Archive for July, 2010

Excellent Posts on the Problem of Genocide in the OT

July 23, 2010

The following posts by New Zealand philosopher-theologian Matthew Flannagan  give an excellent defense of the goodness of God in light of the history of the Old Testament, focusing on the Canaanite Genocide in Joshua:

Joshua and the Genocide of the Canaanites (Part 1)

Joshua and the Genocide of the Canaanites (Part 2)

The author’s argument basically goes like this.  Most of us come to the text of Joshua and assume that the historical intention of the human writer was that the divine commands to (paraphrase) “kill everything: men, women, children, animals…” should be read with full, literal force as mandating the killing of children.  The problem with this is not only that it seems to conflict with the character of God that we see revealed in Christ.  There are internal, textual reasons to doubt that this command was meant to be taken literally–textual reasons that do not assume the authority or inspiration or inerrancy (or even extremely high historical accuracy) of the book of Joshua.  The textual reasons are that the people groups that Israel is commanded to “exterminate” persist after the command is allegedly fulfilled.  Given the prominence and frequency of significant hyperbole/exaggeration in the ancient near east’s accounts of wars and conquests, and the unlikeliness that the author would write such blatant contradictions within a relatively short space of text, an alternative hypothesis recommends itself.  We can reconcile all of this data if we read the commands to “kill everything” as hyperbole.  On this view, it is kind of similar to a coach telling his team to “go exterminate the opponents” or to a basketball player bragging about how his team “totally annihilated those dudes”.  This is compatible with saying that the Israelites waged violent war on the Canaanites, but did not necessarily kill innocent women and children.

Though I don’t think this is the only possible solution to the problem of the Canaanite Genocide (because I hold to the moderate allegorism defended by Swinburne and used by some of the Church Fathers), I think this is a very plausible explanation of the text that will be more acceptable for Evangelical apologists and others who are commited to the historical grammatical method.  It also fits with the broader approach to the OT as best understood in light of the New Testament and the revelation of God’s love in Christ (Swinburne’s moderate allegorism is a variety of this approach).

I haven’t read much from the Fathers about the Canaanite genocide specifically, so I’m interested to hear if any Orthodox or other students of patristics have insight about this.  Is it possible, for instance, that the Fathers themselves were aware of this approach and used (or just assumed) it?

Hat tip to Aaron Gleason for suggesting these posts.