Did God Really Command Genocide? By Paul Copan and Matthew Flanagan: An Overview

For Christians who take the scriptures seriously, perhaps no other passages are as difficult to explain as those in which God commands the destruction of entire populations of innocent persons.  We are told, for example, in Joshua 10:40, “Thus Joshua struck all the land, the hill country and the Negev and the lowland and the slopes and all their kings. He left no survivor, but he utterly destroyed all who breathed, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded.”[1]  I Samuel 15:2-3 reads, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he set himself against him on the way while he was coming up from Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”  In addition there are the imprecatory psalms such as Psalm 137 in which we read, “O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one, How blessed will be the one who repays you with the recompense with which you have repaid us. How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock” (vs. 8-9).  Certainly such passages are difficult to read, much less to explain

In recent years these passages, located primarily in the conquest narratives of the Old Testament, have become fodder for a host of critics of Christianity.  For example, atheist Richard Dawkins refers to the God of the Old Testament as “a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser,”[2] among other charges. Similar charges have been made by other critics and atheist philosophers such as Raymond Bradley, Wesley Moriston, Randal Rauser, Michael Tooley, and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong.  All of these authors wonder how Christians can worship a God who would cruelly and brutally reign down death and destruction on the innocent, extinguishing entire civilizations.

Photo by  Aaron Burden  on  Unsplash

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Christian apologists Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan (hereafter C&F) have taken up the challenge of explaining these difficult passages in their new book Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014).  This is not new territory for either of them.  Paul Copan has written several articles and an earlier book, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), and Matt Flanagan has presented papers at numerous conferences on topics in Christian ethics. In the posts that follow I am going to offer a summary of each chapter of their book. This one is an overview of their whole project.

C&F begin with an introduction, placing the discussion in its current setting.  They cite a number of critics who have raised the actions and commands of the God of the Old Testament as a primary reason for rejecting the existence of the biblical God.  Answering such objections is the purpose of the present volume.  They then provide an outline to the book, which they divide into four parts.

Part One is titled, “Genocide Texts and the Problem of Scriptural Authority.”  In this section of the book they set up the problem by introducing the Crucial Moral Principle, “It is morally wrong to deliberately and mercilessly slaughter men, women, and children who are innocent of any serious wrong doing.”  This principle seems to be violated by God’s commands located in the genocide passages.  C&F take up the issue of the authorship of Scripture and examine what it means to say that the Bible which contains these commands is the Word of God.  They also discuss the question of the distinction between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New.

In Part Two, titled “Occasional Commands, Hyperbolic Texts, and Genocidal Massacres,” C&F begin by addressing the question, “Does the Bible actually command us to kill innocent people?” In this section they discuss the question of what it means to be innocent as well as the hyberbolic language employed in these biblical texts in comparison to other ancient near eastern war texts.  They also examine the legal question of displacement as a form of genocide.  They conclude that “genocide” is not an accurate term to describe these biblical events as the pagan nations were not “utterly destroyed” at all.

In Part Three, C&F move on to the question, “Is it Always Wrong to Kill Innocent People?”  Here the authors concentrate on an understanding of divine command theory based on the commands of a good and just God.  They spend a number of chapters dealing with standard objections such as the Euthyphro dilemma and conclude with a discussion on God’s commands to kill others as an exemption to the Crucial Moral Principle. They also delve into the question of why we should not believe someone who claims today that God “told” him to kill other innocent human beings.

In the final part of the book, C&F expand the discussion to a more general conversation about “Religion and Violence.”  They address the oft-raised charge that religion is dangerous because it causes violence and contrast the Old Testament context with the modern Islamic call for jihad, which are often lumped together.  They also look back at the Crusades and answer the objection that the text of Joshua inspired them. They conclude with a discussion of pacifism, based on the words of Jesus to turn the other cheek and how just war can be defended in light of such commands.

Copan and Flannagan provide much to mull over and examining their arguments is a worthwhile endeavor for those puzzled over these passages and questions.  We will begin with our next post by looking at chapter one.

[1] All quotations NASB

[2] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mufflin, 2006), 51

copan flannagan book

Photo: Joshua's Victory over the Amalekites. Painting by Nicolas Poussin. Public Domain. 


Mark Foreman

Mark W. Foreman is professor of philosophy and religion at Liberty University where he has taught philosophy, apologetics, and bioethics for 26 years.  He has an MABS from Dallas Theological Seminary and an MA and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia.   He is the author of Christianity and Bioethics (College Press, 1999, [reprint Wipf and Stock, 2011] ), Prelude to Philosophy: An Introduction for Christians (InterVarsity Press, 2014), How Do We Know: An Introduction to Epistemology  (with James K. Dew,Jr., InterVarsity Press, 2014) and articles in the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012),  Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics (Harvest House, 2008) as well as chapters in Come Let us Reason: New Essay in Christian Apologetics (B&H, 2012) Steven Spielberg and Philosophy (with David Baggett, University of Kentucky Press, 2008) and Tennis and Philosophy (University of Kentucky Press, 2010).  Mark has been a member of Evangelical Philosophical Society for over 20 years and is currently serving as vice-president of the society.  His specializations are Christian apologetics, biomedical ethics and ethics.