Misunderstanding the Canaanite Hyperbole Argument

One thing every professor knows firsthand is that too many of students either don’t read the assigned material at all (shocking!) or, if they do “read” it, they don’t read it carefully. Instead these students think they know enough about the book or article to discuss it intelligently (or not!). As I’ve said in previous posts, I really like Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan’s, Did God Really Command Genocide?, and I’ve learned much from it, but I’ve also found that a lot of people have misunderstood exactly how far they take the warfare hyperbole argument. It’s my experience that some Christians either haven’t read their book carefully, or they haven’t read their book at all, but they’ve heard their book uses the words “Canaanite” and “hyperbole” in the same sentence, and so assume they can waive away the killing of Canaanite non-combatants as hyperbolic.

That’s mistaken.

Copan and Flannagan rightly do agree that Scripture reveals that sometimes God has commanded the killing of noncombatants. Pay close attention to these words: “Hence, even if God does not command us with these texts to kill innocent people, and even if the texts don’t envision genocide, they still seem to suggest that a loving and just God did command killing the innocent on a particular occasion. This would mean that God on at least one occasion endorsed violations of the principle of noncombatant immunity.”[1] A “noncombatant” would largely mean women and children (and perhaps the elderly), right? So, in other words, they agree that it has occurred that God has ordered the killing of women and children. As I said, I find that for some not-so-careful readers that this will come as a surprise.

Copan and Flannagan continue,

William Lane Craig similarly concedes that “it was first and foremost a command to drive the tribes out of the land and to occupy it. Only those who remained behind were to be utterly exterminated.” So even if we accept that God did not command the extermination of all the Canaanites, and even if we grant the types of warfare involved, then it still seems to involve the killing of the innocent in the sense of killing non-combatants. Even if the phrases “they completely destroyed everyone in it” and “left no survivors” are obviously hyperbole, where does that leave us? How many women and children is it acceptable to slaughter before it becomes morally problematic? Raymond Bradley rejoins, “Does this make God any less guilty? What sort of perverted morality would lead one to conclude: ‘not all of them? Oh! I suppose that’s OK then’?”[2]

So, again, Copan and Flannagan do not argue that God never ordered the killing of innocents. They approvingly quote William Lane Craig who writes that “In very unusual circumstances in the past, God commanded people to kill the innocent for the sake of some greater good.”[3] I completely agree!

Elsewhere Copan and Flannagan summarize where they are going in their book, “Then in chapters 15-17, we will defend the thesis that in very unusual circumstances, God commanded people to kill the innocent for the sake of some greater good.”[4] And finally: “We can conclude then that one can coherently and defensibly attribute to God commands to kill innocent human beings under certain conditions.”[5] I completely agree.

Now, all this being said, why are we so concerned about the killing of Canaanite non-combatants anyway? After all, if the evidence I’ve adduced in previous posts is correct, then this wasn’t the traditional human war over land or treasure. Instead, God’s commands to kill the Canaanites that remained were about capital punishment. Sure, God gave the Canaanites ample opportunity to flee (as Copan and Flannagan rightly emphasize) but in God’s considered opinion, those of the age of accountability who refused to flee were in no sense innocent and that certainly includes all the females. Yes, the killing of children is a different issue but I’ve dealt with that previously.

Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”


[1] Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan, Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014), 142-143. Emphasis theirs.

[2] Ibid., 143.

[3] Ibid., 145.

[4] Ibid., 146.

[5] Ibid., 207.

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Canaanite Hyperbole Interpretation Inconsistent

In my last post I suggested that appealing to hyperbole doesn’t offset the charge of divine genocide as there are two other Biblical events where God did kill every man, woman, and childNoah’s flood and the destruction of the Canaanite cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. In this post I want to examine what I think is a serious problem with the Canaanite hyperbole interpretation: Scripture reveals that God meted out precisely and literally the punishment He said he would inflict on Israel when Israel committed the same Canaanite sins. I call this the non-parallel problem.

The Not-Parallel Problem

One of the biggest problems with calling the command to destroy everything that breaths among the Canaanites “warfare hyperbole” is that God threatened Israel with similar destruction and we know those threats weren’t hyperbole. God told Israel that if they let the Canaanites live among them that they would soon commit the sins of the Canaanites, and when they did, He said, “I will do to you what I plan to do to them” (Number 33:56).[1] Thus my argument is that if God did exactly, literally what He said He would do to the Israelites—that is, if He wasn’t using hyperbole—then it is inconsistent to claim that God used hyperbole to describe what He said He wanted done to the Canaanites.

So let’s look at what God threatened would happen to Israel if they committed the sins of the Canaanites and lost His protection.


In Deuteronomy 28:30, the Lord warned that in disobedient Israel, a man “will be pledged to be married to a woman, but another will take her and rape her.” Lamentations 5:11 tells what happened when the Babylonians seized Jerusalem: “Women are raped in Zion, young women in the towns of Judah.”[2] No hyperbole there. Continue reading

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Hyperbole Interpretation Not Helpful for Canaanite Conquest

Arguably the most difficult story in the Old Testament is the killing of the Canaanites. Some have attempted to soften this hard story by saying that certain passages are hyperbole. Perhaps the most prolific purveyors of this theory are Paul Copan and Matthew Flanagan in their book, Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God.[1] In that work, Copan and Flannagan write that some of the more difficult passages should not be read in a “straightforward, literal way.”[2] Instead, the “commands to ‘utterly destroy’ and ‘leave nothing alive that breathes,’” are “hyperbolic (using exaggerated language).”[3] Now, I greatly respect Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan, I consider them friends, and I find their work extremely helpful. In fact, I employed their arguments in my last post. But, I see problems with the hyperbole interpretation.

