Excellent Posts on the Problem of Genocide in the OT

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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.

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7 Responses to “Excellent Posts on the Problem of Genocide in the OT”

  1. A.C. Gleason Says:

    I think I’m going to repost those links to mainline on my blog too. They really are the best response from an Evangelical perspective I’ve ever seen because the literal reading forces the “figure of speech” out of the text and not intuitions about morality.

    As you’ve already said MG you think that the moderate allegorization view is another acceptable approach to dealing with “problem” texts such as these. Is there anything within Flanagan’s view that might contradict patristic theology or be uncomfortable for Eastern Christians to believe? Is the moderate allegorization view more compatible with Eastern Theology?

  2. MG Says:

    Aaron,

    No, Flanagan’s argument doesn’t contradict patristic theology. Nor is it incompatible with adopting the moderate allegorization approach in other passages. And I take the moderate allegorization view to only be optional in Orthodox theology, not necessary. The moderate allegorization approach sits uncomfortably within Protestantism, though.

    I actually wonder… this may be due to my ignorance, but I’ve never heard the Fathers explicitly address the issue of Canaanite genocide. They address a lot of other seemingly problematic texts in the OT. Its funny that they would spend so little time talking about these genocide texts. This makes me wonder if they all understood the text in something like the way Flanagan does, thus removing the need to explain the apparent inconsistency with God’s character.

  3. Glenn Says:

    “The moderate allegorization approach sits uncomfortably within Protestantism, though.”

    There’s nothing required by Protestantism that resists moderate allegorisation. Most protestants however – like some Orthodox – don’t think that way about biblical accounts.

    Interestingly, Luther was explicitly in favour of seeing Old Testament warfare accounts as hyperbole.

  4. Lucian Says:

    Here’s a shorter answer: children don’t stay children forever.

  5. ron allen Says:

    Wow this seems an awfully convenient way to explain away a very straight forward command by god to kill everything and spare no one. The fact that some may have survived changes nothing about the nature of this supposed command. Isn’t it easier to just say that god mandated the slaughter because those people were evil? But why try to reconcile the nature of god that is revealed in the OT with the new nature of god revealed in the NT? The doctrine of the OT was for the jews and for the jews only. The jews believed that they were a special people, chosen by god, to rule the earth in this life. In OT jewish doctrine, following god’s commands brought rewards in this life, and in the lives of children and grandchildren, etc.

    The NT promises rewards in an afterlife, a concept discussed by OT jews, but certainly not universally accepted (as noted by the existence of pharisees vs sadjucees – and yes I think my spelling is off there).
    I won’t even mention that jesus and the holy spirit both lack any roll in the OT despite the current christian claim of an ever-existing trinity.

    My point is that it should be glaringly evident that the OT and NT are contradictory, as they come from completely different religions, so there should be no need to try to manufacture watery justifications for the inherent contradictions.

    Be that as it may, the various NT texts need the vaguery of OT prophecies to give them any possible claim to validity, and christians are left trying desperately to somehow make all the pieces fit.

  6. MG Says:

    Lucian,

    Though I don’t find your point to be totally without merit, it does raise some difficult questinos. Is it always okay to preemptively kill someone if you know (perhaps via divine revelation) that they are going to become wicked? Why didn’t God just preemptively remove the children of the Egyptians and put them into some other culture (perhaps incorporate them into Israel?)? Those alternatives would seem to make more sense if we take the divinely-intended meaning of this portion of the Exodus account as historical.

    I’m undecided on whether or not a good God would preemptively kill a person who is not yet guilty, but whom He knows (via something similar to middle knowledge) would do evil later on.

  7. MG Says:

    Ron,

    You wrote:

    “Wow this seems an awfully convenient way to explain away a very straight forward command by god to kill everything and spare no one. The fact that some may have survived changes nothing about the nature of this supposed command.”

    I think the argument appeals to two data. First is the fact that the author represented the Israelites as executing the command successfully. Second, the author represented the Caainanites as continuing to have political power. This seems to imply that the author did not understand successful fulfillment of the command as involving total genocide of all. This gives us good exegetical reason to deny the initial literal sense with which we take the text. And this holds irrespective of the assumption that the Bible is divinely-inspired or inerrant or any other such religious claim. The only canon of historical reasoning that I’m appealing to is that of harmonization: when possible, assume that a source you are working with won’t blatantly contradict itself. In the face of what appear to be obvious contradictions, attempt a reconstruction of the initial meaning of the text that is consistent with the relevant data .

