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.