Canaanite genocide: it’s OK because it wasn’t THAT bad (was it?)

Canaanite genocide: it’s OK because it wasn’t THAT bad (was it?) February 2, 2015

Here is my second post on my reaction to the RNS interview with Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan about their recent book Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God. (The first post is here. I may add a third and final post later this week.)

Based on some comments to my first post, one of which by one of the authors (Flannagan), I want to be clear that I am responding to the interview. I assume the authors are saying what they mean, but I also understand only too well that books nuance things differently that interviews can. I am very conscious of not wanting to misrepresent their arguments. I hope how I word things below will make that even clearer, and if there are points where a fuller reading of the book would correct or nuance my impressions formed by the interview, by all means, in the interest of truth, let others say so.

In the previous post I looked at how the Israelite evaluation of the Canaanites’ wickedness is hyperbolic and propagandistic. Here I want to touch on a related point that Copan and Flannagan also address in the interview: complete annihilation is also hyperbolic and part of ancient propagandistic rhetoric.

Other peoples engaged in similar rhetoric, and the go-to example is the Mesha Inscription, a.k.a. Moabite Stone, which speaks similarly of the Moabite “extermination” of the Israelites in the 9th century, even using the same word we find in the Old Testament, Hebrew cherem, often translated “ban.”

Israel was not alone in describing military victory as utter and complete annihilation with the vanquished never to be heard from again, wiped off the earth, etc. Of course, the Moabite report of Israel’s demise was highly exaggerated–as was the Israelite report of the Canaanites. (One big difference, however, is that the Mesha inscription was a monument commemorating King Mesha’s deeds and thus likely commissioned my him, i.e., fairly near the time of the events. The Bible does not give us any Israelite king’s self-description in “real time,” but the evaluation of the past by later storytellers.)

Losing a battle or achieving only partial victory would be blamed on some offense toward the nation’s high god and only appeasing that god will turn the military tide. This too is mentioned in the Mesha Inscription, as it is in Judges 6-7, where the failure to capture Ai is attributed to Achan’s sin and victory over Ai only comes when Achan and his family are annihilated (i.e., treated the Canaanites).

The Israelite writers were engaged in propaganda as much as others.

As I argue (along with biblical scholars in general) in The Bible Tells Me So, the hyperbolic nature of Israel’s accounts combined with the extremely unfavorable archaeological evidence for a conquest of any sort suggests that “the conquest” didn’t happen. The biblical accounts reflect later storytelling of perhaps ancient battles and tribal tensions (which may or may not have involved early Israelites.)

What I sense, though, from the interview is that the moral offense of Canaanite annihilation can be turned down a bit because the accounts are simply exaggerations of what happened: Israel conquered Canaan through military invasion and subjugation, but not total, mass, extermination.

In other words, since it’s not technically genocide, it’s not so bad. Not everyone was killed.

Which brings me back to a recurring theme in my own thinking: “it’s not so bad” doesn’t change all that much. In the Bible, God still orders mass killing (which in Deuteronomy 20 “mass” includes everything that breaths, including women, children, and animals; and not to mention enslaving women and children as spoils of war).

A less-than-total annihilation of the Canaanites to take over their land still presents moral challenges for readers of the Old Testament. Further, warring continues (Judges 1-2), and according to Judges 3:1-2, it was the Lord’s doing to intentionally leave some Canaanites in the land so that subsequent generations of Israelites could get some experience in war.

It seems that line of argument the authors take is driven by a non-negotiable assumption: that a “Canaanite conquest” is basically historical–it happened, only on a lesser scale. This is where I think I am most eager to be corrected if wrong about the authors.

But if that is their point, for their argument to be convincing, the broader sweep of biblical scholarship (i.e., outside of evangelical defenses of historicity) would need to be addressed, where the entire question of Israel’s origins (conquest of Canaan being only one part of that) has been entirely reframed through archaeological investigations and literary analysis of the Old Testament.

Although such an explanation might not sit well with everyone (and I get why), it would completely reframe the matter: the stories of the conquest of Canaan and the extermination of the Canaanites would reflect Israel’s understanding and interpretation of the significance of these (for the writers) ancient events, which in a tribal context they would understandably attribute to God’s command.

I can’t tell from the interview whether Copan and Flannagan argue or hint in this direction–though, my sense is they would not go this far, since doing so would take them outside of mainstream Evangelical theological boundaries. I would need to read the book, though, to see if reasons other than dogmatic requirements are driving their thinking on this important matter.


