Copan on the Canaanite Genocide
September 28, 2010 — 21:05

Author: Jeremy Pierce  Category: Christian Theology Problem of Evil  Tags: ,   Comments: 8

Paul Copan’s “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?” presents what struck me, on my first exposure to it, as a relatively novel (to me, anyway) thesis defending God as presented in the Hebrew scriptures from the charge of genocide. He claims that the commands to wipe out Canaan and not leave anyone standing, including women, children, and even livestock are hyperbole and that such expressions were commonly used to indicate a severe attack but did not literally mean that no one at all would survive.

I was a bit hesistant to rely on such a view, because it seemed to be to require more evidence than Copan gave, and there are certainly some occurrences when the expression in question simply cannot mean what Copan wants it to mean, e.g. when Saul is roundly condemned by Samuel in I Sam 15 for not fully carrying out the wiping out of the Amalekites. Saul’s failure in that chapter was precisely his willingness to leave some alive, as Wes Morriston pointed out in the comments on Robert Gressis’ Prosblogion posting on this last year. That objection struck me as decisive.

It occurred to me very recently, however, that Morriiston’s objection doesn’t quite do it. I’m still a little skeptical of Copan’s thesis without more evidence than I’ve seen, but I’m not sure anymore that Morriston’s objection really defeats the thesis. Consider the following version of Copan’s claim. There’s the literal meaning of the expression to wipe out everyone and everything. Saul did not do that. He spared Agag and the best of the livestock. Copan could then come along and point out that the passage doesn’t include in Saul’s failure that he spared women and children, for example. So it’s compatible with what the text says that (a) Saul did wipe out all the women and children (and spared just Agag and the best animals) and that (b) Saul didn’t wipe out all the women and chilfdren (but never was supposed to kill all of them, just all of the animals and King Agag).

So I’m not sure anything in I Sam 15 disproves Copan’s thesis. Saul did sin, according to I Sam 15, by sparing Agag and the best livestock. But it may well have been that Agag and the livestock should have been killed according to the correct Copan-modified translaton or paraphrase of whatever the hyperbolic command really insisted on. In other words, Saul really should have killed Agag and these animals according to the command of God, but that doesn’t mean he literally was expected to wipe out the whole Amalekite people. So I don’t think I Sam 15 is really a counterexample to Copan’s proposal.

[cross-posted at Parableman]

Comments:
  • Copan on the Canaanite Genocide

    Paul Copan’s “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?” presents what struck me, on my first exposure to it, as a relatively novel (to me, anyway) thesis defending God as presented in the Hebrew scriptures from the charge of genocide. He claims that the co…

    September 28, 2010 — 21:07
  • Matthew Baddorf

    As I recall, Nicolas Wolterstorf holds the same view as Copan.

    September 28, 2010 — 21:45
  • Dan

    Another (prima facie) counterexample: Rahab and Jericho. Josh. 6:17, 21. We have first the claim that none but Rahab (and those with her) shall be spared and second, the claim, not only that God commanded categorical destruction but that categorical desruction took place. Does Copan’s thesis cover not only (apparent) divine commands but also reports of them being carried out? If it does, there is still v. 17.
    Copan’s thesis also seems, just on initial reflection, to clash with the fact that Israelites were not to “mix” with the inhabitants of the land they came to occupy (and Israel failed in this regard, being influenced to idolatry, etc.).

    September 30, 2010 — 8:23
  • Dan, I’m not sure I’d agree. Christopher Wright discusses this in his Deuteronomy commentary, where one of the commands to wipe out the Canaanites occurs. He says the fact that some people are spared (and that the biblical narrator seems perfectly all right with that) actually makes it more likely that the command doesn’t really mean that everyone should die.
    The mixing issue wouldn’t be necessary to issue commands about if they wiped everyone out. So it’s either a concession to a imperfect conquest, or it’s a recognition that there’s no real command to kill everyone off. I don’t see any conflict with Copan’s thesis.
    As I said initially, I’m not sure there’s any good evidence for Copan’s thesis, but I’m not as convinced by these kinds of objections as I was when the Agag case was first pointed out in the comments by Wes Morriston.

    September 30, 2010 — 23:08
  • Jarrett

    Hey, Jeremy. Matt Flannagan, whom is knowledgeable in philosophy of Religion, Ethics and Theology (he has a PhD in Theology), made two blog posts over at his website about these issues you raise. In fact, in the comment section, another man named Jeremy, was also concerned about 1 Samuel 15 and there’s some good back and forth in the comments (look at part 1). Hope this helps some.
    http://www.mandm.org.nz/2010/01/sunday-study-joshua-and-the-genocide-of-the-canaanites-part-i.html (This is part 1)
    http://www.mandm.org.nz/2010/01/sunday-study-joshua-and-the-genocide-of-the-canaanites-part-ii.html (This is part 2)
    Copan is suppose to be coming out with a book next year in January. The book will deal with this issue in more detail, along with other issues. But I don’t know just how in depth the book is going to be.
    “Is God a Moral Monster?” (Baker, January 2011)

    October 1, 2010 — 2:40
  • I’ve seen some of that discussion. I even linked to it from my personal blog. I must have missed the second post, though. That does provide a little more evidence than what I’ve seen so far.

