In this fifth blog on the Canaanite conquest, we’ll return to the issue we ended our last post with: some passages suggest that all the Canaanites were annihilated, while others suggest that they were not. What do we do with this?

One option is that the Bible contradicts itself. And many have taken this view. But before we chalk up the problem to a hopeless contradiction—a big problem, of course, for those who believe that the Bible is inspired—let’s consider another option. Perhaps there’s a bit of hyperbole in the Biblical account of the conquest.

Last night, the Dodgers slaughtered the Yankees. I mean, they absolutely annihilated them!

We use hyperbole all the time. (Just like my phrase, “all the time.”) The language of slaughtering and annihilating the Yankees is overstating something to make a point. (Though the Dodgers really did beat them up pretty good. “Beat them up,” there I go again…) That’s hyperbole. It’s when you make comprehensive and sometimes exaggerated statements to make a point. You may think that there’s no way the Bible does that! But think again. Hyperbole is a common language device used in armenian-genocide-denial-2Scripture. “If your right eye causes you to stumble, then tear it out and throw it from you,” says Jesus (Matt. 5:29). Sounds painful, and it would be if taken literally, as would “swallowing a camel,” which Jesus says the Pharisees were quite fond of doing (Matt. 23:24).

The Bible sometimes overstates something to make a point. Since this is true, then perhaps the biblical phrases that refer to total annihilation are hyperbolic—they are overstating the case to make a point. I know, this may sound fishy. But our only other option is that the Bible contradicts itself, so let’s explore the hyperbole option a bit further.

How would we prove that the annihilation statements are hyperbolic and therefore not actually saying that everyone was killed? For one, the fact that the Canaanites weren’t all killed is one good piece of evidence that the statements are hyperbolic. Other evidence can be found by looking at ancient war rhetoric. If Joshua used hyperbole, was this a common practice among other nations? The answer is yes. For instance, the Egyptian pharaoh, Tuthmose III said that “the numerous army of Mitanni was overthrown within the hour, annihilated totally.” But historically speaking, the folks of Mitanni, including their soldiers, continued to fight well after Tuthmose had died. They weren’t totally annihilated. Tuthmose was using hyperbole. Again, the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II fought against Israel and said that “Israel is wasted, his seed is not,” suggesting that Israel ceased to exist as a people. That’s what “his seed is not” means. But this was in the 13th century B.C. and Israel continued to live on. Clearly Ramses overstated the case.

The point is well known and thoroughly document by historians: hyperbolic language about comprehensive defeat was typical war rhetoric and wasn’t intended to be taken literally. If this were true—and there’s every reason to believe that it is—then Joshua didn’t annihilate every single Canaanite.

Here’s one more clear example of hyperbolic rhetoric within the conquest account. Joshua 11:22 says that “There were no Anakim left in the land” (Josh 11:22) after Joshua got through with them. Sounds like total annihilation. But later, Caleb asks permission to drive out the Anakites (same people) from the hill country (Josh 14:12-15; cf. 15:13-19). Therefore, either the book of Joshua contradicts itself, or the first verse (“there were no Anakim left in the land”) is hyperbolic. I think there’s a good biblical case for the latter.

Now, let’s revisit Joshua 10:40, which sounds like Joshua killed every single Canaanite:

“So Joshua struck the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings. He left none remaining, but devoted to destruction all that breathed, just as the LORD God of Israel commanded” (Josh. 10:40).

We should note two things—one we have already proven, and another we will suggest.

First, we have proven that Joshua didn’t actually “devote to destruction all that breathed” in the whole land of Canaan. The phrase must be hyperbolic (or contradictory!) and simply means that Joshua took control of the land. Second, I suggest that this hyperbolic phrase helps us to understand God’s original command in Deuteronomy 20, where He said: “you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction” (20:16-17). Compare Joshua 10:40 with Deuteronomy Genocide Rwanda20:16-17 and it seems clear that whatever Joshua 10 means—and it doesn’t mean total annihilation—it is intended to describe Joshua’s fulfillment of God’s command in Deuteronomy 20. The language is the same. Therefore, since the fulfillment was understood by its author to be hyperbolic, then it seems likely that God’s command in Deuteronomy 20 was also understood to be hyperbolic. If this is true—and I’m only suggesting it as a legitimate possibility based on biblical evidence—then God never commanded a wholesale slaughter of “everything that breathes” in Canaan. He only intended Israel to kill those who stubbornly resisted His offer of grace (unlike Rahab, who accepted it) and desired to remain in rebellion against their Creator. Such people would be “driven out.”

This suggestion isn’t bullet proof, but I think it carries some good merit. Many Evangelical scholars, in fact, agree that God didn’t intend for Israel to kill every Canaanite without qualification. But even if God did actually command a wholesale slaughter, we do know without a doubt that no such slaughter actually happened.

