Did the God of the Old Testament Command Genocide? Part 1

In last week’s post, we looked at Paul’s Copan’s article “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?” (2009) because it lays a good foundation for interpreting Old Testament texts which, by modern standards, are morally problematic. This week’s post extends that discussion by looking at Copan’s treatment of the conquest narratives in which the Israelites are given divine sanction to exterminate the Canaanite people.[1]

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Were women and children targeted by the Israelite soldiers?

Three important questions come up here: (1) what exactly was commanded? (2) What was the textual rationale for the command? And (3), were the actions of the Israelite soldiers morally justifiable? This post focuses on the first question only.

To address (1), Copan examines two scenarios for who the Israelite soldiers where targeting. Scenario 1 says that only strategic political and military center were attacked, not civilians or non-combatants directly. Scenario 2 says that women and children were directly targeted by the commands. This post summarizes Copan’s preliminary remarks about the commands, and then weighs the evidence he offers for scenario 1.

A. Preliminary remarks: the commands were exceptional, hyperbolic, and compatible with mercy.

First, Copan thinks that what is surprising about the commands is how exceptional they are in Israel’s history. They were reserved for particular people at a specific time, and were not taken as a model for subsequent military actions after the Israelites had settled in the land. In fact, God strictly forbade the attack of distant nations except in cases of defensive war.  These commands are also surprising because they appear to conflict with the overarching picture of God in the OT, whose desire is to bless other nations, offer mercy to those who repent, and redeem the whole earth.

Second, the commands to totally destroy and kill everything that breathes were non-literal.  The “annihilation” language in Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Judges was a familiar ANE linguistic convention which used hyperbole to express military bravado in victory, not literal annihilation.[2] [English speakers use similar bravado in the context of sports victories: e.g. “we decimated our opponents, just as our coach told us to!” The Israelites would have understood the commands to be non-literal, as in fact they did, because the people they had “annihilated” keep reappearing later on in the conquest narrative. Copan explains that the texts acknowledge the “Canaanites as future neighbours” (p.7) and suggest that these people would be displaced from the land gradually, not eliminated as an entire race. Israel’s purpose, then, was to “dispossess the Canaanites and destroy their forms of religion and have nothing to do with them.”[3]

Third, the Israelites did not interpret the “annihilation” language in a hard-and-fast manner. For instance, the Joshua story tells us that Rehab was spared on the basis of her repentance (despite living in Jericho) and each of the seven military marches around the city walls represented an opportunity for the Canaanites to receive mercy if they turned to the God of Israel. They still would have been driven from the land, but their lives would have been spared.[4] Therefore, the commands were open to the possibility of mercy.

B. Scenario 1: only political leaders and armies in strategic outposts were targeted by the Israelite soldiers. Despite appearances, women and children[5] where not the intended targets.

First, according the O.T. scholar Richard Hess, archaeological evidence from the Amarna Letters indicates that the so-called “cities” attacked were actually strategic military and political centers distinct from the general population.[6]

Second, Hess contends that “the phrase [‘men and women’] appears to be stereotypical for describing all the inhabitants of a town or region, without predisposing the reader to assume anything further about their ages or even their genders.”[7] Thus, the language probably referred to potential inhabitants, whatever their genders or ages might be. The language does not imply that women and children were present, but it does mean that anyone present would have be killed. Why is the use of stereotypical language significant? Because military outposts (at least in the cases of Jericho and Ai) contained very few non-combatants, and it was customary in the ANE to evacuate any women, children and seniors prior to battle.[8]

Copan’s reasoning seems to be that because military outposts (called “cities”) were the intended targets, it would have been assumed that few, if any, women and children, were present. They were sparred the ravages of battle.

Are you, the reader, convinced that Scenario 1 is a good interpretation of the conquest commands? Has Copan ignored other texts in which women and children clearly were targeted by the Israelite soldiers?  Your responses are welcome.


[1] Paul Copan. (2009). “Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites: Divinely Mandated Genocide or Corporate Capital Punishment?” Retrieved April 6th, 2013, from: http://www.epsociety.org/library/articles.asp?pid=63 All page citations from Copan are from this article.

[2] Linguistic parallels of military bravado in the ANE can be found in Hittite, Egyptian, Akkadian, Aramaic, and Moabite warfare texts. In this connection, Copan cites the work of Christopher Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, (2004) 474-5; and Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel (2003), 149.

[3] John Goldingay, “City and Nation,” in Old Testament Theology, vol. 3 (2009). Chap. 5

[4] Copan (2009) says that the Joshua narrator juxtaposes the story of Rehab with the destruction of Jericho to emphasize the possibility of mercy: “In chapter 6 [of Joshua], the number of words mentioning her and her family’s being spared (86 words) are roughly the same as those devoted to describing Jericho’s destruction (102 words)–an indication of Yahweh’s willingness to receive any who turn to him” (p.2). The juxtaposition seems to be a literary technique used to express the point that God shows mercy to those who turn to him.

