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