Atheists have often expressed their outrage at what they consider to be acts of “divine genocide” in the Old Testament. Yet when one considers the egregious behavior of the cultures God wanted to be destroyed, it becomes clear that God’s actions were capital punishments instead for abominable sins (Genesis 15:15-16; Deuteronomy 7:2-5). Accordingly, this blog will identify the moral depravity of the Canaanites to demonstrate why God’s justice was required.
The Canaanites lived in Canaan, which is located in present-day Lebanon and Israel and parts of Syria and Jordan. Canaanites (descendants of Canaan; Genesis 10:15-18) include the following groups: the Hivites, Girgashites, Jebusites, Hittites, Amorites, and Perizzites (Deuteronomy 7:1; 20:17). They were a wicked, detestable group of people who were known for their child sacrifice (e.g., Leviticus 20:1-27; Deuteronomy 12:31; 18:10-13; Jeremiah 7:31; 19:5; 19:46; 32:25), idolatry (Deuteronomy 4:28), incest (Leviticus 18), prostitution (1 Kings 14:23-24), immoral sex (Leviticus 18), adultery (Leviticus 18; Numbers 25:1-4), and bestiality (Leviticus 18).
Clay Jones (2010) states, “Molech* was a Canaanite underworld deity (Day, 1989) represented as an upright, bullheaded idol with a human body in whose belly a fire was stoked and in whose outstretched arms a child was placed that would be burned to death. The victims were not only infants; children as old as four were sacrificed (Brown, 1991). Kleitarchos reported that ‘as the flame burning the child surrounded the body, the limbs would shrivel up and the mouth would appear to grin as if laughing, until it was shrunk enough to slip into the cauldron.’”
The Greek first and second century author Plutarch stated “the whole area before the statue was filled with the loud noise of flutes and drums so that the cries of wailing should not reach the ears of the people” (in White, 2012). Archaeologists have found children’s bodies in stone pillars, jars, home frames, drains, and sewers (c.f., Stager, 1991).
Present-day scholars have supported the conclusion that child sacrifices as a result of burning were prevalent in the ancient near east (c.f., Hallett, 1995). As indicated by Smith (2013, p. 110) “There is always a degree of uncertainty involving such scientific studies, especially since the human remains were subjected to intense heat and are thousands of years old. Nonetheless, when scholars consider the totality of all the evidence, the sacrificial interpretation of the anthropological remains at Carthage has a far greater likelihood of being correct.” The Phoenicians in Carthage were descendants of the Canaanites.
“In I Kings 11:7, Molech is identified as ‘the detestable god of the Ammonites’ and recent archeological evidence in the former territory of the Ammonites from the period of the Conquest supports biblical testimony that child sacrifice was practiced in Jordan roughly contemporarily with Moses. (Wenham, 1979). The Hebrew word Molech is the same Semitic root as the Punic word mulk which was found inscribed on several burial monuments at Carthage giving linguistic evidence for the continuity between the practice of child sacrifice in Canaan and at Carthage. But whereas at Carthage the word refers to the sacrificial offerings including human sacrifice, in Leviticus it refers to the god who demands child sacrifice. The ‘passing through’ refers to sacrificing by burning in a fire. For this ‘passing through to Molech’ (same Hebrew words in Leviticus and Jeremiah) took place later in Israel’s history in the region of the high places of Ba’al in the Valley of Ben Hinnom in Jeremiah 32:35. This murderous scene was described by the Lord through the mouth of Jeremiah in earlier chapters” (White, 2012).**
To appease Baal and for the benefit of receiving good crops and personal prosperity, they sacrificed animals (1 Kings 18:23). In times of crisis, they sacrificed their children, usually the first born son, which the Bible calls “detestable” (Deuteronomy 12:31; 18-9-10; c.f., Smith, 2013). Sometimes the wealthy would purchase children from poor people, sacrificing them in an attempt to fool the gods, yet if their crops remained poor, they would sacrifice their own children (Smith, 2013).
Canaanites worshipped through ritual sex (c.f., Smith, 2013). They would reenact sex between Baal with his sister/mother/sexual partner Asherah. “Pagans practiced ‘sympathetic magic,’ that is, they believed they could influence the gods’ actions by performing the behavior they wished the gods to demonstrate. Believing the sexual union of Baal and Asherah produced fertility, their worshippers engaged in immoral sex to cause the gods to join together, ensuring good harvests. This practice became the basis for religious prostitution (1 Kings 14:23-24). The priest or a male member of the community represented Baal. The priestess or a female member of the community represented Asherah. In this way, God’s incredible gift of sexuality was perverted to the most obscene public prostitution.” (Vander Laan, 2018).
The Canaanite gods were incestuous, adulterous, and endorsed the morally obscene practice of bestiality. A Canaanite epic poem depicts the latter: “Mightiest Baal hears / He makes love with a heifer in the outback / A cow in the field of Death’s Realm. / He lies with her seventy times seven / Mounts eighty times eight / [She conceiv]es and bears a boy” (Smith, 1997).
