Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan. Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God. Baker, 2014. 351 pp.
Given the spate of books recently published on the Bible and violence, you might think this is a newly discovered problem. That would be a misreading, however, for theologians have wrestled with this problem for centuries. Consider, for example, the extended discussions of the problem in third and fourth century theologians like Origen and Gregory of Nyssa.
The post 9/11 discussion does have some distinguishing features, however. To begin with, much of the current discussion has been spurred on by self-described skeptics and atheists, many who convey a sense of urgency, boldness, and sweeping incredulity toward all claims of biblical revelation. In addition, the current discussion is often framed in the terms of modern legal concepts like ethnic cleansing and genocide. As Copan and Flannagan recognize, the concept of genocide is particularly significant because it “carries a heavy rhetorical punch, which often calls forth echoes of Rwanda or the Holocaust.” (130) Consequently, the question of whether God commanded a genocide of the Canaanites or Amalekites has become, for many, a watershed issue which brings together incredulity and moral indignation toward the Bible and the violence it contains.
So how do Christians deal with this problem? In my experience, the overwhelming strategy is avoidance: we just don’t talk about those texts. Among those who do address the problem, the most common answer seems to be a straight reading that concludes God did command the genocide of the Canaanites and Amalekites because of their wickedness. This hard teaching is commonly backed up with a warning not to question the justice of God (Isa. 45:9; Rom. 9:20).
There we are: avoid the glaring topic of genocide or embrace it. Those are tough options! And each, in turn, introduces a shattering cognitive dissonance into the heart of Christian faith. How are we supposed to bring together the image of mass carnage with that of God the Son telling us to love our neighbors (while defining neighbor with the hated Samaritan) and even dying on the cross with the words “forgive them, for they know not what they do?”
Why God didn’t command genocide
After enduring that kind of cognitive dissonance, Copan and Flannagan’s thesis will seem like a most welcome alternative, for they argue that God didn’t really command genocide. And they marshal some intriguing evidence in favor of this thesis.
Copan and Flannagan lay out several lines of evidence in support of this claim. To begin with, they note that only a minority of the biblical texts that reference the occupation direct the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. The majority direct the Israelites to drive the Canaanites out of the land. This suggests that the primary focus is to dispossess the Canaanites of land rather than to wipe them out. As for the texts which do refer to mass killing (e.g. Deut. 20:16-17a; Josh. 6:21), Copan and Flannagan argue that these passages are best interpreted as hyperbolic war rhetoric (i.e. exaggeration for effect) and they provide multiple examples from ANE literature to make their point. Finally, they point out that a careful reading of Joshua and Judges shows that the Canaanites remain very much in the land, with no sense of irony, even after they are supposedly eradicated. In short, if we read the text as a unified work of a capable editor who would have been aware of glaring inconsistencies, we should conclude that the hyperbole thesis is confirmed by the texts themselves.
Of course, even if the texts don’t depict genocide, they do portray the Israelites as forcing the Canaanites off the land and killing at least some non-combatants in the process. While this still is a problem, it certainly appears more tractable than outright genocide.
But a more tractable problem is still a problem. Is there more that can be said? Indeed, there is. Copan and Flannagan argue vigorously that the Canaanites were squatters on land that was really the property of the Israelites. Moreover, the Canaanites were grossly sinful — engaging in acts like child sacrifice and temple prostitution — and despite this sin, God tolerated them on the land for four centuries before he sent his armies.
As for the killing of non-combatants, many ethicists recognize there are conditions where this type of killing can be morally justified. Copan and Flannagan argue in accord with a divine command theory of ethical obligation that under the right conditions, God will utter a command which creates the obligation to undertake actions like the killing of non-combatants which would be morally censured under regular conditions.
Let’s begin with the positives
Copan and Flannagan take their time in developing their case. They clearly intended Did God Really Command Genocide? to be a definitive work in the field. And the careful and systematic way that they develop their case gives the book a lot of added value. For example, Copan and Flannagan defend Nicholas Wolterstorff’s appropriation theory of biblical inspiration according to which God appropriates human discourse into his divine canon. I have long been a proponent of Wolterstorff’s theory and I am heartened to see it clearly articulated and defended here.
