Genocide in Canaan?
A Response to Raymond D. Bradley’s
A Moral Argument for Atheism
Bradley Retort #1: The "Sovereignty Exception"
Mr. Bradley goes on to anticipate theistic responses to his arguments.
First, Bradley objects to the potential theistic rejoinder that:
'God is sovereign over life' and can do what he likes 'according to his will.' But this argument contains a fatal equivocation on the word 'can'. It is trivially true that if God is—as theists believe—sovereignly omnipotent, then he 'can' do whatever he wants in the sense of having the power or might to do so. But might, we reflect, doesn't confer right. 52
Once again Bradley ignores the perfectly moral and consistent internal character of God. Man has no such internal perfection. God and barbarously depraved men are irreverently equivocated when he states: "…the moral monsters of human history who reigned sovereignly over their empires would be equally innocent of wrongdoing." 53
Further, Bradley insufficiently defines divine sovereignty. Divine sovereignty is not merely rule over the world, as if the rule itself stood in isolation from God's attributes. Sovereignty is a consequence with respect to God that flows directly from His necessary attributes. Sovereignty is rooted in God's being and therefore when exercised, it is always exercised in perfection, moral or otherwise. Sovereignty cannot be divorced from God's knowledge, transcendence, immanence, moral character, etc. God doesn't exercise His sovereign will on a creaturely whim, or for sovereignty's sake, or simply because He possesses the ability to do a certain thing. This would make God's actions capricious and arbitrary, which would be a breach of His own faultless internal constitution, an impossibility.
Human sovereignty, of course, is never truly absolute and is limited, whether it refers to sovereign leaders, sovereign nation states, etc. Human sovereignty is inevitably afflicted and poisoned with abuse of power, because man is utterly riddled with sin. Hence, the oft referred to quote of Lord Acton applies to man, but not God: "Absolute power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Mr. Bradley's retort is another fallacious equivocation.
Bradley Retort #2: God as Hypocrite
Another straw man is constructed by Bradley in response to the theistic riposte that "God is exempt from the prohibitions of our principles. It might be said that although these are binding on humans, they are not binding on God." 54 Bradley claims this makes moral principles relative (a state of affairs to which theists would object) because it introduces a double standard. God has a set of rules for humans that he does not have to obey himself, hence moral relativism.
This line of argumentation assumes God possesses a nature similar to man: an ability to commit morally evil acts. Again, there is a failure to make the distinction between creature and Creator. When God takes human life, it is within His divine prerogative as Creator, and that divine prerogative is always exercised within the parameters of His own morally perfect character, his infinite knowledge, wisdom, etc. His command to kill the Canaanites cannot be equated with a flawed, fallible and sinful human being arbitrarily and capriciously ordering a military force to do the same thing. Van Til explains this universal human problem, repeatedly exemplified by Mr. Bradley in his essay: "The natural man does not want to make the Creator-creature distinction basic in his thought." 55
God has laid out rules for humanity that do not apply to Him, but this is not due to hypocrisy. The distinction is due to the infinite ontological gap between God as Creator and man as creature. Man cannot act as God. God has given man rules to live by because man needs those rules in order to fulfill God's purposes for man, and the fact that man is a finite and restricted being. In a different metaphysical sense, God has "rules" as well. Those "rules" are determined by His holy and just character, and only He is capable of taking life without error and on His own prerogative. Man needs instruction from God to know when it is permissible to take life. 56 And because of sin, God's moral law becomes integral for man's well being.
1. Bradley leaves the impression that God's command was some sort of arbitrary and ungrounded decision, based on purely capricious motives. Bradley never attaches any blame to the responsible party: the morally depraved Canaanites. The Bible actually spells out the reasons why God sent the Israelites into Canaan to take over the land and drive out or kill the inhabitants. 57 Here are several examples:
1. After the LORD your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, "The LORD has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness." No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is going to drive them out before you. (Deut 9:4).
2. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD, and because of these detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you. (Deut 18:12).
3. Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the aliens living among you must not do any of these detestable things, for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you. Everyone who does any of these detestable things -- such persons must be cut off from their people. (Lev 18.24-29).
4. You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshipping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods. (Deut 12:31).
5. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire... (Deut 18.10).
6. They shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, and the land was desecrated by their blood. (Psalm 106.38--about Israel).
