the Canaanites weren’t the “worst sinners ever”: engaging Copan and Flannagan on Canaanite extermination

Copan:FlannaganEarlier this month, Jonathan Merritt over at RNS interviewed Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan about their recent book Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God. Copan is Professor and Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University, and Flannagan is a philosopher with proficiency in contemporary analytic philosophy based in New Zealand.

The book was released last November. I own it but have not yet read it. Based on the interview, though, I wanted to make several brief comments, from the point of view of an Old Testament scholar who understands their theological concerns but who thinks their handling of the issue leaves some important matters unaddressed.

First, I am very glad to see the authors make a point that needs to be made over and over again, namely describing the biblical accounts of the Canaanite extermination as “hagiographic hyperbole” (a term borrowed from another philosopher, Nicolas Wolterstorff).

“The basic idea is that the accounts of Israel’s early battles in Canaan are narrated in a particular style, which is not intended to be literal in all of its details and contains a lot of hyperbole, formulaic language and literary expressions for rhetorical effect. We argue in our book that the evidence both from within the Bible and from other ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts supports this conclusion.”

This observation, at least in its general outline, is not really disputed among biblical scholars, but is well worth bringing out for a conservative readership.

Both internal literary patterns as well as external parallel evidence indicate quite clearly that we should not expect literal historical accounts from the biblical writers–at least when they recount their military exploits.

Elsewhere in the interview, however, the authors’ line of argument seems to fall into well-known apologetic patterns that I feel are problematic and even undercut their own claim about ancient literary conventions.

Generally speaking, the authors falter on the following 2 points that are working knowledge for Old Testament scholars, and a proper accounting of which would neutralize their arguments–at least as presented in this interview–namely:

  1. A failure to account for the propagandistic nature of the biblical accounts.
  2. A failure to account for the composite nature of the biblical stories and their time of authorship.

On the first point, the authors claim that the command to exterminate the Canaanites was justified on the basis of their extremely wicked behavior. This is a common inerrantist justification, but it remains utterly unconvincing.

It is widely known that the Canaanites were not any worse in the ancient world than others, and that the biblical description of the Canaanites, beginning already with the curse of Canaan because of Ham’s sin in the Flood narrative), is an exaggeration for the purpose of painting their enemies in a negative light–let’s call it “hamartiographic hyperbole” (hamartia = sin). In modern language, propaganda–which the authors euphemistically refer to as “literary expressions for rhetorical effect.”

To suggest that the Israelites were “accurately” describing the Canaanites is a bit of a stretch by any canons of ancient historiography, which the authors claim to be following.

If it is true, as the authors say, that “In the Bible, God appropriates the writing of a human being with the writer’s own personality, character, and writing style,” that would extend to how one’s enemies are portrayed.

In other words, one cannot appeal selectively like this to the literary conventions of ancient authors.

Also, even taking the biblical description of the Canaanites as objectively accurate, this hardly puts the Canaanites on the “worst sinners ever” list. Child sacrifice and ritual prostitution, for example, were certainly practiced outside of Canaan.

On the former, the Bible itself (2 Kings 3:4-27) references King Mesha of Moab, who offered his son on the walls of Kir-hareseth as a burnt-offering to his god (presumably Kemosh) to defend againstTBTMS the combined forces of Israel, Judah, and Edom. (And the kick in the pants is that it worked: “…great wrath came upon Israel, so they withdrew from him and returned to their land” v. 27).

My point here is that the wickedness of the Canaanites is not on some absolute/objective scale vis-a-vis ancient Near Eastern practices, but part and parcel of ancient Near Eastern literary/historiographical conventions.

It can’t be used to “explain” why God simply had to exterminate the Canaanites as a matter of moral outrage. The issue is purity of the land.  As I put it in The Bible Tells Me So,

However immoral the Canaanites were, the real problem isn’t what they did, but where they did it.

They were contaminating the land that God set aside for the Israelites since the days of Abraham and so had to be exterminated. Take any other people group and put them in the land of Canaan, and they would be the ones tasting Israelite steel, and their immorality would be described as the worst ever. Take the Canaanites and put them somewhere else, and we’d never hear about them.