But there’s one more sticky issue that we have to wrestle with. What about the references to “women and children, old and young” that were killed? Did God command Israel to kill babies?

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for this perspective, Preston. This is something I’ve been wrestling with a bit recently as well, and I appreciate your take on it. Perhaps there is some legitimacy to this. I certainly don’t doubt that the Bible does at times use hyperbole.

    However, I’m stuck on one thing. Maybe you could share your perspective on it? (Or maybe you already covered it in the past? I just started following this blog recently.)

    “Thus says Yahweh of hosts: ‘I have observed what Amalek did to Israel, how he opposed him when he went up from Egypt. So then, go and attack Amalek and utterly destroy all that is his! You must not spare him, but kill both man and woman, both child and nursing infant, both ox and sheep, both camel and donkey.’” (1 Samuel 15:2–3, LEB)

    According to the theory you propose here, Yahweh’s command should be interpreted hyperbolically. That is, they should be utterly defeated, but they don’t literally have to be wiped out entirely.

    That also seems to be how Saul interpreted it, as he did indeed save alive the king and a few animals.

    “He captured Agag the king of Amalek alive, but all the people he utterly destroyed with the edge of the sword. However, Saul and the army spared Agag and the best of the sheep and the cattle and the second best of the young fatlings and all that was valuable; they were not willing to utterly destroy them. But all the possessions that were despised or worthless, they utterly destroyed.” (1 Samuel 15:8–9, LEB)

    But what was Yahweh’s response?

    “I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not kept my word.” (1 Samuel 15:11, LEB)

    Samuel went to Saul with the following message:

    “When Yahweh sent you on your way, he said to you: ‘Go! You must utterly destroy the sinners, the Amalekites, and you must fight against them until you have destroyed them.’ Why did you not listen to the voice of Yahweh and fall with shouting on the plunder? You have done evil in the sight of Yahweh!”

    Well, you know how the rest of the account goes. It seems like Saul was punished for not literally wiping out absolutely everyone as Yahweh had commanded. Thus it seems that (in this account, at least) it should not be interpreted hyperbolically.

    I’m eager to hear your response though. I really do like your suggestion, and I don’t want to shoot it down. I just want to be sure that it is faithful to all Scripture.

    • Great question, Chuck! And let me just say first that the tone of your question is super admirable. Humble, respectful, sound reasoning yet willing to be corrected. Your social tact is a model for all. All you feisty bloggers out there, who claim Christ as Lord, take note!

      So, here’s my response.

      First, admittedly, the stuff I’ve said in this blog and previous ones only apply to Joshua’s conquest, not every instance where God commands war or, as in 1 Sam 15, total annihilation. So I’m willing to have 1 Sam 15 be more literal and still keep the conquest as hyperbolic.

      But second, is there a case for reading 1 Sam 15:3 as hyperbolic? I think there is, though it’s not bullet proof. As you noted, Saul actually did kill every single Amalekite except for Agag and the best of the animals (15:9). Now, we also know that Samuel “hewed Agag to pieces” (15:33) moments later, so this means that if we take the passage literally, then there should be no more Amalekites–no humans, at least.

      But look at the rest of 1 Samuel. In 1 Sam 27:9, David kills (again?) all the Amalekites in the land “leaving neither man nor woman alive.” So it seems that even though 1 Sam 15:8 says that Saul “devoted to destruction all the people with the edge of the sword,” the “all…people” must be hyperbolic (or we have a contradiction between 1 Sam 15 and 27).

      Again, even though David seemingly finished the job in 1 Sam 27, we continue to hear about more battles with the Amalekites all throughout 1 Sam 30 and again we read about an Amalekite in 2 Sam 1:8. And even though Agag was chopped up by Samuel the butcher, many years later we read about “Haman the Agagite” in Esther 3:1.

      So it seems that there’s some evidence in the text to show that either 1 Sam 15:3 should be taken as hyperbole (like Deut. 20:16-17; Josh 10:40), or there’s a contradiction.

      I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, Chuck (or from anyone else listening in).

        • Ya, good question. It seems that he’s explicitly rebuked for sparing “the best of the sheep and of the oxen” (15:15). The point can be seen in vv. 14, 21, and again in 15:19, where Samuel says: “Why then did you not obey the voice of the LORD? Why did you pounce on the spoil and do what was evil in the sight of the LORD?” I don’t see anything crystal clear in the text that locates the sin of Saul in failing to spear Amalekite infants.

          The whole passages smells of Saul’s pride–and ANE kings would often show off their power and might by “pouncing on the spoil” of the enemy to bolster their fame and wealth. So it seems that Saul is doing what Samuel said he would do: he’s acting like a typical ANE king–“like the nations” (1 Sam 8).