Thom Stark on Wolterstorff and Hagiographic Hyperbole Part I

Earlier this year I finished a forthcoming article in which I defended Nicholas Wolterstorff’s take on the Canaanite massacre recorded in the book of Joshua. Wolterstorff argues that the Book of Joshua is a highly figurative, hagiographic and hyperbolic account of Israel’s early skirmishes and it is not intended to be taken literally in its details.[1] The accounts of killing everything that breathes function something like the boast of a high school student who describes winning a football game in terms of totally slaughtering the opposition.[2]

Joshua Slaughters the CanaanitesMy article was a revised version of a paper I presented in Atlanta in November last year (my God and the Genocide of the Canaanites series gives a good overview of my position). Around the same time I presented this paper, Thom Stark, posted a critical review of Douglas S. Earl’s book The Joshua Delusion? Rethinking Genocide in the Bible. As a review, much of it was addressed to the specifics of Earl’s book. However, in the introduction Stark offered a critique of Wolterstorff’s position and made reference to my defence of it.

He offered three lines of argument; two against the conclusion Wolterstorff and I offered and one against Wolterstorff’s argument itself. Since then several people have asked me my thoughts on his critique. In this series I will look at his critique of Wolterstorff’s argument, which I defended and adapted in my article. In the next post I will look at his criticisms of the conclusion.

Before one can criticise an argument it is important to be clear as to what it is. As I note in my forthcoming article (and in the post I linked to above) Wolterstorff’s argument consists of three points and a basic assumption. The assumption is that “Joshua as we have it today was intended as a component in the larger sequence consisting of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, I and II Samuel, and I and II Kings”.[3] On the basis of this assumption Wolterstorff contends “…  I propose that we interpret the Book of Joshua as a component within this larger sequence – in particular, that we interpret it as preceded by Deuteronomy and succeeded by Judges.”[4] In taking this approach, Wolterstorff engages in a more canonical approach to the text; he focuses on the meaning of the final form as part of a canonical sequence.

The three premises are as follows. First, the so called genocide accounts in Joshua 1-11 are part of a broader context which includes both the rest of Joshua but also other canonical books, such as the book of Judges. When one reads the whole sequence one observes that while early passages in Joshua describe Israel exterminating the inhabitants, later passages in Joshua and Judges proceed on the assumption this never literally happened.[5] Taken literally these accounts of the conquest contradict each other.

Second, this contrast is fairly obvious. Whoever “edited the final version of these writings into one sequence” was not “mindless” and would have noticed  “the tensions and contradictions – surface or real”;  therefore, they cannot have intended to affirm both as literally true.[6]

Third, while Judges appears relatively “down to earth”, a careful reading of Joshua shows it to “be full of ritualistic, stylised, accounts, formulaic language”. This final point suggests that Joshua is the non-literal figurative one and Judges is the more literal account.

In support of this I set out Lawson Younger’s study of ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts in Part II of my God and the Genocide of the Canaanites. Younger’s study shows:

(a) Such accounts are a common transmission code. They hyperbolically describe victories in terms of gods raining meteors or hailstones down on the foe, battles taking place in one day, the numbers of armies and enemy causalities being rhetorically exaggerated and, most importantly, victories are often described hyperbolically in terms of total conquest, complete annihilation, destruction of the enemy, killing everyone and leaving no survivors.

(b) Comparisons between these accounts and the early chapters of Joshua suggest Joshua is written according to this  transmission code.

I also added:

(c) There is precedent from both within the book of Joshua and also within the biblical canon for accounts and language of this sort being used figuratively and hyperbolically.

Stark contends this argument is “wholly untenable”. It is unclear, however, exactly what premises he rejects. Stark says nothing about the starting assumption. Similarly, he seems to clearly grant the first premise; he accepts that, taken literally, the first half of Joshua contradicts the second half and the book of Judges. Stark also appears to grant the third premise or at least some of my supporting argument for it; in an earlier blog post on the topic entitled “The Flannagan Delusion” (which is no longer online) he stated that Lawson Younger  ”has shown definitively that the conquest narratives follow a basic ancient conquest script, replete with exaggerations, [and] hyperbole”.
In his review Stark defends Younger’s contention that Joshua is such an account against Earl’s criticisms. He also grants that the gods destroying the enemy with a meteor or hailstones is a common “literary motif” and is “exaggerated”.

As best I can tell, Stark takes issue with Wolterstorff’s second premise. He summarises it as,

“The hyperbolists say that, since the author wasn’t stupid, the contradictions indicate that the language of total destruction is not to be taken literally. If it says in one part of the book that an entire population was killed, but that population is still alive later on, then it is clear that the earlier statement was hyperbolic in nature, not to be taken literally.

In response he argues,

“Earl argues that the book of Joshua is composite in nature. The first half of the book, chapters 1-12, was written by the Deuteronomistic historian, but chapters 13-22 were written by the Priestly writer. Chapter 23 returns again to the concerns of the Deuteronomistic historian, and according to Earl, chapter 24 (the final chapter) represents a more generic summary.

