Was God Guilty of Genocide? (2)1
Let me follow up on yesterday’s post by making several observations about how best to make sense of what we read in such passages as Joshua 6:21; 8:24-29; 11:10-15.
(1) Although I’m not convinced by this argument, I should point out that numerous scholars have argued that in the ancient near east there was a standard, stereotypical way of talking about warfare in which absolute and comprehensive claims about total victory were often made that exceeded what actually occurred in reality.
In his book, Is God a Moral Monster? (Baker), Paul Copan argues that Joshua often describes the conquest of Canaan utilizing the same exaggerated rhetoric common in that day and among the peoples who then lived. For example, in Joshua 10:40 we read that “Joshua struck the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings. He left none remaining, but devoted to destruction all that breathed, just as the Lord God of Israel commanded.” Yet in Judges 1:21, 27-28; 2:3, some of the very people whom Joshua is thought to have completely destroyed are still alive and present in the land.
According to Copan and others, Joshua was simply saying, in the language of his day, that he had thoroughly trounced and defeated the enemy. Universal and seemingly comprehensive language is used in order to highlight the thorough nature of the victory, but not to suggest that literally every single living being was killed. Thus Joshua typically used exaggerated language full of bravado, depicting total devastation.
These scholars also cite the example of the Amalekites. We read in 1 Samuel 15:3 this command given to Saul:
“Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (1 Sam. 15:3).
Yet we read later in 1 Samuel 27:8 that David and his men went up and made raids against, among others, “the Amalekites”! The Amalekites, whom Saul had utterly destroyed, appear yet again in 1 Samuel 30:1.
But what about Joshua 6:21 and other texts that speak of “all men and women” and even “children” being destroyed? According to Copan and others, this may have been stereotypical language for describing the entirety of a city or land without necessarily meaning to suggest that literally every human being was killed. Many believe that what in fact happened was that only political leaders and armed military combatants were killed. Non-combatants, or what we would call “civilians,” were not killed. The words “women” and “children,” “young and old” were thus stock expressions for totality, even though neither women nor children were literally present.
(2) Second, Israel was not commanded to do this because of any moral superiority. See Deuteronomy 9:4-6. Indeed, the same fate was threatened against Israel if she were to rebel (Lev. 18:28; Deut. 8:19-20; 28:25-68). In fact, this is precisely what happened. Over the course of OT history there were far more Israelites who fell under God’s judgment than there were non-Israelites.
(3) Third, the Canaanites were the most depraved, debauched, degenerate people of the ancient world. They regularly engaged in religious prostitution as a way of increasing the fertility of the land. I realize how sick and strange that may sound, so allow me to explain in more detail.
In Canaanite religion the productivity of the land (the quality of the harvest) depended upon the sexual relationship between the pagan god Baal and his female counterpart. She went by a variety of names: Anath, Ashtoreth, or Ashtart. The people believed that they could actually motivate the gods to copulate by doing so themselves. So they built elaborate temples and shrines where men would have sex with any one of numerous so-called “sacred prostitutes” (yes, I realize it is a contradiction in terms!). The man envisioned himself fulfilling Baal’s role and the woman that of Anath. This, they believed, would stir “Mr. and Mrs. Baal” to do their thing, the result of which was rain and the resultant bountiful harvest of crops.
As sick as this may have been, it was nothing compared with other religious activities, such as the practice of child sacrifice (infants and young children were sacrificed to the fire of the god Molech). The full extent of Canaanite perversity can be seen by taking note of Leviticus 18. There God prohibits such things as incest, bestiality, and homosexuality, the very things practiced both by the Egyptians and the Canaanites. This remarkable chapter in Leviticus concludes with this statement:
“Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. For everyone who does any of these abominations, the persons who do them shall be cut off from among their people. So keep my charge never to practice any of these abominable customs that were practiced before you, and never to make yourselves unclean by them: I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 18:24-30).
Thus, the Canaanites received everything they deserved. They received justice, Israel received mercy, but no one received injustice.
To be continued . . .