The New Holocaust Denialists: The Need for a Metacriticism of Biblical Scholarship

Instead, the main apologetic strategy for the last two thousand years of Jewish and Christian biblical interpretation has been to justify these genocidal episodes or view them as more figurative, rhetorical, or formulaic.

By Hector Avalos
Iowa State University
November 2012

There is a new movement of holocaust denialists, and the prime architects of this movement are biblical scholars. I am speaking not of the Jewish Holocaust under the Nazi regime, but of the Canaanite holocaust reported in biblical texts.

These Canaanite holocaust denialists argue that the Canaanite holocaust did not really happen. And if it did happen, then it was justified and not analogous to the Nazi holocaust.1

The principal genocidal biblical texts are well-known, but they include Deuteronomy 7:1-6, which bears repeating in its entirety:

[1] "When the LORD your God brings you into the land which you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Gir'gashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Per'izzites, the Hivites, and the Jeb'usites, seven nations greater and mightier than yourselves,

[2] and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them; then you must utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them, and show no mercy to them.

[3] You shall not make marriages with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons.

[4] For they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods; then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.

[5] But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and hew down their Ashe'rim, and burn their graven images with fire.

[6] "For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth.

Here, there is a clear declaration of the intention to commit genocide. We also have narratives portraying genocide as actually undertaken at God’s command. Note 1 Samuel 15:1-3:

[1] And Samuel said to Saul, "The LORD sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore hearken to the words of the LORD. [2] Thus says the LORD of hosts, `I will punish what Am'alek did to Israel in opposing them on the way, when they came up out of Egypt. [3] Now go and smite Am'alek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.'"

Saul killed most of the Amalekite people (1 Samuel 15:7). If anything, Saul is accused of being morally lax for not killing everyone, but sparing a few.2

There is the well-known story where Joshua slays all the people of Jericho (Joshua 6:21-25), with the exception of those local residents who collaborated with Joshua’s genocidal atrocities. As I have argued elsewhere, Rahab should be seen as the victim of effective terrorism, and not as some testament to Joshua’s magnanimity (cf. Joshua 2:9-13).3

In addition, Joshua takes all the material possessions, but kills women and children, thus undermining the very idea the biblical authors always valued human life above material objects.

So, do modern biblical scholars show as much disdain and contempt for biblical authors as they might show for Nazi genocidal theorists?

I can count on a hand the number of biblical scholars who could do so openly.4 Instead, the main apologetic strategy for the last two thousand years of Jewish and Christian biblical interpretation has been to justify these genocidal episodes or view them as more figurative, rhetorical, or formulaic.

Thus, St. Thomas Aquinas already differentiates biblical wars from the wars of the Assyrians and Romans as follows:

Thus, too, the wars and deeds of this people are expounded in the mystical sense: but not the wars and deeds of the Assyrians or Romans, although the latter are more famous in the eyes of men.5

So, biblical wars, even when they include the slaughter of women and children, are somehow more “mystical,” and superior to the wars conducted by people regarded as barbarians. Aquinas also suggests that some of these biblical wars were more figurative than literal.


The assertion that biblical genocide actually did happen is part of an older strain of biblical apologetics that is still particularly popular among self-described evangelical Christian scholars.

Such apologetics focuses on demonstrating the historicity of biblical narratives. Archaeology and other tools were deployed to prove, for example, that Noah’s Flood (i.e., biocide) was historical and that Joshua did conquer Jericho. Usually, there was no denial that the genocide of the Canaanites occurred.

In fact, such apologists argued that the genocide not only occurred, but it was also fully justified. Gleason Archer exemplifies this approach when he stated:

Just as the wise surgeon removes dangerous cancer from his patient's body by use of the scalpel, so God employed the Israelites to remove such dangerous malignancies from human society.6

Archer’s medicalized rationale was not much different from how Nazis justified genocide by seeing Jews as a disease.7

Reuben A. Torrey (1856-1928), one of the contributors to The Fundamentals (1910-1915), a series of anti-evolutionary tracts that helped popularize the name "fundamentalist," similarly remarked:

The extermination of the Canaanite children was not only an act of mercy and love to the world at large; it was an act of love and mercy to the children themselves.8

Such an approach still survives in current evangelical apologetics, as is demonstrated by William Lane Craig’s defense of biblical genocide:

Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation. We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy. Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.9

Of course, this logic would also make a splendid argument for abortion of all fetuses as we would achieve a 100% salvation rate. Allowing children to be born, given the risk of eternal damnation, would be the least loving option by this logic (cf. Ecclesiastes 4:3).


