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In the book “Is God a Moral Monster?" (this website too has some of its theories), the author talked about the exaggeration used in ancient Near Eastern writings as a way to explain why Joshua didn't commit genocide when entering Canaan. For instance, Joshua 10:40 is an example of such exaggeration.

So Joshua struck the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland tand the slopes, and all their kings. He left none remaining, but devoted to destruction all that breathed, just as the Lord God of Israel commanded. (Joshua 10:40, ESV)

However, does that principle apply to 1 Samuel 15?

"Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”... But Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fattened calves and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them.... (1 Sam 15: 3,9, ESV)

Here King Saul is apparently punished for leaving survivors:

And Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you.” (1 Sam 15:28a, ESV)

Though this time it is about lifestock, not human lives. However if the command to "leave none alive” (v.3) is interpreted as exaggeration, in view of typical Ancient Near East Warfare Rhetoric, isn't Saul not at fault for sparing some of the lifestock? (Apparently, Saul also spared a king, though Samuel [and God] seems to be more upset about the livestock)

Hence, if Saul was punished for leaving survivors, wouldn't that imply when God commanded "all to be killed," it literally meant so?

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Does 1 Samuel 15 disprove the "Ancient Near East Warfare Rhetoric" theory?

In short, no.

Nothing about 1 Samuel 15 disproves the Ancient Near East Warfare Rhetoric. The concept within such rhetoric is that the language is exaggeration; that God did not actually require literally every single thing which breathed to be hunted down and killed.

The article you linked to did a great job of explaining the concept, and built a good argument around it. But in order to show that 1 Samuel 15 does not disprove the theory, I'll construct an example of how the theory could stand within the passage of 1 Samuel 15. You may disagree with the interpretation here, but this is just an example of how the passage and 1 Samuel 15 can stand together:

Under "Ancient Near East Warfare Rhetoric" theory, the language Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey. is exaggeration. God is not actually expecting or commanding Saul to hunt down every last living thing under every tree and kill them all. Instead, God's purpose is that their entire society (namely, their religion and immoral practices) would be destroyed. The language "utterly destroy" is often referred to as an act of worship to God. That is, by removing the religion and practices which directly oppose God, they are offering sacrifice to God.

So, then, the purpose is not that Israel might receive plunder and wealth from the society (as God allows and provides for in various other wars), but to end the horrifying evil and extinguish the religion of the Amalekites. Instead of taking this call seriously, Saul sees the opportunity to expand his personal wealth (a recurring theme in the story of Saul - him taking God's commands into his own hands; taking the animals, making his own sacrifices instead of waiting for Samuel, etc).

Such the phrasing is important:

But Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fattened calves and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them.

The language here reinforces the idea that Saul was more concerned with his own pleasures and personal wealth than with following God's commands, or keeping Him as exalted and Holy. As such, the issue is not that Saul took survivors, but that he disregarded God's commands for personal gain. The issue was not about absolutely annihilating the animals, the issue was Saul wanting to expand his wealth instead of treating God as holy. Instead of destroying the enemy enough to wipe out their religion and evil practices, Saul got distracted and took personal wealth out of his own lust and greed. Instead of treating God as holy, he fulfilled his own desires.

And, thus, we can see how the theory the language is exaggeration (Ancient Near East Warfare Rhetoric) may still stand in light of 1 Samuel 15.

Finally, keep in mind that you may reasonably look at 1 Samuel 15 and believe it is evidence, along with other passages, that the ancient near east warfare rhetoric is wrong. But 1 Samuel 15 does not disprove the theory. Proof is a large requirement. One man may reasonably not believe in the theory based on the passage, while another still believe the theory. The point I've tried to make in my answer is that the two can stand together, and as such 1 Samuel 15 does not disprove the theory.

