Is God any better than ISIS? The Canaanite Slaughter

One of the questions I’ve heard recently from both concerned Christians and outraged unbelievers is about what differentiates the atrocities being committed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria from the actions of the Israelites as they followed God’s commandments to destroy both the Canaanites and the Amalekites in the Old Testament. And I think this is an important, worthwhile discussion to have. Can the Christian denounce ISIS while upholding God’s judgement and remain consistent? Are the Canaanite conquest and the destruction of the Amalekites similar to the situation we see in Iraq and Syria now?

Flagof the Islamic State / Public Domain
On a surface level it’s easy to make the comparison. ISIS have shocked the world with their brutality, using violence and fear to gain control over large swathes of land, unlawfully seizing and destroying public infrastructure, slaughtering children and executing people from other religious sects. Not that I agree, but I can see how someone might find some similarities to God’s commands to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 7:1-2:
“When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.”

Clearly no Christian can be blasé about these kinds of passages. In fact the gravity of these verses has led some believers to question whether or not the writers of the Old Testament books were mistaken in recording God’s commands. From a purely New Testament view, it can be sometimes hard to reconcile our image of the merciful, forgiving Father with the almighty, fearsome judge of the Old Testament period. But I don’t think we need to give up the integrity or cohesiveness of the scriptures to develop an understanding of these issues that is theologically, morally and intellectually satisfying.

In truth it is the Canaanites who need to be compared with ISIS, not God. There are many parallels in the Canaanite culture to the terrible, depraved acts carried out by ISIS, including their despicable treatment of children, their degrading and disgusting sexual practices and their destructive influences on the societies around them. The comparison between God and ISIS can only be made if you decide to ignore the more startling analogy to the Canaanites or the Amalekites in the first place – a move which makes no logical sense and has questionable motives.

So let’s take a brief look at how the Canaanites/Amalekites and ISIS resemble each other:


Human rights observers estimate that ISIS have killed more than 10,000 people in Iraq and Syria since they first began their violent campaign to establish a global caliphate operating under Muslim Sharia Law. Their brutal methods include beheading their enemies, drowning them, burning them alive, stoning them to death and throwing them from the top of tall buildings, in addition to shooting and suicide-bomb attacks. In the past 24 hours at least 149 people have been killed in Paris as a direct result of a co-ordinated terrorist assault on innocent civilian targets, and ISIS have claimed responsibility.

Violence was also a regular part of existence in the Ancient Near East, and the Amalekites in particular were an aggressive tribe. In Exodus 17:8-15 we are told that the Amalekites attacked Israel without provocation when the Israelites had only just escaped from Egypt, despite the fact that the Israelites were more concerned with survival and finding water in the desert. The Amalekites were not a Canaanite tribe, so they knew the Israelites weren’t trying to take their lands. In all probability they were acting opportunistically, hoping to gain livestock and women from a soft, unprepared target. From Moses through to the time of Saul, Israel never once attack the Amalekites, yet they are repeatedly attacked and raided by groups of them (Numbers 14:45, Judges 3:13, Judges 6:3). We have a modern word to describe this kind of repeated, unprovoked violence perpetrated against innocent victims: terrorism.

Sexual Depravity:

Sexual immorality is another key similarity we see between ISIS and the Canaanite tribes. One particularly disturbing report I read recently described how ISIS have used captured women as young as 12 years old as sex slaves, ritualizing rape as a pathway to deeper spiritual connection to Allah. These extremists actually view rape as an act that purifies and cleanses the world. This frightening practice finds its equal in the sexual depravity of the Canaanite culture.

In Canaanite mythology, their god Ba’al is depicted engaging in incest on different occasions with his mother, his sister and his daughter. In fact one story depicts Ba’al raping his sister while she was in the form of a calf “seventy-seven, even eighty eight times,” or A LOT, as we would say. It is no stretch of the imagination to suggest that if a god they worshipped was famous for repeated incestuous rape, it was more than likely an embedded practice within their society. And this is reflected in what we know of Canaanite laws: while early Canaanite societies killed or banished those found guilty of incest, these penalties were reduced to merely a fine by the 14th century BC. Not only was incest (and therefore quite likely the molestation of children) a part of Canaanite society, but they also engaged in religious sex rituals in their temples involving multiple people and encouraged each other to practice bestiality, for which they also relaxed their laws.