    October 1, 2010 — 5:43
  • DL

    Of course, moral arguments against God always founder on the premise that God is subject to some superior law (the same law binding human beings, no less!), which on Jewish or Christian theology is absurd. But in any case nobody really takes statements like “Joshua slew all that breathed” completely literally — at least I’ve never encountered anyone who took that to mean he hunted down every last rat or insect, or that Joshua avoided suicide by holding his breath the whole time he was fighting (or indeed, that Joshua personally conquered all the enemy soldiers single-handedly!); the question is where to draw the line. The passage from Samuel is noteworthy in that Saul isn’t reproved for missing some fieldmouse, but for keeping “the best of the sheep and oxen and the lambs”. It doesn’t sound like the problem was a lack of total annihilation, but rather turning the battle into a typical exercise in looting and pillaging.

    October 3, 2010 — 15:47
  • Hi Jeremy, like I said on Parableman, Copan and I are working on some articles on this issue which should provide more evidence. I am also writing a couple of others for some anthologies Bill Craig is editing.
    To the issue of the Amalekite’s I would reiterate the points I made on Parableman:
    1. It seems this command cannot have been intended by the author to be taken literally. Taken as a literal description of what happend, the text states that Saul totally destroyed all the Amalekites from “Havila to Shur, to the east of Egypt.” except Agag who is prompty executed by Samuel. Taken literally then there are no Amalekites left in the region of Havila to Shur at the end of this chapter.
    The problem is the text goes on to say that the Amalekites were not literally wiped out. In chapter 27 David raids occupied Amalekite towns, suggesting whole communities were still alive. In chapter 30 hundreds of the Amalekites raid Ziklag. David pursues them, strikes them down for a 24 hour period and 200 escape. An Amalekite also takes credit for Saul’s death in 2 Samuel. The text identifies the Amalekites in these passages as people who “from ancient times” lived in “the land extending to Shur and Egypt” hence the very same region Saul is said to have wiped them all out in. An intelligent author (or redactor) is unlikely to have intended both these accounts be literal descriptions of what occured.
    2.The text in Sam 15 is written according to the rhetoric which is typical of ANE war reports. This language is known to be Hagiographic and hyperbolic and not literally true. I spell some examples out in the blog posts Jarrett mentions above. The Mesha steel is a good example, it uses the same language Samuel does to praise Mesha as a faithful follower of Chemosh states that that Isreal has been totally wiped out. We know however that Isreal was not wiped out at this time as did Mesha and his audience who lived next to them. Chronicles narrates the same events from Isreal’s side and record how Mesha rebelled was driven back but that isreal eventually had to withdraw. This was clearly not a genocidal victory yet according to the rhetoric of ANE war reports it was written up in totalistic terms to celebrate Mesha as a faitful king. This fits Wolterstorff’s idea of Hagiographic history quite well. Copan documents numerous other examples in his forthcoming book. Lawson Younger has done a comprehensive study showing this is the rhetoric ANE historians often used to write up military battles.
    Finally turning to Dan’s comments. I am not sure his examples really addresses the position of Copan or Wolterstorff. With regard to Copan; Copan points out ( as you do) that the language of Herem ( or ban) was not necessarily totalistic. Moreover, in his article and forthcoming book, he cites evidence that (a) the language of “men, women, child, cattle” etc were stock phrases which not descriptions of the actual inhabitants and (b) Jericho was a small military fort. If (a) and (b) are correct they were commanded to “ban” everything in a military fort where the phrase “everything” may or may not be totalistic.
    With regard to Wolterstorff; here I think Dan misunderstand his position. Wolterstorff is not saying that the text is a literal descriptive history with some hyperbolic phrases thrown in. His argument is that the early chapters of Joshua are “hagiographic history” not what he calls “down to earth history” Wolterstorff contends Joshua is
    “a theologically oriented narration, stylized and hyperbolic at important points, of Israel’s early skirmishes in the Promised Land,…The story as a whole celebrates Joshua as the great leader of his people, faithful to Yahweh, worthy successor of Moses.” (Wolterstorff, “Reading Joshua”)
    I think it would be, on this view, as mistaken to read a dialogue amongst characters in the narration as describing what what actually transpired. Just as it would be mistaken to assume Shakespeare meant to tell us that Mark Anthony actually said “lend me your ears” when he wrote this phrase in his play Julius Ceaser, the Genre does not function that way.

    October 6, 2010 — 21:28