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 area: the destruction of the Canaanite cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and the drowning of everyone in Noah’s flood. In fact, Copan and Flannagan agree that these two mass killings are “not hyperbolic.”[4] But skeptics, not surprisingly, also call these events “genocide.”[5] Well, if Noah’s flood and Sodom and Gomorrah aren’t hyperbolic, if God took the life of every man, woman, and child in those judgments, then have we really accomplished much to say that God was using hyperbole when in Deuteronomy 20:16 He commanded that in Canaan they should “not leave alive anything that breathes”? After all, in the Sodom and Noah stories, the Lord, in His considered opinion, deemed it necessary to kill everything that breathed. If that’s the case, then don’t these events establish a precedent and should we be shocked that it could be out of character for God to order the total destruction of those Canaanites who refused to flee?

In my next post I will explain another reason why I don’t think the hyperbole interpretation helps.

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

[2] Ibid., 84.

[3] Ibid., 12.

[4] Ibid., 229. Copan and Flannagan do not address how this might undermine their hyperbole argument.

[5] For example, Myra Zeph, “Stop arking about: It’s regarded as a cuddly Bible tale for children – but is the story of Noah and God’s ‘genocidal tantrum’ really so appropriate?” New Humanist July 14, 2012. Accessed 12/4/2015. https://newhumanist.org.uk/articles/4700/stop-arking-about. For another example, there’s the video by The Thinking Atheist, Noah’s Ark, God, Giraffes & Genocide https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CccaGaKOlSI. Accessed 12-5-2015. Similarly, University of Queensland lecturer Michael Carden says that what God did to Sodom was the result of His “genocidal rage.” Michael Carden, Sodomy: A History of a Christian Biblical Myth (New York: Equinox, 2004), 193.

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6 Responses to Hyperbole Interpretation Not Helpful for Canaanite Conquest

  1. Nathan says:

    I’d read that some inhabitants of the lands were the nephilim (or the descendants of angel human relations). The supernatural view of the bible would seem to give a different perspective here, if that’s right.. If I understood Michael Heiser: the unseen realm right

  2. Gary says:

    I agree. It may even do harm to evangelism in that we soften sin and God’s holiness. If we don’t realize how awful sin really is and how holy God is, then we may not realize the necessity of Jesus and his sacrifice nor the depth of love as his bore our wretchedness upon the cross.
    Even as Christians, we all too often are self righteous and take for granted our salvation and may even we are more deserving of salvation.
    The natural man often does not realize the depth nor the darkness of one’s own depravity.

    Anyway, thank you for thoughtful and unique insights that cause me to think through these things. May we always have compassion and the love of God even for those who think they don’t need Jesus.

    • Gary says:

      *we may even belief we are more deserving..

      Just to be clear. None of us are more deserving than others. All we like sheep have gone astray. See Luke 18:10-14.

  3. clay Jones says:

    I don’t think the nephilim are related to this issue.

  4. anthony costello says:


    I know we’ve talked about this briefly before, but I also agree pretty strongly that the Hyperbole interpretation is not a good option. I’m sure Paul Copan is a great Christian and certainly he is an excellent author, but I found this part of his book (Is God a Moral Monster?) fairly weak, almost conciliatory in nature. It seems to me that this inability to accept the reality of God’s judgement on sin and sinful creatures, is a result of two cultural maladies that plague the liberal West: 1) we are not accustomed to seeing war, warfare, massive amounts of bloodshed and widespread corruption on a daily basis; which, alternatively, is part and parcel of many Middle Eastern, Eastern and African nations. In places like Afghanistan, where the proverbial “tribal strong man” system rules, the common folk often wonder why God doesn’t strike people dead in acts of divine justice. This is exactly the type of God they long for! This is also, I think, one of the reasons why Christianity is so distasteful in cultures that are traditionally tribal or tribal/Muslim, because they cannot accept a God who would forgive the sins committed by such evil and wicked men. These cultures only have the retribution principle to go on. 2) I think, as you have pointed out in your own article, that we are starting to truly mirror the Canaanite civilization in substance and appearance, which gives us almost a sentimental “feeling” for what is otherwise atrocious. Therefore, in our mixed culture, I think many either a) ignore that actual despicabilty of the Canaanites altogether, or b) actually sort of embrace it. Just my two cents.

  5. Pingback: Canaanite Hyperbole Interpretation Inconsistent | Clay JonesClay Jones

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