Matt Flannagan on the Genocide of the Canaanites (part 2)

by Luke Muehlhauser on September 22, 2010 in Bible,Christian Theology

Yahweh slaughters the Amorites by throwing rocks from the sky (Joshua 10:10-11).

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

Matt replies:

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.

  1. 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. []
  2. 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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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Reidish September 22, 2010 at 8:45 pm

Luke,
You wrote:

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.

Are you taking “probable” as a synonym for “plausible” in the above? Or are you really looking for some kind of calculation here?

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Matt September 22, 2010 at 9:18 pm

Hi Luke, I think you misunderstand me a bit here you write “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.” But that’s not what I was saying, what I was saying is that one confronted with these passages would not conclude that God literally commanded Genocide unless on both interpreted Joshua literally and held that the bible is inerrant. As you point out, saying the bible is inerrant is not the same as claiming it is always to be interpreted literally.

As for minimalists, I am not so sure, if they don’t take the conquest account literally then they cannot claim the archaeological evidence calls this account into question.

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Matt September 22, 2010 at 10:01 pm

Luke you askMatt, 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?

If that was all I knew about the being, yes I would. But of course that’s not really the relevant question. The person who accepts the Joshua narrative as literally true will also accept on the same basis a whole lot of other things about God which make it unlikely that this being is good.

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Matt September 23, 2010 at 1:55 am

Sorry that last statement should read “make it unlikely that this being is not good”

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The Atheist Missionary September 23, 2010 at 2:45 am

Matt wrote: “If that was all I knew about the being, yes I would [conclude that this divine being is evil]” You guys don’t disagree on anything. Matt is a biblical scholar who doesn’t let dogma get in the way of his common sense. I’ll say “hallelujah” to that.

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EvanT September 23, 2010 at 3:31 am

I’m astounded that people still think that biblical atrocities are defensible from the literalist point of view.

Here’s a different apologetic approach I recently read in a book by an Orthodox progressive theologian. It basically offered the following “explanation” of biblical atrocities: It basically says that the ancient Israelites believed that nothing happened without Yahweh’s consent. So, if the Israelites slaughtered an entire people successfully, that meant that Yahweh agreed with it and that was reflected in the Bible as “God said…”

It basically leaves the christian version of Yahweh out of enemy fire on the moral issues at hand, but of course throws the entire “divine authorship” out of wack, for obvious reasons. But that seems to be the general theme for non-evangelical theology, doesn’t it?

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Ken Pulliam September 23, 2010 at 4:59 am

I really think that Matt’s attempt to “water-down” the harshness of the genocidal commands in Deut. and Joshua fail but even if one accepted them, you are still left with the genocide performed by God himself in Noah’s flood as well as the destruction of Sodom and the annihilation of the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15).

Matt says that Joshua is not the only book in the canon and that we ought to look at the whole canon to determine the nature of God. I agree and when I look at the events mentioned above as well as the NT record that the vast majority of the inhabitants of the earth will be destroyed when Jesus comes back, I don’t see any problem with this same God commanding the annihilation of the Canaanites. It seems to fit perfectly with his nature.

I think the only theist defense that works is the Calvinist one. God is sovereign and all the inhabitants of the earth are born in sin and the fact that any one takes another breath is the grace of God. This is harsh but it is more in accordance with what the Bible teaches, in my opinion.

I think the key to properly understanding the commands to commit genocide is the primitive concept of “collective culpability.” Primitive people tended to hold a whole family, or tribe, or even nation culpable for what the leaders of that group did. That is why for example the whole family of Achan is killed for what Achan, the head of the family, did (Joshua 7:24). It also helps to understand how Paul could consider the whole human race culpable for what Adam did (Romans 5:12). Thus, if the leaders of the Canannites were committing atrocities such as sacrificing their children to pagan gods, then the whole civilization deserved to die, according to this mindset.

Now, I don’t think that the genocides actually happened any more than I think Sodom was literally destroyed or that a literal Adam existed. But that is beside the point, because the biblical authors thought these things happened and they see no problem with these actions nor make any attempt to defend them morally. That is because, given the mindset of collective culpability, they need no defense. It is we moderns who have a problem with collective culpability and thus all the scrambling by Christian apologists to try to defend these actions.

