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.
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. [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.”
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. 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 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.
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.” 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.
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.
 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.
 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.
 John Goldingay, “City and Nation,” in Old Testament Theology, vol. 3 (2009). Chap. 5
 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.
 See Joshua 6:21; 8:25
 See Copan (2009), ft.40.
 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.
 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).