The New Denialism rejects the historicity of some or all genocidal biblical episodes. Instead of justifying biblical genocide, now it is argued that it never did happen, and so there is little or nothing to justify. The New Denialism also continues the long tradition in biblical scholarship of viewing other Near Eastern cultures in an unfavorable light when compared to the supposedly superior ethics of the Bible.

Part of this New Denialism may be a consequence of the fact that archaeology has been unable to establish much of what is called “biblical history.” Therefore, it is argued that genocidal episodes may reflect formulaic and stereotyped war narratives full of hyperbole, but not necessarily descriptive of actual events.

However, the selectivity of denial also betrays how the ethical repugnance of genocide is beginning to bother the moral conscience of modern biblical scholarship. It has bothered the conscience of C. S. Cowles, an evangelical Christian, so much that he has proposed that we virtually de-canonize the Old Testament.10

However, this reflects a Christian bias, as I think that the New Testament can actually be more violent than the Old Testament. The Old Testament god may wish to hurt and kill you (see Deuteronomy 28:15ff), but it was only in this lifetime.

If read literally, Jesus proposes torturing those he dislikes with an eternal fire (Matthew 25:41ff). Thus, the violence is infinitely greater (for eternity) in both quantity and quality. Given the eventual violence that will be meted out to human beings considered evil, Jesus could be seen as preaching “deferred violence,” not non-violence, in Matthew 5:38-46 and elsewhere. That is why any decanonization of violent texts should include both Hebrew and Christian scriptures.11

In any case, the New Denialism uses the absence of archaeological evidence as evidence of the absence of acts considered morally wrong. But the absence of archaeological evidence is never used as evidence of the absence of acts considered morally praiseworthy. That inconsistency betrays an apologetic intent.

For example, I have yet to see a biblical scholar argue that biblical notions of “justice” may never have been carried out because we have no archaeological evidence for them. Nor do I read anywhere that we ought not praise the ethical precepts of the Good Samaritan story because it may never have actually happened.

The movement toward de-historicizing genocide can be seen already in the work of Lori Rowlett’s Joshua and the Rhetoric of Violence: A New Historicist Analysis (1996), which views the narratives in Joshua as hyperbolic propaganda rather than narrations of history.12

More recently, Richard S. Hess argues that biblical wars were mostly justified, but he does not assert the historicity of every war narrative. He remarks:

Note, furthermore, that the eight or more references to complete destruction of the cities represented by these coalitions (in which nothing was left alive) could plausibly be stereotypical descriptions for the purpose of demonstrating obedience to the command to drive out the Canaanites (Josh. 10: 28, 30, 32, 35, 37, 39; 11: 11, 14). It is possible that, after the defeat of the army, the populations fled rather than remaining in a relatively defenseless city.13

Of course, we can also “plausibly” view those texts in Joshua cited by Hess as describing the actual fulfillment of the commands in Deuteronomy 7:2 to “utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them, and show no mercy to them.”

In fact, note how Hess refers to Joshua’s obedience to a “command to drive out the Canaanites,” which seems to render more benignly the actual wording of the command in Deuteronomy 7:2 to “utterly destroy them.”

A stronger form of denialism appears in Religion and Violence: The Biblical Heritage, edited by David A. Bernat and Jonathan Klawans. After discussing the archaeological evidence for the Assyrian assault on Lachish (ca. 701 BCE), Klawans remarks:

By those same measures, the slaughter of Canaanites at Jericho remains a complete fantasy. The curious history is done not by those who accept this judgment; it’s done by those who insist that genocide was in fact carried out against the Canaanites by the Israelites, while at the same time overlooking or downplaying other better-attested incidents of violence from the time-period—such as the Assyrian assaults on Israel and Judah—that are not justified by either monotheistic ideals or scriptural texts.14

Klawans never contemplates the equally possible proposition that Assyrian war narratives, and any adjunct visual depictions, may also be mostly hyperbole or propaganda.

Nor does Klawans seem to consider the relevant archaeological data very carefully. If we compare the Assyrian siege of Lachish to how Joshua treated Lachish, then the Assyrians can look much better. According to Joshua 10:31-32:

And Joshua passed on from Libnah, and all Israel with him, to Lachish, and laid siege to it, and assaulted it: and the LORD gave Lachish into the hand of Israel, and he took it on the second day, and smote it with the edge of the sword, and every person in it, as he had done to Libnah.

