Debunking Lies About the Bible (Part 7): God and Genocide
An unhistorical and superficial misreading of the Old Testament has led many individuals to gushingly depict God as a masochistic, megalomaniacal, malevolent, moral monster who is always wrathful, angry, smiting people, and capriciously destroying cities left and right for no apparent reason. Unfortunately, the God of the Old Testament has garnered an unwarranted bad reputation, and the malicious efforts of God-haters and Bible-bashers like Christopher Hitchens have gone a long way in aiding and abetting these false notions and besmirching the impeccable character of the one true and holy God. Hitchens and others cut from the same anti-theist mold have further argued for a moral equivalency between the actions of ancient Israel and the current threats posed by radical Islam. Simply put, however, the modern (and postmodern) 21st Century Western mindset just won’t suffice when it comes to comprehending the perplexing commands and actions of the God of Creation. With this in mind, C.S. Lewis cautions against “chronological snobbery,” which is the “uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that count discredited.” Since the events of the Old Testament did not transpire in anything close to our contemporary context, the cultural backdrop and several other crucial factors must be given due consideration.
In a fairly recent reprise of the “gods behaving badly” theme, the late Christopher Hitchens had a field day rattling off a laundry list of complaints about the perceived injustices of Yahweh. As a notorious member of the “Four Horseman” of the apocalyptical “New Atheism,”—along with Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett—, one of Hitchens’ final assaults on the Bible came before his untimely death in 2011 due to complications arising from esophageal cancer. In his book God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007), Hitchens described in Chapter 7, entitled “Revelation: The Nightmare of the Old Testament,” how the Canaanites were “pitilessly driven out of their homes to make room for the ungrateful and mutinous children of Israel.” He also irreverently stated, among other things, that the Mosaic Laws were collected by “crude, uncultured human animals,” and that the Old Testament condones “ethnic cleansing” and “indiscriminate massacre.” Through a little intellectual sleight of hand and a lot of inflammatory language, Hitchens quite adeptly presented a blatantly spiteful appraisal of God and the Bible.
On April 20, 2009, during a debate with Dinesh D’Souza at Jones County Junior College in Ellisville, Mississippi, Hitchens had the gall to make the outrageous claim that Joseph Stalin did not murder millions in his bloody purges due to his communistic atheism, but rather as the result of religious “residue” from his Russian Orthodox seminary days, where he attended prior to his renunciation of Christianity. So, even when atheists, a group to which Hitchens himself belonged, engage in massive atrocities, they ridiculously try to blame believers (These atheists sure do know how to stick together). Ultimately, there is no consistency or logic to their conclusions. Again, the same is also true with regards to their inaccurate assessments of God and genocide. Like all of the adherents to the rehashed, so-called “New Atheism,” Hitchens clearly demonstrated the idiom (creatively adapted) that “a little [cherry-picked] ‘knowledge’ is a [deceivingly] dangerous thing!”
The “New Atheists” have also tried to draw or imply misleading comparisons between Islamic Jihad and God’s military instructions to Israel, but as we shall see, these assertions represent a gross ignorance or blatant distortion of the biblical and historical evidence. The “New Atheists” and all their cohorts are unscrupulously painting with a very broad brush, grouping all religions together as morally equivalent and then choosing the worst specimens from each in order to imply something that is not true at all. Anyone could easily do the exact same kind of thing in other unrelated subjects as well. For example, we could point to Mother Teresa, Florence Nightingale, Joan of Arc, Susan B. Anthony, Marie Curie, and Harriet Tubman (all females) and then to Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Judas Iscariot, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, and Jeffrey Dahmer (all males), and as a result, arrive at the equally ridiculous conclusion that being male is “not great” and, to borrow Hitchen’s phrase, it “poisons everything.” But such preposterously broad overstatements obviously accentuate horrific rarities while at the same time ignoring countless examples to the contrary. Although many terrible things have been done in the “name of” the Christian God across the ages, it is exceedingly wrong to assume that these incidents were committed by true believers and/or are representative of actual biblical teaching. Likewise, playing fast and loose with the truth, the “New Atheists” engage in reprehensible historical revisionism as part of their effort to gloss over the numerous and significant contributions of Christianity to the world.
