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Thom Stark on Wolterstorff and Hagiographic Hyperbole

April 7th, 2011 by Matt

Earlier this year I finished a forthcoming article in which I defended Nicholas Wolterstorff’s take on the Canaanite massacre recorded in the book of Joshua. Wolterstorff argues that the Book of Joshua is a highly figurative, hagiographic and hyperbolic account of Israel’s early skirmishes and it is not intended to be taken literally in its details.[1] The accounts of killing everything that breathes function something like the boast of a high school student who describes winning a football game in terms of totally slaughtering the opposition.[2]

Joshua Slaughters the CanaanitesMy article was a revised version of a paper I presented in Atlanta in November last year (my God and the Genocide of the Canaanites series gives a good overview of my position). Around the same time I presented this paper, Thom Stark, posted a critical review of Douglas S. Earl’s book The Joshua Delusion? Rethinking Genocide in the Bible. As a review, much of it was addressed to the specifics of Earl’s book. However, in the introduction Stark offered a critique of Wolterstorff’s position and made reference to my defence of it.

He offered three lines of argument; two against the conclusion Wolterstorff and I offered and one against Wolterstorff’s argument itself. Since then several people have asked me my thoughts on his critique. In this post I will look at his critique of Wolterstorff’s argument, which I defended and adapted in my article.

Before one can criticise an argument it is important to be clear as to what it is. As I note in my forthcoming article (and in the post I linked to above) Wolterstorff’s argument consists of three points and a basic assumption. The assumption is that “Joshua as we have it today was intended as a component in the larger sequence consisting of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, I and II Samuel, and I and II Kings”.[3] On the basis of this assumption Wolterstorff contends “…  I propose that we interpret the Book of Joshua as a component within this larger sequence – in particular, that we interpret it as preceded by Deuteronomy and succeeded by Judges.”[4] In taking this approach, Wolterstorff engages in a more canonical approach to the text; he focuses on the meaning of the final form as part of a canonical sequence.

The three premises are as follows. First, the so called genocide accounts in Joshua 1-11 are part of a broader context which includes both the rest of Joshua but also other canonical books, such as the book of Judges. When one reads the whole sequence one observes that while early passages in Joshua describe Israel exterminating the inhabitants, later passages in Joshua and Judges proceed on the assumption this never literally happened.[5] Taken literally these accounts of the conquest contradict each other.

Second, this contrast is fairly obvious. Whoever “edited the final version of these writings into one sequence” was not “mindless” and would have noticed  “the tensions and contradictions – surface or real”;  therefore, they cannot have intended to affirm both as literally true.[6]

Third, while Judges appears relatively “down to earth”, a careful reading of Joshua shows it to “be full of ritualistic, stylised, accounts, formulaic language”. This final point suggests that Joshua is the non-literal figurative one and Judges is the more literal account.

In support of this I set out Lawson Younger’s study of ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts in Part II of my God and the Genocide of the Canaanites. Younger’s study shows:

(a) Such accounts are a common transmission code. They hyperbolically describe victories in terms of gods raining meteors or hailstones down on the foe, battles taking place in one day, the numbers of armies and enemy causalities being rhetorically exaggerated and, most importantly, victories are often described hyperbolically in terms of total conquest, complete annihilation, destruction of the enemy, killing everyone and leaving no survivors.

(b) Comparisons between these accounts and the early chapters of Joshua suggest Joshua is written according to this  transmission code.

I also added:

(c) There is precedent from both within the book of Joshua and also within the biblical canon for accounts and language of this sort being used figuratively and hyperbolically.

Stark contends this argument is “wholly untenable”. It is unclear, however, exactly what premises he rejects. Stark says nothing about the starting assumption. Similarly, he seems to clearly grant the first premise; he accepts that, taken literally, the first half of Joshua contradicts the second half and the book of Judges. Stark also appears to grant the third premise or at least some of my supporting argument for it; in an earlier blog post on the topic entitled “The Flannagan Delusion” (which is no longer online) he stated that Lawson Younger  “has shown definitively that the conquest narratives follow a basic ancient conquest script, replete with exaggerations, [and] hyperbole”.
In his review Stark defends Younger’s contention that Joshua is such an account against Earl’s criticisms. He also grants that the gods destroying the enemy with a meteor or hailstones is a common “literary motif” and is “exaggerated”.

As best I can tell, Stark takes issue with Wolterstorff’s second premise. He summarises it as,

“The hyperbolists say that, since the author wasn’t stupid, the contradictions indicate that the language of total destruction is not to be taken literally. If it says in one part of the book that an entire population was killed, but that population is still alive later on, then it is clear that the earlier statement was hyperbolic in nature, not to be taken literally.

In response he argues,

“Earl argues that the book of Joshua is composite in nature. The first half of the book, chapters 1-12, was written by the Deuteronomistic historian, but chapters 13-22 were written by the Priestly writer. Chapter 23 returns again to the concerns of the Deuteronomistic historian, and according to Earl, chapter 24 (the final chapter) represents a more generic summary.

If Earl is correct that Joshua is two-part composite, that sufficiently explains the contradictions between the summaries of military victories. The latter half of Joshua does not contradict the former in order to provide a cue to read the earlier statements as hyperbolic; they are contradictory because they represent two different sources with two different agendas.”

Stark suggests Wolterstorff’s second premise is undermined by the fact that the final form of Joshua combines or draws upon two different sources. The authors of these sources had different agendas and contradict each other. This explains the contradictions without suggesting the author mindlessly wrote an obviously contradictory narrative. Each author wrote a coherent narrative, it is just that their narratives contradict the account of the other author, but none of them blatantly contradicted themselves.