7. The LORD said to Moses, "Say to the Israelites: `Any Israelite or any alien living in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech must be put to death. The people of the community are to stone him. I will set my face against that man and I will cut him off from his people; for by giving his children to Molech, he has defiled my sanctuary and profaned my holy name. If the people of the community close their eyes when that man gives one of his children to Molech and they fail to put him to death, I will set my face against that man and his family and will cut off from their people both him and all who follow him in prostituting themselves to Molech. (Lev 20.1-5).
We see here not only statements from the Lord about the situation in Canaan, but also warnings to the Israelite people not to adopt such practices, or there would be grave consequences for them as well. Centuries after the Conquest, the Israelites would be judged and exiled to a foreign land for practicing the very things the Canaanites practiced at the time of Joshua. But it would take centuries for this judgment to come to pass, demonstrating God's merciful patience towards Israel. 58
According to Scripture, the situation in Canaan had been proliferating for centuries, testifying to God's patience and forbearance toward the people in the land of Canaan, despite their sin. Their immoral behavior can be traced back six centuries, at the very least, to the time of Abraham in Genesis 15:13-16:
Then the LORD said to him [Abram], "Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country [Egypt] not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites [Canaanites] has not yet reached its full measure." 59
Although idolatrous worship alone is an egregious sin against God, it is important to note that the focus of the above Scripture verses is on the worship practices of the Canaanites, which involved child sacrifice, and other morally abhorrent behavior. Studies of the practice of child sacrifice in cultures throughout the ancient world can trace the roots of these practices back to Canaan. The Canaanites, called the Phoenicians by the Greeks and Romans, spread the practice of Child Sacrifice across the Mediteranean world. The most infamous example is found in the North African colony of Carthage:
Its origin [human sacrifice] must be sought, evidently, in Canaanite culture. Punic and Neo-Punic inscriptions contain the expressions mlk 'mr (transcribed mokhomor in Latin) and mlk 'dm. Very probably, these phrases mean respectively 'offerings of lamb' and 'offering of man', and refer to the sacrifice of an infant, or of a lamb as substitute. This interpretation is supported by a find in the sanctuary of Tanit at Carthage, where archaeologists have discovered urns containing burnt bones of lambs and goats, and, more often, of children. There is, too, a famous text of Diodorus Siculus (Biblioth. Hist. XX 14): in 310 B.C., when a disaster was threatening Carthage, the inhabitants of the town decided it was due to the anger of Kronos, to whom they had formerly sacrificed their finest children: instead, they had begun to offer sickly children, or children they had bought. Thereupon, they sacrificed two hundred children from the noblest families. There was a bronze statue of Kronos with outstretched arms, and the child was placed on its hands and rolled into the furnace. 60
John Currid testifies to his own firsthand experience as an archaeologist at Carthage:
The most significant part of the American excavations [at Carthage] occurred in the Tophet. The word Tophet comes from the Old Testament (e.g., 2 Kgs 23:10; Jer 7:30–32), referring to a place of child sacrifice and burial. Modern excavators applied the term Tophet to a cemetery we excavated bearing remains of children who had been ritually sacrificed as burnt offerings. It is the largest sacrificial cemetery ever found, measuring at least 60,000 square feet. Most stunning is the number of children sacrificed here—estimated at a minimum of 20,000 burials between 400–200 BC during only one-third the life of the cemetery! 61
The excavators named the [archaeological] periods after Tanit, the Canaanite goddess of love and war. Child sacrifices at Carthage were dedicated to her and to the god Baal Hamon, a name that means “Lord of the Brazier.” They were brother and sister, as well as husband and wife! 62
Bradley asserts that the Canaanites were “innocent 63 of any serious wrongdoing”. The Biblical references and evidence from extra-Biblical sources reveal a society that practiced child-sacrifice,64 bestiality, incest, and male and female cultic prostitution. This was not an innocent society of people, even by finite human standards. God gave the Canaanites several centuries to straighten out their morally depraved practices, but to no avail. Judgment rightfully came through the agency of Israel. Mr. Bradley's appeal to innocence is another straw-man.
2. The relevant Scriptures often speak of expulsion, not annihilation. A cursory review of the relevant passages indicates that God gave the Canaanites ample opportunity to flee the land instead of coming under His wrath through the agency of Israel.
There is much Scriptural evidence to this effect, summed up in Deuteronomy 12.29-30:
The LORD your God will cut off before you the nations you are about to invade and dispossess. But when you have driven them out and settled in their land, and after they have been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, "How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same."