By way of a lighthearted analogy, let me illustrate the shameless tactics of these atheists: In the mind-numbing comedy Dumb and Dumber (1994), the hapless goofballs Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carey) and Harry Dunne (Jeff Bridges) set out on a cross-country road trip from Providence, Rhode Island to Aspen, Colorado to return a briefcase full of money to a mysterious woman who inadvertently left it in Lloyd’s limo. With his hilarious bowl-style haircut and chipped front tooth, Lloyd deviously sells Harry’s recently deceased, headless blue parakeet “Petey” to an unsuspecting little blind kid named “Billy” to raise an extra $25 for their trip.
As the happy-go-lucky dimwits drive off towards the sunset, the movie flashes back to a scene featuring the cherub-faced little Billy sitting in his wheelchair, stroking the dead bird (its head reattached via duct tape) and futilely attempting to coax his new lifeless feathered friend to repeat “Pretty bird” and “Polly wanna a cracker.”
Shortly thereafter, a spoof episode of A Current Affair reports on the “heartbreaking story” of a traumatized Rhode Island boy who was “duped into buying a dead parakeet.” The devastated Billy is shown sobbing, “I just thought he (the parakeet) was real quiet.” Meanwhile, the mystery woman who Lloyd and Harry are pursuing happens to be watching the exact same tabloid TV program, and aghast she blurts out, “Who are these sick people?”
Likewise, the God-hating truth deniers and deviancy defenders have played a sick joke on America, selling many on a false bill of goods — the “dead parakeet” of their defamation of the Bible. They are quite literally trying to hawk the bird-brained scams of atheism, secularism, liberalism, and homo-fascism. Hopefully, this column will play a critical role in shedding the veil of lies so that no one need ever be deceived by them again.
Pointing to the divine commands to destroy the national adversaries of Israel, the virulent atheists and sin-pushers have been quick to label God as an abhorrent, racist, genocidal maniac. However, it is important to remember that the blessing of the Abrahamic offspring was actually extended to “all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3). Later, in the New Testament, as regards the grace of Jesus, God again “accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:35). The Old Testament psalmists and prophets echoed these sentiments when they spoke of the future redemption of the historic enemies of Israel (Isa. 19:23-25; Zech. 9:7; Ps. 87:3-6). The universal availability of God’s grace is clearly in view all throughout the Bible. Those are hardly the words of a xenophobic, genocidal God. As we shall see, however, God’s commands are perfectly consistent with his justice and mercy.
As we explore this problematic issue, in his book Is God a Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament God, Paul Copan, professor of philosophy and ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University, inquires and then answers his own questions, “Will gaps in our understanding of these texts still exist? Will some of our questions remain unanswered? Yes and amen. But I believe that with patience, charity, and humility we can navigate these waters with greater skill arriving at far more satisfactory answers than the New Atheists allow.” With this in mind, let us enter the choppy seas of wave upon wave of liberal distortions about the Bible.
CENTURIES OF PATIENCE AND MERCY:
As one reads the Bible, it is very easy to forget that each event or display of God’s wrath was typically separated by centuries of scriptural silence, and God’s judgment always came on the heels of massive amounts of mercy. So, the informed believer should actually be more shocked by God’s restraint than his wrath. For the events of the Old Testament certainly did not occur in a moral-historical vacuum. To begin with, we must first consider the fact that Yahweh patiently waited during the time of Israel’s bondage in Egypt (430 years) because “the sin of the Amorites [a Canaanite people group] [had] not yet reached its full measure” (Gen. 15:16). God very mercifully delayed meting out His retribution—for a period of time almost twice as long as the entire history of the United States of America—until the Canaanites reached the total depths of depravity and were ripe for God’s righteous judgment. By way of comparison, Sodom and Gomorrah (the modern Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira archaeological sites) had many years earlier stretched God’s mercy to the breaking point, especially since there were not even ten righteous people − despite Lot’s family being included in that number − to be found among Sodom’s estimated population of between 600 and 1,200 residents at the time the city met its demise (Gen. 18:16-19:29). Likewise, during the earlier time of Noah, notwithstanding 120 years of persistent preaching, there were none who repented (Gen. 6; 2 Pet. 2:5). The pre-diluvian world (before the Great Flood) was so morally bankrupt and evil that after an extremely lengthy period of merciful appeals, it had at last exhausted God’s forbearance and become fully deserving of divine wrath.