The Canaanites’ main sin was their street address. That is why they had to be eliminated. (p. 51)

Later this week–earlier of we get the foot of snow predicted–I’d like to make a few comments on the 2nd point mentioned above which will address several other problematic claims by Copan and Flannagan.

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  • Adam Omelianchuk

    Both of the authors pay attention to the land issue you mention (they cover this in detail in the book, which you should read). They argue that the Canaanites (etc) could stay so long as they gave up their practices and followed YHWH (e.g. Rahab). If not, they had to leave, and would be driven from the land by force. True, they argue that the Canaanite religious practices were morally reprehensible, but their criticism of Canaanite morality is merely part of a larger justification for the command, which was to purify the land from it. It seems all parties could agree, then, right?

    • peteenns

      Intersting. Do they ascribe “purity” to the priestly writer’s agenda, which is part of the alrert picture? And where do we read that Rahab gave up her practices? All we read is that she was scared to death of the Israelites and their God, based on reports, and she asks mercy for her family if she hides the spies.

      Now, I think this aspect of the story if very interesting in that it–along with the Ai narrative–may undercut some of the nationalism, but I certainly don’t think it supports the argument that the Canaanites were welcome of they engaged in pure practices. If anything, it suggests that purity of the land may not be as important to the Deuteronomistic Historian as it is to the priestly writer.

      • Adam Omelianchuk

        They don’t accommodate the JPED model of the text, and they have a higher view of Rahab than many critical scholars. They also point out, (this was new to me) that Caleb had a Canaanite lineage and that he was noted in the text to support the idea that nationalism didn’t matter; rather, being on the side of ‘the God who takes no sides’ is what matters. I’m still reading the book and I have some criticisms of my own, but their case is one of the most detailed I’ve read, and it’s given me some fresh ways to read the Conquest narrative.

        • peteenns

          I’ll look into it!

  • Erik Merksamer

    Pete, when you apply the understanding that biblical writers’ personality and character “extend to how one’s enemies are portrayed”, do you think this is evident in many other accounts? For example, could we apply this to how Judas is vilified in the Gospels? Or, any other NT description?

    • peteenns

      In principle, certainly–though here we are talking about nationalistic literature for which there is an ANE literary context.

      • Erik Merksamer

        Interesting, thank you! Now, how much influence has nationalism had on these books? Is there a “chosen people”? I realize this is an enormous question, but I am honestly searching. If you’ve written about this already in detail somewhere, could you please point me to that resource?

  • http://benlepper.com/ Ben Lepper

    Dr. Enns, do you think that during the Exile, the account of Joshua could have had some hyperbole edited into it? Sort of like how we talk about past triumphs, “How did the game go?” “It was great, we absolutely killed them!”

    • peteenns

      If push came top shove–pardon the violent idiom :-) –that’s pretty much where I come down. I think these accounts are exaggerations (hagiographic hyperbole) reflecting on ancient battles. The diversity of accounts in the OT reflect the complexity of tradition history.

    • Paul D.

      I fail to recall a football team bragging that they had slaughtered the men, women, children and infants of an opposing team, keeping only virgin girls to give the priestly class as war booty. Gosh, those biblical writers were crazy exaggerators!

  • http://coolingtwilight.com/ Dan Wilkinson

    My biggest issue with Copan, Flannagan, & other Christian apologists’ work regarding these texts (though I haven’t yet read this particular book) is that they always seem to start with the theological assumption that the Bible can’t really contain morally problematic texts, and then they work from that assumption. For them, it’s simply not a possibility that some of these passages do present true moral problems. And, for me, given that level of bias, I have a difficult time accepting any of their conclusions.

    • peteenns

      That rings true to me generally, Dan, and that leads to solutions that are more theologically/philosophically grounded with some biblical scholarship added here and there. I continue to think that the Bible as an inerrant source of theological information (what I call “rule book” reading in TBTMS) is the source of this disconnect.