Note that some inhabitants would be driven out, implying that they would continue to live and be allowed to settle elsewhere. Some would be destroyed. The Biblical references show that the primary purpose was to drive the Canaanites out of the land, not annihilate all the people. The implication seems to be that God's primary intention was to destroy the Canaanite nation, not the life of every person in that society. God showed Himself still as merciful towards the Canaanites, as they kept much of their culture anyway, and spread across the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, they continued murdering their own children at Carthage and other places, until the Romans finally destroyed them in 146 BC.
3. The focus of destruction was on the Canaanites, not other city-states in the land. The Israelites, upon entering the land, were forbidden to attack: the Moabites (Deut. 2:9), the Ammonites (Deut. 2:19), and the descendents of Esau (Deut. 2:4-6). They were also required to make a peace offering to cities in Canaan from a distance (Deut. 20:10-16). The actions of the Israelites were not characterized by naked aggression for the purpose of conquest and so-called genocidal extermination.
In summary, Mr. Bradley has committed the following errors in his essay:
1. Bradley’s assertions of moral absolutes are incoherent and incompatible with the atheistic philosophy to which he holds. One of the most critically important aspects of asserting worldview truth claims is defending their own internal coherence, or 'circularity'. Bradley completely fails to do so, providing neither his allies nor the reader with any epistemological justification for morality in an atheistic world. Bradley has unwittingly borrowed Christian principles to rail against Christianity. Bahnsen writes:
The 'circularity' of a transcendental argument is not at all the same as the fallacious 'circularity' of an argument in which the conclusion is a restatement (in one form or another) of one of its premises. Rather, it is the circularity involved in a coherent theory (where all the parts are consistent with or assume each other)... 65
2. Bradley presupposes human autonomy, biasing his case against the God of the Bible at the very beginning of his argument. Paul informed the Athenian philosophers on Mars Hill what they knew in their hearts, but actively denied: 'For in Him we live and move have our being". 66 Man is completely dependent on God for his very life and existence. Bradley's assumptions deny this from the beginning.
3. Bradley ontologically equivocates God and man in his analysis. The metaphysical difference between God and man is a central teaching in the Scriptures. Machen writes: "From beginning to end the Bible is concerned to set forth the awful gulf that separates the creature from the Creator."67 Even if an atheist talks about the God of the Bible for the sake of argument without acknowledging His existence, it should be clear that man is not the ontological equal of a being like the God of the Bible, and He should not be treated as such in arguments of this nature.
4. Bradley is inconsistent in his application of God's attributes in his critique. The doctrine of God is erratically applied throughout the entire article.
5. Bradley fails to make a positive argument for atheism. Bradley tries to disprove the Christian position through his argumentation, but never really provides any argument to justify his atheism. He appears to assume that disproving the Christian position proves atheism. Atheism does not necessarily follow if Christianity is untrue.
6. Bradley does not take the Bible's teaching into account on the whole, but attacks it in an atomistic fashion. This presumes the Bible is not a single, coherent book with one Author. Rather, it presupposes that the Bible is a human work.
7. Bradley fails to deal with the actual Biblical data accurately as it pertains to the Conquest of Canaan. He fails to account for any of the extra-Biblical data with respect to the nature of Canaanite society, or the testimony of Scripture about the abhorrent moral practices of the Canaanites. Bradley also ignores centuries of divine mercy from the time of Abraham to the time of the Conquest, whereby God patiently withheld judgment from a morally depraved culture. He also ignores the testimony of Scripture that predominantly speaks of expulsion from the land, not destruction.
On the surface, Raymond Bradley's objections to God's actions regarding the conquest of Canaan appear to be plausible. His sentiments are superficially understandable, but upon further scrutiny they fall far from the mark. A surface and piecemeal reading of the Biblical text and an inconsistent and erroneous application of the character of God 68 to the discussion could lead a person to conclude that God acted in a morally deficient manner toward the Canaanites.
Many non-Christians (and even Christians) are troubled by these types of events recorded in the Bible, and in the Old Testament in particular. This "trouble" only comes when human autonomy is uncritically accepted as a presupposition. Mr. Bradley would do well to revisit these varied errors in his analysis, and reconsider his fundamental presuppositions about the nature of reality, epistemology, metaphysics and ethics. They do not hold up to scrutiny. We admonish him to give up his rebellious human autonomy and adopt a dependent, creaturely and Biblical-revelational approach to the universe, mankind, and most importantly, God in Christ.
