A historical battle scene in the ancient Near East around 1000 BC. The landscape is arid with sparse vegetation, under a clear blue sky. Armies of warriors, wearing bronze armor and wielding swords and spears, clash fiercely. Several chariots, pulled by horses, are actively involved in the battle, with archers shooting arrows from them. Dust clouds rise from the moving troops and horses, adding a dramatic effect to the scene. The backdrop features distant mountains and a few small buildings resembling ancient structures.

Introductory Remarks

In his March 15 (2024) article, “‘Save Alive Nothing That Breathes’: How Should We Understand Divine Commands to Destroy?”, Nicholas K. Meriwether offers a response to my treatment of those “utterly destroy/utter destruction” (haram/herem) commands. He hasn’t been persuaded by my observations about hyperbole or exaggeration in Old Testament war text accounts. I appreciate his writing a response to my work. I’m glad to engage in this important conversation. I think a few preliminary comments are in order.

First, as for my article on the Ezekiel 9 passage that Nick mentions, I refer you back to my earlier Worldview Bulletin article. Note especially what Old Testament scholar Christopher Wright observes about this text, which is in the context of divine judgment on the wicked city of Jerusalem: “This cannot mean that Yahweh sees no difference between the [righteous and the wicked], for such an idea would fly in the face of all the passionate preaching of Ezekiel elsewhere. Rather, it is probably a ‘merism’ . . . where two polar opposites [the righteous and the wicked] are expressed simultaneously as a graphic way of denoting the totality of something (e.g., ‘heaven and earth, ‘from head to toe,’ ‘land and sea,’ ‘root and branch’). The graphic poem evokes the horror of the total wiping out of Jerusalem.”[1]  This is comparable to God’s threat to “utterly destroy [haram]” Judah and make its cities an everlasting desolation (Jer. 25:9). But we know that Judah was not obliterated, and that the cities were only an “everlasting desolation” for seventy years.

Second, for a good number of years I myself held the view Nick did (the literal Canaanite-annihilation view); it was only when I increasingly saw gaps and inconsistencies in this view that I changed my mind. For all the totalizing language that one finds in the “no survivors” column, I realized that I could create a decent one-to-one correspondence of “many survivors” in the opposite column. For example:

Josh. 11:21: The Anakites in Hebron were “cut off” and “utterly destroyed”; there were “no Anakim left in the land” (v. 22).

Josh. 15:13-14: Caleb “drove out” the Anakites from Hebron.

Indeed, I give abundant examples of these exaggeration/non-exaggeration contrasts in my writings, including the very herem texts Nick refers to. I don’t see this as an attempted force-fitting to evade divine severity. Indeed, Romans 11:22’s mention of both divine kindness and severity is a key theme in my Vindictive Bully book. There I note exceptions such as Achan and his family (Joshua 7)—though even here more may be going on behind the scenes than what seems apparent on the surface. I also point out the realities of divine corporate judgment on Jerusalem through Babylon’s army in 587/586 BC as well as through the Roman army in AD 70; yes, women and children were killed and the righteous were swept away with the unrighteous.

In light of this general reference back to the theme of my book, I won’t discuss Nick’s theological conclusions from the end of his essay. I’ll simply focus on interpreting individual texts. I hope to illustrate the reasons for changing my position from my earlier years as a Scripture-reader, showing that much more is going on than what I first thought.

Third, regarding “the view of Paul Copan,” I am not some lone apologist writing about hyperbole in Old Testament war accounts. Yes, I have had formal training in the biblical languages, but I also draw on the work of a significant swath of well-credentialed Old Testament scholars—John Goldingay, Iain Provan, James Hoffmeier, Gordon Wenham, Kenneth Kitchen, Alan Millard, David Firth, Richard Hess, John Walton, William Webb, Gordon Oeste, Lawson Younger, Lissa Wray Beal, Tremper Longman, and others. I may not have convinced Old Testament scholar Eugene Merrill, whom Nick mentions. But there is a growing number of scholars writing about the hyperbolic view and making a strong case for it. (See especially the work of William Webb and Gordon Oeste, in their book Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric?) My apologist friend Clay Jones, who for years took a different view than I, has acknowledged the undeniability of the hyperbolic view. In fact, he wrote to me after my book Is God a Vindictive Bully? won a 2023 Christianity Today Book Award (Clay wrote the review for this book); he was so enthusiastic about it, he mentioned in an email to me that he thought it should have been CT’s “book of the year.”[2]

Fourth, I wonder whether Nick would likewise take at face-value the sweeping, totalistic, herem-like language of extrabiblical ancient Near Eastern war texts. I presume that for Nick, reality should trump rhetoric and that actuality should correct bravado. I document these hyperbole-reality contrasts in my book Is God a Vindictive Bully? (and see also Matthew Flannagan’s and my Did God Really Command Genocide?). There I (we) point out a number of extrabiblical examples, which could be multiplied, that present pharaohs or other ancient Near Eastern kings turning their opponents to ash, or making another nation nonexistent, leaving no survivor, and the like. But we know from historical realities that these boasts were very clearly exaggerations and, in some cases, only pyrrhic victories.

