Contra Mundum: Did God Command Genocide in the Old Testament?

Perhaps the most perplexing issue facing Christan believers is a series of jarring texts in the Old Testament. After liberating Israel from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites arrived on the edge of the promised land. The book of Deuteronomy records that God then commanded Israel to “destroy totally” the people occupying these regions (the Canaanites); the Israelites were to “leave alive nothing that breathes.” The book of Joshua records the carrying out of this command. In the sixth chapter it states “they devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.” In the tenth and eleventh chapters the text states that Joshua “left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded.” The text mentions city after city where Joshua, at God’s command, puts every inhabitant “to the sword” and “left no survivors.” If these passages are taken in a strict, literal fashion then it is correct to conclude that they do record the divinely authorised commission of genocide. In light of this critics of Christianity often ask how a good and loving God could command the extermination of the Canaanites?

In response, I want to suggest that this strict, literal reading is mistaken. Reading these texts in isolation from the narrative in which they occur risks a distortion of the authors intended meaning. Consider the book of Joshua, critics are quick to point out that in chapters ten and eleven the text states that Joshua “totally destroyed all who breathed”, left “no survivors” in “the entire land”, went through the land “exterminating them without mercy”.

The problem is that chapters fifteen to seventeen record that the Canaanites were, in fact, not literally wiped out. Over and over the text affirms that the land was still occupied by the Canaanites, who remain heavily armed and deeply entrenched in the cities. Astute readers will note that these are the same regions and the same cities that Joshua was said to have “destroyed all who breathed”, left “no survivors” in just a few chapters earlier.

This continues through into the next book in the Old Testament. The first two chapters of the book of Judges record that the Canaanites lived in the very same regions and cities that Joshua was said to have put every inhabitant “to the sword” in and “left no survivors” in. Moreover, again we see that they occupied these cities and regions in such numbers and strength that they had to again be driven out by force, which chapter one of Judges declared was very difficult.

Read in context then, it is difficult to see how the language of total genocide in chapters ten and eleven of the book of Joshua could have been intended to be taken literally by the authors.

This phenomena is not limited to the books of Joshua and Judges. The book of Deuteronomy in chapters seven and twenty contain commands to the Israelites to “destroy them [the Canaanites] totally” and “not leave alive anything that breathes.” The books of Deuteronomy and Exodus, in numerous places, state that the Canaanites are to be slowly driven out and expelled from the land, which is not the same thing as killing them. In fact, legislation is cited in the texts which clearly assumes that the Canaanites will survive Joshua’s the invasion. Immediately after stating that the Israelites should “destroy them totally” the text reads, “make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons.” If they were all supposed to be dead then why bother issuing instructions regarding treaties and intermarriage?

When read in context, it is unlikely that the author of these texts intended the language “destroy totally”, “do not leave alive anything that breathes”, destroy “men and women, young and old”, and so on, to be taken literally. How then should these passages be understood? At a recent conference at the University of Notre Dame, Philosopher Alvin Plantinga suggested a possible solution is to take this language hyperbolically. He suggested phrases such as, “destroy with the sword … men and women … cattle, sheep and donkeys” are phrases to be understood more like we understand a person who, in the context of watching David Tua in a boxing match, yells, “Knock his block off! Hand him his head! Take him out!” or hopes that the All Blacks will “annihilate the Springboks” or “totally slaughter the Wallabies.” Now, the sports fan does not actually want David Tua to decapitate his opponent or for the All Blacks to become mass murderers. Plantinga suggests that the same could be true here; understood in a non-literal sense the phrases probably mean “something like, attack them, defeat them, drive them out; not literally kill every man, woman, child donkey and the like.” If this is correct then the differences between the different texts is easily explained and more significantly, the texts do not teach that God commanded genocide or that Joshua carried it out.

Interestingly, research into Ancient Near-Eastern history writings bear Plantinga’s idea out. In a comprehensive comparative study of Ancient Near-Eastern conquest accounts, Old Testament scholar, K. Lawson Younger documents stylistic and literary similarities between Joshua and reports of wars written by the some of these surrounding cultures. He concludes that the Old Testament uses the same literary conventions. He notes, “the composition and rhetoric of the Joshua narratives in chapters 9-12 are compared to the the conventions of writing about conquests in Egyptian, Hittite, Akkadian, Moabite, and Aramaic texts, they are revealed to be very similar.” He substantiates with numerous examples in his book.

In addition, when one examines the literary conventions of such accounts it is evident that the rhetoric of total conquest, complete annihilation and destruction of the enemy, killing everyone, leaving no survivors, etc, is a common hyperbolic way of describing a victory in the manner Plantinga suggests. Renowned Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen notes,

[T]he 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 later fifteenth century Tuthmosis III could boast “the numerous army of Mitanni, was overthrown within the hour, annihilated totally, like those (now) non-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 also be understood.

Some examples will illustrate this. The Merneptah Stele states “Yanoam was made nonexistent; Israel is laid waste, its seed is not.” here the Egyptian Pharoh Merneptah describes a skirmish with Israel in which his armies prevailed, hyperbolically, in terms of the total annihilation of Israel. The Assyrian king Sennacherib uses similar hyperbole, “The soldiers of Hirimme, dangerous enemies, I cut down with the sword; and not one escaped.” Mursili II records making “Mt. Asharpaya empty (of humanity)” and the “mountains of Tarikarimu empty (of humanity).” Similarly, The Bulletin of Ramses II, an historical narrative of Egyptian military campaigns into Syria, narrates Egypt’s considerably less than decisive victory at the battle of Kadesh with the rhetoric, “His majesty slew the entire force of the wretched foe from Hatti, together with his great chiefs and all his brothers, as well as all the chiefs of all the countries that had come with him” [Emphasis added]. The examples could be multiplied but the point is that such language was hyperbolic and not intended to be taken literally.

Consequently, if one does not read the texts in isolation and is sensitive to the genre of Ancient Near-Eastern writings then a literal reading is far from obvious. As Egyptologist James K. Hoffmeier notes, such a reading commits “the fallacy of misplaced literalism … the misconstruction of a statement-in-evidence so that it carries a literal meaning when a symbolic or hyperbolic or figurative meaning was intended.” This underscores an obvious but often neglected point, the bible is not written in accord with the conventions of 21st century English. It was written in ancient foreign languages and in the conventions that governed historical, legal, epic, etc writings of that time. To understand what it teaches accurately one needs to ask what it teaches given these factors. When one does this, it seems probably that the Old Testament does not teach that God commanded or that Israel carried out, the genocide or extermination of the Canaanites.

I write a monthly column for Investigate Magazine entitled Contra Mundum. This blog post was published in the Aug 10 issue and is reproduced here with permission. Contra Mundum is Latin for ‘against the world;’ the phrase is usually attributed to Athanasius who was exiled for defending Christian orthodoxy.

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

Contra Mundum: Fairies, Leprechauns, Golden Tea Cups & Spaghetti Monsters
Contra Mundum: Secularism and Public Life
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Contra Mundum: Slavery and the Old Testament

Contra Mundum: Secular Smoke Screens and Plato’s Euthyphro

Contra Mundum: What’s Wrong with Imposing your Beliefs onto Others?
Contra Mundum: God, Proof and Faith
Contra Mundum: “Bigoted Fundamentalist” as Orwellian Double-Speak
Contra Mundum: The Flat-Earth Myth
Contra Mundum: Confessions of an Anti-Choice Fanatic
Contra Mundum: The Judgmental Jesus

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