Matt Flannagan and Paul Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 10: “Legal and Theological Objections Concerning Genocide”

Did God Really Command Genocide? 

Having made a compelling case for a hyperbolic interpretation of the claims of genocide in the conquest narratives of Joshua, F&C turn in this chapter to a consideration of objections raised from the legal and theological standpoints. Some critics hold that, even if the commands to “utterly destroy” the Canaanites are taken to be hyperbole, there is still a concern that some form of genocide is still being commanded and carried out.

F&C raise the point that some critics may not be satisfied with the hyperbolic explanation because, while the conquest narratives may not be describing the entire annihilation of a people group, they are describing the physical destruction of a substantial number of Caananites, enough to still qualify under the legal concept of genocide. The ICPPCG definition of genocide does not require entire destruction, but just the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial or religious group” (quoted on 126, emphasis mine).

F&C begin to address this criticism by quoting a more complete statement of the meaning of genocide according to the ICPPCG which includes the following condition: “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” Critics might point out that driving out the Canaanites would be considered part of fulfilling this condition and hence the legal concept of genocide would be met by the actions of the Israelites.

However, as F&C argue, while such actions could lead to fulfilling this condition, the evidence shows that this is not the case in the conquest narratives. They point out that one of the key aspects of this concept of genocide is the intention to cause the complete physical destruction of the people group in question. However, as our previous studies have shown, this was not the intent in driving the Canaanites out of the land. The intention of the commands given to Joshua and the fulfilling of those commands were just to drive the people from the land. It was not for the intention of the complete physical destruction of the Canaanites.

F&C use current rulings concerning the recent charges in the conflict between the Bosnians/Herzegovina and Serbians to show two points concerning the issue of genocide: (1) that the destruction intended must be the physical-biological annihilation of a people group and (2) that the destruction entail a substantial number of the group. They quote from the case of Prosecutor v. Radislov Krstic (2004) where the ICTY stated, “The aim of the Genocide Convention is to prevent the intentional destruction of entire human groups and the part targeted must be significant enough to have an impact on the group as a whole” (quoted on 127-128, emphasis theirs). Again Israel was not intending the annihilation of the Canaanites. They were merely attempting to end their criminal activity and to drive them from a land that was by all rights their own.

None of this is to say that there might not be other ethical problems and issues that need to be addressed in the conquest narratives (many of which will be discussed further in the book), but one cannot claim that Israel was guilty of genocide simply because it drove the Canaanites from the land. As the ICTY stated in the case of Prosecution v Milomar Stakic (2003), “A clear distinction must be drawn between physical destruction and mere dissolution of a group. The expulsion of a group or part of a group does not in itself suffice for genocide” (quoted on 129, emphasis theirs). While the term “genocide” might have strong rhetorical impact, it is not the correct legal term to use concerning the conquest narratives.

F&C spend the rest of this chapter dealing with a number of theological objections that some might raise concerning the hyperbolic interpretation they offer. They first address an objection that some might raise concerning interpreting historical passages non-literally. Some might think, “Well if we can just claim that these descriptions are not literal, then what’s to stop one from claiming that all other historical passages should not be taken literally, such as miracle passages like the resurrection?” F&C address this by pointing out the failure of some to recognize different forms of genre present in scripture. Scripture uses a number of genres to communicate truth, and a sophisticated approach to biblical interpretation takes cares to consider genre when making one’s interpretive choices about passages to be taken as accurate historical descriptions and others that are non-literal, such as using hyperbole or metaphor. For example, one certainly does not believe that when Isaiah claims that “the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Is. 55:12) that this will literally occur.

One might ask, “How do we know when a passage is literal and when it is figurative?” Well let’s take a contemporary example. Suppose your friend comments, “Did you see that game last night? The Dodgers murdered the Cubs.” You can certainly know that he is not saying the same thing as a news report that states, “The jury returned a verdict of guilty of murder in the trial of Ted Bundy today.” Now how do you know one is a hyperbole and the other not? You look at the evidence. Were any Cubs really filled on the field? Is this first statement a common hyperbole used by sports fans in our culture? The context of the second statement is a news report about a trial—that tells you something, doesn’t it? In the same way we examine the evidence in scripture to help us determine how to interpret a passage. In the case of the conquest narratives, F&C have pointed to lines of evidence that are similar to our example. One is the usage in other conquest literature of the ancient Near East which tends to use hyperbole concerning military conquests. The other is the evidence of passages which claim that the Caananites were not “utterly destroyed” as many are still living after the event described.

A second objection raises concerns about God’s control over miscommunication and misinterpretation. If he did not mean the passages to be taken literally, why didn’t he simply allow it to be stated as thus when the scriptures were written down? F&C point out that there will always be the possibility of miscommunicating the message of scripture and certainly God cannot be responsible for each time someone misinterprets his word. Besides, he uses the styles of the authors in communicating his message. Again, hyperbole was a common style back then.

The final objection raised is when critics use an inappropriate analogy in objecting to the conquest narratives. An example would be, “What if the President decided to wipe out Iran because he thought God told him to do so?” However, such examples are bad analogies because they are relevantly similar to the relationship of Israel and God. Israel was a theodicy, and the US is not. The US has not been promised a land that Iran is now encroaching upon. There are other dissimilarities as well. The point is that one needs to be careful about making false analogous claims as objections to the historically conditioned situation in which the conquest narratives were written.

Having fully addressed the question of genocide and the conquest narratives, F&C move into a third part of the book and address the broader question, is it always wrong to kill innocent people?


Image: By Jörg Bittner Unna - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

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.