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God and the Genocide of the Canaanites Part III: Two Implications of the Hagiographic Hyperbolic Account

January 16th, 2011 by Matt

This three-part blog series is a modified version of what I presented to the Evangelical Philosophical Society meeting in November 2010.

Joshua Slaughters the Canaanites

In a recent Conference at Notre Dame Alvin Plantinga suggested that the commands to wipe out the Canaanites, recorded in the book of Deuteronomy, might be hyperbolic; they should be understood more like how we understand a person who states, in the context of a boxing match, “knock his block off, hand him his head”, or in a football game where a person states that the team should “kill the opposition” or boasts that “we totally slaughtered them.”[1] Understood this way, the commands in Deuteronomy meant “something like attack them, defeat them, drive them out; not literally kill every man, woman, child donkey and the like”.[2]

In two previous posts I have explored and defended Nicholas Wolterstorff’s argument for this conclusion. In God and the Genocide of the Canaanites Part I: Wolterstorff’s Argument for the Hagiographic Hyperbolic Interpretation, I elaborated on, appropriated and expanded Nicholas Wolterstorff’s case for understanding Joshua as a hagiographic, stylised and highly hyperbolic account of Israel’s early skirmishes. In Part II: Ancient Near Eastern Conquest Accounts, I argued that studies into Ancient Near Eastern historiography give considerable support to his conclusion. Joshua appears to follow the same rhetoric, literary conventions and motifs of other ancient Near East conquest accounts and one feature of such accounts is to narrate victories hyperbolically in terms of killing all people, leaving no survivors and so forth. This suggests the description of Joshua putting every inhabitant to the sword, totally destroying all and leaving no survivors, is not to be taken literally. In this last post in this series I want to look at some implications of accepting this.

I think two implications can be drawn from this conclusion. First,

On the assumption that Deuteronomy and Joshua are parts of the same sequence of books, this interpretation of Joshua forces a back-interpretation of Deuteronomy. If “struck down all the inhabitants with the edge of the sword” is a literary convention when used to describe Joshua’s exploits, then it is likewise a literary convention when similar words are used by Moses in his instructions to Israel in general and to Joshua in particular.[3]

I think Wolterstorff is correct here, this interpretation of Joshua does force a back-interpretation of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy 7:2 states “when Yahweh your God has given them up before you and you have struck them, you shall utterly destroy them”. Similarly, Deuteronomy 20:16-17 states “anything that breathes you shall not keep alive, but you shall utterly destroy them”. In Joshua 10 one sees the formulaic language of “and Yahweh gave [the city]” and they “struck it by the mouth of the sword, and its king he hath destroyed” until there were “no survivors”. The chapter is summarised with the phrase “So Joshua struck all the land, … He destroyed all that breathed”. The similar phraseology is evident.[4]

Moreover, the book of Joshua clearly, explicitly and repeatedly identifies what Joshua did in these chapters with the command that Moses had given regarding the Canaanites in Deuteronomy.[5] If the language of “striking all the people by the sword”, “leaving no survivors”, “totally destroying”, “striking all the inhabitants with the edge of the sword”, and so on, is hyperbolic (as the evidence suggests it is) then the command cannot have been intended to be taken literally.

This understanding of the commands in Deuteronomy also solves some other interpretative problems. Here I will mention briefly three.

First, what God commanded regarding the Canaanites differs in various canonical books. As noted above, in Judges when the angel of the Lord refers back to the original command it is stated in terms of not making treaties with them, destroying their shrines and driving them out; it is not stated in terms of literally exterminating them. Similarly, in the earlier book of Exodus the command is given in terms of not allowing the Canaanites to live in the land, again, not in terms of extermination. This is significant. “Deuteronomy” in Greek means “second law”. Throughout Deuteronomy, Moses repeats laws already laid down in the book of Exodus, sometimes expanding on them. The Decalogue, for example, which was delivered on Sinai in Exodus 20, is repeated again in Deuteronomy 5. The laws about releasing an ebed (and indentured servant) in Exodus 21:1 are repeated and expanded on in Deuteronomy 15:12-18. Similarly, Deuteronomy 22:28-29 is a repetition of a law spelled out in Exodus 22:15.[6] The same occurs with the law under discussion. Deuteronomy 7 repeats the same promises and commands laid down in Exodus 23:20-32; however, in Deuteronomy, the language of “destroy them” replaces the “do not let them live in your land” in Exodus. Wolterstorff’s interpretation explains this.