I think this response is a non-starter based on a failure to grasp Wolterstorff’s point. As I note in my paper, Wolterstorff  argues for the second premise as follows:

Those whose occupation it is to try to determine the origins of these writings will suggest that the editors had contradictory records, oral traditions, and so forth to work with.  No doubt this is correct.  But those who edited the final version of these writings into one sequence were not mindless; they could see, as well as you and I can see, the tensions and contradictions – surface or real – that I have pointed to. So what is going on?[7]

Nothing in this comment is undermined by noting that Joshua is a composite document and that the redactors of the final form drew on different and contradictory sources. Wolterstorff, in fact, grants that this may have been the case. His point is that the redactors of the final version choose to put both these sources side by side as part of a single book within a series. And these redactors were not, mindless or stupid, and so the redactors of the final version could not have intended to affirm both accounts of the conquest as literally true. Even if the authors of the redactors’ sources, were internally consistent and disagreed only with each other, this is beside the point. Wolterstorff  is not talking about the authors of the sources; he is talking about the redactors who combined different sources into a single narrative sequence. These redactors would be contradicting themselves if they intended both accounts to be literally true.

To actually address Wolterstorff’s second premise Stark needs to argue that the final redactors did put both these sections together in an obviously contradictory narrative intending to affirm both as literally true. The redactors were either stupid or they missed the blatantly obvious contradictions in front of them.

This is an extremely uncharitable contention.  Wolterstorff notes the phrase “he killed all the inhabitants with the edge of the sword” occured at least 15 times in Joshua 6-11 in close succession. This point is “hammered home with emphasis.” This is then followed in the next chapter by the claim that Joshua had not conquered the land and then in the next five chapters it is stressed repeatedly that the land was not yet conquered and the inhabitants still existed in large numbers. This was followed by the opening chapters of Judges, which affirm eight times in a single chapter that the Israelites had failed to conquer the land or the cities, and had failed to drive the inhabitants out. It finishes with the angel of the Lord at Bokim rebuking them for failing to do so (Judges 2:1-5). These are not subtle contrasts. They are, in Wolterstorff’s words, “flamboyant”. It is unlikely that an intelligent redactor would have missed something this blatant.[8]

But apart from being implausible, Stark can only make this argument by engaging in special pleading because throughout his review he works on the assumption that the author of a literary unit does not author an obviously contradictory narrative. Consider one example: Stark notes that in Judges 20-21 the  Israelites “proceeded to massacre every last woman and child in the land of Benjamin”. Stark argues this language cannot be hyperbolic because,

[In] the second half of the story. The Israelites decided to show mercy on the tribe of Benjamin, not desiring to blot them out forever. The problem they face, however, is that there are only a few hundred remaining men (the soldiers who escaped), who no longer have wives and children. Why? Because the slaughters were not exaggerated.”

Stark here argues that if one reads the first half of the story hyperbolically it will contradict what is said in the second half, and so for this reason one cannot read it hyperbolically. Note this inference utilises the same line of argument Wolterstorff does; it assumes that an author does not  juxtapose an account or battle in the second half of a narrative when it obviously contradicts what  they have said in the first half.

Similar, points can be made about many of Stark’s other arguments in the review. In several places he criticises readings of the text proposed by “Apologists” on the ground that their readings involve attributing to the author a position that contradicts what that author says elsewhere in the context. These arguments all assume the authors of a literary unit do not write obviously and blatantly contradictory things.

Seeing Stark endorses this assumption himself, it is hard to see how he can reject it when it is used by someone else. Stark appears to accept a hermeneutical principle when it leads to a literal reading of the text he accepts and then abandons it when the same principle leads to a conclusion he rejects.  Like I said earlier, this is special pleading.


[1] Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Reading Joshua,” in Divine Evil? The Moral Character of the God of Abraham, eds. Michael Bergmann, Michael J. Murray and Michael C. Rea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) 252-53.
[2] Ibid, 236-256.
[3] Ibid, 249.
[4] Ibid, 252.
[5] Ibid, 249-251.
[6] Ibid, 251.
[7] Ibid, 251.
[8] Nicholas Wolterstorff  in the Question and Answers session following his paper “Reading Joshua” presented at the My Ways Are Not Your Ways: The Character of the God of the Hebrew Bible” conference at the Center for Philosophy of Religion, University of Notre Dame, Saturday 12 September 2009.

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  • [...] 11.23); the second half begins by denying this was the case (Josh 13.1-6). Flannagan attempts to harmonize the two contradictory halves by aguing - rather abstractly – that no redactor would be so [...]

  • Stupid Redactors: Response to Matt Flannagan…

    Matt Flannagan has just posted a response to some quick and cursory criticisms I made of his position on the Canaanite genocides in the introduction to my review of Douglas Earl’s book. As Matt himself notes, “as a review, much of it was addressed to t…

  • Canaanite Rumble…

    Apologetic shark Matthew Flannagan has attacked a review by Thom Stark with a long and tendentious blog item. Flannagan is undoubtedly a smart fellow. It takes a truckload of smart to defend the indefensible (in this case, genocide). In fact you might …

  • I remember when “The Flannagan Delusion” was posted. It was after Luke posted a big listing believers and non-believers who wrote about Biblical genocide.

    Thom got his knickers in a twist over being grouped in with apologists like Copan and Craig. “I am a Christian, but I am not an apologist. I am critical of Christian apologists. You need to put me in the other column.”

