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Matt Flannagan and Paul Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 8: “Genocide and an Argument for ‘Hagiographic Hyperbole’”


Did God Really Command Genocide? 

Summary by Mark Foreman

In the previous chapter F&C introduced a two-pronged argument by Nicholas Wolterstorff: “First, it is quite implausible that those who authorized the final form of the text [of Joshua] 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” (84-85). In that chapter F&C explored and defended the first prong of the argument. In this chapter they examine and defend the second prong.

Wolterstorff uses the term “hagiography” to refer to the specific type of hyperbole employed in Joshua. While the term can often have negative and derogatory connotations (as in an uncritical adoration and idealization of a subject beyond what the evidence suggests), Wolterstorff wishes to use it to refer to exaggerated accounts of Joshua’s military endeavors: “The book is not to be read as claiming that Joshua conquered the entire promised land, nor is it to be read as claiming that Joshua exterminated with the edge of the sword the entire population of all the cities on the command of Yahweh to do so” (quoted by F&C, 94-95). Wolterstorff points to several formulaic literary conventions that are repeated throughout the book of Joshua that indicate hyperbole was frequently employed in describing the events and results of the conquest narratives. He compares these to the more down-to-earth historical descriptions found in the book of Judges which tends to give a more accurate historical account of the state of affairs at the end of the conquest period. “Wolterstorff argues that Judges should be taken literally whereas Joshua is hagiographic history, a highly stylized, exaggerated account of the events designed to teach theological and moral points rather than to describe in detail what literally happened” (95, emphasis original).

As evidence to support this claim, F&C offer studies of other ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts where the use of hyperbole and formaulaic styles, often referred to as “transmission codes,” similar to those found in Joshua are employed in a variety of ways such as appeals to divine intervention and in similar structural relationships. Most striking are where victories over enemies are described in exaggerated hyperbolic terms of “total conquest, complete annihilation and destruction of the enemy killing everyone, leaving no survivors, etc.” (97). F&C cite renowned Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen as affirming this point:

The type of rhetoric in question was a regular feature of military reports in the second and first millennia, as others have made clear. . . . In the later fifteenth century Tuthmosis III could boast “the numerous army of Mitanni was over thrown 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 the frame of reference that the Joshua rhetoric must also be understood. (quoted by F&C, 97)

Lawson Younger is also cited as offering many examples such as Merneptah’s Stele describing a skirmish in which Egypt totally annihilated Israel and Sennacherib’s claim that he cut down the soldiers of Hiramme and “not one escaped” (98). Several other examples are cited by F&C to drive home the point that it was common for the extensive use of hyperbole to be employed as description of battle and victory over one’s enemies in ancient Near Eastern literature.

It is evident that such hyperbolic rhetoric was never meant to be taken literally. This can be seen especially in biblical texts where such a literal interpretation would not even make sense given the entire context of the passage. Oftentimes a text will make a claim that all of the inhabitants of a city were eradicated only to speak of survivors later in the passage, sometimes in the very next verse. Hence, for example, when one reads of the battle of Ai in Joshua 8, one stumbles upon a number of contradictory statements that make no sense if the passage is meant to be taken literally. In vs. 22 we are told the inhabitants were struck down “leaving no survivors or fugitives.” Yet in vs. 24 we are told they killed all the men in the wilderness where they chased them. If they were all previously struck down, then who was chased in the wilderness? Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of such absurdities is found in Joshua 10:20 which reads, “It came about when Joshua and the sons of Israel had finished slaying them with a very great slaughter, until they were totally destroyed, and the survivors who remained of them had entered the fortified cities.” Here in the same verse we have men who were destroyed and survivors. The point is that ancient writers knew what a contradiction was. Therefore, the best explanation of these and like passages is that the writers were employing a standard hyperbolic language that was common to ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts.

F&C nicely summarize the conclusions to their study of hyperbolic language in ancient Near Eastern texts in comparison with the Joshua narratives:

  1. Such accounts are highly hyperbolic, hagiographic, and figurative and follow a common transmission code;
  2. Comparisons between these accounts and the early chapters of Joshua suggest Joshua is written according to the same literary conventions and transmission codes;
  3. Part of this transmission code is to hyperbolically portray a victory in absolute terms of destroying the enemy or in terms of miraculous divine intervention: “such statements are rhetoric indicative of military victory” not literal descriptions of what occurred;
  4. The same language and phraseology has a well-attested use in Joshua and elsewhere throughout Scripture. (103)

However, a question might remain in the mind of the skeptic. What if Joshua simply failed to perform to the extent to which God commanded him? While hyperbole might explain how the conquests were described after they occurred, the use of hyperbole in the book of Joshua does not explain the commands of God found in Deuteronomy before the conquest was performed. This is an important question, and F&C address it at the end of this chapter with three implications that can be drawn from their conclusions. First, when one compares the phraseology of thee commands in Deuteronomy with those in Joshua, the suggestion of hyperbole is strong. Second, F&C quote three passages as examples where it is noted that the conquest (using the hyperbole “utterly destroyed”) was performed “just as Moses the servant of the Lord has commended” (Josh 11: 12, 14-15, 20). Hence the author of Joshua understood that what happened was the fulfilment of the command of Moses. And finally, when we compare Deuteronomy with Joshua and Judges, a hyperbolic interpretation seems to be the best way of explaining all of the texts. Therefore, we are justified in claiming that not only was hyperbole employed in the descriptions of many of the conquest narratives, but such an interpretation was intended in the commands themselves.

Find the other chapter summaries here.

Image: “The Capture of Jericho (Bible Card)” by the Providence Lithograph Company – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

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