Wolterstorff argues that the command to destroy everything that breathes must be understood as hyperbole because the book of Judges makes it clear that the Canaanites continued to live in the land. He says that while one might argue that the editors of the books of Joshua and Judges had conflicting sources on the history of the Conquest and chose to include the reports even though they knew they were contradictory, that is unlikely. The writers of Joshua and Judges were not mindless editors, according to Wolterstorff; they were well aware that Joshua and Judges presented different accounts. The explanation is to be found in the different literary genre of the two books. Joshua reads more as hagiographic history, whereas Judges reads as more or less straightforward history, according to the Yale professor. Joshua is a theological narrative and is not to be taken literally.
Wolterstorff suggests that the phraseology contained in Joshua, "utterly destroy," "left no survivors", and so on, is analogous to someone today saying after a ball game: “we totally slaughtered the opposition, we annihilated them just as coach told us to.” A blogger, Matthew Flannagan, has written on Wolterstorff's proposal (here and here) and argues that the hyperbole explanation is the correct one based not only on the internal evidence of the text, as Wolstertorff says, but also on the external evidence of how other ANE nations reported their exploits of war. He cites evangelical Kenneth Kitchen:
The type of rhetoric in question was a regular feature of military reports in the second and first millennia, as others have made very clear. … In the latter fifteenth century Tuthmosis III could boast “the numerous army of Mitanni was overthrown within the hour, annihilated totally, like those (now) not existent” –whereas, in fact, the forces of Mitanni lived to fight many another day, in the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries. Some centuries later, about 840/830, Mesha king of Moab could boast that “Israel has utterly perished for always” – a rather premature judgment at that date, by over a century! And so, on ad libitum. It is in this frame of reference that the Joshua rhetoric must be understood (On the Reliability of the Old Testament, p. 174).
So, has Wolterstorff solved the ethical dilemma created by the warfare texts of the Conquest? I think not. Here are my reasons for rejecting his solution.
1. It fails to fully appreciate the concept of חֵרֶם (cherem).
The first mention of חֵרֶם (cherem) is in Lev. 27:28-29: But no devoted thing that a man devotes to the Lord, of anything that he has, whether man or beast, or of his inherited field, shall be sold or redeemed; every devoted thing is most holy to the Lord. No one devoted, who is to be devoted for destruction from mankind, shall be ransomed; he shall surely be put to death (ESV).
The basic concept of חֵרֶם (cherem) involves the offering of someone or something to Yahweh exclusively. As discussed in an earlier post, it is an act of worship to the LORD (see also Tremper Longman III, The Case for Spiritual Continuity, in Show Them No Mercy, pp. 159-90). To withhold something from the Hebrew God that should have been sacrificed to him is an act of wicked disobedience. This is precisely the sin of Achan reported in Joshua 7:11: Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I commanded them; they have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen and lied and put them among their own belongings (ESV). If the command to devote everything to destruction(חֵרֶם; cherem) in Jericho to the LORD (Jos. 6:17) was never intended to be taken literally, then why are Achan and his family punished? Is this story also hyperbole?
Likewise, in 1 Samuel 15, Saul is reprimanded by the LORD and rejected from being King because of his failure to fulfill the command for חֵרֶם (cherem)in totally destroying the Amalekites. Why wasn't Yahweh's command to Saul hyperbole? Why was Saul punished for not taking the command literally if it was never intended to be taken literally?
2. It 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.
Again, 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?
3. It fails to appreciate the true nature of hagiographic literature.
Louise Antony, in her response to Wolterstorff's paper, states the "hyperbolic language" of the genocidal commands does not serve any morally valuable purpose. She says that other hagiographic literature uses hyperbole to teach certain moral values. Joshua's use of hyperbole, if that is what it is, is not morally uplifting but actually creates moral difficulties. The moral values it teaches are domination and ruthlessness.
In addition, 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.
4. 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.
While one could dismiss this objection if the Hebrew scriptures are merely the product of human authors; however, if they are in fact the revelation of God, as evangelicals claim, then God cannot be excused for not knowing that the texts would be misused in the future by those who claimed to be his followers. Louise Antony cites the 19th century American concept of manifest destiny as an example.
5. It fails to justify a war of aggression in which the land of other countries is stolen.
Even if Yahweh never intended for the Israelites to commit genocide, there is still the problem of explaining the justice of invading another country's land and taking it for yourself. Of course, one could argue that the land had already been promised to the descendants of Abraham and therefore was rightly theirs. However, in Genesis when Abraham arrives in the "promised land," he finds the Canaanites already living there (Gen. 12:6). It appears that they were there first. Conventional wisdom would say that they had more of a legitimate right to the land than the Hebrews. If one claims that Yahweh owns the whole earth and can give it to whoever he wills, one could counter by saying that the Canaanites also saw the land as a gift from their god.
Antony says that the whole concept of a "chosen people" is racist. How can a just God favor one race of people over another?
6. It fails to solve the other moral problems in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Are we to explain away all of the problems in the Old Testament by appealing to hyperbole? Was the flood of Noah hyperbole? Was the destruction of Sodom hyperbole? Was the killing of the firstborn of Egypt hyperbole?
7. If Joshua is hagiography, why shouldn't one believe that the Gospels are as well? Why should one take their stories as literal history?
While this goes beyond the scope of what Wolterstoff intended, I think he must consider the ramifications.
In conclusion, therefore, even though the argument presented by 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.