    At the time I thought that he had written wrote that post just to improve his street cred with atheists.

  • Matt, what prevents us from concluding that the original sources involved here contradicted one another, that the final redactor was aware of that fact, and yet that the final redactor decided not to iron out the inconsistencies from a sense of respect or even reverence for the sources?

  • Eugene, you could take that line, but it still leads to the question what is the author/redactor of the final form trying to say or teach. If he recognised that they contradicted each other he could not be affirming that both are literally true.

    When we read a text we want to know what the author of the text is saying, how he put it together or what his sources said are interesting points, but they don’t answer the fundamental question of what the author is saying in the final version.

  • “Eugene, you could take that line, but it still leads to the question what is the author/redactor of the final form trying to say or teach.”

    And you seem to be assuming that there is one answer to this question. Ie. the editor was concerned with preserving one and only one message. But this is precisely what out well born friend is saying is not the case..

    “If he recognised that they contradicted each other he could not be affirming that both are literally true.”

    Again you are beating a drum with no stretched skin. You would not do this – but the question is: did the editor have the same aesthetic as you? Apparently not is obvious answer.

  • Max you write, “And you seem to be assuming that there is one answer to this question. Ie. the editor was concerned with preserving one and only one message. But this is precisely what out well born friend is saying is not the case.
    No, I agree that an intelligent person could choose to “preserve” two contradictory accounts of an event, librarians, and archivists do this all the time. What I don’t think is that an intelligent rational person would do this and affirm both as literally true accounts of what happened. That is the key point both Stark and Deanne seem to miss. Take the case of an archivist or librarian, a rational librarian could easily preserve a whole lot of books and sources arguing different sides of an issue in there library. But no sensible librarian would, knowing these books argued for opposite views, mean to affirm them all literally true that would be irrational.
    Again you are beating a drum with no stretched skin. You would not do this – but the question is: did the editor have the same aesthetic as you? Apparently not is obvious answer. Its not about aesthetics, its about the fact that intelligent people in general don’t affirm things which they know to contradict each other. They might preserve contradictory views of others, but they don’t appropriate there discourse as there own and affirm them as literally true.
    I think perhaps you Deanne and Thom fail to appreciate that Wolterstorff is advocating a more Canonical reading of the text his starting point is that “the text of Joshua as we have it today was intended as a component in the larger sequence consisting of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, I and II Samuel, and I and II Kings.” And states “I propose that we interpret the Book of Joshua as a component within this larger sequence – in particular, that we interpret it as preceded by Deuteronomy and succeeded by Judges.” I mention that above when I talk about the hermeneutical assumption he makes. So the relevant question is not what the author of a source states, it’s what the author of the final canonical sequence affirms with these sources.

  • I’m in agreement with Matt here. It was all the rage in the late 19th century to search for the sources behind the text. Yep, they are there. Even the most ardently literal, early date, Moses wrote it all scholar would agree that Moses used sources. The text refers to them all over the place.

    Critical scholars found what they believed to be distinct schools of thought in certain sections of the Pentateuch, and started dividing between the Yahwist (J), Elohist, Priestly and Deuteronomist texts. At first, it was clear that the J and E sections were the oldest…then along came some to argue that the P school was the oldest…then the Deuteronomistic History was constructed which included Deuteronomy through the end of Kings. J and E were pre-monachy, then they were pre-exilic, then they were post-exilic, then they were Hellenistic, and now many have them back at pre-exilic again. The DtrH was pre-exilic, post-exilic and now pre-exilic again. J was broken up into layers with J1 and J2…then for awhile in the mid-20th century most scholars abadoned J altogether. And on and on and on it goes.

    If anything, the “assured results of modern scholarship” did little to move us beyond the original confessional beliefs of the 16th-17th centuries that there were sources behind the text, but we aren’t sure where they begin and end, who wrote them and when.

    Unfortunately these “assured results” formed the foundations of critical scholarship for much of the early 20th century until in 1965, SBL president addressed the scholars with an engaging look at how far things had fallen apart called “Re-Examining the Foundations.” At this point, scholarship moved toward redaction criticism, and ultimately in the 70s and 80s to Literary and Canonical Criticism. Instead of asking impossibly naive questions like “what was in the authors mind” or “what hypothetical school inspired this text,” scholars started assessing the text as it stands.

    Thus, when someone brings out arguments about how “there are clearly two sources and they are clearly in disagreement originating from two schools,” it seems rather passe. Yeah, there are probably two sources and they are probably from two different schools and they may have been at odds in their original context…but that’s irrelevant to the fact that the redactor had a compositional strategy, placing them together to form a narrative that the believing community accepted as the word of God.

    Who in the 21st century would deny that the final form of the text has such an intricate and sophisticated unity as to think that the redactors were some stupid fools cutting and pasting whatever they could find together as though it were a bad collage and not a narrative? The intricate literary connections between the Pentateuch and the Deuteronomistic History are so clear when you look at the big picture that a recent biblical studies symposium discussed the Hinateuch as a literary whole (the nine books from Genesis to Kings).

    Hopefully this brief historical outline shows how things have moved in biblical studies to questions of canonical shaping, compositional strategy, literary unity, etc. from questions of forms and sources. It is in this setting that questions about the compositional strategy of Joshua/Judges and their canonical placement need to be asked…it is this world of canonical criticism that underlies much of Matt’s argument.