David Ussishkin, a principal excavator of Lachish, examined Level VI, which he associated with the Israelite conquest, and made this observation in 1987:

The archaeological evidence indeed fit the Biblical description: a large Canaanite city destroyed by fire, the absence of fortifications enabling the conquest of the city on the second day of the attack, complete desertion of the razed city, explained by the annihilation of the populace.15

On the other hand, Sennacherib’s account of his campaigns in Judah states: “I drove out (of them) 200,150 people” (cf. Hess’s description of Joshua’s actions above).16

In other words, Sennacherib spared the lives of nearly a quarter of a million people in Judah, while the biblical accounts report that Joshua exterminated everyone at Lachish. The Assyrian depictions of the battle at Lachish indicate that many people were left alive and taken relatively uninjured into captivity instead of being massacred.17

D. L. Risdon performed the first large scale study of the osteological remains of perhaps 1500 individuals from tombs that were tenuously associated with the Assyrian siege of Lachish. After an examination of the age distributions and other features of the bones in one of the tombs, Risdon concluded:

These facts seem to tell against the theory that the individuals in the tomb were massacred, but a stronger argument against it is the fact that the only skull showing injury which might have been the cause of death is recorded.18

On the other hand, the Joshua narratives declare that killing every human being was the goal of Joshua’s conquest of Lachish, and David Ussishkin has stated that he found archaeological support for the “annihilation of the populace.” Even if Ussishkin has modified his conclusions about Lachish, it shows how absence of evidence can be interpreted in opposing ways.19

Indeed, the archaeological evidence can actually support the theory that the Assyrians did not kill every human being in Lachish and that they were not as brutal as even their own artistic depictions might suggest. So, should we now conclude that, at least in the case of Lachish, the Assyrian accounts reflect a more humanitarian stance than bibliolatrous scholars may wish to admit?

In Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence (2005), I attempted to explain why a denialist view of biblical genocide is ethically odious. It really does not matter if genocide ever was carried out or not. Historicity is a red herring. What matters is that the principle of genocide was endorsed with divine imprimatur by many biblical authors.

Arguing that ancient expressions of genocidal intentions and concepts are ethically neutral or irrelevant if they never were carried out is like arguing in the 1920s that Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf is not so bad since he had not acted on any genocidal views in the 1920s, when he wrote it. In the 1920s, we could have argued that Mein Kampf was merely the rhetorical hyperbole and propaganda of a raving lunatic.

In 1543, Martin Luther wrote a venomous anti-Jewish tract called On the Jews and Their Lies, which contained a seven-point plan for the Jews that even Lutheran Luther scholars say was similar to the Nazi plan. Martin H. Bertram, the translator of Luther’s work, comments: “It is impossible to publish Luther's treatise today, however, without noting how similar his proposals were to the actions of the Nationalist Socialist regime in Germany in the 1930's and 1940's.”20

So should we not declare Luther’s sentiments to be morally repugnant because he did not carry out those plans in his lifetime or because these plans were not carried out for the next 400 years or so?

Yes, it may be true that not every genocidal sentiment was ever carried out in history. But it is also true that every genocidal act had a preceding genocidal sentiment. The Bible is not free of those genocidal sentiments, and Christian history is replete with genocidal and anti-Jewish violence that used the Bible as an authority.

Nor will it help to say that we cannot judge biblical authors by modern ethical standards. The fact is that we ALWAYS judge ancient texts by our current ethical standards.

Note, for example, how often biblical scholars praise biblical authors, who supposedly stood for “justice” and “liberation.”21 Note how often Assyrians are described as more warlike or more brutal. So, what standards are being used to judge those biblical authors or neighboring Near Eastern cultures?

Similarly, claims of counter traditions and subversive readings for genocidal narratives are usually nothing but apologetic exercises under a new name.

The fact is that we could perform a similar apologetic exercise with an anthology of German literature, which could include both Nazi and anti-Nazi voices. That exercise would not change the fact that the those voices supporting Nazi policies would be morally abominable, regardless of whether our German literature anthology included anti-Nazi voices.

In the case of the Bible, the problem is not that this canon of books lacks diverse voices. The problem is that modern biblical scholarship still pervasively wishes to excuse and whitewash those genocidal voices simply because the larger collection of books may include alternative voices. More importantly, many biblical scholars hold this collection of books to be sacred to them, and not just to believers in the past.

I prefer a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to genocide: Any canon of books that any time, or in any portion, endorses genocide, either conceptually or pragmatically, should not be viewed as a modern cultural or moral authority.


It is shameful that we are even having a debate about the justifiability of biblical genocide in the twenty-first century.

It is true that, as compared to the Canaanite holocaust, we have overwhelming evidence for the Nazi holocaust. Therefore, it may be unjust to describe modern biblical scholars as “holocaust denialists” if they don’t believe in the historicity of the genocide of the Canaanites.

However, scholars who deny the historicity of the Canaanite genocide usually also deny that genocidal concepts and sentiments expressed in the Bible are ethically repulsive, and so they still merit the term “denialist” in that sense.

Biblical scholars should have as much contempt for genocidal sentiments in biblical literature as they do for genocidal sentiments in Nazi literature. Period.

