Book Plunge: Did God Really Command Genocide?

What do I think of Copan and Flannagan’s newest book? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.


First off, I wish to thank Dr. Copan for sending me a copy of this Baker book for review purposes. I will state up front that I see Flannagan and Copan both as good friends, but I earnestly desire to avoid allowing any bias to cover my review. It will be up to the reader of this review to determine if I have done so.

The book starts with a question of what atheist Raymond Bradley calls the Crucial Moral Principle. This principle goes as follows:

It is morally wrong to deliberately and mercilessly slaughter men, women, and children who are innocent of any serious wrongdoing.

Most of us would in principle have no problem with that statement. In fact, in principle, neither would Copan and Flannagan. Yet that is the statement that must be dealt with as it looks like the text does have commands from God to do just that. Now of course it could be that some might say those events are just a made-up history, but in the book, Copan and Flannagan do take the task of assuming for the sake of argument that this is a real historical narrative. In fact, so do the atheists they interact with in the book. It is a way of saying “Let’s assume that there was a conquest of the Promised Land as the Bible declares. How do we reconcile that with the idea that God is a God of love?”

Some people reading the start will be wondering about the beginning. Why are we having a discussion on inerrancy? Why a discussion on what it means for the Bible to be the Word of God? All of this is important, because it is about how we are to process the information in a text and too many people have an idea that if the Bible is the “Word of God” then somehow the ordinary rules of language don’t apply and everything must be applied in a “literalistic” reading.

From there, we get into the conquest itself. Is the text using hyperbolic language? Copan and Flannagan argue that it is simply because if you take in a literalistic sense, the accounts immediately contradict. For the sake of argument, one could say there are contradictions in the text, but let us not say the writers were fools who would notice a blatant contradiction right in their midst. Many of the commands also involve not destroying, but rather driving out. The commands were also limited to war within the holy land itself.

Naturally, the authors argue against those who want to use the Bible to argue against the hyperbolic interpretation. They conclude this section by looking at legal and theological questions concerning genocide and show that by legal definitions used of genocide today, the events that took place in the Conquest really don’t work.

The third part of the book starts with Divine Command Theory. I will state that while I believe everything God commands is necessarily good and we are obligated to do it, I do not hold to DCT. I think this section does deal with several bad arguments against it and that makes it worthwhile in itself. It’s also important that you can be someone who does not hold to DCT and it will not detract from the overall position of the book.

For instance, let’s suppose you take my position and yet think that if God commands something, it is good. Then the rest of the part will still work for you. It asks if God could command events like the deaths of innocent human beings. The authors use some excellent examples about how in even our time we could picture a president commanding such an order and not condemn them. For instance, suppose on 9/11 three of the planes have hit and we know the fourth is on its way to the target. This plane no doubt commands innocent human beings, but would we understand a command from the president to have it shot down knowing innocents will die? Note that is not saying it is necessarily the right decision, but that it is an understandable decision.

The authors also deal with what if someone claimed this today. For the authors, the principle known earlier as the crucial moral principle holds if all things are equal, but if you think God is telling you otherwise, you’d better have some excellent evidence. Most Christians today would say you do not because even if you hold to God guiding people personally today and even personal communication today, most would not hold to prophecy on the level of Scripture being given today and if God commanded you to kill someone, that is not a position to hold to.

So what makes Moses and the conquest different? One is the preponderance of what are called G2 miracles. These are miracles that you could not just explain away as sleight of hand if true. For instance, when the water of the Nile turns to blood, the magicians can repeat that so yeah, no big deal. When the Red Sea parts and the whole of the Israelites pass through on dry land and the waters drown the following Egyptians, yeah. That’s not so easily explainable. The same for manna falling from the sky every day for forty years and the wonders that took place around Mount Sinai. The average Joe Israelite soldier had good reason to think Moses had some divine communication going on.

I personally found the last section to be the most fascinating and this is about violence in history and its link to Christianity. The authors cover the Crusades particularly and show some contrasts between Islam and Christianity and also point out that the Crusades have not been hanging over our heads for centuries. If anything, the usage of them is a more recent argument.

They also deal with the idea of religious violence and show that much of the violence we have seen is in fact political though often hidden under a religious veneer. Included also in this section is a piece on the question of pacifism and if there can be such a thing as a just war.

Copan and Flannagan have provided an excellent gift to the church in this book. Anyone interested in studying the conquest of the holy land and wanting to deal with the question of religious violence in general will be greatly benefited by reading this book and keeping it in their library.

In Christ,
Nick Peters


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3 Responses to “Book Plunge: Did God Really Command Genocide?”

  1. vincent Says:

    Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging.

  2. Do Religious People Have Shaky Foundations? | Deeper Waters Says:

    […] came first. Judaism is said to have committed genocide on the Canaanites, (though that can be disputed) and was seen as an anomaly in the Roman world. The only reason it was granted any leeway was […]

  3. Defend The Faith Day Four | Deeper Waters Says:

    […] evening ended with a lecture by Paul Copan, co-author of Did God Really Command Genocide who was speaking on just that topic. This was a great talk to hear and it was interesting how many […]

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