    A few books that are good starting points for this discussion are:
    1. Brevard Childs, “Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture” which is sort of the granddaddy of the craft.
    2. Scott Hahn, ed. “Canon and Biblical Interpretation” is a collection of essays from a few years back dealing with canonical issues and how the current state of study has affected biblical studies and the church.
    3. Michael Fishbane, “Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel.” This one will cost you quite a bit, but is worth it. He describes at length the literary strategies, and inner-biblical exegesis going on in the OT text.

  • Who ever said anyone affirmed anything as “literally true” other than you Matt? You are still stuck in the same hole I am afraid.

  • Max, sorry my claim was that the redactors were not claiming the accounts as literally true. So there is no hole here at all.

    It’s those who contend that the bible teaches that God commands genocide in this text that contend the author of the final form are affirming something as literally true. If the authors of the final form of the text are not asserting anything then the text can’t be affirming that God commanded Genocide. So I don’t see how anyone who wants to argue for this conclusion can coherently propose the argument you suggest here.

    But as to your suggestion, I do think the redactor or final author incorporated his various sources into a single narrative in order to assert something. If you reject this view and simply see him as an archivist who preserves others views and does not say anything with them then I think the conclusion to draw is that the bible affirms nothing at all. I think that’s a theologically unacceptable conclusion.

  • I think with all of the signs or compositional strategies within the text that claiming the redactors only to be archivists is not possible.

  • “If you reject this view and simply see him as an archivist who preserves others views and does not say anything with them then I think the conclusion to draw is that the bible affirms nothing at all. I think that’s a theologically unacceptable conclusion.”

    Not at all. You want to see the Bible as a finished product with definitive answers to complicated and disturbing questions. The alternative is that the editor is aware that there are disturbing questions and multiple ways of viewing these questions – and that there is a debate going on that has not been concluded… and the editor was part of this debate and was well aware that no one answer would be satisfactory so preserved multiple different responses to the same question…. how is this theologically unacceptable?

  • Max, interesting ideas I’ll say a few things. First, I agree with Kyle that it appears the redactor is not just archiving he is putting this material together into a single narrative, that suggests the creation of a new literary work.

    But second, if one take the line you suggest, then one cannot claim that the text teaches that God commanded Genocide. All you could say was that the text contains a debate about wether God did this. So I don’t think anyone who wants to push the line that God commanded Genocide could make this point.

    Third, as to theological acceptability, I am inclined to think its because the text will not be teaching anything or affirming anything, and its certainly hard to see how God can be affirming anything with the text on the view you suggest. All you’d have is, really a book entitled “debates about God from ancient Isreal” where different people propose different views and we have no idea which ones are true or false.

  • “…the [editor] is not just archiving he is putting this material together into a single narrative, that suggests the creation of a new literary work.”

    it would for you and me… and like you I also am not an old testament scholar – but you do need to be careful of making anachronistic statements about how an ancient editor would or would not have compiled sources together.

    “But second, if one take the line you suggest, then one cannot claim that the text teaches that God commanded Genocide. All you could say was that the text contains a debate about wether God did this.”

    Possibly… but you have to accept that at least one group of people were quite happy with the idea of a genocidal god… other groups clearly were not so happy with this idea. And again you are stuck in the ” text teaches that…” mode – as though there is one simple message that can be extracted out.

    “Third, as to theological acceptability”

    Your ‘theologically acceptable” argument seems to have things backwards, It seems to go something like: I want the text to be of a certain nature – but what you are saying would mean it was not of this nature – therefore the text is not of this nature. A more mature way to approach the issue would be to listen to the people who ARE old testament scholars (not you or me) and use their wisdom to inform you of the nature of the text.. and then from this build your theological insights.

    “debates about God from ancient Isreal”

    I think this is the most insightful thing you have said so far .

  • Max,
    I’m no scholar, but I do have degrees in both OT biblical studies and theology and have at least read much of the pertinent literature. As such, I think you could make an argument that Job or possibly Ecclesiastes retained contradictory sources (at least in their original context) for the sake of placing all of the options on the table. That doesn’t seem to be the case with the Deuteronomistic History though (DtrH), which seems to be shaped to provide the reader with a continuous narrative and not with the intentional preservation of competing traditions.

    You rightly warn against anachronism, and I think this is important. Thus, there is no point in speculating about what the author was thinking, or talking about how this group might have thought this and that group might have thought that about any given topic. What we can do is make some reasonable inferences from the data in the texts and in the ground though.

    As such, we can learn a good bit. For instance:
    1. The Masoretic Text (MT), Septuagint (LXX) and Qumran (4Q47-49, 1Q6, etc.) all contain Joshua and Judges consecutively in their respective collections, all with rather reliable traditions dating to at least the 2nd-3rd centuries B.C.E..
    2. Although there are differences, both the MT and LXX preserve a similar narrative of Joshua/Judges shaped to include both the hyperbolic and actualized references in a continuous narrative. Thus, bringing together any previous sources (whatever they may have been), happened at a time near the exile or before.
    3. The community at Qumran viewed Joshua and Judges as authoritative (a lot could be said about the use of Scripture at the Qumran community, but there is no doubt that they viewed the books as authoritative)
    4. Joshua, in particular, inspired later exegetical traditions apart from the text itself (Apocryphon of Joshua for instance), where instead of expanding or extending the text of Joshua itself, new compositions were added to supplement the text.
    5. Canonical Second-Temple literature (such as Chronicles) seems to be familiar with Joshua/Judges

    From these facts, we can infer rather reasonably that:
    1. Our earliest collections of the OT all include Joshua followed by Judges as though the narratives are continuous.
    2. Some of our earliest communities, both sectarian and non-sectarian, viewed Joshua/Judges as authoritative and worth preservation. They supplemented the text with other texts (that were not added to the text, but read alongside them), used them as sources for their later documents, etc.
    3. Despite any incongruities in the original sources, the community received them as a continuous narrative and preserved it as such.

