SJ Thomason Gets It Wrong (As Usual)

Last year I posted a seven-part series refuting a blog post pop-apologist SJ Thomason had written on how the Bible demonstrates God keeps his promises. It became readily apparent by the only comment she made on the series that she had not read them because, as she is wont to do, Thomason doubled down on her claims. Thomason’s mangling of biblical texts and biblical history is at the same time both comical and disconcerting. Comical because it is always amusing to watch someone squirm in defense of inerrancy; disconcerting because people actually believe what she writes. And Thomason’s most recent debacle – “Divine Genocide or Capital Punishment?” – is a prime example of Thomason’s tendencies to plagiarize, quotemine, and misunderstand not only biblical texts but also biblical history. Consequently, Thomason ends up defending the indefensible.

Defining Terms and Bringing Charges

Thomason opens up her piece by writing,

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.

At the outset she tells us the post’s purpose: to “identify the moral depravity of the Canaanites to demonstrate why God’s justice was required.” God’s call for the annihilation of the Canaanites was “capital punishment” for their “egregious behavior.” With regard to their “abominable sins” she cites two passages: Genesis 15:15-16 and Deuteronomy 7:2-5. It would be tempting to look at the both passages in detail but I will relegate that discussion to an endnote.1

Thomason continues.

The Canaanites lived in Canaan, which is located in present-day Lebanon and Israel and parts of Syria and Jordan. Canaanites include the following groups: the Hivites, Girgashites, Jebusites, Hittites, Amorites, and Perizzites (Judges 1:9-10). They were a wicked, detestable group of people who were known for their idolatry (Deuteronomy 4:28), incest, prostitution, immoral sex, child sacrifice, adultery, and bestiality.

In a mixed-bag of a paragraph, Thomason defines terms and brings charges. She is obviously correct that the Canaanites lived in Canaan and that the group known as the Canaanites includes the groups she mentioned. (However, Judges 1:9-10 does not list those groups so it is unclear to me why she included it.) Two things should be noted: first, the geographic area referred to as ancient Canaan is part of the southern Levant, a term scholars use from time-to-time to refer to the region; second, in some biblical texts “the Canaanites” is a collective term for all the groups Thomason has listed (see Exodus 13:11) while in others it refers specifically to a group that lived on the coast of the Mediterranean (Numbers 13:29, Deuteronomy 1:7, Joshua 5:1) that is one of the “nations” in the region (Deuteronomy 7:1; Joshua 3:10, 24:11). Thomason uses the term in the first sense and I will follow suit.

She lays out the charges that warranted the capital punishment God commanded. The Canaanites were guilty of:

  • idolatry
  • incest
  • prostitution
  • immoral sex
  • child sacrifice
  • adultery
  • bestiality.

This is an interesting list for a few of reasons. First, the order of crimes seems very close to the list provided by Clay Jones in his article “Killing the Canaanites: A Response to the New Atheism’s “Divine Genocide Claims,” a piece Thomason quotes from and includes her references. There he wrote,

The “new atheists” call God’s commands to kill the Canaanites “genocide,” but a closer look at the horror of the Canaanites’ sinfulness, exhibited in rampant idolatry, incest, adultery, child sacrifice, homosexuality, and bestiality reveals that God’s reason for commanding their death was not genocide but capital punishment.2

It is obvious that Thomason followed Jones’ general pattern but her unoriginality is not all that surprising or concerning. What is interesting is that she has clearly taken the list of crimes laid out by Jones and made a few adjustments for her own piece. For example, for some reason she has inserted prostitution into the mix,3 moved adultery to the spot after child sacrifice, and altered Jones’ “homosexuality” to “immoral sex,” perhaps in a bid to avoid the uncomfortable conversations with those atheists and skeptics who would take issue with listing homosexuality as a sin worthy of nation-wide “capital punishment.”4

There is another reason that this list is so interesting. Of all the sins listed, the only one for which she provides a textual warrant for including is idolatry, and the text she provides is Deuteronomy 4:28 – “There you will serve other gods made by human hands, objects of wood and stone that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell.” This is where Thomason’s frequent misunderstanding of biblical texts comes into play. She seems to think the “there” in the verse is the land of Canaan. But if that is the case, to whom does the pronoun “you” refer? An examination of the context makes it quite clear that the “you” is Israel and the “there” are the lands to which Israel will be carried away should they fail to keep covenant with Yahweh and worship him alone. Specifically, the passage is referring to either the Assyrian captivity, the Babylonian captivity, or both. As punishment for their failure to keep covenant in the land of Canaan, the Israelites would end up in lands serving gods with no power whatsoever.

