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In a number of passages in the Bible, particularly surrounding the Pentateuch and following histories, there are instances where God commands the Israelites to "drive out" various groups of people or, as below, to "destroy them."

16 However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. 17 Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. - Deuteronomy 20:16-17

My question is, what do the words "completely destroy them" actually mean here and in other related verses? Is it death, as is suggested below:

34 At that time we took all his towns and completely destroyed them—men, women and children. We left no survivors. 34 At that time we took all his towns and completely destroyed them—men, women and children. We left no survivors. - Deuteronomy 2:34

Or merely the destruction of their idolatrous practices and cultures?

5 This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. - Deuteronomy 7:1-5

Or something else? I've also heard that many of these verses are instances of hyperbole, such as "completely destroy everything that breathes" (Deuteronomy 20:16). What does the original text actually say/imply?

Edit: Working under the assumption of inerrancy of scripture.

  • This is a Very Important Question, and one that gets misconstrued/misuderstood. I hope there are some rabbinical references to this question also. The fact that God, and not man gave this commandment gives an entirely different understanding to this issue. – Tau Feb 9 '16 at 1:45
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At issue is the meaning of three Hebrew words or phrases:

  1. חָרַם, charam: ‘to exterminate’ or ‘destroy completely’;
  2. יָרַשׁ, yarash: ‘to destroy’ or ‘dispossess’; and
  3. לֹא תְחַיֶּה כָּל־נְשָׁמָֽה: “not keep alive any breathing” (e.g. De.20:16, YLT).

Within the genocide stories in Deuteronomy, the meaning of these words is clear and literal. As in De.20:16-17, these phrases often appear together, the writer repeating and reinforcing the violent intention in clear language. Frequently the narrative itself emphasizes the totality of the intended destruction, as in the story of the Midianites in Numbers 31 where Moses is angered when the command to kill all but the girls is disobeyed, and he then repeats the original command until it is literally accomplished. In these cases there is no reason to consider the commands to “utterly destroy” and “exterminate” as anything but completely literal.

The question of Why the writers of Deuteronomy told these stories in this violent way is another matter, and it starts with asking,What genre of literature is this? Reading the Deuteronomic 'history' as literal history is contradicted by archaeology and even by other biblical texts (e.g. cities and peoples destroyed in Joshua reappear in Judges, as do the Midianites). Though the commands to “utterly destroy” and “leave nothing alive” were meant literally and even obeyed to the letter within the story, they don’t reflect what actually happened in history. The Good Samaritan literally bandaged the literal wounds of the man literally left for dead, but the story itself is a parable and not history. Hermeneutics explores the meaning of individual words AND the purpose of the story overall.

The difficult hermeneutical task in understanding Deuteronomy’s genocide stories, therefore, is not in defining the meaning of the words (which is clear and literal) but in understanding the intention of Deuteronomy’s writers, which were likely related to theology and identity formation within nascent Judaism rather than strictly historical.

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    Probably important to note that the point of ḥrm (> charam) is not destruction for its own sake, but consecration (which, for theological reasons, here involves complete destruction) ("to devote to the ban" or some such, cf. LXX ἀναθεματίζω). I think this could be used to support your point (and something mostly lost in translation, so helpful to point out) but the theology of ḥrm is beyond me. – Susan Feb 13 '16 at 22:39
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I Sam 15:3 makes it pretty clear: "Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey."

This is pretty hard for us to accept, that even newborn babies would be slaughtered. But Samuel condemned Saul for even saving animals to sacrifice and also Agag, the king.

One of the difficulties is thinking that these slaughtered human beings won't have a chance to be saved. But Revelation tells us that "...the rest of the dead are not resurrected till the end of the thousand years." Rev. 20:5 The 'rest of the dead' will include every man, woman and child who ever lived (excluding the already resurrected Firstfruits) and they will hear the Truth and be given the chance to accept God's ways. This sentence in Rev 20:5 should be in parenthesis because it is just an aside. John is speaking of the First resurrection, just mentioning that all others who are dead (I.e. not in the first resurrection) will stay dead until the thousand years are finished.

The pagan peoples of Canaan were not just idolaters. They sacrificed their children to Molech, they very likely had endemic diseases from sexual immorality and unclean ways, even their animals may have been polluted and diseased by wrong feeding and cross breeding.

When God told the Israelites if they obeyed Him that He would bring 'none of these diseases' (Deut. 7:15) on them that the Egyptians had, it was because in following Gods ways they would not incur those penalties; the very diseases they would likely bring to their camps if they took the animals and people of Canaan as spoils of war.

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This is a call to genocide, as the wording states, not hyperbole. Krish Kandiah refers to this as 'The Joshua Paradox'. Scott Hahn, Curtis Mitch (The Gospel of Mark, page 35) point out this is one of the many laws distinctive to Deuteronomy that are absent from earlier Mosaic legislation.

First of all, a lesser fate applies in verses 20:10-15 to cities outside the Promised Land, as the attacking Israelites are to offer peace conditions that include servitude, and if these terms are not accepted then only the adult males are to be slaughtered, with the women and children becoming the property of the Israelites:

Deuteronomy 20:10-15: When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it. And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee. And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it: And when the LORD thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword: But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the LORD thy God hath given thee. Thus shalt thou do unto all the cities which are very far off from thee, which are not of the cities of these nations.

This can be compared to Deuteronomy 20:16-17, which commands total destruction of all living persons in the cities the Israelites are attacking in the Promised Land. The reason for this is supposedly that any Canaanite left alive can influence the Israelites to pagan beliefs:

Deuteronomy 20:18: That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods; so should ye sin against the LORD your God.

