Evangelicals and the Old Testament, Part 1: Rejoinder to Paul Copan on Violence in the Bible

Divine commands of violence and genocide in the Old Testament are a perennial problem for evangelicals. Paul Copan, a well known Christian apologist, has responded to my chapter on this topic in the recent publication Misusing Scripture: What are Evangelicals Doing with the Bible? In this rejoinder, I point out and explain the theological special pleading and ethical white washing that evangelicals frequently engage in due to their commitments to their views on the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible.

See Synopsis of Misusing Scripture: What Are Evangelicals Doing with the Bible?

By Joshua Bowen
Digital Hammurabi
October 2023

In a recent post on the website “North American Mission Board,” Paul Copan offered a short critique of my recent chapter “‘Your Eye Shall Have No Pity’: Old Testament Violence and Modern Evangelical Morality,” in the edited volume Misusing Scripture: What Are Evangelicals Doing with the Bible?[1] In typical Christian apologetic fashion — and quite in keeping with the critiques that we offered in the volume — Copan attempts to offer a defense of divine commands of violence and genocide in the Hebrew Bible. In this brief rejoinder, I would like to point out some of the problematic arguments and positions that Copan sets forth.

Copan begins with a claim that I failed to address a particular aspect of one of the primary apologetic arguments concerning divine commands of violence. He writes, “…we observed that the descriptions of the Canaanite wars utilize various forms of hyperbole … Bowen doesn’t engage with this.”

This assertion is simply incorrect; I clearly stated that the Hebrew Bible likely utilized hyperbolic language in various contexts, which was in keeping with ancient Near Eastern literary practice. For example, I wrote, “The goal, therefore, is not to argue hyperbole does not exist in various OT passages, but rather to illustrate there are many narratives that rise and fall on the story’s non-hyperbolic nature.”[2] I go on to say, “There are obvious similarities between many genres found in the OT and other ancient Near Eastern writings, including different accounts of violence and conquest (Dozeman 2015, 67).[3] What we see in this section of Joshua is the author utilizing a method of writing similar to what was used by the Assyrians.”[4] Finally, I comment, “Assuming the biblical authors were at times utilizing ancient Near Eastern war rhetoric, and this use of hyperbolic language somehow creates a justification for the OT’s violent and genocidal descriptions…”[5] and “Even if true, this does not alleviate the problem of divine commands of violence and genocide.”[6] In other words, the point of my article is not to delve into the finer points of Lawson Younger’s arguments about the use of ancient Near Eastern war rhetoric in the biblical texts, which I suspect are used as literary devices in various texts.[7] Instead, my goal was 1) to point out the special pleading that evangelicals and Christian apologists must do in order to use the biblical texts to justify their positions on violence and genocide, and 2) to show that hyperbole cannot be applied as a blanket principle to all narratives.

Copan goes on to critique the “massive invasion” theory that is at odds with the archaeological data. The way that he does this, however, is somewhat confusing. First, he points out that cities like Jericho and Ai were military cities, which did not house civilians. He then argues that the Israelites did not occupy the cities that they attacked, but rather “returned to base camp at Gilgal.” Finally, he argues that the Canaanites vastly outnumbered the Israelites, attempting to downplay the numbers presented in Exodus 12:37, an argument that has been addressed elsewhere by other scholars (including myself).[8]

It would seem, therefore, that Copan is attempting to reconcile the lack of Late Bronze Age occupation and destruction in most of the cities described in the conquest narrative, not by challenging the archaeological data (quite the uphill battle), but rather by downplaying the nature of the conquest itself. That is, he seems to argue that 1) there weren’t that many Israelites; 2) they didn’t take civilian centers; 3) these were just raids rather than occupation.

The problem, however, is that his arguments are unfounded. First (and absolutely foremost), the elephant in the room for Copan is the utter dearth of Late Bronze Age remains that are required for a historically reliable reading of the conquest narrative. Arad, Heshbon, Dibon, Jericho, Ai, and Lachish (among others) are incredibly problematic for a historical reading of the biblical narrative. Most of these sites were either completely abandoned or barely occupied during the purported time of Moses and Joshua’s conquest. Copan’s attempt to downplay the extent of the violence or the scope of the invasion cannot overcome these issues.

