The Wars of the Lord 5

This is the fifth in a series of posts about the wars God commanded the Israelites to fight against the Canaanites, guided by some excerpts from Thom Stark’s excellent book, The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It) (2011, Wipf and Stock).

Some great responses to my earlier posts – I appreciate some of the pushback as well as some of the alternate possible understandings.  The issue no doubt merits further review, and I should clarify that I’m not sure where I fall on this whole discussion, as I’ve been by and large presenting the views in Thom Stark’s book.  I think he raises some very valid questions, and isn’t willing to settle for the usual answers or simple solutions.  That said, I may not agree with him everywhere, and some of you have noted excellent other possible approaches as voiced by Greg Boyd and Walter Brueggemann among others.

One respondent to the first post noted the following possibilities:

— Maybe the [Israelites] (or their power-hungry leaders) made up the stuff about how God told us to do x, y, and z to get the people to do things they would ordinarily find repellent.

— Or, this is the usual revisionist history to boost morale, legitimize past war crimes and maintain the new dominance.

— Or, more specifically, as one of my Calvin profs barely hinted at, maybe all this stuff about violently defeating their enemies was an attempt to glorify (in a war-glorifying world) what was actually a gradual immigration involving a somewhat boring and dishonorable out-reproducing of the natives, cultural and genetic assimilation and religious syncretism.

In this post I want to focus on the third possibility that he raises, and we’ll find that we may wind up looking at the first two as well.

The question is: did these brutalizing campaigns and slaughter of the people of Canaan and elsewhere actually happen?

I suppose many of us would initially respond to that question with, “Of course it happened – it’s in the Bible.”  But I wonder if it’s that simple.

Thom Stark notes that “the conquest narratives face serious problems with regard to historicity.”

In other words, did they really happen?  Or at least happen as depicted in the text?

Inventing Genocide?

It appears that “many of the conquest accounts depicted in the biblical narratives are in fact contradicted both by archaeological and internal textual evidence.”

For example:

In Numbers 20:14-21, the Israelites head east across the Negev and arrive at Edom, where, according to the text, they are refused passage by the king of Edom.  Yet the archaeological record indicates that at this period, there were only a meager number of nomadic tribes in the region of Edom.  Israel could not have been denied access by the king of Edom, since Edom did not attain statehood until the seventh century BCE, approximately 600 years after the events depicted in Numbers.  There was no king to deny them access!

Further, Num 21:1-3 narrates that Israel destroyed all the cities of the northern Negev, in the region of Arad.  One of the cities they subsequently renamed “Hormah” (meaning ‘destruction’).  Contrary to this, excavations in the 1970s found that no Late Bronze Age occupational levels exist in this entire region.  In other words, at the time of the supposed Israelite attacks, nobody was home.  With regard to the city of Arad in particular, it was not founded until the tenth century BCE, about 300 years after the events described in Numbers.  Furthermore, the tenth century city of Arad was built upon the ruins of an Early Bronze Age settlement, which was abandoned at around 2600 BCE.  Thus, at the time the Israelites are said to have destroyed it, Arad had already been a ruin for over 1,300 years.

But how accurate is the archaeology, you may ask.  Or do the archaeologists have an agenda to disprove the biblical account?

From 1968-1976, the site of ancient Heshbon was excavated by a group of archaelogists who also happened to be confessing Seventh-day Adventists.  They had set out to prove the accuracy of the Bible.  What they found instead was no evidence of any Late Bronze Age settlements.  In fact, according to their results, the city of Heshbon was not founded until the Iron II period – at the earliest, 250 years after the events depicted in Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Apparently not an isolated incident.  The Moabite city of Dibon was excavated by a group of Southern Baptist scholars in the 1950’s, a city which according to Num 21:30 (and 32:3) was besieged and subdued by the Israelites.  They were expecting the biblical claims to be validated by the archaeological record.  Their excavation resulted in the discovery of the sparse remains of a city from the ninth century BCE, some 400 years after the time of the conquest, and no Late Bronze Age residues.  Once again, Israel had sieged a city that wasn’t there.