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  • Erik Merksamer

    I’m reading “The Bible Tells Me So” right now, and just finished the “God Likes Stories” section. I have to admit that I’m both fascinated and also a bit anxious, because it does go farther from my roots than anything I’ve ever been exposed to.

    I’ve already known the “not AS bad” warfare explanations to try to calm down people’s reactions. Or, the explanation that God had to preserve Israel in order for the Messiah to come. But, Dr. Enns, you’ve taken me to the edges now!

    Is there really a “chosen people”, Israel, that God set apart in history? Or, are all these stories nationalistic and just a way to preseve cultural identity?

    • Giauz Ragnarock

      As Thom Stark points out in ‘Is God a Moral Compromiser?’, the Tanakh still portrays genocide even if not everyone was killed (a distinct cultural group was still destroyed and had its home stolen from it).

      • Again addressed in the book, there is a section in the book on international law and definitions of genocide which addresses this.

    • Bill Carsley

      That’s a very good question, Erik… because the story of Israel is the essential historical backdrop for the Christian story. The truth and universality of the Christian story depends on a factual basis in historical reality for the “called out” status of the nation of Israel. The New Testament picture of Jesus as the Christ assumes an essential historical reality for the Old Testament story. This doesn’t rule out the presence of hyperbole (or even some level of propagandist license) in the telling of that story, but it does require an essential basis in historical fact. Looks that way to me anyway!

    • Gary

      Keep reading. If Enns is far from your roots and is in your current boundary zone, I encourage you to keep exploring. Stretch your edges until you have as broad as possible landscape to take in.

  • Paul D.

    It’s a cruel sort of logic that judges the morality of murder and rape by the numbers involved. Assuming that Copan and Flannagan are of the opinion that the events in question occurred to *some* extent despite exaggerations and were mandated by God (and Copan certainly argued this in his previous book), it raises the question:

    How many infants may a person stab with a rusty spear (while the dying mother lies screaming in agony nearby) before it is no longer acceptable? How many virgin girls (presumably determined through physical examination) may be forced into sexual slavery/concubinage before the deity and those who speak for him are no longer pleased?

    Imagine if it were *your* baby. Your little girl.

    These days, whenever I read the Bible, I am one of the Canaanites.

    • It’s a cruel sort of logic that judges the morality of murder and rape by the numbers involved.

      The Allies had to continually employ this “cruel sort of logic” in deciding how to act in order to minimize the total number of civilian casualties during WWII. Their bombs were only so accurate and they could only suffer so many military casualties without losing the war and letting Naziism run free in Europe and perhaps more of the world.

      Imagine if it were *your* baby. Your little girl.

      I’m afraid that those in the ANE probably didn’t think about any babies in this way. See my excerpt of James Davison Hunter’s Evangelicalism, which looks at attitudes toward children in Medieval times.


      It’s my experience that you can only ask so much from a people before your standards become so high that they reduce in effectiveness. There is plenty of evidence that the Israelites were extremely nationalistic; how many ‘moral points’ would YHWH had to have spent on having them raise foreign babies, of a finite supply of such points? The Israelites were pretty bad at obeying as it was.

      My preference would be to first focus on major successes, such as described by Joshua A. Berman in Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought, and then see whether suggested tweaks in e.g. the conquest narratives would actually have made things better.

      This strongly depends on one’s model of human nature, such that if the Bible contains a good model, trying to “fit” it might help us out. Given massive failures like Milgram experiment § Results and how that may have made us less likely to believe the Holocaust was being carried out by Enlightened Rational Man, getting things right here seems pretty high-priority to me.

      One can, of course, always request more deus ex machina or say that God simply made reality wrong. However, those lines of argument seem less likely to produce refinements in our understanding of human nature.

      • Andrew Dowling

        Your quote is completely wrong. Every single human society treats children (until adolescence) different from adults and places a special valuation on their well being; its ingrained in our evolutionary psychology.
        Any student of cultural anthropology can tell you that this whole “in the tough old days, a 6 year old kid had the responsibilities/expectations of a 16 year old” argument to be complete bunk.

        • Guest

          Any student of cultural anthropology can tell you that this whole “in the tough old days, a 6 year old kid had the responsibilities/expectations of a 16 year old” argument to be complete bunk.

          Contrary to what you claim, it’s pretty well-known that in pre-industrial societies, children were an integral component of the self-sufficient households that were the norm.

