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Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 6: “Thrusting Out, Driving Out, and Dispossessing the Canaanites – Not Annihilating Them”


Summary by Mark Foreman 

Did God Really Command Genocide? 

A legend is told of a wealthy Texas rancher who owned a sprawling expanse of land in western Texas.  It was hundreds of acres is size and stretched out far beyond the horizon.  On this land he raised cattle that would annually be driven north to Abilene where it would be sold and shipped off to market.  This rancher had a son whom he loved much and, when the son came of age, he managed the ranch for his father knowing one day it would be handed down to him.

One year, taking the ranch hands along, the son led the drive to Abilene.  However, along the way they were ambushed by cattle rustlers who killed everyone and stole the herd.  However, the son did not die, but was severely wounded.  In his attempt to return to his father he incurred several set-backs and at one point was kidnapped and sent off to work on the railroads in China. His grieving father, believing him to be dead, died never seeing his son again.

Over time the ranch was abandoned and fell into disrepair.  Soon scavengers, freeloaders, and squatters began to move on the ranch.  They built homes and developed small communities scattered through the once sprawling land.  After several decades the son was able to escape his fate and began to return to his father’s ranch.  Along the way he gathered together a band of men to whom he promised work if they would follow him to his home.

Upon returning home he discovered the squatters and sent men around to announce that they were on land that legally belonged to him and needed to leave as he was returning to reclaim his father’s ranch.  They could leave peaceably, but, if they did not, they would be forced off the land.  Many, fearing the son and his band, left and moved on to other lands.  However, some decided to stay and fight it out.  The son was able to move back into his father’s ranch house and, over time, was able to clear off most of the squatters and encroachers on his ranch.  The son always attempted a peaceful resolution by allowing the encroachers to just pack up and leave.  However, at times many of these confrontations turned violent and men were killed.

The legend related above is analogous to the Hebrews’ return to Palestine during the Canaanite occupation.  God had promised the land to Abraham and his descendants.  His descendants, Jacob and his sons, sojourned down to Egypt where they were kept in slavery for 400 years.  During that time, different tribes moved on to the Promised Land.  When the Hebrews returned under the leadership of Joshua, they were given the task, commanded by God through Moses, to drive out the encroachers and squatters and retake the land promised to them.

In this chapter F&C wish to clarify and emphasize an important and often neglected aspect of that task:  it was not God’s intention nor command “to exterminate every single Canaanite man, woman and child in the Promised Land.  The dominant language used in Scripture is not of extermination but of ‘driving out’ and ‘thrusting out’ the Canaanites.” (76) They quote and exegete several passages from the books of Moses to argue this point, such as Ex 23:27-31:

I will send my terror ahead of you and throw into confusion every nation you encounter. I will make all your enemies turn their backs and run. I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites, and Hittites out of your way. But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land.  I will establish your borders from the Red Sea[a] to the Mediterranean Sea, and from the desert to the Euphrates River.  I will give into your hands the people who live in the land, and you will drive them out before you.

F&C note how the scriptures make clear that this is a gradual process.  The Canaanites will be driven out over a period of time, gradually as the Hebrew nation retakes the land.  In fact this is what we see when we read the stories of the conquest and in Judges.  Many Canaanites did not leave at first and so they had to be driven out over time.  Many other passages repeat this basic idea of driving the Canaanites from the land (Lev 18: 24-28; Num. 33: 51-56; Dt 4:37-38, 6:18-19, 7:1-5, 17-23).  F&C make a point of showing how this last passage is misunderstood because v. 2 is often divorced from the context.  It reads, “When the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.”  By itself it may seem to teach annihilation of the Canaanites, but when placed in the fuller context the meaning becomes clear:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.  This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. . . . You may say to yourselves, “These nations are stronger than we are. How can we drive them out?” But do not be afraid of them; remember well what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt.  You saw with your own eyes the great trials, the signs and wonders, the mighty hand and outstretched arm, with which the Lord your God brought you out. The Lord your God will do the same to all the peoples you now fear.  Moreover, the Lord your God will send the hornet among them until even the survivors who hide from you have perished. Do not be terrified by them, for the Lord your God, who is among you, is a great and awesome God. The Lord your God will drive out those nations before you, little by little. You will not be allowed to eliminate them all at once, or the wild animals will multiply around you. But the Lord your God will deliver them over to you, throwing them into great confusion until they are destroyed.

