The book of Joshua describes how the Israelites on God’s command invaded the land of Canaan and killed all who stood in their way. Over and over we read how they left “no survivors” (Josh 10:28, 30, 33). To modern ears, this clearly sounds like a genocide. Yet, Scripture actually tells us that this wasn’t the case: there were survivors!
I talk about this in the video above. In response to the accusation that the God of the Bible commands genocide, apologists like Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan have given a renewed focus to the hyperbole theory for being a good, evangelical take on this problem. They even wrote a book about this together, suitably titled Did God Really Commande Genocide? Flannagan writes on his blog:
Joshua affirms he exterminated all the Canaanites in this region. Repeatedly it states that Joshua left “no survivors” and “destroyed everything that breathed” in “the entire land”, “put all the inhabitants to the sword”. Alongside these general claims the text identifies several specific places and cities where Joshua exterminated everyone and left no survivors. These include Hebron (Josh. 10:40), Debir (Josh. 10:38), the hill country and the Negev and the western foothills (Josh. 10:40). In the first chapter of Judges, however, we are told that the Canaanites lived in the Negev (1:9), in the hill country (Judg. 1:9), in Debir (Judg. 1:11), in Hebron (Judg. 1:10) and in the western foothills (Judg. 1:9). Moreover, they did so in such numbers and strength that they had to be driven out by force. These are the same cities that Joshua 10 tells us Joshua had annihilated and left no survivors in.
This is best explained by “no survivors” and “kill all of them” were hyperbolic rhetoric popular at this time. Flannagan adds:
Merenptah’s Stele describes a skirmish with Israel as follows, “Yanoam is nonexistent; Israel is wasted, his seed is not”. Here a skirmish in which Egypt prevailed is described hyperbolically in terms of the total annihilation of Israel. Sennacherib uses similar hyperbole, “The soldiers of Hirimme, dangerous enemies, I cut down with the sword; and not one escaped”. Mursilli II records making “Mt.Asharpaya empty (of humanity)” and the “mountains of Tarikarimu empty (of humanity)”. Mesha (whom Kitchen cites as stating “Israel has utterly perished for always”) describes victories in terms of him fighting against a town, taking it and then killing all the inhabitants of the town.
To put it simply: God didn’t command genocide because a genocide never happened. The “kill all” rhetoric was idiomatic for waging war, not for exterminating an entire people group. This might initially be a hard thing for evangelicals to swallow (I’ve even been accused of being “liberal” and “not taking God’s Word seriously”). But this is an evangelical position – believing that the Bible is the Word of God creates incentives to solve contradictions, and the Bible first saying that some people were exterminated and then that they survived is a contradiction. The hyperbole theory both solves this problem, as well as the huge problem of imagining God commanding genocide.