          Also, adolescence is a relatively recent cultural construct. Many ancient societies simply went from “child” to “adult.” Hence, the ubiquity of rites of passage in cultures around the world.

          Not sure what point you’re trying to make.

          • Andrew Dowling

            Children helped out with family work . .it doesn’t mean 6 and 7 year olds were treated like miniature adults. And we’re not talking about adolescence; Luke’s comment was referring to younger children.

    • Interesting, perhaps you can show me where I or Paul Copan used “this logic” in fact I explicitly mention this type of argument in the book and explain that its not the argument we are making and I explain why this is the case.

      But again that’s what happens when you decide to rebut a book you haven’t read on line.

      • Paul D.

        No problem.

        • Copan defends the slaughter of the Canaanites by insisting it was “less widespread than many people assume” (p. 170).

        • Copan defends the slaughter of the Anakim by pointing out there were still some left afterward (p. 171).

        • Copan defends the slaughter of the Amalekites by pointing out that Saul failed to wipe them *all* out (p. 174).

        • Copan defends the slaughter of “men, women, and children of every city” by pointing out there were exceptions of people being spared, like Rahab (p. 175).

        I could keep going. The implication throughout is that some of the killing happened, but the overall magnitude is exaggerated. At no point does Copan claim that it was a complete fabrication (in fact, he explicitly denies it on p. 171). And this is after many chapters explaining how wicked and deserving of slaughter the Canaanites were anyway. It’s like a smorgasbord of apologetics. “If this one doesn’t convince you, I have several more over here you can look at!” Like a street vendor selling you Rolexes from inside his trench coat.

        But of course, the book has already been utterly eviscerated by Thom Stark in his book-length review, which goes into far more detail than I ever could in a blog comment. I encourage anyone interested to Google “Thom Stark” and “is god a moral compromiser”.

        • Paul sorry but those quotes are not from the book being discussed here. Enns is discussing a book by Flannagan and Copan released in 2014. You acknowledge that when you refer to the logic of “Flannagan and Copan”. The book your citing wasn’t written by Flannagan and Copan, its a book Paul Copan wrote several years earlier.

          Sorry but citing from a totally different book doesn’t support your claim.

          if you look at the book Flannagan and Copan wrote you’ll find that on p 142 they explicitly state that they in not appealing to hyperbole to show that the text was permissible. And on p 190 they mention explicitly the line of argument you attribute to them and explain that is not what they are arguing. I know because I wrote that section and did so precisely to foreclose the kind of straw men sketched by people like Thom Stark.

          As the quotes you provide from a different book If you read through them again you’ll see none of them argue that killing was ok “because” only some were killed. You point out correctly that Copan argues that the language was hyperbolic and some were killed. However pointing out only some were killed is not the same as claiming that killing was ok because some were killed. You wont find that argument in Copans book. Even if you did however that’s not what’s argued in the book under discussion.

  • Arkel

    Hi Peter,
    thanks for another insightful post. I have been following your writings
    for a couple of years now and found them very helpful. I too am of the opinion
    that a major portion (possibly all) of the Bible is Israel’s way of
    articulating her own story using the dominant cultural imagery of the period.

    However, the larger problem does not go away. On the one hand, if the Canaanite genocide did happen (exaggerated or not) then the God of the Bible does not come out unscathed because of the ethical dilemma. But if it did not, then the Bible loses the special status it has been accorded as the revelation of God. This however will bring down with it the image of God as popularly constructed since it is based on the Bible. So whichever option you take the Christian notion of God is problematic. How you deal with this dilemma?

    Just to give this some personal context, so you know where I am coming from, I hold a PhD in biblical studies and teach in an evangelical seminary. While I have never been anywhere near the fundamentalists to start with, I have gradually come to the reluctant conclusion that the Bible is just a human book, like any other
    religious book, and I can no longer honestly continue teaching this as the Word
    of God. Knowing the issues you faced subsequent to your Incarnation &
    Inspiration book, I am interested in knowing how you deal with the fine line
    between belief in what is left of the inspired text and non-belief.

    • berryfriesen

      Seems to me that when we read virtually any other rich and textured collection of texts, we have more ways of understanding/evaluating it than the two you suggest with regard to the Bible.

      Some texts counter/nuance/correct others in the collection. Some demonstrate the consequences of error (what the Apostle Paul called “the wrath of God”). Some reflect new understanding gained through new experiences of YHWH.