    Therefore, we cannot speculate about what the redactor thought, nor can we “get into the mind” of any hypothetical community. But, from archaeology and the texts themselves we can get a pretty good idea that they intended Joshua/Judges to both be continuous in their narrative and that from our earliest data they were received as authoritative. This would presuppose that archiving dueling traditions as “options” doesn’t work, or at least that any evidence of such is missing. Instead, the redactor has shaped what may have been differing sources into one text that is viewed as authoritative.

  • Max, there is also a whole lot of literature on theological hermeneutics by people like Nick Wolterstorff, which talks about what counts as a literary unit, how one should interpret original authors vs redactors, what hermeneutics’ implications of accepting a text as the word of God is and so on. This stands behind much of Wolterstorff’s argument. I agree I am not an OT scholar (though Copan in fact has the same qualifications in biblical studies that Stark does a fact he declines to mention) and I take this limitation seriously, but old testament scholars are also not specialists in hermeneutics either. Wolterstorff (Yale divinity school) is, so I think the respect should be reciprocal here.

    Moreover as Kyle notes above, the claim of Deane and Thom to speak for old testament scholars seems exaggerated. The whole movement of Canonical criticism for example and The large number of old testament scholars who endorsed Copan’s work seems to mitigate against the claim that “anyone in the field will see this as crap” . There was also a large number of old testament scholars at my talk at the SBL, there were some interesting criticisms but no one seemed to respond with the degree of disdain Thom and Deane and given there history of over the tom ad hominen responses I am inclined to take there appeals to consensus with a pinch of salt.

  • Not sure this really helps. Even if you are right and the editor (I am on a campaign to use english words whereever possible) did was using genocide as hyperbole.. you are still left with the fact that older sources were quite happy with the God as literal genocidal killer idea. This is still a tradition that worshippers of this God were happy with. I suppose it is only important if you have this idea that the story as it is NOW in this particular incarnation is the RIGHT version…

  • Max, to some extent I am playing with ideas here. But I am inclined to think something like this is correct.

    Consider my PhD thesis, I took four years to write it, the introduction was actually written last, the first chapters written in 2006, the middle part made use of a paper I had presented at Waikato in 1993 but which I made substantive editions to. Another part took a seminar I had given and modified it in light of criticisms. There were other parts which I originally wrote one way and then was not happy with, discovered egregious errors in and so altered and so on. At the end I have the final edited version which I submit.

    Now suppose the examiner reads my thesis I would not expect him to read the intro last, and the first chapter second to last, nor would I expect him to asses my work on the basis of the 1993 source I drew from and the context of that 1993 paper, nor would I expect him to asses my work on the basis of the pre altered seminar, nor would I expect him to judge the work on the basis of what I had originally written before I changed it and so on. What is submitted is the final form and it’s that that the examiners asses.

    Now some Philosophers ( Wolterstorff, Swinburne) have a view of scripture that is a bit like this. Suppose various uninspired human authors write a whole lot of works, latter authors ( possibly uninspired) alter these make corrections and mix them up and so on, then at the end of the process a final redactor incorporates this into the Canon Wolterstorff argues that “an eminently plausible construal of the process whereby these books found their way into a single canonical text, would be that by way of that process of canonization, God was authorizing these books as together constituting a single volume of divine discourse.” So on his view it’s the final Canon that is authorative and it should be read as a single volume with one divine author. The texts which make up the sources have no authority in isolation, nor in there original form are they inspired or the word of God. It’s only the final Canonical form as part of the Canon that they do, and as a Canon they are to be read as a single volume. So the question, on this account of inspiration, is does the final Canonical form of Joshua, read as part of single series, teach that God commanded homicide. If it does not then Wolterstorff is not committed to claiming God does in virtue of accepting the bible as the word of God. Nor does a belief in inerrancy or infallibility entail this, because on this account its the final text as part of a Canon which is infallible not the original sources.

  • OK Matt – if you accept that the final version is special in some way – and this is what is authorative in some way… then any discussion about sources/”redactors”/acheology/history etc becomes entirely irrelevant.

  • Max,
    That’s the thing. Our knowledge of sources, redactors, archaeology, etc. take on a different sort of importance in a canonical approach, but are no less important and may provide new understandings of the text. Let me try to explain with an illustration from art (which I am stealing from John Sailhamer):

    Consider this painting by Rembrandt: http://sundaycafe.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/rembrandt.jpg . If this were a text, and we were doing traditional historical criticism on it, then we would ask these types of questions:

    1. Source criticism – Is there another painting(s) that Rembrandt is working from?
    2. Form criticism – What is the original form of this type of painting? Many old paintings include men standing together…could the “gathering of men” motif be the original form? What is the situation in the painter’s life that inspired the painting?
    3. Tradition criticism – Is there a tradition behind the origins of this painting, or a tradition of similar paintings that culminated in this one?
    4. Archaeology – Where was the painting found? What material is it painted on? What type of paint is used? When was it painted?

    And on and on we go…but what’s missing in such an analysis?

    1. What does the painting mean?
    2. Why does the painting highlight some areas and minimize others?
    3. Is there a strategy in painting the picture this way instead of that, which can be discerned from the painting itself?

