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:
- First: However, the Israelites were not treated the same as the Canaanites. The Canaanites were to be completely annihilated (Deuteronomy 20:16: "you must not let anything that breathes remain alive") not just expelled from the land. This neglects the point – made clear by Miller, but ignored by Avalos – that the Canaanites were primarily supposed to be driven out, and were only killed when they refused to evacuate. As Miller notes:
These words group into two categories: dispossession vs destruction. "Dispossession" would include the words like drive out, dispossess, take over possession of, thrust out, send away (33 occurrences). "Destruction" words would include annihilate, destroy, perish, and eliminate (11 occurrences). The Dispossession words would indicate that the population 'ran away'--migrated out of the Land prior to any encounter with the Israelites; Destruction words would indicate the consequences for those who stayed behind.
What then is the mix of these two sets of words? The "Dispossession" words outnumber the "Destruction" words by 3-to-1!. This would indicate that the dominant 'intended effect' was for the peoples in the Land to migrate somewhere else. So, consider Deut 12.29: 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, 30 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.".
In contrast, there was no parallel situation when Israel was driven from their land; they were captured and taken as slaves – if anything, to be considered, in their agonistic culture, a fate worse than dying honorably in a war.
- Second: There is no similar punishment that demands that, when a Hebrew commits a sexual sin, all Hebrew women and children should be killed so that nothing is left of them. Avalos has deceptively reduced the matter such that he is indicating that the Canaanites were doomed for extermination on the basis of a single sin (!) committed by just one person! In reality, as Miller notes but again as Avalos ignores, the judgment was based on hundreds of years of sinful practices.
Of course, Avalos may well dispute that record, but he cannot dispute that within the context of the Biblical record, this was indeed the case. Denying the historicity of the events – a matter mostly beyond our scope here – would effectively eliminate any attempts by Avalos to argue against the morality of the text as a historical document. He cannot argue from one side of his mouth that the extermination was immoral, and then from the other side of his mouth point out that it, and the sin that inspired it, never actually happened. He must argue either one or the other in fact (though the one denied may be argued in theory alone).
- Third: Incest is a reason for genocide, it does not appear to be so in the case of Abraham, regarded as of the most blessed man on earth, despite the fact that he married his half-sister (Genesis 20:12), and had multiple sexual partners (Hagar and Sarah in Genesis 16).
It is hard to see what Avalos is on about here, since it is generally recognized that Abraham is being deceptive in claiming Sarah was his sister (see here). Thus there was no incest to speak of. As for "multiple sexual partners," this is, as above, merely a single sin by a single person, if indeed it is a sin; but the nearest analog to this story in the law would have to do with levirate marriage, a necessary tool of survival when a woman could not have children, and so it cannot be regarded as sin on that account (apart from Abraham’s lack of faith in God, which is another matter).
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:
- Ezekiel 20:25-6: Moreover I gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not have life; and I defiled them through their very gifts in making them offer by fire all their first-born, that I might horrify them; I did it that they might know that I am the LORD. Our brief evaluation of this passage has been: "This is not a case of endorsing human sacrifice, but a case of God giving rebellious peoples what they want and deserve by giving them freedom." But actually, Avalos goes further than this, supposing that in Ezekiel there is a reference to an earlier text, Exodus 22:29-30:
- You shall not delay to offer from the fulness of your harvest and from the outflow of your presses. The first-born of your sons you shall give to me. You shall do likewise with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall be with its dam; on the eighth day you shall give it to me.
As we have noted, reading this passage in terms of human sacrifice is also a case of illogical application: This is not referring to sacrifice, but to service. No one sacrificed fruits and liquors on an altar. Avalos here commits the classic error of category fallacy; it is as though arguing that because soap, milk, and bread are on a grocery list, all three are meant to be eaten.
That said, could Ezekiel be alluding to the passage on Exodus in the first place? Since Exodus isn’t about sacrifice then it obviously does not. But more than this, beyond Ezekiel 20:17, is it clear that Ezekiel refers to the sins of Israel in the generations following the Exodus, and even into his present day, and not just those of the wilderness generation:
17 Nevertheless mine eye spared them from destroying them, neither did I make an end of them in the wilderness. 18But I said unto their children in the wilderness, Walk ye not in the statutes of your fathers, neither observe their judgments, nor defile yourselves with their idols: 19I am the LORD your God; walk in my statutes, and keep my judgments, and do them; 20And hallow my sabbaths; and they shall be a sign between me and you, that ye may know that I am the LORD your God. 21Notwithstanding the children rebelled against me: they walked not in my statutes, neither kept my judgments to do them, which if a man do, he shall even live in them; they polluted my sabbaths: then I said, I would pour out my fury upon them, to accomplish my anger against them in the wilderness. 22Nevertheless I withdrew mine hand, and wrought for my name's sake, that it should not be polluted in the sight of the heathen, in whose sight I brought them forth. 23I lifted up mine hand unto them also in the wilderness, that I would scatter them among the heathen, and disperse them through the countries; 24Because they had not executed my judgments, but had despised my statutes, and had polluted my sabbaths, and their eyes were after their fathers' idols. 25Wherefore I gave them also statutes that were not good, and judgments whereby they should not live; 26And I polluted them in their own gifts, in that they caused to pass through the fire all that openeth the womb, that I might make them desolate, to the end that they might know that I am the LORD. 27Therefore, son of man, speak unto the house of Israel, and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Yet in this your fathers have blasphemed me, in that they have committed a trespass against me. 28For when I had brought them into the land, for the which I lifted up mine hand to give it to them, then they saw every high hill, and all the thick trees, and they offered there their sacrifices, and there they presented the provocation of their offering: there also they made their sweet savour, and poured out there their drink offerings. 29Then I said unto them, What is the high place whereunto ye go? And the name whereof is called Bamah unto this day. 30Wherefore say unto the house of Israel, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Are ye polluted after the manner of your fathers? and commit ye whoredom after their abominations?
While Ezekiel is certainly thematically associating later generations with the wilderness generation, the recitation of events makes it clear that he does not have that particular generation in mind on verses 25-6.
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.