A principal reason to challenge the New Denialism is to make biblical scholars aware of how much they have participated, and continue to participate, in perpetuating the type of bibliolatry that has led to so much violence, hatred, and actual genocide. As mentioned, actual acts of genocide are always preceded by genocidal sentiments.

Empires, of course, usually frame their agendas as liberatory and benign. Biblical scholarship is still often operating as part of the detritus of Christian empires, which often used the Bible as their textual authority. And like good propagandists for their Christian empires, biblical scholars often try to preserve biblical values and ideals, which are often framed benignly despite the abominable genocidal and biocidal ideologies that the Bible can espouse.

So, what we need is a robust metacriticism of biblical scholarship, wherein the values, prejudices, and ideology of biblical scholarship itself are discussed and interrogated.

Fortunately, the Society of Biblical Literature now does have a unit devoted to such issues, and it is called Metacriticism of Biblical Scholarship, which will debut in Chicago.22

Although genocide and biocide are not the topic of this year’s sessions, Metacriticism of Biblical Scholarship signals the start or continuance of an important dialogue in which all biblical scholars should participate.


*Unless noted otherwise, all biblical quotations are from the Revised Standard Version as presented in Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger (eds.), The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).

1 For the specific denial that the genocide of the Canaanites is comparable to the Nazi holocaust, see Joel S. Kaminsky, “Did Election Imply Mistreatment of Non-Israelites?” HTR 96/4 (2003):397-425. I respond to Kaminsky’s more specific arguments (especially his claim for the “cosmic” nature of biblical genocide) in Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2005), pp. 160-162.

2 See also Louis H. Feldman, “Remember Amalek!” Vengeance, Zealotry, and Group Destruction in the Bible According to Philo, Pseudo-Philo, and Josephus (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2004).

3 Avalos, Fighting Words, p. 162.

4 See, for example, R. Norman Whybray, “‘Shall not the judge of the earth do what is just?’ God’s Oppression of the Innocent in the Old Testament,” in Shall Not the Judge of the Earth do What is Right? Studies in the Nature of God in Tribute to James L. Crenshaw, edited by David Penchansky and Paul L. Redditt (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2000), pp. 1-19. See also R. Norman Whybray, “The Immorality of God: Reflections on Some Passages in Genesis, Job, Exodus and Numbers,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 21 (1996), pp. 89-120.

5 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I-II 104.2 ad 2. Our citations of the Summa Theologica are from the first complete American edition in three volumes translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1947).

6 Gleason Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982), p. 121.

7 On the use of medical rhetoric by the Nazis, see Götz Aly, Peter Chroust, and Christian Pross, Cleansing the Fatherland: Nazi Medicine and Racial Hygiene (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).

8 R. A. Torrey, Difficulties in the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, n.d.), p. 60.

9 William Lane Craig, “Slaughter of the Canaanites,” Reasonable Faith at:

10 C. S. Cowles, “The Case for Radical Discontinuity,” in Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide, edited by Stanley N. Gundry (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 13-44

11 See Hector Avalos, “The Letter Killeth: A Plea for Decanonizing Violent Biblical Texts,” Journal of Religion, Conflict, and Peace 1, no. 1 (fall, 2007): On-line at:

12 Lori Rowlett, Joshua and the Rhetoric of Violence: A New Historicist Analysis (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996). See also K. Lawson Younger, Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History Writing (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990).

13 Richard S. Hess and Elmer A. Martens, War in the Bible and Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008), p. 30.

14 David Bernat and Jonathan Klawans, eds., Religion and Violence: The Biblical Heritage (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007), p. 9.

15 David Ussishkin, “Lachish: Key to the Israelite Conquest,” Biblical Archaeology Review 12 (February, 1987), pp. 18-39, quotation on p. 38. For the suggestion that the Philistines could have destroyed the Late Bronze town in Level VI, see Paul E. Jacobs, “Lachish,” Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible edited by David N. Freedman (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), p. 782.

16 See James B. Pritchard, The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), p. 271.

17 See Yigael Yadin, The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands In the Light of Archaeological Study (2 vols.; New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963), 2:432-37. Along with depictions of mistreatment are also depictions of men, women and children seated peacefully on carts or marching without any sign of injuries on them. See also David Ussishkin, “The Assyrian Attack on Lachish: The Evidence from the Southwest Corner of the Site,” Tel Aviv 17 (1990):53-86; idem, “Symbols of Conquest in Sennacherib's Reliefs of Lachish - Impaled Prisoners and Booty,” in Culture Through Objects: Ancient Near Eastern Studies in Honour of P.R.S. Moorey, edited by T.F. Potts et al. (New York: Oxford, 2003), pp. 207-217; idem, “Sennacherib's Campaign to Philistia and Judah: Ekron, Lachish and Jerusalem,” In Essays on Ancient Israel in Its Near Eastern Context; A Tribute to Nadav Na'aman, edited by Y. Amit et al. (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2006), pp. 339-357.

