Book Review of Did God Really Command Genocide? Part 2

In recent years there has been a spate of books addressing the problem of the “Canaanite genocide” by Wright, Copan, and Seibert. Even Lamb entered the fray.  In 2013, a collection of essays edited by Thomas, Evans, and Copan addressed the issue of Holy War in the Bible.  In my contribution, I argue that biblical warfare shouldn’t be associated with holiness since, according to the text, divine anger and compassion are its primary motivations.

The most recent addition to the discussion of biblical warfare comes from Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan (C&F): Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God.  In Part 1 of my review (click here) I examine the first section of the book, and Part 2, I will look at the next section of the book which begins to work through the relevant textual issues, which is the section of the book I’m personally most interested in.

Chapter 4 asks, “Does the Bible Command Us to Kill Innocent Human Beings?”  The answer to this question might seem to be an obvious “No.” But the argument is sometimes made that the Canaanite slaughter could be seen as establishing a biblical precedent for later slaughters (let’s mention the Crusades, since that’s the obvious one always referred to).  C&F argue persuasively that the command to “utterly destroy” was unusual and shouldn’t be understood as establishing a precedent.

Chapter 5 asks, “Does the Bible portray the Canaanites as innocent?”  The answer here again is “No” and C&F make three points. First, Israel owned the land because God gave it to them.  I generally agree with this point, but a skeptic or an atheist won’t be convinced by it, because the Canaanites were in possession of the land. Second, the crimes of the Canaanites, which included human sacrifice, were serious crimes, worthy of punishment. Third, the Israelites needed to remain free from the influence of the Canaanites.  They conclude the chapter with three examples of Canaanites who were spared: Caleb (not sure about this one), the Shechemites, and Rahab, who is the best example since she’s clearly Canaanite (not like Caleb), and yet she and her family are spared.

Chapter 6 makes the point that instead of annihilating the Canaanites the most common textual image for the conquest is that of “driving them out,” a point I also make in God Behaving Badly (p. 100).  This point is helpful for several reasons.  It takes the text seriously and it acknowledges that the process of removing the Canaanites from the land may have taken awhile and wasn’t exclusively done by extermination.

Chapter 7 argues that readers of the “utterly destroy” texts of Joshua should not read these texts literally, but as examples of hyperbole.  A hyperbolic interpretation makes a lot of sense, particularly as one compares these more problematic texts with other texts in Joshua and Judges.  I make this point in my Relevant article (“Reconciling the God of Love with the God of Genocide”), but C&F use Wolterstorff and Kitchen, which are probably a better choices.  For the most in-depth academic discussion of the topic of hyperbole in ancient conquest narratives, check out the monograph of Lawson Younger here.

If my review continued I’d get in trouble for too many spoilers.  So, for the motivated reader who’s interested in making sense of the problem of the so-called “Canaanite Genocide” I’d highly recommend this book.

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