Furthermore, with respect to his argument concerning the size of Israel, the narrative does in fact describe Israel as a massive horde; passages like Deuteronomy 20:1 and 7:7 (and for that matter Joshua 11:4: “And they [many of the kings in Canaan] went out, along with all their armies with them — a great multitude, like the sand on the seashore in multitude — along with very many horses and chariots”) do not disconfirm the many other passages (e.g., Exodus 12:37; 30:12-16; 38:25-26; Numbers 1:46; 2:32; 11:21-22; 22:1-5; 26:51; Nehemiah 9:22-23) that describe a huge mass of people.

Arguing that these weren’t civilian centers is also incredibly problematic, even if one were to only rely on the biblical narrative. Rahab and her entire father’s household (including brothers, sisters, parents, etc.) were those rescued from Jericho (Joshua 2:17-20; 6:22-25). Ai was home, specifically according to the text, to men and women (Joshua 8:24-27). And notice the summary statement of Nehemiah 9:25: “And they captured fortified cities and fertile land, and they took possession of houses full of every good thing, hewn cisterns, vineyards, olive groves, and many fruit trees. And they ate and were satisfied and became fat and enjoyed your tremendous goodness.” Of course, we know from the archaeological data that these cities, along with their hinterlands, were home to non-military personnel, except (with respect to the cities) during the Late Bronze Age, when these sites were either abandoned or scarcely populated at all.[9]

Finally, these were not simply raids performed by the Israelites; the text claims that they occupied these cities, and archaeology tells us that even the important site of Hazor was an Israelite city in the Iron Age. Indeed, even a cursory reading of Joshua 10-11 shows the extent to which the Israelites were said to have occupied the land. Copan’s arguments are all simply apologetic attempts to reconcile the data that do not conform to his preconceived interpretation of the text.

Copan then attempts to argue that there should be a significant distinction drawn between the presentation of the defeat of Sihon and Og in Numbers 21 (the more realistic account) and what is found in Deuteronomy 2-3 (the more embellished or hyperbolic account) which leads (somehow) to a less genocidal view of the divine commands. But does this really hold up under examination?

Copan’s point seems to be that the “real” account of what transpired against the Amorites can be found in Numbers 21:23-31. Let’s take a look at what the text says: “But Sihon did not allow Israel to cross through his territory. But Sihon gathered all his people and went out to meet Israel in the wilderness. And he came to Jahaz and fought against Israel. And Israel struck him with the edge of the sword and possessed his land, from Arnon to the Jabbok, as far as the sons of Ammon, because the border of the sons of Ammon was strong. So Israel took all these cities and Israel dwelled in all the cities of the Amorites, in Heshbon and in all its daughter cities … So Israel dwelled in the land of the Amorites. Then Moses sent out someone to spy Jazer, and they captured its daughter cities and dispossessed the Amorites who were there” (Numbers 21:23-25, 31-32).

I won’t spend a great deal of time on this, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that Copan is correct: Israel only killed enemy combatants and drove out the inhabitants of the rest of the Amorites from their homes without killing most or all of them. Is this really so much better for Copan? Notice that the act of “dispossessing” is not in any way peaceful: “And Moses said to them, ‘If you will do this thing, if you will arm yourselves before Yahweh for the war so that all your men armed for battle cross over the Jordan before Yahweh until he has dispossessed your enemies before you, so that the land is subjugated before Yahweh, then afterward you may return and be free of obligation before Yahweh and before Israel, and this land will be your inherited property before Yahweh’” (Numbers 32:20-22). Here we see armed men, ready for war, taking the land by force. Whether or not the text engages in hyperbole with respect to killing every last human being is somewhat beside the point, as far as a defense against violent commands is concerned.

Is this the apologetic argument that he wants to make? “Well, sure, they killed the king and all the men of fighting age, and then violently drove the people out of their homes and took over their land… but at least they didn’t kill all of them!” It reminds me of the movie The Lord of the Rings, where the Uruk-hai were driving the people of Rohan out of their homes, or in The Hobbit, where the dwarves are forced out of their mountain home by the dragon. Is this really the image of mercy that Copan is attempting to paint for us?

