficient reason to judge.

The proper conclusion, then, is that Christians should take seriously the possibility that God did not in fact command the genocidal attacks reported in various OT books.

Since Morriston has not demonstrated judgment is based purely on race or nationality or any amoral reason, then he has not justified his conclusion.

If Lewis is right, the Old Testament is not, and is not meant to be, error free.

Yes, C.S. Lewis was not an inerrantist. However, I do not think he threw out passages of the Bible like Morriston has.

Our task is to find God’s “Word” within it. To do that, we must, at least in part, rely on the “discriminations made by our conscience and our critical faculties.” The proper use of those faculties suggests an answer to my title question. No, God did not command genocide.

My conclusion is God did not command genocide based on any amoral reasons, but he did command genocide based on sins.