Were the Canaanites Morally Liable?

10 Jan

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Some Biblical critics argue that the Canaanites cannot be held morally accountable for their evil deeds, because they were only doing what their ancestors had done in a socially accepted religion as far back as memory served them.[1] Did they know any better? If one isn’t taught right from wrong, how can we hold them accountable for their deeds? If God had sent in prophets to warn his people of impending national disaster before they were carried away into captivity, why didn’t he do something similar for the Canaanites?

The problem with this argument is that it presumes the worst about God without knowing he didn’t do exactly that. For example, most nations have early traditions of the Noahic Flood, the ancestors of the Canaanites had Abraham’s example and the example of Sodom and Gomorrah (cf. 2Peter 2:5-9). Yet, they continued in their unrighteous behavior.

Moreover, man is not as innocent as these Biblical critics want to admit. History shows us that the gentile religions were able to improve their understanding of what is morally just. They made improvements in their religious beliefs, as is seen in ancient Hittite laws. Although capital crimes might be punishable by mutilation or fines, at least they didn’t carry the death penalty. The Code of Hammurabi demanded the death penalty for harboring runaway slaves, but the Hittites improved upon such illegal events by demanding a fine instead. So, unless we want to argue that the Canaanites were somehow mentally inferior to the Hittites, we must conclude that they were able to determine right from wrong. Nevertheless, rather than improving their behavior, they suppressed their consciences and did what was convenient or profitable for themselves.

The Scriptures show us in Amos chapters 1 and 2 that God judged the nations because of their lack of compassion for the weak and vulnerable. They betrayed confidences and turned the refugees over to their enemies (Amos 1:6). They tore up the wombs of women (Amos 1:13), and gave themselves over to wrath without pity (Amos 1:11). Paul tells us that it doesn’t take a special revelation from God to understand what is morally good and evil:

Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: (Romans 1:19-20 KJV)

Moreover, it doesn’t take a believer in God to recognize moral issues as atheist and philosopher, Kai Nielsen, shows:

It is more reasonable to believe such elemental things [as wife beating and child abuse] to be evil than to believe any skeptical theory that tells us we cannot know or reasonably believe any of these things to be evil… I firmly believe that this is bedrock and right and anyone who does not believe it cannot have probed deeply enough into the grounds of his moral beliefs.[2]

The Scriptures show that Rahab (Joshua 2) lived among the Canaanites, yet she was able to see beyond her traditions to understand that the God of Israel had revealed his greatness through the astonishing signs and wonders in Egypt and even later in the wilderness. She risked her own life to befriend two of God’s people and asked God to show his mercy through them to her and her family. So, even when evil cultural traditions go as far back as memory can perceive, right behavior is still attainable and recognizable in one’s conscience.


[1] As I said HERE, this current theme about “making sense of the Old Testament God” is based upon the book: Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan. These are my thoughts about his book. He may or may not agree with the impression his book has made upon me, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading what Paul wrote and recommend his book to anyone who is looking for a good read concerning defending our faith.

[2] Kai Nielsen, Ethics without God, rev. ed. (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1990), 10-11.

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