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The New Holocaust Denialists: The Need for a Metacriticism of Biblical Scholarship

Instead, the main apologetic strategy for the last two thousand years of Jewish and Christian biblical interpretation has been to justify these genocidal episodes or view them as more figurative, rhetorical, or formulaic.

By Hector Avalos
Iowa State University
November 2012

There is a new movement of holocaust denialists, and the prime architects of this movement are biblical scholars. I am speaking not of the Jewish Holocaust under the Nazi regime, but of the Canaanite holocaust reported in biblical texts.

These Canaanite holocaust denialists argue that the Canaanite holocaust did not really happen. And if it did happen, then it was justified and not analogous to the Nazi holocaust.1

The principal genocidal biblical texts are well-known, but they include Deuteronomy 7:1-6, which bears repeating in its entirety:

[1] "When the LORD your God brings you into the land which you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Gir'gashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Per'izzites, the Hivites, and the Jeb'usites, seven nations greater and mightier than yourselves,

[2] and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them; then you must utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them, and show no mercy to them.

[3] You shall not make marriages with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons.

[4] 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.

[5] But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and hew down their Ashe'rim, and burn their graven images with fire.

[6] "For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth.

Here, there is a clear declaration of the intention to commit genocide. We also have narratives portraying genocide as actually undertaken at God’s command. Note 1 Samuel 15:1-3:

[1] And Samuel said to Saul, "The LORD sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore hearken to the words of the LORD. [2] Thus says the LORD of hosts, `I will punish what Am'alek did to Israel in opposing them on the way, when they came up out of Egypt. [3] Now go and smite Am'alek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.'"

Saul killed most of the Amalekite people (1 Samuel 15:7). If anything, Saul is accused of being morally lax for not killing everyone, but sparing a few.2

There is the well-known story where Joshua slays all the people of Jericho (Joshua 6:21-25), with the exception of those local residents who collaborated with Joshua’s genocidal atrocities. As I have argued elsewhere, Rahab should be seen as the victim of effective terrorism, and not as some testament to Joshua’s magnanimity (cf. Joshua 2:9-13).3

In addition, Joshua takes all the material possessions, but kills women and children, thus undermining the very idea the biblical authors always valued human life above material objects.

So, do modern biblical scholars show as much disdain and contempt for biblical authors as they might show for Nazi genocidal theorists?

I can count on a hand the number of biblical scholars who could do so openly.4 Instead, the main apologetic strategy for the last two thousand years of Jewish and Christian biblical interpretation has been to justify these genocidal episodes or view them as more figurative, rhetorical, or formulaic.

Thus, St. Thomas Aquinas already differentiates biblical wars from the wars of the Assyrians and Romans as follows:

Thus, too, the wars and deeds of this people are expounded in the mystical sense: but not the wars and deeds of the Assyrians or Romans, although the latter are more famous in the eyes of men.5

So, biblical wars, even when they include the slaughter of women and children, are somehow more “mystical,” and superior to the wars conducted by people regarded as barbarians. Aquinas also suggests that some of these biblical wars were more figurative than literal.


The assertion that biblical genocide actually did happen is part of an older strain of biblical apologetics that is still particularly popular among self-described evangelical Christian scholars.

Such apologetics focuses on demonstrating the historicity of biblical narratives. Archaeology and other tools were deployed to prove, for example, that Noah’s Flood (i.e., biocide) was historical and that Joshua did conquer Jericho. Usually, there was no denial that the genocide of the Canaanites occurred.

In fact, such apologists argued that the genocide not only occurred, but it was also fully justified. Gleason Archer exemplifies this approach when he stated:

Just as the wise surgeon removes dangerous cancer from his patient's body by use of the scalpel, so God employed the Israelites to remove such dangerous malignancies from human society.6

Archer’s medicalized rationale was not much different from how Nazis justified genocide by seeing Jews as a disease.7

Reuben A. Torrey (1856-1928), one of the contributors to The Fundamentals (1910-1915), a series of anti-evolutionary tracts that helped popularize the name "fundamentalist," similarly remarked:

The extermination of the Canaanite children was not only an act of mercy and love to the world at large; it was an act of love and mercy to the children themselves.8

Such an approach still survives in current evangelical apologetics, as is demonstrated by William Lane Craig’s defense of biblical genocide:

Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation. We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy. Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.9

Of course, this logic would also make a splendid argument for abortion of all fetuses as we would achieve a 100% salvation rate. Allowing children to be born, given the risk of eternal damnation, would be the least loving option by this logic (cf. Ecclesiastes 4:3).


