Copan and Flannagan argue that God didn't really command genocide. And they marshal some intriguing evidence in favor of this thesis. 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.
*Do Copan and Flannagan defend ethnic cleansing?*
It is now time to move to critique. I will begin by arguing that 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.
*From ethnic cleansing to genocide*
Do Copan and Flannagan succeed in saving the texts from genocide? This seems doubtful to me. The problem is that Copan and Flannagan's focus on killing vs. dispossessing Canaanites misses the crucial point that the real crime of genocide per se is neither killing nor dispossessing individuals but rather undertaking acts with the intent of destroying a particular ethnic, religious and/or cultural identity. That's why acts like prevention of births and forced transfer of children are genocidal acts, precisely because they focus on the destruction of the identity, irrespective of whether any individual is killed, maimed, or mentally harmed.
For example, imagine if rather than engage in a campaign of killing Tutsis in Rwanda, Hutus had, unbeknownst to the Tutsis, instead sterilized them in their sleep. Even if the Tutsis never discovered what happened to them and never suffered (beyond the great pain of being unable to conceive), this attempt to eradicate their ethnic identity would constitute a genocide against the Tutsi people. Consequently, any discussion of the relative ratio of mass killing to forced dispossession and deportation misses the point: if there is an intent to destroy a particular ethnic, religious and/or cultural identity, then the act is still genocide.
On the Copan-Flannagan reading do God and the Israelites undertake actions to eliminate Canaanite religio-cultural identity? Indeed, they do. Those actions include threats and public acts designed to terrorize the population, aggressive military invasion, destruction of all artifacts of Canaanite culture in herem destruction, a programmatic attempt to drive the Canaanites away from their homes, markets, temples, and cities and out into the desert, and the killing of all Canaanite civilians that remain behind. If there is one thing clear in the Deuteronomic history (at least on the Copan-Flannagan reading), it is that God wants to destroy Canaanite culture and identity and the Israelites attempt to carry out that desire to the full extent of their abilities.
To sum up, even if the Copan-Flannagan reading is defensible, it leaves us with the double whammy of ethnic cleansing and genocide. It would seem that their answer to the book's central question should, in fact, be "yes, God did command genocide."
*Why not just accept that this was a justified genocide?*
I understand that Copan and Flannagan have a strong motivation to deny that their reading is genocidal given the powerful emotional force of the term and its association with contemporary and modern moral atrocities that have imprinted themselves on our collective consciousness.
However, it seems to me that it would be more consistent for Copan and Flannagan to concede that they accept genocide, albeit under the appropriate conditions secured by the divine command. Indeed, a divine command may not even be necessary. Consider the following passage where Copan and Flannagan affirm Richard Swinburne's point that in some cases mass killing (perhaps even genocidal mass killing) could be undertaken to protect the wider population:
"many people would think it justified to kill people who had an infectious lethal disease and refused to be kept isolated from the rest of the population. Those who think that an infection that leads to spiritual death is as bad an evil as one that leads to natural death will think that there are reasons (though not of course adequate reasons) for the Israelites to kill the Canaanites even without a divine command." (212)
Now this is an unflinching defense of the conditions for genocide straight-up, no pained legal hair-splitting and no divine command required! Lest you think I'm being sarcastic, rest assured I am not. Indeed, I readily concede the point that one can envision scenarios under which genocide might be warranted, and Swinburne helps us to see one of them.
Let's take Swinburne's lethal disease example and run with it. Imagine if all the members of an ethnic, religious, and/or cultural group were infected with a deadly virus like Ebola and they were intent on infecting the wider population. Moreover, there were no way practically to restrain them from doing so. Finally, imagine that their reckless, destructive actions were driven by aspects of their religion or cultural identity. Under those circumstances, it is possible that a genocide of this infectious, malevolent group might be justified.
This may be possible but are there real world examples of this kind of rationale? Indeed, there are. In fact, these rationales are relatively common in world history. (For a sobering survey, see David Livingstone Smith, Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others (New York: St. Martins Press, 2012).) Consider, for example, the case of Adolf Hitler. (Yes, I've chosen to use a Nazi example: Godwin's law is proved once again!) In 1919 Adolf Hitler penned a pivotal letter outlining to the German population the threat that he believed was posed by the Jews. Hitler warned that "In his effects and consequences [the Jew] is like a racial tuberculosis of the nations."
