Did God Really Command Genocide?

Did God Really Command Genocide? By Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan
A hyphenated presentation

I. The Big Picture

What I have found to be the mosthelpful in opening a discussion, especially one on an unfamiliar subject, is to begin by asking the big picture questions: “Why is this discussion taking place?”, “What are the problems that made this discussion necessary?”,or, to paraphrase Aristotle, “What are we aiming at and why are we trying to hit it?” So in the spirit of generality, I would like to begin by glossing over the general landscape which has necessitated Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan coming together and addressing the question, “Did God Really Command Genocide?” and then briefly outline their response.

DidGodReallyCommandGenocideTheir book is written to address the Atheistic philosopher Raymond Bradley’s argument that the Bible’s command to “slaughter virtually every living inhabitant of Canaan,”(pg. 17) is morally unacceptable because it violates our most basic moral intuitions of the Crucial Moral Principle – which could be stated as,

“It is morally wrong to deliberately and mercilessly slaughter men, women, and children who are innocent of any wrong doing.”(pg. 17)

And it is claimed by Bradely that Christians cannot coherently believe in a Just and Loving God while also believing that God can command unjust and hateful atrocities. It is against this philosophical milieu that has provided the reasons why Copan and Flannagan have written their book, “Did God Really Command Genocide?” However, while the reason for writing this book is to address Bradley’s argument, their aim is to provide good reasons to believe not only is Bradely’s argument flawed, but also that such genocidal commands were never issued. They do this by providing an extended argument which I will briefly outline.

First, they make the required modifications to Bradley’s philosophical argument by taking into account a more rigorous form of the Christian doctrine of Biblical inspiration. As they claim, “If Bradley’s argument is to carry any weight, it should be directed at a rigorous, philosophically informed perspective on this – not just some Sunday school caricature.” (pg. 23)

Second, they address the perspective they refer to as Marcion’s Deity (pg. 37), or the view that the God of the Old Testament is different than the “loving, nonviolent Jesus”(pg. 37) of the New Testament, by urging us to, “think more deeply about difficult, ethically troubling Old Testament passages rather than gloss over them.” (pg. 41) And therefore, they urge us to consider that a proper response to the Old Testament criticism, if we believe that the whole Bible is the Word of God, is not to distance ourselves from the Old Testament but to equally consider both testaments in our response.

Third, with the established project of unifying our concepts of Old and New Testament morality, they consider the first response to Bradley’s argument. They do this by considering the nature of God’s commands in the Old Testament. If we were to grant Bradley’s argument that God commanded genocide in the Old Testament, would those commands apply to us today?

Fourth, they look into the moral assumption behind Bradley’s argument which states that the Canaanites were innocent. However, as we find out in Leviticus 18, “[T]he Bible does not portray the Canaanites in general as innocent of any serious wrongdoing.”(pg. 61)

Fifth, they explain the nature of the Israelite incursion. Chiefly, they address the overall assumption of a total conquest of Canaan, while showing that it was perhaps more of a raiding party who continually ran into trouble with numerically superior foes.

Sixth, Copan and Flannagan then address the objective of the Israelite Incursion. “The dominate language used in Scriptures is not of extermination but of ‘driving out’ and ‘thrusting out’ the Canaanites.”(pg. 76) They support this claim by showing that there is further context to the words “totally destroy”.

Seven, in continuing their investigation of context of the terms used in Joshua’s account, they begin to look at what appears to be disturbing descriptions of the Israel’s conquest such as, “utterly destroyed everything in the city, both man and woman, young and old”, “he left no survivors”, “there was not one left who breathed”. They address these occurrences by showing several negative arguments why a literal interpretation is untenable and several positive arguments for Hegiography, or that certain key phrases ought to be read as hyperbolic.

These seven points would naturally contain the core of Paul Copan’s and Matthew Flannagan’s answer to the question, “Did God Really Command Genocide?” Considering Biblical Inspiration which permits God to offer an occasional command to Israel to take back a promised land from an extraordinarily evil group of people, who were both told to leave and chose not to, and doing so via a raiding party against militarily and economically critical cities which was recorded partially in Joshua (and other books) using familiar Ancient Near Eastern Military Conquest hyperbolic language, the answer is an overwhelmingly no – God did not command, and the Israelites did not commit, Genocide.