If Earl is correct that Joshua is two-part composite, that sufficiently explains the contradictions between the summaries of military victories. The latter half of Joshua does not contradict the former in order to provide a cue to read the earlier statements as hyperbolic; they are contradictory because they represent two different sources with two different agendas.”

Stark suggests Wolterstorff’s second premise is undermined by the fact that the final form of Joshua combines or draws upon two different sources. The authors of these sources had different agendas and contradict each other. This explains the contradictions without suggesting the author mindlessly wrote an obviously contradictory narrative. Each author wrote a coherent narrative, it is just that their narratives contradict the account of the other author, but none of them blatantly contradicted themselves.

I think this response is a non-starter based on a failure to grasp Wolterstorff’s point. As I note in my paper, Wolterstorff  argues for the second premise as follows:

Those whose occupation it is to try to determine the origins of these writings will suggest that the editors had contradictory records, oral traditions, and so forth to work with.  No doubt this is correct.  But those who edited the final version of these writings into one sequence were not mindless; they could see, as well as you and I can see, the tensions and contradictions – surface or real – that I have pointed to. So what is going on?[7]

Nothing in this comment is undermined by noting that Joshua is a composite document and that the redactors of the final form drew on different and contradictory sources. Wolterstorff, in fact, grants that this may have been the case. His point is that the redactors of the final version choose to put both these sources side by side as part of a single book within a series. And these redactors were not, mindless or stupid, and so the redactors of the final version could not have intended to affirm both accounts of the conquest as literally true. Even if the authors of the redactors’ sources, were internally consistent and disagreed only with each other, this is beside the point. Wolterstorff  is not talking about the authors of the sources; he is talking about the redactors who combined different sources into a single narrative sequence. These redactors would be contradicting themselves if they intended both accounts to be literally true.

To actually address Wolterstorff’s second premise Stark needs to argue that the final redactors did put both these sections together in an obviously contradictory narrative intending to affirm both as literally true. The redactors were either stupid or they missed the blatantly obvious contradictions in front of them.

This is an extremely uncharitable contention.  Wolterstorff notes the phrase “he killed all the inhabitants with the edge of the sword” occured at least 15 times in Joshua 6-11 in close succession. This point is “hammered home with emphasis.” This is then followed in the next chapter by the claim that Joshua had not conquered the land and then in the next five chapters it is stressed repeatedly that the land was not yet conquered and the inhabitants still existed in large numbers. This was followed by the opening chapters of Judges, which affirm eight times in a single chapter that the Israelites had failed to conquer the land or the cities, and had failed to drive the inhabitants out. It finishes with the angel of the Lord at Bokim rebuking them for failing to do so (Judges 2:1-5). These are not subtle contrasts. They are, in Wolterstorff’s words, “flamboyant”. It is unlikely that an intelligent redactor would have missed something this blatant.[8]

But apart from being implausible, Stark can only make this argument by engaging in special pleading because throughout his review he works on the assumption that the author of a literary unit does not author an obviously contradictory narrative. Consider one example: Stark notes that in Judges 20-21 the  Israelites “proceeded to massacre every last woman and child in the land of Benjamin”. Stark argues this language cannot be hyperbolic because,

[In] the second half of the story. The Israelites decided to show mercy on the tribe of Benjamin, not desiring to blot them out forever. The problem they face, however, is that there are only a few hundred remaining men (the soldiers who escaped), who no longer have wives and children. Why? Because the slaughters were not exaggerated.”

Stark here argues that if one reads the first half of the story hyperbolically it will contradict what is said in the second half, and so for this reason one cannot read it hyperbolically. Note this inference utilises the same line of argument Wolterstorff does; it assumes that an author does not  juxtapose an account or battle in the second half of a narrative when it obviously contradicts what  they have said in the first half.

Similar, points can be made about many of Stark’s other arguments in the review. In several places he criticises readings of the text proposed by “Apologists” on the ground that their readings involve attributing to the author a position that contradicts what that author says elsewhere in the context. These arguments all assume the authors of a literary unit do not write obviously and blatantly contradictory things.

Seeing Stark endorses this assumption himself, it is hard to see how he can reject it when it is used by someone else. Stark appears to accept a hermeneutical principle when it leads to a literal reading of the text he accepts and then abandons it when the same principle leads to a conclusion he rejects.  Like I said earlier, this is special pleading.

In Part II, I will respond to Stark’s argument’s against Wolterstorff’s and my conclusion.


[1] Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Reading Joshua,” in Divine Evil? The Moral Character of the God of Abraham, eds. Michael Bergmann, Michael J. Murray and Michael C. Rea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) 252-53.
[2] Ibid, 236-256.
[3] Ibid, 249.
[4] Ibid, 252.
[5] Ibid, 249-251.
[6] Ibid, 251.
[7] Ibid, 251.
[8] Nicholas Wolterstorff  in the Question and Answers session following his paper “Reading Joshua” presented at the My Ways Are Not Your Ways: The Character of the God of the Hebrew Bible” conference at the Center for Philosophy of Religion, University of Notre Dame, Saturday 12 September 2009.


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