If the Jews really did present a seriously dangerous infection, then one could arguably defend the most radical option of extermination to protect the greater number of human beings.
Before I get lynched, allow me to point out the obvious: the burden of proof is upon any would-be apologist for genocide to provide evidence -- presumably very powerful, indeed all-but-irrefutable evidence -- that this population poses a real threat. Needless to say, Hitler and his hooked-cross cronies offered no evidence to justify genocide beyond their own anti-Semitic, hate-filled nationalistic rhetoric. Consequently we categorically repudiate his noxious claim that Jews were a tuberculosis and instead we consign Hitler to the ignominy he so richly deserves.
But what about the Canaanites? What reason do Copan and Flannagan offer to believe that the Canaanites presented a racial (or religio-cultural) tuberculosis threat to the Jews, one which required a response as distressingly extreme as ethnic cleansing and genocide?
Copan and Flannagan provide an answer in chapter 19 "The Role of Miracles and the Command to Kill Canaanites." You can probably guess how this argument proceeds: God allowed the Israelites to experience extraordinary miracles (beginning with the Exodus) which served to corroborate the divine will to kill Canaanites.
Throughout the book Copan and Flannagan seek to explain why the divine commands for holy war recorded in the Deuteronomic history are not genocidal and, more broadly, how they could be morally defensible. The problem is that they never address the glaring question: why think God ever uttered these commands as they are recorded?
*Why think this happened...?*
In order to appreciate the knotty nature of this historical question, consider how evangelical apologists typically press the importance of history, particularly as it regards the resurrection of Jesus. Evangelical apologists are keen to argue that New Testament documents (e.g. the creedal formula in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5) bring us to within years of the purported events themselves. (As an introduction to this literature one might begin with Paul Copan's treatment of the resurrection in Loving Wisdom: Christian Philosophy of Religion (Chalice Press, 2007), 116 ff.)
The contrast with the Deuteronomic history could hardly be greater for here the gap between event and report shifts from years (as in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5) or decades (as in the Synoptic gospels) to centuries. Philip Jenkins explains:
"Even by the most optimistic estimates, J [According to the Documentary Hypothesis "J" is the Yahwist source, one of four sources that comprise the Torah] would not have been written down until 900 or 850. Deuteronomy itself did not take its final form until five hundred years after the massacre of King Sihon and his subjects. That book's authors were as far removed from the conquest as we today are from the time of Martin Luther or Christopher Columbus. Any approach to Deuteronomy or Joshua has to read it in the context of around 700 BCE, or even later, not of 1200." (Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can't Ignore the Bible's Violent Verses (HarperOne, 20011), 53-54, emphasis added.)
Think about that: the proximity of the events narrated in the Deuteronomic history to the final form of the texts is equivalent to the distance from Christopher Columbus to today! Given that the period covered by the narrative occurred centuries earlier than the final form of the Deuteronomic history, one would think Copan and Flannagan would be centrally concerned with the historical question: Do we have a historical ground to think these events occurred? Instead, Copan and Flannagan appear to accept the basic historical veracity of the Deuteronomic history in much the same way they would accept the reliability of the Gospels and Acts.
To put it mildly, this is puzzling, all the more so when you consider that the material that Copan and Flannagan accept as historical presents us with such intractable moral problems. Given that the texts in question present us with instances of divinely commanded ethnic cleansing and genocide, why remain committed to reading them as fundamentally historical?
*Literary motifs, imperial ideology and history*
Copan and Flannagan's commitment to a historical reading is even more puzzling when you consider just how many concessions they make along the way. Consider this excerpt where they acknowledge the presence of ancient near eastern literary motifs. For example, on page 97 they note that ancient standards for relaying history were highly stylized and included many literary motifs which are not germane to history writing today. Once we understand them in those terms, Copan and Flannagan assume that we ought not interpret them as relaying literal past events. For example, Copan and Flannagan concede that the descriptions of Yahweh hurtling hailstones down on Israel's enemies and extending the battle day so that they can achieve victory both parallel other ANE accounts in which other deities hurtle objects from the sky and extend the day to achieve battle victory. The clear conclusion they draw is that it would be mistaken to conclude that these passages in fact describe literal events that occurred in the past. That does indeed appear to be a reasonable conclusion.