18 D. L. Risdon, “A Study of the Cranial and Other Human Remains from Palestine Excavated at Tell Duweir (Lachish) by the Wellcome-Marston Archaeological Research Expedition,” Biometrika 31 (July, 1939):99-166, quotation from p. 106.

19 See David Ussishkin, “The Chronology of the Iron Age in Israel: The Current State of Research,” Ancient Near Eastern Studies 45 (2008):218-34.

20 Martin Luther, On the Jews and Their Lies (translated by Martin H. Bertram in Luther’s Works: The Christian in Society IV, edited by Franklin Sherman [55 volumes; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971]), p. 268, n. 173. See also, William Montgomery McGovern, From Luther to Hitler: The History of Fascist-Nazi Political Philosophy (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1941); Christopher Probst, Demonizing the Jews: Luther and the Protestant Church in Nazi Germany (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012); Eric W. Gritsch, Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgment (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).

21 Examples are too numerous to list, but they include almost anyone writing a “biblical theology:” See further, Hector Avalos, Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011).

22 I do not claim to represent the views of all the members of this new unit. The official description of the mission of this new unit is: “This unit critically evaluates suppositions in and underlying biblical scholarship, including how an explicitly non-religious approach differs from what is even now represented as historical-critical scholarship, especially when compared to other secular disciplines within the Humanities (history, classical studies) and the Social Sciences (e.g., anthropology, sociology).”


See also:

Comments (21)

Let me take up a couple of topics from this rich spread, those being Eternal Punishment and violent histories.
Religion is in part an attempt to deal with the moral paradoxes of life by depicting them as part of a universal, not merely human, structure. We want certain crimes not to go unpunished but punishment is itself nasty and horrible. So we set up a big picture of a universe dominated by a heaven and a hell and by a judge of terrible majesty. Plato in Republic I gives the basic reason for this sort of procedure, which is that we need to escape from the here and the now and the personal if we are even to begin to appraise ourselves rationally. At the opposite end of the scale from the here and the now and the personal we have the eternal and immutable, but we cannot project the human condition on to eternity with any real understanding. So when we speak of eternal punishment or eternal bliss we cannot completely mean what we say - sometimes the most rational thing, most successfully sublimating our baser passions, is to use language that has gone beyond language's proper reach.
It's along these lines that I would seek to argue against treating with scorn and contempt the whole literary and artistic tradition that has tried to deal with eternal reward and punishment, the biblical element of that tradition included. I would want to treat it with reserve and in a critical spirit, but that's a bit different.
Histories or accounts of the past that constitute reflections on ideology and violence can be useful in making us face up to one of the deepest problems of morality, that our very attempts to be morally pure, and to embody those attempts in the institutions of a religion, can taint and envenom us. It's wrong to look away from this serious paradox but I'd rather contemplate it through fiction than through reality. So I'd rather believe (which is not a reason for believing, of course) that the terrifying Book of Joshua is a poetic reflection on violence written in the peaceful period of Iranian rule than that is all reportage and actuality. (What if it's rather later, written or edited in the period when the Hasmonean monarchs were sharpening their swords?) I do draw a distinction between a text projecting violent feelings on to the past and one calling for violence here and now.

#1 - Martin - 11/14/2012 - 11:22

I applaud your courage in revealing these honest views that some will no doubt label ‘anti-Semitic’. Such a barbaric ‘Old Testament’ mindset is also used to justify atrocities done in modern times. Whether genocide is evil or God-willed seems to rely only on the religions (or lack thereof) of those involved. I would also like to point out that the Craig article you referred to reveals an even more disturbing trend among such denialists and Christian apologists: Craig argues that the ‘true victims’ were the Israelite soldiers who had to carry out God’s commands and slaughter all those people. Craig asks you not to condemn these Israelite crusaders, but to weep for their hurt feelings as they raped and murdered. This is exactly the reason why Richard Dawkins refuses to debate Craig. And exactly the reason why I intend to. I hope that your work (particularly The End of Biblical Studies) ushers in a new era of Biblical scholarship. Looking forward to the new unit.

#2 - Raphael Lataster - 11/14/2012 - 11:35

Thank you, Mr. Lastater. I would like to emphasize that the New Testament can advocate more violence than the OT, and so my essay is also meant to challenge the common Christian notion that the OT has the "angry" god, while the NT always advocates a peaceful and more loving theology.

#3 - Dr. Hector Avalos - 11/14/2012 - 14:11

Dear Hector,
Thank you for a very clear paper! I hope the ensuing discussion remains as clear.

