Earlier, I wrote about Matt Flannagan’s apologetic strategy concerning the stories in the Bible which seem to depict the Israelites slaughtering other Canaanite tribes. Matt has now written an excellent response.
After some minor points,1 Matt responds to my statement that his argument “agrees with the Biblical minimalism already espoused by most atheists, for it says that these events found in the Bible never happened, or never happened much like the Bible records them as happening.”2
This comment is intriguing because much of my research drew from the writings of biblical maximalists who were criticising minimalism… Minimalists point out that the archaeological record does not fit the picture of total conquest and genocide and hence conclude the Bible is inaccurate. Maximalists… respond by arguing that the text is not inaccurate because, having examined the literary conventions of Ancient Near-Eastern historiography, one finds it does not actually teach total conquest and genocide…
Yes, but it’s still true that Matt’s argument “agrees with Biblical minimalism.” Both minimalists and also a particular brand of maximalists (Matt’s kind) agree that the Israelites probably did not slaughter every man, woman, child, fetus, and goat among some tribes of Canaan as described by a literal interpretation of the Bible. Indeed, if you gathered a random sample of Biblical minimalists and maximalists in a room and picked somebody at random and they said they didn’t read the genocide of the Canaanites literally, I suspect that person is more likely to be a minimalist than a maximalist.
Moreover, Matt’s interpretation of Joshua’s genocide language as hyperbole “resolves not only some of the moral questions people have with the narrative; it also resolves the apparent contradictions within the text cited by critical scholars, answers the challenge of archaeology and fits what we know about the conventions of such literature.” So far it appears Matt and I have no substantial disagreements.
Next, Matt responds to a question of mine, which was:
If Matt did think these events happened literally as described in the Bible, would he then conclude that God was an evil monster to command them? Or would he, in the end, agree with Bill Craig that genocide is okay as long as God feels like it?
Matt’s first reply is:
…it seems to me one could only conclude that Joshua actually carried out a divinely authorised Genocide if, in addition to taking Joshua literally one also accepts that the Bible is inerrant. But Joshua is not the only text in the canon, the Bible also in various other places teaches that God is good, just, and so on. So it’s hard to see how a person could coherently draw the conclusion Luke mentions.
But I don’t see why one would need to take the entire Bible literally to conclude that the many passages about Israelites genocide intend to report literal history. Indeed, most evangelical theologians I read during my Christian years claimed that some parts of the Bible were not to be taken literally (e.g., dual 6-day creation), and yet they all defended the genocidal conquest of Canaan as sober history.
Matt’s second reply is that I have misrepresented Bill Craig’s position. Matt clarifies: “Craig claims that killing non combatants in war is permissible if a loving and just God commands it.” But of course. That’s part of the concept of the God of theism, right?
Matt also notes that Craig doesn’t think God commanded genocide. But that’s beside the point. I only claimed that Craig says genocide is okay as long as God approves, which is indeed what Craig says.
So far, I’m not sure we really disagree about anything except concerning Matt’s claim that in order to take the genocide of the Canaanites literally you’d have to take the whole Bible literally.
I did indeed misunderstand what Matt was saying about Ray Bradley reading the Bible as a fundamentalist – you can read Matt’s rejoinder for clarification on that point.
Let me turn, then, to what I think is the most interesting part of Matt’s reply:
Either it is possible for a just and loving omniscient person to command genocide or is not. If it is [possible], then genocide would only be commanded in situations where a just and loving person aware of all the relevant facts could endorse it, and under these circumstances its hard to see how genocide could be evil.
On the other hand if it is impossible for a perfectly good omniscient being to ever command genocide, then the situation Luke mentions is one with an impossible antecedent. On the standard accounts of counter factual logic, conditionals with impossible antecedents are true…
Again, I agree with everything in the above quote. It’s just not relevant to the point I was making. I didn’t say it was impossible for a just and loving omniscience person to command genocide. On many understandings of “just” and “loving,” it seems this would be possible. What I’m trying to suggest is that if a person commands genocide, this should be pretty strong evidence that this person is not just, loving, and omniscient – unless you have very unusual definitions for “just”, “loving”, and “omniscient.”
Why does this matter? Because I want to know what is probable, not so much what is possible. It’s possible that the moon is made of the ashes of a billion dead space-unicorns. A proof that this is possible does not impress me. I would want to know why anyone thinks that is probable.
Now, consider again my question to Matt:
If Matt did think [the Israelite genocide of several Canaanite tribes] happened literally as described in the Bible, would he then conclude that God was an evil monster to command them?
But the way I worded this could be confusing, for “God” is defined as being perfectly good, and therefore not an evil monster. So I should have asked:
Matt, if we knew that a divine being had commanded the Israelites to slaughter every man, woman, infant, fetus, and livestock among several tribes of Canaan, would you conclude that this divine being is evil?
I wanted to suggest that such a command is evidence of evil in the command-giver. It may be possible that a morally good being would issue such commands, but it’s pretty unlikely, unless have an unusual notion of the term “morally good.”
But then, this is the problem of evil, on which the debate never ends, and on which I’m sure Matt has written elsewhere.
- Matt’s first point is to say that my use of “perhaps” does not accurately represent his position. But that’s not what I meant. By “perhaps” I just meant “Matt suggests that…” or “Matt argues that…” His second point is that he did not say hyperbole was common in ancient literature – just that it was common in Ancient Near East literature. In any case, my statement there was meant to represent my position, not Matt’s. But Matt’s clarification is helpful. I did not intend to misrepresent Matt’s argument. [↩]
- Here, my own little nitpick is that Matt quoted me as using a period after “happened” instead of a comma, which leaves off the important end of my sentence. But heck – I do that kind of thing all the time. I just don’t want people getting the wrong idea about my arguments, either. [↩]
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