    • http://www.redeemedrambling.blogspot.com/ Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist

      Well put, Dan. I was a little irked by what I have termed in the past as Copan’s “flippant” attitude toward the problematic texts in the OT. In his “Is God a Moral Monster?” he basically says that the Canaanites were really, really bad and needed to be killed. Of course, this flies in the face of modern ethical considerations. After all, the Nazis were really really bad, and we didn’t go in and kill women and children for obvious ethical reasons.

      • http://www.mandm.org.nz Matt

        actually we did. The allies engaged in terror bombing of whole german cities slaughtering thousands of men women and children this became ao much the norm that the allies dropped two nuclear bombs on japan. I am not saying I agree. Just pointing out your comments are false.

        There is also asignificant discussion in the ethical literature about wether these actions were justified exceptiond to the rule prohibiting non combatantimmunity.

        • http://www.redeemedrambling.blogspot.com/ Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist

          I am neither a historian nor an ethicist, but it sounds a bit absurd to me to conflate bombing campaigns with stabbing a baby with a sword. Having said that, I don’t think the efforts of the Allies affect the contemporary ethical zeitgeist.

          • http://www.mandm.org.nz Matt

            I am neither a historian nor
            an ethicist, but it sounds a bit absurd to me to conflate bombing campaigns with stabbing a baby with a sword. Having said that, I don’t think the efforts of the Allies affect the contemporary ethical zeitgeist.

            I fail to see how deliberately targeting and bombing civilian centres full of hundreds and thousands of children (which was what the allies done) so they are incinerated alive. Is morally better to running children through with the sword. In fact given the thousands of children blown
            to pieces and burnt alive by the allies.

            As to it not “affecting the contemporary ethical zeitgeist” that’s actually false. The official policy of much of the
            cold war was a doctrine of nuclear deterrence, where both sides threatened to annihilate the civilan population of the other side with nuclear attack if the other side
            struck first. This was official policy of most western eurpeon nations. More recently, Nelson Mandela a man who was involved in bombing campaigns which killed civilians was widely praised in the west as a hero because his actions helped end apartheid. So your simply wrong when you refer to the contemporary ethos.

            In fact, utilitarianism which holds you can threat to kill innocent people and do so to bring about greater social ultilty is perhaps the most dominant paradigm for thinking about ethics in the west today and has been for some time.

            Sorry but the attempt to suggest that contemporary moral code accepted by most academics and public policy people today is one that does not allow the killing of children to avoid evils is simply false. The position I defend in our book actually is stricter and less tolerant of such killing than what is the norm today.

        • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lotharson

          I consider both acts as war crimes.

          The fact that the allies were morally far superior to their enemies does not mean they were saints.
          These were atrocities which could have been completely avoided.

          Cheers.

          • http://www.mandm.org.nz Matt

            Lotharson, if you read the post above
            again you’ll see I did not endorse those actions. I was simply responding to the fairly naïve claim that “we did not go after german children” that’s simply false.

            But as to the issue under question. In his classic text book on the morality of war. Michael Walzer cites the bombing of german cities as an example of what ethicists call supreme emergency. This is a situation where normal moral rules can be suspended because due to the grave
            evil one faces. Walzer argues that, in the early period of the war, Germany had dominated Europe and routed the allied forces so badly that the only way Hitler
            could be defeated was if such bombing occurred. He argues further that given the grave evils faced, domination of Europe by the Nazis, the allies faced no morally acceptable choice other than to violate the rules upholding non-combatant immunity.

            Now I agree with Walzer’s critics that the historical case he makes, that the allies could not win without these tactics is dubious, and that the kind of calculations needed to make these kind of predictions are so difficult, opaque and prone to error, and prone of rationalisation that its unwise to allow political leaders to make such exceptions and safer to have an absolute ban on non combatant immunity.

            However, note this doesn’t actually refute Walzer’s moral claim: that if we could reliably know that way the allies could win world war two was to bomb
            german cities, then the evil of loosing to the Nazis is greater than the evil of the bombing. It simply and I think
            correctly shows we can’t in general have this sort of knowledge. So it leaves uncontested the claim that in principle such rules could be suspended if a person could reliably make such calculations. I think the claim that, given the way the world is ordered, God could never know of such situations is implausible.

          • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lotharson

            “if we could reliably know that way the allies could win world war two was to bomb
            German cities, then the evil of loosing to the Nazis is greater than the evil of the bombing.”

            I entirely agree with this and almost everything else you have written.

            I also tend to agree that God would have known whether or not such a strategy would be necessary for minimizing evil.

            That said, what give you a warrant for thinking that God really wanted the Israelites to commit this massacre?
            If by examining the evidence we consider it extremely unlikely that the slaughters were required for diminishing evil, why could we not simply draw the conclusion that God could not have issued such a command?

          • http://www.mandm.org.nz Matt

            Lotharson

            “That said, what give you a warrant for thinking that God really wanted theIsraelites to commit this massacre? “

            Obviously if we knew God had commanded the Isrealites to do it then that would be compelling evidence that God wanted us to do it.

            “If by examining the evidence we consider it extremely unlikely that the slaughters were required for diminishing evil, why could we not simply draw the conclusion that God could not have issued such a command?”

            It would depend on whether we also had evidence we had the God had provided an exemptionto the normal rule against killing the innocent by issuing a command to the Isrealites. If’s the grounds we have that God commanded it is weaker than evidence we have that the slaughters were required for diminishing evil, then the conclusion we have for thinking that the slaughters were required for diminishing evil, then we should draw the
            conclusion God did not command it. If on the other hand the grounds we have the God commanded it are stronger than the grounds we have for thinking this is not a justified exception to the rule then we should conclude God did command it.

            I am inclined to think this therefore depends on prior judgements about inerrancy. If scripture is inerrant then we have good grounds for thinking God did command
            this and seeing we don’t know whether or not the slaughters were required for diminishing evil, so we have reasons for thinking God commanded it. If we don’t think scripture is inerrant then we don’t have any reasons for thinking God commanded it and seeing the default
            position is a strong presumption against killing the innocent we should reject the claim God did command it.

    • http://www.mandm.org.nz Matt

      But I think you misunderstand the dialectical situation here. As I spell out in the book the context of the discussion actually requires one begin with this assumption. Here is why

      In this book and our other works on the subject we are addressing a particular objection. This objection is what logicans call a reduction ad absurdum. A person assumes a particular position they disagree with for the sake of argument and then argues if one accepts this
      assumption certain absurd implications follow.

      In this case the claim is that if you accept that the
      bible is the authoritative word of God, and you accept that what God commands is what your required to do then you cannot consistently oppose Genocide or killing the innocent and so on. Seeing Genocide is obviously wrong this leads a person into a contradiction.

      Now in this context, then the relevant question is, what follows if you accept this assumption. If the bible is taken as the authoritative word of God, does it entail Genocide it permissible. This is after all what the sceptic is arguing and so this is what must be addressed. The discussion is about what follows if you accept a particular stance for the sake of argument.

      I am sorry to hear that despite never reading a book you will dismiss its contents publically because the authors look at what follows if you accept a proposition you don’t for the sake of argument. I also find it
      ironic you cite opposition to being biased as a reason to do this.

  • http://bilbos1.blogspot.com/ Bilbo

    Hi Dr. Enns,

    Being troubled by the Canaanite genocide, I re-read Joshua over the weekend. Rahab submits to Yahweh and helps His people, and she and her family are spared. The Gibeonites trick Joshua, but make peace and are spared. They are punished for the deceit and are made hewers of wood and drawers of water. But that punishment was not part of the condition for making peace. In other words, had they just come to Joshua and sued for peace, it would have been granted to them. Later, the Gibeonites are attacked by neighboring Canaanites for making peace with the Israelites. It seems clear that the other Canaanites were not willing to sue for peace. In chapter 11, we are told,

    “18 Joshua made war a long time with all those kings. 19 There was not a city that made peace with the people of Israel, except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon; they took all in battle. 20 For it was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be utterly destroyed, and should receive no mercy but be exterminated, as the Lord commanded Moses.”

    It is clear that if the Canaanites had sued for peace, mercy would have been shown and peace would have been granted.