If I could suggest a different perspective on the highly provocative way that holy war functions in the Hebrew Bible's narrative tradion, you might reconsider your otherwise very intelligent comments. If one considers how the author's motifs of 'fear' and 'terror actually function in Hebrew Bible texts, it might carry us a bit away from the world of evangelical and fundamentalist readings which absorb all too much of your interest. You should not ignore the ironic potential of the narrative structure which places Israel and Judah as the ultimate victims of Yahweh's holy war. Even less do you attend to the revolting figure of Yahweh as the god of war in Genesis 9:2, a perception of divinity that the very texts you work with, find so much in need of change. You forget that it is Yahweh who fights holy war, not Israel. At Jericho, they merely blow trumpets and walk in circlesMore than a decade ago, Mario Liverani and Giovanni Garbini organized a conference on: Holy War and Just War in the World of Antiquity, with nine different papers covering as many perspectives and fields (See, M. Liverani, ed., Guerra Santa e Guerra Gusta del Mondo Antiquo alla Prima Eta Moderna, Studi Storici 43/3, 2002, 631-871. It was quite striking that of the nine papers, two (T. L. Thompson, 'La Guerra santa al centro della teologia biblica' and Biancamaria Scarcia Amoretti, 'Teroizzare íl Jihad percorsi interni all'Islam e letture storiografiche'--that is, the two papers dealing with the Biblical and the Islamic traditions) argued that their traditions--mythic and theological as they were--in fact opposed war and its terror in spite of the fact that such divinely driven tropes dominated their literature.
The meeting in Chicago, I hope, will be most interesting as my paper, at least, takes up the theme of holy war. Unfortunately, because of very recent eye surgery, I will not be there personally and Doug Knight will present and (I hope) defend my paper, in spite of its understanding that the Jericho story is fictive--and, indeed, ditto for the rest.

#4 - Thomas L. Thompson, Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen - 11/14/2012 - 14:54

You have done a good job, Mr. Avalos, with pointing out that Biblical scholars are not always quick to condemn the ideas behind the descriptions of the fictional supposedly noble violent acts written about in Joshua, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. However, 'Holocaust Denialists' is not really an appropriate term for those who are insufficiently quick to condemn the ideas behind the description of a fictional supposedly noble holocaust-'apologists for genocidal thoughts' would be a better term to use. Also, to quibble, the entire population of Judah in 702 BC was less than 150,000-Sennacherib's account is exaggerating the number of captives. The destruction of Lachish VI is also far better attributed to the Philistines than Israelites. Assyrian war narratives were often hyperbolic, but the Kingdom of Assyria was a real imperial power that actually did accomplish most of the violent acts its government supported, described, and considered noble and just.

#5 - E. Harding - 11/14/2012 - 20:47

In those days people killed civilians in wars. If the Israelites went to Canaan peacefully, would the Canaanites have greeted them with open arms or with war? Would they kill the Israelite men, women, and children, or maybe enslave them? Were the Canaanites child-sacrificers or not? Were they innocent kind people?

If you had a war then, and you let the women and children live, would the boys grow up to get revenge later, so you would have generation after generation of wars? Would that be better?

Kenneth Greifer

#6 - Kenneth Greifer - 11/14/2012 - 21:04

Dear Thomas,
Thank you for your comments, and I look forward to hearing your paper in Chicago even if you cannot be there.

RE: “You forget that it is Yahweh who fights holy war, not Israel.”

In Fighting Words, I address the very idea that Holy Wars were fought by Yahweh. The fact remains that the commands in Deuteronomy 7 were to people, and to be carried out by people.

Likewise, the miraculous aspects at Jericho were largely restricted to destroying the walls. Joshua’s forces, not Yahweh, are described as carrying out the genocide. Many other ANE narratives are said to be fought by, or with the help of, a god.

But that did not mean that people, believing themselves to be agents of that god, also fought in reality. Many people still do so today.

#7 - Dr. Hector Avalos - 11/15/2012 - 09:35

Mr. Greifer,
RE: “In those days people killed civilians in wars.”

I am not sure what “in those days” means. Is it your belief that civilians are no longer killed in war or targeted?

As recently as 1945, the United States targeted and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in a nuclear holocaust at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Around the world, there are still conflicts where civilians are targeted, even if on smaller scales.

RE: “If you had a war then, and you let the women and children live, would the boys grow up to get revenge later...”

That is a very common defense of biblical genocide. However, not everyone followed the policy of killing everyone, as is clear from Assyrian sources.

More importantly, the main reason for genocide given in Deuteronomy is not the fear of future retaliation, but the fear that the Israelites would be corrupted by Canaanite religion (see Deut. 20:17-18).