The context makes it clear that the original intent of God is for the Hebrews to drive the Canaanites out of the land.  Only those who refused to leave are left to be “destroyed” and even then the emphasis is on destroying what has been left: their idols and altars.  One might wonder why it is important to God for the Canaanites to be gone.  One reason can be seen above:  “Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods.”  God foresaw what would, and did happen.  The Canaanites eventually led many Hebrews astray.  But another reason is given in v. 8: “it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors.” God promised this land to Abraham and his descendants and he is keeping his oath.

F&C go on to show that when you look at all the passages concerning the Hebrew treatment of the Canaanites, the language of “dispossession” and “driving out” outnumbers that of “destruction” by 3 to 1.  Quoting from a study by Glenn Miller they state, “This would indicate the dominant ‘intended effect’ was for the peoples in the [Promised] Land to migrate somewhere else.  So consider Deut. 12.29[-30]: “The LORD your God will cut off before you the nations you are about to invade and dispossess.  But when you have driven them out and settled in their land, and after they have been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, ‘How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.’” (81, see footnote.)

However, this does raise the question of the conquest narratives in the book of Joshua where we are told that Joshua “utterly destroyed everything in the city, both man and woman, young and old.”  This is the subject of the next chapter.

Find the other chapter summaries here.


“A map of Canaan (8343807206)” by – A map of CanaanUploaded by tm. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 4: “Does the Bible Command Us to Kill Innocent Human Beings?”

By Mark Foreman

Did God Really Command Genocide? 

This chapter is titled with a simple question: Does the Bible command us to kill innocent human beings? And we can summarize the entire chapter with a simple answer: no.

I could easily stop there, but like many simple questions and answers, there is more beneath the surface. And a certain amount of explanation is necessary to fully understand both question and answer. First, as to the question. We have seen that F&C have used the argument of Raymond Bradley as typical of those who see the OT commands concerning the treatment of the Canaanites as problematic for the believer who wishes to ascribe authority to scripture. Bradley affirms that the Bible commands us, as in contemporary Bible believers, to fulfill the commands found in the OT to kill innocent human beings and that such action would be contrary to the Crucial Moral Principle (F&C will take up the questions of (a) the actual commend to kill and (b) innocence in subsequent chapters).

As to the answer, F&C are quick to point out that it simply does not follow that, just because God commands Joshua to carry out the commands he has given for treatment of the Canaanites, we are required to do the same actions towards other innocent human beings. This seems patently obvious. Jesus told Judas, “Do quickly what you have to do,” in his act of betraying Jesus. Certainly that command should not be taken that all believers are to betray Christ (and to do so quickly). Yet this answer does need some explanation, for believers are encouraged that “All scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training for righteousness that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3: 16-17). The idea of application of scripture is an important part of the believer’s life. It is certainly possible that some believers might take the actions of Joshua as archetypal for how we should treat those outside the faith.

F&C point out that there are two distinctions one must consider when it comes to application of these commands in Joshua. The first concerns the distinction between those commands given for all mankind and those given specifically to the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people. Jewish rabbis made this distinction themselves when they distinguished between Noahide Laws, those that apply to all men, and Mosaic Laws which were meant specifically for the chosen people. All people are to follow commands concerning basic moral treatment of other men, such as those regarding rape and murder for example. Before one considers the application of a particular command, it is important to note for whom the command is meant.

So what of the command to destroy the Caananites? Citing Dt. 7, F&C state, “An examination of the command to ‘destroy’ or ‘drive out the Canaanites’ in their [sic] historical and literary context makes it clear that this is a command specifically given to Israel in virtue of the special covenant God made with that nation as his chosen people” (p. 57). Hence it is inappropriate to apply these commands towards any people group outside of ancient Israel, including modern believers.

The second distinction is also important in understanding to whom these specific commands apply. This is the distinction between occasional commands and universal commands. Occasional commands are those given to a particular person or group of person for a specific occasion at a specific time. Universal commands are meant either for all persons at all times, or perhaps, for a specific group of persons for all occasions. An example of an occasional command would be the command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. An example of the first type of universal command would be general commands, such as commands against murder that apply to all persons in all situations. An example of the latter type of universal command would be the law of circumcision which was given to a specific group of persons, the Jewish people, but were to be maintained for all time.

