apologetics, Book Reviews, The Bible, Theodicy

Genocide and the Challenge of Apologetics: Randal Rauser’s “Jesus Loves the Canaanites”

There are times we read things in the Bible and we blow past them, not registering the content as disturbing because we have absorbed some explanation for its content that automatically allows us to keep moving. Randal Rauser’s Jesus Loves the Canaanites: Biblical Genocide in the Light of Moral Intuition confronts that practice in regards to the apparently genocidal passages in the Bible. Rauser analyzes the text from the perspective of international law in regards to the definition of genocide, compares it to the modern example of a close-in genocide in Rwanda, analyzes various apologetic approaches to the text, and finally, offers his own possible reading. Fair warning to readers- because the book discusses genocide, there is frank description of brutal violence, including violence of a sexual nature, and this includes discussions related to children.

For my part, Rauser’s powerful look at international law’s definition of genocide and application of the same to the text of Scripture is one of the strongest aspects of the book. Rauser notes that genocide does not necessarily require the intent to actually kill every single person of a demographic; rather, according to the definition of genocide, it also may simply be the action of removing or changing a group to ensure that group does not exist in an area. Rauser moves from the definition of genocide to its application in modern examples, and takes a very deep look at genocide in Rwanda. The reason he uses Rwanda as an example is because much of the killing took place up close and with weapons or implements used by hand (eg. a machete). This modern example, then, is closer to what would have occurred according to a plain reading of the narratives in the Bible.

Rauser notes the intense psychological distress not just upon the ones against whom the attack came, but also upon the perpetrators. This latter point is extremely important, and not one that I personally had reflected upon much. My own training in apologetics had inoculated me somewhat against the horrors of mass killing if one takes the texts at face value, but I had never before considered the immense psychological toll the killing would take upon the killers. Of course, now that I’ve written that, it seems obvious, but think about this, as Rauser does, in terms of the text. God has a chosen people whom he commands to destroy/remove an entire people group from the land in which they’re entering. After striking down tens or hundreds of individual men, women, and children with their own hands and whatever weapons they’d have had, their bodies covered with the blood of those who cried out for mercy, but were not spared, the Israelites are expected to have blissfully settled in and happily enjoyed their time in the land without ever a thought of the cruel, inhuman violence they had carried out to get there. It’s preposterous to think that could happen, and reasonable to assume the Israelites would have had an enormous amount of PTSD, sociopathy, and other mental health problems that would arise with their own actions, let alone the continued act of dehumanization or rationalization of their activity. This would surely have had a generations-spanning impact on the psychological health of the Israelite people, and thinking that God would have seen that as worth visiting upon God’s chosen people requires serious reflection.

By the time Rauer’s intensive analysis of the violence inherent in taking the text at face value is done, it is clear Christians options are somewhat limited. Though it is possible to bite the bullet and accept the immense mental damage done to a few generations of Israelites to secure the land for God’s people, it should cause extreme discomfort to do so. Hence, Rauser turns to various apologetic attempts to explain the text.

The first few attempts essentially accept the text as it stands and try to justify the violence. Thus, apologetic approaches that see the Canaanites as irredeemably evil or corrupting in influence against the Israelites argue that they had to all be killed in order to end this potential menace to their society. Of course, such an approach runs up against the problem of mental harm to the Israelites themselves, but it also seems quite extreme. Surely the sick and dying, the children, the infants do not pose such a threat to the incoming people of God! But according to this reading, they too must die. It seems cruel at best, but illogical as well. Attempts to argue for the truth of the text as just war reasoning also appear to fail. Readings of the text that see it as hyperbolic are somewhat less problematic, but Rauser points out that even most of these readings require acceptance of killing of the most vulnerable people in the land.