But I strongly suspect that the reason she included Deuteronomy 4:28 in her list was not based upon her own fastidious examination of the biblical text but because for the first few sections of her piece she depends heavily on the aforementioned piece by Clay Jones. In his subsection on Canaanite idolatry he writes,

The Canaanites worshiped other gods, which the Old Testament frequently denounced as no more than sticks or pottery made by human hands that could not “see or hear or eat or smell” (Deut 4:28 NIV).5

It is very likely that Thomason saw the biblical citation in Jones, assumed that the passage was about Canaanite idolatry, and inserted it into her own post. Perhaps someone should tell her that copy-and-paste is not a reliable way to conduct research.

One final reason that this list of Canaanite crimes that Thomason provides is so interesting is that of all of them the only one for which the Canaanites are explicitly judged for in the Old Testament is idolatry! For example, once the Israelites entered the land of Canaan they were to destroy the idols of the inhabitants and the pillars (i.e. steles) erected to them (Exodus 23:23-24; see also Exodus 34:11-16, Deuteronomy 7:1-6, Deuteronomy 20:17-18). We don’t see incest, prostitution, “immoral sex” or homosexuality, child sacrifice, adultery, or bestiality as the reason God calls for the destruction of the Canaanites. It is all about idolatry.6

Conflation, Confusion, and Child Sacrifice

Thomason writes,

Clay Jones (2010) states, “Molech (King Baal)* 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.’” Tradition indicates that mothers were instructed to dance and sing while their infants were being burned, because if they wept or showed their pain, the sacrifice was deemed invalid . Archaeologists have found children’s bodies in stone pillars, jars, home frames, drains, and sewers (c.f., Stager, 1991).

There are a number of things wrong with this paragraph. Let’s begin with her citation of Jones’ piece. Here are his original words in the subsection on child sacrifice:

Molech was a Canaanite underworld deity 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.7

A quick glance makes it readily apparent that Jones never included the parenthetical “King Baal” to qualify “Molech.” This has been inserted by Thomason and in an improper way. In normal writing, if one wanted to assert as Thomason did that Molech and Baal were interchangeable they would write, “Molech [King Baal] was…” or “Molech [i.e. King Baal] was….” What Thomason has done is misleading if for no other reason than Jones never in his entire article equated Molech with Baal and for good reason.

In the Canaanite pantheon Baal was a storm deity, the one who brought rains to the crops of farmers. Following his victory over Tamm, the god of the sea, Baal is given the epithet “Rider on the Clouds” (Baal Cycle, 2.4.29-30; cf. Psalm 104:3-4).8 Molech, from what little we know of him, was as Jones stated an underworld deity. These are two different domains and so equating the two is out-of-place. It would be similar to equating Zeus and Hades, two different deities of two different domains in Greek mythology. Furthermore, nowhere in the Old Testament do biblical writers equate the two.It is clear that equating the two deities serves Thomason’s polemic but what isn’t clear to me is whether she does this in an intentionally deceptive way or out of ignorance. Either reason is unacceptable.

We read the following description of Molech in Jones, from whom Thomason quotes:

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.10

It isn’t clear from where Jones was getting this information as there is no citation provided. Over on his website, Jones attributes this information to John Day’s book Molech: A God of Human Sacrifice in the Old Testament.11 The medieval Jewish scholar Rashi wrote about Molech while commenting on Jeremiah 7:31,12

That is Molech, which was of copper, and they would heat it up from underneath it with its hands spread out and heated. And they would place the child on his hands, and he would be burnt and moan, and the priests would beat drums so that the father should not hear his son’s voice and take pity. It is called Topheth because of the drum (תּוף), Hinnom because of the child’s moaning (נהמת).   

Rashi does not divulge his sources for the description but it no doubt was based at least in part on the practices of the Carthaginians. In fact, almost this entire paragraph from Thomason is only directly applicable to the practices of the Carthaginians. Let me explain.

First, Jones claimed that the age range of children sacrificed to Molech included infants through to children of four years of age. To support this claim he cites Shelby Brown’s monograph Late Carthaginian Child Sacrifice and Sacrificial Monuments in their Mediterranean Context (Sheffield Academic Press, 1991). But why is Jones quoting from a work that is explicitly focused child sacrifice in the Carthaginian context? This is Brown in context:

Among urban Mediterranean peoples, the ritual of child sacrifice was confined to the Phoenicians. At Carthage and other Phoenician sites, children up to four years of age were killed in the name of the gods and buried in cemeteries also containing animals sometimes killed as substitutes for them….Carthage provides the best evidence for the nature and practice of this rite and its importance to Phoenician religion.13

Brown makes it clear that the specific time period he is investigating is between 400-146 BCE.14 So not only is this speaking of the wrong geographic area but also the wrong time period since the Conquest of Canaan purportedly took place either during or after the thirteenth century BCE. This is an example of quotemining engaged in by Jones which Thomason falls for completely.

Second, Jones also quotes from the third century Greek historian Cleitarchus (i.e. Kleitarchos):

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.’15

But this gruesome description is not about sacrifices to the deity Molech but rather to the Greek deity Chronos (i.e. Kronos). Here is the context of Cleitarchus’ words:

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. Thus it is that the ‘grin’ is known as ‘sardonic laughter,’ since they die laughing.16

So this description is concerning the wrong deity in the wrong time period and, as it took place in Carthage, the wrong city. Yet again, the quotemining of Jones has duped the less than scrupulous Thomason.

