How Could It Be Fair to Kill Canaanite Children?

In a prior post we saw that the Canaanite childhood was full of terror and loathing. How could it not be when some friends and siblings were burnt to death in the arms of the bull-headed god Molech, family members raped them, and animals were brought into the house for sexual entertainment? Then in my last post on the Canaanites we saw why Israel could not adopt these children without the Israelites, themselves, becoming corrupted

In this post we answer the last question specifically regarding Canaanite children: how could it in any sense be fair for God to order their deaths? There are several things to say about this.

First, it is not always wrong to kill those innocent of wrongdoing. Of course that seems counterintuitive but Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan in their book, Did God Really Command Genocide?, provide a timely illustration:

Consider the following example. Four civilian airliners have been hijacked by terrorists. The terrorists are using these planes as weapons against a civilian population. Two planes have been flown into tall skyscrapers, destroying both buildings and killings thousands of men, women, and children. A third has been crashed into a university stadium during a sporting event, again killing thousands of people. The final plane is still in the air and in transit to a fourth civilian target. F-16s have intercepted the plane and ordered it to deviate from its course. The terrorists who have commandeered the plane refuse to comply. Is it justifiable for the president of the United States to order the plane to be shot down?

Copan and Flanagan go on to point out that most people will respond affirmatively and do so “despite knowing that shooting down a civilian airliner undoubtedly involves killing innocent men, women, and children who are on the plane.” 1  Of course everyone will be terribly upset that such a loss of life had to occur but I doubt that few, if any, would say that shooting down the plane was immoral.

Second, if God knows that these children would grow up corrupted and corrupting (and He would be able to know that), then God does no wrong in taking their lives before they have the opportunity to do serious harm.

Third, all Christians agree that this life isn’t all there is, and there is Scriptural reason to believe that Canaanite children were transferred to a better place—Heaven. Although Christians differ about whether all children go to heaven, many Christians, including many apologists such as Norman Geisler, William Lane Craig, and Greg Koukl, have argued that all who die before the age of accountability (see Deut. 1:39) will be saved.2 They base this on verses such as Luke 18:16–17, where Jesus said, “Permit the children to come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it at all” (Luke 18:16–17 NASB). As theologian Millard Erickson asks, “Could it be that Jesus was using as the object lesson in his plea for a certain quality, individuals who did not actually embody that quality? That would seem strange indeed. Thus, if Jesus was affirming that those who would enter into the kingdom must be like these children, he seems to be asserting, as a premise in his argument, that these children were in the kingdom.”3

Regarding infants, Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson point out, “Although their reasons may differ depending on other theological commitments, and although some of their reasons are better than others, evangelicals generally agree that [deceased infants] will be in heaven.”4

It’s true that no Scripture unambiguously guarantees that children will be saved, but if they are, God would have good reason for not unambiguously making that clear, for then abortion and infanticide would guarantee a child’s salvation! Imagine the abuses that would occur from that knowledge! Whatever the case, we can rest in God’s love and mercy regarding their fate.

But, as I’ve asked before, should we take seriously the skeptic’s advocacy for Canaanite children? After all, doesn’t the average atheist’s complaint ring hollow since they’re usually at the forefront of defending a woman’s right to engage in Canaanite promiscuity and then to suction, scrape, or scald to death her unborn baby at any time and for any reason that results from the promiscuity? And some atheists, like Princeton ethicist Peter Singer, even think that infanticide is sometimes justified. He has “admitted” that “the position I have taken on abortion also justifies infanticide.” 5 Of course, this is one of the few times that the pro-life movement will think Singer has spoken with utter clarity and leads naturally to his conclusion that “killing a disabled infant” is “very often not wrong at all.”6 But for Singer the child doesn’t even have to be disabled because “the intrinsic wrongness of killing the late fetus and the intrinsic wrongness of killing the newborn infant are not markedly different.” For Singer this doesn’t justify “randomly killing babies” because legitimate “infanticide can only be equated with abortion when those closest to the child do not want it to live.”7 I’m sure the Canaanites would applaud Singer as a kindred spirit.

God as Creator alone has the right to determine when each shall live and die.  (Job 1:20-21).