First, the biggest problem with the hyperbole interpretation is that I don’t think Scripture allows for it. Rather, the unforced reading of the text is that God did intend that Israel should kill every man, woman, and child who didn’t flee the land that God had given Israel. I’ll talk more about that in a future post.

Second, I don’t think the hyperbole interpretation accomplishes much because we are still left with two other examples of God killing every man, woman, and child in a particular Continue reading

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How Could It Be Fair to Kill Canaanite Children?

In a prior post we saw that the Canaanite childhood was full of terror and loathing. How could it not be when some friends and siblings were burnt to death in the arms of the bull-headed god Molech, family members raped them, and animals were brought into the house for sexual entertainment? Then in my last post on the Canaanites we saw why Israel could not adopt these children without the Israelites, themselves, becoming corrupted

In this post we answer the last question specifically regarding Canaanite children: how could it in any sense be fair for God to order their deaths? There are several things to say about this.

First, it is not always wrong to kill those innocent of wrongdoing. Of course that seems counterintuitive but Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan in their book, Did God Really Command Genocide?, provide a timely illustration: Continue reading

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Sci Fi, Free Will, and the Problem of Evil

In teaching every semester on why God allows evil, I’ve learned that many Christians do not understand the nature or value of free will. Indeed, many years ago I too struggled with what free will is all about, but found an unlikely ally in science fiction. Sci-fi books, movies, and television programs frequently feature free will as a major theme and thus help illumine this abstract topic.

Since many more people see science fiction on big and small screens than read sci-fi books, I will use only examples from movies and television where these themes are staples of the sci-fi genre. Most of these shows did very well at the box office or in TV ratings, and were very well received by critics; many also spawned popular video games.

Movies and television shows develop this subject partially because free-will science fiction resonates with themes much larger than most people imagine: Continue reading

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Christians Should Be More Accepting?

So many tell us that Christians should be more accepting of homosexuality. Yesterday, in fact, I listened to Andrew Wilson debate Rob Bell on the UK Unbelievable? radio program about homosexuality and the church. Bell was asked to explain the justification for his beliefs that there is nothing wrong with committed homosexual relationships, and, among other things, he said, “This is sort of the bullshit that really, really, really, pushes people away, is when you have a particular conviction and all of a sudden your orthodoxy or your faithfulness to Jesus is all of a sudden called into question…. This is why so many people don’t want to be a part of the church.”

Indeed, I’ve heard that a lot lately. Something to the effect of, “Christians should be more accepting! If you were, more people would join the church. Instead, you’re driving people away.” Continue reading

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Why Couldn’t Israel Adopt Canaanite Children?

As I pointed out in a previous post, when God freed the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, He told them to drive the Canaanites out of a portion of land promised to Abraham’s descendants. The Israelites’ coming was preceded by miracles such as the Red Sea and Jordan River parting, so the Canaanites knew there was something supernatural behind their advance. Some chose to flee; some chose to fight.

And, as I’ve argued in another post, we don’t have any reason to believe that even one of the Canaanite adults that died in the fighting wasn’t guilty of great wickedness; that was, after all, the reason God gave for driving them out of the land. But what about their children, some of whom died?

In ancient wars where parents died, soldiers faced three alternatives for the children: (1) take their lives; (2) leave them to starve and be eaten by animals in the desert; or (3) adopt them. Obviously leaving them to starve or be eaten would be a worse fate than a quick death by the sword. So let’s look at why Israel couldn’t adopt Canaanite children. Continue reading

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The Horror of Canaanite Children’s “Family” Life

Although this post neither addresses the Lord’s motive for taking the life of the Canaanite children nor the fairness of it, before we get into those things, we need to understand the context. This, too, is sad to read, but we must not imagine Canaanite children as being in any kind of a normal home by Western standards, or even most Ancient Near Eastern family standards. Canaanite childhood wasn’t a fun Brady Bunch or Modern Family existence: it was horrific.

Life was hard on Canaanite children because, among other things, the Canaanites committed two types of sins which damaged their children. Continue reading

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Why Kill the Canaanites’ Animals?

We saw in my prior post that we have no reason to believe that any of the adults were good in the territory that God ordered Israel to conquer. Not even one. But in some towns the Lord ordered that Israel kill all of the animals–“everything that breathes.” (e.g., Deut. 13:15; 20:16). Why kill the Canaanites’ animals?

Now what is written here is gross. But I’ve found, dear reader, that you need to be grossed out, disgusted, and maybe a little sickened, if you are going to understand the motivation behind God’s judgment of the Canaanites. Continue reading

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Were There Any Innocent Canaanites?

In my last post I wrote that God ordered the capital punishment of the inhabitants of the land God had given Israel because they were guilty of depravity and violence. The Canaanites heard of the miraculous approach of the Israelites and knew that Israel’s God was helping them, but some chose to fight rather than flee. As the Canaanite prostitute, Rahab, told Israel’s spies who had entered Jericho:

I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that the terror of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land have melted away before you. For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. When we heard it, our hearts melted and no courage remained in any man any longer because of you; for the LORD your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath” (Josh. 2:9-11).

Thus, those who were sensitive to the Lord’s warning had the opportunity to flee but many remained. Skeptics will object, however, that certainly there must have been some adult Canaanites who were innocent of those evils.

Continue reading

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