Does the Canaanite Conquest Justify Abortion?

/ Commentary

By Chris Christiansen

I still remember the day I was at an atheist group talking to a man who I’ll call Fred. He claimed Christian have only began denouncing abortion in the last century. When I said it was something Christianity has always been against, he said that I was ignorant of history. I decided to do some fact checking. I Googled “Christian writings on abortion.” One of the first documents which came up was the Didache, a Christian writing from the first century. It said quite plainly, “do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn infant.” (Didache, 2) It seemed clear that from very early on, Christianity had texts supporting an anti-abortion sentiment.

But can the Bible also be used to justify the pro-choice side of the abortion debate? Many of my atheist friends would say yes. One example they point to is the Canaanite conquest. Israel was about to go into the Promised Land and take it by military might. God’s marching orders to the soldiers was “But as for the towns of these people that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive.” (Deuteronomy 20:16) Surely this would include not just the men in the town, but women, children, and the unborn babies inside pregnant women. Brian Bolton of The Freedom from Religion Foundation says on their website,

“The critical feature of these horrific events is that all people were exterminated. Whenever entire communities were massacred, we can be sure that pregnant mothers-to-be and their unborn children were among the victims. Moreover, there are no stated exemptions for this specific segment of the population.” [1]

What they seem to be pointing out is that the Bible explicitly contradicts the pro-life position.

The point of this article then is to answer two questions. First, it will discuss whether the conquest of Canaan contradicts the pro-life position. Second, it will investigate whether the conquest supports the pro-abortion position. The answer to both questions will be no. For that reason, the Canaanite conquest does not justify abortion. To begin, I must first lay out what exactly the pro-life position is.

What is the Pro Life Position?

Francis J. Beckwith puts the pro-life position in a succinct form:

1.  The unborn entity, from the moment of conception, is a full-fledged member of the human community.

2.  It is prima facie morally wrong to kill any member of that community.

3.  Every successful abortion kills an unborn entity, a full-fledged member of the human community.

4.  Therefore, every successful abortion is prima facie morally wrong.[2]

While pro-choicers usually contest the first point, they seem to be granting it in this argument. What they are saying then is that, at least in the case of the Canaanites, it did not matter that they were full-fledged members of the human community. God had them killed anyway.

Where we need to engage them then is on point two. Prima facie means that something is accepted as correct until proven otherwise. This leaves the door open to the point that sometimes, there could be morally justifiable reasons for taking a human life. That is what Christians believe to be the case in the Canaanite conquest.

Why do the Canaanites Draw the Short Straw?

The conquest of Canaan was the judgment of God against an incredibly wicked people group. (Deut. 9:4-5) Paul Copan explains that

“In the case of the Canaanites, the Canaanites’ moral apples didn’t fall far from the tree of their pantheon of immoral gods and goddesses. So, if the Canaanite deities engaged in incest, then it’s not surprising that incest wasn’t treated as a serious moral wrong among the Canaanite people. As we’ve seen, adultery (temple sex), and child sacrifice were also permitted. (Leviticus 18:20-30)” [3]

God was having them wiped from the land as a judgment against them for their wickedness. As Christians, we believe God is right in doing this. If he didn’t judge wickedness, he wouldn’t be a just judge. This then is a case where it was not wrong to kill members of the human community. Does this justify Bolton and his pro-choice position though? No, for a couple reasons.

Is Pregnancy an Evil that warrants the Death of a Fetus?

The question of the title is what pro-choicers would have to answer in order to prove that pro-lifers are being inconsistent. Unfortunately, Bolton’s article does not go that in depth into the issue. Maybe we can enlist another pro-choicer. I had the pleasure of debating Valerie Tarico earlier this year. One of the points that she brought up was that “I’m pro-abortion because intentional childbearing helps couples, families, and communities to get out of poverty.” [4] Here, the resulting poverty caused by the unwanted baby is the evil that is being stopped by the abortion. This has a lot of emotional punch. But the reasoning falls apart when we ask ourselves a simple question: Would a mother be justified in killing a toddler in order to get out of poverty? If your answer is horror and a resounding “No!” then I would invite you to ask yourself why you think it is okay in the case of the unborn.

In most of the scenarios pro-choicers bring up, simply asking that question is enough to show the absurdity of the suggestion. (Rape and health of the mother are two examples of tougher scenarios; I will address those in the section on whether this Bible story justifies abortion.) Another point that should be brought up is that recent scholarship on the book of Joshua shows that a full-scale extermination might not be what God ordered at all.

Hyperbole in Joshua and the Ancient Near East (ANE)

There are three reasons for thinking that God did not order the full-scale extermination of men, women, and children. First, the Bible itself indicates not everyone was killed. I won’t deny that Joshua 10:40 sounds pretty thorough. It says,

“So Joshua defeated the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings; he left no one remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed as the Lord God of Israel commanded.”

The book of Judges is linked literarily to Joshua and shows we should not take this description literally. In Judges 2:3 we read, “So now I say I will not drive them out before you; but they shall become adversaries to you, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” Here, there are still people left over to be snares to the Israelites, even though Joshua had supposedly destroyed them all. Thus the text of Joshua seems to have exaggerated their victory. God’s commands use the same types of expressions, such as “utterly destroyed,” and “leave no one alive.” Because of this similarity it seems  reasonable to think he too was just using hyperbole saying to utterly defeat them.

