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Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites


Back to Article[1]  Abstract: The divine command to kill the Canaanites is the most problematic of all Old Testament ethical issues. This article responds to challenges raised by Wes Morriston and Randal Rauser. It argues that biblical and extrabiblical evidence suggests that the Canaanites who were killed were combatants rather than noncombatants ("Scenario 1") and that, given the profound moral corruption of Canaan, this divinely-directed act was just. Even if it turns out that noncombatants were directly targeted ("Scenario 2"), the overarching Old Testament narrative is directed toward the salvation of all nations–including the Canaanites.

 -  Paul Copan, "Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics," Philosophia Christi 10 (2008): 7–37; Wesley Morriston, "Did God Command Genocide? A Challenge to the Biblical Inerrantist," Philosophia Christi 11 (2009): 7–26; and Randal Rauser, "‘Let Nothing that Breathes Remain Alive': On the Problem of Divinely Commanded Genocide," Philosophia Christi 11 (2009): 27–41.

Back to Article[2]. Joseph A. Buijs, "Atheism and the Argument from Harm," Philosophia Christi 11 (2009): 42–52, and Clay Jones, "We Don't Hate Sin So We Don't Understand What Happened to the Canaanites: An Addendum to 'Divine Genocide' Arguments," Philosophia Christi 11 (2009): 53–72.

Back to Article[3]. Morriston, "Did God Command Genocide?" 25.

Back to Article[4]. Thanks to John Goldingay, who sent me a draft of chap. 5 ("City and Nation") from his forthcoming third volume, Old Testament Theology, vol. 3 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009). Any unreferenced quotations from Goldingay are taken from this work.

Back to Article[5]. See Meredith Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1997), 158.

Back to Article[6]. See historian Stephen J. Keillor's suggestive book, God's Judgments: Interpreting History and the Christian Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007).

Back to Article[7]. Morriston, "Did God Command Genocide?" 25.

Back to Article[8]. Ibid.

Back to Article[9]. Christopher Wright, The God I Don't Understand (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 93.

Back to Article[10]. Appendix to The Abolition of Man, by C. S. Lewis (1944; San Francisco: Harper, 2001).

Back to Article[11]. Richard S. Hess, Joshua: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996), 146–7; also, Aaron Sherwood, "A Leader's Misleading and a Prostitute's Profession: A Re-examination of Joshua 2," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 31 (2006): 43–61.

Back to Article[12]. Morriston, "Did God Command Genocide?" 14.

Back to Article[13]. Hess, Joshua, 48, 49, 146. Furthermore, Deut. 20:10–11 offers peace with servitude for the fortified towns that do not resist Israel.

Back to Article[14]. Rauser, "‘Let Nothing that Breathes Remain Alive,'" 32.

Back to Article[15]. Michael Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil (New York: Henry Holt, 2004), 39–40.

Back to Article[16]. Goldingay, "City and Nation."

Back to Article[17]. Wright, The God I Don't Understand, 92.

Back to Article[18]. Ibid., 102. Cp. Josh. 16:53; 2 Sam. 5:6–10. Wright says that the Jebusites moved from the "hit list" to the "home list"–an indication that these enemy nations could be incorporated into God's people.

Back to Article[19]. Nicholai Winther-Nielsen, A Functional Discourse Grammar of Joshua: A Computer-Assisted Rhetorical Structure Analysis, Coniectanea Biblical Old Testament Series (Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell, 1995). This work points out that the textually-unified book of Joshua emphasizes the presence and significance of theological and cultic themes (e.g., Rahab's faith, the priestly role in the Jordan crossing).

Back to Article[20]. Susan Niditch, War in the Hebrew Bible: A Study in the Ethics of Violence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 45, 46.

Back to Article[21]. Richard S. Hess, "War in the Hebrew Bible: An Overview," in War in the Bible and Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Richard S. Hess and Elmer A. Martens (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008), 25.

Back to Article[22]. Hess, "War in the Hebrew Bible," 29.

Back to Article[23]. Iain W. Provan, 1 and 2 Kings, New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 186.

Back to Article[24]. See Baruch Margalit, "Why King Mesha Sacrificed His Oldest Son," Biblical Archaeology Review 12, no. 6 (1986): 62–3.

Back to Article[25]. John J. Bimson, "1 and 2 Kings," in The New Bible Commentary, 4th ed., ed.Gordon Wenham, et al. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994), 365; see also T. R. Hobbs, 2 Kings, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Thomas Nelson, 1986), 38.

Back to Article[26]. Anson Rainey in The Sacred Bridge: Carta's Atlas of the Biblical World, ed. Anson Rainey and R. Steven Notley(Jerusalem: Carta, 2006), 205.

Back to Article[27]. E.g., John Sailhamer, The NIV Compact Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 211.

Back to Article[28]. Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000), 63; David Janzen, "Why the Deuteronomist Told the Sacrifice of Jephthah's Daughter," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 29 (2005): 339–57.

Back to Article[29]. Wenham, Story as Torah, 60.

