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Response to William Lane Craig’s Question 225: “The ‘Slaughter’ of the Canaanites Re-visited” Part I

August 11th, 2011 by Matt

Every week William Lane Craig answers a question on his website; this week’s question of the week is entitled “The “Slaughter” of the Canaanites Re-visited”. The questioner asked what Craig thinks of the Canaanite Conquest account. I got a mention in Craig’s reply:

The EPS Session at the SBL: Richard Hess, Randal Rauser, Paul Copan, me, Michael Rea

“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).”

Craig raises an important issue. In God and the Genocide of the Canaanites I, II and III I defended Nicholas Wolterstorff’s take on the Canaanite massacre in “Reading Joshua”.[1] Wolterstorff argued that the book of Joshua is a highly figurative, hagiographic and hyperbolic account of Israel’s early skirmishes and it is not intended to be taken literally in its details. My adaptation of Wolterstorff’s argument consists of three points.

First, taken as a single narrative, and taken literally, Joshua 1-11 gives a contradictory account of events to that narrated by Judges and also to that narrated by the later chapters of Joshua itself.

Second, those who put these books into a single narrative would have been well aware of the obvious contradictions mentioned above. These editors were not mindless or stupid, particularly if we hold that God spoke through them.

Third, while Judges reads more like “down-to-earth”[2] history, a careful reading of Joshua shows it to be full of ritualistic, stylised accounts and formulaic language. I supported this third point with research into Ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts. Studies show such accounts are hyperbolic, hagiographic, figurative and follow a common transmission code. Comparisons between these accounts and the early chapters of Joshua suggest Joshua was written according to the same literary conventions and transmission code. I suggest these three points, taken together, provide compelling reasons for thinking that one should interpret the text as a hyperbolic, hagiographic and figurative account of what occurred; it was not meant to be taken as literally true in all its details.

Craig’s objection to my position (and that of Paul Copan’s whose position is very close to mine) is a reference to 1 Samuel 15. Craig referred specifically to verses 10-16, where Samuel rebuked Saul “because [Saul] has turned away from [God] and has not carried out [God’s] instructions.”[3] The instructions in question were given in verse 3; God commanded Saul, “Now go and strike [nakah] Amalek [the Amelekites] and utterly destroy [haram] all that he has, and do not spare [hamal] him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”[4] Craig suggests this “seems to say that if the Israeli soldiers were to encounter Canaanite women and children, they should kill them”. I think Craig pushes an important objection here.

Before, responding it is important to note that Craig’s own position on the Canaanite issue, the one that the Questioner referred to, Question 16: Slaughter of the Canaanites, is actually largely in agreement with the argument I gave in Atlanta.

Craig, like me, accepts a divine command theory of ethics whereby an act is obligatory if, and only if, a loving and just God commands it. We also agree that the critic’s appeal to the Canaanites is, contrary to what is often alleged, at best an argument against scriptural infallibility, it is not an argument against a divine command theory of ethics per sé. Craig and I also agree on the implications of a divine command theory for this question. We agree that given that the wrongness of an action consists in its being forbidden by God, and given that God does not issue commands to himself, it follows that he has no duties; and hence, God is under no obligation to not kill anyone and has a right to do what he likes.

We also agree that this response is insufficient, because even if God has no duties the question still arises as to whether one can coherently claim that a loving and just person could command such activities and this is the real issue in the objection. Can one coherently suggest that a perfectly rational, fully informed, just and loving person would command killing non-combatants in a particular conflict?

Further, although we offer different reasons for our conclusions, we also agree that this claim is not incoherent. In at Atlanta I offered the following example:

Many ethicists contend that while the claim its wrong to kill innocent people  is correct as a general rule, it can be overridden in rare circumstances of “supreme emergency”,[5] when the alternative to killing non-combatants is to tolerate significantly greater evils,  and the consequences of refraining from killing are significantly bad. Whatever one thinks of this position, it cannot be dismissed as conceptually incoherent. If a proponent of an absolutist position on killing non-combatants examined the arguments and concluded that in rare circumstances of supreme emergency, killing non-combatants was not wrong, then it is implausible to suggest their concept of goodness was so radically at odds with prior beliefs that “good and evil would trade places” and that their position consisted of mere word games. This position may be false but it’s not obviously incoherent.[6]

So, like Craig, I am willing to grant that it is conceptually and epistemically possible for a just and loving person to allow rare exceptions to rules against killing if there is some greater good involved. In fact, something like this view is widely accepted in contemporary ethics; threshold deontology, act utilitarianism, rule-utilitarianism, situation ethics, rossian deontology all accept this conclusion. I do not think one can dismiss it as obviously incoherent.

Where Craig and I appear to disagree, then, is over whether Wolterstorff’s (and Copan’s) argument can be applied to 1 Sam 15. In Atlanta I argued, albeit briefly, that it can. Copan and I make this case more fully in our forthcoming chapter in “The Ethics of “Holy War” for Christian Morality and Theology” in Old Testament ‘Holy War’ and Christian Morality: Perspectives and Prospects (IVP Academic).

In my next post, Response to William Lane Craig’s Question 225: “The ‘Slaughter’ of the Canaanites Re-visited” Part II, I will spell out in more detail why I think each of Wolterstorff’s three premises apply to 1 Sam 15.


[1] Nicholas Wolterstorff “Reading Joshua” in Divine Evil? The Moral Character of the God of Abraham eds. Michael Bergmann, Michael J Murray and Michael C Rea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
[2] Ibid 253.
[3] 1 Sam 15: 10 NIV.
[4] 1 Samuel 15:1-3 NASB.
[5] Michael Walzer Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations 3rd ed (New York: Basic Books, 2000) especially chapter 16. See also Igor Primoratz “The Morality of Terrorism” Journal of Applied Philosophy 14 (1997) 221-33.
[6] Matthew Flannagan“Divine Commands and Old Testament Ethics” paper presented to the Evangelical Philosophical Society session at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting in Atlanta Georgia 20 November 2010.

RELATED POSTS:
Response to William Lane Craig’s Question 225: “The ‘Slaughter’ of the Canaanites Re-visited” Part II
God and the Genocide of the Canaanites Part I: Wolterstorff’s Argument for the Hagiographic Hyperbolic Interpretation
God and the Genocide of the Canaanites Part II: Ancient Near Eastern Conquest Accounts
God and the Genocide of the Canaanites Part III: Two Implications of the Hagiographic Hyperbolic Account
God, Morality and Abhorrent Commands: Part I Kant
God, Morality and Abhorrent Commands: Part II Robert Adams
God, Morality and Abhorrent Commands: Part III Philip Quinn
Commonsense Atheism and the Canaanite Massacre

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