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  • Cegfault, you seem to be suggesting that God is the one exaggerating in the story in 1Sam.15, that God’s actual intent was that Saul only destroy the Amalekites “enough” to rid the land of paganism, though the command-as-delivered was to kill everything. Is this really exaggeration? Isn’t it only the difference between ethnic cleansing and genocide? I don’t believe ANE warfare rhetoric operates within the story itself, and if it did, this wouldn’t really qualify as exaggerated warfare rhetoric. It’s obfuscation. Why would God do that? – Schuh Mar 20 '15 at 4:41
  • Besides, what difference does a literal or rhetorical reading of God’s command make for Saul, in your reading? You’ve found an entirely new reason to find him guilty – not, as the text states clearly and repeatedly, that he disobeyed God’s (literal? rhetorical?) command to destroy, but that Saul lied about preserving the best booty to sacrifice to God and instead intended to keep it for personal gain. Doesn't your reading make God’s intention irrelevant? (BTW, Saul's lie, if it is a lie, also does not qualify as exaggerated ANE warfare rhetoric.) – Schuh Mar 20 '15 at 4:46
  • Woah, @Schuh: I think you missed the part where I said "Finally, keep in mind that you may reasonably look at 1 Samuel 15 and believe it is evidence, along with other passages, that the ancient near east warfare rhetoric is wrong. But 1 Samuel 15 does not disprove the theory." – cegfault Mar 20 '15 at 19:30
  • The question was whether it disproves the theory, not whether or not you believe the theory is correct. There's a huge difference between the two. I personally do not subscribe to ANE; I think it leaves a lot lacking. But proof is a huge burden to bear. – cegfault Mar 20 '15 at 19:31
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    I think we agree there - OP's question is actually coming from a false premise (ie, in order for ANE to be accurate anywhere, it must be accurate in 1 Samuel 15). I think we're essentially arguing (almost) the same thing, but from two perspectives: (1) I, that even if we assume ANE in 1 Samuel 15, it's still not disproven. And (2) you, that the theory is not disproven but his unstated, assumed premise is disproven (ie, that ANE must apply in 1 Samuel 15 or be false - is a false assumption) – cegfault Mar 20 '15 at 20:48
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Does 1 Samuel 15 disprove the "Ancient Near East Warfare Rhetoric" theory?

In short, yes, though not so much ‘disprove’ as reveal the theory’s misapplication by the author.

The theory is, firstly, about rhetoric, about how warfare is memorialized and talked about after the fact. Recognizing that much ANE war literature is exaggerated, some exegetes suggest the victory stories told in the Hebrew Bible may be similarly exaggerated, that readers understood the stories as not literally accurate but literarily meaningful. Whatever actually happened in history, the story of that history was exaggerated, according to the theory, to accomplish the writer’s literary purpose. It’s the way war victories were remembered and retold in antiquity.

The theory, then, is about a literary device used by authors composing war stories, not an unspoken understanding among the actors in the stories themselves.

So it is in the Book of Joshua:

“[Joshua] left none remaining, but devoted to destruction all that breathed, just as the Lord God of Israel commanded Joshua.”

Nothing in the story suggests Joshua thinks the command of God exaggerated or rhetorical. He takes God at face-value and acts accordingly, obediently.

Similarly in 1 Samuel 15, the prophet tells Saul,

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”

Nothing in the story suggests Samuel or Saul thinks the Lord’s command embellished or hyperbole; they believed God commanded the literal destruction of the Amalekites. Saul did not obey in full, and for that he was punished.

Within these stories, God DID require, literally, that every single thing which breathed to be hunted down and killed. These are the stories as written. We can note apparent problems with the stories, continuity issues, and details that appear to contradict as the narratives unfold. We can even feel uncomfortable with the stories’ violence, as Paul Copan does, and with what the stories suggest about God. But these are the stories as the authors told them. Suggesting that God didn’t mean it, that this theory decodes God’s unspoken intent, does not take the stories as written seriously. The theory does not explain action within the story itself.

The theory is helpful, however, when exploring WHY the stories were written this way. This is as true for 1 Samuel as for Joshua. It doesn't explain what God did or didn't command in history, but it may offer insight into why the Hebrew people told their warfare stories the way they did.

SOURCES:

Randal Rauser offers an excellent 3-part critique of Paul Copan’s book on the topic with Matthew Flannagan in, ‘Did God Really Command Genocide? A Review.

For more on the specific application of the ANE rhetoric in Joshua, Lori L. Rowlett provides a thorough analysis in ‘Joshua and the Rhetoric of Violence: A New Historicist Analysis.

