Book review: Did God Really Command Genocide?

reviews Theology / Biblical Studies

Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan, Did God Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014), 353 pages. (Electronic copy reviewed here)

I’ve been curious to see this one ever since my good friend Matt Flannagan told me that he and Paul were going to be writing it.

Knowing Matt as I do, I feel pretty safe in saying that the move to write this book started from arguments about God as the basis of morality. Moral truths point to a moral law-giver, and a divine command theory (in which moral obligation is tied closely to God’s commands) is the best account of moral duty. But what then, some – like Raymond Bradley – ask, do we make of the biblical accounts of conquest and slaughter in the Old Testament? Can you really believe that this God is the perfectly good, loving personal basis of all moral duty? Strictly speaking we can just bat the question away, because the moral argument for theism and a divine command theory of ethics do not commit us to saying anything about what we find in the Bible. But it is an elephant in the room. If we are Christians, then that is the God we believe in, so when we talk about an argument for God’s existence or about God’s commands, this is the God we mean. At some point then we’ll need (or at least we would certainly like) a way of addressing the concern that what we find in the Old Testament accounts of Israel’s conquest of the land of Canaan and the killing of its inhabitants is incompatible with the goodness of God.

The fact that something appears on the pages of the Bible does not make it God’s opinion. What are we asking when we ask what “the author” wanted to say on a given instance? Which author?

Depending on who the reader is, some of the introductory subject matter here may seem elementary – but in a way, that may be the point. In particular, the chapter on what we mean when we say that the Bible is the “word of God” sets out issues that most of the vocal critics of Old Testament violence have likely not given much time to. The fact that something appears on the pages of the Bible does not make it God’s opinion. What are we asking when we ask what “the author” wanted to say on a given instance? Which author? An Israelite with a pen, or God? What are we affirming when we say that Scripture is inspired? Here I have some quibbles with what looks like reliance on William lane Craig’s middle knowledge view of biblical inspiration (a view in which, I think, a number of pieces of writing including the Bible have equal claim to being the word of God), but little is materially changed by that. Some critics will find it tiresome to see Raymond Bradley’s argument critiqued to the level of detail that we find here. The writers use a whole chapter to address the question “Does the Bible Command Us to Kill Innocent Human Beings?” because Bradley’s argument refers to the conquest narratives by saying that God commands “us” to engage in the kind of killing that Bradley finds there. Surely this is just Bradley being careless. The critics may roll their eyes at being told that the purported killings are not supposed to be carried out by us, but by Joshua. “Does that make things better?” the critic may wonder. But the point is worth making, for the sake of explaining the nature of situational commands in Scripture. Some things are tolerated in one context, presumably where there is some reason for tolerating – or commanding – them, but not tolerated in another. Some things are required for particular purposes and hence are “occasional” in nature – such as these commands to fight against the Canaanites – while others reflect enduring moral obligations. Unfortunately, experience tells me that there are many critics who simply stampede over these (and generally all) subtleties in their zeal to make a polemical case.

When we hear of a Jesus who never spoke of wrath, never warned of punishments in history (how can the destruction of the Temple AD 70 really escape our attention?) and never affirmed the portrayal of God in the Old Testament, we have to wonder exactly which Jesus the speaker has in mind.

Chapter three, “The God of the Old Testament verses the God of the New?” was particularly enjoyable, and pointed at times. Although no Christian will say that there are actually different Gods in the Old and New Testaments, some can tend to talk as though there were, saying with Peter Enns and Eric Seibert that we have such different portrayals of God in each Testament that one of them (the older one) is not good, while God as portrayed to us in the person of Jesus and the New Testament is good – a truer picture of what God is really like, a God who does not mete out temporal punishment or do the other bad things that we find attributed to God in the Old Testament. The authors remind us, among other things, that “we must be careful not to appeal to Jesus’s authority selectively.” When we hear of a Jesus who never spoke of wrath, never warned of punishments in history (how can the destruction of the Temple AD 70 really escape our attention?) and never affirmed the portrayal of God in the Old Testament, we have to wonder exactly which Jesus the speaker has in mind.

The book then is not just about those particular Old Testament passages that attract criticism as barbaric. It provides the background against which the question should be approached at all, a fact that alone makes it helpful for those who engage with these criticisms – or with questions of biblical ethics more broadly. But although a number of the chapters we find here are necessary for any full treatment of the subject, setting the scene, observing some principles to guide us in handling the Bible and so on, I am sure that I am not the only reader who was eager to read one thing more than any other: Copan and Flannagan’s explanation of why the “genocide” texts really do not mean what the critics allege. They do not, our authors tell us, really mean that God commanded – and Israel carried out – the mass slaughter of the people living in Canaan. I will forgo commenting on some other parts of the book (in particular a helpful chapter on the alleged innocence of the Canaanites and a large chunk on divine command ethics, to focus on the issue of biblical (alleged) genocide.

The hyperbole thesis

Full disclosure: I approached this subject very friendly to our authors’ thesis. Following the publication of Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? and a lengthy treatment of the subject from Matthew Flannagan over at the M and M blog (I have not read the chapter that Copan and Flannagan wrote together for Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem), I have gone on the record in a number of places when speaking publicly in support of their approach to the “genocide texts,” although I had not looked much at the issue for myself. At this point, however, having made a point of looking more closely at the question, I would describe myself as sceptical of their thesis that these passages are best understood as hyperbole and that the sort of mass killings that people raise concerns about are not really enjoined upon Israel by Yahweh in the Hebrew Scripture. It currently looks to me as though they are. I have by no means ruled out the possibility that our authors are correct and certainly have no objection to being persuaded, but I cannot in good conscience comment their thesis any longer – although I absolutely commend to everyone a careful examination of their arguments.

My overall assessment of the way that Copan and Flannagan handle the problem passages via hyperbole is something like this: “That might seem plausible on some individual occasions, but other times not so much. And if it clearly doesn’t work on some occasions, the similarities between the cases are strong enough to make me wonder whether your explanation is the right one even in cases where it seems possible.”