In other words, it is religious intolerance that is cited as a main reason. I address the supposed archaeological evidence for the corrupt nature of Canaanite religion here:

Moreover, those who think these narratives to be theological fiction never interrogate why the god of these narratives did not use miraculous means to prevent such atrocities.

The writers of these narratives believed in a god who could move heaven and earth, and who can destroy the walls of Jericho. The writers could surely have imagined a god who could have rendered all the women barren so that no children would be born in order to be killed later (see Genesis 20:17-18).

Finally, and in contrast to the way in which many biblical scholars see the Bible, we do not hold the genocidal narratives of other ANE cultures as sacred or as cultural authorities today.

#8 - Dr. Hector Avalos - 11/15/2012 - 09:40

Dear E. Harding,
RE: “Also, to quibble, the entire population of Judah in 702 BC was less than 150,000-Sennacherib's account is exaggerating the number of captives.”

I am not necessarily advocating that we read that number in Sennacherib’s account literally.

What is important is that Sennacherib’s account saw sparing the lives of that many people as something to be praised, whereas the Joshua narratives saw killing everyone as something to be praised.

Even if Sennacherib really values taking an exaggerated number of captives, then that still differs from the ideal of killing everyone exhibited in the Joshua narratives.

So even in hyperbole one can see a difference in ideals.

#9 - Dr. Hector Avalos - 11/15/2012 - 09:43

Dear Kenneth,

you don't really get the meaning of this. It is not a matter of whether or not it happened, it is about reception history, how these texts of violence were interpreted in later times as a legitimation of genocide and such things. By claiming that it really happened on a historical level, and then denying that it happened, that is holocaust denial. There is nothing to deny: As I have said elsewhere, it is not the Bible that kills, it is people reading the Bible (my Kalashnikov lecture in Edinburgh in 2006).

A note on Sennacherib: Everybody can read the annals, and everybody can study the reliefs of the conquest of Lachish, but there is more to it than violence; there is also expressions of how well the people who surrendered were treated. Yes, they were taken away--in the eyes of the Assyrians to a better life. Look at the scene were Assyrian soldiers are playing with the children of the abducted inhabitants of Lachish, who are placed on wagons filled with supplies.

And finally: If somebody tries to excuse what is written in Joshua and similar literature: One crime does not justify the next. We cannot use this war ideology for anything. If anything it demonstrates what I wrote more than ten years ago, that these biblical authors were "Talibans".


#10 - Niels Peter lemche - 11/15/2012 - 10:47

Mr. Greifer asks whether the Israelites could have expected the Canaanites to welcome them. Well, if we take the Biblical record at face value there was the precedent of the welcome accorded to Abraham, by the Philistines especially, even though he treated them rather badly - and this the Israelites with their long cultural memories could have recalled. (I wish people would read their Bibles more.) The Genesis story may arouse considerable scepticism but it may also contain some genuine cultural memory of a time when societies and polities were more fluid and open things than they were to become. Of course the Joshua narrative is based on the idea that the other peoples were not to be given any choice but slavery, expulsion or death: which hardly rescues the morality of the conquerors from Professor Avalos' reservations.
Wars in the ancient world did not always lead to the total elimination of an existing population by the winning side - think of Thucydides' witness or even of the legends surrounding Troy. People knew then as well or as badly as they know now that marching into the territory of people who have done you no harm (as with Israel and Canaan) taking what was theirs and killing many of them was wrong, more than wrong, in all normal circumstances. That is why an absolutely special, unique divine donation of the land is invoked. Professor Avalos might say that this just shows what a bad thing belief in God is, though I would think that the idea of overriding normal morality has morphed comfortably enough into post-theistic 'existentalist' forms. But then I don't think that you get rid of the problems with which religion has wrestled by getting rid of religion. Mr. Greifer does not reveal his full philosophical position - maybe it's a fairly radical kind of existentalism. I hope that any who put these ideas into practice may repent. Perhaps (to affront Professor Avalos) there is divine justice somewhere.

#11 - Martin - 11/15/2012 - 17:24

You could say that the Bible condones genocide for religious reasons, but you should also mention that any people of the children of Israel who worshiped idols were also killed, so the rules were not just for other peoples, but for Israel too. Deut. 13:13-19 seems to say that they would destroy their own towns if they worshiped idols. I am not sure if it means foreign people or people of Israel who worship idols in these places.