Rauser’s ultimate approach is to see the text as something to formulate disciples who love God and neighbor. These texts, argues Ruaser, cannot be seen as straightforward narrative because “When contemporaneous documentation and archaeological evidence fomr the region do not support the claims of documents composed centuries later, the wise course is to go with the weight of documentary and archaeological evidence. And that means that we should conclude based on the evidence that the conquest of Canaan likely never occurred in the manner described” (Kindle location 4652). Though Rauser only briefly notes this documentary and archaeological evidence, this reader has read the same problem with a straightforward reading of the text elsewhere. It is worth wondering then, why the text was written. Rauser notes the difference between the intended meaning of the text and the plain sense reading of the text and argues that if we approach the text from a perspective of believers seeking wisdom, we can then see it as teaching us to love God and others.

Rauser’s approach, then, has at least some in common with the approach of Webb and Oeste in Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric? (my review here). The latter argue that the text is intended to move readers towards redemption and an ending of war, though Webb and Oeste accept much more of the narrative as written as historical reality than Rauser suggests. Rauser interacts with some other views that are somewhat similar to his own, rejecting some aspects of each. For example, his overview of Greg Boyd’s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God is largely positive, but notes that Boyd seems to fail to account for the lack of archaeological evidence in his own analysis.

What Rauser’s book does best, though, is force the problem for apologists. It is all too easy to look the other way when confronted by texts of horror in the Bible. Rauser turns a microscope on these texts and shows how they provide unique challenges for apologists. Additionally, he shows how most of the major options and explanations fail to account for the texts themselves in a satisfactory way. Much of this is through his analysis of moral intuition–we can sense when something seems off about a moral explanation. The alternative Rauser offers takes into account archaeological evidence as well as a few strands of explanatory power that have been offered through church history. Rauser’s account, I think, offers perhaps the only way to read the text faithfully while not subscribing to some kind of selective errancy.

Jesus Loves the Canaanites forces readers to look with open eyes upon the text of the Bible and think about in in far deeper ways than they may have done before. For that alone, it’s worth reading. But Rauser offers extensive interaction with and critique of apologetic methods, historical and modern, related to the biblical text. He also offers a possible solution to the text that maintains its integrity and inspiration. Much more could be said about Rauser’s various analyses of apologists, readings of the text, and own view, but this review should, hopefully, encourage others to go and read the book. It’s a must read for anyone wanting to look more deeply at these texts.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


8 thoughts on “Genocide and the Challenge of Apologetics: Randal Rauser’s “Jesus Loves the Canaanites”

  1. This is a fascinating discussion and I will have to read it in more detail later. Here’s a related question, though: Does it make things easier or harder when we take into account the fact that archaeologists by and large say the conquest of Canaan didn’t happen the way Scripture says it did? In other words, if Israel’s settling in the land didn’t involve mass destruction and genocide, why did the authors of Scripture want to remember a counterfactual version that did?

    Posted by bibliomike2020 | May 24, 2021, 9:49 AM
    • The assumption that they did want to remember is itself in question. I don’t want to commit Rauser to this view but I think it would be like someone in the future from us insisting on taking Aesop’s Fables as historical facts. If a story is something told to make a point, it’s quite possible it looks like historical narrative when it’s not. Eg. the parables.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | May 24, 2021, 1:29 PM
  2. Perhaps the real problem is the slavish devotion to the concept of inerrancy.

    Does inerrancy guarantee that:
    1-all subsequent copies of the scriptures will be identical?
    2-as was supposedly the case with Septuagint, there would be no differences between translations?
    3-all interpretations, or at least all denominational ones, would be same?

    The obvious answers to these three questions raise a fourth one: if inerrancy doesn’t do all that, what does it do for us and why do we need it? We believe that copying errors are not a problem, and we know that translations and denominational interpretations differ and we are able to cope with that.

    It is ironic that the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy was agreed to by Calvinist, Arminian and Pentecostal theologians. Their continuing differences suggest that inerrancy is not very effective in accomplishing Christian unity.

    Note that some denominations, the Catholic Church in particular, address the interpretation issue through catechisms. However the catechisms differ. An inerrant catechism to accompany inerrant scriptures could be very helpful.

    I think I have a much higher view of scriptures. I believe the content and the Holy Spirit overpower the weaknesses in the sequence of events between the original inspiration and the impact on the ultimate recipients.