The pop-apologist then makes an interesting claim that “mothers were instructed to dance and sing while their infants were being burned, because if they wept or showed their pain, the sacrifice was deemed invalid.” For this she offers no citation and thus it can be dismissed out of hand. I did a brief search to see if I could come up with any evidence but was not successful.

429px-Foster_Bible_Pictures_0074-1_Offering_to_Molech
An image of sacrifice to Molech from the 1897 work Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster.

Following that unsupported claim, Thomason then writes, “Archaeologists have found children’s bodies in stone pillars, jars, home frames, drains, and sewers (c.f., Stager, 1991).” As a citation she offers a 1991 article found in Biblical Archaeological Review by Lawrence Stager entitled “Eroticism and Infanticide at Ashkelon.”17 But nowhere in Stager’s piece does he suggest that the bodies of children found in sewers, etc. are related to child sacrifice. Rather, in context Stager is dealing with findings of bodies in the Greco-Roman era and they are likely examples of children discarded for being the wrong sex or for being malformed. For example, Stager quotes from a letter written by a man named Hilarion to his wife Alis.

Know that I am still in Alexandria. And do not worry if they all come back and I remain in Alexandria. I ask and beg you to take good care of our baby son, and as soon as I receive payment I will send it up to you. If you are delivered of child [before I get home], if it is a boy keep it, if a girl discard it. You have sent me word, ‘Don’t forget me.’ How can I forget you. I beg you not to worry.

But again, this isn’t child sacrifice to Molech or to any deity. It is related to a cultural preference for males over females. This is an example not simply of quotemining but of misrepresenting the work of scholars, something she has castigated others for on Twitter.

Thomason continues.

Present-day scholars have supported the conclusion that child sacrifices as a result of burning were prevalent during the time of the Canaanites (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.

Is that first sentence true? Have present-day scholars concluded that “child sacrifices as a result of burning were prevalent during the time of the Canaanites”?

As support for this claim Thomason refers to a mini-dissertation written by Lorraine Hallet entitled The Detrimental Influence of the Canaanite Religion on the Israelite Religion with Specific Reference to Sacrifice. However, Hallet devotes only a handful of pages to the topic of child sacrifice and even there she offers virtually nothing in terms of hard evidence to support the idea that the practice was “prevalent during the time of the Canaanites.”18 Only one specific archaeologically relevant site is mentioned and even there Hallet acknowledges that the findings are disputed. Furthermore, Hallet cites Robert Carroll concerning the Molech cult in relation to Jeremiah 7:31-32 but misses Carroll’s statement just a few sentences before:

The account of the fire cult at Tophet is not an easy unit to understand. The cult is not described but abused and condemned. There is some evidence in the ancient world for cults of human sacrifice, but it should not be assumed that the abuse of opponents necessarily is to be taken literally….Writings influenced by the Deuteronomists have a tendency to substitute abuse for argument and contempt for description. Nowhere is this tendency more at work than in the imputation to their opponents of practising child sacrifice in the valley or in the city of Jerusalem (cf. II Kings 16.3; 17.17; 21.6; II Chron. 33:6).19

In other words, this could very well be propagandistic. We will revisit this idea later.

Thomason follows this claim of “prevalence” with a statement by Henry Smith, Jr. but this too is problematic since Smith was speaking specifically of the city of Carthage. That much is clear from the quote Thomason provides. Now it is true that Smith believes that the practice of child-sacrifice originated in Canaan and followed the Phoenicians to the western Mediterranean.20 Nevertheless, Thomason hasn’t shown her work in making such a case and stating, as she does, that the “Phoenicians in Carthage were descendants of the Canaanites” doesn’t demonstrate the prevalence of child sacrifice in the Levant any more than claiming that because ancient Aztecs performed human sacrifice that those of Aztec descent today do so as well. This is a non sequitur.

Baal Worship

Thomason writes,

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).

It is certainly the case that sacrifices were made to Baal to bring in the much-needed rains for crops. The citation of 1 Kings 18:23 is awkward but she may have included it because it mentions offering a sacrifice to Baal. And it is absolutely the case that the author of Deuteronomy considers sacrificing one’s children “abhorrent” but we simply do not have any evidence that the Canaanites 1) sacrificed children to Baal or 2) sacrificed children in general. And while she cites Smith’s piece as support for the claim that the wealthy would purchase children from the poor to sacrifice in lieu of their own, Smith’s own support for that comes from the second century BCE Greek historian Plutarch and it appears Plutarch was speaking about Carthage, not Canaan, and of sacrifices to Chronos, not Baal or even Molech.21 So again, wrong deity at the wrong time and in the wrong place.

