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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Did the Hebrew God Intend His Commands To Kill All the Canaanites Be Taken Literally?

Back in my series on Evangelicals Attempt to Defend Genocide, Part 11 dealt with the idea put forward by Nicholas Wolterstorff in a paper delivered at the University of Notre Dame Conference, "My Ways are Not Your Ways: The Character of the God of the Hebrew Bible," in which he argues that the Hebrew God did not really command genocide, the language of "utterly destroy," "show no mercy," and etc., is hyperbolic and was not to be understood literally by the Israelites. A blogger, Matt Flannagan had also defended this position (see here and here).

Recently, Flannagan ran another post in which he attempted to answer my objections to the claim of hyperbole. He entitled it: "Wolterstorff, the Canaanites and Hyperbole: A Response to Ken Pulliam." In the comment section on his site, he and I have continued the debate. You can read it below.


Thanks for interacting with my post regarding the Canaanite genocides.

1. You took issue with the title of my series: "Grasping at Straws Part Eleven: Evangelicals Defend Genocide," since you and Wolterstorff do not believe a genocide was commanded. I can see why you object but a title by necessity has to be short. A better title would have been: Grasping at Straws–Evangelicals Defend the Language of Genocide in the Commands Allegedly Given by Yahweh. My point was that you are trying to reconcile the apparent genocidal commands with the Christian notion that God is perfectly moral and just.

2. You took issue with me not giving all of Kitchen’s credentials. Again, I am not writing a full length book here. I think most of my readers realize that Kitchen is an archeologist but I don’t know if they all realize he is an evangelical. At any rate, these first two criticisms seem to be nit-picking.

3. You took issue with my complaint that seeing the genocidal commands as hyperbolic does not solve the other moral problems in the OT. This is a valid criticism and I should have stated my complaint more clearly. It seems to me that the OT is filled with passages where Yahweh has no issue with killing infants, for example, the annihilation of the people of Sodom, the killing of the Egyptian firstborn, the slaughter of the Amalekites, and so on. The order to exterminate the Canaanites is in harmony with these other actions. If, as you say, the genocidal command with regard to the Canaanites is hyperbolic, then should one assume that the other passages which present the same moral problem are hyperbolic? It would seem that consistency would demand such. If the other passages, in which Yahweh either kills or orders the killing of infants, are to be taken literally, then why would one suppose that the command to kill all the Canaanites is not to be taken literally?

4. With regard to my argument that God must have intended the passages in Joshua and Deuteronomy to be taken literally because if he had intended them figuratively, he would have known that they were going to be misunderstood resulting in the slaughter of many innocent peoples in the future, my point was this: Why would God use figurative language knowing that it was going to be misunderstood? To me that makes God culpable in future massacres which supposedly he does not approve of. If he didn’t want these kinds of massacres happening in the future, then why did he open the door for them by using hyperbolic language?

5. You say that my interpretation of Judges 2:1-5 is flawed because there it only says that the Israelites are to make no covenant with the Canaanites; it says nothing about their extermination. However, the command to exterminate the Canaanites in Deut. 7:2 includes a prohibition of making a covenant with them. It reads: "and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them." Clearly the opposite of exterminating them is to make a covenant with them, thus, when the Israelites are scolded for making a covenant with them in Judges 2, they are also being scolded for not exterminating them.

6. You maintain that I ignored the parallels claimed by Wolterstorff and you between Joshua and other “hagiographic” literature. My point was that the parallels cited by you and Wolterstorff are not truly hagiography. As Louise Antony pointed out in her response to Wolterstorff’s paper, hagiographic literature uses hyperbole to teach certain moral values. What moral values are being taught by the command to exterminate all the Canaanites? The only “moral values” taught by such a command are, as Antony states, states domination and ruthlessness.

7. My point about the Gospels is that they are the clearest example of hagiography in the Bible. Yet presumably neither you nor Wolterstorff want to take them as hagiography. With regard to them being ancient biographies, yes they are similar, but ancient biographies tend to exaggerate the actions of the hero whose life is being recorded (see this post) in the same way that hagiographies do.

