Matt Flannagan and Paul Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 9: “Objections from the Biblical Text to the Hyperbolic Interpretation.”

Did God Really Command Genocide?  

This chapter answers various objections to the claim made in the previous chapter that biblical affirmations such as “they completely destroyed it and everyone in it” or “left no survivors” are to be understood as hyperbolic.

The first objection is based on 1 Samuel 15 and Judges 1. Wes Morriston writes that it’s a stretch to imagine that a God who said all should be destroyed would be displeased if all were destroyed. His first line of argument from the Bible is 1 Samuel 15. King Saul had been commanded to strike Amalek and put to death everyone, including the animals. Saul is said to destroy all the people with the edge of the sword, but he destroyed only the livestock that were despised and weak, sparing Agag the Amalekite king and the best sheep and cattle. The passage Morriston cites recounts God’s response to Saul’s actions. Because Saul did not follow God’s instructions but instead “rush upon the spoil,” God regretted making him king.

Morriston’s suggestion is that Saul was rejected for not taking the command literally. If the command had been hyperbolic, Saul’s behavior would have been compatible with what was commanded. But Morriston is wrong here. Even on a hyperbolic reading that describes “disabling raids” rather than all-out extermination, Saul’s actions of sparing the best sheep would still violate God’s command. Such livestock as was spared had not been taken, but left, and were subject to destruction. God’s recorded response, then, is compatible with either a literal or hyperbolic reading of the command.

But a literal reading of the passage is not compatible with other features of the text. The text takes for granted that Saul “utterly destroyed” the Amalekites, a point that can’t be taken literally in light of the latter chapters of 1 Samuel. Saul’s disobedience wasn’t that he hadn’t “utterly destroyed” the Amalekites, but that he preserved animals left behind that he should have destroyed and that he allowed the king to remain alive.

It seems implausible that we should interpret the command in verse 3 as literal but the fulfillment, just four verses later, as hyperbolic. The key areas of failure had to do with preserving the livestock that had been left behind rather than destroying them. Samuel challenges Saul on his incomplete obedience by focusing on the animals. Saul responds to the charge of disobedience by blaming the people for keeping the animals. Samuel rebukes Saul by saying God had given him a command Saul disobeyed. And Saul again blames the people for his failure in leadership. Samuel focuses again on the livestock and addresses the central concern that Saul listened to the people rather than God. Finally, Saul’s reply acknowledges that he has failed to be a leader but instead listened to the people about the animals.

Nevertheless, we have reason for taking the text hyperbolically. The narrative goes on to say not all the Amalekites were wiped out. So while Saul’s condemnation is compatible with both a literal and hyperbolic reading of the command, a literal reading contradicts the remaining narrative, whereas a hyperbolic reading coheres with it.

So Morriston’s argument features a subtle incoherence. He defends a literal interpretation because he wrongly thinks that a hyperbolic interpretation is inconsistent with other things affirmed by the text. So the grounds he mistakenly provides for rejecting hyperbole are also grounds for rejecting literalism. Finally, not only does a hyperbolic interpretation cohere with the text better than a literal one, there is evidence within the section from which Morriston quotes that suggests it contains rhetorical exaggeration and hyperbolic syntagms like “utterly destroyed” or “left no man of them alive.”

First, the way 1 Samuel 15 uses the language of how Saul “utterly destroyed” the Amalekites “with the sword” is the same syntagm that was repeatedly used as hyperbole in Joshua (8:24; 10:28; etc.) as well as 1 Chronicles 4:41. Second, the language of the command is very similar to the hyperbolic syntagm in 2 Chronicles 36. In light of such texts, we have good reason for thinking that these similarities in language and context offer good grounds for seeing God’s command to Saul to “utterly destroy” the Amalekites and his clearly carrying this out as indicative of hyperbole. Third, one feature of ancient war reports is the hyperbolic use of numbers, where the size of armies is exaggerated for rhetorical effect. Exaggeration makes the best sense of the immense numbers cited, as hyperbole was a regular feature of Near Eastern military reporting.

F&C also note that Saul is primarily engaged in battle against the Amalekites in a specific city—not on a massive geographical scale. Firth argues this was probably a fortified military encampment. A closer look at the text of 1 Samuel reveals that Saul is fighting against a smaller representation of the Amalekites—a group that had just earlier engaged in plundering the Israelites and which provoked a military response from Saul.

Morriston commits the fallacy of misplaced literalism—the misconstruction of a statement-in-evidence so that it carries a literal meaning when a symbolic or hyperbolic or figurative meaning was intended.

Judges 1: Israel’s Failure to Drive Out the Canaanites

A second line of evidence that Morriston cites for his rejection of a hyperbolic interpretation of the relevant passages is that, he argues, it was the failure of the Israelites to destroy all the targets of the genocide that prevented one of the very things that God was supposed to be trying to do, namely, destroy the Canaanite religion. This left the Israelites in the situation God was allegedly trying to change: one of continual temptation to intermarry and join the Canaanites in their religious worship. Indeed, the Israelites repeatedly succumbed to this temptation.