II. The Backdrop ~ Clarifying the Philosophical Argument and Addressing Christian Divine Inspiration

A.The Problem Clarified (By clarifying the Philosophical Argument and the Theological Position)

We’ll begin with the philosophical argument as presented by the Atheist philosopher Raymond Bradley: The argument from the violation of the Crucial Moral Principle. The Crucial Moral Principles could be stated as:

“It is morally wrong to deliberately and mercilessly slaughter men, woman and children who are innocent of any serious wrongdoing.”(pg. 17)

Given, what many Atheists infamously call the Genocide Texts, which includes references such as Joshua chapters 6, 7, and 12, anyone who claims to be a Christian theist is committed to believing the following four propositions:

1) Any act that God commands us to perform is morally permissible.
2) The Bible reveals to us many of the acts that God commands us to perform
3) It is morally impermissible for anyone to commit acts that violate the Crucial Moral Principle
4) The Bible tells us that God commands us to perform acts that violate the Crucial Moral Principle.

As one may well suppose, the four propositions, if taken together, forms a contradiction. And that is Bradley’s project – to show the incoherency of the Christian Theist’s position.

However, before we can even begin to respond to Bradley’s argument, a few things must be noted. First, this is a reductio argument. For those who not familiar with reductio-style arguments, the reductio ad absurdum, translated as “reduction to absurdity”, is an attempt to show that, given the internal arguments and assumptions of any position, they form an incoherency. And for most philosophers, an internal incoherency is a knock-out punch. So, in part, Bradley’s philosophical argument is a moral argument against Christians, and also in-part an argument about the coherency of Christian Theism. Second, reductio­-style arguments must assume that the premises in themselves are true for the sake of the argument. For example, many people could contest that the above propositions 2 and 4 are grounded in the Bible but maintain that the Bible doesn’t accurately reveal God’s commands. The problem with making this move is that it would change the reductio argument and turn it into an argument concerning the historical reliability of the Bible.

With that being said, we’ll continue in responding to the above four propositions.

The initial problem we run into is that propositions 2 and 4 do not reflect the goal of the argument. Bradley’s argument isn’t an attempt to show that the Bible contains historical texts that reliably inform us that God issued certain commands, the argument is that we have Divinely inspired texts which reveal that God commands us to perform acts that violate the Crucial Moral Principle. Therefore, we would have to modify propositions 2 and 4 as:

2′) God is the author of the Bible
4′) The author of the Bible commands us to perform acts that violate the Crucial Moral Principle

However, the term author in 2′ is still ambiguous. While Christians do believe the Bible is Divinely Inspired, Christians also believe human agents wrote the Bible. So one must begin by clarifying the nature of authorship in premise 2′. This can be done by asking the question, “What sort of relationship exists between Divine and Human authorship?”

Plantinga’s view is that we can make the divide between, what he calls, Historical Biblical Criticism, or the study in which theological assumptions are set aside and one attempts to discern the Human author’s intent, and Traditional Biblical Commentary, or the study in which theological assumptions, such as God is the author of the Bible, can be taken and one seeks to understand what God desires us to understand.

The interplay between both fields is perhaps clearly pronounced when Plantinga responds e to Ernan McMullin in saying:

“I think he thinks what is decisive here is what the human author(s) of the text in question had in mind. If that is what he means, I am obliged to disagree with him. In order to understand Scripture, we must know who its author and audience is [sic]. As in the latter, it is the Christian church over the ages as to the former, as Aquinas and Calvin agree, the principle and primary author of scripture is the Lord. (Of course this doesn’t imply any kid of crude dictation theory.) What we really need to know, therefore, is what he intends to teach in the text in question. This may very well be what the human author had in mind in writing that text; but of course it needn’t be. It might be that the Lord proposes to teach us (coming where we do in the whole history of his interactions with his children) something that hadn’t occurred to the person or persons actually composing the text in question. I would concur with those Christians, for example, who see various Old Testament passages (Isaiah and elsewhere) as really referring to Christ, the second person of the Trinity, and making assertions about him; it is unlikely, however that the original author intended to make assertions about the second person of the Trinity. What the original authors had in mind will ordinarily be of importance, but it will not necessarily settle the issue as to how to understand the text in question.” (pg. 21)

Therefore, as Plantinga summarized, there appears to be two specific claims concerning Biblical Inspiration. First, Christians recognize human authorship of the Scriptures. And second, Christians recognize Divine Inspiration of the Scriptures. But since Christians also do NOT adhere to a dictation theory of Scripture, there must be some other way to reconcile the view that there are human authors and divine inspiration. The way Plantinga reconciles these views is to note the epistemic differences between the author’s context and, given the entire revelation of God’s word, the Divine context.

It is this view that allows Dr. William Lane Craig to argue that while the Bible allows for human emotion or specific rhetoric to flow through the Biblical text, it does not necessarily asserted the Divine context.

Therefore, we can introduce the finally revised propositions 2” and 4”:

2”) God is the (primary) author of the Bible
4”) The secondary human author of the Bible commands us to perform acts that violate the Crucial Moral Principle

B. What Does it Mean to say the Bible is the Word of God?

So far, we have established Bradley’s philosophical argument, and therefore, the thing which we are aiming to respond. We’ve also articulated a Christian Doctrine of Biblical Inspiration that includes God’s primary authorship and human’s secondary authorship. However, we need to do bit more than to say, “There is Human Authorship and Divine Inspiration,” we need to answer the more difficult question, “How does Human Authorship and Divine Inspiration interact?”

