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Friday, October 8, 2010

More on the "Hyperbole" Interpretation of the Genocidal Commands of Yahweh

Some Christian apologists have tried to explain away the moral problem created by the genocidal commands of Yahweh by saying that the commands were never intended to be literal but instead should be understood as hyperbole. This position is advocated by Nicholas Wolterstorff, Paul Copan, and Matt Flannagan, among others. I have responded to this hyperbole defense before (see here and here).

On another blog, Parableman, Jeremy Pierce writes a post entitled: "Copan on the Canaanite Genocide." Pierce was initially hesitant about the hyperbole defense but in the post says that he now thinks it has possiblities.

One astute commenter who calls himself Alain wrote:

By Alain on October 2, 2010 1:54 AM

It is important to remember that the “need” to defend God’s decision to end the lives of a large group of people is radically alien to Hebrew or Ancient Near Eastern thought. This is a modern preoccupation that ignores the fact that for the ancient Israelite (or in the ANE in general with their gods), God as creator gave life and had the right to take it back from His creatures when they displeased Him. Be alive was not a right but a privilege granted by the deity.

Additionally, the distinction between the “guilty” males and the women and children is an artificial distinction that ignores the biblical concept of corporate solidarity (for example, the sin of Achan, an individual was imputed to whole nation in Joshua 7 and the whole nation became accursed and was defeated by her enemies). It is reasonable to assume that God saw the Canaanite nations as corporately guilty and thus as deserving corporate judgment.

Besides the fact that nothing in the text suggests that it was meant to be taken as hyperbole, the reason why this view must be rejected is the fact that it fails to explain the rationale for the divine command. Deuteronomy 20:17-18 clearly states that the Canaanites in the Promised Land needed to be utterly destroyed (lit. to ban) “so that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the LORD your God”. As such, exterminating the Canaanites living in the direct vicinity of the Israelite would prevent said Canaanites from being a negative example and teach the chosen nation their depraved and idolatrous ways. The point Moses is making fails if he is merely using hyperbolic language and only referring to a reduction of the Canaanite pollution because the survivors (and they would be numerous under the hyperbole view) while shaken by the “severe attack” would still be able to lead the Israelites astray; thus defeating the purpose of the ban in the first place.

Additionally, the hyperbole view does not make sense because the same passage differentiates between what is to be done to Israel’s immediate neighbors (total ban) and how to punish more distant nations (sparing women and children). Numbers 31:9-19 shows how selective capital punishment was applied. The fact that only a category of women and the children were spared and the rest executed indicates that hyperbole is not in view here. Even when women and children were spared, it was not because of some concept of “innocence” but because they were given to the soldier as spoil of war.

The same overall concern is reflecting in Deut 7:1-6 where Moses instructs the nation to utterly destroy (again the idea of the “ban”) not only the people but also their cultic infrastructure in order to prevent idolatry and Israel’s own destruction. Hyperbole does not work here too since the people is to be destroyed just like the places where they worship.

If the “complete” ban was not total but merely hyperbolic, what criteria would be used to determine that it was not fulfilled? More importantly, if the removal of the “cancerous” neighbors was partial, how could it accomplish its stated purpose?

While the hyperbolic view might satisfy the uneasy modern mind, it creates theological issues that undermine the theological point of the ban.

Alain is precisely correct. The ANE thought in terms of "collective culpability" and therefore the author of Joshua and the other texts saw no moral problem in the extermination of an entire group. This same mindset is present, I think, in Romans 5 where Paul says the whole human race is culpable for the sin of Adam. As Alain also points out, the Hebrew word חרם rules out the possibility of hyperbole. In another comment, he writes:

By Alain on October 3, 2010 8:17 PM

Deut 20:16 indicates how the ban [חרם] is to be understood. The command to put the Canaanites under the ban is explicitly contrasted with the command in the preceding verse “not to leave alive anything that breathes”. One needs major exegetical gymnastic to make “ban” mean “separation” here, unless want means separation from the land of the living … and breathing humans.

Understanding the ban as complete extermination also explains why no offer to surrender is made (however, if it was only separation/ packing and leaving, terms of peace would make sense here since the point of the passage is to avoid unnecessary destruction including the destruction of plant life).

This understanding of Deut 20 is confirmed when Israel actually applies these rules of engagement in the battlefield under When it comes to Jericho, the city is put under the ban and here again the meaning of the ban is indicated in the passage itself (only Rahab and her household are to be left alive—Joshua 6:17 cf. 21-22). The fact that Joshua specifically presents Rahab as an exception to the rule indicates that the command was to be taken literally.

The simple fact is that the hyperbole defense does not work. It is another case of Evangelicals Grasping At Straws to defend the indefensible.


  1. So you're saying when God said kill everybody, he truly meant everybody?

    Also what do we do with stuff like how many Israelites were wandering in the desert? I think if you do the math, you come up with an unbelievably high number. If so, is that a clue that the whole story was turned into kind of a legend, but had basis in some kind of history?

  2. Lynn,

    I personally don't think that the Exodus or the Conquest as recorded in the Bible is genuine history. However, it was written down as genuine history and intended to be taken that way by the people of Israel. It taught something about their God. Christians have to believe that it teaches something about their God as well because 2 Tim. 3:16-17 says: All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

  3. "So you're saying when God said kill everybody, he truly meant everybody?"

    Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants...

    ... because I will completely blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!

    LEAVE "no one alive to breathe" (Deut. 20:16-17; Josh. 10:40; Josh. 11:14-15)

    Deuteronomy 7:16 You must destroy all the peoples Yahweh your God gives over to you. Do not look on them with pity...

    Yahweh your God will send the hornet among them until even the survivors who hide from you have perished.

    "So you're saying when God said kill everybody, he truly meant everybody?"

    When god said that he'll give abraham and his decendants all the land of canan, he truly meant all the land?

  4. Ken... one honest question.

    If believers are going to ignore passages like this anyway (I am pretty sure most don't even know they are in there).... why does it really matter?

    Oh sure, I choose to believe in a cosmic savior squirrel instead of a Semitic warlord deity and that was influenced by some of those passages....

    But when you get down to it, and I know you were a pastor so tell me if I am wrong.... people believe in God (er, Yahweh but most probably don't call him that) because life is hard, it feels good to have religious experiences, and it's comforting to know that when you die you go to heaven. It probably also isn't bad on the ego to believe that everyone else is wrong.

    So all I ask.... at the end of the day.... does it really matter to try to explain why modern evangelical Christianity is incoherent? I don't think most people want that explanation.... or else they would easily arrive at it themselves.

    Blarny. I'm just still upset about this Behe Jr. business. I'm still wondering if it's true.

  5. Samuel,

    You are right that most Christians do not worry about such passages as the Canaanite genocides. However, there are professional apologists out there, such as Paul Copan, who think they have answered the problem. I write to show them that, in my opinion, they have not. Whether this influences anyone or not, I guess, is beside the point.

  6. Let me engage in a bit of shameless self-promotion. In a series of now dated blog posts I describe how commands to annhilate the Amalekites play out in the Book of Esther and suggest how "believers" might find ways to reapply them to other groups and other situations. See here, here, and here.

  7. Ken,

    After watching a dozen or so of William Lane Craig debates I've decided there is no way to beat them at their own game. They simply appeal to emotion while dressed up as logicians. I don't have a PhD but....

    And here I use his 4 facts argument to prove a squirrel rose from the dead.

    I just can't believe people pay these apologists. Or that theology is a real field of study.

  8. I commented on this issue at Philosophical Disquisitions and I think it is very much in line with what you are saying:

    "The text is not hyperbolic, at least in the case of the Amalekites. If it were, the story of Saul's disobedience would make no sense. Why would God reject Saul as King for leaving one man and some animals alive if God was only issuing a hyperbole?

    The entire story assumes and explicitly states that God's command was to kill everyone. We are told that Saul almost obeyed and almost was not good enough. (1 Samuel 15)

    God told Moses he would "... utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven", but despite many attempts by God's people to do this, the descendants of Amalek continue to survive and fight back. (1 Samuel 27:8-9, 1 Samuel 30 and 1 Samuel 30:7-8)

    It isn't until "the days of King Hezekiah" that we are told the Amalekites are fully exterminated, but given so many other inaccurate claims for complete and utter destruction (compare Joshua and Judges), can we really believe that 1 Chronicles 4:41-43 is giving us an accurate accounting of their fate? Perhaps this is yet another exaggeration.

    Putting the completeness question aside, if someone demonstrates that Yahweh could have commanded genocide in a morally perfect way, we would still have to explain why he waited more than 300 years to do it. The Bible denounces generational guilt multiple times (EZ 18:5-19, DT 24:16, 2KI 14:6, 2CH 25:4), yet we are told that he ordered the slaughter of Amalekites because of what their ancestors had done. (1 Samuel 15:2-3)

    I think anyone who goes round-and-round to reconcile these problems will end up making ridiculous claims. Paul Copan tries hard, but he is taking on an insurmountable task."

  9. Ken,

    What are some of the best anti-christian books? I am more interested in historical accounts (vs. the new atheist stuff). Are there 2 or 3 really powerful books out there that you would recommend? Or maybe just 1 would be great. Thanks

  10. John,

    I would recommend that you start with Ken Daniel's, Why I Believed: Reflections of a Former Missionary . Ken was a missionary in Africa with Wycliffe Bible Translators when he had his struggle with the faith. He eventually concluded that the Bible is not the Word of God. I think you could relate to his struggle and he explains why eventually he could no longer believe. It is available on-line. After that I would suggest
    The Christian Delusion, ed. John Loftus. I think you will especially relate to Jason Long's chapter which is based on his book,The Religious Condition.

  11. For John Sfifer (or others),

    I'm not sure what you mean by "anti-Christian" or "historical accounts." The one I'm thinking of is not meant to be anti-Christian, though it certainly confronts traditional assumptions via rigorous historical scholarship. I refer to "From Jesus to Christianity" by L. Michael White. It is perhaps one of the best, most readable yet scholarly of the many books that cover backgrounds, authorship, etc. of all the NT books, how they were canonized, etc. At the same time, it tells a connected story of the development of Christianity, as the title suggests.

    To me, it is something that's both a fun read and good on the shelf for later reference. It is not coming from any particular theological bias that I could tell, though I doubt that White is any kind of traditional Christian on a personal basis.

    Howard Pepper

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