Before getting to examples that are really problematic, let me first express agreement with some of what our authors say here. Some critics (and this is my assessment, not something the authors say) exaggerate the issue in absurd ways (speaking of hyperbole!). The internet is full of gems like “Read the Old Testament. The killing never ends.” Really. Never ends. The way some criticism are made you can be almost complete certain that they are not based on the critc’s having actually read the Old Testament at all. We read remarks about swords swinging, the blood gushing out and heads rolling on every page as though God commanded virtually nothing but constant butchery of Israel’s fellow human beings. There are of course more sober critics who have indeed read the relevant passages and whose criticisms are far more temperate. But to all such pseudo-outraged (and the wider public with an interest), the authors do a service in chapter six by calling attention to the emphasis in the conquest narratives about “driving out” the nations before the children of Israel. And there are some passages that stress just this, such as Exodus 23 where God says “I will make your enemies turn their backs and run,” God will send forth a hornet before Israel (whatever that means) to drive the people out bit by bit, while Israel expands to fill it. In Leviticus 18 God via Moses) tells the people that the land will “vomit out” the previous inhabitants because of the evil they have done, and that if Israel fails to keep God’s law, the land will vomit them out to. So expulsion from the promised land is a key theme in the conquest. The aim is not to kill as many of the people as possible, but to empty the land so that the tribes of Israel may inhabit it.

Nevertheless, there are some passages the quite clearly use the language of complete slaughter and destruction. Kill everything that breathes. Leave none alive. Destroy them completely, and so on. What do we do with those passages? Here is where the authors commend to us their centrepiece. These passages, while they may appear to record the command to kill everybody (or at least everybody who didn’t manage to escape with their lives), that is not what the commands really mean. They are hyperbole –deliberate overstatements – which really mean that Israel was to defeat and drive out the inhabitants of the city.

Some of the arguments for this thesis look persuasive. For example there are instances where the text appears to say that Joshua completely destroyed a people, but then later in the wider literary unit of Deuteronomy-Joshua-Judges, we see that same people group still living in the land. There might be multiple possible explanations for this (for example the conquest accounts are simply untrue, or the accounts are idealised in that they describe what Joshua should have done and attempted to do, as though he had done it perfectly when really he had not), but the explanation that our authors give us is that the instructions were only ever hyperbolic in the first place.

Our authors show us a table of verses in two columns. One column is labelled “Extermination,” evidently meant to list verses that state that Israel exterminated a particular people, while the right column is labelled “No Extermination,” meant to show from another part of Scripture that in reality “nothing of the sort happened.” A passage that the authors list as describing “extermination” is Joshua 11:23, “So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the Lord had spoken to Moses, and Joshua gave it for an inheritance to Israel according to their divisions by their tribes. Thus the land had rest from war.” Strictly speaking, no “extermination” is described here. But as evidence that there had been “no extermination,” our authors refer to Judges 2:21,23. “I also will no longer drive out before them any of the nations which Joshua left when he died… so the Lord allowed those nations to remain, not driving them out quickly…” The implication is that in context, Joshua 11:23 says that Israel “exterminated” all the people of the land, but we later learn that this must be hyperbole because in Judges 2 we learn that some parts of the land were still inhabited. We must protest that Joshua 11:23 says nothing about extermination in the first place, so this can hardly be an example of a passage referring hyperbolically to extermination. But perhaps more important, in its immediate context Joshua 11:23 cannot be read in the way our authors want to read it. Just a few verses earlier, the writer states which parts of the land he has in mind in Joshua 11:16-17:

So Joshua took all that land: the hill country and all the Negeb and all the land of Goshen and the lowland and the Arabah and the hill country of Israel and its lowland, from Mount Halak, which rises toward Seir, as far as Baal-gad in the valley of Lebanon below Mount Hermon. He took all their kings, struck them down, and put them to death.

It is after saying this that the writer declares that there was peace in the land. And shortly afterwards, the writer acknowledges that he does not mean that Joshua took every part of Canaan. Joshua chapter 13 begins as follows:

Now Joshua was old and advanced in years; and the LORD said to him, “You are old and advanced in years, and very much of the land still remains to be possessed. This is the land that still remains: all the regions of the Philistines, and all those of the Geshurites (from the Shihor, which is east of Egypt, northward to the boundary of Ekron, it is reckoned as Canaanite; there are five rulers of the Philistines, those of Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gath, and Ekron), and those of the Avvim in the south; all the land of the Canaanites, and Mearah that belongs to the Sidonians, to Aphek, to the boundary of the Amorites, and the land of the Gebalites, and all Lebanon, toward the east, from Baal-gad below Mount Hermon to Lebo-hamath, all the inhabitants of the hill country from Lebanon to Misrephoth-maim, even all the Sidonians. I will myself drive them out from before the Israelites; only allot the land to Israel for an inheritance, as I have commanded you.

So not only does Joshua 11:24 not refer to extermination in the first place (so it cannot be thought of as doing so hyperbolically), but in its context right there in the book of Joshua the land that included in the scope of what was claimed by Joshua and brought to peace was stated to be limited, with large portions of Canaan still remaining. There is no point, then, in appealing to Judges 2 to make the point – as though it might be missed by the reader of Joshua – that the whole land was not yet conquered, so perhaps Joshua 11 was written hyperbolically. As long as we read all of Joshua 11 and its context there is no need to appeal to hyperbole at all.

If a person’s problem with the actions of Israel at God’s command is that they killed populations of people, those concerns are unlikely to be calmed by the assurance that they probably only killed half of them, so don’t worry.

Let me pick one more example from the table. Our authors cite, as an example of “Extermination,” Joshua 10:20a, “It came about when Joshua and the sons of Israel had finished slaying them with a very great slaughter until they were destroyed…” But as evidence that “nothing of the sort happened,” they go on to Joshua 10:20b, “… and the survivors who remained of them had entered the fortified cities….” Here I think it is a hyperbole in itself to say that verse 20b indicates that “nothing of the sort” happened. The fact that not every individual was run through with the sword (which is not specified in verse 20a anyway) does not mean that “nothing of the sort” of extermination took place. Surely nobody thinks that no genocide has occurred if there are any survivors. Do an internet search for genocide survivors to see what I mean. If a person’s problem with the actions of Israel at God’s command is that they killed populations of people, those concerns are unlikely to be calmed by the assurance that they probably only killed half of them, so don’t worry.