Kenneth Greifer

#12 - Kenneth Greifer - 11/15/2012 - 18:47

Dear Hector,
You write: "But that did not mean that people, believing themselves to be agents of that god, also fought in reality. Many people still do so today."
I could not agree with you more! And, taking this together with Niels Peter's reference to reception history: this literature has had a horrendous and wholly unacceptable reception, justifying genocide.
A good example of such is 1 Esdras.
My point was entirely different and I apologize for my lack of clarity. I was considering the literary function of these allegories on Yahweh Sabaoth, particularly in Genesis 1-9 and Exodus 34 and Numbers 13-14, but also in severaæ of the stories in the so-called Deuteronomistic history, the narrator's voice object to this violent, revolting deity and the disasters that follow his every decision from the garden story to its reiteration in Jerusalem's fall.

But I do not ignore the murderous use of this literature and find your article very welcome.

Thomas L. Thompson
Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen

#13 - Thomas L. Thompson, Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen - 11/16/2012 - 09:31

Mr. Greifer,
I comment on Deuteronomy 13 here:

Deuteronomy 13 simply adds to the list of horrific acts that biblical authors can advocate. To say that you have to kill family members if they do not conform to your religion is not anything we should ever contemplate as good.

Nor is it quite analogous to the Canaanite genocide. Deuteronomy 13 requires that a case of actual idolatry be committed before a family member can be executed.

However, in the case of the Canaanites, and especially infants, they are to be summarily executed without any necessary act of idolatry being committed by them.

#14 - Dr, Hector Avalos - 11/16/2012 - 13:12

Thank you Dr. Avalos for foregrounding what I have seen as a undeniable double standard in biblical scholarship and in the profession: when scholars or practitioners are troubled by a biblical event or passage, they try to justify it by referring to it as "metaphorical" or "representational not factual" to emphasize a point or to teach a moral lesson. When, however, biblical scholars or practitioners agree with a biblical event or passage -- that it accords with their moral worldview -- then they claim assert or argue for the concrete historical reality of the event or the passage's antecedents. This double standard is nothing less than intellectual dishonesty.

#15 - Warren J. Blumenfeld - 11/16/2012 - 23:52

Religion is based on genocide, but hidden in words the exemplify a terrible god's/gods' design to eliminate opposition. I find nothing in my studies that shows mercy or love by any god in the Bible. It is time that research looks at what is printed, not the interpretation to fit a specific agenda. That is not scholarship.

#16 - Dr. Arthur Frederick Ide - 11/17/2012 - 21:06

Dear Arthur Frederick Ide and Warren Blumenfeld,
You write, respectively: It is time that research looks at what is printed, not the interpretation to fit a specific agenda and this double standard is nothing less than intellectual dishonesty.'

I find this kind of judgment astonishing. I read stories like that in Exodus 34 and Numbers 13-14 a bit differently. This kind of God is hardly tolerable! Doesn't he have to learn something about mercy and compassion? I find the kind of fundamentalist reading of the Bible which is so shocked by holy war rhetoric that it can not deal with rhetorical intention, frankly, little more than nonsense!

#17 - Thomas L. Thompson, Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen - 11/27/2012 - 14:38

Dr. Avalos

Scholars of ancient Greek mythology don't tend to write scholarly articles denouncing the Olympian gods who incited and prolonged the Trojan War, for the very simple reason that nobody believes these gods existed. Instead, scholars focus on the possible historical event on which these mythologies are loosely based, and on the cultural milieu in which these mythologies were told and passed down.

In this light, aren't you generalizing when you speak of the approach of "biblical scholars"? Isn't there a difference, for example, between the theologian who cites archaeological studies to support his religious views, and the historian who cites the same studies to, perhaps, understand the context in which the Deuteronomists edited these stories?

#18 - Beau Quilter - 12/02/2012 - 18:20

Dear Beau Quilter:
RE: In this light, aren't you generalizing when you speak of the approach of "biblical scholars"?

The main point of my book, The End of Biblical Studies, is that biblical scholarship is permeated by theological and apologetic agendas despite claiming to exercise a "historical critical methodology."

I addressed numerous examples of theological/apologetic agendas in what has been called biblical archaeology, biblical history, textual criticism, and biblical literary criticism.

So even in cases where archaeology is used to support the context of the Deuteronomistic History, you can still find theological and apologetic agendas, and I noted some of them in this essay (e.g., absence of archaeological evidence is used to erase "bad" events, but not "good" events in the DtrH).

Those agendas exist at least partly because biblical studies historically has been, and still largely remains, part of an ecclesial-academic complex.

Biblical studies, indeed, is very different from classical studies in this regard.

#19 - Dr. Hector Avalos - 12/02/2012 - 19:07

Dr. Avalos

Thanks for the clarification. Now I'm going to read your book.

#20 - Beau Quilter - 12/11/2012 - 22:26

The End of Biblical Studies is an excellent book; it has influenced me greatly. Avalos is great at 'saying what needs to be said', which is something worth emulating.

#21 - Raphael Lataster - 01/11/2013 - 03:32


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