To understand this relationship, Copan and Flannagan introduce the Appropriation Model by Dr. Craig and Dr. Wolterstorff. They argue that “Inspiration is a property of the text, not the mode of production.” (pg 24) It is not so much the particular way in which the truths are revealed, but that the truths are revealed.

At first glance, this appears to be a bit vague. For if God is omnipotent, then doesn’t God “bring about” all written texts? And if God brings about all written texts, then why can we not assume that all texts are Divinely inspired?

It is here, I believe, that Dr. Craig’s and Dr. Wolterstorff’s view becomes particularly clear. First, this question fails to make the distinction between what is “God’s truths revealed”(pg24) and “God’s plan of Human History”(pg 24). And the difference between a Divinely inspired text and a non-divinely inspired text is that a Divinely Inspired text isn’t only brought about by God, but it is appropriated by God.

The question now moves from, “How does Human Authorship and Divine Inspiration interact?”, to the question, “How does God appropriate texts?”To answer this question, we’ll have to explain The Appropriation Model of Speech Act Theory.

Wolterstoff, pulling from the works of J.L. Austen and John Searle, applies Speech Act Theory to Divine Inspiration.

According to Speech-Act Theory, speech is an action one performs, and there are three types of action:

1) “A Locutionary Act → The vocal action, or the action of the vocal apparatus which projects sound waves.
2) An Illocutionary Act → Actions such as Asserting, Declaring, Warning, Promising, etc. These are acts which are performed by way of performing locutionary acts.
3) A Perlocutionary Act → The action associated with the intention of performing speech (ie. Persuasion, instilling fear, etc.)” (pg. 25)

So speech is broken into three parts: the physical, the ends for performing the physical, and the reason why we perform the physical. We also know that each one can be performed without the other. Someone can make a loud noise with no prior reason or with not end in mind. Someone can point, which has a clear ends, but no vocal action. Or someone can have a reason to speak, but never end up saying anything. In Wolterstoff’s model, the illocution act is what we mean by God speaks through his Word, it’s the truths for which the Biblical texts are to convey – God’s word has an end in mind and His truths are those ends.

An example of a “double agency discourse”(pg. 26) could be in the job of a secretary. Imagine a secretary performs a luctionary act by drafting some document, then she has the manager sign the document, performing an illocutionary act.

And therefore,

“the Bible as the Word of God to us today is best understood in terms of God’s appropriating various illocutionary acts as his own. In Wolterstorff’s words, ‘All that is necessary for the whole [Bible] to be God’s book is that the human discourse it contains have been appropriated by God, as one single book, for God’s discourse.” (pg. 27)

“[T]his explains how one can affirm that the Bible is God’s Word and that God is the primary author of Scripture without affirming that God dictated it. It also explains how the Bible can simultaneously be the Word of God and the words of humans.”(pg 27)

This is important because it defines how we are to read Joshua and the other Genocidal texts, and informs us that our task is to distinguish what God has and what God has not appropriated.

To do this, first need an underlying fundamental principle which states:

“the interpreter takes the stance and content of my appropriating discourse to be that of your appropriated discourse, unless there is good reason to do otherwise.” (pg. 29)

How do we know what has or has not been appropriated by God?

A) Work out what illocutionary act the human author performed when he authored the text. Discern what the human author is saying. (This is done by reading the Bible as individual parts in their respective contexts.)
B) Ascertain whether we have good reason to think God was saying something different than the Human author. (This is done by reading the Bible as a single literary unit, ie. Prophecies of Christ)

One must make background assumptions concerning God’s Character, Context, and likely purposes… We do this in every other type of interpretation.

Five ways the divine illocution act may differ from the human:
1) Rhetoric ~ Conceptual Structure of Scripture (ie. Referring to God as ‘you’)
2) Distinguishing the author’s point of view from the “way he makes his point.” (ie. Form from content)
3) Distinguishing from what a Human author takes to be literal, God takes to be non-literal. (ie. Paul’s reference to God (ie. Quoting Song of Solomon as an archetype of the church and marriage).
4) To make an illocution to make another. (The story of the good Samaritan)
5) Distinguish a general principles from its particular instances (ie. Building a fence on the roof)

Therefore, to make the claim that God isn’t claiming what the author intends, one must:
A) Interpret God’s appropriation to mean something else.
B) Claim they misunderstood the text.
C) God did not appropriate the text.