THE WICKEDNESS OF THE CANAANITES, THE POINT OF NO RETURN, AND A FOUNDATIONAL STATEMENT:
The Bible specifically refers to the “wickedness of these [Canaanite] nations” (Deut. 9:4). As Paul Copan stated, the Canaanites, who were characterized by bloodlust, incest, child sacrifice, idolatry, pagan sexual perversions, and bestiality, had “gone past a point of no return” and “judgment … [was] the last resort.” Having reached this point, God was ready to “vomit them out” of His land (Lev. 18:25) for morally substantial and sufficient reasons. Since the territory was considered a gift from God, once the Canaanites had crossed this irreversible dividing line into utter and contemptible immorality, they were forcibly removed from their ancestral homeland. Some have argued that the Canaanites should not have been held accountable for their debauchery because they did not know any better (moral ignorance), but God reveals himself to all of humanity by means of General Revelation (conscience, reason, experience, and Creation) (Acts 14:17, 17:24-28; Rom. 1:20, 2:15). And each of these is enough to reveal many basic moral principles. They were therefore not without moral compunctions (an awareness of guilt) or culpability. For example, despite their immersion in the Canaanite culture, Rahab and her family still knew enough to turn to the one true God. Moreover, God does not play favorites; the same divine judgment would eventually befall Israel itself after they too had fully abandoned God (586 B.C.), despite centuries of repeated warnings and wooings by the Lord’s prophets. The liberals and atheists may protest, but all of humanity is expected to submit to God and his standards or else face grave consequences. In the meantime, the Lord continues to be long-suffering even with us today, but that period of patience is not indefinite and will certainly not last forever. It is precisely this predominant factor of mercy that is conveniently and noticeably absent from the atheist’s equation. At this juncture, we should also never forget Israel’s foundational statement, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Ex 34:5-7).
David T. Lamb, a professor of Old Testament Studies at Biblical Seminary, recently stated during an interview with Frank Viola on this subject,
First, feeling sorry for the Amalekites and Canaanites isn’t like feeling sorry for European Jews in WWII, it’s like feeling sorry for the Nazi’s. They were evil nations that attacked other nations and were involved in heinous crimes. God was punishing them for wicked behavior.
Second, the Amalekites and the Canaanites had been doing evil things for literally hundreds of years but God had given them a long time to repent (see Gen. 15:16). God was slow to anger in his punishment. Third, God showed mercy to all the Canaanites who showed mercy and hospitality to Israel: Rahab and her family (Josh. 6:22-25), the Gibeonites (Josh. 9), a man from Bethel (Judg. 1:24-25) and the Kenites (1 Sam. 15:6).
Molech (or Moloch) was a Canaanite underworld deity depicted as a bullheaded idol with a human body standing upright. The worshipers of this vile false god placed living children into his outstretched arms over a consuming fire that was stoked in the pit of his belly. In her book Late Carthaginian Child Sacrifice and Sacrificial Monuments in Their Mediterranean Context, author and historian Shelby Brown explains that the victims were not only infants, but could also be children as old as four. Kleitarchos, an ancient historian and well-known biographer of Alexander the Great, writing sometime around 310‑300 B.C. vividly described this gruesome and inhumane Canaanite practice, stating that “as the flame burning the child surrounded the body, the limbs would shrivel up and the mouth would appear to grin as if laughing, until it was shrunk enough to slip into the cauldron.” As any reasonable member of modern society knows, the cruel, cold-blooded murder of innocent infants and children demands the application of capital punishment; therefore, this fact alone accorded ample justification for the actions of the Israelites during their conquest of the Holy Land. It also provided strong moral legitimization for the God-ordained military operations which removed the indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands.