Thomason continues,

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).

For the statement “Canaanites worshipped through ritual sex,” Thomason cites Smith again. Smith in turn cites Eugene Merrill.22 Merrill, in turn, cites no one and does not offer any support for his claim.23 This sort of claim is likely dubious. K.L. Noll writes,

In an ancient agrarian society, fertility of the crops, of the flocks, and of humans were the central concerns. The gods provided reassurance for these things (as in Haggai 1:2–11). It is alleged that sacred magic was performed in some ancient societies to ensure the fertility of land and wombs. Many historians have hypothesized that women (and sometimes men) were employed at temples to perform sacred prostitution with worshipers as a way to induce the gods to have sex with one another and thus to fertilize the natural world…. Much of the evidence for this hypothesis is unconvincing. It was not uncommon among the ancients (particularly of the Greco-Roman era) to slander others with charges of base sexual practices, and if one eliminates passages of this kind, the textual evidence for ritual sex nearly vanishes, though a handful of passages from ancient Greece might remain of interest for historians of that culture…. With respect to ancient Canaan, the Ugaritic gods sometimes have sexual relations in the myths (e.g., KTU 1.4.v.38–39; 1.5.v.18–22; 1.11; 1.12; 1.23; 1.24), but none of these tales gives the impression of serving as a ritual outline for human sexual relations in a temple, and one passage unequivocally rejects any ritual that “shames” a woman, though the exact nature of the shaming is obscure (KTU 1.4.iii.15–24).24

This sort of slander is not surprising as the Bible itself engages in it. For example, to justify the enslavement of the Canaanites under Solomon (see 1 Kings 9:20-21), a story is told in Genesis about Ham, the ancestor of the Canaanites, and his sin against his father Noah which resulted in a curse upon Ham’s son Canaan to be the “lowest of slaves” (Genesis 9:20-27). Another story involves the birth of the progenitors of the Moabites and Ammonites wherein they are the product of an incestuous relationship between Lot and his two daughters (Genesis 19:30-38). These are examples of etiological propaganda against Israel’s foes wherein the message is essentially, “See! These people have it coming to them!” Yet neither the story of the curse on Canaan or the origin of the Moabites and Ammonites has an real historical traction. It seems like that this is also the case of the sex cult of Baal.

Thomason’s lengthy quoting of Ray Vander Laan is not convincing either if for no other reason than Vander Laan offers no citations to support his work. But in reading Vander Laan I did come across something interesting.

Thomason

Vander Laan

 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).  At times of crisis, Baal’s followers sacrificed their children, apparently the firstborn of the community, to gain personal prosperity. The Bible called this practice “detestable” (Deut. 12:31, 18:9-10).25

The quote from Thomason occurs in the paragraph before her lengthy quote from Vander Laan. The only attribution given is a cross reference to Smith’s essay mentioned above. The similarity between the Thomason quote and the Vander Laan is not accidental. This appears to be plagiarism.

Thomason continues.

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).

The story of Baal copulating with a heifer is as mysterious as it is bizarre. In context, Baal has submitted to the will of the god of Death, Mot, and makes his journey to the underworld. Before he does, he mates with the heifer and she gives birth to a son. There is clearly some symbolism going on in the passage (“he lay with her seventy-seven times, she made him erect eighty-eight times,” Baal Cycle 5.5.20)26 and the choice of a heifer may have been due to the fact that Baal is sometimes depicted as having the horns of a bull.

206px-Baal_thunderbolt_Louvre_AO15775
A depiction of Baal, holding a lightning bolt, and with the horns of a bull. Circa 15th-13th centuries BCE.

Regardless, simply because Baal mated with a heifer doesn’t mean that this was taken to be a normative practice among those who worshipped him. There is a leap being made that has no evidential warrant whatsoever. Thomason has not bothered to connect the dots to show that bestiality was rampant among the Canaanites; she merely assumes it.

Under the section “Canaanite lifestyle,” all Thomason does is quote a section from Raymond Brown’s commentary on the book of Deuteronomy.

“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).

These are all claims without evidence. It is hard to imagine that any society could exist that didn’t value things like love, loyalty, peace, and security. In fact, in the Kirta epic, the king weeps because “all his offspring had perished, his line in its entirety” (Kirta, 1.1.25-26). He even begs the high god El to give him more sons:

“Why should I want silver or gleaming gold,
along with its land,
or perpetual slaves,
three horses,
chariots in a courtyard,
a slave woman’s sons?
Give me sons that I may be established,
give me a claim that I may be magnified!”
(Kirta, 1.2.1-4)27

The story is a myth but it was written by a human and it is clear that the Canaanite who composed the tale valued children. A society which didn’t would not be a society for very long.

Yahweh’s Double Standard 

Thomason writes,

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).