8. You say that I insist that if one part of a text is non-literal then one cannot take other parts of the text as literal. That is misrepresenting what I said. I certainly acknowledge that there can be literal and non-literal passages in the same writing. Obviously that is true because figurative language only has meaning as it is contrasted with literal language. My point was that it seems arbitrary on your part to take certain passages in Joshua as figurative when there is no good reason “internally” to do so. Your rationalization for taking these genocidal commands as hyperbolic involves “external” considerations such as other ANE writings. While these external sources may have some value in the interpretation of Joshua, it seems to me that there needs to be internal markers in Joshua indicating that the language is figurative. Otherwise, the claim of hyperbolic language appears to be an arbitrary invention on your part in order to escape the moral implications of your God ordering the killing of children.


Re 2. I fail to see why the fact that Kitchen is an evangelical is relevant.

Re 3. First, nowhere in the account of sodom and Gommorah is its stated children are killed, in fact the text states if there were innocent people in Sodom God would not destroy it, it was because he found none that it was destroyed. Second, I do think the Amalekite passage is probably hyperbolic for reasons parallel to those of the Canaanite ones. Third, your argument here is defective, the issue is not whether a literal reading is in harmony with the content of another passage. Its whether the literary context, genre, phraseology etc is the same. If they are not there is no inconsistency in taking one hyperbolically and the other literally.

Re 4. the massacres you refer to have no relevance to whether the text is literal or figurative. Even if the text is literal and is taken literally, there is no command given to future generations to wipe out other nations the text clearly and literally states that Israel is to do this to the Canaanites living in the land and not to other nations. Either way the events you talk of involve a misunderstanding.

Re 5, Your argument here is circular, you interpret Judges 2 as commanding Genocide, because you interpret the language in Deuteronomy as literally commanding Genocide. You can’t then argue that these commands must be literal because of Judges 2( as you did in your post).

Re 6. Wolterstorff defines what he means by hagiographic literature ” My suggestion is that the Book of Joshua has to be read as a theologically oriented narration, stylized and hyperbolic at important points, of Israel’s early skirmishes in the Promised Land, with the story of these battles being framed by descriptions of two great ritualized events. The story as a whole celebrates Joshua as the great leader of his people, faithful to Yahweh, worthy successor of Moses. If we strip the word “hagiography” of its negative connotations, we can call it a hagiographic account of Joshua’s exploits.” It is common in ANE literature to write hagiographic histories, precisely with this language. The Merenptah Stele for example, praises Mernephat as a faithful follower of Ra by using hyperbolic language of the sort mentioned. The Mesha Stele uses such language to portray Mesha as a faithful servant of Chemosh who faithfully in fact T L Thompson suggests these texts all are part of a Genre of “the good king” where hyperbolic rhetoric is used to paint a king as a faithful follower of the gods, who defeats the enemies of his nation and esthablishes peace justice which he ascertains in numerous ANE texts. Anthony may be correct that modern hagiography does not function this way, but no none is talking about modern hagiography.

Re 7. I agree with some of what you say, ancient biography does contain a degree of reconstruction, Wolterstorff actually makes this very point in the paper you mention and states it answers various apparent discrepancies in the gospels, I doubt it proves much.

Re 8. you state its arbitrary to read a passage as hyperbolic without internal reason for doing so, and claim that my argument involves external reasons. This is false, i gave both internal and external reasons, as you yourself state in your post. 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. so this seems to simply be false.


2. It matters that Kitchen is an evangelical in the sense that he is committed to the divine origin of the Bible.

3. If children were not killed in Sodom, then what happened to them? Were they miraclously raptured out prior to the outpouring of divine wrath? Surely you don’t think there could be a whole city of people with no children? How can the Amalekite passage be hyperbolic when Saul is punished for not following the command literally? You are right that Joshua could be hyperbolic and the others not; however, it would seem logical to take them all the same way since they are dealing with the same matter, i.e., the extermination of an entire people group.

