Responding to Defenses of Divine Biblical Genocide: Hyperbole & Land Dispossession [Part 7].

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Welcome to part 7 of this series. We will focus on common apologetic defenses of biblical genocide and the justifications given for them, and why they do not succeed as providing a rational justification for God’s commanding genocide.

Part 6 – The Human Factor of the Canaanite Genocide
Part 8 – To come.

According to this defense the overall punch of the genocide charge can be lessened on the basis that the biblical accounts are exaggerations of what happened. The argument essentially posits that the Israelites conquered Canaan through their armies invading the land but not with full and thorough extermination of the land’s inhabitants. According to scholar Nicolas Wolterstorff the Joshua accounts of the invasion of Canaan,

“are narrated in a particular style, which is not intended to be literal in all of its details and contains a lot of hyperbole, formulaic language and literary expressions for rhetorical effect. We argue in our book that the evidence both from within the Bible and from other ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts supports this conclusion” (1).

This literary technique is referred to as hagiographic hyperbole and the biblical basis for its employment is strong. For example, we read in Joshua 10:20 that “Joshua and the Israelites defeated them completely,” and then that ” a few survivors managed to reach their fortified cities.” Well, did Joshua defeat them completely or did he not? In 8:24 we are told that “Israel cut them down, leaving them neither survivors or fugitives…” and then later “Israel went to the city of Ai and killed all the men in it.” But if Joshua left no survivors then why are we told that there were still men in the city? It is quite clear that what the author is doing is employing deliberate exaggeration of events and is not intending them to be 100% accurate. Copan likens this to a modern sport’s fan saying that his team “slaughtered” or “killed” their opponents. Obviously it is not intended to be taken literally.

That this hyperbolic language was a common ANE literary device is also strong evidentially. We find it in the Mesha Inscription (Moabite Stone) of the Moabites and the king of Moab. The inscription speaks of the Moabite “extermination” of the Israelites in the 9th century. We know that Israel was not fully wiped out by either the Moabites or their god Chemosh but in fact continued to exist for over a whole century until Assyria conquered them within the 8th century BC. Thus, hagiographic hyperbole was not unique to Israel and that the populations and people said to have been totally wiped out were not really wiped out. Other examples can be shown (see the Gebal Barkal Stela, Merneptah Stele, and the The Bulletin of Ramses II).

So, essentially the argument is that the conquest narratives can’t really be qualified as genocide, so it’s not that bad because not everyone was killed. The problem with this defense is that in the texts God still orders the extermination of the Canaanites, which is taken to be mass extermination as per Deuteronomy 20 and included everything that breathed (men, women, children, and animals). As we saw in the previous posts to this series these commands take place in the warfare framework of herem, the sacrifice of entire populations and cities to Yahweh. We still need to account for the texts which carry God’s commands because it remains obvious that God wanted to destroy Canaanite culture and identity and the Israelites attempted to carry out that intent. This latter fact is often argued by divine genocide apologist on grounds that Canaanite culture was wicked and a “threat” to the nation of Israel, hence providing a rationale to wipe them out.

The second concern is that this defense can be seen as defending ethnic cleansing. Ethnic cleansing is the forced and systematic removal of ethnic or racial groups from a given territory by a more powerful ethnic group. It is still a moral evil, and rears several of the same questions that the greater charge of genocide does itself. Nonetheless, William Lane Craig argues that the Israelites were to drive the Canaanites en masse out of the land, thereby limiting the slaughter only to those Canaanites that remained behind. Craig thus draws the following conclusion,

“It is therefore completely misleading to characterize God’s command to Israel as a command to commit genocide. Rather it was first and foremost a command to drive the tribes out of the land and to occupy it. Only those who remained behind were to be utterly exterminated” (2).

This obviously leaves unresolved the issue that the biblical texts suggest that such human sacrifices were desired by God, so even if they weren’t carried out historically per se God still desired it. The problem therefore remains. Moreover, although one could [successfully] make the argument that ethnic cleansing amounts to a lesser moral evil than outright genocide, it could still be argued that the notion of of killing some in their land and dispossessing the rest are themselves sufficient to qualify as genocide. Such a scenario, in fact, would satisfy several of the criteria of international law by the International Convention on the “Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.” We are warranted at making the claim of genocide should any of the following be met:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

We find that by the Israelites simply dispossessing the Canaanites of their land would entail (a), (b), and (c), and thus still qualify as genocide. The Israelite armies were intent on slaughtering the Canaanites as a population group, destroying their religious and cultural identity, and forcing them out of their land. All of which no doubt causing severe bodily and psychological damage to the Canaanites themselves. Craig does speculate that it is possible that no non-combatants were killed by the Israelite armies and that it were only the Canaanite soldiers who stayed to fight. This, however, seems at best to be grasping at straws. On one hand it is a very unlikely scenario given the full dispossession of an entire religion and its people, let alone the biblical mandates to kill everything that breathes in the land. It is, moreover, not unreasonable to suggest that some immobile Canaanites, especially the elderly and physically unable, could not have fled their homes or at least have fled in time, and would subsequently be hacked to death by the Israelite invaders. Others would have tried to defend their homes and families. Israel is clearly the instigator and the aggressor in this scenario.

The moral dilemma only deepens for a defender of divinely commanded genocide. He or she has to account for genocide and ethnic cleansing as being compatible with a morally perfect being.


1. Merritt, J. 2015. Did God command genocide in the Bible? Available.

2. Craig, W. 2011. #225 The “Slaughter” of the Canaanites Re-visited. Available.


2 responses to “Responding to Defenses of Divine Biblical Genocide: Hyperbole & Land Dispossession [Part 7].

  1. Pingback: The Human Factor of the Canaanite Genocide [Part 6] | James Bishop's Theological Rationalism·

  2. I have enjoyed reading your series. I agree with you that these issues are ones that need to be taken seriously by Christians and that the justifications given by literal readings of these passages are highly problematic.

    I think one point I would make is that if God himself destroyed these people it would not be a sin. IMO he would have that right as the creator to destroy his creation. This may seem odd to people at first because we tend to see ourselves as sort of in the same category as the person who created us. But I believe that is a category mistake. Of course as we are his creation we don’t like to hear that, but it is hard to see how that wouldn’t be the case. I blogged about that here:

    The problem with the passages you raise (and why my response above does not work) is because God does not do the destruction himself. He orders us to do it. And it is objectively wrong for us to take lives in that manner.
    P1) God never commands us to do evil
    P2) If we take the bible literally God commanded us to to do evil
    Conclusion this passage should not be read literally.

    To certain people this will seem a cop out. They will ask well then if not intended as literal truth what was the intent? And I think that is a fair question. But it is also a fair response to say when you have 72 ancient books often written by unknown people we may not always be entirely sure of the intent of every passage. That said I can say how I interpret these passages.

    I intend to do a longer blog on this but the short hand is the people killed represent sin and attachment to sin. This analogy where evil people of the old testament equate to sin is made explicit by the Holy Spirit in the New testament. 1 Peter 3 19-21:

    “After being made alive he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water,and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God”

    The water in the flood destroyed evil people who did not listen to Noah. The water in baptism destroys our sin. This parallel (evil people from the old testament = sin) is an important one and can help us understand these old testament passages figuratively. The message is no amount of sin (or even attachment to sin) is ok. Not even sin that seems harmless and is very hard to give up.

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