    The idea that Israel was commanded to slaughter the Canaanites indiscriminately, regardless of whether or not they were willing to accept Yahweh and His people Israel is false. The Canaanites, for the most part, were people who knew that Yahweh had miraculously brought His people into the land, and yet they continued to refuse to worship Him, and tried to eliminate His people Israel. That is why they were slaughtered.

    • http://www.christianvagabond.com Christian Vagabond

      What if your last paragraph said “The Israelites, for the most part, were people who knew that Allah had miraculously brought His people into the land, and yet they continued to refuse to worship Him, and tried to eliminate His people of Palestine. That is why they were slaughtered.”

      Suddenly it doesn’t sound so cut and dried, does it?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

    I like the response to Copan et al. Admitting that the Bible isn’t exactly accurate or that it shows the hand of fallible man just like any book calls into question all its claims, in particular its most remarkable ones about the supernatural details of its stories. If they fudged the facts about the Canaanites’ evil, maybe they did the same about God.

    I’m surprised with the straightforwardness of your final point. I agree: the Canaanites were simply in the way, and they had to be gotten rid of. But this puts God in a pretty bad light. The cleverest solution God can come up with is to kill them all? He can’t poof them out of existence or make them sterile 50 years in the past so they’d simply die out painlessly? He can’t teleport them to another nice place in the world or create an island for them?

    That God’s palette of options looks precisely like that of a general of the time makes clear that the Bible is just the blog of an early Iron Age culture and the OT god is just mythology.

    • toddh

      That’s certainly one option. If you stick around and do some Dr. Enns reading, you may discover some additional options.

    • Giauz Ragnarock

      C.S. Lewis didn’t even agree with Jesus’ ethics completely. If Aslan had been Tanakh Jesus, he would have ordered the Pevensey children and Narnians to kill all but the virgin Telmarine females in ‘Prince Caspian’.

  • ajl

    Pete,

    In 1776, the Washington narrowly escaped NYC due to fog conditions. After the fog lifted, the British were stunned – never believing that Washington would have cowardly fled. If the Jews were writing Scripture about that event, might they have said:

    “and the Lord sent a fog over the area to confuse the British, allowing his people to escape”.

    and, J. Patterson Smyth talks about a “lower morality” during those days, so their stories might actually be a bit over-the-top rhetoric like:

    “and after Washington crossed the Delaware, he completely destroyed the German army, wiping them from the face of the Earth”. We know that it is written well after the event, due to the anachronism of using the word “German” vs. Hessian :-)

  • James

    Yes, Canaan and the Canaanite(s) are not people of pleasant conversation in OT narrative from Genesis to Zechariah. They are a bit like King Saul–dead in the water, collateral damage in the giving of land, descendants and leadership. You can call it propaganda, rhetorical style and real history in varying degrees–fascinating reading with deeper meaning than many people today are prepared to allow.

  • http://www.mandm.org.nz Matt

    Hi Peter

    Sorry but I don’t remember arguing in that book, which you admit to having not read, that ” the command to exterminate the canaanites was justified on the basis of their exceedingly wicked behavior” and I certainly dont remember arguing that the canaanites were the worst sinners ever.

    Perhaps you can point me to where I did this?

    I do remember however making comments which denied this. I also remember discussing both the fact the text is propaganda and composite authorship however. So I am a little puzzled as to your criticisms here.

    I also distinctly remember addressing your concerns about taking the bibles picture of the canaanites as accurate in the book.

    • peteenns

      This is good to hear, Matt. I will read the book. I didn’t know we agreed on so much. So you advocate in the book for some form of source criticism and the Canaanite extermination didn’t happen? I surmised that the following quote was consistent with the rhetoric that the Canaanites deserved what they got: “We must first understand that the Canaanites engaged in acts that would be considered criminal in any civilized society–incest, infant sacrifice, ritual prostitution, bestiality.” Am I misunderstanding that quote and that their moral behavior was not a factor in God’s command to kill them?

      • Mike Ward

        Is that quote from the book? I found the exact quote in an interview with Paul Copan posted online. Was Copan quoting his own book? Because even though he’s talking about the book in the interview there is no indicatino he is quoting from it verbatim in the transcrirpt.