    Posted by Ralph Dave Westfall | May 24, 2021, 2:13 PM
    • Yes—that’s a very fair question, isn’t it? I mean that genuinely. Is the price paid for devotion to that definition of inspiration too high a price?

      I think that even options that don’t hold to inerrancy do need to contend with this, though. For example, I’ve read just war arguments from non-inerrantists that would still run into this as a problem.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | May 24, 2021, 3:14 PM
      • I think the problem is also bound up with his views of inspiration. I think a view like his around the texts of the Bible – so many of which are fraught with the kind of violence that disturbs him – sits better with a very loose view of inspiration. For instance, instead of seeing God as an actual author, one could hold that the events recounted in the Bible are entirely authored by human beings who had real religious/spiritual experiences, even direct revelations from God, and are thus all subject to human fallibility/misinterpretation. That view is much more coherent than supposing there is a divine author of the text, who had so much involvement to be directly inspiring certain passages be written in a certain manner, providentially overseeing the compilation/redaction, etc., but somehow was not involved or interested enough to make sure that these passages which Randal thinks are obviously not the divine will, were sanctioned as such.

        Posted by Alex Dalton | August 6, 2021, 12:42 PM
  3. I am reading the book now. I think Rauser makes a good case that we should use our moral intuitions to help us interpret scripture.

    It seems to me the central question he raises and tries to address is should we bring our moral views in to shape what we hear when we listen to God’s word or should we only try to hear God’s word without bringing in our own views? Many people would say we should not let our own views of morality interfere/bias what God says. Rauser I believe presents a good case that we in fact should let our moral views effect our interpretation. Since those views are also from God who wrote his law on our heart.

    I personally was not too impressed with the discussion of definitions of genocide. Such definitions are often political and by an large unnecessary. Scripture, if read literally, has God commanding other people to kill children and infants. I do not think determining whether this or other actions fits a modern definition of “genocide” really adds much to the discussion.

    At times it is almost as though Rauser seems to be suggesting we should let politicians determine how we should read scripture. E.g., This scriptural text would violate this modern law as defined by such and such body therefore we should interpret it differently. I think it is ok to read scripture in a way that aligns with our own conscience (I think scripture actually endorses this) but I do not think we should delegate this interpretive license (so to speak) to political bodies.

    Posted by Joe | May 26, 2021, 2:31 PM
    • Hey- thanks so much for reading and stopping by. I appreciate the dialogue! I agree about some of the possible hesitancy about definitions–a fair question might be whether this can be anachronistic. For example, is it fair to judge these ancient peoples based upon a modern definition of genocide? But I don’t quite think that’s what Rauser is doing. It seems to me his discussion of the definition of genocide is more to push the point that if we were objectively looking at the events described in Deuteronomy/Joshua abstractly–that is, without knowing they were Scriptural passages–we would absolutely judge it to be genocide. And I think that should have some pretty strong force in how we read the text.

      I almost wish he’d spent more time on the archaeological aspect, because I’ve read some on this independently. I’m definitely not an expert in ANE history, so please take this as a comment as an interested reader, not an expert. That said, a book like “Ancient Conquest Accounts” by K. Lawson Younger, Jr. shows that at least some of the battle description there seems to match geographical features and how battles were waged in the area. But that only shows maybe one or two battles, and doesn’t suggest the scale the Bible would show on an absolutely straightforward reading. Otherwise there’s almost no evidence, so far as I’m aware, of actual destruction layers at the right time, nor of other accounts of such total devastation. Indeed, the Bible itself speaks of the total destruction but immediately follows it up with passages about those same people cohabiting with the Israelites. At best, I believe that we must be very cautious about any literal reading as rote history of these texts. Here I think Rauser is spot-on.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | May 26, 2021, 2:43 PM
  4. The only response to charges of genocide apologists for the ‘historical’ reading of Joshus can give are that ‘technically, it’s ethnic cleansing, not genocide,’ which offers no help at all.

    Posted by oron61 | December 10, 2021, 1:21 PM

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