In focus are common apologetic defenses of biblical genocide commanded by Yahweh, the Supreme deity of the ancient Hebrews.
Part 6 – The Canaanite Extermination in Light of Genocide Criteria
Part 8 – Forthcoming
The defender of the moral rightness of Yahweh commanding the genocide of the Canaanite tribes in the Promised land so that the Hebrew people could occupy it is that the biblical accounts are exaggerations of what occurred.
The Hebrews conquered Canaan through their invasions but this did not entail the full and thorough extermination of the land’s inhabitants. According to scholar Nicolas Wolterstorff, a philosopher and theologian, the Joshua conquest accounts,
“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 characteristic is called hagiographic hyperbole. The biblical evidence for it is strong. For example, one reads in Joshua 10:20 that “Joshua and the Israelites defeated them completely” but then “a few survivors managed to reach their fortified cities.” How could the Hebrews have exterminated them completely if the same text says some remained alive?
In Joshua 8:24, the reader is informed 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 there were no survivors then why is the reader told that there were still men in the city?
The biblical author is using deliberate exaggeration of events. Apologist Paul Copan uses the analogy of a modern sports fan saying that his team “slaughtered” or “killed” their opponents when not intending that to be taken literally.
That this hyperbolic language was a common ancient near Eastern literary device beyond the biblical texts too. It is in the Mesha Inscription (Moabite Stone) of the Moabites and their king. The inscription speaks of the Moabite “extermination” of the Israelites in the ninth century BCE. However, historians are aware that Israel was not fully wiped out by either the Moabites or their deity Chemosh but continued to exist for a century until Assyria conquered them in the eighth century BCE. Often when it is stated that populations were exterminated, they were not really totally wiped out. Other examples are present in see the Gebal Barkal Stela, Merneptah Stele, and The Bulletin of Ramses II.
The apologist’s argument is that the biblical conquest narratives are not really genocide, which lessens the critic’s charge because not everyone in the Canaanite tribes was exterminated.
The immediate challenge to this argument is the biblical texts still portray Yahweh as ordering the extermination of the Canaanites, which alone is the ethical and theological challenge the apologist and inerrantist is required to defend as justified on Yahweh’s and the Hebrews’ part. The apologist’s argument from hagiographic hypobole is challenged by Yahweh commanding that everything that breathed (men, women, children, infants, and animals) needed to be exterminated in devotion to Yahweh.
This was noted in an earlier post in this series as herem, which is the sacrifice of entire populations and settlements to Yahweh, the Supreme deity of the Hebrews. It was Yahweh’s attempt to exterminate Canaanite culture and its identity and the Hebrews attempted to fulfill this command.
A second concern is this apologetic defense defends ethnic cleansing, which is the forced and systematic removal of ethnic or racial groups from a territory by a more powerful ethnic group. This is still a moral evil and raises the same concerned questions that the greater charge of genocide do.
William Lane Craig argues that the Hebrews were to drive the Canaanites en masse out of their land, thereby limiting the extermination only to those Canaanites who remained. Craig 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 leaves unresolved the biblical texts that assert human sacrifices were desired by Yahweh. In other words, granted that the extermination was not carried out historically or to the extent described in the biblical text, Yahweh still desired it. The ethical and theological problem then remains.
Although one could make the argument that ethnic cleansing is a lesser moral evil than genocide, it might still be argued that killing some people on their land and dispossessing the rest is sufficient to qualify as genocide. This scenario satisfies several of the criteria of international law by the International Convention on the “Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.” One is warranted at making a claim of genocide should any of the following criteria 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
How does this apply to the biblical conquest narratives?
The Hebrews dispossessing the Canaanite tribes of their land entails (a), (b), and (c), and therefore qualifies as genocide. The Hebrews, whether entirely or not intended to kill the Canaanites as a population, destroying their religious and cultural identity, and forcing them out of their land. This no doubt caused severe bodily and psychological harm.
Craig speculates that it is possible that no non-combatants were killed by the Hebrew foot soldiers and that it was only the Canaanite combatants who stayed to fight. This apologetic is speculative. On one hand, it is unlikely because the biblical texts describe the full dispossession of an entire people. This must be viewed in the context of the biblical mandates to kill everything that breathes in the land.
It is also not unreasonable to suggest that immobile Canaanites, perhaps the frail elderly or physically infirm, could not have fled their homes or done so in time. They would also have been hacked to death by Hebrew warriors. Surely many Canaanites would have attempted to defend their homes and families, although unsuccessfully.
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.
[…] Part 5 – Reprobate Culture Part 7 – Hyperbole & Land Dispossession […]
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.