Genocide or Hyperbole? Another look at the Conquest Narrative in Joshua – 2

Genocide or Hyperbole? Another look at the Conquest Narrative in Joshua – 2

 Flannagan, advances the thesis that the passages in Joshua 10 and 11 are better understood as hyperbole, a practice common in the ANE. He notes:

At a recent conference at the University of Notre Dame, Philosopher Alvin Plantinga suggested a possible solution is to take this language hyperbolically. He suggested phrases such as, “destroy with the sword … men and women … cattle, sheep and donkeys” are phrases to be understood more like we understand a person who, in the context of watching David Tua in a boxing match, yells, “Knock his block off! Hand him his head! Take him out!” or hopes that the All Blacks will “annihilate the Springboks” or “totally slaughter the Wallabies.” Now, the sports fan does not actually want David Tua to decapitate his opponent or for the All Blacks to become mass murderers. Plantinga suggests that the same could be true here; understood in a non-literal sense the phrases probably mean “something like, attack them, defeat them, drive them out; not literally kill every man, woman, child donkey and the like.” If this is correct then the differences between the different texts is easily explained and more significantly, the texts do not teach that God commanded genocide or that Joshua carried it out. [1]

The presence of hyperbolic elements in the Bible is hardly a new idea in the history of OT interpretation. Another perennial problem in the OT is that of the impossibly large numbers of soldiers killed in battle. A solution to which I have previously been attracted is reading the Hebrew word for ‘thousand’ as ‘unit’ or ‘division’, but this is impossible to do consistently as elsewhere it does mean 1000, and one can easily be accused of lexicographic massaging in order to eliminate a problem.

Evangelical scholar David Fouts has examined the subject of large numbers in the OT, which he acknowledges is a problem, particularly for Biblical literalists:

Those who would challenge an essentially conservative view of Scripture often do so by appealing to passages that involve large numbers. It is therefore necessary that this study be undertaken in order to discover the way that large numbers were used in the OT. Accepting them at face value often leads to internal disharmony with other Biblical passages. There are also the archeological data to contend with. These facts may no longer be ignored by conservative scholars. [2]

Anyone who is even remotely familiar with mainstream OT scholarship would readily agree with Fouts’ concern that the large numbers in the OT pose an acute problem. His solution is that the large numbers are hyperbole, designed to exalt and glorify the king or local deity:

Quite often, large numbers were employed in a hyperbolic fashion in the historiographic literatures of Sumer, Akkad and Assyria, particularly in the royal inscriptional and annalistic genres. The hyperbolic numbers occur in military contexts expressing the number of troops engaged in battle, number of enemies slain or captured, amount of spoil taken, and amount of corvée labor employed…

In a stone tablet inscription of Shalmaneser I (ca. 1275–1245) concerning the rebuilding of the temple of Eharsagkurkurra “we have the first detailed account of military operations conducted by an Assyrian king.” As such it is somewhat akin to the format of later Assyrian annals. It is full of hyperbolic language:

I slaughtered countless numbers of their extensive army. As for him Sattuara), I chased him at arrowpoint until sunset. I butchered their hordes (but) 14,400 of them (who remained) alive I blinded (and) carried off. I conquered nine of his fortifed cult centers (as well as) the city from which he ruled and I turned 180 of his cities into ruin hills. I slaughtered like sheep the armies of the Hittites and Ahlamu, his allies…

Much of the literature from Ugarit (Ras Shamra) uses the genres of myth, legend and epic. There are economic texts as well, but no royal inscriptions or other historical genres have yet been discovered. In one Ugaritic text, however, is found the largest number encountered in the research for this present work:

Let a multitude be provisioned,
and let it go out.
Let the mightiest army be provisioned.
Yea, let a multitude go out.
Let your strong army be numerous,
three hundred ten-thousands,
conscripts without number,
soldiers beyond counting.

The language of this epic literature is of course hyperbolic. One notes the terms “without number” and “beyond counting” in synonymous parallelism to the specific 3,000,000. This may support the hypothesis of my dissertation that at times the large numbers in other genres are also to be understood as literary hyperbole. [3]

He concludes:

One must wonder what implications the results of this study could have on OT scholarship, particularly in the area of conquest models. As has been noted earlier, the large numbers have often been a stumbling block for accepting the Biblical accounts as legitimate records of history. If the numbers are simply reflective of a rhetorical device common in ancient Near Eastern literature, however, one may no longer question the integrity of the record by use of this argument. The large numbers are often simply figures of speech employed to magnify King Yahweh, King David, or others in a theologically based historiographical narrative. [4]

One cannot help but recall the taunt “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands” and realise that it is quite likely that the ancient Hebrews also employed hyperbole.

1. Flannagan M. “Contra Mundum: Did God Command Genocide in the Old Testament?”  MandM August 1st 2010 http://www.mandm.org.nz/2010/08/contra-mundum-did-god-command-genocide-in-the-old-testament.html    Accessed 25th February 2013

2. Fouts D. M. A Defense Of The Hyperbolic Interpretation Of Large Numbers In The Old Testament Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (1997) 40:377-387

3.ibid., p 383-387

4. ibid., p 387

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