I also appreciated the material on divine command ethics. With the exception of intelligent design, there is probably no topic in philosophy of religion more maligned and misunderstood than divine command ethics. Not only do Copan and Flannagan defend a divine command theory of ethics (which they rightly point out is a theory of ethical obligation rather than, as is often supposed, ethical valuation), but they also deploy it effectively in service of their own argument.
Copan and Flannagan are also excellent and vigorous interlocutors for critics of their thesis. For example, in chapter 16 they spend ten pages (197-207) critiquing the four arguments I present in my 2009 paper “Let Nothing that Breathes Remain Alive.” I intend to offer a response to their critique in the future: to attempt to do so here would quickly derail the review. But suffice it to say that their critiques are clearly stated, strongly argued, and at times even humorous (see, for example the underwear drawer discussion on the top of page 202). And this same level of analytic acumen is on display throughout the book.
I am also impressed with the multidisciplinary approach of the authors as they range from biblical studies to theology to philosophy of religion to history, metaethics, international law and beyond.
Finally, I was largely in agreement with part 4 where Copan and Flannagan take on several issues pertaining to religion and violence.
To sum up the positives, Did God Really Command Genocide? is an impressive work of sweeping scope and multidisciplinary focus and stands as one of the most important works yet published on the topic of the Bible and violence. Whether you agree with their main thesis and method or not (and as you will see, I don’t), this is nonetheless a must-read for those interested in the topic.
Engaging the Interlocutors
Now it is time to turn to the negatives, beginning at the shallow end of the pool with a couple critical comments on how Copan and Flannagan engage their interlocutors.
The one general critical observation I had here is that Copan and Flannagan often seek to rebut interlocutors by claiming that they tacitly adhere to some unstated principle and then proceeding to critique that principle. This is fine if the interlocutor clearly does tacitly hold to the principle or if the principle is a logical implication of the interlocutor’s position, but that isn’t always the case. To say the least, it isn’t obviously the case. In those instances, the strength of the argument is contingent upon a reading between the lines. I will address this issue in the future more directly when I write a response to Copan and Flannagan’s critique of my above-mentioned paper.
The second observation is specific and concerns Copan and Flannagan’s engagement with one of their main interlocutors, philosopher Wes Morriston. (I call him a “main interlocutor” because he is mentioned by name in the text 58 times.) In the book Copan and Flannagan refer to Morriston as an “atheist philosopher” (155). Later, they go on to say that
“Morriston himself operates from within a certain community (atheists) who hold certain shared beliefs (God does not exist; miracles cannot occur; there is no afterlife; there is no just God who issues difficult commands for good reasons).” (238).
I was puzzled by these descriptions, since I always understood Morriston to be a theist. Consequently, I emailed him to seek clarity on his position. Morriston promptly replied and pointed out that at present he is neither a theist nor an atheist. Rather, he would describe himself as a skeptic and seeker. Suffice it to say, Copan and Flannagan seriously misrepresent the beliefs of one of their primary interlocutors.
Do Copan and Flannagan defend ethnic cleansing?
It is now time to move into the deeper end of the pool with some more serious considerations and objections. In this first installment of the review I will consider whether Copan and Flannagan’s thesis constitutes ethnic cleansing.
To start, let’s return to the above-mentioned point that the predominant witness of the taking of Canaan is a dispossession, i.e. the Canaanites are driven out of the land. That may not be genocide, but it sure does look like ethnic cleansing. Consider the following scenario:
Blue Invasion: One ethnic, cultural and/or religious group — let’s call them “the Blues” — invades the territory where another group — we’ll call them “the Reds” — have been living for centuries. The Blues invade with the intention of driving the Reds out of the region in question whilst killing any Reds that remain behind.
