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Sunday, March 7, 2010

Grasping at Straws Part Eleven--Evangelicals Defend Genocide

Nicholas Wolterstorff , in his paper delivered at the recent University of Notre Dame Conference, My Ways are Not Your Ways: The Character of the God of the Hebrew Bible, proposes a somewhat novel solution to the moral contradiction involved in the Hebrew God commanding genocide. His resolution is essentially this: the Hebrew God did not really command genocide, the language of utterly destroy, show no mercy, and etc. is hyperbolic and was not understood literally by the Israelites (the hyperbole explanation is also mentioned but not explained by Paul Copan in Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites. Copan says he is relying on a forthcoming book by John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology, vol. 3, ch. 5 for his assertion).

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.


  1. “1. It fails to fully appreciate the concept of (cherem).
    The first mention of (cherem) is in Lev. 27:28-29...
    The basic concept of (cherem) involves the offering of someone or something to Yahweh exclusively.”

    I think your definition needs to be more refined. The word cherem is most often used to mean destruction or separate from life. It is also used to mean to segregate or keep separate, which is close to your definition of exclusive usage. Leviticus 27:28-29 is en excellent example of using cherem to mean keep separate or use exclusively and destruction or separate from life.

    The entire chapter of Leviticus 27 deals with voluntary gifts to the temple. Voluntary gifts were to be used for temple maintenance or for the temple treasury. These items are not to be confused with peace offerings, guilt offerings, sin offerings, or first fruit offerings that are required. Leviticus 27 begins with the valuation of a living being - not that the man becomes the property of the temple, but how to come up with the sum of money to be given in place of the living being. The money is to be given for temple use which is holy, and consecrated to the Almighty. Next is the valuation and use of animals as voluntary gifts to the temple. Then comes the valuation of houses and fields and when an item can be redeemed. Leviticus 27 concludes with redeeming some of a tithe and adding a fifth to it. And the tithe of animals...

    All of the above items or the money collected for the item - can only be used in the temple which makes them holy to the Almighty. What makes the item exclusive to the Almighty is that the item/money is no longer used for mundane activities but the holy activities of caring for the temple. But they are not considered an offering in the same manner as a korbon. Could this voluntary gift be what Jesus is talking about in Mark 7:7-14?

    “Lev 27:28 However, any segregated (cherem) property that a man will segregate (cherem) for the sake of the Almighty, from anything that is his - whether human, animal, or field of his ancestral heritage - may not be sold and may not be redeemed, any segregated (cherem) item may be most holy to the Almighty.”

    Lev 27:29 Any condemned (cherem) person who shall be banned (cherem) from mankind shall not be redeemed; he shall be put to death. The Stone Edition CHUMASH

    Leviticus 29 is difficult to understand if you don’t have the oral tradition to explain what this means. Let’s say that a 40 year old man wants to make a contribution to the temple according to his life's monetary value. He would take a vow to contribute “fifty silver shekels, of the sacred shekel”. Now let’s say that man is soon after condemned to death by the court for the transgression of idol worship. His vow is not binding because as a condemned man his life has no monetary valuation and he can’t be redeemed.

    The Canaanite nations could not be considered gifts or offerings (sacrifice) under the above definition of cherem in Leviticus 27:28-29. One cannot derive benefit from an item used for idol worship, and a person who has received the death penalty has no value as a gift or an offering. And the Torah expressly forbids human offerings. Thinking that the killing of the Canaanite nations is on par with temple worship is not only mistaken but it starts down the wrong road that leads to the mistaken notion that Jesus could be considered a human sacrifice. I think I am arguing for your point against PST.

    It is true that Judaism studies each and every word in the written Torah. There are many layers of meaning there. If you are looking for insight into the killing of the Canaanite nations, why don’t you ask an orthodox rabbi for help in understanding it. After all it is their book.

  2. Emet, My focus is evangelical Christianity not orthodox Judaism. That is because I spent nearly 20 years in that tradition.

    I am sure that orthodox rabbis have a way to explain away the immoral act of the Canaanite genocide. They are motivated to protect the integrity of their God as much as evangelicals are motivated to protect the integrity of theirs.

    As for cherem , I would suggest that you do some reading about how the significance of that term in the ANE.

  3. Emet,

    If you want to present a defense of the genocidal commands from an orthodox Jewish perspective, please do and let's analyze it. Feel free to email me your defense and we can discuss it.

    pulliam at mail dot com

  4. But, Emet, the slaughter of the Canaanites is called cherem. Why's the Torah do that, if it doesn't consider the Canaanites to be an offering to God, or something set apart for God---as you document that it means in the Torah?

  5. Dr. Pulliam,

    I think you have a great idea. I will email you and it gives me enough time to compose my thoughts. Writing is not my strongest suit. (Please see my apology in the comment section of Grasping at Straws - Part Five, Sun. Feb. 28, 2010) Plus, your blog's focus is evangelical Christianity and I appreciate everything you write. BTW what is the ANE so I can do some reading?

    With sincere appreciation,

  6. Dear James,

    Let’s look at another passage, dealing with an idolatrous city where the word cherem is used.
    Deuteronomy 13:12-15 If thou shalt hear say in one of thy cities, which the LORD thy God hath given thee to dwell there, saying, Certain men, the children of Belial, are gone out from among you, and have withdrawn the inhabitants of their city, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which ye have not known;
    Then shalt thou enquire, and make search, and ask diligently; and, behold, if it be truth, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought among you;
    Thou shalt surely smite (hey, kaf, hey) the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, destroying it utterly (cherem), and all that is therein, and the cattle thereof, with the edge of the sword. KJV

    “Destroying it utterly”, is one of the definitions of cherem. This destruction of the inhabitants has nothing to do with the temple worship. We also need a definition of the word worship or in Hebrew “eved” (ayin vav, dalet). Often translated into English as worship it is better defined as, work subject to another’s will. It is usually translated from Hebrew into English as serve. Temple service could only be performed by the Kohanim. The slaughtering (shin chet, tet) done for temple service is for animals only. Human sacrifice is forbidden. Under this definition of service (ayin, vav, dalet) you might say that the Children of Israel are serving the Almighty by destroying the inhabitants of the Canaanite cities, but it is not temple service. Leaving a corner of a field for the poor is also service of the Almighty. And dwelling in a sukkah for the seven days of Sukkot is service of the Almighty. That’s what the Torah is - the way for the Children of Israel to serve the Almighty. Non Jewish nations also have their required service.

    The example below is another contrast of the word cherem.

    Joshua 6:17-19 The city - and all that is in it - shall be consecrated property (cherem) for the Almighty. Only Rahab the innkeeper shall live - she and all who are with her in the house - because she hid the emissaries whom we sent. Only you - beware of the consecrated property (cherem), lest you cause destruction (cherem) if you take from the consecrated property (cherem) and you bring destruction (cherem) upon the camp of Israel and cause it trouble. All the silver and gold and vessels of copper and iron are holy to the Almighty; they shall go to the treasury of the Almighty. The Stone Edition TANACH

    The property is consecrated, to be used for the treasury of the Almighty, but the people are not. Try reading the sentences using the concept of devoted for each use of cherem.

    Only you - beware of the devoted property, lest you cause devotion if you take from the devoted property and you bring devotion upon the camp of Israel and cause it trouble.