    You wrote:

    “Isn’t it easier to just say that god mandated the slaughter because those people were evil? But why try to reconcile the nature of god that is revealed in the OT with the new nature of god revealed in the NT? The doctrine of the OT was for the jews and for the jews only. The jews believed that they were a special people, chosen by god, to rule the earth in this life. In OT jewish doctrine, following god’s commands brought rewards in this life, and in the lives of children and grandchildren, etc.”

    I don’t know how “easier” has anything to do with the most reasonable exegesis of this passage. If by “easier” you mean “intuitive” then I think that’s a significant claim. But it doesn’t seem true. Precisely because of the considerations alluded to in my argument above, it seems like “God commanded the Israelites to destroy them all because they were evil” isn’t the best reconstruction of the historical author’s intended meaning.

    Whether or not Jewish interpretations of the OT are correct will turn entirely on whether or not the factual claims that Christianity makes are true. If Jesus was indeed the divine Messiah, then he has interpretive authority with respect to the book that He himself helped write. So if one had good reason to accept the claim that Jesus is the Christ, then this would be good reason for thinking the OT and NT are in principle reconcilable—though not necessarily with an historical grammatical method of interpretation. That isn’t to say that historical grammatical considerations alone can show that the New Testament’s interpretation of the Old Testament (for instance of the passages that the NT treats as prophetic) is plausible, though. Quite the contrary; in many places, the New Testament exegesis of the Old is not plausible when we are taking into account merely historical grammatical issues.

    You wrote:

    “The NT promises rewards in an afterlife, a concept discussed by OT jews, but certainly not universally accepted (as noted by the existence of pharisees vs sadjucees – and yes I think my spelling is off there).”

    You’re right that belief in an afterlife was not universally accepted among the Jews. The Sadducees’ disagreement about the afterlife was connected to the fact that they had a smaller canon (lacking the prophets and other writings) than the Pharisees and other Jews (including early Christians). The Pharisees could argue successfully for the reality of the afterlife by appealing to their accepted Scriptures. So it is not problematic to say that the OT teaches an afterlife with rewards and punishments—depending on whose OT you are talking about.

    If you want to argue that even a Pharisee or Christian would have to acknowledge that Jewish belief in the afterlife developed throughout the centuries, then I’d agree. But what’s does this prove? Christians (and the Pharisees) agreed that revelation was in some sense progressive, so they wouldn’t have considered the lack of explicit afterlife-teaching a problem. The first few books of the OT were not the only inspired writings, and many of the tenets of Pharisaic and Christian revealed religion were admittedly absent from the Torah. The Pharisaical and Christian claim “its taught in the Old Testament” does not mean “its taught everywhere in the Old Testament”.

    You wrote:

    “I won’t even mention that jesus and the holy spirit both lack any roll in the OT despite the current christian claim of an ever-existing trinity.”

    You mean that when you apply an historical-grammatical method to the interpretation of the Old Testament, it will not show any explicit references to the Son and Spirit? That’s not what the New Testament writers or the Christian apologists of the early patristic era were claiming.

    You wrote:

    “My point is that it should be glaringly evident that the OT and NT are contradictory, as they come from completely different religions, so there should be no need to try to manufacture watery justifications for the inherent contradictions.

    Be that as it may, the various NT texts need the vaguery of OT prophecies to give them any possible claim to validity, and christians are left trying desperately to somehow make all the pieces fit.”

    Your objections seem to assume an exclusively historical-grammatical interpretation of the Old Testament is the only valid one for extracting the actual sense the author intends. I’ll grant that we should initially treat a text as though it is supposed to be understood historical-grammatically (at least until we have good reason to think it shouldn’t be interpreted through that framework). But Christianity has from the very beginning rejected the historical grammatical method as the most valid way of understanding the Old Testament, based on the alleged interpretive authority of Christ and the Apostles. If this claim about interpretive authority is false, then we have no reason to reject our initial read of OT and NT as contradictory and your argument succeeds; if the claim about interpretive authority is true, then the apparent tensions between OT and NT are not actual contradictions.

    Whether or not your objections go through seems to depend, then, on the credibility of Christian claims about what happened in first century Palestinian history. The evidence for the validity of Christian claims about the Old Testament will therefore indirectly turn on the following question: when read with the correct background assumptions and examined critically (without assuming they are divinely inspired), do the New Testament documents and other historical sources make it more probable than not that Jesus of Nazareth was bodily resurrected? If so, then we should read the OT the way He does. If not, then Christianity is false; and thus the apparent tensions that exist between OT and NT when read historical-grammatically are actual contradictions.

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