Exaggerations of Biblical Proportions, Hyperbole, Genocide and Paul Copan (hat tip: Matt Flannagan, MandM, Jeremy Pierce, to name a few)

Chuck Norris

Chuck Norris jokes often involve extreme exaggeration or hyperbole—which is the topic of this post—so letʼs begin with a few laughs:

  • Chuck Norris is the reason why Bigfoot is always hiding.

  • Chuck Norris beat the sh*t out of his shadow because it was following too close. It now stands a safe 30 feet behind him.

  • Some kids p*ss their name in the snow. Chuck Norris can p*ss his name into concrete.

  • Chuck Norris doesnʼt sweat. He forces the air around him to cry and uses its tears to cool himself.

  • On the first day God made Chuck Norris and told him to take it from there.

  • Chuck Norris came up with the “Big Bang Theory” … His round house kick is why we have the cosmos.

  • There is no Life or Death, only Chuck Norris roundhouse-kicking you in the face.

  • The reason newborn babies cry is because they know they have just entered a world with Chuck Norris.

  • At night the Boogeyman checks his closet for Chuck Norris.

  • Chuck Norrisʼ tears cure cancer. Too bad he has never cried. Ever.

  • Chuck Norris built a time machine and went back in time to stop the JFK assassination. As Oswald shot, Chuck Norris met all three bullets with his beard, deflecting them. JFKʼs head exploded out of sheer amazement.

  • Chuck Norris can count to infinity.

  • Chuck Norris doesnʼt cheat death. He wins fair and square.

  • Chuck Norris once punched a man back into a monkey. Therefore proving evolution at the same time.

  • Chuck Norris only gives one Xmas present. He allows you to live.

  • Jesus can walk on water, but Chuck Norris can swim through land.

Iʼve brought up “hyperbole” (starting with Chuck Norris jokes) because Christian apologist, Paul Copan defends God as presented in the Hebrew scriptures from the charge of genocide by claiming that Godʼs commands to wipe out Canaan and not leave anyone standing, including women, children, and even livestock are hyperbole and that such expressions were commonly used to indicate a severe attack but did not mean that literally no one at all would survive.

Unfortunately that appears to be the best defense that apologists have come up with, and I agree with Copan that the Bible features hyperbole as weʼll see below. But in my opinion thereʼs too many “God directly killed,” and also “God told me to kill” verses in the Bible, and they arenʼt all directed at Canaanites. Anyone can google up verses in the OT in which Godʼs jealousy and or wrath drowns everyone in the world (even Copan probably admits that the flood story sounds a bit massive, even genocidal if you interpret such a judgment as taking place worldwide rather than locally); or, God sends plagues, famines and armies (not to mention poisonous snakes and even opening up the ground) to kill some of His own people; or, God has some chosen people kill other chosen people; or, God has his chosen people kill unchosen people.

Even the NT reflects the leftover stench of some of those jealous and wrathful OT portraits of God such as in 1 Cor. 11:29-30 where Paul claims “… anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep [died].” So, Paul says God still sent illnesses and death, even to his newly chosen people, Christians, based on how badly they mismanaged their celebration of the Lordʼs supper. While Acts tells how a married couple were both struck dead for lying about giving everything they had to their local friendly Christian commune. They gave something, but apparently they lied about having given literally everything. Maybe God didnʼt understand that they were not lying, but just practicing a little hyperbole of their own when they stated that they had “given all?” Either way, boom, both fell instantly dead. Or take the book of Revelation where Jesus and God bring peace on earth by way of unleashing hell on earth first. See also these verses from Jesus in the Gospels, “Do you suppose that I [Jesus] came to grant peace on earth? I came not to bring peace, but a sword” (Mat. 10:34); or, “Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division … I have come to cast fire on the earth and how I wish it were already kindled.” (Luke 12:49,51)). Therefore, whether or not Godʼs commands in the OT constitute utter and complete genocide rather than merely “severely murderous attacks” upon lots of people (including his own chosen people) is not exactly going to restore my faith in either God or the Bible. Instead I want to bring up another point, namely wide spread use of hyperbole in the Bible, and the Bibleʼs cultural-centrism as well, since the Israelites shared with their neighbors a willingness to go “all the way” verbally, to try and make their beliefs/culture/god(s)/people appear like the world revolved around them and their god and their laws, etc.

So in my opinion questions related to hyperbole in the Bible merely raise more questions for Christians who believe in the Bibleʼs special inspiration, and provide yet more evidence that the books of the Bible are ancient Near Eastern documents, and contain the same exaggerated speech, boastful lies and holy hyperbole common for that day and age.