  1. Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan, Did God Really Command Genocide: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Grand Rapids, Baker, 2014), 199. []
  2.  See Norman Geisler, “What about Those Who Die Before the Age of Accountability?” The John Ankerberg Show, 2003. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFEUUUgN9tA&list=PLhZsAfleY-EY03_t8elVPxY_FV09Hb-wi&index=6; William Lane Craig, “Q & A with William Lane Craig #23—Middle Knowledge,” Reasonable Faith, September 24, 2007, http://www.reasonablefaith.org/middle-knowledge; Greg Koukl, “The Canaanites: Genocide or Judgment?” Solid Ground, January/February 2013, 8; Ronald H. Nash, When a Baby Dies (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999).   []
  3. Millard Erickson, How Shall They Be Saved? The Destiny of Those Who Do Not Hear of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 238.  []
  4. Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, Faith Comes by Hearing: A Response to Inclusivism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 243–44.  []
  5. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 1993), 173. []
  6. Singer, Practical Ethics, 191. []
  7. Singer, Practical Ethics, 173. []
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12 Responses to How Could It Be Fair to Kill Canaanite Children?

  1. The argument is appreciable, however why do we think of an old text and what we learn from? That would be relevant to present, its clear by Job1:20,21. Most probably Nobody celebrates if any children irrespective of their family religious status but one thing is very clear when we think of Luke18:16-17. Children never indulge in sin, precisely sexual intimacy, Jesus said Matthew 18:3 KJV Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

    But the above commandment is only for adults, not for children , if so what’s needed in light of these scripture, that’s nothing other than to convict but there’s none in Christianity to do so. Why, because there’s none witnesses of Jesus but all are believers which Jesus never expected from anyone when he declared in Acts 1:8 Acts 1:8 KJV
    But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.

    There’s no need for believing in Jesus as the scenario changed from prepenetcost to post Pentecost but still Christians are not changed. Where are you living in pre Pentecost or Post Pentecost?

    There are enough thoughts & insights to change the world in the world of Jesus, that’s relevant today. How could it be fair to kill Cannanite children? Is not relevant today.

    With Christian love,
    William G.Peter

  2. Adrian says:

    The deeper question is: What kind of God is that who orders the killing of innocent children?
    Even if we can find reasons. It still seems a different God that the one we find in Jesus… who came to rescue and to save.
    On Jesus’ word I still defend those texts as representing God, but it is a reverse image, a contrast image to the one Jesus reflects of the Father…
    I’ve heard the argument: that God was a missionary and treated them (Israelites and the Canaanites) at the level they could then perceive Him…
    Even so… these are the hardest passages in which to defend the image of God in front of an intrigued seeker or atheist… because I almost always tend to side with them… I believe Jesus would…
    What resonates with me is that Israelites without the Spirit were corruptible… and not able to save and rescue these kids from their ingrained habits… as I am corruptible having the Spirit… But to say that to a non-believer is almost never a good enough explanation: they could counteract with the normal Q: where is then the hope of redemption and the always renewed chances that the grace gives?
    So, I appreciate the try as this is maybe the thorniest issue in the Scripture…

    • Clay Jones says:

      The God of the OT is no different from the God represented in the new, Adrian. What I think you need to revisit is all the hard sayings of Jesus that most Christians today tend to forget. Jesus tells us to “hate” our own life and He even tells us that if a man doesn’t hate his father or his mother or even his children, then he cannot be Jesus’ disciple. It was Jesus who said in Matthew 25 that the lost are going away to “eternal torment.” Read the Gospels with that in mind and I don’t think you’ll see a difference.

      You tend to “side with them” against what the Bible says, Adrian? Let me be direct with you: you need to humble yourself before the Lord and trust that even if a test doesn’t sit well with you–even if it doesn’t feel good to you–that you accept it in humility. Earlier you said you were doing that when you wrote that those texts still are “representing God.” But the “side with” comment made me think you’re not doing it.

      It doesn’t matter much to me if the non-believer doesn’t find it a good enough explanation. Non-believers will never accept (for the most part anyway) the Judgment of God against sin. It will always seem barbaric until they come to grips with the evil in their own hearts and when that happens they will see that the judgment of God is warranted.

      • Clay, I’ve really appreciated these articles but this is the first time I’ve commented here. Though I appreciate your personal testimonies and the “common sense,” real-world results of behaviors addressed herein, what means most to me is your unflinching commitment to submitting your thoughts and ideas to what the Word says. Far from some eyes-wide-shut religious ambivalence to the facts, you take the approach early scientists took with the Word, the reality of God’s perfect order and mystery driving them (and you) to see the truth more clearly. We so seldom see, even in our churches, a commitment to submit our immediate reactions to the Word to such a crucial question: “What if my first thoughts are wrong?”