F&C make clear that the command to destroy the Canaanites was not a universal command, which means, not only would it not apply universally to all persons, but it would not even apply universally to the nation of Israel. Citing Dt. 20:10-18, they show that these commands are occasional commands. These command were for a specific time, the return of the nation to Palestine after the Exodus, and were to be carried out in a very specific way. Dt. 20:17 lists the specific nations that were to be utterly destroyed (Hittites, Amorites, Caananites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites). So this was not to be interpreted nor applied as a command to destroy anyone that Israel felt was in their way. And it certainly is not a command for modern believers to kill innocent persons.

F&C summarize the results of their study succinctly: “. . . a careful examination of the commands to which Bradley refers suggests two things: First, these commands were given specifically to Israel in a particular historical context and not to all peoples everywhere; second, even when occasional commands were given to Israel in specific circumstances, we should understand that these are not general rules to be applied in future situations. In this respect they are like God’s commands to Abram to leave Ur. Such are commands to specific persons to carry out specific actions in the founding of Israel as a nation, not a command to all people for all times” (p. 56-57).

Find the other chapter summaries here.

Image: “Moses” by Froberg. CC license. 

Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 2: What Does It Mean to Say the Bible Is the Word of God?

Every Monday, we post a summary of a chapter from Paul Copan and Matt Flannagan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? This week’s summary is of chapter two; see previous summaries here.

By Mark Foreman

The question of this chapter is succinctly put: “How exactly do [Plantinga and Craig] and many other biblical theists understand the relationship between the divine and human authorship [of the Bible]?” Or what is the most promising way of understanding that relationship? F&C suggest a starting place is the appropriation model (hereafter AM) as expounded by William Lane Craig.

Craig’s version of the AM is closely related to his Molinism. His view is that an omniscient God knows what humans will freely do when placed in certain circumstances. So God knows that under certain circumstances I will freely choose to eat White Castle cheeseburgers. Should he create such circumstances, God will have brought it about that I would eat White Castle cheeseburgers without violating my free will. In the same way, God knows under what circumstances Paul would freely choose to write the book of Romans. By placing Paul under those circumstances, Paul will freely choose to write Romans, including the content, order, style, and vocabulary, yet God can convey the message he desires. Hence both divine and human authorship is responsible for the finished product.

What makes the writings in the Bible to be the Word of God and not some other writing (like this summary)? Could not one argue that God has providentially allowed me to write this summary? Why isn’t it the Word of God? F&C make clear that it is not God providentially bringing it about that makes a specific writing his word, “Rather it is that God in his providence appropriated the biblical text as his own speech, and he delegated the biblical authors to speak on his behalf—which may have included the possibility that Paul was prompted by the Holy Spirit to write.”

F&C now combine Craig’s AM with the Speech Act Theory (hereafter SAT) of Nicholas Wolterstorff. SAT holds that “speech is an action one performs.” There are three types of action one performs in speaking:

1. Locutionary act: Merely the uttering of sounds or transcribing of words as in “Go to bed.”

2. Illocutionay act: The action one does by way of performing the locutionary act: commanding a child to go to bed by saying the words, “Go to bed.” One can do many illocutionary acts: asserting, warning, arguing, promising, and threatening are examples.

3. Perlocutionary act: The action associated with the intention to being about some effect by way of the illocutionary act. My intention is for the child to go to bed, so I command him to do so.

According to F&C, Wolterstorff suggests that this distinction helps us to understand how God speaks through scripture: “To say ‘God Speaks’ is simply to say that God performs a particular illocutionary act. . . the speech acts he performs are authoritative: what he asserts we are to believe; what he commands we are to obey; and his promises are completely trustworthy.”

So how does God perform illocutionary acts through the writings of human authors? This can be answered through an understanding of Double Agency Discourse (hereafter DAD). This occurs when one person performs an illocutionary act through either (1) the locutionary act or (2) the illocutionary act of another person. An example of (1) would be a secretary who drafts a letter from her boss commanding the staff to attend a meeting and then he signs it. The locutionary act is performed by the secretary, but the boss performs an illocutionary act. The secretary does not have the authority to command, but the boss does. An example of (2) might be when an ambassador speaks on behalf of his government. He has been delegated the authority to speak for his government. In this sense the government is performing an illocutionary act thorough the illocutionary act of the ambassador. The ambassador is much more than just a secretary. He has real authority.