4. Granted that the text is at best descriptive and not prescriptive. But my point is that an omniscient being would know that his language was going to be misinterpreted and used as divine validation for future exterminations, and in a sense they would be right in thinking that if God ordered the elimination of pagan idol worshippers in the past, he must not be opposed to the idea. If God was at all concerned about the people who would be massacred in the future, he could have been a littler clearer in the text so that future generations would not misunderstand it.

5. In Deut. there are two alternatives, either kill them all or make a covenant with them. Is making a covenant with them figurative language? I think Judges 2 is making it very clear why all the troubles that are later recounted in the book of Judges is going to come upon the Israelites, namely, that they did not obey Yahweh in exterminating all of the Canaanites.

6. I am not sure that hagiography is the right term to employ. The fragments from the other ANE sources while clearly exaggerations are not large or complete enough to identify the precise literary genre. Actually I think its anachronistic to employ it all about these ANE writings including Joshua. But even if it is hagiography, the question remains: What is the moral value that is being taught by saying to exterminate them all and show no mercy?

7. All that it proves is that conservatives want to make use of the elements of hagiography or ancient biography that suit their purpose but then ignore the elements that present problems to the historical accuracy of the biography.

8.I said there ought to be internal markers in order to take the language hyperbolically and I did not find your “evidence” of such convincing. Thus, I believe that you are reading this back into the text as a result of external factors.


2. Why is Kitchen’s belief that “the bible is of divine origin” relevant? Are you suggesting that if a person is an evangelical he can’t be a competent Egyptologist or able to read an translate ANE documents?

3. You ask “If children were not killed in Sodom, then what happened to them?” this question of course assumes that there were children in sodom which is precisely the issue. Once again you are reasoning in a circle.

As I noted to Max, the text actually denies there are innocent people in the city. You may not believe this could be an accurate description of what happened, but you cannot claim (as you did) that the text says God wiped out children because it doesn’t.

The Amalekite issue warrants a post on its own but
(a) The author cannot have intended for this passage to be taken literally v 8 of this passage states all the Amalekites have been put to the sword, except the king who is promptly executed a few versus later. If this is taken literally, it follows the Amalekites were exterminated.

The problem is that the author of the text makes it clear that they were not literally wiped out latter in the narrative (Samuel 30) the Amalekites attack a city, raid it and David has to launch a counter attack to get the captives back for this reason.

(b) ANE hyperbole is used frequently in the passages. It states for example “two hundred thousand foot soldiers and ten thousand men” fought “all the way from Havilah to Shur, to the east of Egypt” this is the kind of hyperbolic exaggeration common in ANE accounts.

Moreover the language of “totally destroy” (cherem) in the passage is very similar to the language used in the Mesha steele which is recognized to be hyperbolic.

(c)Your claim is that Saul is condemned for not taking the passage lite rally, actually Saul is condemned for taking plunder (v 17) but even if this is correct, it shows that the command was taken literally within the context of a hagiographic account. This is vital, the phrase “Harry Potter went to Hogwarts” is intended to be literal, but it occurs with the context of a fictional novel and hence should not be interpreted as making the claim that there actually is a harry potter who went to hogwarts. Similarly, a command to obey commands couched in ANE hyperbole within a broadly hagiographies genre, does not mean that the text states God actually made that command. Such language functioned not to describe what occurred, but to paint the king as a faithful (or in this case unfaithful king).

4. Not sure what is unclear, even if one takes the text literally its clearly qualified to the nations within Canaan. Deut 20 states “This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby. However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes.” I don’t know anyone who thinks that because God commands Abram to leave Ur of the Chaldees and go to Canaan everyone is required to do this, this is because its recognized as an occasional command not one given to all people for all time, so is the passage in Deut 20 .