As we draw towards a conclusion about a Christian Doctrine of Divine Inspiration is that we need to know how flexible our analysis may be in regards to the Biblical text. And if one is going to criticism truths within the Bible, one will inevitably presume some form of Biblical interpretation. The project of Copan’s and Flannagin’s in articulating such a view is show that it is far from reasonable to attack Christianity with a Philosophical argument from a Sunday School Caricature. If a critic is going to argue against a Biblical passage, one must first demonstrate a type of Biblical Interpretation, and, second, show that under that interpretation it is always wrong to kill innocent people.

C. The God of the Old Testament versus the God of the New Testament

However, there is one important sub-point that we are required to make. We began by clarifying Bradley’s philosophical argument, we presented a Christian Doctrine of Biblical Interpretation between Human and Divine authors, we presented a theory of how Human and Divine authors interact with each other, and then we showed how the divine appropriates the locutionary acts of humans. Now we must address the question, “Is the Bible a single, over-arching text or, almost quite literally, divided down the middle – between Old and New Testaments?”

Just as today, people in the early church had trouble with reconciling the Old Testament God with the New Testament Jesus, taking note that “[t]he killing of the Canaanites, plagues and other divine judgments, imprecatory (pray-curse) psalms, and harsh laws in the Old Testament seem to be of a different spirit than the ‘loving, non-violent Jesus’ of the Newt Testament.” (pg. 37)

People such as Marcion (born 100) interpreted the Old Testament passages literally. He then argued that the God of the O.T. Is different from the God of the N.T. In response, he wrote the Evangelikon and Apostolikon. Others, such as Origen (185-253/4), on the other end of the spectrum, allegorized all the troubling Old Testament Passages. But in either case, we are still left with the question, “Are we forced to pick between the Old Testament and New Testament Gods?”

One way to reconcile them have been offered by Peter Enns and Eric Seibert. They believe the Old Testament and New Testament do not portray different Gods, they simply portray God differently. However, as Copan and Flannagan point out, not only are there ethical or historical suggestions against Enss and Seiber’s view, but, if one is to adopt there view, they would be required to collect only certain texts when one appeal’s to Christ’s authority. For example, we would have to overlook violent New Testament passages such as Matthew 21:12:

“And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling

John 2:15:

“And he made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the
oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables;

and Matthew 18:6:

“But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Or those passages which affirms the Old Testament such as Matthew 5:7:

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.”

and Matthew 5:18:

“For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”

and we would perhaps be required to cross out all of the Book of Revelation. As Copan an Flannagan have both argued, the question isn’t, “Do we accept the Old Testament or the New Testament,” but we should ask, “How does God relate to violence?

III. Responding to Bradley’s Argument

We’ve clarified the Bradley’s reductio argument; we’ve introduced core aspects of a Christian Doctrine of Biblical Inspiration by acknowledging Human Authorship and Divine Inspiration; we’ve articulated, through Wolsteroof’s Speak-Act Theory, a way in which Human Authorship and Divine Inspiration can function together; and we have also looked at why we ought to consider the Biblical text as a unified document and not a “one half or the other”. Now while we have not provided a direct response towards Bradley’s argument, what we have done is set the contextual framework to go about with an appropriate response towards Bradley’s argument. It’s, if you will, the backdrop the stage. With that backdrop set, we can now begin to respond to Bradley’s argument.

This section will address proposition 4”:

“The secondary human author of the Bible commands us to perform acts that violate the Crucial Moral Principle”

First, we’ll ask the question, “Does the text really command us to kill the innocent?” with emphasis upon, “Does the text really command us?” In other words, what is the scope of God’s command in the “genocidal texts” – is it a general command or an occasional commend? And then we’ll again address the question, “Does the text really command us to kill the innocent?” with emphasis upon “kill the innocent.” Or, in other words, does the text really portray the Canaanite people (or other) as innocent people?

A. Does the Bible Command Us?

The initial problem with Bradley’s argument in dealing with the question, “Does God really command us?” is that Bradley’s argument relies upon commands given to Joshua and Moses. It doesn’t follow that we are commanded to kill the innocent because a text makes a command nor does it explain why an Old Testament command to Joshua and Moses could be applied to us.

Richard Mouw makes the point,

“We must also insist that not all commands which are found in the Bible are to be obeyed by contemporary Christians. For example, God commanded Abram to leave Ur of the Chaldees, and commanded Jonah to preach in Nineveh; it would be silly to suppose that it is part of every Christian’s duty to obey these commandments.” (pg. 53)

Other examples would include God’s command for Moses to speak to the rock (Exodus 17:6) or the command for the Levites to carry the ark of the covenant (Deut. 10:8 and Exod. 25:14).

