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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