In part 3 of this series, we looked at some religious and historical arguments against the claim that the conquest commands in the biblical books of Deuteronomy and Joshua were divine in origin. In this week’s post, I will formulate a moral argument against that claim solely on the basis of the rationale for those commands. To do this, I will reformulate that rationale (below) so that the reader can clearly see which claims the moral argument takes issue with.
Reason A: The salvation of the world hinged on the preservation of Israel
The Abrahamic covenant (see Gen 12:1-3; 13:14-18; 15:1-21; 17:1-22) affirmed the central place of the Jews in Yahweh’s plan for the salvation of the world. That salvation would come through the people of Israel (cf. Deut 7:7-9) meant that their continued existence was essential to the fulfillment of God’s redemptive purposes for the whole of creation. Their persistence as a people required at least three things: (1) protection from the corrupting influence of pagan religious practices, (2) survival in a brutal culture of warfare in which enemy nations threatened their way of life, and (3) provision of land for an Israelite theocracy to flourish. With salvation hanging in the balance, desperate times called for desperate measures. Consequently, the conquest was seen a morally justifiable means of securing requirements (1) to (3).
Reason B: The Canaanites deserved divine punishment
The Pentateuch claims that the Canaanite people were incorrigibly wicked and without excuse for their moral failures. Apparently, God was willing to show these people mercy if they repented (just as he showed mercy to the city of Nineveh in the book of Jonah), and he demonstrated this willingness by delaying punishment until their decline had become incurable (Gen 15:6), but alas God’s forbearance was without effect. Now, as their creator, sovereign, and moral authority, God not only has the right to punish the Canaanites, but he also has the right to authorize those whom he chooses (namely, the Israelites) to punish on his behalf. In light of these considerations, the conquest was viewed as a morally justifiable form of punishment for the Canaanites’ wickedness (Lev 18:24-27). The conquest also served the ancillary role of teaching the Jewish people a sobering lesson about Yahweh’s severity against sin and the need for national holiness.
The Structure of the Moral Argument
This argument against the divine origin of the commands goes as follows: (4) if these commands came from God, then the conquest was a morally justified. (5) The conquest was not morally justified; therefore, (6) the commands did not come from God. In this context, premise (5) is gains support by arguing, contrary to reasons A and B, that the military conquest was not a justifiable means of preserving the nation of Israel and/or punishing the Canaanites. The case for (5) will proceed along seven distinct lines of argument, which I briefly sketch here.
A Defense of the Moral Argument
First, the conquest did not succeed in protecting the Israelites from religious pollution because they intermarried with the Canaanites and lapsed into Baal worship. The Jews were culpable for this failure, but they still continued to dwell in the land as a nation. Even when their national and religious identity was called into serious question by the Babylonian exile, a faithful remnant of Jews persisted afterward. So if, contrary to (1), protection from religious pollution was not a prerequisite for the survival of the Jewish people, then that reason can no longer be used to justify Joshua’ original campaign. Even more troubling is the fact that Yahweh foreknew that Israel’s lapse into idolatry would prevent the campaign from being successful (Deut 31:20), but he commanded the Jews to wage war anyway.
Second, more humane methods would have served Israel better. Yahweh could have commanded to Jews to occupy more hospitable lands that did not require such violent methods of conquest. Instead of killing the women and children who were not evacuated from the battle sites, relocating the non-combatants would have been just as effective in dispossessing the inhabitants of the land.
Third, lessons about divine severity against sin and the need for national holiness could have been taught in better ways than by killing children. As Wes Morriston remarks, “A better way to distinguish the Israelites from their neighbors would surely be to encourage them to be less brutal, more compassionate, and more loving.”
Fourth, it would have been preferable to spare the children because they posed no religious threat. They could have been assimilated into Israelite culture without ill effect and then raised to be Jewish.
Fifth, as Morriston argues, “it would be decidedly counterproductive to command [the Jews] to slaughter innocent children” because such battle tactics would have been psychologically damaging to the Israelite soldiers.
Sixth, punishing the Canaanites was morally arbitrary because there was “nothing uniquely Canaanite” about their so-called abominable practices. Practices which the Mosaic Law deemed reprehensible – such as idolatry, incest, adultery, child sacrifice, homosexuality, and bestiality – were common in the ancient near east, and just as prevalent in the nations outside the perimeter of the land, so why single out the Canaanites for judgement?
Seventh, it was wrong to punish the children because they were innocent of the misdeeds committed by their parents and their surrounding culture. They were too young to make moral choices for themselves.
What do you, the reader, think about these seven lines of argument? Do they effectively refute the claim that the conquest was a morally justifiable way of preserving the Jews and/or punishing the Canaanites?
 Note: my reformulation is intended as a tool for understanding, not as a detailed exegesis of what the biblical authors actually had in mind.
 This is not to deny that there are other ways, aside from considering the textual justification for the conquest, to argue for the truth of premise (5).
 Wesley Morriston, “Did God Command Genocide? A Challenge to the Biblical Inerrantist” Philosophia Christi Vol. 11, No. 1, (2009), p.23.
 Ibid, p.23. Bold text added.
 Ibid, p.16.