The Canaanite Genocide: The Hyperbolic Language Viewpoint

canaanite genocide1

The past several blog posts I’ve been discussing the Canaanite Genocide. If you’ve missed my earlier posts, you can catch up at these links: “The Old Testament and Apologetics,” “Is the God of the Old Testament Merciless?,” “An Overview of the Canaanite Genocide,” “The Canaanite Genocide: The Justice of God Viewpoint,” and “The Canaanite Genocide: The Evil of the Canaanites Viewpoint.”

Today, I want to take a look briefly at “The Hyperbolic Language Viewpoint.” Or basically, the idea that the warfare language in the book of Joshua was hyperbolic. It’s sort of a similar idea to language that native English speakers might use today in athletic competitions like “Take him out!” or “Crush them!” We also see a figure of speech when we say the phrase “break a leg!” to an actress for good luck before a production. In these situations, we aren’t expected to take the words literally. So, proponents of this view say the Bible used hyperbolic language here to help drive the narrative.

Matthew Flannagan makes three observations in support of a nonliteral interpretation of Joshua based on external evidence. First, both Joshua and other ancient Near Eastern material contain similarities.[1] He cites descriptions of the campaigns in Joshua 9–12 made by biblical scholar Kenneth Kitchen about Egyptians going to battle against the kings of Canaan, the annals of the Hittite king, and formulaic styles found in the Amarna letters.[2]

Second, many ancient Near Eastern accounts are full of figurative war language. For instance, divine intervention is recorded in The 10 Year Annals of Mursilli and Sargon’s Letter to the God in which hailstones reigned down on the enemy, paralleling Joshua 10. Other examples record the gods extending daylight, another similarity to Joshua, or even knocking down the walls of an enemy such as happened in the city of Jericho.[3]

Flannagan writes, “The fact that similar events are narrated in multiple different accounts suggests thy are a ‘notable ingredient of the transmission code for conquest accounts’—that is, part of the common hyperbolic rhetoric of warfare rather than descriptions of what actually happened.”[4]

Third, the “transmission code” that Flannagan describes contains elements of “exaggerated hyperbolic fashion.” This is specifically seen in descriptions of “total conquest, complete annihilation and destruction of the enemy, killing everyone, leaving no survivors, and so on.”[5]

For instance, Paul Copan mentions that the Moabite King Mesha claimed of the Northern Kingdom, “Israel has utterly perished for always.” However, Mesha made that statement long before the Assyrians conquered Israel. Sennacherib, ruler of Assyria, also bragged with hyperbolic language, “The soldiers of Hirimme, dangerous enemies, I cut down with the sword; and not one escaped.”[6]

Egyptian rulers also used similar language in discussing their conquests. Tuthmosis III asserted “the numerous army of Mitanni was overthrown within the hour, annihilated totally, like those (now) not existent.” Interestingly, later records show that Mitanni and his army continued to be a force to be reckoned with for the next few decades after that battle.[7]

This nonliteral approach to the book of Joshua is particularly attractive when comparing Joshua to the book of Judges. If both books were to be taken literally, then many scholars argue that they would contradict each other.[8] It could be that Joshua is to be taken nonliterally, while Judges is a literal account.

For example, the first chapter recounts the Lord’s command in verses 1–3:

Now the angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.”

These verses say nothing about God commanding the complete destruction of the Canaanites. The passage simply states, “you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land,” and goes on to instruct them to “break down their altars.” This is not to say that no one was killed, but that the language does not sound like utter annihilation.

In further support that the text does not mean refer to complete destruction are the various examples suggesting that many of the Canaanites were driven out of the land or became slaves. One example is Judges 1:28, “When Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not drive them out completely.” Another example is Joshua 16:10, “However, they did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer, so the Canaanites have lived in the midst of Ephraim to this day but have been made to do forced labor.”[9]

Some suggest that Joshua 11:19 shows it was possible to make peace treaties with the Canaanites, “There was not a city that made peace with the people of Israel except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon. They took them all in battle.”[10] However, most feel that in light of Deuteronomy 20 treaties could only be made with non-Canaanite cities,[11] further supported by the fact that the Gibeonites tried to trick the Israelites into making a treaty with them by pretending to be from a far away land. So, seemingly the Israelites were not supposed to have made a treaty with them.

But on the other hand it is also possible that if the Gibeonites had come to Joshua in honesty that they still could have made a treaty. God certainly allowed Rahab and her family to be spared when they acknowledged him, even allowing Rahab to be in the genealogical line of Christ.[12] So there is precedence to assume he would also be in favor of treaties with other Canaanites.

Furthermore, even various verses in the book of Joshua itself would contradict itself if everything was taken literally. For instance, consider the story of the fall of the city Ai in Joshua 8. Verse 17 states, “Not a man was left in Ai or Bethel who did not go out after Israel. They left the city open and pursued Israel.” While the enemy was in pursuit of Israel, other Israelite soldiers burned the city of Ai. Verses 21–23 read:

And when Joshua and all Israel saw that the ambush had captured the city, and that the smoke of the city went up, then they turned back and struck down the men of Ai. And the others came out from the city against them, so they were in the midst of Israel, some on this side, and some on that side. And Israel struck them down, until there was left none that survived or escaped. But the king of Ai they took alive, and brought him near to Joshua.

This passage states that “others came out from the city against them.” Earlier it had stated that all the men had left to pursue Israel. Clearly, this is either a contradiction, or an example of exaggeration used as a motif throughout the narrative.

Another example of this type of rhetoric is seen in Deuteronomy 7:2–5. The first verse states, “When the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.” Yet interestingly, verse 3 goes on to say, “You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons.” It would seem strange to talk about the literal destruction of an entire city, and then list precise details about what kind of covenants not to make with them. If they completely destroyed a city, it would seem that no covenants could possibly be made.

Copan asserts that the main goal of the destruction was to rid the land of idolatry. The problem in Canaan was not the Canaanites, but their idols. “Failure to remove the idolatry would put Israel in the position of the Canaanites and their idols before God. Israel would risk being consecrated to destruction.”[13]


[1] Matthew Flannagan, “Did God Command the Genocide of the Canaanites?” In Come Let Us Reason: New Essays in Christian Apologetics, ed. Paul Copan and William Lane Craig (Nashville: B&H, 2012), 235.

[2] Ibid., 235–6.

[3] Ibid., 237.

[4] Ibid., 237.

[5] Ibid., 237.

[6] Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 172.

[7] Ibid., 172.

[8] Two of the many scholars that argue with this reasoning are Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 170–1, and Matthew Flannagan, “Did God Command the Genocide of the Canaanites?” In Come Let Us Reason: New Essays in Christian Apologetics, ed. Paul Copan and William Lane Craig (Nashville: B&H, 2012), 239.

[9] Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 184. Other passages include Judges 1:27–36; 1 Kings 9:20–21; Joshua 15:63; Joshua 17:12–13; and Psalm 106:34–35.

[10] Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 184.

[11] Ibid., 180.

[12] See genealogy in Matthew 1.

[13] Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 173.