      A collection that accomplishes this sort of intra-textual critique and dialogue loses no status in my mind.

    • Andrew Dowling

      But can “mere humans” not possibly capture any essence of the transcendent at all? You seem to be positing a dichotomy between the Bible being a “God” book or a “human” book which I don’t think is necessarily accurate.

    • Arkel

      Thanks Andrew and Berry for your comments. Correct me if I am wrong, but I assume you write from a Western context whereas I am an Asian who lives and works in multi-religious and pluralistic society. From a Western context even if the Bible is able to capture in some way “any essence of the transcendent” it is still revealing something about “God.” However, in my context, if the Bible has only some essence of the transcendent it is merely one among a dozen (or more) religious books that makes similar claims.
      This is not a problem from a non-evangelical perspective wherein one can say that the Bible is one among the many religious books that gives us a glimpse into the who a particular god is. Or, the Bible gives a partial picture of some aspects of god.
      Not so if an evangelical position which exists on the very premise that the Christian message (and book) is unique and we ought to evangelize the others and bring them into this fold which has a much better understanding of who God is.
      So, my question, I guess, is better put this way: If we remove the special privilege we accord to the Bible as the only book that claims to tell us about God (as it is implicitly assumed in most Western societies) why should I waste my time on the Bible when all it has to give me is a few glimpse into a god, while there are loads of other books, in many cases much older than the Bible, each of which give me very different pictures of god(s)?

      • berryfriesen

        In Jeremiah 28-29, we read of the prophet Hananiah, who
        spoke the word of the LORD, and Jeremiah, who expressed skepticism and later in the name of YHWH contradicted Hananiah.

        No problem with that, right?

        What about Nathan’s word from the LORD about an eternal
        Davidic dynasty patterned after the imperial models of the day? Micah, Zephaniah, 2nd Isaiah, Malachi, 3rd Isaiah, Joel and Daniel all showed low regard for Nathan’s “prophetic” word by ignoring it completely. Jesus continued in that tradition and took it further by challenging the association of the Messiah with David while drawing on the David-ignoring prophetic tradition for his guiding lights. This is the dynamic word of YHWH correcting human error and misunderstanding.

        Genesis does something similar with regard to Joshua, telling the generations to come that because of YHWH’s faithfulness, possession of the land does not need to be exclusive of all other gods or religions.

        This is astonishing and wonderful. If it leads your conversation partners to lose respect for the Bible, maybe it is a bit like those who lost faith because Hananiah’s and Nathan’s assurances proved to be dead ends.

  • The Bible is filled with hyperbole, from the vastly exaggerated ages of the Patriarchs to the vastly exaggerated extent of the flood and the tall tale that goes with it, to the exaggerated concerns of an infinite being for particular people and blood sacrifice, to exaggerated tales of miraculous desert wanderings and conquests, all the way to the exaggeration that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world. Here is a long list of such exaggerations:

  • James

    If, in the historical movement of peoples, God took the initiative to arrange the displacement of one group (the Canaanites) in favor of another (the Israelites), we can safely assume there was bloodshed on the battlefield and in the camp or village of women and children. Troubling! Put that with Paul’s message to the Athenians: “From one (ancestor or blood) he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries. His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him–though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and exist.” More reassuring? Hmm…Jesus too was controversial. At least it is clear, in all the upheavals of life on our planet, we can and must experience God. I think that’s good propaganda (truth) for today.

    • nick.gotts

      At least it is clear, in all the upheavals of life on our planet, we can and must experience God.

      No, it really isn’t. That’s very clearly an assumption you start with, not a conclusion you reach by any rational process.

      • James

        Yes, I think I get it from the text.

  • Pete, please keep up your terrific work here on the deeply problematic nature of those many Bible verses that celebrate violence and genocide. Your work will be finished only when we’re all convinced that there’s no appropriate apologetic response to these verses. The only way to react to these verses, regardless of how well we come to understand them, is to be deeply disturbed by them.

    I think you make an important point when you distinguish between the ancient but then-contemporary chronicling of a military victory (as with the Mesha inscription) and the after-the-fact composition and redaction of the Bible’s stories of Israel’s military exploits. But if we date the composition/redaction of these Bible stories to the Babylonian exile or sometime shortly after this exile, then these stories date from a time when the Israelites had themselves recently suffered their own military defeat and partial genocide. These stories thus may have functioned as some kind of revenge fantasy.