Second the word herem, which is translated “destroy” in Deuteronomy 7:2, has the primary meaning of the irrevocable giving-over or devotion of something to Yhwh and hence implies renunciation. The term has also developed a secondary secular meaning of “to destroy”;[7] but, a literal reading of “destroy” here does not fit the context well. The command to “destroy” the Canaanites occurs alongside several other commands, “Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons”.[8] However, this seems odd. Killing is not an obvious antithesis to marrying or making a covenant; moreover, the text goes on to elaborate the command in terms of smashing idols and driving them out in a similar vein to Judges. For this reason Christopher Wright argues herem should be translated as “renounce” and is a command to shun the Canaanites.[9] This reading clashes with the parallel verse where “In Deuteronomy 20:17 herem is used epexegetically to verse 16, ‘you shall not leave alive anything that breathes’”.[10] However, taking the word as ‘destroy’ and understanding it hyperbolically makes sense of this.[11]

Some object that a hyperbolic interpretation does not fit the context, which draws a contrast between sparing “the women, the children, the livestock” in verse 14 and totally destroying them in verse 16 “do not leave alive anything that breathes”. This is mistaken; first the emphasis in verse 14 is not on sparing non-combatants but rather on the permissibility of marrying the women of conquered enemies, adopting their children and using their cattle. Second, the contrast is not between verses 14 and 16, but between verse 16 and the whole set of instructions regarding nations that are far away in verses 10-15. These verses command Israel to seek to make peace treaties first and if they go to war and kill combatants they can marry the women, adopt children and keep the live stock. In other words, as much as possible they are to seek peaceful co-existence with these nations. A command to go to war and drive them out expressed hyperbolically as ‘totally destroy them, leave nothing alive that breathes’ would stand in contrast to this. A final point on this is that the crucial issue is whether the hyperbolic interpretation is more plausible than a literal one, even if a literal interpretation fits Deuteronomy 20 better. Above I have argued that a literal interpretation puts Joshua 6-11 at odds with Judges and the later chapters of Joshua. It would be odd to reject a hyperbolic interpretation because one passage in Deuteronomy 20 does not cohere with it and instead embrace a literal interpretation which creates an even greater incoherence in the text.

Finally, the hyperbolic reading addresses another apparent contradiction in the text noted by many readers of the Pentateuch. While Deuteronomy 7:2 and 20:16-17 command Israel to “utterly destroy” the Canaanites and to “not leave alive anything that breathes”, numerous other texts claim the Canaanites are to be “driven out”, “dispossessed”, “thrust out”, etc; in fact, often the “drive out” language is juxtaposed with the language of “destroy”. Taken literally these pictures are inconsistent. If I stated that I had driven an intruder from my house one would not assume the intruder was dead in my lounge. Similarly, if I said I had killed an intruder, one would not normally think this meant the intruder had fled. The Hebrew confirms this; the language of driving out and casting out is used elsewhere to refer to Adam and Eve being driven from Eden, Cain being driven into the wilderness, David driven out by Saul. All are cases where the meaning precludes something being literally destroyed.[12]

Moreover, when the “drive out” language is used of Canaan it often is used in a context where it does not literally mean destroyed but rather, dispossessed. In Leviticus 18:26-28[13] the Canaanites are said to have been driven out in the same way Israel will be driven out if they violate the Covenant.

Finally, the language of destroying whole nations is in several places in the book of Deuteronomy used in a rhetorical or hyperbolic sense where it refers to “driving out” the nation in question or dispossessing them; it does not mean exterminating them. Hence, Wolterstorff’s suggestion has ample precedent from within the text itself.[14]

A second implication of Wolterstorff’s position is that Joshua does not assert that Israel engaged in divinely-authorised genocide.

[W]hen a high-school basket ball player says his team slaughtered the other team last night he’s not asserting, literally now, that they slaughter the other team. What is he asserting? Not easy to tell. That they scored a decisive victory? Maybe, but suppose they barely eked out a win? Was he lying? Maybe not. Maybe he was speaking with a wink of the eye hyperbole. High school kids do.[15]

In the same way, when one realises that Joshua is hagiographic and highly hyperbolic in its narration of what occurred, the best one can conclude from the accounts of killing everyone that breathed is that,

Israel scored a decisive victory and once you recognise the presence of hyperbole it is not even clear how decisive the victories were. Joshua did not conquer all the cities in the land nor did he slaughter all the inhabitants in the cities he did conquer. The book of Joshua does not say that he did.[16]

Canonical factors force the same conclusion. I noted above that in Judges and Exodus the command is expressed in terms of avoiding treaties and driving the Canaanites out. In Joshua and Deuteronomy the command is expressed in the language of “utterly destroying them”. The conclusion we have reached is that the latter is figurative language and the former is literal. If this is the case then the command was to drive them out and it was not to literally exterminate them.


