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The Anti-Canaan Command of Yahweh

December 31, 2011

There are three more stories from the book of Joshua that I would like to comment on. They are all somewhat interconnected, so we’ll see if they can be covered fairly quickly. They are 1) the Israelites’ annihilation of Jericho and the other Canaanite cities, 2) Achan and his family’s execution for Achan’s taking of Canaanite goods, and 3) the Gibeonites’ covenant of peace with the Israelites. These all have to do with the god Yahweh’s command (Deuteronomy 20:16-17) to the Israelites to kill every man, woman, child, even the babies, and to destroy all the cities and all the property of the Canaanites, except the treasures that were supposed to be dedicated to Yahweh (Joshua 6:24).

Many denunciations have been written of the Bible’s recorded actions of the Israelites to the Canaanites. So too, many apologies have been written to defend the Israelites and the orders of Yahweh. I will not attempt here a full analysis of this issue and construct my own detailed argument against the appropriateness of this command. My argument might actually be able to be sufficiently explained now, since it is quite brief and is mostly a response to the other arguments I’ve heard about this issue. The argument that a god’s command can make anything “right” and “just” is an argument that I find perfectly reasonable, actually. It all comes down to utilitarianism. If there is no other god opposing the wishes of the first god, the superior power and intelligence of the god makes submission to its will the most reasonable thing to do. Submission might not be morally obliged, but there is no moral reason to oppose the command. Any “intrinsic” value of the human lives involved would be negated by the value that could be placed on what the god could do. You might argue that the god should use its abilities in coordination with human society, but that would be a decision for the god, not a human choice.

In fact, that the god should use its power in peace with humanity is exactly what I’d argue, since I take a pro-human position. This is where the tension is created between the genocidal command of Yahweh about the Canaanites and the love for humanity exhibited in other passages of the Bible. It is completely within Yahweh’s rights to issue said command; however, there is more at issue than just the god’s obligations. We also must consider the wisdom of this command and implications for the welfare of humanity. In other words, reason does not dictate the obligations of gods should be the sole criterion by which humans evaluate gods’ commands. Therefore, it is completely appropriate that a command of genocide by a god would offend our moral sensibilities. This post is getting a little long (for me), so I think I’ll stop for now. I just want to remark on the slightly-amusing nature of the preceding paragraphs, which treat gods are an intelligible class of beings. Such is theology.

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