Sunday Study: Joshua and the Genocide of the Canaanites Part II

In my previous post, Joshua and the Genocide of the Canaanites Part I, I mentioned the position suggested by Alvin Plantinga and endorsed by Nicholas Wolterstorff that the passages in Joshua that appear to record the carrying out of genocide at God’s command, such as, “putting all the people to the sword”, “leaving no survivors”, “totally destroying”, “striking all the inhabitants with the edge of the sword” are not intended to be taken literally but rather as hyperbole.

Plantinga suggests that such phrases should “be understood more like a person who in the context of a boxing match states, “knock his block off, hand him his head” or in a football or baseball game where it is stated that the team should “kill the opposition” or that “we totally slaughtered them.”[1] In reading Joshua, Wolterstorff defends the thesis that the relevant passages are hyperbolic. He argues essentially that:

(a) the picture of total conquest and annihilation of populations is incompatible with what is said elsewhere in Joshua and Judges;
(b) this is obvious to anyone who reads the narrative straight through without artificially dividing the text into chapter divisions and verses;
(c) the redactors or authors would not have been so mindless as to accidentally put obviously contradictory accounts into one narrative;
(d) the annihilation language appears stereotyped and formulaic whereas the other passages read like more down-to-earth history.[2]

On the basis of these points Wolterstorff argues that texts are hyperboles, similar to a football player who says “we slaughtered the opposition just like Coach told us to”[3]

In my previous post I addressed (a); I argued, in some detail, that the picture of Joshua conquering all southern and northern Canaan, killing every inhabitant of the relevant cities and regions and leaving no survivors, if taken literally, contradicts what is affirmed in the rest of the book of Joshua and what is affirmed in Judges. I also agree with Wolterstorff about (b); to any person who reads the text straight through, not breaking it artificially into chapters and verses, and who then reads the book of Judges, these contradictions are fairly obvious. These two points alongside (c) make it improbable that the text should be read in a literal fashion.

I think Wolterstorff understates (c). If, as Wolterstorff believes, the primary author of scripture is God then obviously the author of the text is an intelligent person who is unlikely to have deliberately (or accidentally) authored an obviously contradictory narrative.

Now it may be contended that an appeal to divine authorship in this way begs the question, however, I think this is mistaken. As I understand the objection, the sceptic who claims that God commanded genocide is offering a reductio ad absurdium; he or she starts by assuming that whatever God commands is right and that scripture is the word of God and then derives from these assumptions the absurd conclusion that genocide is not wrong. The question then is whether, granting these assumptions, such a conclusion does, in fact, follow.

Taken together, (a),(b),(c) and (d) do make a hyperbolic reading probable. If the text cannot sensibly be taken literally, and if there is some evidence of formulaic, ritualistic language in the text, then that would suggest some kind of non-literal reading and a hyperbolic one certainly makes sense of the data.

Wolterstorff’s case has some merit, however, I think it can be considerably strengthened. Wolterstorff limits his case to what I call internal evidence, evidence from within the text itself. I think, however, there is some interesting external evidence, evidence from how particular terms and language is used in other ancient near eastern histories of conquests and battles, which could be added to Wolterstorff’s argument to make it significantly more plausible. Here I will cite three lines of such evidence.

The first is that rhetoric of total conquest, complete annihilation and destruction of the enemy, killing everyone, leaving no survivors, etc, is a common hyperbolic way of describing a victory in ancient near eastern histories of the same period. Kenneth Kitchen notes,

the type of rhetoric in question was a regular feature of military reports in the second and first millennia, as others have made very clear. … In the latter fifteenth century Tuthmosis III could boast “the numerous army of Mitanni was overthrown within the hour, annihilated totally, like those (now) not existent” –whereas, in fact, the forces of Mitanni lived to fight many another day, in the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries. Some centuries later, about 840/830, Mesha king of Moab could boast that “Israel has utterly perished for always” – a rather premature judgment at that date, by over a century! And so, on ad libitum. It is in this frame of reference that the Joshua rhetoric must be understood.[4]