Take the case of King Hammurabi of Babylon and his Code of Laws compared with Moses and his laws. Even by conservative scholarʼs reckoning Hammurabi lived prior to Mosesʼ day. And a stele was discovered that contains the law code of Hammurabi

and on top of the stele is the carved image of Shamash, the supreme sun god and judge, who is seen offering to Hammurabi a rod and ring that symbolize authority. These two symbols are apparently derived from buildersʼ tools—measuring stick and coiled rope. The implication is that the king is to build social order. The reference to buildersʼ tools reminds us of the importance of building as another means of giving physical testimony to a rulerʼs power. The stele thus asserts the divine sanction of Hammurabiʼs power, and that the social order he constructs is a reflection of a divine order.

The story of Moses is similar, since Moses meets with his god and receives two objects from him (stone tablets) and then proceeds to compose laws suitable for a nation. Both stories strike one as ancient Near Eastern attempts to explain the origin of laws and add authoritative backing to them. But since we donʼt believe that Hammurabiʼs story literally happened, what about the later story, the one involving Moses?

Another example of an ancient Near Eastern culture-centric justification story is the OT tale about King David having received special instructions directly from Yahweh on how to build His temple. Just as in the case of Hammurabi and Moses above, a non-Hebrew tale preceded the Hebrew one. King Thutmose of Egypt lived before the day of King David, and an ancient inscription says that Thutmose received instructions directly from his god, an Egyptian deity, about how His temple should be built. Since we donʼt believe that an Egyptian god actually spoke to Thutmose telling him how he wanted his temple designed, why should we treat the later Hebrew story as if it was literally true? Again, they could both be culture-centric stories that arose to add “divine” justification for the temples each of those kings built.

And ancient Near Eastern comparisons donʼt cease there.

The Bible begins with the exaggerated ages of biblical patriarchs. But ANE king lists also featured exaggerated ages.

And speaking of exaggerations letʼs focus again on some of the hyperbole that I mentioned could be found in the Bible, stuff that I think raises more questions than answers concerning alleged claims of the Bibleʼs “inspiration.” After all, maybe even the claim that the Bible is “inspired” is hyperbole?

The Bible features exaggerated numbers of people wandering in the desert for forty years and exaggerated tales related to such massive numbers of desert wanderers, such as the story about them traveling every day and night, following a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night, and their clothing never wearing out during those forty years of incessant “wandering.” For more on exaggerations related to the Bibleʼs Exodus story click here.

And thereʼs the exaggerated abundance of the Promised Land, a land “flowing with milk and honey?” Certainly it was more abundant than a Middle Eastern desert, but compared with a lush tropical island or even compared with Europe, the Promised Land appears relatively meager, barren, and features a parched wilderness as well as a Dead Sea. (Europe on the other hand truly is a promised land as it happens to be the only continent that doesnʼt have a desert.)

Ancient Near Eastern records include exaggerations concerning the size of armies, and numbers of people slain. So does the Bible since it states that King David and King Saul fielded armies larger than those of Alexander the Great, larger than those that battled in Europe and America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Did King David have 1.57 million troops (1 Chron. 21:5)…or 340,000 plus the muster of Issacher…or 1.3 million (depending on which verses you read). While King Saul could field 210,000 troops? (1 Sam. 15:4) Hyperbolic numbers most likely.

Did the Hebrew warriors Abishai & Jashobeam each slay 300 men using only a spear (2 Sam. 23:8 & 1 Chron. 11:11)?

But thatʼs nothing, because Shamgar slew 600 men with an ox-goad (Judges 3:31).

And Adino slew 800 with a spear (2 Sam. 23:8) Do ya suppose Adino was the inventor of Shish-ka-bob?

Last but not least, Samson slew 1000 men with the jaw-bone of an ass (Judges 15:15). Iʼd say more hyperbole.

“Among all this people there were seven hundred chosen men left-handed; every one could sling stones at a hairʼs breath, and not miss.” Judges 20:16 Yet more hyperbole. Even the greatest sharp shooters at the turn of the last century, who performed in Wild West traveling shows and who shot cards out of each otherʼs hands, did not retire with all their fingers—because they “missed” some shots by “a hairʼs breath.”

Or take this nauseatingly hyperbolic passage, not the only such passage in the Bible:

“Their slain shall be cast out, and their stink shall come up out of their carcasses, and the mountains shall be melted with their blood.” Isaiah 34:3

And speaking of the Bibleʼs use of the word “all,” itʼs practically everywhere. Take Genesis 4:21, “Jubal: he was the father of all such as handle the harp and organ [or flute, NIV].” “All?” Were the ancient Hebrews claiming that one person in particular brought musical instruments to the world, just as the Greeks portrayed Prometheus as the one human-like god who brought fire down from heaven and gave it to all of humanity? It would appear so, even though stringed instruments and blowing instruments were probably invented numerous times by countless numbers of people over the ages and round the world after someone plucked something or blew into something and enjoyed what they heard.