        And even if our thoughts are NOT wrong, how often we presume to know the mind of God when we’re regularly confused by the people we share life with every day!! Thank you for boldly speaking the truth and challenging me and Adrian to follow our thoughts/words to their natural conclusions. I don’t believe you were mean-spirited in your response at all, so I hope it was well-received, but I would not be surprised if that was missed. Truly, if we do not see the depths of our own sinfulness, how God sees all sin, and believe that God’s punishment of sin is just, then I do not see any reason why we SHOULDN’T rework the meaning of Jesus’ death. Might it be nothing more than social, political, or power-based in nature? I see the timeless truths of God being eroded in favor of man’s “superior intellect,” and I am determined not to go down with that ship of fools.

        • Clay Jones says:

          Thanks for the encouragement, David! We need to question our intuitions and ask ourselves what’s wrong with us that we don’t see reality as God sees it.

  3. Phil Stilwell says:

    I think I understand the basic arguments you’ve presented, but I’d like to confirm a few things.

    1. The emotional abhorance I would naturally feel when about to obey God and thrust my sword into an infant is not a reflection of a universal moral code given by the Author of Morality, but is rather an emotion that might actually get in the way of fulfilling my moral obligation to slay the baby, correct?

    2. Since it is no inherent obligation to respect human life, and morality simply boils down to following the demands of the true God, a pre-faith individual, when assessing various gods for coherency, can not determine whether any alleged action or commandment of a candidate god is immoral, correct? For example, if one candidate for a real God commands adults to throw infants off the top of mountains, this can not count against the moral coherency of such a god, correct?

    3. Since 1) God knows of any future evil within a infant, and 2) innocent infants are all granted Heaven, parents should be willing to unhesitantly kill their babies should they be certain the Lord has asked such, correct?

    • Clay Jones says:

      Hi Phil,
      1. No. People should feel an emotional abhorrence toward killing a baby. I’m sure that the Israelites felt that and they should have felt that. Conversely, I doubt that most abortion doctors today feel an emotional abhorrence when they suction, scrape, and scald to death millions of babies and it is the skeptic who is usually at the forefront of defending their right to do so even if the motive is the most banal imaginable–like sex selection. Do the skeptics who support this slaughter feel and emotional abhorrence towards it?
      2. No.
      3. No.

  4. Kristen Fulton says:

    Are you familiar with Texas Christian Universities’ Institute of Child Development and with Dr. Karyn Purvis’s extensive work children from ‘less than optimal beginnings.”

  5. “First, it is not always wrong to kill those innocent of wrongdoing.”

    The example you give appears to rest on utilitarian ethics, a weighing of the likely harm that would result in allowing the terrorists to carry out their plans against the harm of killing innocent people on the airplane. If utilitarian ethics are used to justify your claim, then doesn’t that also open the door to utilitarian justification of an abortion? and to utilitarian justification of the killing of civilians in war? and to utitlitarian justification of terrorism itself?

    “It’s true that no Scripture unambiguously guarantees that children will be saved, but if they are, God would have good reason for not unambiguously making that clear, for then abortion and infanticide would guarantee a child’s salvation! Imagine the abuses that would occur from that knowledge!”

    It looks to me like you are trying to walk on a tightrope wire here, and are in danger of falling off the rope. On the one hand, if it is rather uncertain that all children will be saved, then your justificaiton of the killing of Canaanite children will be weak and dubious. On the other hand, if it is rather certain that all children will be saved, then you will be providing a very powerful justification for abortion and infanticide and for the murder of young children.

    It is not necessary, from a utilitarian point of view, to be absolutely certain that an infant or child will go to heaven upon being killed in order to justify the killling of that infant or child. So long as there is a good chance, say one chance in ten, that the infant or child will receive eternal life in heaven, then that might well be sufficient justification for killing the infant/child. I’m thinking along the lines of Pascal’s Wager here. When there is an infinite benefit at stake, a small probablilty of acheiving the infinite benefit can provide a powerful reason for action.

    • Clay Jones says:

      No, it doesn’t open the door to abortion, Bradley. That all children might be saved is a mitigating factor, not a justification. Abortion is unjustified killing.

  6. 1) Copan and Flanigan’s airliner scenario does not really break the “crucial moral principle.” The fighter pilots and the president are not the murderers but the terrorists still are. However, the wicked Canaanite nations and the spread of their ideology threatened the world, so that they needed brought their destruction upon themselves.

    2) I agree with Copan and Flanigan that God did not command the killing of innocent children. The putting to death of every living thing was the herem ban and the killing was hyperbole meaning to drive these evil nations from the land. Likewise, Adam and Eve’s curse for their sin was eventual death but they were driven from the garden to die many years later.

    3) My concern is that we not justify that the wicked can dismember their unborn children because their ideology is evil.

    May God bless our studies.

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