The Figurative Conquest of Canaan

Joshua 8: 24-25

 HYPERLINK "" 24When Israel had finished killing all the men of Ai in the fields and in the desert where they had chased them, and when every one of them had been put to the sword, all the Israelites returned to Ai and killed those who were in it.  HYPERLINK "" 25Twelve thousand men and women fell that day—all the people of Ai. 

1 Samuel 15: 2-3

 HYPERLINK "" 2This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt.  HYPERLINK "" 3Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroya everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’”

These two passages of the Bible nearly made me an atheist.  Back when I was a Christian Fundamentalist, I just ignored them.  When I was an Christian Apologist I tried to explain their literal accuracy while still believing in God’s goodness.  Eventually I arrived at the position that they can neither be ignored nor rationally defended as literally true if I still wanted to sleep at night.  Thus, I teetered on the precipice of atheism, as I could not marry the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the murder of women and children.  

While my faith was on life-support, I happen to pose this moral quandary to a friend of mine (who happens to be a highly heretical pastor).  He led me to some research related to this very subject, which, in affect, salvaged my theism (or salvaged my salvation if I were of the Evangelical persuasion).  

If you are opposed to approaching the Bible as a book built on the beautiful threads of myth and metaphor, you may want to close your eyes for this part.  Then again, if you are reading a blog called Heretic’s Creed perhaps you already knew I might wander in this direction.  

It turns out there is very little archaeological evidence for a literal conquest of Canaan.*  

Per the Biblical account, the Israelites were held captive in Egypt for a substantial period of time, before being led by Moses, on a mass exodus from the clutches of Pharaoh.  They wandered in the wilderness for many years, but were eventually led by a dynamic military leader named Joshua, to countless conquests over the various city-states of Canaan (Modern day Israel/Palestine/Lebanon).  The conquests continued under the administration of several “judges” who established the foundations of what would become the Kingdom of Israel/Judah.  

Now, without a doubt, the Kingdom of Israel/Judah was a very real part of history.  There are numerous extra-biblical sources and archaeological findings to support this.  However, how they came to be is a matter of debate.  

The trouble with taking the Biblical account of the conquest of Canaan literally starts with the lack o extra-Biblical literary or historical sources.  There is almost no mention of “Israel” or “Israelites” until they are well established in Canaan.  True, the Merneptah Stele (an Egyptian stone tablet mentioning the Israelites by name) indicates they were large enough to be known by King Merneptah, but that particular piece is dated around 1200BC, well into the “Judges” period.  If the Israelites as a people had truly existed in captivity in Egypt (not to mention their supposed dealings with Egypt during the Patriarchal period, particularly the story of Joseph toward the end of Genesis), there would undoubtedly be mention prior to 1200BC.  

Additionally, there is the problem of the excavations of the Canaanite city-states supposedly violently conquered by the Israelites.  The archaeological record does not bear the typical demarkations of a razed city.  Battles of the size described in Joshua and Judges would leave broken weapons, skeletal remains with grievous injuries , burned buildings, etc., which would demonstrate to archaeologists that mass warfare took place.  These type of findings have validated the conquests of Alexander, Cyrus, and many others.  The evidence found at the Canaanite sites however, would suggest that those cities had a gradual decline, into irrelevance, poverty and ambiguity.  This is a very different tale than the one told by the Bible.  

If we know that the Israelites were a very real people, who established a Kingdom in Canaan but there is little evidence for their military dominance early on, and virtually no mention of them until 1200 BC, then how did they rise to prominence?  Where did they come from?  

Many scholars ascribed to the hypothesis that the Israelites didn’t conquer the Canaanites.  They were the Canaanites.  Let me explain:  There is evidence to support the fact that large groups of people left the Canaanite city states around the time that Israel was having its various “conquests”.  It appears likely that groups of disenfranchised Canaanites, for reasons as yet unknown, left in droves and created their own communities.  These fledgling groups of ex-Canaanites are the people that became the Israelites.  The holy land was taken not by a bloody conquest by one group over another, but instead by a cultural cleaving, which left the infrastructure of the Canaanites crippled.  

So the next logical question is this:  If God didn’t really tell the Israelites to kill all the Canaanites, why would they say that He did?  And, assuming the scholars are correct, doesn’t that mean the Bible is “wrong” and therefore no longer “infallible” (somer prefer to term “inerrant” instead)?  

In response to the first question; no one really knows exactly why the story was written the way it was.  But an examination of the culture and writing style of that time period can help bring better understanding to the subject.  

In the 12th century BC there were no fact check websites.  There weren’t sections in bookstores labeled “Fiction” and “Non-Fiction”.  There were only oral traditions, and later, scribes to write down what was said.  All “writing” of that day was myth.  People were not concerned with what was factual, they were concerned with what was meaningful.  The Israelites wanted to have a powerful, memorable, inspiring history that captured the pride they felt at separating themselves from their Canaanite, polytheistic roots.  So they spoke as they felt.  They didn’t care if people 3000 years later read their work and believed it to be literally true.  It captured their spirit, which is what any good mythos does.  

The second question is a tough one.  If you are a person that feels the Bible has to be literally inerrant to be valuable, then this is probably very upsetting news to you.  Without question, parts of the Bible are literally true and supported strongly by archaeological findings.  However, there are large portions that appear to be mythological in scope due to their lack of archaeological evidence or their scientific impossibility.  But I am strongly of the opinion that something does not have to be factual to be true.  

Is The Great Gatsby factual?  Did Gatsby, Nick and Daisy actually exist?  No, obviously.  But is their story any less “true”?  I would say it is one of the truest pieces of literature ever written because it’s themes and insights, about American ideals, about the 1920s, about humans, their dreams, feelings and behaviors, are all, without a doubt, true.  I think of many parts of the Bible in the same way.  It’s thematic reflections on human beings and their deity are inerrant, and that is infinitely more important than it’s factual reliability.  

But supposing the conquest of Canaan really is a myth, one could reasonably ask what we are supposed to learn from a story about a god who tells his followers to kill infants and mothers.  I think this particular part of the Bible says much more about the people who wrote it than the deity they worshipped.  The theology of humanity is not static.  Even within the Bible itself, the authors (or compilers) demonstrate a marked progression from an angry, ethnocentric, jealous god to a loving, patient, creator.  The gradual change is not in God’s behavior, but instead in how we perceive his behavior.  In another 1000 years we may understand the Bible in a completely new way that allows us greater insight into the nature of the mysterious, beautiful, enigmatic Yahweh.  

*The research I am referencing comes predominately from writings and interviews I have seen with scholars on the subject.  Among others, much of this information comes from John Dominic Crossan (New Testament Scholar), L. Michael White, Ph.d (University of Texas), Shaye J.D. Cohen, Ph.D (Harvard) and Michael Coogan, Ph.D (Harvard).  For an excellent and highly accessible synopsis of some of the research on this subject watch NOVA’s The Bible’s Buried Secrets.  

Posted on July 11, 2014 .