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  • However, in case of Saul, was it ANE warfare rhetoric? If yes, then why was God upset that Saul didn't follow His command to the letter, since it was supposed to be rhetorical? If no, what in the command given to Saul that made it not so? – Extrakun Mar 13 '15 at 14:14
  • @Extrakun, I've rewritten my answer to try to address your concerns, but I think Copan has misapplied the theory, which makes your question difficult. You may find the Rauser review of Copan's book more helpful. – Schuh Mar 19 '15 at 21:59
  • As I mentioned in another comment, I think your answer is good at addressing the flaws in ANE, but I don't see how you've answered OP's question. In fact you say yes, though not so much disprove as a means of answering "does it disprove". You're right to be critical of ANE, and your answer does a good job of that. But you've even said yourself it does not actually disprove it. That's why I made a few comments in my answer that a reasonable man might look at 1 Samuel 15 and see it as evidence that ANE is wrong, but it does NOT disprove it – cegfault Mar 20 '15 at 19:36
  • @cegfault, thanks for your comments. I think the real theory of ANE warfare rhetoric, properly applied (e.g. Rowlett), is sound and very helpful. The difficulty here is Copan, Extrakun, and you are misapplying it, in my view. As Extrakun suggests and your post clearly illustrates, misapplying the theory to 1Sam.15 is highly problematic. But that's not a problem with the theory, just its mishandling. So yes, but ... – Schuh Mar 20 '15 at 20:19
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To respond to your last question - I think, Yes - He meant it so.

Your post raises the question of the morality of, and modern cultural perceptions around, genocide. So here are a few comments from my personal - and pacifist - point of view about that:

We all die, some of us as women and children. Does this mean God is unjust or unloving? To keep this answer briefer I will assume you don't think our deaths mean either God is unjust or unloving. In fact, I will assume you think that death is a good thing, in the same way both Jesus and Paul stated that they looked forward to their own deaths eagerly.

You might say, death is only good if people are believers. Personally, I think everyone will be believing on the other side of death. i.e. I hold a "Biblical Universalist" position.

Still, God could have told Joshua to kill all combatants and leave the civilians to be dispossed of the land for all their generations. That would be more in line with modern views. So here are some thoughts on this aspect:

As an Australian social worker who feels called to love and serve Aboriginal communities, I've wondered at God not over-ruling white invasion of Australia. I'm certainly aware of the intergenerational effects of the original dispossession, dislocation, grief and cultural decimation. Having said that, I am also glad and thankful that the English authorities and settlers had some good ideals around peace and harmony even though the practice - and in fact the quality of the ideals generally speaking - left a lot to be desired.

Applying this to Samuel 15... I think it would please God if Saul, and all his men, found the killing of anybody, noncombatant woman and children much moreso, terrible and unspeakably difficult. Unfortunately, in the business of nation building, killing is absolutely necessary, today as much as then and boys and men are taught to shut off feeling, hate the enemy and "do their duty". The consolations of war - a sense of important purpose, extremely close comradeship, challenge and excitement - serve to mask the negatives. Nevertheless, Saul is not reprimanded for being too compassionate but for disobedience.

It seems to me that God's experiment in nation building isn't His preferred way of converting and transforming the world. He doesn't start the experiment in history until Abraham and He eventually He abandons it (as He knew He would) to reach the world through the Church and the Kingdom of God, which, obviously, had to await His self-revelation as a human being in Jesus. However, His nation-building activity with Israel constituted an important step and link to the Incarnation, and in guiding human history for His wise and loving purposes, He can decide when and how each of us will die, don't you think? (even if one thinks He doesn't actively decide most times). A quick death by the sword is arguably much better than decades of misery as other invaded peoples have experienced? Especially if it ushers in paradise, as I believe. It is not as though Saul crew held pacifist positions themselves and were forced into killing. I really doubt their motivations for sparing some people and cattle pertained primarily, or even significantly, to compassion.

A better test of God's ability to do nation building less violently than humanity generally would be to look at the overall amount of violence involved. I like http://www.amazon.com/Fight-A-Christian-Case-Non-Violence-ebook/dp/B00DHHDUY6 for how the authors show that God was planning, and Israel sometimes achieved, perhaps the most unwarlike nation conceivable!

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  • Hi John, I appreciate your answer, however I am looking for one which addresses the theory that many of God's commands to the Israelites were phrased using the Near Eastern language conventions of the day, which is full of exaggeration. While your answer id applicable on the whole to the issue of Israelites "cleansing" Cannan, I afraid I am looking for something more specific w.r.t to the aforementioned theory. – Extrakun Mar 8 '15 at 7:28

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