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.