But then why not apply the same reasoning to the other instances in which deities command their people to slaughter entire populations in battle? Consider the Mesha Stele (Moabite Stone) which relays an account of the god Chemosh commanding the Moabites to go into battle against the Israelites. If the parallels of extended days and divinely hurled celestial objects are to be read as literary motifs of a battle, why not the same of the parallel accounts of both Chemosh and Yahweh commanding their followers to engage in religious herem warfare?
Consider as well that Copan and Flannagan also concede that one can detect ideological assumptions driving the composition and formation of the text. For example, they observe that Joshua 9-12 reveals "the same imperialistic ideology as other ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts." (98) This raises yet another problem. After all, generally when we detect that an imperialistic ideology has shaped the telling of a narrative, that fact provides grounds to question the narrative. To be sure, this doesn't entail that the narrative is necessarily untrustworthy or deceptive. But it does raise a caveat, all the more so when the narrative invokes the will of a national or tribal deity to justify radical actions like genocide and ethnic cleansing. So why not adopt a critical approach to the narrative and its recounting of Israel's national history?
This leaves me perplexed: given that Copan and Flannagan recognize the presence of hyperbole, literary motifs, and imperialistic ideology in the text, why don't they extend their modified reading to the very passages that describe Yahweh commanding herem warfare in the first place?
*What kind of (inspired) literature is this?*
It is at this point that Nicholas Wolterstorff's appropriation theory of biblical inspiration becomes helpful. If we detect in the Deuteronomic history evidence of hyperbole, literary motifs, and imperialistic ideology, then (according to Wolterstorff's theory) this is because these are the kinds of texts that God sovereignly appropriated into his canon of scripture. It would seem that many evangelicals assume without argument that God wouldn't appropriate this kind of literature. However, we need to be very careful about assuming a priori what kind of literature God would have appropriated, and to what end he might have appropriated it.
With this in mind, it is an open question as to whether, for example, God might have sovereignly appropriated into the Deuteronomic history texts that include errant descriptions of the divine nature and will. The really interesting thing is that Copan and Flannagan already concede there are errant depictions of God of just this kind. After all, they affirm the imprecatory psalms as part of scripture even as they repudiate the moral perspective of the imprecatory psalmist. To begin with, they quote William Lane Craig who critiques a dictation view of scriptural inspiration based on the presence of ignoble moral aptitudes in the scriptural writers:
"There are also elements in Scripture that express the emotions and anxieties and the depression of the human authors, and it seems implausible to attribute those to God's dictation. These seem rather to be genuine human emotions that are being expressed." (Cited in 21)
Copan and Flannagan then go on to note that Craig applies the point to the imprecatory psalms:
"An example he [Craig] gives are the so-called imprecatory (or prayer-curse) psalms. Psalm 137 is a psalm written while in exile in Babylon: `By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs" (vv. 1-2). The psalm ends with a startling statement: "Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks" (vv. 8-9). Craig argues that this runs contrary to what Jesus said about loving our enemies, concluding that it is hard to think of this as something that is dictated by God rather than a genuine expression of the Psalmist's anger and indignation of those who opposed God." (22)
As Craig, Copan and Flannagan all note, the imprecatory psalmist makes false statements about God. For example, in Psalm 37:13 the psalmist declares that God delights in the destruction of the wicked. This contradicts the claim of Ezekiel 18:23 -- to say nothing of the life and teaching of Jesus himself -- that God takes no such pleasure.
Given that Copan and Flannagan are willing to recognize that God sovereignly appropriated passages into the imprecatory psalms which make false theological claims about God, why not consider that the Deuteronomic history itself makes false statements about God? Of course, one might well ask why God would include such literature in his canon. However, I can think of great reasons to include the imprecatory psalms -- for example, they are a record of real human experience and emotion with which we can identify and from which we need to be transformed. I see no reason that aspects of the Deuteronomic history cannot serve a similar function. Indeed, if there is one thing clear in the history of Israel, it is that Israel is often a stumbling exemplar that provides a mirror to the human condition generally. In that respect, the open question is just how far Israel stumbled, and what we can learn from it.
As I draw things to a close, let me note that it is an unparalleled defense of divinely commanded ethnic cleansing and genocide. And if that sounds like damning with faint praise, I suppose it is. As much as I admire Copan and Flannagan as scholars, I cannot help but be disappointed in their decision to commit their formidable acumen to defending such a bloody and unnecessary thesis.