    It seems to be a universal human trait: we celebrate death and destruction that we perceive to be in retaliation for wrongs we’ve suffered. We saw this recently in the spontaneous celebrations over the killing of Osama Bin Laden. My moral compass is a little faulty, but I’m pretty sure that this killing was a justifiable military action. But since when is it appropriate to celebrate the death of another human being? In this context, I think of the Star Wars movie: the evil Empire destroys a planet; the rebels respond by destroying a Death Star; the audience celebrates, not thinking of the thousands of innocent men, women and children present on the Death Star. The current brouhaha over “American Sniper” also comes to mind. In general terms, the authors of our problem Bible passages represented a people who had suffered a conquest and humiliation beyond our imagination in the 21st century First World. If we excuse our own contemporary engagement in revenge fantasy, we can understand (but not excuse) the violent fantasies of people living 2,500 years earlier.

    I offer this comment for no apologetic purpose. The texts you write about here are horrible, and should (must) be regarded as such. But if we’re inclined to draw lessons from this understanding, and I think we should, I think we need to direct some of our attention inward. I often see the mindset of the ancient OT authors described as “tribal” and “primitive,” which begs the question: what excuse can we offer for our own like behavior?

    • Daniel Fisher

      “The only way to react to these verses, regardless of how well we come to understand them, is to be deeply disturbed by them.”

      But this wouldn’t apply simply to the Canaanite massacre…. the flood (as recorded, at least) had God drowning far more men, women, children, and animals that the Israelites are purported to have killed. And as ugly as the Canaanite massacre is, it really doesn’t touch the horror of what Jesus himself promised about hell. Not to mention the descriptions of Jesus in Revelation as leaving piles of bodies in his wake so big that the vultures “gorged themselves…”

      I can’t see how one can reject the Canaanite slaughter as immoral and not, along with it, reject pretty much the entire Bible – from Genesis to Revlation. From Noah to Jesus, we are presented with a God who is not shy about delivering some very horrific judgment. If we should be deeply disturbed by the Canaanite massacre, we should be all the more disturbed by the flood, and exponentially more disturbed by the very idea of hell, no?

      • Daniel, I was careful to talk in general terms about Bible verses, and by doing so here on the “Evangelical Channel,” I intended to include the New Testament as well as the old. (I am Jewish, and the NT is not a part of my personal Bible.) I agree that there is horrible violence embodied in NT hell-condemnation and the vision of Revelation. And yes, there’s a Flood, too.

        But I’m not “rejecting” anything. Not that I’m not tempted at times to take a razor blade to the text, leave in the phrases about pursuing justice and protecting widows, and hack away at the other stuff. But I can’t do that. The Old Testament is MY book, part of my legacy. Didn’t someone once say, we are the stories we tell? These are my stories. In a real sense, this is who I am. But while I look at the Bible, and in this sense look within, I don’t have to celebrate everything I see.

        As far as God’s judgment is concerned … I believe in a God of judgement, and I only hope that the Bible isn’t exaggerating when it speaks about God’s mercy. But I come from a tradition that argues with God, and if I’m given the opportunity, I’m certainly going to ask questions about the justice of cherem in warfare. Until that time, I’m going to assume that God always opposes genocide, and that there is simply certain stuff that the Bible got wrong.

        • Daniel Fisher

          Very much appreciate the thoughts. Realize you’re not taking a literal razor blade to the text (a la Thomas Jefferson); but I fear I don’t see a practical difference – whether literally cut out of the Bible, or discarded intellectually as being “morally wrong,” it seems you’d still be rejecting at least some aspects of the morality of God as described therein – which is your right, of course….

          But my larger concern remains… this moral objection can’t be restricted only to the Canaanite conquest – if one finds God’s morality objectionable in the conquest, one would (if consistent) object to the character of God as described in pretty much every book from Genesis to Chronicles (or Revelation for the Christians). Whole populations were at various times exterminated by God – some by Israelite sword, some by drowning in floodwaters, some by raining fire, some by an angel of death, etc. And none of this even touches Jesus’ descriptions of everlasting and unending torment by fire.