Thomason quotes from Deuteronomy 20 in a section on rules for warfare. In 20:10-18, Moses lays out two different sets of standards for dealing with enemy towns. For those towns that are “very far from” the Israelites (20:15), they are to offer “terms of peace” (20:10). If the town accepts the terms, the Israelites are to spare the town but the inhabitants would be forced into slavery (20:11). If the town does not accept terms, the Israelites were to lay siege to it, kill every adult male, and “take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town, all its spoil” (20:14).

But for those towns that lie in the Promised Land, the Israelites were not to “let anything that breathes remain alive” (20:16). “You shall annihilate them,” Moses says (20:17). But why? “So that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the LORD your God” (20:18). As we saw earlier, the judgment upon the Canaanites was for their idolatry. But this double standard should cause us to probe further. Why is it that the people of some towns are offered peace though they surely do not worship Yahweh while the towns of the Canaanites are not offered peace?

In Deuteronomy 20:10-11 instructions are given on conditions for sparing populations that live far away (in contrast to those who live in the land itself, who are called [toebah] in Deuteronomy 20:18), even though the people far away probably engage in the same practices as the people who are to be driven out. The distinguishing factor is geography, not behavior. If Canaanite cultic practice merits destruction on principle, it should merit destruction wherever it is practiced.28

This seems to be what lies at the heart of the command to remove the Canaanites from the land: the Canaanites were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Their crime, as it were, was simply existing. Idolatry, then, is just a cover for the true heart of the issue.

The Failure of Israel

Thomason continues.

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.

It is true that Israel failed to exterminate the Canaanites from the land. There is a sharp contrast between the ending of the book of Joshua and the beginning of the book of Judges. Before his death, Joshua tells the people,

“When you went over the Jordan and came to Jericho, the citizens of Jericho fought against you, and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I handed them over to you. I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove out before you the two kings of the Amorites; it was not by your sword or by your bow. I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant” (24:11-13).

Yet at the beginning of the book of Judges we read,

After the death of Joshua, the Israelites inquired of the LORD, “Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?” (1:1)

Throughout the rest of the chapter we read of multiple failures to rid the land of the Canaanites: Judah is unable to rid the plain of Canaanites because the enemy had “chariots of iron” (1:19); Benjamin does not rid Jerusalem of Jebusites and “so the Jebusites have lived in Jerusalem among the Benjamites to this day” (1:22); Manasseh doesn’t rid multiple cities of their inhabitants and eventually Israel “put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not in fact drive them out” (1:28); Ephraim does not expel the Canaanites in Gezer and they end up living together (1:29); Zebulun does not rid the city of Kitron or Nahalol of the Canaanites and they end up living together (1:30); Asher fails to rid Acco, Sidon, Ahlab, Achzib, Helbah, and Aphik of their inhabitants and they continue to live among the Canaanites of those cities (1:31-32); Naphtali fails to drive out the Canaanites from cities in their territory and they live among the Canaanites though they force them into labor (1:33); the Danites are not defeat the Amorites but are instead pushed back into the hill country by them so that the Amorites continued to live in the region though the tribe of Joseph forced them into labor (1:34-36).

These are two vastly different portraits of the Conquest: Joshua claims that the Canaanites were driven out of the land but the book of Judges makes it clear that it simply didn’t take place. In other words, the Conquest never happened. Unsurprisingly, this is also what the archaeological data demonstrates as well. In Joshua 12 we read of the various kings and their cities that Joshua is said to have been defeated by Joshua and the Israelites. The text tells us that “Joshua gave their land to the tribes of Israel as a possession according to their allotments” (12:7). But in city-after-city, the archaeological evidence for the time period the Conquest purportedly took place tells a different story: Jericho had a small population (if it was occupied at all), Ai was unoccupied, Jerusalem shows no signs of destruction, there is no evidence at Hebron, and so on.29 What does this mean?

Simply put, it means that the Conquest model is in all likelihood bunk. And this forces us to ask the question, If the Israelites didn’t come into the land of Canaan from outside Canaan, then from where did they originate? The evidence seems to suggest that the Israelites were already in Canaan because they were Canaanites. This shouldn’t be a surprise. The prophet Ezekiel told us this:

The word of the LORD came to me: Mortal, make known to Jerusalem her abominations, and say, Thus says the Lord GOD to Jerusalem: Your origin and your birth were in the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite, and your mother a Hittite (Ezekiel 16:1-3; cf. 16:45).

Though the picture isn’t entirely clear, it seems that following a collapse of Egyptian control over the land of Canaan and the subsequent fall of multiple city-states in the region, the people who came to be known as Israel began to emerge.

The discovery of the remains of a dense network of highland villages – all apparently established within the span of a few generations – indicated that a dramatic social transformation had taken place in the central hill country of Canaan around 1200 BCE. There was no sign of violent invasion or even the infiltration of a clearly defined ethnic group. Instead, it seemed to be a revolution in lifestyle. In the formerly sparsely populated highlands from the Judean hills in the south to the hills of Samaria in the north, far from the Canaanite cities that were in the process of collapse and disintegration, about two-hundred hilltop communities suddenly sprang up. Here were the first Israelites.30

The Israelites were not invaders who had been enslaved in Egypt for four hundred years; they were natives who had been there all along! This adds some nuance to the issue of Canaanite genocide.

