Critics of Christianity often ask how can a good and loving God command the extermination of the Canaanites as is taught the Old Testament? A clear assumption behind this question is that the Old Testament teaches that God did in fact command the extermination of the Canaanites, an assumption which is based on a straight-forward literal reading of some passages in Joshua and Deuteronomy. In an earlier blog series, Joshua and the Genocide of the Canaanites, I elaborated and defended the position of Nicholas Wolterstorff that such a literal reading of these passages is mistaken. The language of “leaving alive nothing that breaths” or “destroying” and other such language should be understood as hyperbole and hence is analogous to someone today saying after a ball game, “we totally slaughtered the opposition, we annihilated them just as coach told us to.”
Ken Pulliam has taken issue with this defence so here I will respond to some of his criticisms. (I plan to address some of the other objections in future posts). Before doing so it is important to address some rhetorical tricks his article contains. To begin with Pulliam entitles his response “Grasping at Straws Part Eleven–Evangelicals Defend Genocide” and cites Wolterstorff and myself as examples. But neither Wolterstorff or I defended genocide, we argued that God did not command genocide. Moreover, referring to my argument, Pulliam states that I cited “external evidence of how other ANE nations reported their exploits of war [by citing] evangelical Kenneth Kitchen.” Now it is true that Kitchen is an evangelical and that I cite him, however, Kitchen is also a leading Egyptologist and I don’t just cite him I cite numerous examples of Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) reports of war where language similar to that used by Joshua and Deuteronomy are used hyperbolically. I also noted evidence that Joshua is written according to the literary conventions of such reports.
Instead of addressing this evidence directly, Pulliam gives a series of arguments for the claim that the text is not hyperbolic but literal. One objection Pulliam raises is that this interpretation “fails to solve the other moral problems in the Hebrew Scriptures.” He asks, “are we to explain away all of the problems in the Old Testament by appealing to hyperbole?” The answer of course is no; it is hard to see why this is an objection. Why does an interpretation of one passage have to answer every question about every other passage in order for it to be plausible? Interpreting the first line of Pulliam’s post literally does not solve every problem I see in it should I, therefore, not take it literally?
A second, objection Pulliam makes is that “it fails to take into account how these hyperbolic passages would be misused in the future by those who thought they were following divinely commanded principles.” Presumably Pulliam means that God, by allowing his word to be mediated through the literary conventions of ANE historiography, would forsee that future generations will misinterpret it. This, of course, is correct. Again, it is unclear why this means that the text should be taken literally. After all, it seems any language which God mediates his word through, whether literal or figurative, will have this implication. A message mediated through the more literalistic conventions of 21st century English, History and Moral Philosophy would be misunderstood by numerous people as well (his seems to be more a problem with verbal revelation per se rather than any particular interpretation of it).
Pulliam’s other arguments are more on point. He argues that a hyperbolic interpretation “fails to appreciate that Judges 2:1-5 says that the Israelites did not obey the LORD in totally destroying the Canaanites, and that as a result, they will have problems for generations to come.” Pulliam poses a rhetorical question, “if the genocidal commands were never intended to be taken literally, why are the people scolded by Yahweh and told that their future problems will come as a result of their disobedience?” In fact, in articles which Pulliam refers to both Wolterstorff and I cite this passage and point out that, in fact, it says no such thing; it states,
‘I will never break my covenant with you,2 and you shall not make a covenant with the people of this land, but you shall break down their altars.’ Yet you have disobeyed me. Why have you done this?3 Now therefore I tell you that I will not drive them out before you; they will be thorns in your sides and their gods will be a snare to you.4
Here Israel is criticised for disobeying an order to not make a covenant with the Canaanites and to destroy their altars. There is nothing at all present in these passages about extermination and genocide. Moreover, both Wolterstorff and myself pointed this out.
Pulliam further objects that,
One must ask if Wolterstorff’s opinion that Joshua uses “highly figurative” language is based on literary considerations or is it driven more by his need to solve the moral problems involved? He does not provide any direct parallels between Joshua and other literature which is clearly recognized as hagiographic and figurative.
This again is simply a distortion of the situation. In my original post I gave a large number of direct parallels between Joshua and other literature which is both figurative and hagiographic (in Wolterstorff’s sense of the term). Given that I did this and that Pulliam has clearly read the post (he did link to it) one wonders why he claims no such parallels have been offered. Moreover, Wolterstorff, in the article he cites from, does provide several literary considerations for his thesis. It seems evident that several of Pulliam’s arguments involve simply ignoring what Wolterstorff and I have written and distorting the evidence.
Equally puzzling is Pulliam’s argument, “If Joshua is hagiography, why shouldn’t one believe that the Gospels are as well? Why should one take their stories as literal history?” This is puzzling because my post addressed this. There is compelling textual evidence both from within the text itself and also via comparisons between Joshua and other ANE texts to suggest that it is hyperbolic. These parallels and textual considerations are not present with the gospels. Similarly, in his book Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks Wolterstorff discusses the genre of the gospels and cites comparisons with ancient Greek biographies to defend the claim that the gospels are ancient Greek biography. Again Pulliam’s response appears to be to ignore what those he criticises actually wrote.
It is worth noting that this kind of argument relies on a peculiar assumption, that if one grants that one part of a text is non-literal then one cannot, non-arbitrarily, take any other part of the text as literal. Pulliam’s own writing falsifies this claim. He concludes that “Wolterstorff is more sophisticated than some of the other harmonization attempts we have seen, it is in reality just another case of grasping at straws.” Surely, his phrase “grasping at straws” is a non-literal figure of speech (I am assuming he did not mean to refer to real straws) does it follow then that we should not take anything else he says in his post literally?