It is this idea of “delegated” or “deputized” speech that Wolterstorff suggests best fits the model of the prophetic and apostolic writings. An individual was commissioned by God to speak on his behalf. However, when it comes to the entire Bible as the Word of God for us today, he believes it is best understood as God’s appropriating various illocutionary acts as his own: “All that is necessary for the whole [Bible] to be God’s book is that the human discourse it contains have been appropriated by God as one single book, for God’s discourse.” F&C affirm:

This is what Craig means when he claims that Paul had been commissioned by God to preach and teach on behalf of Jesus to largely gentile communities. Hence, his writing to Rome was a form of delegated speech on God’s behalf. Later when these writings were incorporated into a single biblical canon, God was appropriating this book alongside various others as his speech.

This explains how one can affirm the Bible as God’s Word with God as the primary author without affirming that God dictated every word. It also explains how one can accept the Bible as God’s Word without claiming that God necessarily affirms exactly what the human author affirms.

With this in mind, Wolterstorff offers a “fundamental principle” for interpreting scripture and distinguishing what is appropriated discourse from what is not: “the interpreter takes the stance and content of my appropriating discourse to be that of your appropriating discourse, unless there is good reason to do otherwise.” So if Bob appropriates Bill’s words is such a way that based on evidence it is unlikely that Bill’s intentions are expressed, then Bob has probably not appropriated Bill’s words appropriately. This involves two steps when it comes to determining what God has appropriated from the human authors of scripture: (1) to work out what illocutionary act the human author performed when he authored the text and (2) to ascertain whether God was saying something different from the author in appropriating the text. To perform the second step one needs to take the Bible as a single literary unit as well as assume certain theological beliefs (God does not utter falsehoods, is morally good, etc. . .).

Wolterstorff suggests five ways in which the illocutionary act of the divine author might differ from that of the human author:

1. The rhetorical-conceptual structure of Scripture texts. Example: When the human author refers to himself as in Paul’s opening statement, “Paul, an apostle called of God,” or David’s claim, “Against thee I have sinned.”

2. The distinction between the point the human author affirms within the text and the way he is making the point. Example: Jesus’s affirmation that the mustard seed is the smallest of seeds. He is not teaching a biology lesson, but a lesson about the kingdom of God. Inerrancy is about what the Bible intends to affirm.

3. If the human author is affirming something literally but the divine author is appropriating it in a nonliteral fashion. Example: Passages concerning marital love in Genesis 2:24 which Paul tells us (Eph. 5:21-23) refers to Christ and the church.

4. Transitive discourse: in performing one illocutionary action we are performing another. Human authors may be telling a story for one point, while God might intend it for a different point. Example: The parable of the Good Samaritan instructs how to love our neighbor.

5. Recognizing the difference between a general principle and its specific application. Old Testament command to place a parapet around roof (Deut. 22:8) is more than just about how to build safe roofs. There is a general principle of safety behind it that God intends to convey.

If biblical theists encounter a text in which the human author seems to attribute to God a command that they have good reason to think God would not command (given our background theological assumptions and taking the Bible as a whole unit), they have three choices:

1. Interpret the text to say that God is saying something other than the human author is saying

2. Conclude that they have misunderstood the text and don’t know what God is saying

3. Conclude that God has not appropriated the text in question

If a biblical theist concludes that the human author commanded some immoral action, it does not follow that God commanded it. However, if one rules out 1 & 2 by the evidence, then one must deny biblical inerrancy. While biblical inerrancy is an important doctrine, it is not on the level of the existence of God, the historicity of the Resurrection, and the atoning work of Christ. However, F&C do not believe that inerrancy need be rejected, for there are strong reasons one can hold 1 & 2.

Returning to Bradley’s four propositions, F&C have shown that the fourth proposition needs reformulating to more accurately convey what Bradley’s claim is. Hence it has been readjusted as follows:

4. The Bible tells us that God commands us to perform acts that violate the Crucial Moral Principle, to

4’. The author of the Bible commands us to perform acts that violate the Crucial Moral Principle, to

4’’. The secondary author of the Bible commands us to perform acts that violate the Crucial Moral Principle, to

4’’’. The divine author of the Bible uses the text to perform the speech act of commanding us to perform acts that violate the Crucial Moral Principle.

In section two of the book, F&C will go on to show that biblical theists are not committed to any of the formulations of Bradley’s fourth proposition and that other alternatives concerning those passages concerning genocide are both plausible and reasonable.

Image: “Bible” by Olga Caprotti. 

