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Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 7: “The Question of Genocide and the Hyperbolic Interpretation of Joshua.”

Did God Really Command Genocide? 

Summary by David Baggett 

Bradley, Sinnott-Armstrong, and Dawkins use Joshua 6-12—in which we read that Joshua “utterly destroyed everything in the city, both man and woman, young and old,” leaving “no survivor”—as evidence for genocide. They have a point that if we read such verses in isolation from the rest of the narrative and do so in a straightforward, literal way, it appears that Israel committed genocide at God’s command. But there are good reasons not to read the text in that way. Nicholas Wolterstorff gives two such reasons. First, it’s quite implausible that those who authorized the final form of the text were affirming that all Canaanites were exterminated at God’s command. Second, the accounts that appear to say otherwise are utilizing extensive hyperbole and are not intended to be taken literally. In this chapter and the next F&C will develop and defend these arguments.

An Argument against Literalism

When we interpret the book of Joshua as a component within the larger sequence (of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings), certain features of the narrative become apparent. The first feature is that a tension exists between the early chapters of Joshua and the opening chapters of Judges, which is the literary sequel to Joshua. Joshua 6-11 affirms that Joshua took the whole land, then the land rested from war, but the early chapters of Judges, which repeat the death and burial of Joshua, show a different picture, according to which not all the land was conquered. Similarly, Joshua 10-11 appears to state Joshua exterminated all the Canaanites in the land, but the first chapter of Judges affirms eight times that the Israelites had failed to conquer the land or the cities and they could not drive the inhabitants out. This contrast recurs in several passages.

So, on the surface, Joshua appears to affirm that these cities were conquered and their inhabitants completely exterminated. Judges proceeds, though, on the assumption that they are yet to be conquered and the Canaanites still live there in significant numbers, although Joshua gives indications of this as well. Yet Joshua and Judges sit side by side in the biblical canon, the latter being a continuation of the narrative of the former. Even the account of what God commanded differs in the two narratives. So there are obvious tensions between a surface reading of Joshua and Judges, but the same tension occurs within the book of Joshua itself. (Contrast 11:23 and 13:1.) So a surface reading of the passages that Bradley and Sinnott-Armstrong cite not only seems to contradict Judges, but also the preceding chapters of the book of Joshua itself.

Brevard Childs calls it a contradiction, but Kenneth Kitchen instead argues that, when one takes into account the rhetorical flourishes common to ancient Near Eastern war accounts of this sort, a careful reading of Joshua 1-12 makes it clear that it does not portray Israel as actually occupying or conquering the areas mentioned. The editors of the texts were aware of the tensions and contradictions, and weren’t mindless or stupid. So it’s unlikely, when read in this context, that those who authorized the final form of Joshua were using the text to assert literally that Joshua carried out an extermination of all the inhabitants of Canaan at God’s command. Evidently, something else is going on.

The Use of Sources and Not-So-Intelligent Editors

Might the final editors have included blatantly contradictory materials because they weren’t as bothered by them as moderns are? The ancient editors’ literary modus operandi—which included political or aesthetic considerations—was to faithfully preserve the source material despite its obviously contradictory nature when taken literally, so this argument goes. Or maybe an editor would take a well-known tradition that was also subversive to establishment orthodoxy; he might add elements to it in order to conform to the official position.

The problem is that even if it is correct that genuine contradictions exist in the text, this charge fails to show that Wolterstorff’s argument relies on a false dichotomy—the editor was either truly intellectually challenged or not affirming both in a literal sense. For the editor isn’t assuming that both affirmations—extermination and nonextermination—are literally true. The editor would preserve them to show unity, which doesn’t counter Wolterstorff’s assumption; in fact, Wolterstorff would affirm this. The editor clearly has something else in mind in preserving statements that affirm both extermination and nonextermination.

Consider the even clearer example of Ecclesiastes, in which we find two “voices”; there is the cynical “Preacher/Teacher” and the godly editor, who in the end exhorts the reader to “fear God and keep His commandments.” The final editor is not assuming both positions are true. He repudiates the voice of the Preacher, who did say something provocative and even wise things. But the second voice stands to affirm a hope-filled stance that is quite distinct from the Preacher’s message of cynicism, emptiness, and despair.

Wolterstorff’s first argument appears sound. When the passages Bradley cites are read in context, it seems quite implausible to affirm that the final editor and arranger of Joshua was using this text to assert that absolute extermination took place at God’s command. Something else is going on.

Find the other chapter summaries here.

Image: “Baitenhausen Kirche Empore Gemälde 1 Bundeslade um Jericho” by Painting: Tibri Wocher (Tiberius Dominikus Wocher); Photo: Andreas Praefcke – Own work (own photograph). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

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