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Did God Really Command Genocide? | Book Review

Any contemporary reader of the Bible will be struck by the seeming divide between the God of Jesus Christ and the God who commands the destruction of whole nations and the obliteration of Canaanites during Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land. While many Christians simply don’t think about the possible difficulties of a loving God commanding genocide, that has not stopped critics of Christianity—especially the New Atheists—from using portions of Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Judges as ammunition for their assaults on Christian faith. Truth be told, this seeming contradiction between a God of Love and God of Wrath is not something new, for as early as the mid-second century a follower of Jesus names Marcion argued that the gods of the Old and New Testaments were different entities. Clearly, there is much at stake in the answer to the question: did God really command genocide in the Old Testament?

To posit an answer to this difficult question comes Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014) by Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan. As the title makes clear, this book is dedicated to considering whether or not God really commanded the People of Israel to commit genocide during their conquest of the land of Canaan. After extensive examination, Copan and Flannagan argue that no, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Jesus did not command the senseless slaughter of “everything that breathes” during the Israelite invasion of the land of Canaan. Instead, they posit that a careful, contextually and theologically informed, and continually relevant interpretation of the Old Testament reveals the loving justice of a holy God who remains the changeless law-giver of the cosmos.

Did God Really Command Genocide is divided into four major sections. Part One, “Genocide Texts and the Problem of Scriptural Authority,” examines the relationship between scripture, context, history, and ethics. This section serves as a great primer to some of the foundational issues at stake when thinking about the possibility of God commanding genocide in the Old Testament. Especially important is Copan and Flannagan’s emphasis on a contextually and historically informed reading of scripture, as well as their reliance on a reasoned approach to discerning the divine and human elements of the scriptures. This first section does a fine job setting the stage for the duration of the book as well as outlining the approach by which Copan and Flannagan think about if God commanded genocide.

Part Two, “Occasional Commands, Hyperbolic Texts, and Genocidal Massacres,” considers the specific Ancient Near Eastern context of Israel’s conquest and its record in Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Judges. For Biblical scholars and Christians interested in better understanding the Old Testament, this section stands out as the “must read” portion of Did God Really Command Genocide. Copan and Flannagan walk readers through the ethics of occasional commands, the context of ancient warfare hyperbole, and a careful reading of biblical passages which might at first seem to condone genocide. Especially for those versed in Copan’s earlier work, Is God a Moral Monster?, this section is especially compelling, filled with a plethora of eye-opening contextual explanations of scripture.

Part Three, “Is It Always Wrong to Kill Innocent People?,” outlines Divine Command Theory and posits that it is possible, morally permissible, and intellectually cognizable to affirm that God can, in certain instances, command the killing of innocents for purposes of greater good. This portion of Did God Really Command Genocide—especially chapters fifteen through eighteen—are some of the hardest to work through and intellectually affirm. While Copan and Flannagan’s presentation remains solid and (ultimately) compelling, some of the early portions of their argument seem to be motivated by a Divine Command Theory of utility, where God’s love for humanity can be superseded by the utility of a particular situation. By the end of this section, however, careful readers will realize that Copan and Flannagan’s arguments are plausible, offering a way to come to terms with Divine Command Theory and the judgment of God. In a contemporary context where the idea of divine judgment almost never carries any positive connotations, the authors do an admirable job suggesting that the theological context of Israel’s entry into the Promised Land must include consideration of God’s judgment upon the Canaanites. While it may have been suitable to draw additional connections to the first two sections of this book, the third section of Did God Really Command Genocide is ultimately a thought-provoking read.

Part Four, “Religion and Violence,” addresses claims concerning the inherent violence of monotheistic religion and comparisons between militant Islam and the Old Testament. This section offers some strong and relevant follow-up material, providing readers with some good extensions of earlier material for thinking about pressing cultural issues. While Islamic scholars might press Copan and Flannagan for more nuanced language at points, the general point of this section—that monotheistic religions are not necessarily inherently violent and that the post-Enlightenment study of “religion” is in need of serious re-evaluation—should be agreeable to Muslim and Christian alike. While a more encompassing conclusion section would have been appreciated, the broad scope of this book and the topical manner in which the fourth section ends make this portion of Did God Really Command Genocide a fitting end.

Though accessible to interested parties of many different perspectives, this book primarily addresses the claims of the New Atheist movement concerning the violence of Christianity and the Bible. This being the case, the arguments of Did God Really Command Genocide sometimes take on a repetitive or one-sided approach to a given topic. In particular, much of the first half of the book uses atheist philosopher Raymond Bradley’s presentation of the “Crucial Moral Principle” as its launching point. This is not to say that Copan and Flannagan’s arguments are faulty or even that they are limited to a “New Atheist” audience, only to note that the authors clearly write from a perspective of informed apologetics.

All in all, Did God Really Command Genocide covers an astonishing range of topics. In reality, there are almost four different (albeit, shorter) books contained within this one (admittedly 350 page) volume. Though broad in scope, Copan and Flannagan do an excellent job connecting all of their subjects. Especially helpful were the end-of-chapter summaries, which encapsulate the salient points of each chapter and keep readers connected to the broader argument of the book. Portions of this book will be difficult for those without at least some philosophy or apologetics background. Overall, Did God Really Command Genocide comes highly recommended for apologists, graduate-level biblical scholars, and Christians of all sorts interested in seriously thinking through whether or not God commanded genocide in the Old Testament.

I received this book from Baker Academic in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.

Jacob Prahlow

Jacob Prahlow

Christian. Husband of Hayley. Father of Bree and Judah. Lead Pastor at Arise Church in Fenton, MO. Alumnus of various institutions. Cubs Fan. Co-Founder of Conciliar Post.

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