As our authors note, some critics will object to this type of argument on other grounds. The authors say, in effect, that in one part of Scripture it looks like Israel was commanded to wipe out all the people, but in later passages it looks like the people are still there (or at least some people connected to the original population is still there), therefore we should interpret the killing passages hyperbolically so that all of the passages harmonise with no difficulties. I have already suggested that some of the comparisons between passages do not necessitate the hyperbole interpretation anyway (for the original killing passages do not always require the death of every individual anyway, and the subsequent texts are compatible with a mass killing and do not show that “nothing of the sort” took place). But some critics raise another objection, namely that the argument here relies too much on the doctrine of inerrancy. Why assume, the critic may ask, that we have to smooth out every account so that there are no inconsistencies? Why must we be left with only two option: The final editor of Scripture affirms both passages as completely accurate and therefore needs to accept the one is hyperbole, or the editor of Scripture is incompetent or stupid, affirming both passages as completely, literally accurate when they are evidently incompatible?

Here our authors find the critics’ line of thinking implausible:

The critic suggests that the final editor of the text could be affirming both that Israel killed every single person in Canaan and that Israel did not do this, which, of course, makes no sense.

But this is frankly not true or fair. The critic does not say here that the editor is affirming both accounts as completely accurate, so the critic does not think that the editor affirms any such obvious contradiction as this. Instead the critic is assuming that the editor was not concerned about apparent errors of fact, provided he was faithfully conveying the content of his source material. If that material contained conflicting accounts then so be it. The authors go on to acknowledge precisely this when describing the critics’ point of view: “Ancient editors cared about the material not because they thought it was “inerrant” but because if reflected the different traditions of the various peoples within that group.” How then can our authors attribute to the critic the position that the editor was actually affirming contradictory claims?

I am not saying here (nor am I denying) that I side with the critic who is happy to affirm some pretty striking “errancy” in the biblical text, but the critic will certainly be justified in thinking that his concerns have not been addressed fairly.

This is not to say that there are no examples like this that should give us pause. Yes, the presence of a people group in later history does rule out any interpretation of a passage that would require us to think that in fact (i.e. in history, if not in the text) every member of that people group was killed earlier (or some people might say it simply rules out the veracity of the accounts of mass killing). Some of the examples our authors use may well, in fact, demonstrate that the accounts of killing are indeed hyperbolic – although I do not think I would always be in a position to know which ones these are. But the critical reader needs to be convinced that all apparent problematic cases of mass killing should be explained by way of hyperbole, and there are examples where this looks very unlikely indeed.

For example, Deuteronomy 20 describes the difference between the way Israel is to treat cities that are not in the promised land (Israel’s inheritance), and those cities that are part of the promised land. The former are treated in verses 10-15 as follows:

When you draw near to a town to fight against it, offer it terms of peace. If it accepts your terms of peace and surrenders to you, then all the people in it shall serve you at forced labour. If it does not submit to you peacefully, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; and when the LORD your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town, all its spoil. You may enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the LORD your God has given you. Thus you shall treat all the towns that are very far from you, which are not towns of the nations here.

Copan and Flannagan do not raise any objection that I can see to a non-hyperbolic reading of these words. If the city surrenders, they become your slaves and all the booty is yours. But if they resist, kill the males, take the females, livestock and everything else as booty. The authors do appeal to Joe Sprinkle’s suggestion that “you shall besiege it” and “you shall put all the males to the sword” are not really injunctions but only permissions: “You may besiege it” and “you may put all the males to the sword.” I cannot find a translation that concurs with this claim, but little is changed by this move. Observe what comes next in this passage, in verses 16-18:

But as for the towns of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the LORD your God has commanded, 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.

On the face of it, this contrast militates strongly against a hyperbolic reading where killing everybody means either driving everybody out or not killing everybody. In the cities that are not part of Israel’s inheritance where the inhabitants resist, Israel is told to kill only the men but leave the women alive (i.e. do not kill everybody). Obviously this does not mean drive only the men out but let everybody else keep living there. It evidently means kill the men but take the rest as booty. But in the cities that are part of Israel’s inheritance, the difference in treatment is precisely in the fact that nobody is taken as booty because they will corrupt Israel, so Israel was commanded to leave nobody alive at all.

Our authors are aware of this objection, but critics may find their response less than satisfactory:

This contrast is indeed in the text. However, it fails to show that the language is not hyperbolic; one could grant a hyperbolic reading and concur with Kitchen that “the ‘alls’ are qualified in the Hebrew narrative itself” and allow exceptions, for “the remnant that survived got away into their defended towns.” If the text describes disabling raids where they killed all those who had not cleared out, one would still have the contrast in question.

To say that the command was limited to those who did not escape the city is not at all to show that the command is a hyperbole, for that is always what an army would do when it sought to wipe out a population.

But surely this does not mitigate anybody’s concern. The objection was always that Israel was commanded to kill everybody who did not manage to escape being killed by fleeing. To say that the command was limited to those who did not escape the city is not at all to show that the command is a hyperbole, for that is always what an army would do when it sought to wipe out a population: Kill those who did not escape. It shows, on the contrary, that the command means just what the critics say it means. When a raiding army “besieges” a city (which in itself makes escape difficult) and then kills everybody who is inside the city, while acknowledging that some people may have fled, a critic would be very reluctant to think that it is “hyperbole” to say that they left none alive.

There are other passages where the hyperbole thesis looks unlikely to save the day, for example in Numbers 31. This was an attack on the Midianites. It was a somewhat unique act in that we are specifically told that the attack is an act of revenge (v.2). Although Midian falls outside of the land that was for Israel’s inheritance, this is not an attack because a city failed to yield, as prescribed in Deuteronomy 20, but it was always an attack where war and the execution of vengeance was the intention. There is no prescribed limitation here about what to do if the city yields or who should and should not be killed.

This is what the Israelites initially did to Midian, as described in verses 7-11.

They did battle against Midian, as the LORD had commanded Moses, and killed every male. They killed the kings of Midian: Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian, in addition to others who were slain by them; and they also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword. The Israelites took the women of Midian and their little ones captive; and they took all their cattle, their flocks, and all their goods as booty. All their towns where they had settled, and all their encampments, they burned, but they took all the spoil and all the booty, both people and animals.