I’m not sure what Nick makes of this ancient Near Eastern war-text genre. Does the Old Testament appropriate this war-text genre as well as it does other genres such as poetry, proverbs, and imprecation? As it turns out, yes, the Old Testament war texts fit squarely within this genre of hyperbole along with other telltale literary devices expressing totality, which Nick glosses over.

However, the Old Testament texts often do more than the extrabiblical propagandistic warfare accounts of the ancient Near East: they often include a kind of “reality check,” mentioning of an abundance of survivors alongside this totalizing rhetoric. We have both (a) exaggeration and (b) clarification within the same biblical text, book, or textually-/contextually-connected books. Thus, the exaggerated language of Joshua must be held up to the light of, say, Judges 1 or even other parts of Joshua (e.g., 23:12-13) that present the on-the-ground realities of warfare.

So, notice that Joshua carries out “all that Moses commanded” (Josh. 11:12, 15, 20), which undoubtedly includes material from key warfare texts of Deuteronomy 7 and 20, which Nick highlights. And as K. Lawson Younger has shown, Joshua is a classic ancient Near Eastern warfare text, utilizing the same kinds of literary devices that others do. We have some of that sweeping language on display therein:

And the Lord gave them rest on every side, according to all that He had sworn to their fathers, and no one of all their enemies stood before them; the Lord gave all their enemies into their hand. Not one of the good promises which the Lord had made to the house of Israel failed; all came to pass (Josh. 21:44-45).

Now, Judges itself shows clear intertextual connections to Joshua, and Judges 1 gives its oft-repeated stanza throughout the chapter: “they could not drive them out.” We have good precedent from other war texts to think that the same type of exaggeration is going on in biblical war texts. Here is another example: in the wake of the golden calf incident, Moses said to the Levites, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Every man of you put his sword upon his thigh, and go back and forth from gate to gate in the camp, and kill every man his brother, and every man his friend, and every man his neighbor’” (Exod. 32:27). This instruction looks comprehensive and totalistic. But do we have all Israelite men killed? Not at all. The next verse states: “So the sons of Levi did as Moses instructed, and about three thousand men of the people fell that day” (v. 28).

So perhaps we should think along these lines: unless we have good reason to reject this hyperbolic genre, we should accept it as part of the ancient Near Eastern genre utilized by surrounding cultures.

Add to this the work of Rick Hess and others who argue that the cities of Joshua were military citadels and administrative centers, not the hubs of civilian life. Joshua engaged in disabling raids on military outposts. So even when texts mention “man and woman, young and old,” this sweeping language is often used even without women, children, and the elderly being present. Nick mentions Joshua 6 and the defeat of Jericho, but I won’t address this text here. I write on this in my Moral Monster book. I’d simply refer readers to Hess’s work on the topic of “cities” like Jericho mentioned in Joshua. I would further urge readers to look at Hess’s Joshua commentary as well as those of David Firth, who has written two separate Joshua commentaries, and of Lissa Wray Beal.)

Fifth, the word herem doesn’t simply mean “utter destruction”; it can refer to exile, decisive defeat, consecrating a person or animal without killing (Lev. 27), or (as John Walton notes) identity-removal (much like the Nazi identity was removed from Germany without destroying all the German people). As John Goldingay writes regarding herem: “the word doesn’t simply mean slaughtering people.”[3] As we’ll see from the herem texts below, more is happening than Nick’s representation of this term. For example, I mentioned earlier that Jeremiah 25:9 uses the word herem to refer to Judah’s defeat and exile—not the annihilation of the nation. So the definition of the word herem itself needs some further clarification.

So let me look at the key remaining texts Nick mentions where the expressions of totalistic language, he claims, “make it implausible” that exaggeration is in view. The herem (“utter destruction”) texts he has in mind are Deuteronomy 7:1-2; 20:16-18; and 1 Samuel 15:1-3. I’ll focus on Deuteronomy 7 and 20 as well as 1 Samuel 15. In each of these texts, we’ll see there are actually gaps and indicators that the totalizing language indicates or suggests a good deal of exaggeration.