5 Again we have circular argument, I argued that the word “destroy” in Deut 7 is hyperbolic. Your response is to say that this is wrong because Judges says so, Judges says so because Deut 7 says so and Deut 7 says so because the word ‘destroy” is literal and means kill.

6. The issue is not what we call these texts, its rather how was ANE history written, is it sensible to interpret texts like this in the extremely literalistic fashion you and other skeptics do to get your conclusions, the answer is pretty evidently no.

As to your question “what is the moral value that is being taught by saying to exterminate them all and show no mercy?” apart from the fact that you again assume this is actually a command to exterminate. (circular reasoning again). The answer is reasonably clear. ObeyGod. do not tolerate people who engage in certain types of practices ( such as human sacrifice) to live with you if they are a corrupting influence on others etc. Failure to do so will lead to you becoming like them.(Josh-judges)

7. I think this is false, conservatives often acknowledge that biography is not an exact description of what happened but serves other functions. Wolterstorff actually notes this with the cleansing of the temple. He points of that the illucotionary stance of biography means that sometimes the question being asked is not when did this happen? Its rather is this an accurate picture of Jesus? is this the sort of thing he would have done if confronted with that sort of practice?

In fact often liberals often are selective here, would you deny for example the basic historicity of Plutarchs account of Alexander, the battles he fought, that he conquered Persia, died in Babylon from fever etc. No. Can you use Plutarch as an source of the “historical Alexander” yes. Would anyone apply redaction, form and historical criticism to Plutarch and claim that really this was all invented to gain power, he really did not exist or was a mushroom, or did not say or do anything in the text. No.

8. This seems more a string of assertions, than an argument. I suggest that when the author of a text explicitly and repeatedly states that something is not literally the case, and when the text is known to use certain literary conventions, and its well attested that the language in question is not literal according to those conventions. In light of this it’s rather anachronistic to read the passage literally. Of course it might have useful shock value and further secular propaganda about religious people being dangerous fanatics who cause wars etc. But that does not change the fact that its bad hermeneutics.


Sorry for the long delay in responding. BTW, I see you might be coming to Atlanta. If so, I would love to have a cup of coffee or tea or beer whatever you New Zealanders drink.

Now to your response:

2. Kitchen’s belief that “the bible is of divine origin” is relevant because it is going to color how he reads the evidence. If one thinks the Bible came from God, one is going to interpret archeological evidence or any kind of evidence to agree with one’s understanding of the Bible.

3. How could you possibly believe there were no children in Sodom. Do you know of any town of any size that has no children?  Do you think Sodom was one of those adult only retirement communities where children are not allowed?

You are not reading the text accurately. God said he would spare Sodom if he could find as many as 10 “righteous” (צדיק) people. Innocence and righteousness are not the same thing.

Your reading of I Sam. 15 is also in error, I think. There is no way to make sense of why Saul is chastised in the passage without saying that he failed to execute the command of God. The fact that Amalekites are around in ch. 30 can be explained in a number of ways: 1) There were even more Amalekites in other areas that Saul was unaware of; or more likely 2) the account in ch. 15 is really a story made-up by some scribe to explain why Saul’s son did not inherit the throne.

4. If the text is intended literally then it tells people that God is not necessarily opposed to exterminating a group of people that he feels are incorrigible (and this agrees with other events in the Bible such as Sodom, Noah’s flood, and the final judgment). Granted they might not be justified in trying to apply the principle but its easy to see how one could in his zeal make this kind of mistake. The fact that God is omniscient means he knew that and a perfectly moral being would have taken steps to prevent it.

5. So let me get this straight. Judges is saying that all the problems that are about to befall the Israelites are due to their failure to completely obey a command of God given in Deut. and Joshua that was hyperbolic. How does one obey or disobey a hyperbolic command?

6. It does matter because you and Wolterstorff are in my opinion using the term hagiographic anachronistically. I think Judges as well as other examples of God killing whole civilizations are reason enough to take the command to kill all the Canaanites and Amalekites literally. But even if one were to believe them only hyperbole, the fact still remains that the author of the passage thought it a good thing to exaggerate. Doesn’t it strike you as odd that one would call killing every human being and showing mercy to none could possibly be a good thing?