But according to Moses, the people erred in doing this. They should have done worse to Midian (vv 12-18:

Then they brought the captives and the booty and the spoil to Moses, to Eleazar the priest, and to the congregation of the Israelites, at the camp on the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho. Moses, Eleazar the priest, and all the leaders of the congregation went to meet them outside the camp. Moses became angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. Moses said to them, “Have you allowed all the women to live? These women here, on Balaam’s advice, made the Israelites act treacherously against the LORD in the affair of Peor, so that the plague came among the congregation of the LORD. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves.

Moses, and by extension Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the congregation – the teachers of Israel – made it clear that it was not enough to kill the men and keep the women. The women (i.e. the adult females, who were no longer virgins) were to be killed as well, along with the young males.

It is very difficult to maintain that such specific instructions can be explained as hyperbole. Our authors offer several explanations.

The first explanation appears to grant that this is a command to kill wholesale the women and children, but to protest that God only expressly commanded Israel to kill the male combatants, and any further killing was commanded, not by God, but by Moses acting without divine approval. They say:

The text reads: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying ‘Avenge the Israelites on the Midianites; afterward you shall be gathered to your own people’” (NRSV). Here again God only commands that Israel go to war; his reasons for issuing this command are not cited. Furthermore, in verse 7 we read: “They fought against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every man.” This suggests that the Israelites, by fighting and defeating Midian and killing all the male combatants, fulfilled God’s explicit command.

The command to kill women and children cited by Morriston actually occurs after this – that is, after Israel had already carried out God’s specific command. Interestingly, normally in the Torah when Moses utters a command on God’s behalf, the passage begins with, “The Lord commanded Moses”; aside from Israel’s carrying out God’s command noted in 31:7, this preface is absent from the commands given by Moses in chapter 31. The text does not explicitly attribute this command to God at all. In fact, the text appears to make a differentiation between God’s command and that of Moses.

And again:

Note: (1) God himself did not command killing the women and boys; he only commanded killing the men, which Israel accomplished (v. 7); only then did the command come from Moses to kill the women and children… (2) This is an argument from silence. We aren’t told of God’s approval or disapproval, which is common in many biblical narratives (e.g. Abraham’s deception, Lot’s daughters’ incest). (3) Even though the Bible depicts faithful saints (Abraham, Josiah), we still see them disobeying God at certain times.

I do not find this line of argument persuasive.

In the first place, it is not true that Numbers 31:7 shows that God commanded only the killing of male combatants. “They fought against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every man,” which is what the text presents (NRSV), is materially different from what our authors are suggesting, which would read: “They fought against Midian, and killed every man as the Lord commanded Moses.” It is not at all certain that even the latter would make the case that our authors want to make, but the point is that what the Lord is said to have commanded Moses in verse 7 is not specifically who is to be killed, but rather that Israel should fight against Midian. “As the Lord had commanded Moses” (כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה אֶת־מֹשֶׁה) modifies “they did battle against Midian” (וַיִּצְבְּאוּ עַל־מִדְיָן), not “and killed every man” (וַיַּהַרְגוּ כָּל־זָכָר).

It may be a case of begging the question to say that “The command to kill women and children … actually occurs after this – that is, after Israel had already carried out God’s specific command.” Saying “after this” makes it looks as though the command to kill the women and children was a later command given in addition to carrying out what God had commanded Moses to tell the Israelites to do, which is something Israel had already done. But this is just to assume that God did not in fact command Israel to do what Moses commanded. In context this appears unlikely, since Moses reacts to what Israel has done as though they had not done what they were supposed to do. This is why Moses is “angry” with Israel for the inadequacy of what they had done. It is not as though Moses says “Very good, you have done what I told you to do. Now I have something else for you to do. Additionally, kill the women who have slept with a man… [etc]” Moses’ angry reaction only makes sense if Israel had failed to do what he had already expected them to do based on what he already told them. It is true that there is no narration of the actual command that Moses first gave Israel from the Lord, but Moses’ reaction should tell us what that instruction was.

It is worth noting, too, that Moses is really not acting alone here. In context Israel has presented what they have done to Moses, to Eleazar the priest, and to all the leaders of the congregation. Moses here speaks for the leaders of Israel. It is true that at times some biblical characters who are among the “goodies” nonetheless do bad things. Samson drank too much and had a weakness for women – a foreign pagan woman in particular. Lot offered his own daughters to the lustful mob of men at his door who wanted to sexually assault his male guests. But this is Moses, with the leaders of Israel, faulting Israel for not carrying out the instructions he has given them from the LORD. It is strained at best to say that really God disapproved of what he was doing, but approved of what Israel had done.

The second line of response that our authors use in relation to Numbers 31 is to note that Jewish scholar Jacob Milgram observed some obvious exaggerations in this account. Not a single Israelite fatality! 32,000 maidens as spoil! 675,000 sheep! Surely these numbers are absurdly high. Fair enough, but it’s hard to see how some exaggerated numbers gives us licence to say that the instructions that Moses gave here are likewise exaggerated. In fact it’s hard to see what it would mean for these instructions to be exaggerated in similar ways. When Moses told Israel to kill the male children, what did he really mean or say? Only kill one-third of them? Give them all a smacking?

A third and perhaps more promising line of argument is one that we have seen before: In the book of Judges, long after the events of Deuteronomy 31, we learn that the Midianites had become great in number. So they cannot have been fully wiped out after all.