There are more examples.  One archaeologist, Joseph Callaway, a conservative Christian and a professor at Southern Baptist Seminary set out to reexamine several biblical sites, hoping to vindicate the biblical record against earlier findings.  Instead, he too confirmed the earlier findings and conceded the historical inaccuracy of accounts like Joshua 7-8.  Callaway wrote, “For many years, the primary source for the understanding of the settlement of the first Israelites was the Hebrew Bible, but every reconstruction based upon the biblical traditions has foundered on the evidence from archaeological remains.”  After this, Callaway took an early retirement from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Stark notes that some of these facts actually seem to be reflected in the biblical accounts themselves.  For example, the city of Ai mentioned in Joshua 7-8 literally means “ruin.”  Most scholars believe that the account of the destruction of Ai was an etiological narrative, explaining how the ruin came to be such.  That it is known in the Bible by no other name than “ruin” suggests that it was already a ruin by the time the Israelites arrived.  Interesting, isn’t it?  This is in fact what the archaeological record shows, a fact that is quiet problematic for inerrantists, who concede that a solution to the ‘Ai problem’ continues to be elusive.

One of the few sites at which excavations have shown evidence to corroborate a biblical conquest account is Hazor, which was excavated by Yigael Yadin from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  They have found destruction levels dating to the thirteenth century – the period of the conquest.  This means that the account of the destruction of Hazor is most likely based on a tradition with a historical kernel.

Stark concludes, “In light of this overwhelming evidence against the historicity of the biblical conquest account, some conservative biblical apologists have begun to attempt to use this to their advantage.  For instance, Paul Copan argues from the archaeological evidence that the Canaanite conquest did not occur, thereby exonerating Yahweh an the Israelites from charges of genocide.”

I wouldn’t mind this conclusion.

Yet Stark notes that for inerrantists, this is hardly a defensible strategy: “Apart from conceding the loss of biblical inerrancy, it continues to ignore two facts.  First, such annihilations most likely did occur, as the archaeological record at Hazor and some other sites seem to confirm.  There is no reason to doubt that early Israelites did engage in such warfare.  Although Ai, Jericho, and other genocidal battles probably never occurred, it is not likely that such stories were invented whole cloth.  They would have been rooted in the historical memory of similar battles, although probably much fewer in number than the account in Joshua claims.  Second, even if the genocides never took place historically, that does not remove the problem that they are presented as Yahweh’s ideal in the scriptures.  Even if it is merely rhetoric, it is evil rhetoric.”

Stark goes on, “Apologists taking this tack have unwittingly conceded to my own position: that a loving God could not have commanded genocide, and our scriptures are therefore deeply problematic.”

There are later textual discrepancies that note the Israelites wiped out the Midianites (in Deut and again in Joshua 13:21), yet Judges 6 tells us that a few generations later, the Midianites are not only alive but are powerful and numerous enough to have been Israel’s oppressors!  Stark asks, “How did this occur?  Did the surviving virgins who were assimilated into Israel’s ranks conceive from their Israelite husbands and secretly raise a Midianite army?”

Inerrantist biblical scholars acknowledge these discrepancies, but dispense with them by claiming that descriptions of slaughter of “everything that lives and breathes” were “not necessarily intended literally.”  Stark notes that “this is a classic example of the unwritten inerrantist hermeneutical principle that historical texts must be interpreted literally unless or until a literal interpretation creates a factual discrepancy, in which case it obviously must be taken metaphorically.”

So we’re still stuck – the biblical stories seem exaggerated beyond what plausibly took place historically, yet they do in fact represent some historical events, even if not to the same scale.  So where does that leave us?

The Empire Strikes Back

Here’s where we get into the first two points raised earlier.

Lawson Younger, an evangelical scholar, has done work on ancient conquest myths and has compared the accounts in Joshua to Hittite, Egyptian, and Assyrian conquest literature.  He concludes that “the historical narrative in which Joshua 9-12 is cast utilizes a common transmission code observable in numerous ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts, employing the same ideology.”

He goes on: “The ideology which lies behind the text of Joshua is one like that underlying other ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts – namely, imperialistic.”

In other words, Stark summarizes, “The literature reflects the attempt of rising empires to express their hegemony through origin stories that crystallize their present-day claims to power.  These origin myths present the young nation as an unstoppable force, specially empowered by the deity whose strength far outstrips that of other tribal deities.  The myths serve to crystallize and legitimize the nation’s rise to power.”

Aren’t we jumping the gun here though?  Can we just automatically make the leap that because we have comparable literature from other nations, it means Israel was doing the same thing?  Good question.

I think we need to again consider the timing of when these accounts were written.  It is important to note that the conquest accounts in the Bible reflect almost no knowledge of thirteenth-century geography; instead the geography reflects the vantage point of a writer from about the seventh century BCE.  A large number of critical scholars believe it is likely that many of these accounts were written during the reign of King Josiah, whose unprecedented (and extremely violent) reforms consolidated religious and political power within Jerusalem.  Stark notes that “Joshua, the ideal leader, would thus have been read as a type of Josiah.”

He goes on to note that the narrative functions as a type of propaganda, helping legitimize Josiah’s consolidation of power in the name of national unity and faithfulness to Yahweh.  Historian Eric Hobsbawm notes that “traditions which appear or claim to be old are often quite recent in origin and sometimes invented.”

Legitimating Empire

Such invented or partly-invented origin myths are not anything new to us, notes Stark.  For example, he notes, search any Texas high school history textbook, in which we learn about the “hostile Indians” and the “brave Americans” who made the land secure for peace and prosperity.

“The ‘othering’ of national enemies is a ubiquitous feature in these national origin myths.  This kind of history-making is found wherever there is power, and especially where there is militaristic power with imperialistic pretensions.”

So is it possible that some of the history in our own Scriptures fall under this category as well?  We may not like to think so, but I think, given the historical record and the textual evidence, we have to grant that it is at least a possibility.

Stay tuned for perhaps one more post on the subject…


14 thoughts on “The Wars of the Lord 5

  1. My sincere apologies. Thanks very much.

    Yes, Bryan will discuss my answer to your question in his next post. It may or may not be satisfying for you, but it’s the only honest answer I’ve been able to come to.

    All the very best,


    1. Thom: Glad we got that cleared up! Whew. I look forward to more of this discussion. Expands my thoughts and views. Like that. Blessings to you, the really smart Thom Stark. (I couldn’t resist) 😉


      1. Hey, Thom. Wanna know something so weird???? I just went to go to My Amazon & YOUR BOOK was sitting in my cart. I had run across it while searching for another book & it piqued my interest, so I had it sitting in my cart to purchase. How crazy of a God-thing is that? I’m ordering it today, will read it and will let you know my thoughts. That is just so cool how God works! Wanted to let you know…because, seriously, what are the chances out of the millions of books available on Amazon that I would have coincidentally selected YOURS? I bless God today!


  2. Thom, I mean that in the highest regard, seriously! I kept thinking, “Wow, this guy is really smart and knows so much!” I was pretty much in awe, to be honest. It was in NO WAY sarcastic or snarky but meant to portray an admiration. I have a sense of humor, and with you not knowing that, I think you misunderstood, but in all honesty, I just was really impressed with your detailed knowledge, of which I do not have but wish I did! 🙂


  3. Calling me “really smart Thom Stark” seems unnecessarily snarky and unprovoked. For an answer to your question I’ll refer you to Bryan’s forthcoming post.


  4. “But what is relevant is not how it was used later, necessarily, but how it was used at the time of its composition.”