The New Denialism rejects the historicity of some or all genocidal biblical episodes. Instead of justifying biblical genocide, now it is argued that it never did happen, and so there is little or nothing to justify. The New Denialism also continues the long tradition in biblical scholarship of viewing other Near Eastern cultures in an unfavorable light when compared to the supposedly superior ethics of the Bible.

Part of this New Denialism may be a consequence of the fact that archaeology has been unable to establish much of what is called “biblical history.” Therefore, it is argued that genocidal episodes may reflect formulaic and stereotyped war narratives full of hyperbole, but not necessarily descriptive of actual events.

However, the selectivity of denial also betrays how the ethical repugnance of genocide is beginning to bother the moral conscience of modern biblical scholarship. It has bothered the conscience of C. S. Cowles, an evangelical Christian, so much that he has proposed that we virtually de-canonize the Old Testament.10

However, this reflects a Christian bias, as I think that the New Testament can actually be more violent than the Old Testament. The Old Testament god may wish to hurt and kill you (see Deuteronomy 28:15ff), but it was only in this lifetime.

If read literally, Jesus proposes torturing those he dislikes with an eternal fire (Matthew 25:41ff). Thus, the violence is infinitely greater (for eternity) in both quantity and quality. Given the eventual violence that will be meted out to human beings considered evil, Jesus could be seen as preaching “deferred violence,” not non-violence, in Matthew 5:38-46 and elsewhere. That is why any decanonization of violent texts should include both Hebrew and Christian scriptures.11

In any case, the New Denialism uses the absence of archaeological evidence as evidence of the absence of acts considered morally wrong. But the absence of archaeological evidence is never used as evidence of the absence of acts considered morally praiseworthy. That inconsistency betrays an apologetic intent.

For example, I have yet to see a biblical scholar argue that biblical notions of “justice” may never have been carried out because we have no archaeological evidence for them. Nor do I read anywhere that we ought not praise the ethical precepts of the Good Samaritan story because it may never have actually happened.

The movement toward de-historicizing genocide can be seen already in the work of Lori Rowlett’s Joshua and the Rhetoric of Violence: A New Historicist Analysis (1996), which views the narratives in Joshua as hyperbolic propaganda rather than narrations of history.12

More recently, Richard S. Hess argues that biblical wars were mostly justified, but he does not assert the historicity of every war narrative. He remarks:

Note, furthermore, that the eight or more references to complete destruction of the cities represented by these coalitions (in which nothing was left alive) could plausibly be stereotypical descriptions for the purpose of demonstrating obedience to the command to drive out the Canaanites (Josh. 10: 28, 30, 32, 35, 37, 39; 11: 11, 14). It is possible that, after the defeat of the army, the populations fled rather than remaining in a relatively defenseless city.13

Of course, we can also “plausibly” view those texts in Joshua cited by Hess as describing the actual fulfillment of the commands in Deuteronomy 7:2 to “utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them, and show no mercy to them.”

In fact, note how Hess refers to Joshua’s obedience to a “command to drive out the Canaanites,” which seems to render more benignly the actual wording of the command in Deuteronomy 7:2 to “utterly destroy them.”

A stronger form of denialism appears in Religion and Violence: The Biblical Heritage, edited by David A. Bernat and Jonathan Klawans. After discussing the archaeological evidence for the Assyrian assault on Lachish (ca. 701 BCE), Klawans remarks:

By those same measures, the slaughter of Canaanites at Jericho remains a complete fantasy. The curious history is done not by those who accept this judgment; it’s done by those who insist that genocide was in fact carried out against the Canaanites by the Israelites, while at the same time overlooking or downplaying other better-attested incidents of violence from the time-period—such as the Assyrian assaults on Israel and Judah—that are not justified by either monotheistic ideals or scriptural texts.14

Klawans never contemplates the equally possible proposition that Assyrian war narratives, and any adjunct visual depictions, may also be mostly hyperbole or propaganda.