It would appear that the Bible does contain commands directed at specific individuals or groups for specific times. From this we may conclude that the mere existence of a command in the Bible doesn’t automatically imply a duty for everyone at all times to follow it. We would call these commands occasional commands. However,

“Alan Donagan makes the general observation: ‘While the whole Torah [ie. The law of Moses] does not purport to be binding on all mankind, part of it does. Even in biblical ties, the Jews had come to distinguish from mere heathens those gentiles who recognized that part of the Mosaic Halachah [the Jewish Talmud’s laws and their interpretations] which applies to gentiles and Jews alike.” (pg. 54-55)

But, to the contrary, it does appear that there are things forbidden to all people. An example would be in Amos chapters 1-2, “where we see how gentile nations surrounding Israel are condemned for basic moral violations – breaking treaties, delivering vulnerable refugees into the hands of their enemies, ripping open pregnant women to expand national borders.” (pg. 55) So on the one hand we know there are occasional commands directed for certain people and there are certain practices that are forbidden to all people. This distinction appears to be held firm by the Council in Jerusalem (Acts 15) that argued “gentile believers are not required by God to follow Israel’s food laws.”(pg. 55)

So how can we tell if a command is an occasional command or a more general command? And how do we know how they play into each other? Well, there appears to be two ways. First, one can ask why such a command was isssued. And second, one can ask for the qualifications of those commands.

To the former, we could ask, “Why was Israel commanded to dispossess Canaanites?” The biblical texts provide two answers. In Deuteronomy 7:6-8, we are told:

“For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous that other people, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”

So one part for God’s reason for commanding the Israelites to dispossess the Canaanites, we because God was fulfilling the promise he gave to Abraham in Genesis. The second reason can be found in Deuteronomy 9:5:

“It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the LORD your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

Again, we notice the element of promise for Israel, but, furthermore, there appears to be a motivating reason for acting now versus some other time in dispossessing Canaan. Later, I’ll explain what were the sins of the Canaanites, but, for now, the two reasons for Israel to dispossess the Canaanites was to finally take the land that was promised to them by God and also to judge the Canaanite nations.

As to the latter question, “What are the qualifications of the commands given by God?”, one could answer that the Biblical text is clear that Israel is only to dispossess the nations within the borders that God has given them.

Deuteronomy 2:2-6,9, 19; 23:7 provide example as to the explicit area and peoples that Israel is to not disturb and are outside the domains of their dispossession.

We can therefore, reasonably conclude that not only are the Isrealites being commanded to dispossess a nation for particular reasons (ie. Promised land and judgment), but also limited in scope to those nations dwelling within the land of Canaan.

B. Kill the Innocent?

If we were to cut the argument here, the best Bradley’s argument could say is that God doesn’t command us to violate the Crucial Moral Principle, but that there was one recorded instance where God, in what would appear to be an exception, commanded Joshua to violate the Crucial Moral Principle. But allow us to continue.

Turning back the original question, “Did God command us to kill innocent people?”, and having addressed the the first part (ie. The question, “Did God command us?), we now turn to the latter part of the question, “to kill innocent people?”Or, put another way, were the Canaanites innocent people? To answer this question one can look over two features of the Canaanite incursion: Land Ownership and the Sins of the Amorites. (Note: There is a third feature, the risk of assimilation, however, due to the length of this paper as it is, it would be best for me to reference you to the original paper for further details).

Feature 1: Land Ownership

In Genesis, Exodus, and Deuteronomy, one can find two types of land ownership that the descendants of Abram were committed. First, they have the land given to them buy God. We can find evidence of this in the following verses:

Deut 20:16-17 “Only in the cities of these people that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that brethes. 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.”

Gen 12:1-2: “Go forth from your counry, And from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you’ and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing.

Exodus 13:5 “It shall be when the Lord brings you to the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, which He swore to your fathers to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, that yo shall observe this rite in this month.”

And the second type of land ownership is personal possession, purchased by Abram. Evidence could be found in the following verses:

Gen. 23:17-20 “So Ephron’s field, which was in Machpelah, which faced Mamre, the field and cave which was in it, and all the trees which were in the field that were within all the confines of its border, were deeded over to Abraham for a possession in the presences of the sons of Heth, before all who went in at the ate of his city. After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field at Machpelah facing Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. So the field and the cave that is in it, were deeded over to Abraham for a burial site by the sons of Heth.
Gen 33:19-20 “He bought th piece of land where he had pitched his tent from the had of the sons of Jamor, Shechem’s father, for one hundred pieces of money. Then he erected there an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel.”

From the above verses, it appears that one could argue that God gave the land to Israel as a promise. This promise is also emphasized by the fact that Israel was prohibited to provoke any nation outside that land(ie. The reason often given is that that land wasn’t given to the Israelites). The Canaanites were squatters.