This is a fair argument, although it may reveal an inconsistency in how accounts of slaughter are treated. The fact that people of a city are said to be alive and numerous some time after the alleged slaughter was said to have taken place is given by our authors, as evidence that the purported instruction to kill everyone should not be taken as wholesale killing, but rather as a hyperbolic instruction. However, when explaining why God should not be faulted for issuing the command to kill all the women and male children, assimilating the young, women, the authors explain that this was a command wrongly given by Moses, granting its meaning at face value, even though we later learn that the Midianites became great in number (Judges 6). It is not clear which of these argument the authors really wish to advance, and they do not sit comfortably together. Was Moses’ wicked command given and carried out, obliterating Midian, or not? Listing these arguments one after the other sounds something like this: “Yes, there was a terrible command – one that the text says was carried out – to kill everyone in the city apart from the young women, but it was not God’s command, it was Moses’ command, not God’s. Moses got it wrong and as a result the Israelites did something terrible. And anyway, they didn’t do it – See, Midian is still there later.” Granted, everyone who wishes to take all of these accounts seriously must account for why Midian was still there in great numbers later, but calling this extermination both a mistake and something that didn’t really happen – which is what these dual arguments appear to leave us with – is awkward. What is the solution? I don’t know – perhaps the attack under Moses was only against one city and there were Midianites in other places. Perhaps they inhabited several towns. Perhaps a number of men and women managed to escape the onslaught and settled elsewhere, or returned to the city later. Some might claim (gleefully, no doubt) that here is a problem for the accuracy of biblical history.

What the account in Numbers 31 may also do is to undermine an argument that the authors use elsewhere, namely that the Bible later refers to the people groups who were attacked and killed as being alive and well, and therefore we know that the language must be hyperbole. But – the authors’ protests notwithstanding – this does not appear to work for Numbers 31. Although there are Midiantes later in history, I don’t see any hyperbolic way out of the mass killing of Numbers 31, so the presence of people from the same people group later in the biblical record might not be a lifeline for other accounts that appear to describe mass killing either.

But still get the book!

You may at this point find it hard to believe that I am reviewing a book that I think is very good indeed! But I am. I have focused on the most contentious material, and it just turns out that after consideration I do not share the authors’ view. But as I said, the scene-setting chapters that come before those that deal with the claim of hyperbole are excellent. So too are those that come afterwards, and these in particular, I think, set this volume apart as being am especially important one on the subject. The authors address the legal issue of whether or not what they describe in the conquest narratives would qualify as “genocide” at all by the standards of contemporary human rights legislation. Who else even touches on that subject in published work?

The material wrestling with divine command ethics and the coherence of abhorrent commands is top-notch as well (for example, “What if someone claimed God commanded killing the innocent today?”), as is the more general apologetics-related material on such questions as “Does religion cause violence?” or a question with particular relevance in today’s religious and political climate, “Are Yahweh wars in the Old Testament just like Islamic Jihad?” Given the apologetic angle taken throughout the book you can no doubt guess what the authors’ answer to this question will be, but when is the last time you read a published discussion of the comparison at all? Some of this subsequent material is predicated on the acceptance of the authors’ case regarding the biblical narratives, so somebody who rejects the hyperbole thesis will probably grow impatient, but I am assuming that a fair number of readers will accept that thesis and find much of great value in what follows. Besides, a large chunk of it will benefit even those who do not share the authors’ assessment of the conquest narratives, including some I have mentioned already as well as a very good – but brief – chapter on pacifism and just war (an area where I do share the athours’ convictions).

So what is my solution?

This is a book review, not my own explanation of the conquest narratives. But inevitably I will be asked what I think is going on here if I do not share the view of our authors of these problematic passages in the Old Testament. What’s my solution? I don’t have one. I don’t think that in the absence of a solution of my own I am beholden to accept the best solution in print. The authors make an argument that really the Canaanites were not innocent. They had done terrible things and were condemned in Scripture for doing so, and they would, had they remained, have had a disastrous moral effect on Israel. Perhaps we’ll need to lean a bit harder in that direction. Perhaps we will need to cling to the conviction that since God is good and all-knowing, there must have been a good reason for what God commanded, and it’s just frustrating that we don’t see the whole picture as we might like.

Perhaps there is much hyperbole here, but in a different way than what our authors suggest. Maybe it’s not the case that the commands were given as written, meant to be understood as only hyperbole and then understood as hyperbole so not carried out to the letter. Maybe the commands are meant to be understood as they appear, and the obedience of Israel was meant to be read as literally as written, but the account itself is simply an exaggeration to make Israel seem like a mighty, fearful force. Israel did not actually do what the text says they did (this would explain examples where a people group is later discovered to be alive and well). In other words – maybe we need to not say that the account contains so much hyperbole (thereby protecting the accounts from the charge of being inaccurate) and say that it’s just not accurate. Some people would have a problem with calling such exaggerations “inaccuracies,” but that seems a bit contorted to me. And some people might not be able to accept this explanation because it doesn’t conform to their view of Scripture as inerrant. As you wish, you’ll have to bite the bullet and grant that these onslaughts occurred as written and find a way of reconciling that with the claim that God is perfectly good. And maybe you think you can do that. But I do not think, on close analysis, I can buy the authors’ explanation of biblical hyperbole. As best I can tell, it is a little too convenient and the evidence, while sometimes being compatible with that thesis, is at other times clearly not.

Even if you do not grant the force of the argument for the authors’ central thesis (namely, that the passages that purportedly relate the mass killings of Canaanites are thoroughly hyperbolic in nature), you cannot claim to be familiar with the literature on this subject henceforth unless you are familiar with the readable, researched, robust and original work of Copan and Flannagan in this book.

Glenn Peoples

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{ 25 comments… add one }
  • Jason January 4, 2015, 6:40 pm

    There may be a bit too much appeal to hyperbole in those particular texts, however as discussed by Glenn Miller at A Christian Thinktank in regards to Midian and the Amorites/Canaanites the punishment rather did fit their crimes.

    From Numbers 21:31-35

    31Thus Israel lived in the land of the Amorites. 32Moses sent to spy out Jazer, and they captured its villages and dispossessed the Amorites who [were] there.
    33Then they turned and went up by the way of Bashan, and Og the king of Bashan went out with all his people, for battle at Edrei. 34But the LORD said to Moses, “Do not fear him, for I have given him into your hand, and all his people and his land; and you shall do to him as you did to Sihon, king of the Amorites, who lived at Heshbon.” 35So they killed him and his sons and all his people, until there was no remnant left him; and they possessed his land.

    To destroy a nation didn’t necessarily require killing every person, but scattering the persons and killing their leadership could suffice. Now I have no doubt that Israel destroyed Jericho and its inhabitants (apart from Rahab) and the town of Ai in the region of Ai and its inhabitants but I think it unlikely that they killed all the Amorites in Canaan, even over time. They certainly killed many people and the leadership of Canaan (31 kings), and drove out the rest (apart from Gibeon who tricked them into a treaty) but I don’t think that requires every inhabitant, or even a majority of inhabitants, be killed.