Examining the Texts

Deuteronomy 20—warfare against distant cities and obliterating Canaanite cities.

First, the book of Deuteronomy intensifies and hyperbolizes the generally toned-down language of Exodus and Numbers. Just compare, for instance, the “destruction” language of Deuteronomy 7:1–26 with the “driving out” language of Exodus 23:23–33 and 34:10–16. Consider too how Deuteronomy 2 and 3 uses intensified language in describing the campaign against Amorite kings Sihon and Og in Numbers 21. We read that Sihon marshals his “people” (i.e., his army) to fight against Israel (v. 23)—clearly combatants. Later, king Og, his sons, and his “people” (i.e., army; v. 35) fight against Israel, and they are killed—once again, combatants. In both cases, we have a standard battle between armies.

Now, notice what Deuteronomy 3:6 does in its recounting of the battle: it includes women and children, but we know from Numbers 21 that it was the army that rose up to fight against Israel. This indicates that the language of “man and woman” and “young and old” can appear in the text without women, children, and the elderly having been present at the actual battle scene. We’ll see that the same applies to 1 Samuel 15, which adopt Deuteronomy’s totalizing language of women and children, who were not present at the battle at the citadel city of Amalek (1 Sam. 15:5).

Second, Joshua did “everything that Moses commanded” (Josh. 11:12, 15, 20)—that is, what Moses commanded in Deuteronomy 7 and 20. But if Joshua leaves plenty of survivors and, in actual fact, “could not drive them out,” as Judges 1 repeatedly indicates, Moses must have been utilizing exaggerated language as well.

Third, Deuteronomy 20’s language of “utter obliteration” (men, women, children) in the “nearby” Canaanite cities is not literally carried out in Joshua, which focuses on those cities Israel will inherit—and it is all the less literal once we move beyond to foreign cities. Deuteronomy 20:10-18 distinguishes between two approaches to fighting:

(a) against the distant non-Canaanite cities (forced labor if peace is offered; if not, men were killed, but not women and children), and

(b) against those in the sacred space of the nearby Canaanite cities (the entire population was purportedly to be wiped out).

Of course, the latter is the central focus of fighting in Deuteronomy and Joshua.

Nick asks about Deuteronomy 20: “Why would mere hyperbole be employed in the giving of instructions if the eventual treatment is the same? I suggest the simpler explanation is that we take the instructions at face value.” In reply, I would say:

(1)   The one-size-fits-all method of taking a text at face value is not the way we ought to approach the variegated genres of Scripture. For example, we should assume that much of the book of Revelation is symbolic unless we have good reasons to take it literally. And in ancient Near Eastern war texts, we have a lot of hyperbolizing going on, and we see this in Joshua as well. We could take at “face value” other such texts too—for example, Jeremiah 25:9, where God says that he will “utterly destroy [haram]” the cities of Judah and leave them an “everlasting desolation.”  Utter obliteration of Judah may be the simpler explanation. But we know from the historical reality—as well as many other biblical texts—that Judah was not obliterated and that the “everlasting” desolation would last only seventy years of exile in Babylon. Knowing the prevalence of ancient Near Eastern war rhetoric actually serves as a caution to us, informing us not to take these texts at “face value”—especially when we begin to see lots of exceptions to this sweeping language.

(2)   If hyperbole is clearly found in the section about warfare inside the “sacred space” of Canaan designated for God’s covenant people, then how much more would hyperbole pertain to those cities outside the land—with a far lesser goal to achieve. As we’ve noted, despite the disabling raids of Joshua against Canaanite citadel cities, Canaanites continued to dwell in Israel in large numbers (e.g., Judg. 1; 2 Sam. 24:7; 1 Ki. 9:16). And for cities outside the land, where “all the adult males” would purportedly be killed if they didn’t surrender, the biblical text reveals a tamer picture: in most cases, the males from territories outside Canaan were left alive. They typically submitted themselves to forced labor or paid tribute to the Israelites (see endnote references).[4] So it turns out that reference to “killing all the men” in cities outside the land would be another instance of exaggeration. As William Webb and Gordon Oeste write, “If this hyperbole is clear about those who dwell within the land of Canaan, clearly we have reason to think this is the case for cities outside the land where the threat of idolatry and covenant-breaking is removed from the Israelite nation.”[5]

(3)   The treatment of Canaanite cities and foreign cities is not the same. First, we have seen that Israel exacts tribute or forced labor from those outside the land—that is, not following the protocols of Deuteronomy 20. On the other hand, the Israelites are to drive the Canaanites out of their citadel cities; this isn’t true of the cities outside the land. Second, we’ve seen that Deuteronomy is a book that engages in hyperbole and intensified language unlike its Pentateuchal precursors like Exodus and Numbers. But it turns out that Joshua actually has obeyed what Moses said in Deuteronomy 20; even after these disabling raids on Canaanite cities and Israel’s going back to its base camp at Gilgal, we continue to see plenty of Canaanite survivors.