“Canaanite worship was socially destructive. Its religious acts were pornographic and sick, seriously damaging to children, creating early impressions of deities with no interest in moral behavior. It tried to dignify, through the use of religious labels, depraved acts of bestiality and corruption. It had a low estimate of human life. It suggested that anything was permissible, promiscuity, murder or anything else, in order to guarantee a good crop at harvest. It ignored the highest values of the wider community – love, loyalty, purity, peace and security – and encouraged the view that all these things were inferior to material prosperity, physical satisfaction, and human pleasure. A society where those things matter is most self-destructive” (Brown, 1993).
Canaan was the “promised land” and during the exodus from Egypt, God called on the Israelites to overtake the Canaanites. “Only in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them: the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 20:16–18).
The Israelites failed in this regard and exactly what God predicted occurred (Judges 2:1-3; 1 Kings 11:5; 14:24; 2 Kings 16:3-4). God did not order the Canaanites to be exterminated as an act of cruelty. Rather, he ordered extermination to prevent greater evil in the future.
God wanted to separate the chosen people from the Canaanites so that they would not be corrupted by them. Yet, despite God’s warnings to the Israelites that he would “vomit” them out just as he vomited the Canaanites out (Numbers 33:56; Leviticus 18:28; Deuteronomy 4:23-29; 8: 19-20) if they worshipped the Canaanite gods, as time passed the Israelites could not resist. They committed evil acts (Judges 10:6; 1 Kings 14:22; 2 Kings 17:10) and acts of lewdness, incest and adultery (Jeremiah 5:7; 29:23; Hosea 4:13–14; Ezekiel 22:10–11; Amos 2:7). They also had male shrine prostitutes (1 Kings 14:22) and they worshipped idols. Solomon set up an altar to the god Molech (1 Kings 11:5, 7-8).
So the Lord said that Israel was “like Sodom to me” (Jeremiah 23:14), and he allowed the Assyrian king to kill or deport most of those residing in the northern Israel in 722 BC and Nebuchadnezzar to do the same in 586 BC in the south (Judah). God had told Jeremiah that he wouldn’t destroy Jerusalem if he could even find one righteous person (Jeremiah 5:1), but apparently he found none.
So, when atheists like Richard Dawkins claim God committed “divine genocide,” we should remind them that God knows what is best for us. Had the Canaanites (or those in Sodom and Gomorrah) flourished, we would be in a much different world today.
God’s disgust with child sacrifices has been made clear in dozens of Bible verses. See here:
Thank you for your time.
* “Moloch, also spelled Molech, a Canaanite deity associated in biblical sources with the practice of child sacrifice. The name derives from combining the consonants of the Hebrew melech (“king”) with the vowels of boshet (“shame”), the latter often being used in the Old Testament as a variant name for the popular god Baal (“Lord”).” Source: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Moloch-ancient-god
** Footnotes from the White (2012) passage:
Wenham, G.J., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament-The Book of Leviticus, 1979, p. 259. There are text critical problems with I Kings 11:7. It may be that Milcum should be substituted for Molech in this verse (see I Kings 11:5, 33 in Hebrew)
Some scholars suggest that some uses of Molech in the Old Testament may have originally been used to refer to the live sacrificial offerings like Punic mulk. e.g., Mosca, P.G., op. cit., for summary see conclusions of chapter two and three.
Some scholars unconvincingly suggest that the “passing throught to Molech” was a ritual “passing through” without active sacrifice. e.g., Snaith, N.H., “The Cult of Molech,” Vetus Testamentum, 1966, vol. 16, pp. 123, 124. For the best refutation of this view see: Mosca, P.G., op. cit., esp. p. 152; also see the Jeremiah passages quoted in this article.
Click here for a very well-developed article by Paul Copans on the same topic: http://www.epsociety.org/library/articles.asp?pid=63
Brown, Raymond (1993). The Message of Deuteronomy: Not by Bread Alone. The Bible Speaks Today. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press.
Brown, Shelby (1991). Late Carthaginian Child Sacrifice and Sacrificial Monuments in Their Mediterranean Context, Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic, 14.
Day, John (1989) Molech: A God of Human Sacrifice in the Old Testament, Cambridge: Cambridge University, 62.
Hallett, L.E. (1995) The Detrimental Influence of the Canaanite Religion on the Israelite Religion with Specific Reference to Sacrifice. University of Johannesburg mini-dissertation.
Jones, Clay (2010). Killing the Canaanites. Christian Research Journal, 33, 4. Accessed 6/24/18 at: http://www.equip.org/PDF/JAF3334.pdf
Kleitarchos, Scholia on Plato’s Republic 337A as quoted in Day, 87.
Plutarch, De superstitione 171, The Loeb Classical Library. In White, A. (2012). Abortion and the ancient practice of child sacrifice. http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2012/01/05/Abortion-and-the-Ancient-Practice-of-Child-Sacrifice.aspx
Smith, Mark S., (1997). trans. Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, ed. Simon B. Parker, Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 148.
Smith, H.B. Jr. (2013). Canaanite Child Sacrifice, Abortion, and the Bible. Journal of Ministry and Theology, 90-125.
Stager, L.A. (1991). Eroticism and infanticide at Ashkelon. BAR 17, 4. July/August.
Vander Laan, Ray, (2018). https://www.thattheworldmayknow.com/fertility-cults-of-canaan
White, A. (2012). Abortion and the ancient practice of child sacrifice. http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2012/01/05/Abortion-and-the-Ancient-Practice-of-Child-Sacrifice.aspx