The immediate and larger biblical context is always key to understanding God’s commands to annihilate the inhabitants of Canaan during Israel’s post-exilic conquest of the land. The command to “destroy them totally” (Hebrew: charam) (Deuteronomy 7:2) must be contextualized by the words that directly follow: “Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods…This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God.” (vss. 3–6a). Is there an anti-God liberal anywhere to be found who can make sense of this command if all of the former residents of the Promised Land were, in fact, to be exterminated? To be sure, dead people do not make for great spouses; therefore, this command of God clearly assumes that not all of the inhabitants of Canaan would actually be annihilated. Also, reflecting on verse 6, Christian apologist Hank Hanegraaff stated, “As such, the aim of God’s command was not the obliteration of the wicked but the obliteration of wickedness.” Hanegraaff also goes on to state, “God’s martial instructions are qualified by his moral intentions to spare the repentant … God’s desire to spare the pagan city of Nineveh further illustrates the extent of his mercy for the repentant (see the Book of Jonah).”
Ultimately, at the time of their entry into Canaan, God’s instructions to the Jewish nation were of a temporary nature, historically limited to a very particular place and time, and that is the big difference between Islamic Jihad and God’s temporary holy war. At the birth of the nation of Israel, the wartime commands were not intended to be normative for all time, but when they did fight it was literally a matter of national, religious, and cultural survival—the preservation of their nation’s moral and spiritual integrity. It should also be noted that even during the time of the conquest of Canaan, many of Israel’s battles were actually defensive in nature (Ex. 17:8; Num. 21:1, 23, 33, 31:2-3, 16, 25; Deut. 2:26-30, 3:1; Josh. 10:4), and that was particularly the case with the Canaanites (Num. 21:1). Therefore, once they had finally settled into their new homeland, the militaristic conquest came to an abrupt end. They were thereafter forbidden from participating in any acts of unprovoked aggression or territorial expansionistic invasions of their national neighbors (Deut. 2:4-5, 9, 19, 23:7). From this point forward, for the Hebrew nation, warfare primarily became a matter of self-defense and national security against hostile foreign invaders. God also did not allow Israel to maintain a standing army, forbidding even the counting of those eligible for military service (2 Sam. 24:1-17).
As the narrative accounts of the Bible itself clearly indicate, a command or report of total annihilation was more akin to a hyperbolic statement of complete victory, not an actual declaration of genocide. A thorough review of comparative literature from other cultures existing during the same historical era further corroborates the common usage of such warfare rhetoric. As Old Testament scholar David Howard strongly indicates, “The stereotypical model of an all-consuming Israelite army descending upon Canaan and destroying everything in its wake cannot be accepted. The biblical data will not allow for this.” For example, Joshua 10:40 states in sweeping language, “Joshua subdued the whole region, including the hill country, the Negev, the western foothills and the mountain slopes, together with all their kings. He left no survivors. He totally destroyed (Hebrew: charam) all who breathed,” but the scriptural evidence clearly indicates that this was merely exaggerated language. In much the same way that we might say today, “Our hometown football team slaughtered their opponents,” the Bible authors also employed the rhetorical device known as hyperbole to emphasize the critical importance of a particular point, add impact to a declaration, and/or to pack emotional punch into their statements. Far from being lies, everyone understood the significance of Joshua’s dramatic expressions—Israel’s enemies had been routed. Then and now, the actual meaning and import of these kinds of statements are abundantly clear. In fact, when “the land had rest from war” (Josh. 11:23), we later read that vast expanses of territory remained unclaimed (Josh. 13:1) and that many tribes had failed to drive out the Canaanites (Josh. 13:13, 15:63, 16:10, 17:12-13, 18; Jud. 1:26-37). Eventually, after the brief period of conquest, the Bible quotes God as stating, “I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations Joshua left when he died. I will use them to test Israel and see whether they will keep the way of the Lord and walk in it as their ancestors did.’ The Lord had allowed those nations to remain” (Jud. 2:21-23)(See also Jud. 2:3, 3:1-4). The Israelites therefore “lived among the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites” from that point forward (Jud. 3:5). These remaining hostile nations eventually lead God’s people into idolatry, apostasy, and immorality, and over the centuries, their military forces attacked, ransacked, pillaged, oppressed, occupied and slaughtered the tribes of Israel. In the long run, there was exponentially more death (physical and spiritual) and destruction than if the Jewish people had merely done what God had instructed them to do in the first place, which was to entirely expel their pagan predecessors from the region. So, how do we explain these verses from Joshua and Judges? Did the “exterminated” peoples suddenly, miraculously reappear out of thin air? Obviously not! They were never completely purged from the land in the first place. The same could likewise be said for the “utterly destroyed” Amalekites (1 Sam. 15) who kept spontaneously rematerializing for the next 250 plus years (1 Sam. 27:8; 30:1, 17-18; 1 Chron. 4:43). Clearly, extermination never really did happen.