It seems that if Nick takes Joshua’s “obedience” at face value, there would literally be no (or virtually no) survivors. But the biblical text reveals otherwise. Biblical scholar David Firth observes that “we have to conclude that the fact that [Joshua] did not devote many Canaanites to destruction was actually an expression of obedience.”[6]

Deuteronomy 7: Identity-Removal

This text reads:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, . . . and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction [haram]. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and chop down their Asherim and burn their carved images with fire (vv. 1-5).

Notice a few things here—and I must be brief.  First, Deuteronomy utilizes an intensified rhetoric compared to related language elsewhere in the Pentateuch. (See the discussion on Deuteronomy 20.) Second, the commands given here, if we took them literally, would make no sense. If the Canaanites have been utterly destroyed, why bother making covenants with them or intermarrying with them?  John Walton and Harvey Walton observe: “If every last Canaanite were killed, the prohibition . . . against intermarriage would be unnecessary.”[7] Thirdly, the focus of herem is connected to identity-removal or removal from use: remove the idols and other objects of defilement, and you remove the Canaanites’ identity markers and thus danger to Israel. Walton and Walton suggest that this matter of identity-removal is closely connected to herem. Canaanite ethnicity is not at issue. Walton and Walton compare this to Nazism in Germany: all of the flags, monuments, hierarchy of the Nazis were removed, but the German people largely remained in place. Herem has to do with identity-removal or removal from use, and a key problem with Saul in 1 Samuel 15 is that he was trying to exalt himself by preserving Agag alive as a trophy, and he even set up a monument for himself (15:12). Likewise, these Canaanite religious objects that were an abomination were to be removed and not used by Israel, which could undermine their identity and mission.

The Old Testament scholar Iain Provan summarizes issues related to Deuteronomy 7 and related passages:

It should also have been obvious to any Bible reader who reads past the book of Joshua into the book of Judges and finds so many surviving Canaanites there and to any careful reader of Deuteronomy 7:1-3, which (curiously), after telling the Israelites that God is ‘driving out’ the current inhabitants of the land, then urges them to ‘destroy them totally’ (Heb. [herem], as in Deuteronomy 20:17 and Joshua 10:40), and then tells them not to intermarry with them…. All of this, already, raises real questions about the proper understanding of [erem—i.e., “utterly destroy”/“remove from use”], long before we get to the matter of the typical language of ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts. There are clearly many Canaanites still living in the land in the aftermath of Joshua’s victories who are not ultimately even expelled from the land, much less killed…. Clearly, then, there is something very strange about the language of Joshua 10 (and associated passages).[8]

Provan makes clear that a “face value” reading here is not the correct way to approach these issues.

1 Samuel 15: The Destruction of the Amalekites

The command of the Lord in v. 3 is: “Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction [herem] all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” Nick writes that Saul fails to complete the task of “utterly destroying” the Amalekites, saving choice animals and king Agag. Nick rightly notes that Saul claims to have “utterly destroyed” the Amalekites though he spared the choice livestock and Agag. (Indeed, the narrator himself says that Saul “utterly destroyed” the Amalekites in verse 8.) Nick asks: “Is Saul using hyperbolic language with Samuel? This hardly seems likely.” And again, “Why would Agag anticipate his death if no one other than Amalekite warriors had died in battle?” Nick concludes: “The straightforward reading is that…Saul had violated herem when he spared Agag after killing all the Amalekites.”

There are some further problems with Nick’s “face value” observations. Indeed, Nick ignores a few things that I point out in my Vindictive Bully book and elsewhere in my interaction with 1 Samuel 15. First, a minor point: King Agag’s mother was still alive; Samuel tells Agag that she would be bereft of her son once Samuel killed him: “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women” (v. 33). Second, Nick glosses over the fact that David is fighting against an army of Amalekites at the end of the very same book. In 1 Samuel 27:8-9, we’re told that David fights against the Amalekites (and Geshurites and Girzites). David “did not leave a man or a woman alive” (27:9). But Nick says that Saul utterly destroyed all of the Amalekites back in chapter 15! What’s more, apparently all of the Amalekites’ animals were destroyed under the supervision of Samuel in chapter 15. But we read later that David “took away the sheep, the cattle, the donkeys, the camels, and the clothing” (27:9).