You say that the moral value of the hyperbolic command is: "Obey God. do not tolerate people who engage in certain types of practices ( such as human sacrifice) to live with you if they are a corrupting influence on others etc. Failure to do so will lead to you becoming like them.(Josh-judges)."  Okay, so how do you not tolerate them? How do you keep them from practicing human sacrifice unless 1) you kill them all or 2) you institute some type of military government in which you prohibit them from doing what you find distasteful? Again the fact that Judges shows that Israel did fall into these pagan practices due to their failure to obey the command leads me to believe the command was not hyperbolic. If the command was simply hyperbolic, then one could argue that they did fulfill it because they did kill a lot of Canaanites even if they didn’t kill them all.

7. As long as one is willing to read the gospels like they would other ancient biographies, then I have no problem. Its when the arguments are made that because its ancient biography, therefore its trustworthy in every detail (Bill Craig made this argument).

8. You say in response to my claim that there are no internal markers in Deut. or Joshua to take the language hyperbolically: "I suggest that when the author of a text explicitly and repeatedly states that something is not literally the case, and when the text is known to use certain literary conventions, and its well attested that the language in question is not literal according to those conventions. In light of this it’s rather anachronistic to read the passage literally."

Where does the author state explicitly and repeatedly that the language is not to be taken literally? I see nothing in the context of the commands that would make one think they are not intended literally. I grant that external factors such as other ANE writings use hyperbolic language in regards to warfare but to insist that Deut and Joshua are doing the same is an assumption based on external factors not internal ones.


  1. Ken,

    Why not ask an Orthodox Rabbi how they understand the Torah and the commands to destroy the Canaanites? After all it is their book.

  2. *Munches popcorn*

    Saw your conversion story on another site and enjoyed it thoroughly! I thought it was quite uplifting, actually, to counter some of the "oh gee so sad" comments there.

    For 2, perhaps you could note evangelical belief is a factor (as it indeed is for the reason you've already stated) as opposed to an automatic disqualification, which appears to have been how Flannagan took it.

  3. ---

    The way I see it, hagiography is just a 10 dollar word for "mythology". And if he REALLY wants to go down that road so strongly, I say be my guest. But, once he commits down that road, how can he ever defend the notion that his mythology should be taken any more seriously than other ancient/modern mythology? I don't take these other ANE writings seriously, nor do I look to them as authoritative over my life, so why should I do any differently with the Hebrew Scriptures, if they are so rife with mythol...hagiography?

    It's interesting seeing this line of argument, since I've generally seen nothing but Christians arguing for the historicity of the Scriptures, and not long ago, they were so intent on doing this, they actually practiced "Biblical archaeology". Once that notion got blown out of the water by the evidence, you knew they'd come up with a new tactic to defend their Scriptures, but this method here is terrible.

    Also, most of the NT writers didn't seem to consider the Scriptures hagiographic. Jesus and Paul seemed to take it quite literally. They'll go to all lenghts to defend their Scriptures, and we are lucky enough to be witnesses to the theater...

  4. what evidence has blown Biblical Archaeology out of the water? I am not aware of any Archaeological evidence that calls into question the Bible

  5. and just because you misuse or misinterpret the word hagiography to mean "mythology" doesnt make it so.

    Deliberately misusing words to misrepresent another's arguement is just dishonest .

    You are right the NT writers didnt consider the Scriptures hagiographic, not if you are going to change the meaning of hagiographis to "mythologic"

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Question: Prior to these recent times, was there ever any attempt to read the OT massacres as figurative, or Hyperbolic, or hagiographic, or allegorical, or in any way plausibly deniable?

  8. John,

    Yes some of the Early Church Fathers understood these passages allegorically, as they did much of the OT. It is not always clear if they are denying the literal happened but their emphasis is on the deeper allegorical truth behind the literal statements. See this post.