Let’s just say God did not command genocide or the extermination of the Canaanites after all. Let’s grant that He only commanded them to subjugate, or, in Plantinga’s words, “attack them, defeat them, drive them out.” What does that buy us?
To my mind, little is gained by this sort of reasoning, however well defended. Those who have a problem with divine-mandated genocide are not likely to think much differently of this counter-assertion that He instead “merely” commanded war, killing, and the forcible removal of multiple peoples established in a homeland for centuries or more beforehand. The latter isn’t even a “just war” according to Augustine.
How likely is it that the God who we as Christians claim was exemplified in His self-sacrificial servant Jesus of Nazareth demanded as a non-negotiable act of obedience and faithfulness that His people wage a full-scale assault of an entire region populated by several civilizations — whether or not the method was “total war” or marginally more kid-friendly? That’s the question that needs to be addressed.
I agree with Douglas. Even if the hyperbole interpretation were correct (and I don't believe that it is), it does not solve the moral problem associated with Israel's warfare recorded in Joshua.
John Goldingay, who does defend a less than literal reading of the genocidal commands, writes:
Surely God does not punish whole nations. It would not be fair. It would mean so many "innocent people" getting punished. While a literalistic reading of Deuteronomy and Joshua likely makes this seem a much bigger issue than historically it was, a less literalistic reading does not mean it ceases to be an issue [emphasis mine]. It is not one peculiar to this particular theological and ethical question. It is a fact of experience recognized by both Testaments that the members of a nation are bound together in their destiny, for good and for ill, like the members of a family. The First Testament has little of the modern instinct to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants, recognizing that these are battles between peoples not between professional armies (Old Testament Theology, vol. 3: Israel's Life, 577-78).While Flannagan's hyperbole interpretation may minimize the problem somewhat, it does not resolve it. And even if it did fully resolve the problem, one would still be left with the case of Sodom, the Noahic flood, the Amalekites, the hanging of Saul's sons and grandsons on account of Saul's sin, and the killing of 70,000 Israelites for David's sin of counting the people, and so on. The issue is how can a just God condemn people for crimes that they did not personally commit?
HT: Vic Reppert