The second reason for thinking that the extermination was not literal is textual evidence that archaeology has uncovered from surrounding Ancient Near Eastern Nations. Scholars of the Old Testament have argued quite convincingly that for a soldier to say they had killed everything breathed was the ancient equivalent of a sports team bragging “We absolutely slaughtered the other team.” When we hear an athlete say that, we don’t expect to go to the sports arena and find the dead bodies of the opposing team.  Rather, we know they are saying they won the game. Was Joshua being misleading in his description of the conquest? No. He was using common rhetoric of his day. Copan gives several examples of such rhetoric used by other nations:

“Egypt’s Thutmosis III (later fifteenth century) boasted that ‘the numerous army of Mitanni was overthrown within the hour, annihilated totally, like those (now) non existant[sic].’ In fact, Mittani’s forces lived on to fight in the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries BC. Hittite King Mursilli (who ruled from 1322-1250 BC) recorded making ‘Mt. Asharpaya empty of humanity’ and the’ mountains of Tarikarimu empty (of humanity.)’… In the Merneptah Stele (ca. 1230 BC), Ramses II’s Merneptah announced ‘Israel is wasted, his seed is not,’ in another premature declaration.” [5]

This should be taken seriously since this is archaeological evidence for the existence of warfare rhetoric. This is not just the fanciful imagination of apologists as atheists sometimes suppose.

The third reason for thinking the conquest was not a literal extermination is the physical archaeological evidence dug up from the sites talked about in Joshua. These were not civilian population centers. Jericho and Ai were military strongholds. The women, children and non-combatants would have lived in the surrounding countryside. [6] So, Bolton is simply incorrect to say that we “can be certain that pregnant women and unborn babies” were victims of the slaughter.

Thus, the abortion advocates use of the Conquest of Canaan to try and prove the pro-life position inconsistent falls flat. Of course, someone may point to the fact that there might have been collateral damage as people fled. Thus, innocents would have died. Would that at least justify abortion? We’ll consider that next.

The Doctrine of Just War

Christians who believe that it is right to wage war usually appeal to what is called Just War Theory. To be just, a war must meet certain criteria. The purpose must be to stop an unjust aggression. The decision to go to war must be made by a competent authority. It should lead to greater justice than would result if a country did not go to war. There must be a right intention behind it, such as restoring peace. Every other option must have been exhausted first. The nation inciting the war should have made sure they had a good chance of success. The nation must have counted the cost. And a nation shouldn’t be happy about having to fight a war. [7]

The most obvious example I can think of for a just war was World War II. Hitler had invaded most of Europe and he showed no intention of stopping. He had bombed civilian population centers. He had killed millions of Jews. In short, he needed to be stopped. Unfortunately, what happened was that innocent non-combatants got caught in the crossfire.  This is what I would argue is the equivalent of what happened to the non-combatants who may have died during the Canaanite conquest. However, this is quite different from abortion where an innocent human being is intentionally targeted and killed. Stephanie Gray writes,

“What is important is that we do not do evil in order to bring about a good; that is why abortion would be wrong; it would be doing evil in order to help the mom.” [8]

At most, this could be applied to a case where the mother’s life is in danger. Take an ectopic pregnancy where the baby is growing in the Fallopian tube. If allowed to continue, the tube would burst and both mother and baby would die. There is a medical procedure called a salpingectomy where the section of the tube is removed. Unfortunately, this results in the baby’s death. But I emphasize that this is not because it has been intentionally destroyed in an abortion procedure by the doctor. It is because as Gray notes, “we currently lack the technology to keep the baby alive.” [9]

I could also see rape being raised here. Abortion here could be seen as preventing the women from suffering emotional trauma due to having to raise the child of her rapist. I feel the emotional force of the argument here. But again, I would bring it back to the toddler analogy. Would we allow a mother to kill her toddler because he or she was causing her some sort of mental distress? Of course not. Also, would we punish a toddler for the crimes his or her parent had committed? Normally, people would say no. So again, the question becomes, why do we allow it in the case of the unborn?

So even when we look at the collateral damage, this does not get Christians to the point where they should have to agree with abortion on demand being a right for women., at least according to the specific Biblical argument. Before I close off, I would like to cover two troubling questions this position put forth by pro-choice advocates raises for me.

Two Troubling Questions

The first question I want to ask is: why are they bringing the Bible into it at all? In every debate I’ve done on this subject, my position gets dismissed for being grounded in theology. This happens even when my whole argument is based in philosophy and science. If I suddenly came around and said, “Oh, hey, the bible does support abortion! Go crazy!” shouldn’t that also be grounds for dismissing my views? Pro-choicers do not seem to be aware of the irony here.

The second question is, what exactly are they saying here? They are appealing to a story that they see as a great atrocity on the part of God. From there, they are saying, “We should be allowed to do something equivalent.” Are they honestly trying to say one atrocity justifies another? Do they even see that this line of logic would not stop with the unborn then? Don’t they see that it could also be used to justify killing people of all ages.

I hope the absurdity of this argument as well as its unsoundness is clear.


This article has argued that the Conquest of Canaan cannot be used to justify abortion. It has shown what the pro-life position is. It has argued that from a historical and theological perspective, abortion is not analogous to conquest. And it has shown just war does not give any grounds for abortion, either. Finally, it has raised questions about the logical coherency of this argument by pro-choicers. For these reasons, Christians can affirm God is just in ordering the conquest of Canaan while also firmly opposing abortion.


[1],k accessed September 29th, 2020.

[2] Francis J. Beckwith, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion, xii. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

[3] Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God, 159. Grand Rapids, MI: 2011.

[4], accessed September 29th, 2020.

[5] Copan, 171-172.

[6] Copan, 175-176.

[7] Bruce Riley Ashford, “When War Is Just,” in Joshua D. Chatraw and Karen Swallow Priors, Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues, 317-318. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2019.

[8] Stephanie Gray, Love Unleashes Life: Abortion and the Art of Communicating Truth, 65. Toronto, ON: Life Cycle Books, 2015.

[9] ibid., 64.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Human Defense Initiative.

Does the Canaanite Conquest Justify Abortion?
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