Nor does Klawans seem to consider the relevant archaeological data very carefully. If we compare the Assyrian siege of Lachish to how Joshua treated Lachish, then the Assyrians can look much better. According to Joshua 10:31-32:

And Joshua passed on from Libnah, and all Israel with him, to Lachish, and laid siege to it, and assaulted it: and the LORD gave Lachish into the hand of Israel, and he took it on the second day, and smote it with the edge of the sword, and every person in it, as he had done to Libnah.

David Ussishkin, a principal excavator of Lachish, examined Level VI, which he associated with the Israelite conquest, and made this observation in 1987:

The archaeological evidence indeed fit the Biblical description: a large Canaanite city destroyed by fire, the absence of fortifications enabling the conquest of the city on the second day of the attack, complete desertion of the razed city, explained by the annihilation of the populace.15

On the other hand, Sennacherib’s account of his campaigns in Judah states: “I drove out (of them) 200,150 people” (cf. Hess’s description of Joshua’s actions above).16

In other words, Sennacherib spared the lives of nearly a quarter of a million people in Judah, while the biblical accounts report that Joshua exterminated everyone at Lachish. The Assyrian depictions of the battle at Lachish indicate that many people were left alive and taken relatively uninjured into captivity instead of being massacred.17

D. L. Risdon performed the first large scale study of the osteological remains of perhaps 1500 individuals from tombs that were tenuously associated with the Assyrian siege of Lachish. After an examination of the age distributions and other features of the bones in one of the tombs, Risdon concluded:

These facts seem to tell against the theory that the individuals in the tomb were massacred, but a stronger argument against it is the fact that the only skull showing injury which might have been the cause of death is recorded.18

On the other hand, the Joshua narratives declare that killing every human being was the goal of Joshua’s conquest of Lachish, and David Ussishkin has stated that he found archaeological support for the “annihilation of the populace.” Even if Ussishkin has modified his conclusions about Lachish, it shows how absence of evidence can be interpreted in opposing ways.19

Indeed, the archaeological evidence can actually support the theory that the Assyrians did not kill every human being in Lachish and that they were not as brutal as even their own artistic depictions might suggest. So, should we now conclude that, at least in the case of Lachish, the Assyrian accounts reflect a more humanitarian stance than bibliolatrous scholars may wish to admit?

In Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence (2005), I attempted to explain why a denialist view of biblical genocide is ethically odious. It really does not matter if genocide ever was carried out or not. Historicity is a red herring. What matters is that the principle of genocide was endorsed with divine imprimatur by many biblical authors.

Arguing that ancient expressions of genocidal intentions and concepts are ethically neutral or irrelevant if they never were carried out is like arguing in the 1920s that Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf is not so bad since he had not acted on any genocidal views in the 1920s, when he wrote it. In the 1920s, we could have argued that Mein Kampf was merely the rhetorical hyperbole and propaganda of a raving lunatic.

In 1543, Martin Luther wrote a venomous anti-Jewish tract called On the Jews and Their Lies, which contained a seven-point plan for the Jews that even Lutheran Luther scholars say was similar to the Nazi plan. Martin H. Bertram, the translator of Luther’s work, comments: “It is impossible to publish Luther's treatise today, however, without noting how similar his proposals were to the actions of the Nationalist Socialist regime in Germany in the 1930's and 1940's.”20

So should we not declare Luther’s sentiments to be morally repugnant because he did not carry out those plans in his lifetime or because these plans were not carried out for the next 400 years or so?

Yes, it may be true that not every genocidal sentiment was ever carried out in history. But it is also true that every genocidal act had a preceding genocidal sentiment. The Bible is not free of those genocidal sentiments, and Christian history is replete with genocidal and anti-Jewish violence that used the Bible as an authority.