Podcast: Mark Foreman on Faith, Reason, and Natural Law

On this week’s podcast, we hear from Dr. Mark Foreman. Dr. Foreman is a professional philosopher who specializes in both Christian apologetics and bioethics. The main topic of this episode is theism as a natural law ethic. Dr. Foreman will explain what a natural law ethic is, why we should prefer it, how it can be applied in moral dilemmas, and  how to use it in apologetics. But before we get to that, we’ll also get to hear some thoughts from Dr. Foreman on the relation of faith and reason.


Did God Really Command Genocide? By Paul Copan and Matthew Flanagan: An Overview

By Mark W. Foreman

For Christians who take the scriptures seriously, perhaps no other passages are as difficult to explain as those in which God commands the destruction of entire populations of innocent persons.  We are told, for example, in Joshua 10:40, “Thus Joshua struck all the land, the hill country and the Negev and the lowland and the slopes and all their kings. He left no survivor, but he utterly destroyed all who breathed, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded.”[1]  I Samuel 15:2-3 reads, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he set himself against him on the way while he was coming up from Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”  In addition there are the imprecatory psalms such as Psalm 137 in which we read, “O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one, How blessed will be the one who repays you with the recompense with which you have repaid us. How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock” (vs. 8-9).  Certainly such passages are difficult to read, much less to explain

In recent years these passages, located primarily in the conquest narratives of the Old Testament, have become fodder for a host of critics of Christianity.  For example, atheist Richard Dawkins refers to the God of the Old Testament as “a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser,”[2] among other charges. Similar charges have been made by other critics and atheist philosophers such as Raymond Bradley, Wesley Moriston, Randal Rauser, Michael Tooley, and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong.  All of these authors wonder how Christians can worship a God who would cruelly and brutally reign down death and destruction on the innocent, extinguishing entire civilizations.

Christian apologists Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan (hereafter C&F) have taken up the challenge of explaining these difficult passages in their new book Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014).  This is not new territory for either of them.  Paul Copan has written several articles and an earlier book, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), and Matt Flanagan has presented papers at numerous conferences on topics in Christian ethics. In the posts that follow I am going to offer a summary of each chapter of their book. This one is an overview of their whole project.


C&F begin with an introduction, placing the discussion in its current setting.  They cite a number of critics who have raised the actions and commands of the God of the Old Testament as a primary reason for rejecting the existence of the biblical God.  Answering such objections is the purpose of the present volume.  They then provide an outline to the book, which they divide into four parts.


Part One is titled, “Genocide Texts and the Problem of Scriptural Authority.”  In this section of the book they set up the problem by introducing the Crucial Moral Principle, “It is morally wrong to deliberately and mercilessly slaughter men, women, and children who are innocent of any serious wrong doing.”  This principle seems to be violated by God’s commands located in the genocide passages.  C&F take up the issue of the authorship of Scripture and examine what it means to say that the Bible which contains these commands is the Word of God.  They also discuss the question of the distinction between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New.


In Part Two, titled “Occasional Commands, Hyperbolic Texts, and Genocidal Massacres,” C&F begin by addressing the question, “Does the Bible actually command us to kill innocent people?” In this section they discuss the question of what it means to be innocent as well as the hyberbolic language employed in these biblical texts in comparison to other ancient near eastern war texts.  They also examine the legal question of displacement as a form of genocide.  They conclude that “genocide” is not an accurate term to describe these biblical events as the pagan nations were not “utterly destroyed” at all.


In Part Three, C&F move on to the question, “Is it Always Wrong to Kill Innocent People?”  Here the authors concentrate on an understanding of divine command theory based on the commands of a good and just God.  They spend a number of chapters dealing with standard objections such as the Euthyphro dilemma and conclude with a discussion on God’s commands to kill others as an exemption to the Crucial Moral Principle. They also delve into the question of why we should not believe someone who claims today that God “told” him to kill other innocent human beings.


In the final part of the book, C&F expand the discussion to a more general conversation about “Religion and Violence.”  They address the oft-raised charge that religion is dangerous because it causes violence and contrast the Old Testament context with the modern Islamic call for jihad, which are often lumped together.  They also look back at the Crusades and answer the objection that the text of Joshua inspired them. They conclude with a discussion of pacifism, based on the words of Jesus to turn the other cheek and how just war can be defended in light of such commands.


Copan and Flannagan provide much to mull over and examining their arguments is a worthwhile endeavor for those puzzled over these passages and questions.  We will begin with our next post by looking at chapter one.

[1] All quotations NASB

[2] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mufflin, 2006), 51


copan flannagan book


Photo: Joshua’s Victory over the Amalekites. Painting by Nicolas Poussin. Public Domain.