    From that perspective Israel needn’t have killed every Midianite, indeed we know they didn’t. What they did do was destroy a local tribe of the Midianites (who were pretty widely spread at that stage) killed their leadership, men, women and male children, and brought the female children into their tribe to eventually (given that the girls at that point would have had an average age of about five, very eventually) replace the men who had been killed as a result of the plague and hanging that was God’s punishment on Israel for having engaged in pagan ritual sex with Moabite and Midianite women.

    Harsh? Yes. Undeserved? No.

  • Glenn January 4, 2015, 6:51 pm

    Jason, sure, we can take the “they deserved it” argument if we like. But as soon as we say “What they did do was destroy a local tribe of the Midianites (who were pretty widely spread at that stage) killed their leadership, men, women and male children, and brought the female children into their tribe,” we’re rejecting the hyperbole position advanced in this book, and we’re saying they were all killed because that was the right thing to do. You know that, I can see. That’s one possible reading. Another is exaggeration on the author’s part. But I don’t think the hyperbole reading stands up to scrutiny.

  • Jason January 4, 2015, 8:09 pm

    I agree with you on that.

    Perhaps I rambled a bit much.

    There is some room for ancient trash talk, but in this case I think the writer was being quite literal.

  • Blair January 4, 2015, 9:47 pm

    I have my own thoughts on this, which would probably take too long to expound on given the lateness of the hour, but I was just reading something which I thought was relevent:

    “Tell us what you preach, said Archelaus to Manes. And he, whose mouth was as an open sepulchre , began first with blasphemy against the Maker of all things, saying, The God of the Old Testament is the author of evils, as He says of Himself, I am a consuming fire. (Deuteronomy 4:24) But the wise Archelaus undermined his blasphemous argument by saying, “If the God of the Old Testament, as you say, calls Himself a fire, whose Son is He who says, I came to send fire on the earth (Luke 12:49)? If you find fault with Him who says, The Lord kills, and makes alive (1 Samuel 2:6), why do you honour Peter, who raised up Tabitha, but struck Sapphira dead? If again you find fault, because He prepared fire, wherefore do you not find fault with Him who says, Depart from Me into everlasting fire (Matthew 25:41)? If you find fault with Him who says, I am God that make peace, and create evil (Isaiah 45:7), explain how Jesus says, I came not to send peace but a sword. (Matthew 10:34) Since both speak alike, of two things one, either both are good, because of their agreement, or if Jesus is blameless in so speaking. why do you blame Him that says the like in the Old Testament?” – Cyril of Jerusalem – Catechetical Lecture VI

  • Chuck January 6, 2015, 8:02 pm

    Thanks for this analysis, Glenn. I will probably still read the book, as you suggest, since I prefer to read stuff with which I expect to at least partly disagree. But even in this really hard area of genocide, (modern, as well as ancient), I sleep better as a conditionalist, than I ever did as a traditionalist. Do you think most Christians have thought this through?(Because I think many articulate non-christians have… and it gives “traction” and comfort to their continued skepticism).

    Only by the grace of God did I get past this hurdle myself. If one views all the OT genocide victims as necessarily immortal beings, it is an infinitely harder pill to swallow.

  • Jeremy January 6, 2015, 9:06 pm

    The biggest problem is possibly that the hyperbole theory answers a question that doesnt really need asking. If all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, if none is righteous no not one, and if the wages of sin is death then God the Creator is perfectly entitled to exercise His judgement and uphold His standards. I find it very amusing that the same people who complain that God cannot be real because He apparently doesnt intervene against evil and injustice (or even natural events like hurricanes) also argue that God must be a moral monster because He intervened and commanded the execution of judgement upon evil ( hence He is not real, doesnt meet their idea of what God should be like, or if He was real they wouldnt acknowledge Him anyway). Notwithstanding the irony of calling God a moral monster, denying He exists, and consequently undercutting any ontological basis for making a moral judgement in the first place. Why defend ourselves from an utterly illogical complaint?

  • Glenn January 7, 2015, 5:14 pm

    Jeremy, if the killing in the conquest narratives can be justified simply on the grounds that all have sinned, then what’s wrong with me killing sinners now? I mean they deserve it, right?

  • Jeremy January 7, 2015, 10:03 pm

    Hey Glenn are you currently in a special one person Theocracy where you are God’s chosen Peoples { sorry couldnt resist that}. Has God promised you a section in Upper Hutt [ that he has given the local Tangata Whenua 400 years to repent] before using you as an agent of judgement. And has the New Covenant of Grace not yet been announced.
    But seriously, pointing out that there are no innocents and that God is fully entitled to exercise judgement can in no way be construed as permission for you to Go Postal on sinners. Anyway you would have to start with yourself and the issue would be self resolving .

  • Jeremy January 7, 2015, 10:20 pm

    My point was { with all due respect to Matt and Paul whose scholarship vastly exceeds my own}, yes God did command what appears to be genocide [ though i suspect it is a technically incorrect use of the term given the command was more to wipe out those who refused to move out ahead of the Israelites ]. God is fully entitled to exercise His judgement and justice. Fortunately for us Jesus bore that for us on the cross. Unfortunately for many He will ultimately do so again on those who refuse Christ [ be that eternal separation, annihilation or torment ].

  • Glenn January 7, 2015, 10:52 pm

    Jeremy, I think this should be pressed again: The claim that a person is a sinner makes them worthy of death at the hand of their fellow man has more troubling implications than your humorous reply lets on. It means that, commanded or not, if I kill them then they are getting what they actually deserve.

  • Jeremy January 8, 2015, 6:40 am

    Well yes you are quite right but you are somewhat mischieveously conflating two ideas. Death is what we deserve and is what comes to us sooner or later onevway or another its inevitable. That is not a mandate for our fellow humans to kill us, God not only does not give permission to do so, He forbids it, and retains the right to give and take live to Himself. I made no claim the we are worthy of death specically at the hand of our fellow man. Although that said, God has through history often used the unwitting actions of humans to achieve His ends. Part of the same story infact, where later Israel is twice displaced from the land ( including slaughter and captivity and the death of infants) at the hands of foreign conquerors, for the same sins and attitudes that the Canaanites were guilty of. So although it is not recorded in scripture from the “command” side, one could argue that God also commanded the genocide of His own people, the Jews. I havent noticed anyone complaning about that.