[1] Alvin Plantinga “Comments on Evan Fales’ Satanic Verses: Moral Chaos in Holy Writ” a paper presented to My Ways Are Not Your Ways: The Character of the God of the Hebrew Bible” Conference at the centre for Philosophy of Religion, University of Notre Dame, Friday 11 September 2009 at <http://www.nd.edu/~cprelig/conferences/documents/HBprogram_006.pdf> accessed 5 Jan 2010.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Nicholas Wolterstorff “Reading Joshua” in Michael Bergmann, Michael J Murray and Michael C Rea (Eds) Divine Evil? The Moral Character of the God of Abraham (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) 252-253. 252.
[4] All scripture references in this paragraph are from the Hebrew Greek Interlinear Bible.
[5] “So Joshua subdued the whole region, including the hill country, the Negev, the western foothills and the mountain slopes, together with all their kings. He left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded. (Joshua 10:40 NIV) [Emphasis added]
Similarly we see,

“Everyone in it they put to the sword. They totally destroyed them, not sparing anything that breathed, and he burned up Hazor itself. Joshua took all these royal cities and their kings and put them to the sword. He totally destroyed them, as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded.” (Joshua 11:11-12 NIV) [Emphasis added]

Also,

“So that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy, as the LORD had commanded Moses (Joshua 11:20b NIV) [Emphasis added]

As the LORD commanded his servant Moses, so Moses commanded Joshua, and Joshua did it; he left nothing undone of all that the LORD commanded Moses.” (Joshua 11:15 NIV) [Emphasis added]

[6] Gordon Wenham “Bethulah: A Girl of Marriageable Age” Vetus Testamentum 22 (1972) 326-348.
[7] J P U Lilley “Understanding the Herem” Tyndale Bulletin 44 (1993) 1:11.
[8] Deuteronomy 7:2-4.
[9] Christopher J H Wright Deuteronomy (New International Biblical Commentary) (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996) 109.
[10] Lilley, supra n7, 174.
[11] Other commentators such as Duane L Christensen and J McConville suggest “destroy” is being used in a figurative sense. McConville, for example, states “the concept of complete annihilation of the nations is always a kind of ideal, symbolizing the need for radical loyalty to Yahweh on the part of Israel.” J. G. McConville, Deuteronomy, Apollos Old Testament Commentary, ed. D.W. Baker and G.J. Wenham (Downers Grove/Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 2002) 161.
[12] I owe this point to conversations with Paul Copan.
[13] “But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the aliens living among you must not do any of these detestable things,27 for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled.28 And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.”
[14] Deuteronomy 2:10-12, 20-22, 4:26-30, 28:63.
[15] Nicholas Wolterstorff “Reply to Antony” in Michael Bergmann, Michael J Murray and Michael C Rea (Eds) Divine Evil? The Moral Character of the God of Abraham (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) 263.
[16] Nicholas Wolterstorff “Reading Joshua” presented to My Ways Are Not Your Ways: The Character of the God of the Hebrew Bible” Conference at the centre for Philosophy of Religion, University of Notre Dame, Saturday 12 September 2009 at accessed 19 December 2009; this paragraph was in the paper presented at the conference but was omitted from the published version.

RELATED POSTS:
God and the Genocide of the Canaanites Part I: Wolterstorff’s Argument for the Hagiographic Hyperbolic Interpretation
God and the Genocide of the Canaanites Part II: Ancient Near Eastern Conquest Accounts
Download Matt’s EPS Talk “God and the Genocide of the Canaanites” (& other EPS talks)
Sunday Study: Joshua and the Genocide of the Canaanites Part I
Sunday Study: Joshua and the Genocide of the Canaanites Part II
Did God Command Genocide in the Old Testament?

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  • Matt,

    Not sure if you are aware of any of the arguments put forward in this presentation, but I’d be interested to hear your views, (and anyone else). In particular the perspective of Yewah as a stand-alone god of war/battles could go some way towards explaining the OT blood-thirsty perspective in contrast to the later NT.

    Use this link to view: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MlnnWbkMlbg

  • Matt,

    I remember you stating that there was some early indications of this line of argument in patristic era writers – could you perhaps point readers in the direction of these writings? It would be really interesting.

  • Please contact me At your earliest convenience I would like to discuss with you and your wife a job position in the USA…. I am in the beginning of opening a new facility that caters to families whom are involved in the raising of their family. where parents can come to be reminded of who they are and feel the Love of God NOT the pressure of “mans” religion… we have a 25yard pool, space to run, a real to code kitchen, lots of comfort under one roof and approximately 10,000 square feet.. its cool :)
    anyone who reads this may contact me who knows it may be you…. : )
    http://www.facebook.com/Melanie.Bobby

  • Melanie our email is m_flannagan at clear.net.nz.