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lukeprog September 23, 2010 at 6:56 am

Matt,

Hmmm. I guess is depends on what you mean by “inerrant”.

Concerning minimalists, this is something I didn’t really want to get into, but my guess would be that minimalists would still call the whole thing into question. It sounds like you’re saying the conquest of Canaan still occurred, but it was somewhat less violent than a literal reading of the Bible implies. Minimalists would say there’s no evidence to support even a less-violent conquest of Canaan.

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lukeprog September 23, 2010 at 6:57 am

Reidish,

Calculations are ideal, even if the numbers we plug into the Bayes’ theorem are rough and ready.

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The Atheist Missionary September 23, 2010 at 2:11 pm

Matt, Ken raises a good point with respect to Noah’s ark. Do you apologize for that genocide or do you consider that story only metaphoric/hyperbolism? If you have written anything on that topic, I would love to read it.

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al friedlander September 23, 2010 at 2:42 pm

“I don’t see any problem with this same God commanding the annihilation of the Canaanites. It seems to fit perfectly with his nature. ”

I completely agree, especially when considering this next bit:

“I think the only theist defense that works is the Calvinist one. God is sovereign and all the inhabitants of the earth are born in sin and the fact that any one takes another breath is the grace of God. This is harsh but it is more in accordance with what the Bible teaches, in my opinion.”

Also, harsh is a good word

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Jeff H September 23, 2010 at 3:33 pm

Here’s a different apologetic approach I recently read in a book by an Orthodox progressive theologian.

EvanT,

Out of curiosity, who was this theologian?

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The Atheist Missionary September 23, 2010 at 6:02 pm

Matt, this might help you with your answer: http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/nab/really-a-flood-and-ark

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Matt September 23, 2010 at 8:44 pm

TAM and Ken, Actually your response kinda confirms one of the points I made, and which Luke raised in his response. Both of you take for granted an old earth creationist interpretation of Genesis 1-11: that the text intends to teach history as we understand it and teaches that as such teaches that God actually genocided the whole human race. The citing of Answers in Genesis as a source tends to confirm this.

The problem is a large number of evangelical scholars would dispute this hermeneutic even conservative scholars like Gordon Wenham have argued that Gen 1-11 is a polemical retelling of various ANE myths and epics, so as to offer a monotheistic critique of these epics. So the Genre is not history but polemic.

On this understanding, which is fairly common even in evangelical OT scholarship, the text does not teach that God in history genocided the Human race. It rather critiques existent ANE legends.The point then is theological not historical.

To actually esthablish the point you make you would need to show that the Creation Research Institutes OT scholarship is the correct credible and defensible position where as Wenhams is indefensible: good luck with that.

So again the point I made to Ray Bradley applies here: Atheists frequently approach the text with the most extreme fundamentalist assumptions about it, assumptions that are highly contestable even in conservative biblical scholarship. After assuming this straw man they then attack Christian beliefs on the basis of this fundamentalist hermeneutic and seem to assume that this shows that Christianity is false. This is clearly a straw man. Sensible honest critiques of a position involve addressing the most defensible well thought out examples, taking into account the best and most recent scholarship and addressing it. Its not credible not taking the most extreme or popularist versions and attack those. To do so is like suggesting that a critique of Dawkins constitutes a rebuttal of the scholarship of Draper or Tooley.

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Ken Pulliam September 24, 2010 at 12:50 am

Matt,

I think you meant to say that I am supposing a young earth creationist viewpoint not an old earth. Actually I am supposing neither. Even if the events recounted in Genesis did not happen (and I doubt they did), the fact still remains that Israel took it as their history and even Jesus in the NT seems to refer to the patriarchs, Noah, Adam, and others as historical persons. Paul certainly does in Romans. So to hold your view, one would have to say that Israel, Jesus, and Paul were all mislead.

Do you also take the passages related to the annihilation at the eschaton as something other than literal? Obviously it is apocalyptic literature but does that mean that great numbers of people will not die?

Even today in natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes, we see whole populations decimated including children and infants. If God is sovereign over nature, then apparently it is not out of character for him to kill innocent children. Add to that the terrible childhood cancers and other diseases, and I see no reason to think that a God like this would have any problem ordering the killing of all children in Canaan.