  • Glenn January 8, 2015, 7:42 pm

    I am not conflating anything. If you believe that, Jeremy, then you have not understood me. Mischievous?

    Either we all deserve death at our fellow human being’s hand, or we do not. If you now agree that we do not deserve that, then pointing out that we are all sinners does not offer the relief from the problem that you are looking for – because the events that we are talking about are not just people dying. It is people killing.

    So if we can agree that being killed by our fellow man isn’t what we deserve due to sin, then we will have to do the harder stuff and figure out how this is compatible with a good God. Or we can admit that it’s hard.

  • Jeremy January 8, 2015, 10:24 pm

    As best i can tell the Bible is pretty clear that the consequence of sin is death, also that none are innocent of sin. Death is what we deserve and what we get. I have never seen any scripture making any commentary on the specific mechanism or instrument of that death, except that the perogative of life and death belong to God. In as much as a person takes that perogative to himself usurping God then his action in taking anothers life is wrong. That doesnt actually address the victims status wrt sin and its consequence.
    Like wise as best as i can tell God has frequently used the actions of other people to accomplish His ends whether they realised it or not.
    But this is all rather beside the point isnt it. The story of Israels conquest of Canaan makes it quite clear the God was visiting judgement upon the Canaanites for the abominations. No where is it recounted that this was some kind of mandate to kill anybody or everybody going forward. Infact in the context of the law murder was unacceptable and foreigners were to be treated with respect and kindness. So is God entitled to exercise His judgment and justice or not?

  • Jeremy January 8, 2015, 10:33 pm

    *for the abominations they committed.

  • Glenn January 8, 2015, 11:31 pm

    Well i think the “mechanism” of death actually matters. For example, let’s say that I am a sinner (duh), and let’s say that sinners deserve to die (well, I’d say that they don’t deserve the gift of life, but whatever). That doesn’t mean I deserve to be executed, right? And the Canaanites didn’t just die. They were killed.

    So that’s not beside the point. It’s the argument you raised: These actions are tolerable, at least in part, because sinners deserve to die.

    I think your second line of argument is more promising: “the abominations.” The case would need to be pressed that the scope of the killing (e.g. all the men, women and boys) was justified because of the guilt of somebody. But that’s where people are going to raise concerns when you say that this God is perfectly good. Killing male toddlers because of somebody else’s abominations just can’t be breezed over as though the culpability is obvious and there’s nothing to give us pause. If God commands that, then that is exactly the concern.

  • Jeremy January 9, 2015, 7:36 am

    Possibly the simplest answer to the question concerning toddlers is the nature of a “collectivist” as compared to an “individualist” society and culture. I assume you know what this means although most westerners wouldnt have a clue. It is something that can get in the way of understanding the Bible, especially since modern Christianity is so focused on our individual “personal” relationship with Jesus.
    In a collectivist culture the question of an individual somehow being separate from the actions/guilt/responsibilty etc of his family/tribe/nation simply wouldnt arise. Good and bad, guilt and innocence, honour and shame, success and failure fell upon the group collectively. The idea that there were innocent toddlers would be a non-concept.
    However to return to the point to which you seem to stronglly object to. Do you disagree that the wages of sin is death, that there is no one innocent not one, that the heart of man is desparately wicked corrupt above all things? Is God entitled to exercise His justice and judgement or not?
    The question regarding the Canaanites falls into the trap of focussing on only part of the nature of God ie his love, while ignoring his holiness, justice, jealousy and even goodness (which doesnt mean kindness, friendliness, indulgence). Its also a diversion from the overarching theme of the Bible, the progression from fallen sinful man isolated/separated from God, through Gods revelation of truth and law hence the nature of sin, through God creating a people leading to the birth life death and ressurection of Jesus Christ whereby He could reconcile mankind to Himself while not violating His own nature in somekind disassociative schizophrenic manner. ie God shows us His love, kindness and mercy while not compromising His holiness, justness or goodness. The question of the Canaanites looks back toward the beginning and judges it from the end. We live in time and culture so heavily influenced by Christian thought that we do not recognise just how much grace and mercy inform our laws and justice systems.

  • Glenn January 9, 2015, 8:25 am

    “Do you disagree that the wages of sin is death, that there is no one innocent not one, that the heart of man is desparately wicked corrupt above all things?”

    No, I said let’s grant that perspective, and still ask whether or not that means I deserve to be dragged out into the square and executed by my fellow man. The answer, surely, is no.

    And I don’t think the “collectivist” reply really settles the concern for the critic. Imagine if the allied forces had killed all the children in Germany in WWII, and justified their actions before a war crimes tribunal by saying that they had embraced a collectivist approach. I am not saying there is no partial answer there, but it is nowhere near as easy and comfortable as your comment makes it sound. Put yourself there in the midst of the action for a second.

    Saying that perhaps there is a solution is one thing. Saying that there isn’t even a problem to address, that’s quite another.

  • Jeremy January 9, 2015, 9:31 am

    A collectivist society and culture isnt a matter of choice, something you turn on or off as it suits. Its more of a social paradigm, probably only really observable from the outside, or at the very least after exposure and understanding alternatives. We can notice it because of how it is different to our individualistic one. But if we dont notice and understand then much of what happens and why in a collectivist culture is not comprehensible to us. I agree it probably wont satisfy a western critic, but thats precisely because he is a “western” critic. Likewise i suggest that to even be a critic at this point probably means you are a member of an individualistic western culture. We could not have killed all the german children claiming a collectivist approach, to have done so would have been a deliberate lie pretending to be something we were not and that they were not. Just as we would never even consider wiping out a mans family, wife children parents and servants because of some offence he had committed, yet such a thing is/was common in many cultures. Utu was the norm in NZ, killing/ enslaving entire whanau or iwi in revenge for the actions of an individual, or if thst wasnt possibly killing anyone from the same group as the “offender”.
    I did suggest collectivist culture was posdibly the simplest answer, and certainly it was the norm in the ANE.
    As a member of an individualistic culture i dont find the implications of a collectivist culture remotely easy or comfortable. On the negative side they are downright scary. Even on the positive side they are somewhat intimidating. We have had quite a few Japanese students live with us. Although Japan is no longer as collectivist as it used to be and nowhere near the extent an ANE was, the idea that a student might choose their own career path against the wishes of their family is still foreign/unusual to them. People conform, choosing your own path is not encouraged or celebrated.
    Anyway, enough for now, catch you later, work calls.