Also significant to this discussion is the use of phrases such as “driving out” and “thrusting out” (Ex. 34:24; Num. 21:32, 32:21, Deut. 4:38, 9:1, 11:23, 18:14, 19:1). So, the Israelites were engaged in something more comparable to dispossessing rather than destroying. The expulsion of the Canaanites was actually in view, not their extermination. In other cases, the Canaanite POW’s were subjected to forced labor, not genocide (Josh. 15:63, 16:10, 17:12-13; Jud. 1:27-36; 1 Kings 9:20-21). Furthermore, archaeology confirms that aside from Jericho, Ai, and Hazor (mentioned below), the Hebrew armies did not completely demolish or raze the cities they conquered.
THE TREATMENT OF FOREIGNERS BY ISRAEL:
God’s own specific guidance to the Israelites regarding their treatment and interactions with the remaining, supposedly exterminated, population is clear proof that total obliteration was typically never intended or undertaken at all. And Hank Hanegraaff highlights that point:
Finally, God unequivocally commanded Israel to treat the aliens living among them with respect and equality. Foreigners living among the Israelites were allowed to celebrate Passover (Numbers 9:14; cf. 15:15), benefited from an agrarian system of welfare (Leviticus 19:9), and enjoyed full legal protection (Deuteronomy 1:16–17). Even descendants of Israel’s enemies, the Edomites and the Egyptians, were allowed to enter the assembly of the Lord (Deuteronomy 23:7–8). In fact, God condemned oppression of aliens in the harshest possible language: “Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless, or the widow” (Deuteronomy 27:19). Such concern for foreigners clearly demonstrates that mercy was to be shown to those who by faith repented of their idolatry and were thereby grafted into true Israel (cf. Romans 11:11–24).
To this list of Scriptures, we can add other commands of God, which required Israel to show concern and offer provision for the foreigners in their land (Lev. 19:34; Deut. 10:18-19). Moreover, Rahab (Canaanite), Ruth (Moabite), and Uriah (Hittite) represent only a few famous examples of foreigners who were completely incorporated into the Jewish nation.
THE RARE CASES WHEN TOTAL DESTRUCTION WAS WARRANTED:
In the few cases where the biblical text does seem to infer total destruction (Jericho, Ai, and Hazor) (Josh. 6:24, 8:28, 11:13), Paul Copan explains:
This stereotypical ancient Near Eastern language actually describes attacks on military forts and garrisons, not general populations that included women and children. There is no archaeological evidence of civilian populations at Jericho and Ai…Jericho guarded the travel routes from the Jordan Valley up to population centers in the hill country. It was the first line of defense at the junction of three roads leading to Jerusalem, Bethel, and Orpah…the use of “women” and “young and old” was merely stock ancient Near Eastern language that could be used even if women and young and old weren’t living there…Jericho, Ai, and many other Canaanite cities were mainly used for government buildings and operations, while the rest of the people (including women and children) lived in the surrounding countryside.
