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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Friday, December 13, 2013

Should We Take the Slaughter of the Canaanites Literally?

I read a recent column by Meghan Daum in the Los Angeles Times where she decried the decision by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to update the definition of the word "literally." Daum writes:
"The entry defines the adverb 'literally' as 'in a literal manner or sense; exactly: the driver took it literally when asked to go straight over the roundabout. ' But then it adds a note: 'informal, used for emphasis while not being literally true: I have received literally thousands of letters.'

"The latter, say the editors, 'is not acceptable in formal contexts, though it is widespread.'"1
Daum recognizes in the article that language is fluid and meanings change. (When was the last time you heard someone use the word gay in a sentence and had it mean happy?) But she complains that literally should not mean figuratively, which is its opposite. She continues:
"I'm sorry: 'Literal' does not mean the same thing as 'not at all literal.' It is not a contranym, like 'sanction,' which means both to punish and to condone, or 'garnish,' which means both to add on and to take away. It's a plain old word with a plain old meaning."
I have another take on the word.  I think that people are not using the word "literally" with the intent to mean figuratively. I think they are using another rhetorical device called hyperbole. Hyperbole is an exaggerated statement intended to "evoke strong feelings or to create a strong impression, but is not meant to be taken literally" according to Wikipedia. This is generally the way I see the word work in speech, as when my wife says "it will take me literally five minutes to get ready." Believe me, if I used a stopwatch at that point, I would be in big trouble!

Because "literally" is being employed as a rhetorical device, it means one must understand the statement at the level of the sentence, not the word. Of course, it can cause a bit of confusion when the word "literally" is in a phrase that asks you to not take the phrase literally! People today have a common understanding of this, but I wonder how such conversation will be interpreted in, say, a thousand years.

All of this brings me to reflect on a charge that atheists like Richard Dawkins bring against the God of the Bible. Dawkins asks how any God that would command the slaughter of the Canaanites—even women and children—can be considered a good god? In his objection, Dawkins employs charges of "genocide" or other loaded language. But I believe there are people who are earnestly concerned about this question, so it does require a thoughtful response.

Dr. Paul Copan, in his book Is God a Moral Monster?, does a great job of explaining that part of the problem with the passages in the book of Joshua is that Joshua employed hyperbole in warfare language which was common to all those in the ancient Near East. This is borne out in the fact that while Joshua records his efforts resulted in "all the land captured, all the kings defeated, and all the Canaanites destroyed ( cf. 10:40-42; 11:16-23),"2 If this description is to be taken literally, then how come the book of Judges opens with an attack on Israel by the very same Canaanites that should have been non-existent? It seems that Joshua's description is more like an avid football fan who proclaims "We killed those guys!" upon a game ending with a score of 9-7.

Copan notes that this idea of overstating one's case isn't exclusive to Israel. He point's to Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen's work and lists examples of similar hyperbole from the Egyptians, the Hittites, the Moabites, and the Assyrians.3

Of course, there are other mitigating factors that also undercut the charge of divine genocide, but I wanted to focus on this one right now. Given that today we understand how the word "literally" is used (and we seem to be aware of when to take "literally" literally), why should it be such a stretch to acknowledge that people from the past would use similar rhetorical language, especially concerning such an emotionally charged topic as warfare? It would be as irresponsible to charge the Israelites with genocide as it would be for me to pull out my stopwatch with my wife, and the end result may be as messy.

Thoughtful questions require a thoughtful response. However, with folks like Richard Dawkins they continue to use the objection without even understanding how the language of the day was used. Thoughtful questions do require thoughtful responses. But with folks like Dawkins, when a thoughtful response is given, it isn't thoughtfully accepted.


1. Daum, Meghan. "To thine own selfie be true – literally." The Los Angeles Times. 12 Dec, 2013:,0,6736521.column#ixzz2nNfBYwVp 13 Dec 2013.

2. Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011). 170.

3. Ibid. 172.

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