Texts like those found in the Torah that command Israel to exterminate the Canaanites weren’t written during the time periods they report about. Instead, these are much later volumes that represent years and years of revisionism and seeing history through a religious interpretive lens. The closer we get to the Exilic and Post-Exilic eras, the more rigid a monotheism we encounter. So the historical texts of Israel, written late in Jewish history, reflect this. Ancient Israel, having left the land of Egypt, was to enter the land of Canaan and rid it of all the false gods. This meant the complete and utter annihilation of its inhabitants. But this isn’t what happened at all. History had been rewritten for a generation wanting to return to its land and rid it of the influences of the Assyrians and Babylonians, nations that ironically brought their own gods into the land of Yahweh.

This connects to what Thomason says next.

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).

The ominous warning from Yahweh to the people of Israel should they not rid the land of the Canaanites is this: “I will do to you as I thought to do to them” (Numbers 33:56). This is precisely what happened when the Assyrians and Babylonians came. Israel had broken covenant with Yahweh and consequently were punished for it. And it all centers around idolatry, not child sacrifice or incest or bestiality or homosexuality. It is couched in terms of false gods. And notice that the punishment is not that Yahweh would expel the Canaanites along with the Israelites from the land. Rather, it is that Yahweh would expel Israel alone! Since the Canaanites’ true crime was being in the land that belonged to Israel, the punishment for not removing them is that not even Israel would get to be in the land that belonged to them.

Thomason goes on to write,

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.

She is absolutely right on this, at least in terms of how the Bible portrays these events. For example, the Deuteronomistic Historian writes,

In his [i.e. Jehoiakim] days King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came up; Jehoiakim became his servant for three years; then he turned and rebelled against him. The LORD sent against him bands of the Chaldeans, bands of the Arameans, bands of the Moabites, and bands of the Ammonites; he sent them against Judah to destroy it, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by his servants the prophets. Surely this came upon Judah at the command of the LORD, to remove them out of his sight, for the sins of Manasseh, for all that he had committed, and also for the innocent blood that he had shed; for he filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the LORD was not willing to pardon (2 Kings 24:1-4).

The DH claimed that Manasseh

did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, following the abominable practices of the nations that the LORD drove out before the people of Israel. For he rebuilt the high places that his father Hezekiah had destroyed; he erected altars for Baal, made a sacred pole [i.e. Asherah], as King Ahab had done, worshipped all the host of heaven, and served them (2 Kings 21:2-3)

It is for these sins and more (all related to idol worship) that judgment came upon Judah and eventually Jerusalem itself. The true worship of Yahweh is paramount and idolatry is an offense so egregious that Yahweh will bring idolaters into the land to punish Israel. If that isn’t irony, I don’t know what is.

Missing the Boat

Thomason ends her piece on very shaky and peculiar grounds. She writes,

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:

https://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/Child-Sacrifice

Thank you for your time.

A few comments are in order. First, as we already saw, the Canaanites were never exterminated and according to the book of Judges they did flourish alongside the Israelites. But suppose they had not been exterminated. Didn’t Thomason cite Raymond Brown’s commentary on Deuteronomy where he claimed that Canaanite culture was “self-destructive”? If that’s the case, why wouldn’t God just wait them out? If their barbaric ways would be the cause of their demise, wouldn’t it be better to let them burn themselves down rather than march in and massacre them? At least then the charge of genocide couldn’t possibly be made against him.

Second, there is no concrete evidence child sacrifice was a common practice among the Canaanites and the connection between Carthage and Canaan is tenuous at best.

Biblical commands to perform human sacrifice, as well as prohibitions against, and accusations of, human sacrifice (such as Exod. 22.28-9 [Eng. 22.29-30]; Lev. 20:2-5; Jer 19.5; Ezek. 20:25-6) are difficult to assess in light of a complete absence of evidence for human sacrifice in Palestine during the Bronze and Iron ages….Many of the biblical accusations of human sacrifices can be viewed as hyperbole, the rhetorical flourishes of polemical diatribes. It seems that humans were victims of religious sacrifice only during warfare or similar situations (biblical herem) and such sacrifices were never associated with sin sacrifices of any kind.31

Shelby Brown, despite believing that the Carthaginian practices can be traced to “Levantine originators,” acknowledges that

There is no archaeological evidence for eastern Phoenician human sacrifice, although Egyptian reliefs of the Late Bronze Age depicting Pharaoh’s victories over Canaanite cities do show the inhabitants sacrificing children by throwing them off the city walls….By the fourth century the Levant had been so frequently invaded and culturally changed that it cannot really be considered ‘Phoenicia.’32

As indicated earlier, such charges are nothing more than smear campaigns against Israel’s enemies.