Back to Article[30]. Goldingay, "City and Nation."

Back to Article[31]. See also Wright, The God I Don't Understand, 88. Furthermore, Gordon McConville observes that Joshua reveals not "a simple conquest model, but rather a mixed picture of success and failure, sudden victory and slow, compromised progress" ("Joshua," in Oxford Bible Commentary, ed. J. Barton and J. Muddiman [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001], 159).

Back to Article[32]. Goldingay, "City and Nation."

Back to Article[33]. See Hess, "War in the Hebrew Bible," and Hess, Joshua.

Back to Article[34]. For a fine overview of a range of related questions, see Richard S. Hess, "Early Israel in Canaan: A Survey of Recent Evidence and Interpretations," Palestinian Exploration Quarterly 125 (1993): 125–42.

Back to Article[35]. Hess, "War in the Hebrew Bible," 25.

Back to Article[36]. For instance, Gordon Mitchell mentions a certain flexibility regarding how Joshua understands herem (e.g., Rahab, the Gibeonites, and others are spared) (Together in the Land: A Reading of the Book of Joshua [Sheffield, England: JSOT, 1993]).

Back to Article[37]. Hess, "Jericho and Ai," 39. By "stereotypical," Hess says that herem with its attendant "all"-languageinvolves not an exaggeration (which we do see in the hyperbolized "totally destroyed" and "everything that breathes" language), but a "means of describing something by detailing a ‘checklist' of what it could include (but not necessarily must include in every case). So the terms (and these are the only ones in Joshua) ‘men and women' (6:21; 8:25) and ‘young and old' (6:21) need not require that there really were children, senior citizens, or women there who were put to death" (Hess, personal correspondence, April 5, 2009).

Back to Article[38]. On the exaggeration of numbers in the ANE/OT, see Daniel M. Fouts, "A Defense of the Hyperbolic Interpretation of Numbers in the Old Testament," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40 (1997): 377–87. In military contexts in the Bible, ‘eleph (the Hebrew word for "thousand") can also mean "unit" or "squad."

Back to Article[39]. Richard S. Hess, "The Jericho and Ai of the Book of Joshua," in Critical Issues in Early Israelite History, ed. Richard S. Hess, Gerald A. Klingbeil, and Paul J. Ray Jr. (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008), 46.

Back to Article[40]. Canaan was comprised of towns and city-states–smaller versions of roughly contemporary cities such as Ugarit. The Amarna letters also show that citadel cities/fortresses such as Jerusalem and Shechem were distinct from (and under the control of) their population centers. Such cities could form military coalitions as well as cooperate politically (cp. Josh. 10–11). Archaeological evidence (such as the Amarna letters) reveals that these were not population centers but often fortresses or citadels (e.g., Rabbah in 2 Sam. 12:26; Zion in 2 Sam. 5:7; 1 Chron. 11:5, 7). Evidence of a civilian population at, say, Ai is lacking (e.g., no prestige ceramics or artifacts). The same can be said for Jericho, which happened to be strategically located at the junction of three roads leading to Jerusalem, Bethel, and Orpah in the hill country (Richard Hess, personal correspondence, April 5, 2009); see also Hess, "Jericho and Ai," 33–46; and Hess, Joshua.

Back to Article[41]. Hess, "Jericho and Ai," 29–30.

Back to Article[42]. Ibid., 35, 42.

Back to Article[43]. Ibid., 38, 39.

Back to Article[44]. Richard Hess, personal correspondence, January 28, 2009.

Back to Article[45]. Hess, Joshua, 91–2. See Hess's comments here in light of Morriston's musings about the spies' visiting with a harlot. Note the laws of Eshnunna regarding the role of innkeepers (§15, §41). See D. J. Wiseman, "Rahab of Jericho," Tyndale Bulletin 14 (1964): 8–11.

Back to Article[46]. Moshe Weinfeld, The Promise of the Land: The Inheritance of the Land of Canaan by the Israelites (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 141–3.

Back to Article[47]. Hess, Joshua, 91–2; Richard Hess, personal correspondence, April 3, 2009.

Back to Article[48]. Hess, "War in the Hebrew Bible," 29.

Back to Article[49]. Ibid.

Back to Article[50]. See chap. 18 in Paul Copan, "That's Just Your Interpretation": Responding to Skeptics Who Challenge Your Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001).

Back to Article[51]. Hess, "War in the Hebrew Bible," 30. Also, though I shall not pursue this matter further, we should not forget that fighting was simply a way of life and survival in the ANE.

Back to Article[52]. See Glen Miller, "How Could a God of Love Order the Massacre/Annihilation of the Canaanites?"

Back to Article[53]. Goldingay, "City and Nation"; also Hess, "War in the Hebrew Bible," 30.

Back to Article[54]. Hess, "War in the Hebrew Bible," 30.