Crimes Against Children:

Every parent shudders at the thought of their children falling into the hands of evil men, and ISIS are the stuff of parental nightmares. Recently ISIS were thought to have killed hundreds of Syrian children in a mass execution, while their use of child soldiers and executioners has also been well documented.  In Mosul last January they executed 13 teenage boys by firing squad for watching Iraq play Jordan in the Asian Cup football tournament,  and families were unable to collect their bodies from the public square for fear of being attacked.

The Canaanites executed children too, burning them as live offerings to Moloch or Ba’al (sometimes called Kronos), often in payment of a vow. Cleitarchus records for us: “There stands in their midst a bronze statue of Kronos, its hands extended over a bronze brazier, the flames of which engulf the child. When the flames fall upon the body, the limbs contract and the open mouth seems almost to be laughing until the contracted body slips quietly into the brazier.” We also have a reference from Plutarch, who tells us that “the whole area before the statue was filled with a loud noise of flutes and drums so that the cries of the wailing should not reach the ears of the people.” In addition to these (and other) classical sources we also have archaeological evidence, multiple inscriptions and an Egyptian depiction of the practice occurring within Syria-Palestine, so that in the words of Oxford professor John Day, “There is therefore no reason to doubt the biblical testimony to Canaanite child sacrifice.”

It would be remiss here not to mention that children were probably killed by the Israelites as part of the Canaanite conquest, and definitely killed by them in the destruction of Amalek. We must remember though that these children’s deaths came about as the consequence of their parents’ actions and choices. The children are victims, but not of the Israelites. Instead the parents and the culture must bear the blame for the deaths of their children, because it was their persistent sinful action that placed their children in the unfortunate circumstances of having a quick, merciful death by the sword or a slow, painful death left by themselves in the wilderness, as their only options. Christians certainly need to wrestle honestly with these distasteful circumstances, but we also need to keep in mind where the culpability lies.

Some Questions:

The atheist or critic however must wrestle with three questions: Firstly, can you be consistent in taking a stance against ISIS while excusing the actions of the Canaanites? If you think ISIS needs to be stopped and you support military action against them, can you then also complain about military action taken against similar threats to humanity, safety and decency by the Israelites at God’s command?

Secondly can you be consistent if you find the execution of Canaanite children by the Israelites immoral, but you yourself are pro-abortion? If you can conceive of one set of circumstances under which it is permissible to terminate a young human life, why decry another? While the clever respondent may try to flip this problem back onto the Christian, it doesn't really work: Unborn babies will usually arrive in the world with parents or at the very least adults to look after them and a blank development slate, while the Amalekite/Canaanite children had no caregivers, no resources for survival and were undoubtedly damaged from the harsh, debauched lives of their communities. The other major difference is that the killing of children in the Old Testament happened in extremely unique circumstances and was never going to be a part of everyday existence, unlike abortion, which some people want to embed into society as a normal practice. If you’re one of those people, but you take exception to the events in the Old Testament, you have an inconsistency to resolve.

Finally the biggie: Can you consistently attempt to use evil as a proof God doesn't exist, but then condemn him when he acts against evil? One of the most common objections to the existence of God is that evil exists in the world, and a good God wouldn't permit evil like ISIS to exist. “Where is your God? He should do something to clean up this mess!” But when God cleans house in the Old Testament, he’s a genocidal maniac according the very same voices that want to use evil to disprove his existence.  

There is a ton more to say on this topic, but rather than read it from me, I invite you to get a more thorough treatment of the Canaanites by reading Dr. Clay Jones’ scholarly work entitled “We Don’t Hate Sin So We Don’t Understand What Happened to the Canaanites” (PDF) along with this in-depth Glenn Miller article on the Amalekites. 
Is God any better than ISIS? The Canaanite Slaughter Is God any better than ISIS? The Canaanite Slaughter Reviewed by Nathan on 12:36 AM Rating: 5

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