Wesley Morriston says ('The Problem of Apparently Morally Abbhorent Divine Commands', published in The Blackwell Companion to The Problem of Evil) that as things are, commands like these do not pass moral muster and can not reasonably be attributed to God. He cites Robert Adams to say that purported messages from God must be tested for coherence with ethical judgements formed in the best ways available to us. As to the 'purported' comment, Morriston says that this command, and others like it, occur in speeches, opening up the possibility that the Bible accurately reports what Moses said, but that he misunderstood what God wanted the Israelites to do. He then examines the case that God only meant the Israelites to kill as many as possible, not every living person, but then goes on to say that according to many highly respected theistic philosophers it is inappropriate to reject any part of scripture on moral grounds. He cites Eleonore Stump to say that not only must we interpret these texts literally but we must try to find a way to approve of them and learn from them. Morriston of course has much difficulty in finding anything morally useful to be learnt from these texts. He says at the very least those who deny there are serious moral errors in the Bible must show that it is not unreasonable to believe that the biblical rationale [emphasis Morriston] for each problematic command is consistent with God's perfect goodness.

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  • I probably should have stated this in my question, but I would like to assume inerrancy in asking this question. I will edit to update. – user12109 Feb 12 '16 at 0:33
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    @LilligantEX Some would say that assumptions of inerrancy are incompatible with hermeneutics, which is what this site is all about. Hermeneutics is the philosophy and methodology of text interpretation, not merely the application of assumptions. – Dick Harfield Feb 12 '16 at 3:54
  • I'm sure some do! But I do not think it's a requirement of the field. Either way, I believe my question can be answered while still following inerrancy. Nevertheless, I appreciate your response. :) – user12109 Feb 12 '16 at 4:58
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    Hi @LilligantEX, as our tour says, "We welcome Jewish, Christian, Atheist and other viewpoints as long as they take seriously the process of understanding the Biblical texts." Over on Christianity.SE there is room for asking what particular groups with a commitment to inerrancy think about various issues (though "inerrancy" itself is not adequate scoping in my view), but here we welcome ways of interpreting the text that may violate our own assumptions. This can be educational. – Susan Feb 12 '16 at 13:49
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I'd like to make three preliminary points, then answer the original question.

First, a passage that was not mentioned commands the Israelites to completely destroy fellow Jews, should they turn to idolatry:

12“If you hear someone in one of your cities, which the Lord your God gives you to dwell in, saying, 13‘Corrupt men have gone out from among you and enticed the inhabitants of their city, saying, “Let us go and serve other gods”’—which you have not known— 14then you shall inquire, search out, and ask diligently. And if it is indeed true and certain that such an abomination was committed among you, 15you shall surely strike the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying it, all that is in it and its livestock—with the edge of the sword." [Dt 13:12-15]

Thus, that the intent of the commandment for total destruction was not against a particular people, but against idolatrous religion and culture. So I must take issue with the use of the word genocide in reference to these passages, a word which is quite universally understood as indefensible and immoral in the highest degree, indicating "crimes against humanity." Such a highly flammable word cannot be rightly drawn out from the passage (though it can easily be read into it). The destruction was judgment upon sin, not presenting them as an offering to God (for they were anything but holy), and not a wanton act of genocide.

Secondly, Deuteronomy is presented by the writer as history, and treating it as such is the right approach, over against speculating about what the ancient writer might not be telling us, what facts he omitted, or possible motives of the writer which are nowhere to be found in the text itself. The heart of the Judeo-Christian religion(s) is not theories about God and men, but historical facts. To undermine these based on cynical modern assumptions is not honest interpretation of scripture, but simply demolishing it.

Thirdly, I am altogether in agreement with the suggestion that the real task at hand isn't defining the words, but getting at the intention of the original writers. The trouble is, their intention can never be discovered empirically and conclusively, other than by interpreting the text and context. In this case, the intention is either to record the history (as is plain and obvious). Rejecting that, suggest any motive you please, but don't suggest that it is anything more than an eisegetical theory.

And so, to answer the question with the assumption of scriptural inerrancy: the OT writer was right and honest and forthcoming with all the details; "completely destroy" meant to kill every living creature; and it was God who declared this complete and total judgment against the idolatrous nations in Canaan, including any Jewish community which should stray into idolatry.

Again, from the point of view of inerrancy, the Scriptures are not in question. What is in question is the character of God, God's right to doom entire nations, and the justice of that complete destruction. This is where the inerrancy advocate has the most difficulty, the way things are today, and is likely the real motivation behind the OP's question.

A humanist may proclaim that God has no right to doom entire nations, or that God couldn't have possibly commanded such a thing. But he cannot infer this from the Scriptures. A textual-critic may dismiss this or that passage, but that's just avoiding the text rather than interpreting it.

The assumption of inerrancy makes ones interpretation dependent on the Scripture itself with the presumption of belief. Is God in the right if He destroys a nation, or commands his people to do so, or floods the entire world, or sends his own people into slavery? We can only approach sort questions with logic that comes from faith, credo ut intelligam, to use Augustine's formula.

Is inerrancy an assumption that is incompatible with interpretation of scripture? Only if the viewpoint of faith in God is incompatible with scripture. Inerrancy demands faith, and such faith strengthens logic.

A logic that justifies God is called a theodicy. Is theodicy a hermeneutical method? Yes, in this case it was exactly Moses' own method of interpreting God's actions in Deuteronomy:

"He is the Rock, His work is perfect; All His ways are justice, A God of truth and without injustice; Righteous and upright is He." [Deut 32:4]

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