Feature #2: The Sins of the Amorites

When we read Genesis 15:13-16, we notice two particular things:

“[K]now for certain that for four hundred years your descendents will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendents will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”

As Copan and Flannagan point out, “First, the nation of Israel will gain possession of the and only after they have been oppressed in Egypt for several generations.” (pg. 67) “Second, in spite of having a legal title and a divinely approved claim on the land, Abram and his descendants could not take immediate and total occupation of the land.” (pg. 67) They had to wait until it could be said, in the words of Revelation 18:5, “for her sins are piled up to heaven, and God has remembered her crimes.”

Leviticus 18 “[C]hronicles incest, adultery, bestiality, ritual prostitution, and homosexual acts; and, most significantly, Deuteronomy 12:29-31 singles out child sacrifice as particularly abhorrent.”(pg. 67)

Furthermore, they point out, “most of these practices are illegal today, even in Western nations, and no religious group that practiced incest, ritual prostitution, bestiality, or human sacrifice would be tolerated even in contemporary liberal societies with freedom of religion laws…. [in the] United States, adults who engage in child sacrifice could face the death penalty.” (pg. 68)

Again, “Gaza and Tyre are condemned for taking captive whole communities and selling them into slavery (1:6,9); Edom is condemned for stifling compassion against his brother Israel by pursuing him to the death (1:11). Ammon is condemned ‘because he ripped open the pregnant women of Gilead in order to extend his borders’ (1:13)”(pg. 58)

In both of these considerations, I believe it is extraordinarily difficult to argue that the Israelites were commanded to kill innocent people. However, some have respond that the text isn’t accurate, it’s a justification from the winning side. There are two problems with this response. First, they presumes the text is unreliable because of the command to exterminate. But to say the text is unreliable is to give up the argument that the extermination is reliable (also found in the same text). And second, as we noted in the beginning of my presentation, the nature of the philosophical argument is a reductio-style argument. The internal assumptions must remain fixed or else we shift the argument away from internal coherence to that of historical reliability.

C. The Israelite Mission: Thrusting Out, Driving out, and Dispossessing, not annihilating.

In response to the question, “Does God command us to kill innocent people?”, we have address both the former and the latter segments. We can return to the more general question and ask, “What was Israelite’s mission concerning Canaan?”

However, to begin with, “What was the Israelite’s mission concerning Canaan,” is to already bypass what was going on before they began to move in. God told them He would send forth a hornet to drive people out of the land. Presumably this was the record of the events in Egypt – miracles that instilled fear of the neighboring tribes. We see this in Exodus 23, vv. 27-31

“I will send my terror ahead of you and throw into confusion every nation you encounter. I will make all your enemies turn their back and run. I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites and Hittite out of your way. But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land. I will establish your borders from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, and from the desert to the Euphrates River. I will give into your hands the people who live in the land, and you will drive them out before you

So before the Israelites moved into Canaan, God had said he was send forth a hornet. The effects are confirmed in Joshua 2:9-11:

“and said to the men, “I know that that Lord has given you the land, and that the terror of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land have melted away before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of
Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. When we heard it, our hearts melted and no courage remained in any man any longer because of you; for the Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath.”

and again, in Joshua 2:24

“They said to Joshua, “Surely the Lord has given all the land into our hands; moreover, all the  inhabitants of the land have melted away before us.”

Therefore it seems, contrary to how Bradley and other atheist philosophers and Biblical critics, it was not a command to destroy all of the tribes in Canaan, but to destroy those who remain. Furthermore, in tying together the sins of those in Canaan, the dispossession, and the total destruction, it would be worth looking at Leviticus 18:24-28:

“Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the foreigners residing among you must not do any of these detestable things, for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. And if you defiled the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.”

Notice how this isn’t being drawn out as a one-way transaction – the Israelites dispossessing and destroying Canaan. They are also being told that if Israel does the same, they will witness the same effects as the those in the land of Canaan. Of course, without going into much detail, we read in 1 Chronicles 9:1b, “And Judah was carried away into exile to Babylon for their unfaithfulness

Most people, in response, quote Deuteronomy 7:2:

“And when the Lord they God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them.”

What they don’t quote, are the contextual verses,1 and 3-5:

“When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to posses and drives out before you man nations – the Hitties, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger that you;….(continuing to verse 3)… Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for yoru sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you (note: God’s warning to the Israelites is the same that is given to the former occupants of Canaan). This is what you are to do to them (note: this is the mission): Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire.”

Two things to note. First, it appears that those nations have already been driven out by God, therefore, the remaining people are those who refused the flee with the others. And second, the utter destruction seems to be pointed not towards the killing of the people, but towards their altars, images, and other sacred objects – it’s a destruction of their culture.

Again, we can look at Deut. 12:29-30:

“The Lord your God will cut off before you the nations you are about to invade and dispossess. But when you have driven them out and settled in their land, and after they have been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.”