        In any event. Here’s the whole quote as it appears in the interview:

        [Edit: Sorry, I didn’t realize it was the same interview you linked too. Anyway, if you’d already seen the whole quote why did you only quote the first part which really doesn’t capture the spriit of the whole comment?]

        “We must first understand that the Canaanites engaged in acts that would be considered criminal in any civilized society–incest, infant sacrifice, ritual prostitution, bestiality. Also, God waited over 400 years for Canaan to hit moral rock-bottom before commanding they be driven out (Gen. 15:16). In addition, things are less straightforward than what first appears. Tensions exist within the biblical text itself:

        “First, the Israelites were commanded to ‘drive out’ or ‘dispossess’ the Canaanites, but this assumes Canaanites would be alive—not killed—if driven out. Second, the ‘utterly destroy’ or ‘leave alive nothing that breathes’ language is hyperbolic in Scripture’s war texts as in other ancient Near Eastern war texts. It typically stands alongside mention of many survivors—like when sports teams use the language of ‘totally slaughtering’ their opponents. The land has ‘rest from war’ (Joshua 21:44), yet Joshua says nations still remain in Israel’s midst (23:12); Judges 1-2 regularly repeats ‘they could not drive them out.’ The book addresses more of these nuances.”

        • http://www.mandm.org.nz Matt

          Mike it’s a quote from the interview.

          But in any respect it doesn’t confirm what Peter says, Peter’s claim was

          On the first point, the authors claim that the command to exterminate the Canaanites was justified on the basis of their extremely wicked behavior. This is a common inerrantist justification, but it remains utterly unconvincing.

          It is widely known that the Canaanites were not any worse in the ancient world than others…

          Peter here states the authors argue that the command to kill the Canaanites was justified on the basis of the Canaanites extremely wicked behaviour. He then attempts to rebut this by claiming “ the Canaanites were not any worse in the ancient world than others” Now, even on its own terms this rebuttal fails because Enns conflates the claim that the Canaanites engaged in extremely wicked behaviour (what Paul said) with the claim that the Canaanites were the worst sinners in the ancient world ( not what Paul said).

          But more importantly neither Paul nor I in the interview stated that the command to kill the Canaanites was
          justified on the basis of there wickedness. In the quote you provide, Paul states that “We must first understand that the Canaanites engaged in acts that would be considered criminal in any civilized society–incest, infant sacrifice, ritual prostitution, bestiality” This
          simply states that the Canaanites commited crimes, nowhere does it claim that the command was justified on the basis of this fact. In fact the context suggests this is
          not the case. Paul is writing in response to the question “how do we begin to process” what the text says. Paul’s use of the word “first” is to note its one factor to take into account when processing the text he also
          provides several others.

          Latter in the interview, Paul and I are asked questions about wether what the text says is compatible with a loving and just God and there we don’t cite the wickedness of the Canaanites in fact we discuss whether its ever acceptable to kill the innocent.

          Moreover, the questioner notes there is a whole section of our book devoted to this question. If our argument were the Canaanites were the worst sinners ever
          and so killing them was ok for that reason then the question “is it acceptable to kill the innocent” would not even arise and the answers we give to that question would make no sense.

          • peteenns

            I want to make sure I am getting you here, Matt. I’m getting a bit confused. Are you and Paul saying that Canaanite “wickedness” in your minds is irrelevant to Canaanite extermination? I’m sure you can’t mean that, since you brought it up in the interview. Surely you do see in their behavior a “reason” for the command, no? And if you have a reason, you have a “justification.” Or are we quibbling with words here?

          • http://www.mandm.org.nz Matt

            Peter

            You seem to be conflating two questions, the first
            is wether the fact the text portrays the Canaanites as, in general, guilty of serious crimes is relevant to the question of the Canaanite extermination. The
            second is whether this fact provides a justification for the command.

            They are actually separate questions. This is because as I see it, there are two separate questions that need to be addressed in examining moral objections to the bible text.