Inclusive terminology such as “men, women, and children” (Deut. 2:34) was the typical way of expressing “all” or “everyone,” regardless of the actual demographic makeup of these cities. Moreover, archaeology informs us that these were small military fortresses or stronghold cities with the minimally required civilian businesspersons (i.e.: Rahab) and few non-combatants. The use of Hebrew military terms for words such as ir (city) and melek (king) offer further corroboration of this assessment. In fact, the biblical accounts of the battles of Joshua do not contain any specific references to the massacre of women and children. The battles fought in these locations were not the wholesale, indiscriminate slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians that many might suppose. Once again, the preservation of Rahab and her family, living in Jericho, also proves that even in the midst of the bloodshed and war, there was still room for individuals to be spared as a result of God’s mercy.
Moreover, in the brutal and barbaric times in which they lived, Israel’s military victories, in some instances, were required to be as complete as possible to prevent the defeated foes from re-grouping to attack again. It was destroy or be destroyed in some cases. Such battles were fought to the death by each side involved in a troop engagement. Enemy survivors from these combat operations also represented another potential danger to Israel as well; they could easily warn the other city states in the area about the risk posed by the Hebrew people and form an armed coalition to repel Israel’s advance into their new homeland, which, despite all of Israel’s best efforts, still managed to happen (Judges 10-11).
A HUGE MORAL STEP FORWARD:
A strong historical argument can be made regarding the fact that Israel’s military conduct, through divine guidance, embodied a considerable moral advance, especially when compared to the practices of the other people groups living at the same time. It might be argued by some that this still does not embody an ideal state of affairs, but there is never going to be anything ideal about war specifically or life generally. But Israel’s practices unquestionably represented a huge step forward in humanitarian progress as regards military combat. As I have earlier stated in this series (“Slavery in the Old Testament”), God did not drag Israel culturally forward kicking and screaming. Instead, it was an incremental process, accomplished one historical step at a time. As Tom Gilson, the Ratio Christi National Field Director and BreakPoint columnist, analogously pointed out in this regard, criticizing God for such a sequential progression would be “like faulting Abraham Lincoln for merely emancipating the slaves, when he ought to have selected a Black woman as his running mate.” Although many in the anti-Christian camp are quick to quote, “Judge not, lest thee be judged,” they sure do enjoy looking down on God with quite a few condescending judgments of their own.
WITHSTANDING THE ANTI-GOD ASSAULTS:
Theologian Michael Reeves, writing in his article Three is the Loveliest Number, hits the nail right on the head when he notes that many people in our culture who have rejected God may actually be negatively reacting against a certain sort of God — what he calls “a loveless dictator in the sky.” Reeves explains:
Certainly in my own experience, when I ask atheist or agnostic students to describe the God they don’t believe in, I am usually treated to what sounds like a good description of Satan: a self-obsessed, merciless bully … None of this should really surprise us. John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, wrote that the fallen human mind is like ‘a perpetual factory of idols,’ in that we all persistently pervert the nature of God in our minds, imagining him to be less beautiful and good than he truly is … suspecting a God more Devil than Father.
Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and Harris are prime examples of those who arrogantly disseminate this type of biased conjecture and obstinately refuse to engage in any genuine scholarship when it comes to the topic of God. They claim to hold intellectual integrity in high regard, yet they are quite selective when it comes to applying these principles, belying their dark intentions. To me, the reason is as obvious as the nose on my face. In painting God as a moral monster, they have in effect painted themselves into an extreme atheistic “corner,” and now they have way too much invested in their anti-God ideology—too much fame, attention and money to ever reasonably consider altering their conclusions. All of this also clearly illustrates what is really motivating them. It’s not so much an actual matter of disbelief in God; it’s that they hate Him. They despise anyone who might dare to oppose their self-serving endeavors, hedonistic pursuits or sinful desires. So, they respond to God’s moral authority over them by vainly attempting to reposition themselves in judgment over God.
However, as this column has overwhelmingly illustrated, there is a very positive case for God’s moral excellence. Our God is so compassionate that he willingly became vulnerable on our behalf—first through the passionate pain caused by Israel’s repeated rebellions and then by becoming a man who died on the cross, enduring all of the wrath that we deserved for our sins. Of this we can be supremely confident: God and His Word will always withstand the comprehensive and objective scrutiny of scholarly examination. Our God is supremely holy and just, and the judge of all the earth shall indeed do what is right (Gen. 18:25).
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