In a comprehensive comparative study of ancient near eastern conquest accounts K Lawson Younger documents stylistic and literary similarities between Joshua and reports of wars written by the Hittites, Egyptians and Assyrians including this kind of hyperbole. Merenptah’s Stele describes a skirmish with Israel as follows, “Yanoam is nonexistent; Israel is wasted, his seed is not.”[5] Here a skirmish in which Egypt prevailed is described hyperbolically in terms of the total annihilation of Israel. Sennacherib uses similar hyperbole, “The soldiers of Hirimme, dangerous enemies, I cut down with the sword; and not one escaped.”[6] Mursilli II records making “Mt. Asharpaya empty (of humanity)” and the “mountains of Tarikarimu empty (of humanity).”[7] Mesha (whom Kitchen cited as stating “Israel has utterly perished for always”) describes victories in terms of him fighting against a town, taking it and then killing all the inhabitants of the town.[8] Similarly, The Bulletin of Ramses II, an historical narrative of Egyptian military campaigns into Syria, narrates Egypt’s considerably less than decisive victory at the battle of Kadesh with the following rhetoric,

His majesty slew the entire force of the wretched foe from Hatti, together with his great chiefs and all his brothers, as well as all the chiefs of all the countries that had come with him, their infantry and their chariotry falling on their faces one upon the other. His majesty slaughtered and slew them in their places; … He took no note of the millions of foreigners; he regarded them as chaff.[9] [Emphasis original]

The hyperbolic use of language similar to that in Joshua is strikingly evident.

Second, comparisons between the book of Joshua, and other ancient near eastern conquest accounts from the same period, demonstrate some important stylistic parallels. Commenting on the structure of the campaigns mentioned in Joshua 9-12, Kitchen notes;

This kind of report profile is familiar to readers of ancient Near Eastern military reports, not least in the second millennium. Most striking is the example of the campaign annals of Tuthmosis III of Egypt in his years 22-42 (ca. 1458-1438). … the pharaoh there gives a very full account of his initial victory at Megiddo, by contrast with the far more summary and stylized reports of the ensuing sixteen subsequent campaigns. Just like Joshua against up to seven kings in south Canaan and four-plus up north.[10] [Emphasis added]

Kitchen adds,

The Ten Year Annals of the Hittite king Mursil II (later fourteenth century) are also instructive. Exactly like the “prefaces” in the two Joshua war reports (10:1-4; 11:1-5), detailing hostility by a number of foreign rulers against Joshua and Israel as the reason for the wars, so in his annals Mursil II gives us a long “preface” on the hostility of neighbouring rulers and people groups that lead to his campaigns.[11] [Emphasis added]

Kitchen adds other examples. He observes that the same formulaic style found in Joshua is also used in the Amarna letters EA 185 and EA 186.[12] Similarly, before his major campaigns, “Joshua is commissioned by YHWH not to fear (cf. 5:13-15; 10:8; 11:6). So also by Ptah and Amun were Merenptah in Egypt, and Tuthmosis IV long before him: and likewise Mursil II of the Hittites by his gods (10T-Year Annals, etc.), all in the second millennium besides such kings as Assurbanipal of Assyria down to the seventh century.”[13]

Younger notes similarities in the preface, structure and even the way the treaty with the Gibeonites is recorded between Joshua and various ancient near eastern accounts.[14] Like Joshua, The 10 Year Annals of Mursilli and Sargon’s Letter to the God record a divine intervention where the God sends hailstones on the enemy.[15] Tuthmosis III has a similar story regarding a meteor.[16] Joshua follows ancient near eastern convention in describing numerous battles occurring in a single day or within a single campaign.[17] Ancient near eastern accounts also, like Joshua, repeatedly make reference to the enemy “melting with fear.”[18] Even the way post-battle pursuits are set out and described shows similarities with similar pursuits in ancient near eastern literature.[19] I could mention more examples; the point is that “when the composition and rhetoric of the Joshua narratives in chapters 9-12 are compared to the the conventions of writing about conquests in Egyptian, Hittite, Akkadian, Moabite, and Aramaic texts, they are revealed to be very similar”.[20]

Finally, both Kitchen and Younger note that such hyperbolic language is used in several places within the book of Joshua itself. In Joshua 10:20, for example, we are told that Joshua and the sons of Israel had “finished destroying” and “completely destroyed” their enemies. Immediately, however, the text, affirms that the “survivors went to fortified cities.” In this context, the language of total destruction is clearly hyperbolic.

When these lines of external evidence are conjoined with the internal evidence that Wolterstorff proposes (and that which I elaborated on in my previous post) seven things are evident:

(a) the picture of total conquest and annihilation of populations is incompatible with what is said elsewhere in Joshua and Judges;
(b) this is obvious to anyone who reads the narrative straight through without artificially dividing the text into chapter divisions and verses;
(c) the redactors or authors would not have been so mindless as to accidentally put obviously contradictory accounts into one narrative;
(d) the annihilation language appears stereotyped and formulaic whereas the other passages read like more down-to-earth history;
(e) the kind of formulaic language used in Joshua is a common form of rhetorical hyperbole for describing a victory in ancient near eastern accounts;
(f) Joshua is written in accord with the literary and rhetorical conventions typical of such ancient near eastern accounts;
(e) the rhetorical use of “finished destroying” and “completely destroyed” is attested to elsewhere in the book of Joshua.

In light of these seven lines of evidence, I am inclined to think that the case for the reading that Wolterstorff defends is compelling.

While space prevents me exploring all the implications of this conclusion, it is worthwhile commenting on one. Wolterstorff argues,

On the assumption that Deuteronomy and Joshua are part of the same sequence of books then I submit that this interpretation of Joshua forces a back interpretation of Deuteronomy. If ‘struck down all the inhabitants with the edge of the sword is a literary convention when used to describe Joshua’s exploits then it must, likewise, be a literary convention when used by Moses in his instructions to Israel in general and to Joshua in particular. Remember this is one sequence edited just before the end of captivity.[21]

I think Wolterstorff is correct here. The same point can be seen from the text of Joshua itself,

So 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 all who breathed, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded. (Joshua 10:40 NIV) [Emphasis added]

Similarly we see,

Everyone in it they put to the sword. They totally destroyed them, not sparing anything that breathed, and he burned up Hazor itself. Joshua took all these royal cities and their kings and put them to the sword. He totally destroyed them, as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded.” (Joshua 11:11-12 NIV) [Emphasis added]

Also,

So that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy, as the LORD had commanded Moses (Joshua 11:20b NIV) [Emphasis added]

As the LORD commanded his servant Moses, so Moses commanded Joshua, and Joshua did it; he left nothing undone of all that the LORD commanded Moses. (Joshua 11:15 NIV) [Emphasis added]

The text of Joshua clearly and explicitly states that what Joshua did fulfilled the command that Moses had given regarding the Canaanites in Deuteronomy. If the language of “putting all the people to the sword”, “leaving no survivors”, “totally destroying”, “striking all the inhabitants with the edge of the sword”, and so on, is hyperbolic (as the evidence suggests it is) then the command cannot have been intended to be taken literally.


[1] Alvin Plantinga “Comments on Evan Fales’ Satanic Versus: Moral Chaos in Holy Writ” a paper presented to My Ways Are Not Your Ways: The Character of the God of the Hebrew Bible Conference at the centre for Philosophy of Religion, University of Notre Dame, Friday 11 September 2009.
[2] Nicholas Wolterstorff “Reading Joshua” a paper presented to My Ways Are Not Your Ways: The Character of the God of the Hebrew Bible Conference at the centre for Philosophy of Religion, University of Notre Dame, Saturday 12 September 2009.
[3] Ibid.
[4]
Kenneth Kitchen On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids MI: Erdmans Publishing Co, 2003) 174.
[5] K Lawson Younger Jr Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History Writing (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990) 227.
[6]
Ibid 228.
[7] Ibid.
[8]
Ibid, 227.
[9]
Ibid, 245.
[10]
Kitchen, note 4, 170.
[11] Ibid, 170.
[12]
Ibid, 172.
[13] Ibid, 174-175.
[14]
Younger, note 5, 200-204.
[15] Ibid, 208-211.
[16] Ibid, 217.
[17] Ibid, 216.
[18] Ibid, 258-260.
[19] Ibid, 220-225.
[20] Ziony Zevit The Religions of Ancient Israel: A Synthesis of Parallactic Approaches (London and New York: Continuum, 2001) 114.
[21]
Wolterstorff, note 2.

RELATED POSTS:
Sunday Study: Joshua and the Genocide of the Canaanites Part I
William Lane Craig, Raymond Bradley and the Problem of Hell Part One
William Lane Craig, Raymond Bradley and the Problem of Hell Part Two

Share/Bookmark
Go to Source

Comments on this entry are closed.

Comments are closed.