“Total war” or just plain old war?
by Steve Douglas
August 2nd, 2010 | 7 Comments
Apologist Matt Flannagan once again defends God against the charge of commanding the Israelites to commit genocide against the Canaanites. Not including the final sentence, his concluding statement articulates a very important reminder about the importance of recognizing the Bible as a product of ANE literature:
Consequently, if one does not read the texts in isolation and is sensitive to the genre of Ancient Near-Eastern writings then a literal reading is far from obvious. As Egyptologist James K. Hoffmeier notes, such a reading commits “the fallacy of misplaced literalism … the misconstruction of a statement-in-evidence so that it carries a literal meaning when a symbolic or hyperbolic or figurative meaning was intended.” This underscores an obvious but often neglected point, the bible is not written in accord with the conventions of 21st century English. It was written in ancient foreign languages and in the conventions that governed historical, legal, epic, etc writings of that time. To understand what it teaches accurately one needs to ask what it teaches given these factors. When one does this, it seems probably that the Old Testament does not teach that God commanded or that Israel carried out, the genocide or extermination of the Canaanites.
He evinces several parallels to other ANE hyperbolic descriptions of victory. But because they are all ex post facto commemorations of campaigns, either to immortalize or ameliorate prior events, there is certainly an argument to be made that they fit a somewhat different genre (in the generic sense) than the prescriptive “annihilate” commands from God that we find in the Hexateuch.
But no matter. Let’s just say God did not command genocide or the extermination of the Canaanites after all. Let’s grant that He only commanded them to subjugate, or, in Plantinga’s words, “attack them, defeat them, drive them out.” What does that buy us?
To my mind, little is gained by this sort of reasoning, however well defended. Those who have a problem with divinely mandated genocide are not likely to think much differently of this counter-assertion that He instead “merely” commanded war, killing, and the forcible removal of multiple peoples established in a homeland for centuries or more beforehand. The latter isn’t even a “just war” according to Augustine.
How likely is it that the God who we as Christians claim was exemplified in His self-sacrificial servant Jesus of Nazareth demanded as a non-negotiable act of obedience and faithfulness that His people wage a full-scale assault of an entire region populated by several civilizations — whether or not the method was “total war” or marginally more kid-friendly? That’s the question that needs to be addressed.
At very best, this proposed solution can be nothing but a first step along a long, long apologetics path. Until that path is plotted out and begun to be trod convincingly, especially since even the faintest historicity of the events in question has been challenged by competent ANE scholars, I’m infinitely more content to chalk it all up to retroactive history than to argue that God actually commissioned the Conquest of Canaan as depicted in the Old Testament. And I’m pretty sure God will forgive me if I’m wrong.