Morriston is wrong about this. Suppose the command was merely to drive out the Canaanites, killing only those who remained and did not flee. That would have avoided the temptation to continually intermingle with the surrounding people, since those people would no longer be there. The text itself helps clarify the point. The later temptations to intermingle and marry the surrounding people was a result of the failure to “drive out the Canaanites.” The end of Judges 1 repeatedly emphasizes the failure to drive out the Canaanites. The issue is failure to drive out, not failure to exterminate. Moreover, Joshua is said to have obeyed God, yet not all the Canaanites were exterminated, which makes good sense on a hyperbolic reading, but not a literal one.

The Case of Rahab

Another objection comes from Douglas Earl, who disputes the hyperbolic reading of the story of Rahab in Joshua 6—the kind of reading advocated by Wolterstorff. Rahab is a Canaaanite woman who shows faith in God and is saved from destruction, whereas Achan is an Israelite who disobeys God and is destroyed. The juxtaposing of these episodes and the similar language leads Earl to conclude that the author here is making an explicit point: it’s faithfulness to God’s commands, not one’s ethnicity, that makes one a true Israelite. And it’s disobedience, not ethnicity, that makes one subject to destruction. The objector suggests that, once one sees the point being made, the total destruction of every single Canaanite is essential to the story. Otherwise Rahab’s survival could have been explained in ways other than as a reward for her loyalty to God.

But such a conclusion doesn’t follow. If the text tells us that Rahab was spared because of her fidelity to God, then that could be true whether or not others are spared or not for whatever reasons. Also, if the real point of the story is that it is disobedience and not ethnicity (or national identity) that makes one subject to destruction, then surely it is the literalistic reading that contradicts the point of the story, not the hyperbolic reading. If God had commanded the “total destruction” of the Canaanites not just in Jericho, but in the entire Promised Land, that would shift the focus to ethnicity rather than disobedience, which goes against the Rahab-Achan contrast.

Judges 20-21

Another objection is based on Judges 20-21, in which the allied tribes of Israel attack armies from the morally degraded tribe of Benjamin. After several Israelite defeats, they eventually prevail, and a small number of Benjamite soldiers escape. After the battle, the allied forces proceeded to kill every last woman and child in the land of Benjamin. The story occurs as one of many illustrations of Israel’s moral degeneration.

What’s relevant here is that this account does not appear to be hyperbolic. Some critics argue that Judges 20-21 uses language similar to Joshua. Because the passage uses the same language as Joshua, and because the account in Judges is clearly not hyperbolic, the account in Joshua can’t be hyperbolic either.

There are two problems with this reply. First, the language in Judges 20:10 doesn’t use the language of herem (“utter destruction”) that is used in Deuteronomy and Joshua. Second, even if Judges 20-21 did use language similar to Joshua, this comeback fails to understand that the same language, even the same phrase, can have different senses, whether hyperbolic or literal, depending on the context. And context shows Judges 20-21 is just the opposite of what we find in Joshua. In Joshua, the language of wiping out all the inhabitants is included in narratives that assume the inhabitants were not wiped out and even existed in large numbers. One can therefore read one account literally and another hyperbolically because they occur in different contexts.


Lastly, consider the apparent genocide of the Midianites in Numbers 31. On the face of it, the text affirms that every Midianite was killed and only female virgins survived so they could be assimilated into the Israelite community. Some critics insist these texts can’t plausibly be understood as being hyperbolic. Even if this passage is to be read as literal, though, that wouldn’t mean the relevant passages in Joshua and Deuteronomy aren’t hyperbolic. But interestingly enough, Milgrom makes the case that the Numbers 31 account does contain extensive hyperbole, and he notes several features of the text that suggest this.

First, Milgrom notes several cases of obvious rhetorical exaggeration. Second, when we turn to the book of Judges, if we take that narrative literally, it states quite emphatically that the Midianites were not wiped out at all. Also, later in the book we observe the distinction between God’s command and an additional command from Moses that went beyond the command from God. F&C make three responses to this: First, God’s command centered on the Midianite men being killed, since they had been complicit in this national Midianite plot hatched by Balaam; this was a corporate endeavor to incite Israelite treachery against Yahweh’s covenant with them. Second, while Moses’s command does highlight the women’s guilt and judgment-worthiness, the text still indicates a distancing of the divine command (and its completion) from Moses’s own command. Third, as Goldingay notes, we are not told that Moses’s command is actually carried out, and we well know that the OT does not shrink from mentioning deaths by divine judgment.

F&C note the way even various OT scholars themselves have engaged in a careless reading of biblical war texts, particularly Joshua, encouraging OT scholars, in Kenneth Kitchen’s words, “to read into the entire book a whole myth of their own making, to the effect that the book of Joshua presents a sweeping, total conquest and occupation of Canaan by Joshua, which can then be false pitted against the narratives in Judges. But this modern myth is merely a careless falsehood, based on the failure to recognize and understand ancient use of rhetorical summations. The ‘alls’ are qualified in the Hebrew narrative itself.”



Image:"Rahab and the Emissaries of Joshua" by Unknown, Rahab and the Emissaries of Joshua - [1]. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -