Violence in the Bible, Part 2

By Paul Copan

Not a Blitzkrieg

Critic Joshua Bowen claims that the Israelites were commanded to devote to destruction (haram) the cities of Canaan—“divine commands for violence and genocide.”[1] He also claims that the book of Joshua depicts a “massive invasion” by the Israelites and that this allegedly “contradicts” the findings of archaeology,[2] But are these claims true?[3]

In Part I of this series, we observed that the descriptions of the Canaanite wars utilize various forms of hyperbole, and we observed a sampling of clear parallel texts—and we could have added more—where we have both “annihilation” or “no survivors” language alongside “no annihilation” and “plenty of survivors” language referring to the same group of people.[4] Bowen doesn’t engage with this.

And what of his “massive invasion” notion that allegedly flies in the face of archaeological discovery? It actually doesn’t. In Part I, we discussed the attacks on Canaanite cities like Jericho and Ai; these cities of Canaan were military and administrative citadels rather than civilian centers (civilians lived in hamlets and in the hill country). These cities had a “king” (melek) or military commander.[5]

Israel conducted disabling raids on cities; the Israelites raided the cities without holding them but returned to base camp at Gilgal. Also, the Canaanites far outnumbered the Israelites (Deut. 20:1; cf. 7:7). Some have estimated the Israelites were around 20,000 in number—not literally two million people;[6] they took the land “little by little” (Deut. 7:22) and destroyed only three cities; they occupied homes they didn’t build (Deut. 6:10-11; 9:1); Judges 1 reinforces that the Israelites couldn’t drive out the Canaanites; and on at least three occasions the Canaanites attacked the Israelites (Josh 9:1–2; 10:1–5; 11:1–5)—so hardly a “massive invasion” or going against what archaeological discovery suggests. And Israel is  against numerically and militarily superior Canaanites (Num. 13:31), who had high-walled cities (Deut. 6:10; 9:1). Fear would have been the natural response (Deut. 20:8; Josh. 1:9); so to drive out the Canaanites would take great trust in the Lord

“Utter Destruction”?

In Part I, we saw that the term haram (often translated “utterly destroy”) does not always mean this. It can refer to consecration (without killing), identity-removal, exile, decisive victory. Even though Joshua obeyed Moses’ haram commands (Josh. 11:12, 15, etc.; see Deut. 7:1–6; 20:16–18), many Canaanites continued to live in the land. So we have a clear instance of hyperbole, not disobedience.[7] John Walton and Harvey Walton insist that herem is “commonly mistranslated” as “utter destruction.”[8] Understanding the meaning of haram should be guided by analysing its respective contexts. To illustrate this, let’s look at two key Old Testament battles: against the Amorite kings Sihon and Og and against the Amalekites.

Sihon and Og (Numbers 21 with Deuteronomy 2 and 3)

The story of Israel’s defeat of Amorite kings Sihon and Og was considered momentous (cf. Josh. 2:10; 9:10; 24:12; Ps. 135:10-11). Israel sought to peaceably move through their land, but these kings rose up to fight against Israel instead. Numbers 21 gives us a more straightforward account while Deuteronomy’s is hyperbolized and rhetorical.

“Do to [Og] what you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who reigned in Heshbon.” So they struck him down, together with his sons and his whole army, leaving them no survivors. And they took possession of his land (Num. 21:34–35 NIV)

We completely destroyed them, as we had done with Sihon king of Heshbon, destroying every city—men, women and children (Deut. 3:6 NIV; see also 2:33-34).

Bowen claims that Deuteronomy 2 and 3 clearly refer to the annihilation of all persons, including non-combatants.[9]But this is mistaken. A closer analysis of Deuteronomy shows it uses intensified rhetoric surrounding the word haram[10]compared to earlier parallel texts like Exodus 23 and 34. Deuteronomy 2 and 3 departs from the on-the-ground reportage of Numbers 21, where only male combatants were killed (i.e., the king, his sons, and his army); even here we have some hyperbole (“leaving no survivors”). We should note that when Sihon “gathered all his people [et-kol-ami]  and went out against Israel in the wilderness” (Num. 21:23), the NIV correctly renders this “all his forces”—not women and children.

Deuteronomy, however, uses totalizing language of women and children (3:6) and piles on further merisms: “no survivors” (v. 3), “all his cities” (v. 4), “not one of the sixty cities” (v. 4 ), “the whole region” (v. 4), “completely destroyed” (v. 6), and so on. Non-combatant language appears in Deuteronomy even though the Numbers 21 refers only to a defeated male army.

Furthermore, Sihon and his army—with military gear—marched about twenty miles—“from the Arnon [River] to the Jabbok [River]” into Ammonite territory (vv. 23–24 NIV). This obviously excludes women, children, and the elderly.[11] Joshua and the 1 Samuel picks up on this kind of rhetoric as well, even though non-combatants are absent. Upon examination here, we don’t have anything like genocide.

The Amalekites (1 Samuel 15)

We’ve seen that haram (or its noun form herem—“utter destruction”) can refer to decisive defeat, consecration (without killing), exile, and identity-removal. Yet war texts like this drip with hyperbole and merism. In this account, we’ll see another rhetorical exaggeration device: localized battle plus universal conquest. But let us back up a bit to give context.

The Amalekites attacked Israel (1 Sam. 14:48), and then in 15:1 the prophet Samuel issues a command to Saul, utilizing the totalistic war rhetoric language (v. 3): men, women, young, old, cattle, sheep, and donkeys. It turns out to be like the language of Deuteronomy and Joshua (e.g., Josh. 6:21): while male armies fight, the rhetoric thrown in includes non-combatants.

Bowen says that God demanded “complete wholesale destruction” of Amalek. And “because Saul did not slay everyone—including the king” of Amalek, he is rebuked by the prophet Samuel for not killing choice animals and king Agag. [12] As we’ll see, Bowen fails to make his case for haram’s meaning utterly destroy or annihilate. Consider the following:

1) Bowen’s phrasing “did not slay everyone” ignores something important: the narrator tells us that, except for king Agag, Saul had indeed “utterly destroyed all the people” (v. 8)—or whatever haram turns out to mean.

2) Bowen misses the fact that women and children can be included in the hyperbolic language even if they are not present, as we compared Numbers 21 with Deuteronomy 2-3.

3) There simply wouldn’t have been women and children present in a pitched battle against the Amalekites. The choice animals from a “the city of Amalek” (v. 5) were not killed but should have been, but there just weren’t any women or children there; Bowen misses or obscures this.[13]

So why think there were no non-combatants there? Clearly, Saul was fighting a combatant battle at “the city of Amalek” (v. 5). After all, Saul sent word to the Kenites there, who were Israel’s friends; he asked them to leave the anticipated battle scene—something Bowen acknowledges; so they “departed” (v. 6).  Now if the Kenites left the anticipated battle scene, surely women and children would not be present either. Saul kept choice animals after defeating Amalekite soldiers at the localized battle at “a city of Amalek.”[14]

4) Hyperbole becomes even more obvious in 1 Samuel 27 and 30, where David fights the Amalekites—again! Saul’s haram is merely a limited military victory over Amalek, not obliteration.

5)  Still more hyperbole occurs with a rhetorical device commonly used in the ancient Near East: localized battle plus universal conquest. Both Saul and David fought against the Amalekites in (a) a localized battle followed by (b) rhetorical language of universal conquest.


Localized battle: “Saul came to the city of Amalek and set an ambush in the valley” (v. 5)

Universal conquest: “Saul defeated the Amalekites, from Havilah as you go to Shur, which is east of Egypt” (v. 7). This region is vast, extending from Arabia to Egypt.[15]


Localized battle: In sweeping language similar to 1 Samuel 15, David “did not leave a man or a woman alive” (1 Sam. 27:8–9). Clearly this was not literally so. We read that the Amalekites then raided David’s camp, and he and his men “slaughtered” them, and “not a man of them escaped,” except four hundred Amalekites (30:10, 17).

Universal conquest: After the initial fighting, David was said to have fought in the same vast (exaggerated) territory as Saul did—“as far as Shur, to the land of Egypt” (27:8).

Egyptologist James Hoffmeier notes that “lofty assertions of universal conquest side by side with sober statements about taking individual cities” are hyperbolic indicators in ancient war texts.[16] Another scholar observes: “it is impossible to imagine the battle actually traversed the enormous distance from Arabia almost to Egypt.”[17]

What have triple-decker hyperbole in 1 Samuel 15: (a) exaggeration by merism (“man and woman, child and infant”) plus (b) exaggerated “total-kill language (“utterly destroyed”) plus (c) exaggerated “universal conquest” rhetoricfollowing a localized battle.

We could speak of other texts such as Deuteronomy 7 and 20 as well as Numbers 31, in which similar principles could be applied. But I will have to leave readers to look at my other books, especially Is God a Vindictive Bully?, which goes into a good deal of detail on these passages.

We can conclude, though, that the more closely we look at war texts in the Old Testament, the less we see anything resembling genocide or ethnic cleansing. What we do see is a good deal of hyperbole and other exaggeration rhetoric—a common feature in the ancient Near East—except the biblical record at least mentions plenty of survivors.[18]


[1] 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. Mark Elliott, Kenneth Atkinson, and Robert Rezetko (London: Routledge, 2023), 183.

[2] Bowen, “‘Your Eye Shall Have No Pity,’” 178.

[3] In both parts of “Violence and the Bible,” I am drawing from a forthcoming essay, “Violence and the Bible” in Christianity Contested, eds. Paul Copan and Stewart Kelly (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, forthcoming).

[4] For more such parallel verses, see Copan, Is God a Vindictive Bully?, 202.

[5] Richard Hess’s argument in appendix 2 of Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2021).

[6] Some derive this from Exodus 12:37, but the word eleph (“thousand”) is imprecise and needs paring down. See Colin J. Humphreys, “The Number of People in the Exodus from Egypt: Decoding Mathematically the Very Large Numbers in Numbers I and XXVI,” Vetus Testamentum 48 (1998): 196–213, esp. 203–4.

[7] Hawk, Violence, 26.

[8] See John H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest: Covenant, Retribution, and the Fate of the Canaanites (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), 167–94.

[9] Bowen, “‘Your Eye Shall Have No Pity,’” 178-179.

[10] On the ramped-up rhetoric in Deuteronomy compared to Exodus 24 and 32, see Copan, Is God a Vindictive Bully?, 214-216, 219-221.

[11] William Webb and Gordon Oeste, Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric? (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 196–97 (see footnotes also).

[12] Bowen, “‘Your Eye Shall Have No Pity,’” 184.

[13] Bowen, “‘Your Eye Shall Have No Pity,’” 184.

[14] Firth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 173.

[15] The fact that Amalekites were nomads doesn’t undermine the hyperbole bound up in the “universal conquest” motif, contra William J. Webb and Gordon K. Oeste, Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric? Wrestling with Troubling War Texts(Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 210–11.

[16] See James K. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 1–42.

[17] Ralph W. Klein, 1 Samuel, Word Biblical Commentary 10 (Waco: Word, 1983), 150.

[18] Special thanks to the kind friends at the Lanier Theological Education Centre in Yarnton, England for their hospitality at Manor Farm, where my wife Jacqueline and I were able to stay and where I worked on material included in this two-part series on violence and the Bible.

Published October 2, 2023

Paul Copan

Paul Copan (Ph.D., Philosophy, Marquette University) is a Christian theologian, analytic philosopher, apologist, and author. He is currently a professor at the Palm Beach Atlantic University (Florida) and holds the endowed Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics. He is author or editor of over 40 books, including works such as Is God a Moral Monster?, Is God a Vindictive Bully?, The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Religion, The Naturalness of Theistic Belief, Creation out of Nothing, Philosophy of Religion: Classic and Contemporary Issues, A Little Book for New Philosophers, and The Kalām Cosmological Argument (a two-volume anthology). He has also contributed essays to over 50 books, both scholarly and popular, and he has authored a number of articles in professional journals.