What Copan appears to miss in this analysis, however, is the meaning of words in their respective contexts. The use of the Hebrew haram/herem — as most words in any given language — can take nuanced meanings in various contexts. In fact, it seems likely that haram/herem itself may have developed in its meaning through the editorial history of the biblical texts. Nevertheless — as was my point in the chapter — in the contexts in which it appears in places like Deuteronomy, the word carries the meaning “to totally annihilate” or “to utterly destroy.” Whether this is used in a hyperbolic way in certain contexts is not the point. What is imperative, however, is to evaluate the individual contexts in order to determine if hyperbole is intended, and in certain narratives, hyperbole would render the story incoherent. This is the case, for example, in the stories of Rahab, Achan, and Saul with the Amalekites.

Finally, Copan engages with 1 Samuel 15, attempting to show that, because the Amalekites show up again in 1 Samuel (and in later passages, for that matter), the narrative cannot intend a total or all-encompassing idea. In my article, I briefly mention that there are editorial issues in the books of Samuel (that Copan will probably not allow for, as they would not align with his view of inspiration and authorship). These should be factored into the formation of the book of Samuel and even this story about Saul in relation to the stories about David. Nevertheless, it does not follow that, if the author of 1 Samuel 15 presented the Amalekite enemy as suffering total annihilation, this would necessitate that no further mention of the Amalekites could take place. The Amalekites themselves were a cosmic enemy of Yahweh and Israel, as described in Exodus 17:8-16 and Deuteronomy 25:17-19. And even though Copan wishes to dismiss the pastoral-nomadic nature of the Amalekites as presented in the biblical narrative, this likely provides for the group to arise as a “perennial” enemy of Israel and function as a foil for the Israelite kings in the narratives. In short, we must take the narratives as they stand in their coherent forms, rather than attempting to redefine terms and concepts to make the texts say what they clearly do not.

Perhaps what is most interesting about Copan’s critique of my contribution, however, is his almost complete disregard for the primary arguments in the chapter. As I mentioned above, the point of the contribution was to show how evangelical Christian apologists often want to use ancient Near Eastern parallels to their advantage (in this case, war rhetoric), while not acknowledging the special pleading that often comes along with such positions. In addition, many of the narratives require the total nature of the “ban” in order for the stories to make literary sense. Copan fails to seriously engage (if at all) with either of these two points. He simply makes vague and suggestive arguments that ultimately (at best) lead the reader to think, “Maybe we shouldn’t take the narratives to mean that they killed everyone.”

In the end, however, a much larger issue remains for Copan and those who make similar arguments. Let us, for the sake of argument, grant Copan all of his assertions. The biblical texts did not intend the reader to conclude that the Israelites killed EVERYONE. Therefore… what? Where would Copan go from here? Is it okay that the Israelites simply killed a LOT of people? Is it moral that they drove a large number of people from their homes as they displaced them from their cities? Is there no ethical issue that Saul and the Israelite army only killed a LOT of the Amalekites? It would seem that Copan must argue that the Israelites were justified in invading the land of Canaan, as they were acting on orders from their God. When it is pointed out that other ancient Near Eastern kings claimed to do the same (as I did clearly in my chapter), Copan must argue that these other kings were not justified, as their gods were not the one true God. This is the special pleading to which these arguments generally reduce.

Furthermore, Copan’s assertion that it was not genocide because the Israelites stopped short of killing everyone is fallacious. Genocide does not require every last person to be killed. Genocide can be defined as “the crime of intentionally destroying part or all of a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, by killing people or by other methods.”[10] The fact of the matter is, even if hyperbole was used in particular passages, this does not mean that the writer meant anything other than many people were killed. As John Collins told me, “You see, hyperbole… in order to have hyperbole, you have to have something to hyperbolize. You know what I mean? And as you know well in the case of the Assyrians, they were hyperbolic. Sure. Does that mean that they didn’t kill anybody? Hell no!”[11]

I highly suspect that a Christian apologist would condemn the actions of the Neo-Assyrian kings who claimed to utterly destroy entire populations, although they likely only killed many (but not all) people. In other words, claiming that Sennacherib did not kill EVERYONE, and therefore his actions were justified, would not hold for Copan. Arguments like “they deserved to be destroyed or driven out because of their sin” or “it was hyperbolic language, so killing a lot of them was okay” will only work for Copan and other evangelicals when one presupposes that the deity that commanded such violent actions was the one true God, and therefore justified in issuing such divine judgments.

