Would a good, kind, and loving deity ever command the wholesale slaughter of nations? We often avoid reading difficult Old Testament passages that make us squeamish and quickly jump to the enemy-loving, forgiving Jesus of the New Testament. And yet, the question remains. How can we understand the biblical, theological, philosophical, and ethical implications of Old Testament warfare passages?
Bible Gateway interviewed Dr. Paul Copan (@PaulCopan) and Dr. Matthew Flannagan (@_MandM_) about their book, Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Baker Books, 2014).
[Also see our blogpost: Is God a Moral Monster?]
Lay the groundwork of the book for us. What are some of the primary arguments you’re addressing in Did God Really Command Genocide?
Dr. Flannagan: Skeptics claim that a person who believes both that God exists and that the Bible is God’s authoritative Word is rationally committed to four claims:
We ought to obey God
The Bible is God’s Word
The Bible teaches that God commands genocide
Genocide is morally wrong.
These claims are inconsistent. As formulated, a Christian who believes the Bible is God’s Word must deny that genocide is wrong. This is the primary argument we address. We also discuss broader questions of whether religion causes violence as well as arguments invoking the Crusades and jihad.
In Chapter 2 you write, “In the Bible (God’s Word), God appropriates the writing of a human being with the writer’s own personality, character, and writing style.” How does this affect how we interpret the Bible, and particularly in regards to the stories where God seems to command genocide?
Dr. Flannagan: It means that God’s Word comes to us mediated by a human author who uses language, figures of speech, and illustrations of his own time, place, and culture to convey God’s message. When we read the text, we’re not just interested in what the historical human author has to say but, more importantly, what God says by way of appropriating that author’s text as part of a bigger narrative of Scripture.
It can seem like the God of the Old Testament is different than the loving, compassionate God spoken of by Jesus. How do we reconcile these two pictures of God?
Dr. Copan: God is both kind and severe (Rom. 11:22), which is what the Old Testament (OT) affirms: he’s both gracious and compassionate but will not leave the guilty unpunished (Ex. 34:6-7). Jesus aligns himself with the OT prophetic tradition. Although he speaks about loving and praying for our enemies (which the OT does as well [Prov. 25:21-22]), he’s severe with hypocrites and those resisting God’s claim upon them. Jesus drives out moneychangers from the temple (Jn. 2:13-17); pronounces severe judgment on cities that witnessed his miracles but refused to repent (Mt. 11:21) and on those who lead Jesus’ followers astray (Mt. 18:6); and affirms the justice of OT judgments (Mt. 15:4; 24:38-39; Lk. 17:29).
What are some of the unique issues to consider when we look specifically at the story of the Israelites driving out the Canaanites?
Dr. Copan: First, like God’s command to Abram to leave Ur, the command to drive out the Canaanites is unique and unrepeatable—not universal. Second, the “utterly destroy” language was common hyperbole in ancient Near Eastern war texts; so where peoples are “utterly destroyed,” survivors are often abundant (see the oft-repeated line “they could not drive them out” in Judg. 1-2). Third, these divine commands are given reluctantly and because of human hardheartedness (compare Mt. 19:8). Fourth, these commands aren’t private revelations to Moses and Joshua (unlike Muhammad’s or Joseph Smith’s “revelations”); they’re accompanied by public, powerful signs and wonders (Egypt plagues, Red Sea crossing, pillar of cloud/fire, manna), which Canaanites recognized (Josh 2:8-11; 5:1; compare 1 Sam. 4:7-8).
Tell us about “hagiographic hyperbole.”
Dr. Flannagan: The basic idea is that the accounts of Israel’s early battles in Canaan are narrated in a particular style, which is not intended to be literal in all of its details, as it contains a lot of hyperbole, formulaic language, and literary tropes (expressions) for rhetorical effect.
When biblical authors use phrases such as “They totally destroyed them, not sparing anyone that breathed” (Josh. 11:11), which are later followed by passages that presuppose that the same areas are still inhabited by the same peoples, they cannot be affirming that literally every man, woman, and child was killed at God’s command. It’s a mistake to take them as affirming that Israel literally engaged in complete annihilation at God’s command. They’re exaggerating for rhetorical effect.
How is emphasizing God as both loving and just important in discussing these difficult biblical texts?
Dr. Copan: On the justice side, remember that these reluctantly-given commands are less-than-ideal (compare Ezek. 18:31). Also, God patiently waited over 400 years until judgment was ripe (Gen. 15:16) so that Israel could finally enter the promised land. Further, God is ever-willing to relent from threatened punishment upon repentance (Jonah; Jer. 18:7-8). Additionally, Canaanites engaged in what we’d consider criminal activities (infant sacrifice, ritual sex, bestiality, incest), and Israel’s calling would be harmed through their influence. Finally, in a supreme emergency, a good God would have moral justification for commanding something severe, though involving innocent lives lost (for example, fighter jets shooting down a hijacked commercial airliner to prevent extensive harm). On the love side, see the just war question below.
You devote an entire section of the book to the question “Is it always wrong to kill innocent people?” How do you address such a large, complex question?
Dr. Flannagan: First, we defend the view that our moral duties or obligations are identical with what God commands us to do. Then we argue that while a loving and just God would, in normal circumstances, prohibit killing innocent people in highly unusual cases, God could, for the sake of some greater good, command an individual to kill. If the latter applied, then the individual in question would be exempted from a moral principle that otherwise would be binding upon him.
This entails that the moral prohibition on killing the innocent is not absolute. It’s more accurate to say that there’s a strong presumption that applies in most cases but can, in highly unusual circumstances, be overridden by a divine command.
When discussing just war, you write “A war that is just should ultimately exhibit love for one’s neighbor.” Tell us about that statement.
Dr. Copan: The Mosaic Law commanded love for one’s neighbor (Lev. 19:18), but this didn’t stand in opposition to capital punishment in the Law; indeed, such punishment could also serve to protect innocent Israelites from further harm. Likewise, just wars (for example, stopping Hitler in World War II) show concern for the victims of unjust aggression. And while perpetrators of harm are our neighbors and should be prayed for, love—not to mention justice—typically requires removing the source of harm to protect the innocent. In Romans 13:1–7, the God-ordained minister of the state bears “the sword” (an image of lethal force) to protect and punish. This is true with a police force (domestic) as well as an army (international).
What’s the most important thing to keep in mind when we talk with Christians and non-Christians about the violence of God?
Dr. Flannagan: People tend to approach this issue with broader concerns about groups like ISIS and events like 9/11 as well as recent atrocities in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, whose attempts were allegedly justified because they were done “in the name of God (Allah).” So they often have perceptions (not always accurate) of historical events such as the Crusades, the Salem witch trials, and so on, being allegedly based on God’s commands, and they often believe religion is the root cause of most wars.
It’s important to emphasize that if we accept God did command violence on unique occasions in the past, we’re not saying that he commands us or anyone else to do so today. Nor are we committed to supporting or endorsing groups who claim that he does.
Paul Copan (PhD, Marquette University) is the Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida. He’s the author of several popular apologetics books, including Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God, and lives with his wife and five children in Florida.
Matthew Flannagan (PhD, University of Otago) is a researcher and a teaching pastor at Takanini Community Church in Auckland, New Zealand. He’s also a contributing author to several books.