          A second question, if I may – I hear you in saying that the Bible simply may have gotten some of these things wrong… but I can’t grasp how one can make this conclusion without some form of cherry-picking… “The Bible got some things wrong.” “Which parts?” “The parts I disagree with…”

          That is, the Bible portrays God as merciful and kind and forgiving, and simultaneously that he has no moral issue executing horrific judgments on entire populations…. But on what basis can we endorse the former and reject the latter? Why would someone not be justified in rejecting the mercy of God while endorsing his wrath, similarly arguing that the Bible got some things wrong? The only answer I’ve ever seen people give is some variation of saying “because I approve of the former and disapprove of the latter.” But unless I’m very much mistaken, personal, subjective preference (however deeply held) is not a reliable method to determining the objective truth or falsehood about anything. Would appreciate your further thoughts.

          All that being said, I very much appreciate the idea of humbly yet firmly wrestling with God about such things – you’d be in good company (Abraham, Moses, Job, David, Jesus, etc.) There certainly is a place for wrestling with God even in regards to his character – “Will not the judge of all the earth do what is right?” So in all I said above, I don’t mean it to come across that we just turn our minds off and don’t seriously question and wrestle… Bottom line, though, I can’t grasp how we can disparage or reject some character trait of God (especially one so repeatedly attested to throughout the Bible) based on some variation of the argument “I don’t like it”?

          • Daniel, that’s a very thoughtful and thought-provoking response. MY bottom line is how pleased I am with our discussion!

            You wrote: “Bottom line, though, I can’t grasp how we can disparage or reject some character trait of God (especially one so repeatedly attested to throughout the Bible) based on some variation of the argument ‘I don’t like it’?”

            My bottom line response is: um … yeah. That IS a problem. One danger with cherry-picking is that I might end up effectively authoring my own Bible. There are a number of responses TO this response, chief among them being: this is pretty much hermeneutics as we know it. The meaning of any text emerges in the text’s reading, and is a creative interplay between what’s on the page and the engagement the reader brings to the reading. I am not a blank slate; my engagement is going to be personal; my engagement must involve questions such as “Do I agree?” and “How do I feel about this?” Sometimes, the question will be “Can this be right?” or even “That can’t be right!” Then again, part of my engagement with the text should be an effort to just “get it,” to try and understand the text as much as possible on its own terms, rather than on my terms. And, part of my engagement with the text should be to open myself to be changed by it. This is a partial safeguard against the worst danger of cherry-picking, that I end up with a Bible of my own creation. I may still end up creatively shaping the meaning of the Bible, but the “me” that does this is (or should be) changed by my encounter with the Bible.

            You raise a second question: even if I trust in my own ability to read the Bible (and rest assured, doubt remains!), what about the other guy? Isn’t it possible with hermeneutic cherry-picking to construct a monstrous God without mercy? History answers this question with a resounding “yes.” It is a gross understatement to say that the Bible has been used to hurt people. This raises yet another question: given the evident need to reduce the Bible’s potential to harm people, are we (both as readers and as part of a population that might be hurt by someone else’s reading of the Bible) better off endorsing cherry-picking, or rejecting it? I can’t answer this question, but I suspect that the answer lies in somehow embracing contradictory pairs: human and divine, profane and sacred, fiction and history, collective memory and revealed word. In this sense, the Bible is like a human personality: I don’t deny (for example) that I have violent impulses, but I try not to act on them, and (depending on context) my self-image and self-definition may emphasize, downplay or fail to mention my proclivity towards violence.

            I’m thinking of the bumper sticker, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” To my mind, the decision to hold the Bible sacred does not settle anything; instead, it BEGINS things. It is, first and foremost, a responsibility. I am responsible for how I read the Bible. My belief in a God of judgment includes a belief that God will hold me responsible for how I read the Bible. Part of this responsibility, I think, is to engage in discussion with the Bible and with other readers.

            Maybe my bottom line should be, your questions are better than any answers I have available!

  • Andrew Dowling

    While I agree the Canaanite genocide is likely not historical, the “it was propaganda” argument doesn’t hold not only because of the reasons you mention, but in ancient warfare, widespread massacre of enemy cities/towns was “not” uncommon. It definitely did happen (if not the Canaanites, there were probably some people/tribes who were massacred by the Israelites). And is morally repulsive in any context.

  • Brian Millhollon

    I am not a bible scholar but it occurs to me that as Christians we hold to Jesus being the word of God and not the bible. His position, characterized by statements like, “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…, was that the nature and will of God revealed in and through him, and which continues to be revealed through the Spirt, is true and authoratative, regardless of how it contrasts with what might have been perceived to be the will of God in the past.