The incidents surrounding the Canaanite culture should be a warning to all mankind, and they also provide a wonderful opportunity for Mr. Bradley and other skeptics to repent of their rebellion against his Creator, and avoid what the Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, told the most educated people of his age: the certainty of God's judgment through Jesus Christ:
In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead. ---Acts 17:30-31
Currid, John. Abortion: Child Sacrifice Today? Bible and Spade, (Winter 2012, 13-15).
Darwin, Francis ed. The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin Including an Autobiographical Chapter. London: John Murray, 1887.
Frame, John. Apologetics to the Glory of God. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1994.
__________. The Doctrine of God. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2002.
Greenspan, Louis and Stefan Andersson, eds., Russell on Religion. London: Routledge, 1999.
Van Til, Cornelius. The Defense of the Faith. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1955.
Vaux, Roland de. Ancient Israel. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965.
Ward, Masie. Gilbert Keith Chesterton. London: Sheed & Ward, 1944.
52. Bradley, 142. The two quotes within this block quote are referencing a private manuscript in footnote 15 of Bradley's article. They represent typical theistic responses to his argument. Return to text
53. Ibid. Return to text
54. Ibid. Return to text
55. Van Til, 225. Return to text
56. There is great confusion in the modern church with reference to understanding when it is permissible for man to take life justly. Space does not permit a discussion of these issues. It is clear that the church should look to the Scriptures to make those determinations, which are God's instructions to the church. Therefore, it is God determining through revelation when it is appropriate for man to take life, even today. Murder is never permissible, but killing is, under certain circumstances. Return to text
57. Bradley and other skeptics almost always ignore that fact that God is merciful to peoples and nations who turn from immorally egregious practices, such as the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, which turned from its wickedness in response to the preaching of the prophet Jonah. Return to text
58. These verses are just a small sampling that illustrate how the Israelites adopted the same Canaanites practices God sternly warned them about for centuries after the Conquest. II Chronicles 28:3 "He burned sacrifices in the Valley of Ben Hinnom and sacrificed his sons in the fire, following the detestable ways of the nations that the LORD had driven out before the Israelites." II Chronicles 33:2 "He did evil in the eyes of the LORD, following the detestable practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites." II Chronicles 33:9 "But Manasseh led Judah and the people of Jerusalem astray, so that they did more evil than the nations the LORD had destroyed before the Israelites." Return to text
59. Note that the Egyptians committed egregious sins as well, yet they were only punished, not destroyed at the time of the Exodus. Their culture and people lived on. This illuminates further the depth of wickedness in Canaanite culture. Return to text
60. Roland de Vaux. Ancient Israel, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), 445-446. Much more evidence connecting Canaanite culture with Carthaginian child sacrifice can also be found in my own: Redeeming the Carthaginians? Bible and Spade (Winter 2012, 4-12). Return to text
61. John Currid. Abortion: Child Sacrifice Today? Bible and Spade (Winter 2012, 13). Return to text
62. Ibid., 4. Return to text
63. A fundamental false assumption, assumed in Bradley's essay, is that human beings are innocent. In relation to God, no human being is innocent (Romans 3:23). In the ultimate sense, all human beings eventually die and face God. If God determines that death by judgment through human agency (such as the Israelites) or the natural order of things because of the Fall (but under God's sovereign and providential control), it makes little difference in the light of eternity, from God's eternal perspective. When God ends a human life, it is a perfect, just and efficacious decision. Bradley accuses God of a double standard (p. 142-3), when Bradley is in fact guilty of equivocating God and man, and assuming that man is not worthy of judgment. That we live at all, or have any joy in life whatsoever is far more than we deserve. Return to text
64. One of Bradley's moral principles not examined in this paper is P4. It is morally wrong to practice human sacrifice, by burning or otherwise. It is indeed ironic that Mr. Bradley does not address this practice by the Canaanites. Return to text
65. Bahnsen, 518, n. 122. Emphasis mine. Return to text
66. Acts 17:26, NIV. Return to text
67. J. Gresham Machen. Christianity and Liberalism. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman's Publishing, 1923), 62. Return to text
68. As stated previously, some evidence in his essay seems to indicate that Mr. Bradley actually does formally understand the moral character of God. Throughout his essay, he ignores this understanding of God (evident in his equivocation), somber evidence that he willingly suppresses what he knows to be true. (Romans 1:18ff.). Return to text