Reaching a Conclusion

So what do we make of Thomason’s piece? Here are a few takeaways.

First, trying to understand the ins-and-outs of the time period discussed isn’t easy and it takes some serious reading to get a grasp of it. Thomason’s streamlined take on the topic gets it wrong precisely because she hasn’t put in the work.

Second, quotemining is a really bad idea. We saw that she borrows heavily from authors like Clay Jones yet doesn’t bother to make sure that they are talking about what their sources are talking about (or that they even have evidence to back up their claims). This is a common pop-apologist tactic and Thomason has done it before in other posts.

Third, it is always a good idea to know what a biblical text is talking about before you throw it out as a prooftext. Thomason has a tendency to do very lazy readings of biblical texts and it shows in her exegesis (i.e. eisegesis). She lacks a fundamental understanding of the Bible and it is without excuse.

Fourth, there is nothing wrong with interrogating the Bible. As an anthology of ancient texts, it is diverse and complicated and often its authors have different views on historical events. A good student of the Bible asks the hard questions of the text in front of them and doesn’t shy away when the answers aren’t nice and neat and wrapped in a bow tie. And a good student doesn’t rush to rescue inerrancy through contrived explanations or hermeneutical gymnastics.

Finally, defending genocide as Thomason does is always a bad idea. In her case, it also reveals some hypocrisy. Let me explain.

A while back Twitter user @Elishabenabuya had written a post over his blog showing why Jesus doesn’t fit the description of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53. In his view (and mine) the Servant is the Jewish people. Thomason disagreed and in her response to his post she said this:

God has always punished sins and rewarded righteousness, so punishing the Jewish group as a whole for the sins of others is inconsistent with the scriptures (Isaiah 61:8; Deuteronomy 10:18, 32:4; Psalms 99:4, 140:12; and Proverbs 11:1).33

Here is where the hypocrisy comes in. Undoubtedly among the Canaanites there were children. Setting aside the debate over original sin, these children were not participating voluntarily in the alleged cultic practices of their parents. So if it is the case that God has always punished sins and rewarded righteousness, and if it is out-of-place for God to punish Israel for the sins of others, then it would be equally inconsistent for God to punish children for the sins of their parents. Thomason seems to be of two minds on this issue. It is telling.

———-

My post here has not done justice to the topic and invariably there are mistakes throughout. But I have tried to form some semblance of an argument against SJ Thomason and her atrocious piece on the Canaanite genocide. I hope it shows that there are those of us in the atheist and skeptic community who have a deep appreciation for the truth and a genuine love for the biblical texts even if we reject the worldviews of its authors. That is to say, it is possible to deal with the Bible in a respectful way and still not be bound to accept all that it claims.

Above all, I hope those who read this learn something about history and the Bible.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Twitter user @bibhistctxt for offering some insights into Israelite history as well as reading material on particular biblical texts. I would also like to thank Twitter user @DioCyni for tracking down some online sources I just couldn’t locate.

NOTES

1 Genesis 15:15-16 in context is part of Yahweh’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would become slaves in a foreign land (i.e. Egypt) for four hundred years. At the end of four hundred years, Yahweh would bring them out of that land after bringing judgment upon it (15:13-14). But this would not take place while Abraham was alive: he would die in peace at an old age (15:15). But his descendants would come back to the Promised Land “in the fourth generation,” a reference to the number of generations between Levi and Moses (Exodus 6:16-20). Yahweh grounds that statement with these words: “for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (15:16). To what is this referring?

The reference to the Amorites may be a synecdoche for the nations listed in 15:18-21 (Bruce Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary [Zondervan, 2001], 244). And the statement that their “iniquity…is not yet complete” may refer to when their iniquity “has reached the point of no return” which will cause them to “forfeit the land” (Victor P. Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, NICNT [William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990], 436). So in essence Yahweh tells Abraham that in the intervening four generations “the Amorites” will continue their rampant iniquity unabated and then in the fourth generation the Israelites will expel them from the land.

For an interesting alternative view on this passage, see John H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest: Covenant, Retribution, and the Fate of the Canaanites (IVP Academic, 2017), 50-63.

Clay Jones, “Killing the Canaanites: A Response to the New Atheism’s “Divine Genocide Claims,” 1. http://www.equip.org/PDF/JAF3334.pdf. Accessed 15 July 2018.

Prostitution is not named as one of the sins of the Canaanites though their idolatry is cast in those terms (Exodus 34:15-16). And while it is also the case that Israel was not to prostitute their own daughters (Leviticus 19:29) and priests were not to marry prostitutes (Leviticus 21:7, 14), it does not seem prostitution itself was prohibited. Prostitutes were second-class citizens but were accepted in Israelite society (“Issues in Jewish Ethics,” Jewish Virtual Library [https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/prostitution-2. Accessed 15 July 2018].  It is unclear to me why Thomason would include prostitution in the list and she offers no justification, biblical or otherwise.