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shreddakj September 24, 2010 at 1:19 am

From what I understand, the Israelites were actually a sub-tribe of Canaanites that broke away around 1200 B.C.E. The holy war of Joshua is placed around 1400 B.C.E. at a time when the Israelites and Canaanites were the same people. It seems to me like the whole war was a later fabrication (probably around 700 B.C.E.) in an effort to develop their own sense of nationhood and to try and give their religion some power.

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EvanT September 24, 2010 at 3:22 am

Out of curiosity, who was this theologian?

Miltiades Konstantinou
Old Testament Professor, Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki
The book is titled “The Old Testament; Decrypting the human legacy” ISBN 978-960-527-450-4

I doubt that it has been translated into English however and I can’t spot it on Amazon, so you’ll have to go through a greek online vendor. It’s a small paperback anyway, like 8 euros or so.

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EvanT September 24, 2010 at 3:33 am

It seems to me like the whole war was a later fabrication (probably around 700 B.C.E.) in an effort to develop their own sense of nationhood and to try and give their religion some power.

Thomas Paine seems to agree with you based on 2 Chr 34;14-18 and the accidental discovery of a book written by Moses that brought an end to idolatry in the Israelite kingdom during the reign of Josiah.

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Matt October 12, 2010 at 4:31 am

Ken I address most of those points in my recent debate with Ray Bradley.

As to your comments, I did not say you were a YE Creationist I said you accepted there interpretation of the text. You think the text teaches that God actually wiped out the whole earth in a world wide flood, in otherwords you accept the Genre as straight forward history.

My point is that these assumptions are highly controversial and rejected even by many conservative scholars, I noted for example the view that Genesis is a theological polemic and not straightforward history, for which there is some evidence.

Your response is to repeat the standard creationist arguments ( again showing my point about atheists assuming fundamentalist readings). You write

“NT seems to refer to the patriarchs, Noah, Adam, and others as historical persons. Paul certainly does in Romans. So to hold your view, one would have to say that Israel, Jesus, and Paul were all mislead.”

Actually I don’t think its clear at all that these texts refer to Noah and Adam as historical persons. Quoting from or refering to a narrative does not entail one thinks its historical. But even if the authors believed they were historical persons, not much follows from that. The doctrine of inerrancy is not the claim that everything the authors believed, or thought is inerrant. Its that whatever the text teaches is inerrant. Similarly, I am not convinced the incarnation means Jesus was never mistaken in his beliefs, he after all “grew in wisdom” suggesting he was ignorant. What matters is that what Jesus taught as an authoritative prophet is true. So I don’t think anything follows from your observations.

So I return to my original point. On what basis do you assume the creationist reading is correct. On what basis are positions like that of Wenham simply assumed to be mistaken without argument. One gets the impression reading athiest writers that they really have a superficial grasp of some of these issues. They assume a fundamentalist reading is the only defensible one, and proceed from that assumption. I think thats a whopping huge assumption.

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Ken Pulliam October 13, 2010 at 6:51 am

Matt,

1. Even if the flood of Noah was not worldwide, it was still a massive flood which no doubt killed many people including infants and toddlers. The fact that it may not have been as bad as it could have been, does not eliminate the problem of innocent children dying for the sins of their parents.

2. There is no reason to think that the NT authors including Jesus considered Noah’s flood as a real event, or Sodom, or the Conquest. Even if they did take the more modern view that these were just “stories” designed to teach some truth, the problem still remains that the truth these stories teach is that large groups of people have been subjected to the wrath of God and these people had children. There is no mention that the children were exempt and it is impractical to see how they could have been exempt.

3. As I have pointed out, even a less than literal reading of the texts still doesn’t remove the problem It simply reduces it to a smaller scale. However, if I am guilty of killing only one innocent child instead of thousands, I am still guilty.

4. The only way I can see your position eliminating the problem is by saying that these events, Noah’s flood, the death of the Egyptian firstborn, the conquest of Canaan, the destruction of Sodom, and the destruction of the Amalekites never happened at all in real history. The stories were completely fabricated in order to argue in an emphatic fashion that God destroys his enemies when they reach a certain level of debauchery and also to teach that when man does not fully obey God in carrying out these destructions, he is sinning against God. Under this interpretation the moral problem of how one justifies the killing of innocents is not resolved.

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