            First, if is what do the authors of the text say, what commands do they attribute to God and in what
            context? Second, can one coherently attribute these commands to a loving and just God.

            Obviously to answer the first question one needs to
            look at what the text says, and in what context that means one needs to examine whether the text envisages wether the Canaanites are innocent or not. Hence
            that issue is relevant to the overall question. But in examining it we are only answering the first question, what commands are attributed to God by the authors of the text and in what context. Its not an attempt to argue the command was justified. That is what one does when one examines the second question.

            The second question is where moral assessment comes
            into play, once we have a picture of what commands the text attributes to God we ask the moral philosophical question of whether one can coherently say that a
            loving and just God could issue such a command. Here I employ ideas from the literature on divine command meta-ethics about when one can attribute a seemingly immoral command to God. That’s a more philosophical issue and in our book we don’t answer that question by arguing the Canaanites are the most wicked people in the ANE.

  • Andrew Foley

    I enjoyed your book although I still have lots of questions and loose ends.On this topic I would LOVE to hear you engage with scholars such as Walter Brueggemann (I am intrigued but I find it hard to understand his ‘God in recovery’ perspective without veering into process theology – even though he denies this), Greg Boyd’s ‘Crucifying the Warrior God’ and also scholars that approach the issue with a more conservative view but approach it with an appreciation of some for the messiness in the narrative, e.g. NT Wright.

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lotharson

    Hi Peter.

    I once interviewed Matt Flannagan himself about his views on the conquest of Canaan.

    I must say I largely prefer his approach to that of William Lane Craig who defends the killing of babies by untrained soldiers as perfectly moral (while he is passionately opposed to such an act if it is committed against a yet unborn child by a trained physician).
    To his credit, Craig does recognize it is an option for Christians disagreeing with him on that to reject Biblical inerrancy. This is a point almost no Conservative Evangelical grants.
    Here, I can only mention Randal Rauser’s excellent criticism of his arguments.

    In a sense, this is a real pity. Craig is an extremely brilliant man. While I don’t think he’s ultimately successful in proving Christianity, I think he is by no means inferior to sophisticated defenders of atheism out there.

    He’s also a kind person and tend to be a very agreeable and respectful conversation partner.

    So it is truly disappointing he holds such indefensible views owing to his belief in Biblical inerrancy.
    He gives anti-theists powerful rhetorical ammunitions for refusing to take seriously anything he has to say.

    When the Bible is at odds with facts from the external world, Conservative apologetics fall into two categories:
    – fundamentalism: denying the facts and clinging to the literal interpretation of Scripture (as typically Young Earth Creationists do)
    – concordism: accepting the reliability of the external facts and trying to find an interpretation of the Bible matching them.

    With respect to this specific question, Craig has chosen a fundamentalist approach.
    The apologetic strategy of Copan and Flanaggan is more in line with our basic moral intuitions and as such they can be regarded as concordists.

    I generally think that concordists are successful for SOME moral difficulties found within Scripture whereby they offer a plausible alternative interpretation no longer strongly offensive to our fundamental ethical intuitions.

    But there are countless other “Biblical difficulties” and oftentimes I cannot help but think that their interpretation of the text is far-fetched and certainly not in accordance with what the original authors meant.

    While reading Deuteronomy 20 explicating the difference between war inside and outside Canaan:

    “When you draw near to a town to fight against it, offer it terms of peace. If it accepts your terms of peace and surrenders to you, then all the people in it shall serve you at forced labour. If it does not submit to you peacefully, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; and when the LORD your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town, all its spoil. You may enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the LORD your God has given you. Thus you shall treat all the towns that are very far from you, which are not towns of the nations here.
    (first part).

    “But as for the towns of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the LORD your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the LORD your God.”
    (Second part)

    it seems extremely likely that the Biblical author wanted to convey the idea of literal killings in both cases

    Or consider the war against the Midianate:

    “Moses said to them, “Have you allowed all the women to live? These women here, on Balaam’s advice, made the Israelites act treacherously against the LORD in the affair of Peor, so that the plague came among the congregation of the LORD. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves.”