  • copyrightman

    But if these narratives are hyperbolic, then isn’t the picture of God “ordering mass killings” also in a sense hyperbolic? Or, better put, the commands God gives make narrative sense within the rhetorical context. To appropriate that rhetorical context as Christian scripture requires a hermeneutical strategy, as the NT writers and Church Fathers already knew.

  • Dr. Enns,

    Do you detect YHWH’s influence anywhere in the conquest narratives? It strikes me that if he’s not as present as the text claims, then there needs to be a good reason for the lack of presence. For example, by whatever standard is chosen, did YHWH actually do the fear-and-trembling thing as is recorded in Deut 5?

    Suppose that one says that YHWH was barely present in the conquest narratives. Then what is the rubric for “how present” he is in a given text in the OT? Two possibilities both strike me as problematic: (1) YHWH’s rules for operation are just like Jesus’; (2) What we consider ‘moral’ now is a good rubric. The second is hopefully self-explanatory; the first is in danger of not recognizing a difference in operation pre- and post-crucifixion.

    My own take, which I hold somewhat tenuously, is that the “drive out and kill those who won’t/can’t be driven out” description of the conquests is sufficiently accurate, and that given the Israelite’s moral condition, there was no better standard to which the Israelites would have adhered. One could say that even YHWH had a limited number of ‘moral improvement points’ to spend on the Israelites. This does paint the human condition as being pretty awful and I can see how many would wish to deny it, but we do have the record of the 20th century.

  • Kin Yalbets

    I believe the old testament is meant to be read with a sense of irony. The cognitive dissonance produced is meant to lead to insights that make us dig into our moral character and intellectual arrogance. Taking a strictly western approach to understanding scripture will not satisfy nor lead to its true intent or meaning. Think eastern mind sets like the Zen koan. I believe much of the scripture represents transitions of how God was viewed and is not a comprehensive historic depiction of YHWH’s continuum. Understanding that scripture is a tool for learning and enlightenment is an important step in spiritual maturity. This approach to understanding and living out scripture does not threaten the realization of virtue individually or corporately – I think exactly the opposite – and I perceive this is how Jesus taught. Speaking this to fundamentalists of any persuasion is difficult indeed.

    • Toni Brown

      Kin Yalbets states: “Understanding that scripture is a tool for learning and enlightenment…”- but please take a moment to review below what the Bible says scripture is:
      1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God Himself. John 1: 1
      16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation. Romans 1:16
      17 Sanctify them through thy truth: thy Word is truth. John 17:17
      3 I will worship toward thy holy temple, And praise thy name for thy lovingkindness and for thy truth: For thou hast magnified thy Word above thine own name. Psalm 138:3

      Whoa! Above thine own name! The power of God unto Salvation! The Word was God Himself! Powerful, powerful stuff. But you wouldn’t know it by anything that is written and discussed on this site. Man does not need to “think eastern mind sets like Zen koan” for a proper understanding of what God has written to us- wholly submit and He will supernaturally convince.

      • norskepoteter

        1. Since the bible obviously didn’t exist when the texts was written or first spoken, the bible cannot talk about it self.
        2. You seem to not understand the concepts in these verses, and so you have taken the verses completely out of context to support your argument
        3. Your last statement is really why you need to keep reading this blog. Hopefully you will understand that most of us, including Enns, are all approaching the bible sincerely, with faith and honesty – but at the same time arrives at different conclusions. This seems to be empirical evidence that God is not objective in his conveying of the Word to us. And so our best way of handling this is to treat the scriptures humbly and with respect for what it is; a library of subjective experiences and observations of life, God, what is right and what is wrong and so on. It’s hard to understand what it’s saying. That’s why we need people like Enns and other theologians and historians to teach us about the times the events happened, what the meaning of the words are and why it was written in the first place.

        This does not make God any less powerful or real. It can only in the end help us see Him better and clearer, which again helps us be more like Jesus 🙂

        • Toni Brown

          Hi norskepoteter-

          ” Since the bible obviously didn’t exist when the texts was written or first spoken, the bible cannot talk about it self.”
          Wholly submit yourselves- the sooner the better.

          Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. 1 Cor 3:18

          Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? 1 Cor 1:20

  • JM

    On page 36 of your book, you claim, “Even giants live among them, offspring of the ancient union between gods and human women we read about just before the story of Noah’s flood.”

    You do not tell us how it was possible for these giants’ offspring to be living in Canaan after the flood. Please explain to us why they didn’t all perish along with everyone else on the earth.

    I do not think that gods and human women produced offspring, but I digress….