[5] See Joshua 6:21; 8:25

[6] See Copan (2009), ft.40.

[7] Richard S. Hess, “The Jericho and Ai of the Book of Joshua,” in Critical Issues in Early Israelite History, ed. Richard S. Hess, Gerald A. Klingbeil, and Paul J. Ray Jr. (2008), 39.

[8] Copan (2009) writes, “when a foreign army might pose a threat in the ANE, women and children would be the first to remove themselves from harm’s way–not to mention the population at large: ‘When a city is in danger of falling,’ observes Goldingay, ‘people do not simply wait there to be killed; they get out. . . . Only people who do not get out, such as the city’s defenders, get killed’” (p.7).

3 thoughts on “Did the God of the Old Testament Command Genocide? Part 1”

  1. After years of wondering about the Canaanite genocide debate I’ve finally started looking at it properly so I appreciate your article.

    Also, I was I confess curious because I was one of many students studying under Richard Hess at college years ago.

    Thanks for article.

  2. Thomas, I was musing over your remarks about the ‘annihilation language’ in the OT simply being a discursive device. I must say, I think the following passage from 1 Samuel is an apt instantiation of what you are talking about in this article. I scoured your other three articles on this topic and I did not see a reference to it, so here goes the text and my thinking:

    ” 6 And it came to pass as they came, when David was returned from the slaughter of the Philistine, that the women came out of all cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet king Saul, with tabrets, with joy, and with instruments of music.

    7 And the women answered one another as they played, and said, Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.

    8 And Saul was very wroth, and the saying displeased him; and he said, They have ascribed unto David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed but thousands: and what can he have more but the kingdom?

    9 And Saul eyed David from that day and forward.”

    — 1 Samuel 18:6-9

    There are a number of important dimensions to this passage. First, the lyrics of the Israelite women’s victory ode cannot be intended literally. This much is obvious in light of the preceding chapter. Only one man is recorded as being killed by David’s own hand – Goliath – and not a single man is recorded as being dispatched personally by Saul.* Presumably this is why the Philistines and Israelites decided to reduce their battle to a synecdochic struggle between their two respective, chosen champions: it reduced the bloodshed. Nevertheless, the outcome of this single man-to-man proxy struggle would have serious ramifications for the collective communities it represented: the nation of the vanquished champion would be reduced to servanthood (1 Samuel 17:9) (This also appears to be somewhat hyperbolic, as I see no evidence that the subsequently-defeated Philistines became the personal slaves of the Israelites; it seems that by “servants” is meant simply ‘subordination’ and ‘humiliation’.)

    Thus, when David prevails over Goliath, there is a sense in which the (non-literal) annihilation of the Philistines is imputed to him by the Israelite women who greet him on his return from from battle. There is a felicitous contrast between the singular “slaughter of the Philistine” (v. 6) and the plural (greatly compounded!) ascription of “ten thousands” of slain to David’s credit (v. 7). Not only that, but it occurs superlatively after the women’s attribution of “thousands” of slain to Saul! That this literary device actually wounded Saul’s ego is an exemplary case of dramatic irony, considering the reader’s knowledge, not only of Saul’s perceived ‘inaction’ during the contest with Goliath, but that he, as the largest man in Israel (1 Samuel 9:2) and king, would have been the Israelites’ logical choice in champion to dispatch to fight against Goliath, but that instead he cowered (1 Samuel 17:11) and delegated (1 Samuel 17:37) the fighting that he should have done to a manifestly (physically) weaker man (1 Samuel 17:39).

    Thus, one can imagine the feeling of disgrace that must have washed over Saul upon returning home as the would-be conquering hero and being greeted by the Israelite women’s – for lack of a better term – cheering squad. That women served this social function in Israel is interesting, to say the least, and I think highly pertinent to your argument about ‘annihilation’ language. Although I am verging towards an Orientalist essentialism here, it has always struck me that in Middle Eastern cultures women seem to be aware of their uncanny ability to either steel or shame their menfolk, depending on the context, especially as it pertains to “their” men’s perceived inaction in the face of an enemy. This can even be seen today, for example, in Palestinian mothers who appeal to shame in order to encourage their sons to become suicide bombers (my colleagues in Middle Eastern history would hang me in effigy for using this kind of essentialism, but I think it conveys my point rather well.). Thus, the use of this kind of ‘annihilation language’ – “bravado,” as you put it – would account for the references to “thousands” and “ten thousands” being slain. That these numbers were not literally meant is obvious, as indeed, the question of enumeration was completely irrelevant to the discursive function this kind of language served.

    *(There is one passing reference to the disorganized Philistine retreat in 1 Samuel 17:52, that the mortally wounded among them fell along the wayside, and that the Israelite army plundered their abandoned camp. But the pertinence of this to the Israelite women’s ode seems highly dubious to my mind).

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