    My question to the really smart Thom Stark: If the word of God is alive & active, then why would these stories of Joshua or Josiah have any less significance to us now than they did then? Why is one application to a people group THEN more relevant than another people group in later history? Yes, obviously these “stories” reflected current situations and were recorded to position themselves and God apart from other gods worshiped…or to motivate these people to act in certain ways…but the real task, I might propose, is to find equal application to us today. How do we take these passages–whatever there purpose may have been–and learn about God in new ways that affect our lives? How does this Text form our minds about our own current conquests, wars, interaction with different people groups, our own use of propaganda to persuade people to do things according to God, or our own perspective of God? These loftier questions, I believe, are the core challenges of this Text, much more than “Did it happen exactly like the writers portray it?”

    Just my thoughts, really smart Thom Stark. 🙂


  5. Andy, the Book of Hebrews uses Joshua in a typological way, of course. But what is relevant is not how it was used later, necessarily, but how it was used at the time of its composition. Josiah was under pressure from the empires to the north and south; he had recently gained a modicum of independence from Assyria, and was looking to consolidate power as quickly as possible. The writer of the Deuteronomistic History said the same thing about Joshua as he did Josiah, that he “turned neither right nor left from the book of the law,” and Josiah and Joshua are the only two figures about whom this is said. Moreover, Josiah’s reforms were about eliminating the contagion of idol worship in Judea, which was really actually about centralizing religion within Jerusalem in order to destabilize local institutions of authority. This also secured a significant increase in revenue for the Jerusalem temple regime, since all the sacrifices were now to be made only at the temple, and no longer in every man his own backyard. But to institute these reforms, Josiah embarked upon a campaign that was extremely violent, slaughtering all the local cultic leaders (which are presented in the text as worshipers of false gods but were much more likely worshipers of local manifestations of Yahweh–at least some of them). Significantly, Josiah began his campaign in the same region that Joshua did (according to the narrative)–Jericho and Ai. Significantly, Jericho and Ai are both cities in the conquest narratives the destruction of which the archaeological record does not at all support. Go figure.


  6. Some good and challenging thoughts here.

    I think that my problem with this idea is the same as yours. The power of myth is not in historicity but in their formative power for the present. Carlos Fuentes said that myth is “a past with a future, exercising itself in the present.” If these annihilation stories are formative myth (myth in Tolkien’s sense, not in fact/non-fact dualism), then they are meant to be formative and even instructive for our current behavior. Yet, I do not get the impression from the New Testament (or even later Old Testament and Intertestamental writings) that the annihilation stories are the central myths to Israel. I would count the call of Abraham (“I am the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”), the Exodus (“the God who brought you out of Egypt”), and others. Rarely do I see the conquest narratives used in such a typological way. Then again, I could be rationalizing. Thank you for taking this topic head-on. I look forward to the next installment.


  7. Bryan, sometimes I wish I remained “in the cave” seeing shadows (referring to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”). The Bible would remain tidy & would make sense without much questioning, pondering, debates and divisions. (But that would probably be boring and easily exhausted, right?) Now that I KNOW that the Bible may contain historical errors, how do I deal with the rest of the Bible and its accuracy? How can I trust that God has overseen His Word and that His message is accurately conveyed, in contrast to human propaganda being presented? How much author perspective and motive is woven not only into the OT but the NT as well?

    As a writer and English teacher, I say with full assurance that perspective and motive CANNOT be stripped from any oral storytelling or written form. God created us to create, to tell stories, to use our imaginative minds to relate our world and worldviews to others in order to communicate and interact among one another–in order to try to make sense of this world and worlds unknown and unseen.

    I am coming to terms that human hands are all over the Bible, not only from a storytelling standpoint but also when the Word of God was/is translated/transliterated. Decisions have to be made. Details omitted. Sequence determined. As I writer, I grapple with these issues when creating my story. How do I relate my story to reflect what I want to say? When do I introduce this idea, and what do I include or exclude to tell my best story–or at least the story that I want to tell? So, honestly, I can understand the challenging process & dilemma of the authors and the translators when deciding what to include when “creating” God’s Word from its first compilation until now.

