This week “Unbelievable” featured Part 2 of an exchange between Paul Copan and Greg Boyd on Boyd’s new book The Crucifixion of the Warrior God. In Part 2, Justin Brierley and his two guests focus in on particular biblical texts to see how each position deals with the text in question.
The first major text under discussion is 1 Samuel 15:3:
Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’”
There is a good reason why Brierley begins with this text since it appears to portray God commanding Saul to commit moral atrocities in the slaughter of innocent non-combatants: men and women (including the elderly and infirm), children, infants, and even domesticated animals. In short, this is ground zero for biblical violence texts. So, how should we interpret this carnage?
The Christian committed to recognizing the plenary inspiration of all Scripture now faces a dilemma:
Option 1: retain our moral intuitions that it is always wrong to slaughter non-combatants and thus deny that the plain reading that God commanded mass civilian slaughter is correct.
Option 2: accept the plain reading of the text that God commanded mass civilian slaughter and thus deny our intuitions that it is always wrong to slaughter non-combatants.
To be sure, there are other options. Nonetheless, these are the two most obvious choices. And Boyd clearly chooses option 1. He retains his moral conviction concerning the wrongness of these actions, but he does so at the cost of rejecting the plain reading of the text in favor of alternative readings.
So what about Copan? Since he rejects Boyd’s view does he thereby embrace option 2? Not quite.
The Plain Reading of 1 Samuel 15: Mass Civilian Slaughter
Before we get to Copan’s position, it is worthwhile to consider what an embrace of the plain reading (and rejection of our moral intuitions) would look like. According to the plain reading of the text, God commands the complete eradication of the Amalekite people. The verb haram is commonly translated as consigning to destruction, and that is the way the verb functions here: all the people (and their animals) are to be destroyed. Here is a summary of the text from Eugene Merrill:
“The Lord’s command to Saul (1 Samuel 15:2) is to go and smite (nkh, 15:3; cf. 15:7) Amalek and utterly decimate (hrm, 15:3) it. The herem is to be total (15:3), but Saul spares the king of Amalek and the best of the animals and goods (15:9, 15, 21). This blatant disregard for the seriousness of Yahweh war costs Saul his throne….” (“The Case for Moderate Discontinuity,” Show Them No Mercy, 73).
So to accept the plain reading of the text would entail admitting that God commanded the slaughter of an entire people: men, women, children, and infants (and animals).
Consider this passage from John Calvin’s commentary on Joshua. While Calvin is addressing the Canaanite genocide, his description could readily be applied to 1 Samuel 15:
“Indiscriminate and promiscuous slaughter, making no distinction of age or sex, but including alike women and children, the aged and decrepit, might seem an inhuman massacre, had it not been executed by the command of God. But as he, in whose hands are life and death, had justly doomed those nations to destruction, this puts an end to all discussion.”
Whatever else you think of Calvin’s statement, it retains the plain reading of the text, ethical intuitions be damned.
But that’s not Copan’s response. So what does he say?
Copan’s Indirect Opening Response
Interestingly, Copan’s discomfort with the plain reading places him closer to Boyd than to Calvin. What is more, like Boyd, he rejects the plain reading, though as we will see, his rejection is subtler than Boyd’s. Indeed, Copan appears keen to convey the impression that he is retaining something close to the plain reading when, in fact, he is not.
Brierley’s interaction with Copan begins at 12:00 in the podcast as Brierley poses the specific challenge of 1 Samuel 15. If Calvin were in Copan’s place, no doubt he’d jump right in, unapologetically describe the Amalekite killing as “indiscriminate and promiscuous slaughter, making no distinction of age or sex, but including alike women and children, the aged and decrepit.” And then he’d add that this killing was also perfectly just because it was commanded by a holy God.
But that’s not Copan’s approach. Instead, he begins by pointing out that the New Testament authors do not censure the practice of warfare in ancient Israel. Copan then refers to three passages in the New Testament — Hebrews 11, Acts 7, Acts 13 — which all appear to refer favorably back to the conduct of war in ancient Israel. As Copan says, the text “says that they conquered kingdoms by faith, they were might in war and put foreign armies to flight, by their faith.”