    Is the first set of questions “irrelevant?” Of course not, but they tell us very little when we are looking at the picture in a museum. Furthermore, they probably tell us very little about the message the painter was trying to communicate. What they may tell you (which is a different set of questions altogether) is how the painting provides the meaning it provides.

    Only asking the first set of questions provides a distorted interpretation of the painting. There is little doubt that Rembrandt used light and darkness to highlight certain things. There are two clearly emphasized individuals, and four or five lesser emphasized individuals to various degrees. Imagine for a second everything that would be lost if the painting equally detailed each person, and the sky was filled in along with the buildings, fields or whatever in the background. Imagine if the individuals were repainted to better fit their “historical” persona. If nothing else, you would lose the very heart of the painting, the focus of what the painting is attempting to provide to the viewer.

    We do the same thing with texts in the Bible all the time. It is very possible to hear a sermon on one of the Psalms where the pastor spends thirty minutes discussing David and the supposed historical setting behind the psalm and only briefly mentions (if at all), the theology which is the very heart of the psalm itself. The problem is that the pastor is viewing the text as a pointer to revelation which is in the events behind the text instead of in the text itself.

    Archaeology, history, redactors, sources, etc. are all helpful for understanding why the text stands as it does. They tell us how the final author shaped the text to focus on whatever he focuses on. Studying these fields provides insights into the contours of the texts, and gives us a glimpse into the compositional strategies used throughout the text. In this way (which is different from their traditional usages), they are invaluable.

    Speaking as an evangelical, I believe that God worked in history, but inspired a text. All Scripture (text) is God-breathed, and the text provides God’s interpretation of the events in history, which as an evangelical I obviously believed to have actually happened. We interpret texts very differently than we do history, and getting the meaning of a text requires much more than attempting a historical reconstruction of the event(s) behind the text…and sometimes the historical reconstruction actually hides or distorts the intended meaning of the text itself.

  • Max here is what I actually said in my article immediately after I made the point that Thom and Deane criticise

    “Wolterstorff’s point is that, regardless of what sources or strata of tradition are alleged behind the final form of Joshua, the redactors who put these books into a single narrative would have been well aware of the obvious contradictions mentioned above. Moreover, these redactors were not mindless or stupid. They obviously would not want to affirm that both accounts were a true literal description of what occurred. Yet they chose to put in the canon, next to Joshua, a book which began with a narration at odds with a literal reading of the early chapters of Joshua and they chose to juxtapose the picture of Joshua 1-11 with the later chapters I mentioned above. The redactor cannot therefore be asserting that both accounts are literally true.

    I think Wolterstorff is correct here. However, his position could be strengthened on theological grounds. In Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks, Wolterstorff provides an interesting and rigorous analysis of the notion that Scripture is the Word of God. Central to his analysis is that “an eminently plausible construal of the process whereby these books found their way into a single canonical text, would be that by way of that process of canonization, God was authorizing these books as together constituting a single volume of divine discourse.”

    This understanding of Scripture provides the theological justification for reading the text as a single series. By examining what was affirmed in Judges and in later passages of Joshua, one can determine what the author of the early chapters of Joshua intended. Moreover, if the primary author of Scripture is God, then obviously the primary author of the final canonical text is unlikely to have deliberately (or accidentally) authored an obviously contradictory narrative. Hence, even if the contradictions were not obvious to the redactors (and I think Wolterstorff is correct that these apparent contradictions would have been), they would be evident to God. Given that the process whereby the redactors incorporated these books into a “single canonical text” constitutes God authorizing them, this process cannot have involved the redactors affirming as literally true two contradictory accounts.

    It may be contended that an appeal to divine authorship in this way begs the question, but I think this is mistaken. As I understand the objection, the skeptic who claims that God commanded genocide is offering a reductio ad absurdum; she starts by assuming that whatever God commands is right and that Scripture is the Word of God and then derives from these assumptions the absurd conclusion that genocide is not wrong. The question then is whether, granting these assumptions, such a conclusion does, in fact, follow. If Scripture is a unified divine discourse, the skeptic’s conclusion need not follow for another assumption of the skeptic—namely, that all accounts were intended to be taken as literal—is not evidently true.

    Note I pointed out Wolterstorff was offering a Canonical Hermeneutic.

    I also pointed out that he has written a detailed book defence this hermeneutic. So the suggestion by Deane that he has no expertise in this area is mistaken to some extent, Wolterstorff ( Yale divinity school) is an expert in hermenutics and the philosophy of the bible, in this article he applies some of the hermeneutic he has defended elsewhere.

    I also noted why in this context its appropriate to make theological a priori assumptions like this.

    So responding to the argument by noting that a “source critical approach says Z” really misses the whole point and argument made.

    Moreover, as you will now if the question being discussed is a conditional, if P then Q, then the way to respond is to argue that if P not Q. Responding by saying, but P is false. Does not address the subject, it changes the subject.

    Deane and Thoms writing is interesting at all, but it really ignore the argument I actually made, and this is actually evident by reading what I wrote.

  • “Only asking the first set of questions provides…. bla bla bla”

    False dichotomy. Who said only?

    Matt:

    Once you start going down the reading God’s mind path (what you call “theological a priori assumptions”) and pontificating on what god would or would not do as he complied his book into a certain order, micromanaging his project at every step….. you have have left logic and reason far behind. Which is fine – your faith is your own – but lets not pretend that this is really an intellectual question anymore.

    If you want to just justify things on a “well I recon God would have thought…” line of argument you can and will come up with whatever conclusion you want I recon.

  • Max,
    It doesn’t seem that you’re following what I’m saying, and I’ll take the blame, since I assume I’m not communicating well.