    Maybe God allows this freedom, as He allows our free will to make decisions in our daily lives. Maybe His Word is “our” word, and maybe His mind is “our” mind–uniting Him & us in an unexplainable way that will only make full sense when we are merged into One Body. Maybe we collectively–generation after generation–tell God’s story, His relationship with mankind. Maybe we all have a small part in telling & retelling how The Creator moved/moves/will move about us in His desire to dwell with His creation. Maybe God’s story is not as much about what verse is accurately translated or which story is archeologically proven but about how we live our lives in unity to His being. I admit, this explanation might be a bit allusive, ambiguous and too simplified to explain a complex, infinite God. But I throw out my thoughts for contemplation, even if smart theologians and seminary grads balk at the simplicity.

    Practically applied, the Word of God shows us God, regardless if it has, over time, been “tainted” or manipulated by humans. This might seem like a contradiction, but if we are a part of God, our story is a slice of God’s story. Since the Word of God IS God, we can sense God as we read about the battles, the lovers, the weak and the strong, the friends and the foes, etc. Even if we misunderstand or manipulate or question what we sense about God, maybe He covers over all that because He gave us His mind–which means that we think like Him, albeit only partially now in our limited capacity.

    The fact that every line in the Bible is accurately portrayed/maintained (by God) for thousands of years is probably less important than connecting with God in the spiritual realm where we see His Word come alive in our hearts, in our minds and in our lives. Sound idealistic? Maybe. But to me, no other words than God’s Word motivates me to strive towards moral excellence, to dig deeper for more understanding of the physical and spiritual realms, and to work towards a greater sense of peace in this broken, broken world (that He created, or at minimum allowed to become broken). God’s Word, in its totality, makes this whole world make sense to me. It gives me hope that I would not find elsewhere by merely looking at this world.

    Did God command genocide? I don’t know. Did God allow Moses (or whoever might have authored or co-authored the Book of Numbers) to recreate history according to Moses’ purpose? I don’t know. Did God limit biblical authors’ views to tell His story with perfect accuracy–or did He allow them full capacity to tell His story through their eyes? I don’t know. But what I do know is the burning desire God’s Word flames inside of me to live for Him. For this I know to be true.


    1. Hi Gaynor-
      I really appreciate your thoughts, and I agree, we shouldn’t let questions such as the ones posed in these posts keep us from living as God wants us to, and I love the passion with which you articulate this.

      For some folks perhaps it would be preferable to remain ‘in the dark’, so to speak. Yet if these things are in the Bible, and the Bible is the most important book we have – to me – I can’t just stick my head in the ground for things I don’t like.

      God has used broken people from the beginning, and if sometimes the brokenness shows through? I think that encourages me that He will continue to use broken people like you and I to bring about his shalom.

      Honestly, things like this can be the very thing that keep people from wanting to know God – in other words – someone might say, “Your God commands mass-executions of people groups, including women and children? No thanks.”

      If our only response is, “Gulp, yup, I guess He is like that…” it may keep the window closed for that person – but if we are able to say, “You know, I’ve actually looked into this a bit and there’s a decent chance God isn’t like that at all.” Maybe God can even use things like this to draw us to Him. I hope so.

      You mentioned ‘the Word of God is God’. I’m not sure what you mean by that… but I think we need to remember that we worship God, and the Bible is a means to knowing God and worshiping him, but we don’t worship the Bible. Sometimes people want to, and that certainly precludes doing any kind of study like we’ve done here. But the Bible isn’t God. And insofar as Jesus was the Word, he didn’t reflect, as I read it, a God who ‘takes the sword’, because ‘those who live by the sword, die by the sword.’

      Thanks for your thoughts and stay idealistic!


  8. Let’s assume the writers describing the genocide and the imperialism of the OT fell victim to what the writers of early American history did…. Now what? Are there principles we can still learn? Is there sin that God hates? Are there consequences to living outside of the ways of God? And then, let’s assume some of the stories are true regarding their brutality. Did Israel face consequences when assigning responsibility of ungodly acts to God? What can we learn from this?


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