  • Be prepared for my application Melanie.

  • Thanks for a good series! (On an important but often overlooked topic.)

    BTW all the internal links (e.g. to footnotes and back to body text) seem to be broken and point to Madelaine’s hard drive, you might want to fix that. If it is checked on that computer it will all look fine probably but from other computers they are broken :(

  • Thanks Tim those footnote links never work and they are too tedious to bother fixing – I have simply disabled them!

    If you liked this series keep an eye out for Matt’s publications on this topic. He has just sent a chapter entitled “Did God Command the Genocide of the Canaanites?” to the publishers for his contribution to William Lane Craig & Paul Copan’s Come Let us Reason with B&H Academic. And the first of his two confirmed co-authored pieces with Paul Copan, “Ethics of ‘Holy War’ for Christian Morality and Theology”, which will be published in Old Testament ‘Holy War’ and Christian Morality: Perspectives and Prospects, is in the final stages of editing; it is due at the publishers (I think Paternosters) in the next fortnight. Matt and Paul are also are co-writing another piece on the Canaanite topic for an edited book on biblical authority (B&H Academic again I think) but that is due in Aug so it is a while away. A podcast of Matt’s EPS talk in Atlanta is available here though.

  • Sounds really encouraging :) There is a footnote plugin for WordPress which makes footnotes easy, just double bracket them in the body and the plugin makes them notes and numbers them etc…But I guess Matt is writing in a word processor and you are cutting and pasteing into the blog… in which case click the HTML tab and copy the post, then paste it into Notepad and search for the bit before the # and replace with nothing (to remove it).

  • Matt generally writes in Word but I often write direct into WordPress so thanks for that tip – I did not know about that plugin!

  • Flotsam and jetsam (1/17)…

    Matthew Flanagan offers the third installment of his series on the genocide of the Canaanites….

  • God and the Genocide of the Canaanites…

    Students in my CHR 101 class might appreciate this discussion from Mike Flanagan of the book of Judges and the morality of God’s commands to “exterminate” the Canaanites before we delve into the Settlement of Canaan next week….

  • Matt, thanks a lot for an excellent series and I do hope that one day you will write a book on the topics outlined above :)
    I’ll be reading more around the topic over the next few months and so will probably come back with questions around that time, but anyway have you seen this series of videos?
    http://philreligion.nd.edu/conferences/video/my_ways/
    So far it’s been a really good resource, I’m enjoying it and I thought it’d be right up your street though I suspect you’d already be familiar with a lot of the material.

  • [...] raises an important issue. In God and the Genocide of the Canaanites I, II and III I defended Nicholas Wolterstorff’s take on the Canaanite massacre in “Reading [...]

  • Interesting thoughts! Causes me to have troubles with inspiration of the scriptures though.

  • Cogently argued and well written. Alas, I have ministered in some (American) churches that would label any non-literal interpretation as theologically “liberal.” We might even find ourselves branded as heretics on the internet. I’ve often wondered how we can bring the kind of discussions among evangelical academics to the level of the local church. I have no answers.

  • @Quinton: I don’t think there’s any problem with inspiration once we realize that God breathed his scriptures into human agents who wrote in the language of their times. For the sake of argument — and for that alone — we can posit that God inspired a modern-day American to accurately say that it rained a lot. That American could phrase it in this way: “It rained cats and dogs” (an idiom in the US). It’s good to remember the phraseology of George Eldon Ladd, who said something like this: “The Bible is God’s Word, written in the words of men, in history.” The Bible is both a divine and human document — much like Jesus was both divine and human. Exegesis helps us to unearth what God actually was saying.

  • [...] his three part series on the apparent genocide in the Old Testament (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). Additionally, Dr. Flannagan has analyzed Saul’s experience in 1 Samuel 15 specifically [...]

  • Hi, Matt. I really appreciate your series on the Canaanite genocides; it has both answered a lot of my questions and helped me to answer my friends’ questions about the Old Testament.

    I don’t know if you’ve addressed the issue of finding wives for the tribe of Benjamin in Judges 21 (I apologize if you have), but I was wondering if you had any thoughts on that story for your argument here. Based on the fact that the Benjaminites needed to be provided wives, it seems that the other Israelites killed all the Benjaminite women in the war recounted in Judges 20. But if they did that (literally), it makes me wonder if all the other language in Deuteronomy/Joshua/Judges about killing women, children, etc. is hyperbolic. What do you think?

  • [...] ANE con­text (see Matt Flannagan’s “God and the Genocide of the Canaanites, Part I, Part II, Part III”), and some argue for both (see Paul Copan’s “How Could God Command Killing the [...]