Does the Blue Invasion constitute an ethnic cleansing? Yes, it does. Indeed, it is a textbook example. According to William Schabas, the term “ethnic cleansing” first appeared in the Yugoslav press in the early 1980s to describe attempts to achieve “ethnically clean territories” within the region of Kosovo (Schabas, Genocide in International Law, 189-90) The term entered international law a decade later to describe policies that are intended to achieve ethnic homogeneity within a particular region, often by the programmatic use of various means including intimidation and murder (190). Note that military assaults and civilian killings are common tools to create terror and force the resident population to vacate the land.
Keep in mind as well that the category of “ethnicity” is construed broadly (as noted above in the Blue Invasion scenario) to encompass specific cultural and religious groups. Imagine, for example, that conservative Muslims in Egypt forcibly sought to remove all Coptic Christians from Egypt by seizure of property, threats of violence, and killing of Coptic Christians that remained. This act would properly be described as an instance of ethnic cleansing, even if the primary grounds for expulsion is Christian religious identification rather than ethnicity per se.
Set against this backdrop the invasion of Canaan as Copan and Flannagan defend it is a clear and unambiguous instance of ethnic cleansing. And this is a serious problem for them. Defending God from the charge of genocide is a muted victory at best if you end up pleading down to the lesser charge of ethnic cleansing.
In fairness to them, Copan and Flannagan refuse to plead the defendant to a lesser charge. While noting that scholar Philip Jenkins describes the Canaanite invasion as a form of ethnic cleansing, they retort that it “would be better termed ‘moral cleansing’–or more specifically, long-awaited moral judgment on a wicked people whose time had finally come (Gen. 15:16).” (277)
So far as I can see, this response is empty. After all, perpetrators of ethnic cleansing commonly defend their actions as tantamount to a “moral cleansing” and a proper “moral judgment” on the “wicked people” that they are dispossessing. This is to be expected since some sort of legal and/or moral ground is required to justify this kind of radical action including the suspension of property rights, the non-targeting of non-combatants, etc.
To sum up, rather than deny the obvious, it seems to me that Copan and Flannagan ought to concede that they are defending ethnic cleansing, just so long as God commands it.
Killing the least of these
Like I said, ethnic cleansing may be less horrifying than genocide, but for most people it remains a horrifying prospect nonetheless. And that certainly applies to Copan and Flannagan’s understanding of the Canaanite occupation. On this view, the Canaanites have been living in the land of Canaan for centuries when the Israelites approach in an ANE campaign of divinely sourced shock and awe and announce their intention to drive out the Canaanites and seize land that is properly theirs.
As a result, thousands of people are forced to flee the only lives they’ve ever known, setting off into the desert with what they can carry. In extreme conditions like this, the handicapped, the sick, the widows, and the elderly, are most likely to be left behind, along with the occasional child who is separated from his/her desperate family. And what happens to these desperate folk on the margins of society who are left behind? They are to be hacked apart by the advancing Israelite armies. Copan and Flannagan acknowledge as much when they quote Kenneth Kitchen: “as in the south, the Hebrew force defeated the opposition; captured their towns, killed rulers and less mobile inhabitants….” (89, emphasis added; Cf. 105-6) (Indeed, if the Canaanites really are as wicked as we are to believe, then one could expect a disproportionately high number of the most vulnerable to be left behind to face Israelite swords.)
By the way, why does Kitchen opt for the clinical phrase “less mobile inhabitants” rather than noting that we’re talking about the handicapped, the sick, the widows, the elderly, and the occasional child? To this reader, that choice of phrasing is reminiscent of the pro-choice defender’s description of a fetus as “uterine contents.” In other words, technically accurate and strategically chosen to keep one’s emotional distance from the act.
Perhaps that is the same reason that Copan and Flannagan are keen to avoid the term “ethnic cleansing.” Many of us have a sense of the horror of ethnic cleansing based on contemporary reports from places like Kosovo and Sudan, and it is to Copan and Flannagan’s advantage to keep such gritty images as far away as possible.
I, on the other hand, think that any proper moral consideration of this book’s thesis needs to begin with those images. Listen carefully to Copan and Flannagan’s proposal, and you find that the occupation of Canaan included the disproportionate slaughter of the very groups that Jesus would later refer to as the least of these.