How Should We Understand Divine Commands to Destroy? A Response to Paul Copan

Written by Nicholas K. Meriwether |
Tuesday, March 26, 2024

God requires that the state, a collective entity, punish evildoers (Rom. 13:4). This “sword” can be carried by the state in dealing with its own citizens, or with the army of a foreign power. Of course, to go beyond those directly responsible for the evil being judged and to punish the innocent along with them requires the explicit instructions of God, and this has occurred in only one instance: the herem against the peoples of Canaan, people groups so evil that the land itself “vomited” them out (Lev. 18:26-28). Without explicit divine instructions, however, innocent civilians may not be singled out by an army or the state, which is precisely the evil perpetrated by Hamas against Jews on Oct. 7.

On Nov. 27, Paul Copan responded to a reader’s inquiry concerned about the language of divine judgment in Ezekiel 9, specifically, Ezek. 9:5-6. 6 men, likely angels, are appointed by God to exercise divine judgment against the inhabitants of Jerusalem. One man is assigned the task of marking those who are repentant so that they may be spared, but the others are to kill the rest of the people, including women, young adults, and children:

And to the others he said in my hearing, “Pass through the city after him, and strike. Your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity. Kill old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women, but touch no one on whom is the mark.”

While there may be various factors that lessen the severity of the divine injunction, such as that not everyone in the city is destroyed, there is no getting around the fact that in this and in other instances of divine judgment, some who appear innocent of the actions bringing judgment are not spared, including children, even infants, as well as adults not in positions of authority. The moral question is intensified by the fact that in several passages, it is not angels who execute divine judgment, rather God commands the nation of Israel itself to carry out his judgment, that is, to carry out herem (Deut. 7:1-2; 20:16-18; Josh. 6:21; 1 Sam. 15:1-3).[1]

Paul has written extensively on this topic, most recently in Is God a Vindictive Bully?[2] In his response to the inquirer, Paul claims that such passages do not mean what they appear to mean, rather this is Ancient Near Eastern hyperbole, or “trash talk,” mixed with merism, an inclusive rhetorical expression, as when we say we looked “high and low.” While I appreciate the enormous effort Paul has made to exonerate God of acting unjustly, and though I am neither a theologian nor a Bible scholar, I remain unconvinced that he is successful in respect to herem.[3] While it’s always possible that the Bible exaggerates or employs widely-accepted hyperbole, several instances in which herem against the innocent is commanded specifically and in detail make it implausible that mere hyperbole is meant.

Which Cities to Destroy: Deuteronomy 20:10-18

Here God instructs the Israelites regarding how to attack a city. They first must offer terms of peace, and only besiege it if the residents refuse. By contrast, if the city is a Canaanite city, they must “save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction” (vv. 16-17). The interpretation that this is mere hyperbole doesn’t fit with the fact that two categories are specified, and different instructions assigned to each category. Why would mere hyperbole be employed in the giving of instructions if the eventual treatment is the same? I suggest the simpler explanation is that we take the instructions at face value. This interpretation is reinforced in the passages below.

Achan and his Family: Joshua 7

God had commanded Joshua to place the entire city of Jericho under herem (6:17-18) in keeping with the deuteronomic herem policy for all the Canaanite peoples (see above). However, Achan violates the policy by keeping some of the herem bounty for himself, and so Israel is defeated by the people of Ai. When Joshua cries out to God, he is divinely guided to Achan. The latter, his entire family, and all their earthly goods are placed under herem, viz., Achan and his family, including his sons and daughters, are stoned, and all Achan’s goods are buried under rock (vv. 24-26). Joshua’s actions are fully in keeping with the herem policies in Deut. 20; there is simply no reason to think this is hyperbole or merism. But if it is not in this instance, why should we think the original policy is?

The Destruction of the Amalekites: 1 Samuel 15

Saul is instructed to destroy the Amalekites. Speaking for God, Samuel tells Saul,

“Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction [herem] all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (v. 3).

Yet Saul fails to complete the task, sparing the sheep and cattle as well as the king, Agag, and for this reason, is rejected by God. God tells Samuel, “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments” (v. 11). When Samuel goes to deliver the news to Saul, he says, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears and the lowing of the oxen that I hear?” (v. 14) Saul responds by saying that although he had devoted the Amalekites to destruction, he had spared the livestock as well as the king (v. 20). Is Saul using hyperbolic language with Samuel? This hardly seems likely. After announcing to Saul that he has lost the throne, Samuel calls Agag, who comes hoping “the bitterness of death is past” (v. 32). Why would Agag anticipate his death if no one other than Amalekite warriors had died in battle? Samuel then kills Agag himself (v. 33). The straightforward reading is that this passage is consistent with Deuteronomy 20 and Joshua 7: Saul had violated herem when he spared Agag after killing all the Amalekites.

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