In both verses, there is little concern about the killing of the people as there is against the Israelites adopting their culture of, as Mr. Bywater has remarked on several occasions, “Idolatry, Immorality, and Injustice.”

D. The Question of Genocide and the Hyperbolic Interpretation of Joshua

But even if we do adopt the view that the Israelite attack upon Caanan was intended to drive people out, we still have the question, “Then why do verses in Joshua, and other books, indicate that everything was destroyed?” So now, quite naturally, we look at the nature of the language that is used in the text. First, we’ll provide negative arguments as to why we cannot read these versus as literal descriptions. The second, we’ll provide positive arguments as why we should adopt a hyperbolic reading of the same texts.

Nicholas Wolterstorff at Yale rejects literal reading of the “extermination-esque” verses for two reasons. The text doesn’t appear to be affirming that reading, and the language is hyperbolic. In other words, the assumptions of the text doesn’t appear to hold a literal reading, and the language itself is demonstrably hyperbolic in construct.

“The first feature is that a tension exists between early chapters of Joshua and the opening chapters of Judges, which is the literary sequel to Joshua. Joshua 6-11 summarizes several battles and concludes with, “So Joshua took the entire land, just as the Lord had directed Moses, and he gave it as an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal divisions. Then the land had rest from war.” (11:23)

However, when we read in Judges 1:1-4:

“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?” the Lord said, “Judah shall go up. I hereby give the land into his hand.” Judah said to his brother Simeon, “Come up with me into the territory allotted to me, that we ay fight against the Canaanites; then I too will go with you into the territory allotted to you.” So Simeon went with him. Then Judah went up and the Lord gave the Canaanites and the Perizzites into their hand; and they defeated ten thousand of them at Bezek.”

What we are seeing between these two sections, if we assume utter destruction as killing everyone, that Israel finally conquered all the lands and killed all of their enemies. However, in the sequel, we read something to the effect, “and the people remained there til this day.” Something doesn’t appear to be correct if we take a literal reading.

Here are a few more examples:

Joshua 10:20a v. 10:20b
“So Joshua and the Israelites defeated them completely, but a few survivors managed to reach their fortified cities.”

If defeated completely means killing them all, then who made it back to the fortified cities?

Josh 10:39 v. Josh 11:21:

“They took the city, its king and its villages, and put them to the sword. Everyone in it they totally destroyed. They left no survivors. They did to Debir and its king as they had done to Libnah and its king and to Hebron.”

“At that time Joshua went and destroyed the Anakites from the hill country: from Hebron, Debir and Anab, from all the hill country of Judah, and from all the hill country of Israel. Joshua totally destroyed them and their towns.”

Josh 11:21 (again) vs Josh 15:13-14

“In accordance with the Lord’s command to him, Joshua gave to Caleb son of Jephunneh a portion in Judah—Kiriath Arba, that is, Hebron. (Arba was the forefather of Anak.) From Hebron Caleb drove out the three Anakites—Sheshai, Ahiman and Talmai, the sons of Anak.

If we read Joshua 10:39, 11:21: and 15:13-14 back to back to back, then Israel killed everyone three times.

Judge. 1:18 v 1:21

“Judah also took Gaza, Ashkelon and Ekron—each city with its territory. “

“The Benjamites, however, did not drive out the Jebusites, who were living in Jerusalem; to this day the Jebusites live there with the Benjamites.”

Josh 11:23 v. Judge. 2:21-23

“So Joshua took the entire land, just as the Lord had directed Moses, and he gave it as an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal divisions. Then the land had rest from war.”

“I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations Joshua left when he died. I will use them to test Israel and see whether they will keep the way of the Lord and walk in it as their ancestors did. The Lord had allowed those nations to remain; he did not drive them out at once by giving them into the hands of Joshua.”

And interesting point here is that Moses and Joshua succeeded in carrying out God’s command, yet not everyone was driven out. So, quite naturally, we should ask, “What was fulfilled if everyone wasn’t killed?”

However, more directly addresses the above series of verses, we can make two possible conclusion based upon the above negative arguments. First, the writers of Joshua and Judges were mindless, being able to write contradictions just mere sentences later. Or second, we have something wrong with how we are reading the text. However, but because these contradictions are so blatant and so close, it makes one wonder if there was something else going on in the text.

E. An Argument for “ Hyperbole”

This would lead us into our positive arguments for a non-literal interpretation of those texts. Two of the positive arguments, which I have chosen to represent from Copan and Flannage, are their appeal to literary repetitions within the text and similar rhetoric found in comparable military conquest reports.