  • Glenn January 9, 2015, 4:18 pm

    Yeah I know you can’t just change it quickly, but my point is – in the world today if a country did something like kill all the children on collectivist grounds, then even if they really were a collectivist culture, we would take issue with it – as would you, I see. And there’s the problem. Our reaction to such collectivism, or at least to some of its possible implications or application in the ANE, show that we think something is wrong with it.

    The actual solution tot he problem may include a little collectivism, a little actual guilt, a little consequentialism and maybe other things. I hope (and assume) we both agree that whatever it is, it’s probably not neat.

  • Stephen January 14, 2015, 9:12 am

    Michael Heiser has an interesting observation about places devoted to destruction (kherem) in Joshua: they happen to be nephilim/giant clan populations.
    And of course that echoes back to Genesis 6. I don’t buy the Sethite view; we’re clearly dealing with divine beings though it doesn’t HAVE to be a sexual/procreative event.

    But at the least what this would imply is these people groups were deeply involved with fallen sons of God (Psalm 82; Deuteronomy 32.8 DSS,LXX). And of course if you give 2nd Temple literature any weight, the reason Genesis 6 happened was specifically to pollute humanity; the conquests of Joshua would in a sense be the human counterattack.

    This connects all the dots Biblically. Though I’ll admit, this ain’t gonna help you much with a debate with an atheist which is more so the aim of the book.

  • David Hillary January 17, 2015, 5:32 pm

    It appears that there are 2 versions of how to restore individuals and communities to a holy life in communion with God. The first version was by choosing a specific nation to create a model community, and taking them out of slavery and providing them with a land to live in. This version required overcoming evil with evil. Israel did evil to the Egyptians who had done evil to them, and did evil to the Canaanites who were evil and occupied the land they were to inherit. The evil was supposed to abate with God as their king and with them having just laws and peaceful practices for dealing with conflicts. However, the human race, including Israel, although they were free from the slavery of the Egyptians, remained slaves to Satan, and so they rejected God as their king and asked for a human king. They were told it would bring them back into physical slavery (showing their ongoing slavery to Satan). The human king did bring them a form of slavery – taxation – and so they tried to fix the flawed model by changing the cast with a ‘man after God’s own heart.’ Despite his good intentions, David did not bring them true freedom either from Satan’s power or from taxation at the hand of their own idol, the human kingship. Version 1 was a failure, overcoming evil with evil brought slavery, conquest, exile and oppression by foreign powers.

    Version 2 is provides a different approach, the approach of refusing to do evil and refusing to be overcome by evil and of overcoming evil by doing good. The version 1 methods are rejected entirely, and therefore do not require a justification of the type the authors are seeking. Jesus was offered state-political power by Satan, who has this power as the one who enslaved the human race, in exchange for worshiping Satan. Jesus rejected this offer, and made Satan a counter-offer: he offered his life as a ransom for the liberation of the human race. Satan accepted the offer and Jesus showed us the path of liberation from slavery to Satan: he submitted to the state who used colour of law to put him to death. Of all people, Jesus was the best qualified to be a political and military leader, but he rejected the coercive, political state means of liberating the human race. Jesus demonstrated for us an approach that is very different from version 1 and from the authors’ own social and ethical theories that permit and even command us to resist evil with lawsuits, state courts, state power and with the state’s or our own swords. Jesus forgave those who drove the nails into his hands, he did not threaten lawsuits or use the sword to stop his arrest or execution. He did not call on the legions of angels.

    The authors appears to be trying to explain and moderate version 1, to fit their own social, ethical, legal and political theories while rejecting version 2.

    The authors have not found a good solution to the problem because they are rejecting the teaching of Jesus and are asking the wrong questions.

  • Barry February 23, 2015, 3:30 pm

    Greetings,

    If God was angry at the Canaanites for something they did then God hasd no one but himself to blame for being angry. The Canaanites had no power over God to make him angry.

    Second, none of you can provide an objective moral standard proving God had the right to kill those poor people at the hands of Joshua. And it is just God’s opinion that he is just and what he ordered was just—–simply put God had a subjective opinion on the matter and an opinion we have no obligation to agree with.

    Three, we do not need God to tell us what is right or wrong, what we should do or not do, referred to by Christians as “objective moral standards”. We do not have God sent manuals on how to practice medicine and call it “objective medical standards” nor do we have God sent Bibles for automotive mechanics yet out automotives do well running without “objective automotive standards”.

  • John Bedson November 19, 2016, 11:52 am

    Glenn: You have overlooked the obvious answer to this question of why the God of the Old (and New) Testament is such a moral monster. The answer must be that he does not exist and never did exist. ‘God’ is merely a human creation and that is why he shares the same weaknesses, unenlightened morality and evil of ordinary humans living in the ancient world. “Hyperbole” is another way of saying that these things are not true. They never happened. It was just made up stories by humans trying to control other humans with a faith based religion. The whole Bible is just one almighty scam.

  • Glenn November 20, 2016, 12:29 am

    Hi John. Thanks so much for coming to my assistance and helping me see the obvious. A compelling argument.

  • Barry Jones February 1, 2017, 1:00 pm

    Does committing to the premise of “hyperbole” to explain the OT genocide texts, open Pandora’s Box?

    Where ELSE does the bible make an extreme assertion mostly because the author is using hyperbole? Is God literally as wonderful as bible authors say, or is some of that lofty language mere hyperbole? Is God’s wrath against iniquity really as aggressive as the bible says? Or is that just the ancient Semitic author employing typical techniques of exaggeration common to his culture?

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