Back to Article[55]. What of the killing of the Amalekites in 1 Sam. 15? Verse 3 has similar sweeping language that we find in Deuteronomy and Joshua: "man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey." The idea of lex talionis stands behind Yahweh's threat in response to Amalek's attacking vulnerable Israel–not to mention its ongoing threat to Israel thereafter (cp. Exod. 17:6–17; Deut. 25:17–19; Judg. 3:12–13): "I will punish Amalek forwhat he did to Israel, how he set himself against him on the way while he was coming up from Egypt" (15:2). Even so, we are not told whether the Amalekites against whom Saul was to fight were noncombatants or combatants. In any case, the "utterly destroyed" Amalekites show up again in 1 Sam. 30! According to Hess, they could simply be combatants (personal correspondence, February 26, 2009). Thanks to Bill Craig as well for discussion on this point.

Back to Article[56]. See Paul Copan, When God Goes to Starbucks: A Guide to Everyday Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008), chap. 12; see also chapters 13–14.

Back to Article[57]. Goldingay, "City and Nation."

Back to Article[58]. God tells the Israelites that they will not quickly drive out the nations from their presence, which would and leave the land empty (Deut. 7:22); on the other hand, Israel's disobedience and idolatry would further slow down the process and even prove to be a snare for Israel (Josh. 23:12–13; Judg. 2:1–3).

Back to Article[59]. I address the specific question of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac in "How Do You Know You're Not Wrong?" (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005).

Back to Article[60]. Buijs, "Atheism and the Argument from Harm," 46.

Back to Article[61]. Goldingay, "City and Nation."

Back to Article[62]. For example, Karen Armstrong makes this Crusade-Canaanite connection in her book, Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today's World (New York: Anchor, 2001).

Back to Article[63]. Buijs, "Atheism and the Argument from Harm," 48.

Back to Article[64]. Lee made this statement during the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862.

Back to Article[65]. John Stott's response in David Edwards, Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1988), 263.

Back to Article[66]. Rauser connects "bludgeoning babies" in Joshua with Psalm 137:9. Rauser mistakenly reads too much in to the anguished cry of the psalmist, which gives way to the metaphorical language of bashing babies against the rocks. One commentator reminds us, "Biblical poetry, like most poetry, employs graphic imagery to portray and express its ideas. . . . This imagery [in Ps. 137:8–9] is no more intended to be taken literally than elsewhere in the psalms where the psalmists speak of rivers clapping their hands and mountains singing for joy" (Sailhamer, NIV Compact Bible Commentary, 346; on the idea that infants represented a potential threat to Israel during the next generation, see John Goldingay, Psalms,vol. 3, Psalms 90–150 [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008], 609–10). Consider the prophet Jeremiah, who had the thankless task of pleading with and warning God's hard-hearted and hard-headed people. In one instance, Pashhur the priest–a spiritual leader of the people!–had Jeremiah beaten and then placed in stocks (Jer. 20:1–2). In his distress, Jeremiah appeared much like the psalmist: he not only cursed the day he was born, but he cursed the messenger who announced his birth to his father, wishing he could have remained in his mother's womb until he died (Jer. 20:14–18). It is doubtful Jeremiah literally meant this. For further elaboration on the imprecatory psalms, chap. 11 in Paul Copan, When God Goes to Starbucks.

Back to Article[67]. On this, see Paul Copan, "Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?"

Back to Article[68]. Paul K. Moser, The Elusive God: Reorienting Religious Epistemology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 91–2.

Back to Article[69]. The Hebrew word naqaph "circle, march around" (Josh. 6:3) involves various ceremonial aspects in Josh. 6–including rams' horns, sacred procession, shouting (cp. 2 Sam. 6:15–16; also 2 Kings 6:14; Ps. 48:12). This word has the sense of conducting an inspection to see if the city would open its gates. Jericho, however, refused. Jericho, however, refused to do so (Hess, Joshua, 142–3).

Back to Article[70]. Perhaps one final comment on human sacrifice is in order here. In another context in the NT, Paul speaks of God the Father, who "did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all" (Rom. 8:32). While God "sent" and "gave" his Son (John 3:16; 1 John 4:10), this giving is not to be misconstrued as "divine child abuse." Jesus's self-sacrifice for the redemption of human beings is not accomplished coercively but freely and willingly (John 10:14–18; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 5:2, 25). God thus makes a selfless provision for us by an act of self-sacrifice. Through this act, God was "reconciling the world to Himself" (2 Cor. 5:19)–an act in which God gives his very self for the sake of humanity.

Back to Article[71]. Paul K. Moser, "Divine Hiddenness, Death, and Meaning," in Philosophy of Religion: Classic and Contemporary Issues (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008), 221–2.

Back to Article[72]. C. S. Lewis, "The Obstinacy of Belief," in The World's Last Night (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1960), 25, 26, 27.

Back to Article[73]. Thanks to Paul Moser for his comments on this topic.

Back to Article[74]. I am grateful to Tremper Longman for his wise suggestions and to Rick Hess in particular for his helpful insights and detailed comments on an earlier version of this essay.

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