First, to the literary repetitions, Wolterstorff argues,

“Anyone who reads the book of Joshua in one sitting cannot fail to be struck by the prominent employment of formulaic phrasing…. Far more important is the formulaic clause, ‘struck down all the inhabitants with the edge of the sword.’
The first time one read that Joshua struck down all the inhabitants of a city with the edge of the sword, namely, in the story of the conquest of Jericho (6:21), one makes nothing of it. But the phrasing – or close variants therein- gets repeated, seven times in close succession in chapter 10, two more times in chapter 11, and several times in other chapters. The repetition makes it unmistakable that we are dealing here with a formulaic literary convention.”(pg. 95)

While the mere repetition of a clause doesn’t inherently imply a hyperbolic, or rhetorical, function, it does wave a flag for further analysis. Why the repetition? And this is why Copan and Flannagan further their argument by appealing to comparable texts. What we find are similar literary hyperbole. Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen makes an interesting connection with Joshua:

“This kind of report profile is familiar to readers of ancient Near Eastern military reports, not least in the second millennium. Most striking is the examples of the campaign annals of Tutmosis III of Egypt in his Years 22-42 (ca 1458-1438)…. The pharaoh there gives a very full account of his initial victory at Megiddo, by contrast with the far more summary and stylized reports of the ensuing sixteen subsequent campaings. Just like Joshua against up to seven kings in south Canaan and four-plus up north.” (pg. 95)

He continues,

“The type of rhetoric in question was regular feature of military reports in the second and first millennium, as other have made very clear…. In the later fifteenth century Tuthmosis II could boast ‘the numberous army of Mitanni, was overthrown within the hour, annihilated totally, like those (now) non-existent’ – whereas, in fact, the forces of Mitanni lived to fight many another day, in the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries. Some centuries later, about 840/830, Mesha king of Moab could boast that ‘Israel has utterly perished for always’ – a rather premature judgment at that date, by over a century! And so on, ad libitum. It is in the frame of reference that Joshua rhetoric must also be understood.”(pg. 97)

The connection that is being made between Joshua and Tuthmosis II isn’t the connection that one is fake and other is not, or even that there are reasons to believe that Israel’s move into Canaan didn’t happen, the connection is that there appears to be a potential commonality between the two in their form of exaggerating what actually happened.

But the forcefulness of this argument, to me, appears to be made by how close the contradiction would be if they were not to be taken non-literally. For example,1 Chronicles 4:41-43 reads,

“These, recorded by name, came in the days of Hezekiah king of Judah, and attacked their tents and the Meunites who were found there, and destroyed them utterly to this day, and lived in their place, because there was pasture there for their flocks. From them, from the sons of Simeon, five hundred men went to Mount Seir, with Pelatiah, Neariah, Rephaiah and Uzziel, the sons of Ishi, as their leaders. 43 They destroyed the remnant of the Amalekites who escaped, and have lived there to this day.”

Notice what happened. Judah attacked and “destroyed them utterly to this day”, however, not more than two verses later, they also say, “five hundred men went to Mount Seir…. They destroyed the remnant.” If they utterly destroyed them, then who were the remnant?

Another example can be found in 2 Chronicles 36:16-20,

“but they continually mocked the messengers of God, despised His words and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against His people, until there was no remedy. Therefore He brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans who slew their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion on young man or virgin, old man or infirm; He gave them all into his hand. All the articles of the house of God, great and small, and the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king and of his officers, he brought them all to Babylon. Then they burned the house of God and broke down the wall of Jerusalem, and burned all its fortified buildings with fire and destroyed all its valuable articles. Those who had escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon; and they were servants to him and to his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia,

An oddity about this text affirms both, “All the articles of the house of God, great and small, and the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king and of his officers, he brought them all to Babylon,” and then, almost without skipping a beat, continues, “Then they burned the house of God and broke down he wall of Jerusalem, and burned all its fortified buildings with fire and destroyed all its valuable articles.” Naturally, we ought to ask, “How do you both carry all the valuables away and yet destroy all of them?”

The conclusion seems to follow that we can’t take all of it as literal, there is some hyperbole running through the text. The point, however, was to show that “utterly destroyed” appears to be hyperbolic and that it becomes clear when we read the Israelite attack in its fullness across Deuteronomy, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings. What we will find is that the assumption of the text is hyperbolic.
According to Copan and Flannagan, there is only one overwhelming answer to the question, “Did God Really Command Genocide?” Considering Biblical Inspiration which permits God to offer an occasional command to Israel to take back a promised land from an extraordinarily evil group of people, who were both told to leave and chose not to, and doing so via a raiding party against militarily and economically critical cities which was recorded partially in Joshua (and other books) using familiar Ancient Near Eastern Military Conquest hyperbolic language, the answer is an overwhelmingly no – God did not command, and the Israelites did not commit, Genocide.


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