    It is very plausible (if not almost certain) that Mose (according to the authors of the book of Numbers) wanted his men to kill both male infants and female married women and widows while taking virgin girls as war booty .

    It seems extraordinarily hard to avoid the conclusion that the Biblical authors attributed barbaric commands to God.

    Considered together with all examples of scientific and historical inaccuracies in the Bible, it appears that the Chicago Statement of inerrancy (the Biblical writers never erred in what they wanted to convey) can only be salvaged by resorting to a flurry of extremely unlikely ad-hoc hypotheses and distortion of the text.

    This is why I think that the Conservative Evangelical faith has an incredibly shaky foundation which can be all too easily shattered once one begins to honestly read and examine the Biblical texts.

    Among all these seeds of doubt, the description of God as an immoral being seems to be the main factor leading young Evangelicals to give up Christianity altogether, as an email to which I responded illustrates.

    As a consequence, we get plenty of angry anti-theists who view the Bible as an entirely wicked book which should be burnt.

    They have kept a fundamentalist mindset in so far as they think that:

    1) the Bible should be judged in every respect according to modern criteria (thereby disregarding the strong influence of history and culture on moral beliefs)
    2) the Bible is always entirely consistent in relation to its moral message.
    Thus, if we can show that in one book soldiers are ordered to slaughter children, we must conclude that the WHOLE Bible endorses and advocates infanticides.

    Far from protecting the Church, Conservative Evangelicalism is causing a mass desertion which could be avoided.

    On a personal level, the results of historical-critical scholarship have led me to give up the concept of a Canon set apart and more inspired than other books outside of it.

    Frankly speaking, there is no meaningful way in which we could say that the imprecatory psalms (where a man prays for the atrocious death of the children of his enemy) is more inspired that sermons of Martin Luther King or books of C.S. Lewis (who by the way recognized the existence of errors within the Bible).

    If one reads the Bible as a collection of book reporting the experiences and thoughts of people concerning God (i.e. in the same way one reads other Christians and Jewish books including apocryphal ones), many moral problems disappear completely.

    I can even find moral beauty in many texts which fall short of perfection.

    Of course, Evangelicals find my approach terribly unsettling because they’ve been raised to think that a Bible free of mistakes is the only way we have for knowing how God truly is .

    There is no easy answer I can give them. I think that by definition, God has to be morally perfect and therefore higher than the most noble person who has ever lived under the sun.
    For me, being a Christian means hoping in a God who revealed his ultimate face through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

    I find Hans Küng’s book http://www.amazon.com/Christianity-Essence-History-Hans-K%C3%BCng/dp/0826408842 (I originally read in German) interesting and think that he did a decent job showing that ultimate worldview commitments (including the contrast between hope and despair, nihilism and meaning, atheism and theism, Christianity and non-Christian religions) involve choices which go far beyond what is warranted by the evidence and rational considerations.

    So I view faith as existensial hope in the face of uncertainty and think that religious fundamentalists and Conservatives should come to terms with the fact that our ambiguous world hasn’t anything better to offer.

  • Daniel Fisher

    “The Canaanites’ main sin was their street address. That is why they had to be eliminated.”

    This is a very interesting take, and got me thinking – this makes sense even from the more traditional/evangelical/conservative perspective, in that those “evil” nations that were geographically further away from the promised land did not present the same threat to Israel of syncretism (corrupting their religion) – whereas allowing these same evil Canannite practices or cultural forces to continue right in the midst of this nascent nation would have been far more likely to corrupt Israel’s worship.

    There was plenty of religious syncretism over the years even coming from those nations outside of Israel… one would presume it would only have been worse had those same evil cultural influences been allowed to continue right in the midst of the promised land.

    • Giauz Ragnarock

      Note that the Cananites of the Tanakh’s narrative were probably fearful of what their gods threatened to do to them if Israelite culture perverted their gods’ extremely similar teachings. It’s interesting how dour the whole of the Tanakh is on the subject of proselytizing, but the New Testament is almost completely opposite (‘DO practice your religion among those not in your religion’, NOT ‘sacrifice all these adults, old, children, poor, rich, and animals to me- their religion will make a better case than mine!’)