4 Anyone who is familiar with SJ on Twitter knows she has an aversion to declaring homosexuality a sin. It seems likely to me that she changed Jones’ words to “immoral sex” in a bid to avoid the backlash she would undoubtedly have received had she kept it as it was. She also doesn’t count on people checking on her work and finding where she plagiarizes and quotemines.

5 Jones, 2.

6 Interestingly, some of the crimes listed do have punishments but only for Israel. For example, if the Israelites offer child sacrifice to Molech then the punishment is death and if the people of Israel do not execute such idolaters then Yahweh himself would come against them (see Leviticus 20:1-5).

7 Jones, 3.

8 Michael D. Coogan and Mark S. Smith, editors and translators, Stories from Ancient Canaan, second edition (Westminster John Knox, 2012), 115.

9 Thomason does include an asterisk next to “King Baal” which leads us to the following quote from the online edition of Encyclopedia Britannica.

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-god5

Unfortunately, no support is given in the entry and Thomason does not offer any biblical support either. It is an assertion without evidence, an assertion for which there is no evidence.

10 Jones, 3.

11 Clay Jones, “The Horror of Canaanite Children’s ‘Family’ Life.” http://www.clayjones.net/2015/04/canaanite-children/#footnote_4_1304. Accessed 16 July 2018.

12 https://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/16004#showrashi=true. It should be noted that Jeremiah 7 does not mention Molech and this is an inference drawn by Rashi.

13 Shelby Brown, Late Carthaginian Child Sacrifice and Sacrificial Monuments in their Mediterranean Context (Sheffield Academic Press, 1991), 14.

14 Brown, 13.

15 Jones, 3-4.

16 From Paul G. Mosca, Child Sacrifice in Canaanite and Israelite Religion. PhD thesis, Harvard, 1975, p.22; quoted in Roger Pearse, “Sacrifices of children at Carthage – the sources,” https://www.roger-pearse.com/weblog/2012/05/31/sacrifices-of-children-at-carthage-the-sources/. Accessed 16 July 2018.

17 Lawrence E. Stager, “Eroticism and Infanticide at Ashkelon,” Biblical Archaeological Review (17:04, July-August 1991). Available online at http://cojs.org/eroticism_and_infanticide_at_ashkelon-_lawrence_e-_stager-_bar_17-04-_jul-aug_1991/. Accessed 16 July 2018.

18 Lorraine Elizabeth Hallet, The Detrimental Influence of the Canaanite Religion on the Israelite Religion with Specific Reference to Sacrifice, mini-dissertation (Rand Afrikaans University, 1995), 23-25. Available at  https://ujcontent.uj.ac.za/vital/access/manager/Repository/uj:13919?f0=sm_creator%3A%22Hallett%2C+Lorraine+Elizabeth%22. Accessed 16 July 2018.

19 Robert P. Carroll, Jeremiah, The Old Testament Library Series (The Westminster Press, 1986), 222. Emphasis added.

20 For example, Smith writes,

The Carthaginian tophet and related archaeological finds in the Levant affirm the historicity of the OT passages. The OT testifies explicitly that child sacrifice was taking place in Canaan as early as the fifteenth century BC, and was continued down through several centuries by the indigenous Canaanites not driven out during the conquest, and tragically adopted by the Israelites during the Judges and Kingdom periods. The direct result was the wrathful judgment of God upon the nation of Israel. (Henry B. Smith, Jr. “Canaanite Child Sacrifice, Abortion, and the Bible,” Journal of Ministry and Theology [Summit University, 2013], 123-124.

21 Smith, 98.

22 Smith, 112.

23 Eugene Merrill, Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel (Baker Academic, 1996), 160. Smith quotes from the 2008 edition of Merrill’s work.

24 K.L. Noll, “Canaanite Religion.” https://people.brandonu.ca/nollk/canaanite-religion/. Accessed 17 July 2018.

25 Ray Vander Laan, “Fertility Cults of Canaan.”  https://www.thattheworldmayknow.com/fertility-cults-of-canaan. Accessed 17 July 2018.

26 Coogan and Smith, 143.

27 Ibid., 73-74.

28 Walton and Walton, 152-153.

29 For a list of sites and the archaeological evidence about their status at the time of Joshua, see Lawrence E. Stager, “Forging an Identity,” in Michael D. Coogan, editor, The Oxford History of the Biblical World (OUP, 1998), 98-99.

30 Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts (Touchstone, 2001), 107.

31 K.L. Noll, Canaan and Israel in Antiquity: A Textbook on History and Religion, second edition (Bloomsbury, 2013), 212, n.34.

32 Brown, 179.

33 SJ Thomason, “The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53: A Response to Elisha Ben Abuya.” https://christian-apologist.com/2018/01/19/the-suffering-servant-of-isaiah-53-a-response-to-elisha-ben-abuya/. Accessed 17 July 2018.

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