[2] Joshua Bowen, “‘Your Eye Shall Have No Pity’: Old Testament Violence and Modern Evangelical Morality,” in Misusing Scripture: What are Evangelicals Doing with the Bible? (ed. M. Elliott, K. Atkinson, and R. Rezetko; Routledge New Critical Thinking in Religion, Theology and Biblical Studies; London: Routledge, 2023), 177-199 (189).

[3] Thomas B. Dozeman, Joshua 1-12: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AYB; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 67.

[4] Bowen 2023: 189-190.

[5] Bowen 2023: 190.

[6] Bowen 2023: 190.

[7] K. Lawson Younger, Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History Writing (JSOT Supplement, 98; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990).

[8] See Joshua Bowen, The Atheist Handbook to the Old Testament, Volume 2 (Mechanicsville: Digital Hammurabi Press, 2022), 176-182, with bibliography.

[9] Bowen 2022: 78-143. See also William G. Dever, “Christian Fundamentalism, Faith, and Archaeology,” in Misusing Scripture: What are Evangelicals Doing with the Bible? (ed. M. Elliott, K. Atkinson, and R. Rezetko; Routledge New Critical Thinking in Religion, Theology and Biblical Studies; London: Routledge, 2023), 131-152. For information on the Late Bronze Age/Iron Age I settlements in Transjordan and Cisjordan, see William G. Dever, Beyond the Texts: An Archaeological Portrait of Ancient Israel and Judah (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2017), 119-247, 629-633.

[11] Video interview entitled “Violence in the Old Testament: Examining Biblical Values with Dr. John J. Collins,” June 4, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s2JwYPfDM6A, 19:15-40.


Article Comments

Submitted by David Madison on Tue, 10/24/2023 - 02:44


"When it is pointed out that other ancient Near Eastern kings claimed to do the same (as I did clearly in my chapter), Copan must argue that these other kings were not justified, as their gods were not the one true God."

This comment, and the rest of the article, misses the point. The ancient world was violent. Given this reality, what was the best way for God to achieve His purposes? Suppose that God had chosen Israel and then turned them into pacifists. Israel would have been quickly wiped out. The only way for Israel to survive was to do what other ancient peoples did. Once Israel had become established, it was possible for God to lead them along a path that would ultimately be of great benefit to the world. The modern world is a more ordered and civilised place than the ancient world. This is the result of a culture that owes much to Judeo-Christian tradition. Things are far from perfect now but the kind of judgements that Joshua Bowen is making would not even be possible without the influence of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

I suppose it is a problem of complacency. People like Joshua Bowen enjoy the benefits of living in the modern world but they rarely think about what it has taken to get to where we are now. Their thinking is shallow and facile.

Hi David,

I'm afraid that you may have missed the point of both my chapter and this rejoinder. I am an Assyriologist; I study the languages and cultures of ancient Iraq. The point of my academic endeavors in the ancient Near East is not to call attention to what we would consider to be immoral actions in ancient cultures in an attempt to condemn their behaviors. Rather, I am addressing divine commands of violence and genocide in the Hebrew Bible because of the all-too-common use of biblical texts by Evangelicals in establishing and supporting their own moral system (see John Collins' book on biblical values for a good discussion of this). When problematic passages that concern things like rape, slavery, violence, and genocide are brought to their attention, this poses a difficulty for their interpretive framework. Thus, they very often downplay the severity of the immoral behavior (again, from our modern vantage point), or simply deny that said behavior took place. This allows them to maintain their theological convictions and to utilize these biblical texts to dictate their ethical systems (and often attempt to impose them on others). This is a misuse of ancient texts. In short, I am not critiquing the biblical texts or those who composed them for their violent content, any more than I am critiquing Neo-Assyrian royal inscriptions for their violent content. Instead, I am addressing the apologetic attempt to downplay the severity or reality of said violence that is done in order to maintain certain theological positions.