    You respond that I’m presenting a false dichotomy, but I’m not the one who is presenting a dichotomy between the two sets of questions. If anything, Matt and I are the ones suggesting that we must build on the questions of sources and forms with the more interesting questions of compositional shaping and redactional strategy…not to mention questions of the reception of the text from our earliest manuscripts where both Joshua and Judges are placed side by side and both received as authoritative for the community.

    We are all in agreement that Joshua and Judges were most likely written from pre-existing sources, have sections in the form of ANE war texts, have some archaeological evidence and lots of archaeological questions…”bla bla bla” as you have said. That doesn’t explain why they are presented in a narrative alongside each other, and what the narrative shaping tells us about the meaning of the sources themselves. Furthermore, questions of sources, forms and archaeology can’t answer that type of question. Matt is arguing that the texts in Joshua are hyperbolic and that the narrative shape that includes these stories make this evident. We must ask questions of compositional strategy in order to find out whether Matt is correct.

    You have suggested that the editor might not have had the same “aesthetic” and that “the editor is aware that there are disturbing questions and multiple ways of viewing these questions – and that there is a debate going on that has not been concluded… and the editor was part of this debate and was well aware that no one answer would be satisfactory so preserved multiple different responses to the same question.” This is an interesting alternative hypothesis, but it doesn’t seem to fit with the data we have.

    The only source we have for answering these questions are the texts themselves and what we can tell of their reception through textual criticism (and maybe archaeology). As I argued above, based on the preserved texts themselves, and the literary unities within, it is clear that the editor shaped them into a continuous narrative. The rises and falls of the narrative from the beginning of Joshua to the end of Judges makes clear that the editor is not intending to give “different responses,” but to construct a unified story, which may come from previous sources that are no longer preserved.

    The editor’s narrative includes both the passages that describe total destruction and those that describe the people remaining in the land whom the text had said were previously totally destroyed. When you consider the intricate patterns and literary features that unify the narrative, it would be naive to hold that the editor merely threw these texts together and would not have been aware of the differences. It is a natural inference to assume that since he took such precision in fashioning the text in other regards that he would have realized that those who were wiped out shouldn’t remain in the narrative later…unless he was using a typical convention of ANE war texts and using a literary strategy for emphasizing the decisiveness of the victory (even though it was not literal).

    As it stands, I’ll let you have the final comment since I think we’ve hashed it out as much as we can at this point.

  • A question for Matt:

    Have you read Aristotle’s poetics?

  • If you have not you might find:

    1461a 16-20 (ish) interesting.

  • Max, I could refer you to the epistemological literature which argues its quite rational to approach the text with theological assumptions. Wolterstorff is one contributor to this literature.

    But suppose your correct, in this context its irrelevant, because wether theological apriori is rational or not its appropriate in this context. Remember the context, the objector claims that any Christian who believes 1) what God commands is permissible and 2) the bible is the infallible word of God, is commited to claiming 3) Genocide is permissible.

    Now the objector does not believe both 1 and 2, what he is saying is that other people who do are committed to 3.

    Now in this context its perfectly appropriate to point out that if one is committed to 1 and 2, one is not committed to 3.

    In fact when one offers a conditional If P then Q, and are told its true. The only way to establish this is to grant P for the sake of argument and then see if Q follows. Thom and Deane cannot defend a condition If P then Q argument by contending that P is false. This is simply erroneous logic.

    Moreover, if one does argue the way Thom and Deane do the argument is circular. Think about it, the objection is that inerrancy is false because the text assumed to be inerrant teaches X and X is false. If your argument that the text teaches X asumes the text is not inerrant then the argument is circular. Your using the denial of inerrancy to inform your hermenutic and then using the hermenutic to attack inerrancy.

    So in this context the question is given inerrancy what follows.

  • Yeah.. but did you read Aristotle’s comment?

  • [...] drugs and having spaced-out visions”. There was a bit of a ganging up on Joshua’s Genocide and Matt Flannagan who provoked the ire of Thom Stark and Deane Galbraith. The Bible Reader Divide between the church [...]

  • Its the Jolly Great Hodge Podge Biblioblogging Carnival!…

    There was a bit of a ganging up on Joshua’s Genocide and Matt Flannagan who provoked the ire of Thom Stark and Deane Galbraith….

  • Matt, perhaps you’ve discussed this before but I don’t know where. How might inerrancy be disconfirmed to someone holding your views?

  • Thom, suppose I discovered in scripture that God commanded people to torture babies at whim for no reason at all, all the time, then I would take that to mean either (a) this text is not inspired in an inerrant way by God or (b) if is inspired by God he be perfectly good and hence my concept of God would break down. or (c) I have misinterpreted the text. Its not given that (d) is always the most defensible option, it might be that (c) is less plausible given the information and facts I have than say (b) is. If so then one would have grounds for embracing either (a) or (b).

  • You might find this series here helpful, in it I suggest under what conditions one can and cannot rationally accept that an apparently immoral command is from God. I think you have read the first one, but the second and third spell out in more detail nuances which are important.

    http://www.mandm.org.nz/2010/10/god-morality-and-abhorrent-commands-part-i-kant.html

    http://www.mandm.org.nz/2010/10/god-morality-and-abhorrent-commands-part-ii-robert-adams.html

    http://www.mandm.org.nz/2010/11/god-morality-and-abhorrent-commands-part-iii-philip-quinn.html

    Actually, another example comes to mind, which Plantinga suggests in a chapter discussing this issue. Suppose someone discovers a letter scientific analysis shows that it has the same writing style as the author of Romans, Galtains, the author talks of a plot whereby they stole Christs body there is lots of historical information in the letter and further digs find correspondence back and forth between the authors, archeological disoveries confirm the meticous accuracy of these letters. The letter contains information about where they hid the body. When one follows the information and digs they one discovers the tomb, of a Jewish man who was clearly crucified information in the tomb sates he is the brother of James the son of Mary and Joseph, lived in Nazereth and was born in Bethlehem and was called the Christ by his followers and died around 31 AD. I think that would give us reasons for doubting the New testament.