Nor will it help to say that we cannot judge biblical authors by modern ethical standards. The fact is that we ALWAYS judge ancient texts by our current ethical standards.

Note, for example, how often biblical scholars praise biblical authors, who supposedly stood for “justice” and “liberation.”21 Note how often Assyrians are described as more warlike or more brutal. So, what standards are being used to judge those biblical authors or neighboring Near Eastern cultures?

Similarly, claims of counter traditions and subversive readings for genocidal narratives are usually nothing but apologetic exercises under a new name.

The fact is that we could perform a similar apologetic exercise with an anthology of German literature, which could include both Nazi and anti-Nazi voices. That exercise would not change the fact that the those voices supporting Nazi policies would be morally abominable, regardless of whether our German literature anthology included anti-Nazi voices.

In the case of the Bible, the problem is not that this canon of books lacks diverse voices. The problem is that modern biblical scholarship still pervasively wishes to excuse and whitewash those genocidal voices simply because the larger collection of books may include alternative voices. More importantly, many biblical scholars hold this collection of books to be sacred to them, and not just to believers in the past.

I prefer a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to genocide: Any canon of books that any time, or in any portion, endorses genocide, either conceptually or pragmatically, should not be viewed as a modern cultural or moral authority.


It is shameful that we are even having a debate about the justifiability of biblical genocide in the twenty-first century.

It is true that, as compared to the Canaanite holocaust, we have overwhelming evidence for the Nazi holocaust. Therefore, it may be unjust to describe modern biblical scholars as “holocaust denialists” if they don’t believe in the historicity of the genocide of the Canaanites.

However, scholars who deny the historicity of the Canaanite genocide usually also deny that genocidal concepts and sentiments expressed in the Bible are ethically repulsive, and so they still merit the term “denialist” in that sense.

Biblical scholars should have as much contempt for genocidal sentiments in biblical literature as they do for genocidal sentiments in Nazi literature. Period.

A principal reason to challenge the New Denialism is to make biblical scholars aware of how much they have participated, and continue to participate, in perpetuating the type of bibliolatry that has led to so much violence, hatred, and actual genocide. As mentioned, actual acts of genocide are always preceded by genocidal sentiments.

Empires, of course, usually frame their agendas as liberatory and benign. Biblical scholarship is still often operating as part of the detritus of Christian empires, which often used the Bible as their textual authority. And like good propagandists for their Christian empires, biblical scholars often try to preserve biblical values and ideals, which are often framed benignly despite the abominable genocidal and biocidal ideologies that the Bible can espouse.

So, what we need is a robust metacriticism of biblical scholarship, wherein the values, prejudices, and ideology of biblical scholarship itself are discussed and interrogated.

Fortunately, the Society of Biblical Literature now does have a unit devoted to such issues, and it is called Metacriticism of Biblical Scholarship, which will debut in Chicago.22

Although genocide and biocide are not the topic of this year’s sessions, Metacriticism of Biblical Scholarship signals the start or continuance of an important dialogue in which all biblical scholars should participate.


*Unless noted otherwise, all biblical quotations are from the Revised Standard Version as presented in Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger (eds.), The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).

1 For the specific denial that the genocide of the Canaanites is comparable to the Nazi holocaust, see Joel S. Kaminsky, “Did Election Imply Mistreatment of Non-Israelites?” HTR 96/4 (2003):397-425. I respond to Kaminsky’s more specific arguments (especially his claim for the “cosmic” nature of biblical genocide) in Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2005), pp. 160-162.

2 See also Louis H. Feldman, “Remember Amalek!” Vengeance, Zealotry, and Group Destruction in the Bible According to Philo, Pseudo-Philo, and Josephus (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2004).

3 Avalos, Fighting Words, p. 162.

4 See, for example, R. Norman Whybray, “‘Shall not the judge of the earth do what is just?’ God’s Oppression of the Innocent in the Old Testament,” in Shall Not the Judge of the Earth do What is Right? Studies in the Nature of God in Tribute to James L. Crenshaw, edited by David Penchansky and Paul L. Redditt (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2000), pp. 1-19. See also R. Norman Whybray, “The Immorality of God: Reflections on Some Passages in Genesis, Job, Exodus and Numbers,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 21 (1996), pp. 89-120.