Submitted by David Madison on Wed, 10/25/2023 - 02:24


Thank you for your reply, Joshua. It seems to me that you were indeed making a moral judgement. You said, "Is it okay that the Israelites simply killed a LOT of people? Is it moral that they drove a large number of people from their homes as they displaced them from their cities? Is there no ethical issue that Saul and the Israelite army only killed a LOT of the Amalekites?"

Your answer, presumably, would be No. I'm not exactly sure what your aim is, but you say, "Rather, I am addressing divine commands of violence and genocide in the Hebrew Bible because of the all-too-common use of biblical texts by Evangelicals in establishing and supporting their own moral system." Does this mean that the Bible should not be appealed to as authoritative because it contains commands that are no longer applicable? If people were using the Bible to justify the violent capture of land then I would agree with you. But what if someone appeals to the authority of the Bible on marriage, for example? Would you object to that on the grounds that the Bible also commands violent conquest? That would be very misguided.

Hi David. I worry that I am being unclear. Let me try again. There is a difference between my thinking that slavery is immoral and my condemning people in an ancient society for practicing slavery. In the same way that I think it immoral to physically discipline one of my five children, that does not mean that I would condemn someone in the 1950s for beating their child. However, if someone were to say, "We should get back to raising children like they did it in the 1950s," then I would point out that they beat their children. If that person were to retort, "No, that was just metaphorical", I would point out that children were actually beaten. That would not be a moral statement about beating children (although I think it is immoral to beat one's children).

In the same way, most Christian apologists and Evangelicals agree that genocide and violence against children are both immoral practices. That is why these apologetic arguments arise. When Copan argues that this is hyperbolic language, that only gets him to the Israelite army killing many people, but not all of them. Would that be better according to HIS lights? This is an internal critique. My moral position is irrelevant, in this case. If Copan believes that killing many people and driving the rest from their homes, then he would have to explain why the hyperbole makes the violence okay. So, when I ask the question "Is there no ethical issue that Saul and the Israelite army only killed a LOT of the Amalekites?", that is a question posed to him based on HIS lights, not mine.

As to your second question, I think it is incredibly problematic to view an ancient text as divinely inspired and authoritative, leading people to view it in such a way that they attempt to establish their ethical system from its content. This is especially problematic when they attempt to require others to adhere to that system. Think about it this way: if I were to say, "I believe that the Neo-Assyrian royal inscriptions are divinely inspired and I am going to base my ethical system on them", you would likely not be terribly bothered by my adhering to principles of caring for the weak and providing for those under my care. However, if I were to start arguing that we should bring back slavery because the Neo-Assyrian kings in the inscriptions practiced slavery, you would likely have a problem with that. Perhaps another way to say it would be that the Epic of Gilgamesh is a wonderful story from which we can derive valuable lessons. However, we would not want to take it wholesale. In the same way, there are obviously good things that can be derived from the biblical texts. However, I think it would be misguided to base my morality on its content because it is divinely inspired and authoritative, no matter what the behavior it advocates might be. Instead, just as we might gain insights from ancient (and modern) literature, it is not because it is divinely inspired.

I hope that makes more sense.

Submitted by David Madison on Fri, 10/27/2023 - 02:19


Thanks again for the response, Joshua. Let's assume for the sake of argument that theism is true and then consider the implications. Does God take an interest in history? Does He want one thing to happen rather than another? Did God want the Allies to win the Second World War, for example. The Allies could not have won if the United Kingdom had not existed, and the United Kingdom would not exist if it had not been for the Norman Conquest. Does this mean that God supported the Norman Conquest? Most people don't lose any sleep over that question. Those who believe in God probably think that He supported the Allies but don't worry about the implications, such as the historical processes that led to the existence of the Allies in the first place.

If God has an interest in *anything* that happens in history then He must prefer all kinds of things to happen that would make us feel very uneasy. Even the more limited military action described in Numbers 21:23-31 makes me feel uneasy. That doesn't mean that God was not right to want this to happen. If military action which occurred more than 3000 years ago was a necessary part of God's long-term plans then who are we to say that it should not have happened?

I think you are wrong to reject the idea that some ancient texts are divinely inspired. How do we know that the Bible is divinely inspired but Assyrian and Babylonian texts are not? That question can be answered by considering the case for the Judeo-Christian tradition as a whole. I consider that case to be a powerful one. This, of course, does not obviate the need for great care in reading the Bible today.

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