Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan offer extensive critiques of my views in their book Did God Really Command Genocide? In turn, I devoted most of a chapter on what I called “The Just War Interpreters” to an extensive critique of their ‘kinder, gentler’ interpretation of the Canaanite genocide by demonstrating that it collapses into ethnic cleansing and genocide. In other words, their attempt to align the text more closely with our moral intuitions is, in my view, an utter failure.
Needless to say, I was interested in debating Copan or Flannagan. So a popular YouTuber reached out to Flannagan in late April. He agreed to debate and so I sent him an e-copy of Jesus Loves Canaanites. Flannagan has not responded in months so it is now a safe bet that he is not, in fact, going to debate.
In early May, another popular YouTuber reached out to Paul Copan asking him to debate. His reply was that he was too busy. To be sure, a debate would only take an hour or two and I would be happy to accommodate Copan’s schedule. So I was disappointed by that unequivocal no.
To sum up, it would appear that neither Copan nor Flannagan is willing to debate me on the central thesis of their book. They claim that God didn’t command genocide but I argue that on their reading of Deuteronomy and Joshua, God did command genocide. So I’m left with this. What would I ask Copan or Flannagan if they did debate me? In this article, I will highlight a question I want to ask them. But first I need to provide a bit of set-up.
Copan and Flannagan as Genocide Apologists
A central piece of Copan and Flannagan’s argument is that God’s primary directive was to drive Canaanites out of the land (which, I point out, is ethnic cleansing). The mass killing was only intended for anybody remaining behind who happened to be caught by the advancing Israelite armies. Furthermore, that practice of mass killing was primarily (though not exclusively) focused on the ‘cities’ like Jericho and Ai. But this brings us to a key claim: Copan and Flannagan argue that we ought to view these settlements as closer to military forts than civilian centers. And so, the mass killing was primarily limited to forts while the civilian population was driven out of the land.
Or so say Copan and Flannagan.
One problem with this claim is that ‘forts’ are not just military targets: they are also civilian centers of commerce and life. And this is clear in Joshua. In Joshua 6:21 we read, “They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.” Call them ‘military outposts’ if you like: they were still civilian settlements that included children, the elderly, and women. And all these individuals were butchered (cf. Joshua 8:24-5).
Now put this into our contemporary context. Imagine that you read today of one cultural, national, religious group (the Mora people) invading a territory in Sub-Saharan Africa that has been settled by another group (the Bora people) for centuries. The Mora people attack Bora settlements which include soldiers, merchants, women, children, and the elderly and they slaughter all the people within those settlements. They also slaughter their animals and destroy all the signs of the Bora people’s distinctive cultural identity markers and religious practices (cf. Deut. 7:5). After that, they burn the entire settlements to the ground. The Mora armies then advance over the land, driving out and slaughtering all the remaining Bora people living in the countryside.
Those actions would constitute ethnic cleansing, no doubt. But it is also clear that they would meet the UN Definition of Genocide:
In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
- Killing members of the group;
- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Now, all we need to do is switch out Mora/Bora and modern Africa with Israelite/Canaanite and ancient Canaan. Clearly, the same judgment would apply. Even on their kinder, gentler reading, Copan and Flannagan’s account is still genocide. And that makes them de facto genocide apologists.
What About the Less Mobile Inhabitants?
And now, finally, we get to what I would really like to ask Copan and Flannagan.
On page 89 of Did God Really Command Genocide? they are addressing the armies advancing while the Canaanites flee for their lives. Within that context, they quote Kenneth Kitchen: “as in the south, the Hebrew force defeated the opposition; captured their towns, killed rulers and less mobile inhabitants . . . .” So I would ask Copan and Flannagan to tell me more about these “less mobile inhabitants” that are captured and slaughtered by the Israelites.
Since we don’t have Copan or Flannagan to answer, I’ll be happy to offer an account. “Less mobile inhabitants” is a gentler way of saying orphaned toddlers and handicapped children and anguished mothers carrying two infants and feeble elders and the poor generally who lacked animals/livestock that they could ride and use to carry their possessions. Those are the rural less mobile inhabitants that are hacked apart with the swords and impaled on the spears of the advancing Israelite soldiers: this crying toddler is bludgeoned with a large rock; that weeping mother is beheaded, her head rolling into the dust beside her screaming child; this elderly widow is run through the abdomen with a spear; that handicapped man is stomped to death as he tries to crawl away.
That’s the fate of the less mobile inhabitants, the ones that Copan and Flannagan choose to mention only in passing.
Let’s sum up. On Copan and Flannagan’s view, the Israelites do the following:
- indiscriminately slaughter all the soldiers and civilians (men and women, young and old) within the cities/forts;
- drive out the mobile (and presumably wealthier, younger, and more powerful) rural populations, allowing them to reestablish their Canaanite religious and cultural practices elsewhere;
- indiscriminately slaughter the remaining less mobile populations including orphaned toddlers, handicapped children, anguished mothers carrying two infants, feeble elders, and the poor.
Okay, I said I had one question I wanted to ask them, but actually, here’s a second: how can you claim that God commanded the Israelites to engage in the indiscriminate slaughter of a group that would include orphaned toddlers, handicapped children, anguished mothers carrying two infants, feeble elders, and the poor?
And while we’re at it, here’s a third question: How can you seriously claim that the commission of such obvious moral atrocities would be deemed necessary to, of all things, maintain the spiritual purity of the Israelites? Isn’t that equivalent to proposing rape as a means to maintain chastity? In short, it’s a contradiction in terms.
And here’s a fourth question: How can you reconcile this all with the life and teaching of Jesus?
And here’s a fifth question: How can you reconcile this with the most basic deliverances of moral knowledge?
And a sixth question: If you believe God commanded such moral atrocities in the past, how can you be sure that he might not command them again in the future?
Okay, it turns out that I would want to ask more than one question. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that Copan and Flannagan have declined to debate me.
I do hope they change their mind.
In the interim, you can read my full critique and wider argument in my book Jesus Loves Canaanites.