  • Thanks, Matt. Would it be a correct or incorrect inference then to say that a defeater for your belief in inerrancy would need to be something very big (torturing children; no resurrection), but that less theologically or morally significant errors would not (or could not) disconfirm your beliefs? For instance, what if it could be shown that Matthew (i.e., Matthew’s Jesus) and Paul had contrary views of the role of the law of Moses during the Christian dispensation?

    Also, what role does probability play in your reasoning? If an interpretation is less textually or historically probable, yet comports with inerrancy, while the more probable reading does not, would the former reading trump the latter? In other words, does your commitment to inerrancy factor into determination of probabilities? Will you always choose the reading that comports with inerrancy, even if it is just “possible” though not as probable as others?

  • Thom,
    Would it be a correct or incorrect inference then to say that a defeater for your belief in inerrancy would need to be something very big (torturing children; no resurrection), but that less theologically or morally significant errors would not (or could not) disconfirm your beliefs?

    With morality, I want to take into account the fact that we as human beings can be mistaken and often revise our moral beliefs, so the mere fact a purported command from God contradicts a moral opinion of ours does not mean the command is bogus. To assume that is to in effect suggest that God would never disagree with us on moral issues, I think that’s dangerously close to idolatry.

    On the other hand I also think one can’t stretch the claim “a good God” commands X so that X can be anything at all, without turning the phrase “God is good” into something meaningless. For this reason I would distinguish between moral beliefs which are so integral to our conception of goodness that one cannot coherently claim a good God would command them with issues which are not integral to our conception of goodness, but which never the less we think are true. I also want to take into account the epistemic status of different claims, some moral claims are more controversial than others.

    So in terms of morality, the claim its wrong to torture babies forever for fun is I think something certain and integral so a purported revelation to do this can be ruled out.
    With other claims one would have to look at relative plausibility’s, given the evidence we have is it more plausible that God commanded this or is it more plausible that this is wrong. If we conclude that its more plausible that God commanded X and X is something we or our culture think is wrong then we have to live with that. God is not required to be fashionable.

    Also, what role does probability play in your reasoning? If an interpretation is less textually or historically probable, yet comports with inerrancy, while the more probable reading does not, would the former reading trump the latter? In other words, does your commitment to inerrancy factor into determination of probabilities? Will you always choose the reading that comports with inerrancy, even if it is just “possible” though not as probable as others?

    If you believe the text is the word of God, then I think this gives us a presumption that what it affirms is true and morally correct, so all else being equal the interpretation that fits what we believe to be true and morally correct, is to be preferred to one that does not. Sometimes all else is not equal and we have to revise our ideas somewhere. I would not however say that one should always accept possible reading which fits with our prior moral and factual beliefs. Again, I want to allow for the very real possibility that we are mistaken, either in our interpretation of the text, or our beliefs about what is true either morally, historically, or scientifically.

  • Thom, just as a side note, your review at Religion at the Margin’s you offered the following criticism of my position

    “The hyperbolists say that, since the author wasn’t stupid, the contradictions indicate that the language of total destruction is not to be taken literally. If it says in one part of the book that an entire population was killed, but that population is still alive later on, then it is clear that the earlier statement was hyperbolic in nature, not to be taken literally.

    In response you appeal to Douglas Earl ,

    “Earl argues that the book of Joshua is composite in nature. The first half of the book, chapters 1-12, was written by the Deuteronomistic historian, but chapters 13-22 were written by the Priestly writer. Chapter 23 returns again to the concerns of the Deuteronomistic historian, and according to Earl, chapter 24 (the final chapter) represents a more generic summary.
    If Earl is correct that Joshua is two-part composite, that sufficiently explains the contradictions between the summaries of military victories. The latter half of Joshua does not contradict the former in order to provide a cue to read the earlier statements as hyperbolic; they are contradictory because they represent two different sources with two different agendas.”

    Interestingly, this is what Douglas Earl says about this forthcoming article Holy War and herem: A Biblical Theology of herem.

    Finally, there are indicators within the narrative of Joshua that would suggest that it is not appropriate to take Joshua as a ‘factual history’ in genre. For example, the location of Rahab’s house in the city wall (Josh 2) does not sit easily with the report of the collapse of the wall (Josh 6), an observation that has indeed troubled rabbis through the centuries. Moreover, portrayals of complete conquest (Josh 10:40-42; 11:16, 23) do not sit well with reports of incomplete conquest (Josh 15:63, 16:10 and 17:13) within the book. One could regard these as reflecting what Origen described as ‘stumbling blocks’ within the text of Scripture that point one away from a ‘literal’ reading towards a ‘spiritual’ reading, an approach that I am seeking to reconstrue here in terms of symbolic interpretation.(emphasis mine)

    It seems that Douglas Earl does consider the difference between the latter half of Joshua and the earlier part. Do “provide a clue” to the reader that the text is not to be read literally.

    So I am a little unclear what your trying to establish with this.