Hector Avalos on Glenn Miller

For many years I have referred readers to the excellent, detailed work of Glenn Miller at the Christian ThinkTank, particularly his material answering charges of "Biblical atrocities". His article on the destruction of the Canaanites is one I have often linked to and noted for readers.

In response to this article, we found some time ago a commentary by Hector Avalos, with whom we have found much fault (and not just in a scholarly sense) previously. Avalos’ response consists of a bare 9 pages of text, which pales compared to Miller’s 42 pages (which he calls a "blog post," apparently not considerate of what a "blog" actually is), and needless to say, barely touches on more than a few of Miller’s points. That said, we find that it is time to address some of these issues, apart from those outside our expertise (e.g., archaeology).

Miller’s primary contention is that the destruction of the Canaanites had to do with their entrenched sin. Avalos begins with some rather juvenile, misplaced rhetoric in which he claims that, the very notion that "sin" and sexual depravity can justify genocide is also similar to Hitler's rationale in combating miscegenation. In other words, Avalos deftly evades the question of whether indeed the practices of the Canaanites were sinful (he alludes to, but does not defend, the idea that homosexuality is not), and opts instead for the emotional impact of breaking Godwin’s Law. One may as well try to taint the use of police forces by merely appealing to the former existence of the Schutzstaffel. A glib resort to reductio ad Hitlerum is not an argument, but rather childish rhetoric.

Avalos then goes on to dispute Miller’s contention that God in the Old Testament treats all persons the same, as Miller puts it:

And God allowed no double standards. When Israel began to look like 'Canaanites', God judged them IN THE SAME WAY...and 'vomited' them from the Land as well. This expulsion was also accompanied by the harsh measures of warfare faced by the Canaanites.

Avalos resorts to several evasions to dispute this point:

In the end, thus, Avalos fails in his attempt to use these incidences to argue that God is "the biggest moral relativist of all in biblical literature."

Avalos’ next tack is to point out that "child sacrifice may have been perfectly acceptable to the biblical god," which is supposedly "demonstrated in painstaking detail" by Jon Levenson in his book The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. However, from the examples offered by Avalos from Levenson, it appears that these are all cases of putting the sacrificial cart before the epistemic horse. Indeed, the passages appealed to, as applied, read as though taken from an amateurish source like the Skeptics’ Annotated Bible:

After this, Avalos appeals as well to other instances of what he supposes to be "child sacrifice" but is clearly unaware that Miller has dealt with these issues – both the matter of Isaac and Jesus. He also notes that the OT condemns some Jewish kings for performing such sacrifices, but the very fact that these are condemnations merely proves Miller’s points. Avalos does not gain any help for his arguments by suggesting that these acts mean that "it was popularly believed that YHWH accepted, perhaps even commanded, it." Perhaps so, but the evidence is that such popular beliefs were in error.

Avalos next comments on the alleged absurdity of "why we have to kill the children, instead of killing the perpetrators of the infanticide." This is an issue Miller (again) covered elsewhere. Avalos also engages a false application of Deut. 24:16: Per Miller’s observations, the children of the Canaanites are not being killed for the sins of their parents. Avalos’ charges of "pick-and-choose" of Scriptures are therefore without warrant, save perhaps under the fundamentalist exegesis he continues to adhere to.

Avalos next turns to archaeological evidence used by Miller to validate Biblical charges against the Canaanites. We are not experts in archaeology here; however, on surface, one might find some merit in the charge that most of Miller’s evidence "is not from Canaan" but from "Canaanite culture" in a broad sense – from cultures related to the Canaanites. Avalos is compelled to admit that "many archaeologists do view Punic culture as a continuation of Canaanite culture," but tries to blunt the force of this admission by adding that "these sites also evince the presence of Greeks and other peoples" so that we cannot always tell who did what. Since archaeology is not our specialty, we will grant these points for the sake of argument and move to literary evidence, which is, essentially, the Biblical record.

Avalos’ first response is to suggest that the record is a biased one. As he says:

The fact that enemies of Carthage are the main source for the claim of child sacrifice is very important because it is well-known that rival cultures routinely accused each other of horrible behavior.

Indeed, Miller seems to ignore that it is precisely accusations of child sacrifice that were constantly being launched against both Christians and Jews in antiquity…. If we should not take such reports about Christians at face-value, we certainly should not do it for the Canaanites.

However, Avalos has simply illicitly transferred one instance to another, a flagrant fallacy of guilt by association. At the same time, his argument fails to explain how the record might be different if a culture really were sacrificing children, as opposed to merely being falsely charged with doing so. Furthermore, while Avalos criticizes Miller for making use of Eusebius (1800 years later) concerning the behavior of the Canaanites, he does the same thing himself in using an example of charges against Christians and Jews in application to the Canaanites. If the 1800 years makes Eusebius less reliable, why don’t they also make Avalos’ analogy less useful?

And it gets worse: Avalos goes on to cite an argument that Deut. 18:10 does not mean burning a child in a fire, but rather means allowing a child to undergo something like passing through lit torches. But his sources for this interpretation are a Talmudic tractate (some 1700-1800 years later) and Rashi, the medieval Jewish commentator (2800 years later!). If Avalos can use these sources to interpret Deuteronomy, why can’t Miller use Eusebius?

Further discussion ensues about alleged archaeological evidence for child sacrifice, but in the end, while such evidence being present is a plus, the lack thereof does not constitute a negative finding for the practice, given disposal of sacrificed remains (we hardly have the remains of Mayan sacrificial victims pouring out of ancient Mayan temples). We might observe in close on this point that Avalos accuses Miller of "amateur research" for appealing to the Pozo Moro monument. However, Avalos fails to note that Avalos merely appeals to Pozo Moro as an example of how child sacrifice may be described. He does not claim that it dates to the Canaanite era, or that it is a "Molek" sacrifice. Avalos is simply reading more than is said into Miller’s text.

Beyond this, Avalos offers the argument that there "are alternative interpretations possible" of the depiction, and suggests that perhaps it is "a demon about to eat children". However, he offers no reason to support this reading.

Turning back to the Biblical text, Avalos proceeds to "fundamentalistically" interpret Ps. 21:8-9 as an example of God eating people:

Your hand will find out all your enemies; your right hand will find out those who hate you. You will make them as a blazing oven when you appear. The LORD will swallow them up in his wrath; and fire will consume them.

Reading a poetic text like this (or Rev. 19:16-18, an apocalyptic text) with such wooden literalism, without respect to their "genre package," is simply nonsensical. (In the latter case, it is also a misapplication; it is carrion-eating birds, not God, who is eating the flesh of men.)

Finally, Avalos resorts to the rather strained objection that if indeed God ordered the Canaanites killed for this practice, "the intended cure for this practice was not very effective" because people kept doing it. By the same logic, Avalos has just declared that we may as well do away with laws and prisons, because people continue to commit crimes.

In the end, Avalos does little to speak contrary to the Biblical text, and does even less to engage Miller’s extensive commentary.