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Jesus Loves Canaanites: Biblical Genocide in the Light of Moral Intuition

05 January 2022 By Stephen J. Bedard

An extended review of a 2021 book by Randal Rauser

Note: Our print issue contains a shorter version of this review. Faith Today welcomes your thoughts on any of our reviews. We also welcome suggestions of other Canadian Christian books to review: Contact us.

Book by Randal Rauser. 2 Cup Press, 2021. 334 pages. $19 (e-book $18)

One of the most popular Bible stories in Sunday school is the fall of Jericho. The blowing of the horns and the crumbling of the walls is a story that captures the essence of faith for people of all ages. What is often left out of those Sunday school lessons is: “They annihilated with the sword everything that breathed in the city, including men and women, young and old, as well as cattle, sheep, and donkeys” (Joshua 6:21).

It is possible this was just the Israelites acting on their own violent instincts. However, God told Moses that when they entered the Promised Land they were to annihilate the Canaanites and to show them no mercy (Deuteronomy 7:1–2). Such passages have troubled Christians for centuries. How can the God described as being love (1 John 4:8) command the killing of an entire ethnic group?

Christian apologists attempt to defend the violence against the Canaanites by focusing on the extreme evil of the Canaanite culture. But can followers of Jesus ever become comfortable with the divine command to kill every man, woman and child because of their ethnicity?

Randal Rauser tackles this topic in his new book Jesus Loves Canaanites. However, Rauser does not follow the path of defending God’s reasons for the killing of the Canaanites. Instead, Rauser argues that the Christian God could never have made such a demand of the Israelites.

Rauser begins with moral intuition rather than examining the biblical texts. While not every person agrees on all issues of morality, there is general agreement that certain things are right and certain things are wrong. One example of this is our moral intuition that genocide is wrong.

While the Holocaust is the most obvious example, more recent incidents include the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia and the genocide in Rwanda. We do not have to be convinced of the evil of those events – our moral intuition creates a natural revulsion.

If it is so clear that the killing of Jews, Bosnians and Tutsis was immoral, how can Christians accept that the killing of the Canaanites was moral? Some may argue it was moral because it was commanded by God. But can an immoral action become moral just because it is commanded by God?

Rauser argues moral intuition is just as valid a way of knowing as anything else. If our intuition tells us genocide is always immoral, then that should be one of the principles guiding our reading of Scripture. However, Christians are still left with a number of examples of divinely commanded acts of violence in the Bible.

There have been numerous attempts to explain these texts. Some apologists have attempted to soften the message by giving historical context. Some have attempted to spiritualize the texts so that it is no longer about an actual conquest. Rauser rejects each of these and proposes something different called Providential Errancy.

Just as some scholars point out what they see as historical or scientific errors in the Bible, there are also moral errors. These errors are not accidents but the result of God’s providential plan for the Bible. God intended that there be passages that went against our moral intuition. God’s desire is not for a passive reading of the Bible but a thoughtful wrestling with passages designed to trouble us.

Jesus Loves Canaanites is a helpful book in many ways. Rauser’s emphasis on moral intuition can provide guidance on how we read all texts, including the Bible. Rauser also shows courage by confronting troubling passages that are too often ignored by Christians. His summary of various ways of addressing these passages help to point toward future study.

However, his theory of Providential Errantism creates more problems than it solves. How does seeing God intentionally placing errors, especially moral errors, shape our reading of Scripture? What does that say about how God communicates with humanity? This can lead to a temptation to reject anything we disagree with as a providential error, believing that God was trying to say the opposite of what the text says.

Unfortunately, that still leaves us with a loving God who seems to have commanded one people to kill the men, women and children of another. There are no easy answers to this problem, but Rauser’s work is a valuable addition to the conversation.

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