Another biblical passage states: “… all the people that we saw are men of a great stature. And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.” Numbers 13:32-33 But if “all the people” were of such great size, one wonders how to account for the apparently normal size of Rahab, the Gibeonites, and others that Joshua encounters upon entering Canaan 38 years later (cf. Joshua 6:25, 9:3-15).—Peter T. Chattaway, Giants in the Bible

“The famine was over all the face of the earth … And all countries came unto Egypt to Joseph to buy corn; because the famine was so sore in all lands.” Genesis 41:56,57

“All the kings of the earth sought the presence of Solomon, to hear his wisdom.” 2 Chronicles 9:23

In the Bible thereʼs also exaggerated promises such as “I have set my king upon the holy hill of Zion… Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen [as slaves] for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron.” Psalm 2:6,8,9,12 Such a psalm is believed to have been sung at the coronation of Hebrew kings. But itʼs a wild exaggeration, no? Though it must be admitted that this psalm later proved popular with some Catholics and Protestants many centuries later who cited it as at least partial justification for “breaking” of the “heathen,” driving them into slavery and stealing their land in alleged fulfillment of this exaggerated Biblical promise.

“This day will I begin to put … the fear of thee upon the nations that are under the whole heaven, who shall hear report of thee, and shall tremble, and be in anguish because of thee.” Deuteronomy 2:25 [under the whole heaven?]

“A decree went out from Caesar Augustus that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth.” Luke 2:1

“A great famine all over the world took place in the reign of Claudius.” Acts 11:28

“The devil took him [Jesus] up into an exceedingly high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them.” Matthew 4:8 “All” from an exceedingly high mountain? Perhaps thatʼs how the ancients pictured the earth, namely that “all” of it was within their “view?” Compare the preceding statements, and those below as well.

Exaggerated promises and commands are also found in the NT like the command to pluck out oneʼs eye, hate oneʼs father and mother, or the command to give to all who ask, asking nothing in return. And the promise that you wonʼt be hurt.

And thereʼs the exaggeration with which the fourth Gospel ends, “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written, every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen.” John 21:25

In Paulʼs letters he spoke in hyperbolic fashion concerning the Gospel having reached the whole earth, Romans 10:18; 16:25-26; Colossians 1:5-6,23. But, “Their voice” (of Christians proclaiming the Gospel) had only reached a handful of churches in the Roman Empire when Paul wrote the above verses. The Gospel had not reached, nor been proclaimed in “all the earth,” nor “to the ends of the world,” nor “to all nations,” and certainly not “in all creation under heaven,” not like Paul said it “has” and “was.” (Three billion people on earth still havenʼt heard “the Gospel,” at least not according to a statement made by the Southern Baptist Convention in 2004. Though that could be a slight counter exaggeration *smile* depending on the inclusivity of oneʼs theology).

Summation Of “Exaggerations Of Biblical Proportions”

If an all-wise God had inspired the Bible He would have been able to give its human authors a few inspired geography lessons, just to show them how big the earth really is. Instead the Bible appears to contain the same exaggerated speech, boastful lies and holy hyperbole common for its day and age, rather than evidence of special inspiration.

Furthermore, if the Bible is speaking in an exaggerated fashion when it speaks of “all the earth,” “to the ends of the earth,” “from the uttermost parts of the earth,” “all the inhabited earth,” “in all creation under heaven,” “under all the heavens,” and, “every nation under heaven,” then how can anyone be expected to assume that the statement, “everywhere under the heavens,” as found in the tale of the Flood of Noah isnʼt also an exaggeration? (It says in Gen. 7:17, “The water prevailed … and all the high mountains everywhere under the heavens were covered.” So why canʼt Young-Earth Creationist “Flood geologists” admit that the phrase, “everywhere under the heavens,” might very well be another form of exaggerated hyperbole to make the Hebrew version of the Flood story (which they adapted from the Sumerians/Babylonians) sound impressive and appeal to the cultural-centrism of the Hebrewʼs? After all, the Hebrews did also change the name of the storyʼs hero and the name of the mountain upon which the boat eventually rested, to suit their culture.

Having run across so many instances of cultural-centric exaggerated speech in the Bible and in the ancient world in general, one even wonders what is to become of the central Christian boast, an exaggeration par excellence, namely that Jesus died for the sins of “the world?” Believers from every sacred tradition boast that their beliefs affect “the world,” or must be taken seriously by “the world.” Must they? I cannot take seriously many instances in which Biblical authors exaggerate concerning the extent of a famine, a census, the distance to the queen of Shebaʼs residence “lying at the uttermost ends of the earth,” the extent to which the Gospel message itself has “already been” spread, the extent of a flood, etc. And, didnʼt “orthodox” Christian doctrines and theology arise via exaggerating the relative importance of some NT writings and teachings above others (as well as by exaggerating the importance of some interpretations of those sayings above rival interpretations)?

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