But there’s more! The Amalekites are still around in chapter 30—even though Saul allegedly wiped them all out in chapter 15 and David apparently wiped them all out again in chapter 27! In 1 Samuel 30, the Amalekites make a raid on the Israelites on the Negev and Ziklag, overthrowing Ziklag and setting it on fire. (v. 1). David takes four hundred with him, and they chase after and fight against the Amalekites. When David comes upon them, the Amalekites “were spread over all the land, eating and drinking and dancing because of all the great spoil that they had taken from the land of the Philistines and from the land of Judah” (v.16). What? Spread all over the land? The next verse reads: “David slaughtered them from the twilight until the evening of the next day; and not a man of them escaped, except four hundred young men who rode on camels and fled” (v. 17). Lots of other Amalekites remained after Saul’s battle against the Amalekites—not just king Agag (and his mom!). I should add too that king Agag had surviving progeny into the time of Esther, when Haman the Agagite attempted to wipe out the Israelites under the rule of the Persian empire (Esther 9:24). It seems that Nick’s face-value reading of 1 Samuel 15 needs greater nuancing in light of the rest of 1 Samuel (and the book of Esther). If we push past the “face value” reading of 1 Samuel 15, we see ample indications of hyperbole.

Let me elaborate a bit more—though I can’t go into detail here; see my Vindictive Bully book. There I mention that Saul fought a pitched battle that took place at a “city of Amalek” (1 Samuel 15:5)—which is the focal point of the fight. But at this city, the Israelite-friendly Kenites are also there—not just the Amalekites. Saul sends word to them that he does not want to fight against the Kenites; so they leave. Does the reader think that women and children would be hanging around when a pitched battle was about to take place? Of course not. They would be the first to leave such a setting.

Furthermore, in my Vindictive Bully book, I mention that a common ancient Near Eastern literary device was used in warfare texts that was another example of hyperbole: accounts of (a) a localized battle and then (b) a portrayal of universal conquest. Nick ignores this point too, but it is important to notice this. Saul fights a pitched battle against the Amalekites (15:5) and then fights against them “from Havilah as you go to Shur, which is east of Egypt” (v. 7). This fighting from Havilah (Arabia) to Egypt is a vast terrain and clearly an exaggeration. And when we get to the end of the book, David does the same thing: he fights a pitched battle against the Amalekites, as we observed earlier. And then he too is portrayed as engaging in universal conquest against them—all the way to the borders of Egypt (27:8).

More can be said, and I apologize that I am repeating some of the themes in my Vindictive Bully book that go into fairly significant detail. But in conclusion, we need to call hyperbole back into the picture in order to make sense of these biblical texts. We see its use repeatedly in the very texts that Nick tells us to treat at “face value.” Just as extrabiblical war texts utilize hyperbole—which historical realities make evident—so we should take hyperbole seriously in treating Old Testament war texts as well, especially when additional supporting biblical texts actually bear this out.


[1] Christopher Wright, Ezekiel, Bible Speaks Today (InterVarsity Press, 2001), 114, n. 59.

[2] Clay Jones, personal email on 13 December, 2022.

[3] John Goldingay, Old Testament Ethics: A Guided Tour (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 269.

[4] See Judg. 3:7–11; 2 Sam. 8:2, 11–14; 10:1–14 // 1 Chron. 19:1–15; 2 Sam. 10:15–19 // 1 Chron. 19:16–19; 2 Sam. 12:29–31 // 1 Chron. 20:1–3; 1 Kings 11:15–17; 22:29–40; 2 Kings 3:1–27; 8:20–22 // 2 Chron. 21:8–10; 2 Kings 8:28 // 2 Chron. 22:5–6; 1 Chron. 5:10, 19–22; 18:1–2, 3–9, 12–13; 2 Chron. 20:7; 25:11–12, 14–15 // 2 Kings 14:7; 2 Chron. 27:5; Isa. 11:14. These references come from Webb and Oeste, Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric?, 193.

[5] William J. Webb and Gordon K. Oeste, Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric? Wrestling with Troubling War Texts (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 194.

[6] Daniel Hawk, The Violence of the Biblical God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019), 26.

[7] John Walton and Harvey Walton, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), 193.

[8] Iain Provan, Seriously Dangerous Religion (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014), 420, n. 48; 42, n. 42.

— Paul Copan is the Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University. Learn more about Paul and his work at paulcopan.com.

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