To be sure, these are legitimate points to raise. But they don’t tell us how to interpret 1 Samuel 15.
Copan on Accommodation
Eventually, Copan turns to the Amalekite text, and when he does he appears to present two reading strategies to soften the ethical shock of the texts: accommodation and group identity destruction.
To begin with, Copan appeals to the concept of accommodation. According to accommodation, God meets people in the messy circumstances of life, accommodating to their inadequate ethical understanding in order to lead them to a fuller understanding. Thus Copan says, “these are not ideal laws or ideal circumstances whether regarding Amalek or divorce or whatever in the Old Testament….” He continues that this was “an incremental step; God is stepping in where people are and seeking to move them in a redemptive direction.” Finally, Copan gives an illustration by referring to the reformation of “a backwards society where they don’t respect human rights.” If you wanted to bring a deepened moral understanding to that society, you would approach the change “incrementally.”
Unfortunately, this is all very vague. In what sense is Copan proposing God accommodated to Israel in 1 Samuel 15? How is his command functioning to bring an incremental increase in moral understanding or even (however bizarrely) “human rights”? And how can this illumine a command to carry out a mass civilian slaughter? Copan doesn’t really say.
Copan on Group Identity Destruction
Copan’s next proposal is even more striking. He suggests that the destruction of the Amalekites “has to do more with identity removal” than actual killing. As best I can understand him, Copan is suggesting that God is not, in fact, directing the Israelites to destroy the Amalekite people by literally killing them. Rather, he is directing the Israelites to destroy their cultural identity, perhaps by smashing all the cultural artifacts that distinguish them as a people.
The first problem with this claim is that this “softened” command would constitute genocide by legal definition. You see, the concept of genocide is a precisely defined legal concept which refers to any systematic attempt to destroy a cultural, religious, and/or social identity. And one can seek to destroy an identity without ever killing a person. Needless to say, it is small consolation that Copan’s abandonment of the plain reading still commits one to God’s commanding a legal genocide.
Second problem: in my view, this interpretation is inconsistent with God’s concern to avoid assimilation between the Israelites and surrounding peoples. There is no hint anywhere that God desires simply to destroy cultural identity, a practice which would effectively make assimilation much more likely because unique cultural markers had been removed.
The third problem, and the primary one for our purposes, is that this abstract group-identity-destruction interpretation is even more detached from a plain reading of the text than accommodation.
One more thing: Copan argues for his reading based on the fact that the Amalekites survive the slaughter of 1 Samuel 15. (For example, Haman, the villain in Esther, is a descendant of the hated Amalekites.) Copan seems to think that reinterpreting the text as concerned with the abstract destruction of group identity is the most plausible way to accommodate this fact. But there is a far simpler and more plausible interpretation: there were Amalekites living outside the territory in which the genocide was carried out. By adding that simple and eminently plausible detail, one can retain the plain reading of the text while accommodating the fact that Amalekites appear later in Israel’s history.
Copan’s NKJV Problem
While Copan attempts to present his reading as a faithful take on the plain reading of the text, his appeal to accommodation and group-identity-destruction are very far from the plain reading. And yet, it is clear that Copan is also keen to critique and chasten our moral intuitions, even as he offers non-natural readings which tacitly attempt to remove the moral offense of the texts.
In my opinion, Copan’s approach suffers from what I call the NKJV Problem. As you probably know, as far as Bible translations go, the NKJV was an unhappy compromise: while eliding much of the KJV’s literary brilliance, it lacked the textual accuracy of contemporary translations like the NIV and NRSV. The result was a middling compromise that pleased nobody.
In my view, Copan’s treatment of 1 Samuel 15 faces a similar problem. Copan lacks Calvin’s straightforward and iron-willed embrace of the text and its reflection of divine sovereignty. At the same time, in contrast to Boyd, he declines to endorse without qualification our moral aversion to slaughtering noncombatants. The result is a middling compromise which should please nobody.