5 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I-II 104.2 ad 2. Our citations of the Summa Theologica are from the first complete American edition in three volumes translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1947).

6 Gleason Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982), p. 121.

7 On the use of medical rhetoric by the Nazis, see Götz Aly, Peter Chroust, and Christian Pross, Cleansing the Fatherland: Nazi Medicine and Racial Hygiene (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).

8 R. A. Torrey, Difficulties in the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, n.d.), p. 60.

9 William Lane Craig, “Slaughter of the Canaanites,” Reasonable Faith at:

10 C. S. Cowles, “The Case for Radical Discontinuity,” in Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide, edited by Stanley N. Gundry (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 13-44

11 See Hector Avalos, “The Letter Killeth: A Plea for Decanonizing Violent Biblical Texts,” Journal of Religion, Conflict, and Peace 1, no. 1 (fall, 2007): On-line at:

12 Lori Rowlett, Joshua and the Rhetoric of Violence: A New Historicist Analysis (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996). See also K. Lawson Younger, Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History Writing (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990).

13 Richard S. Hess and Elmer A. Martens, War in the Bible and Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008), p. 30.

14 David Bernat and Jonathan Klawans, eds., Religion and Violence: The Biblical Heritage (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007), p. 9.

15 David Ussishkin, “Lachish: Key to the Israelite Conquest,” Biblical Archaeology Review 12 (February, 1987), pp. 18-39, quotation on p. 38. For the suggestion that the Philistines could have destroyed the Late Bronze town in Level VI, see Paul E. Jacobs, “Lachish,” Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible edited by David N. Freedman (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), p. 782.

16 See James B. Pritchard, The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), p. 271.

17 See Yigael Yadin, The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands In the Light of Archaeological Study (2 vols.; New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963), 2:432-37. Along with depictions of mistreatment are also depictions of men, women and children seated peacefully on carts or marching without any sign of injuries on them. See also David Ussishkin, “The Assyrian Attack on Lachish: The Evidence from the Southwest Corner of the Site,” Tel Aviv 17 (1990):53-86; idem, “Symbols of Conquest in Sennacherib's Reliefs of Lachish - Impaled Prisoners and Booty,” in Culture Through Objects: Ancient Near Eastern Studies in Honour of P.R.S. Moorey, edited by T.F. Potts et al. (New York: Oxford, 2003), pp. 207-217; idem, “Sennacherib's Campaign to Philistia and Judah: Ekron, Lachish and Jerusalem,” In Essays on Ancient Israel in Its Near Eastern Context; A Tribute to Nadav Na'aman, edited by Y. Amit et al. (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2006), pp. 339-357.

18 D. L. Risdon, “A Study of the Cranial and Other Human Remains from Palestine Excavated at Tell Duweir (Lachish) by the Wellcome-Marston Archaeological Research Expedition,” Biometrika 31 (July, 1939):99-166, quotation from p. 106.

19 See David Ussishkin, “The Chronology of the Iron Age in Israel: The Current State of Research,” Ancient Near Eastern Studies 45 (2008):218-34.

20 Martin Luther, On the Jews and Their Lies (translated by Martin H. Bertram in Luther’s Works: The Christian in Society IV, edited by Franklin Sherman [55 volumes; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971]), p. 268, n. 173. See also, William Montgomery McGovern, From Luther to Hitler: The History of Fascist-Nazi Political Philosophy (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1941); Christopher Probst, Demonizing the Jews: Luther and the Protestant Church in Nazi Germany (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012); Eric W. Gritsch, Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgment (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).

21 Examples are too numerous to list, but they include almost anyone writing a “biblical theology:” See further, Hector Avalos, Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011).

22 I do not claim to represent the views of all the members of this new unit. The official description of the mission of this new unit is: “This unit critically evaluates suppositions in and underlying biblical scholarship, including how an explicitly non-religious approach differs from what is even now represented as historical-critical scholarship, especially when compared to other secular disciplines within the Humanities (history, classical studies) and the Social Sciences (e.g., anthropology, sociology).”


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