God and the Genocide of the Canaanites Part II: Ancient Near Eastern Conquest Accounts

This three-part blog series is a modified version of what I presented to the Evangelical Philosophical Society meeting in November 2010.

Joshua stops the sun

In my previous post, God and the Genocide of the Canaanites Part I: Wolterstorff’s Argument for the Hagiographic Hyperbolic Interpretation, I expounded and adapted Nicholas Wolterstorff’s argument for a hagiographic hyperbolic reading of the book of Joshua. Wolterstorff’s argument has, I think, considerable force. Judges and Joshua cannot both be taken literally as their accounts are at odds; given the internal evidence Wolterstorff cites it is reasonable to contend that Joshua is the one that is non-literal. Wolterstorff, however, limits his case to what I call internal evidence, evidence from within the text itself. I think there is some interesting external evidence, evidence of how particular terms and language were 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 comparisons between the book of Joshua and other Ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts from the same period demonstrate some important stylistic parallels. Various studies have documented these similarities. 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). … [T]he 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.[1] [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.[2] [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.[3]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.[4]

Similar studies have been done by Van Seters[5] and James Hoffmeier.[6]However, the most comprehensive is that done by J Lawson Younger.

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.[7] Joshua follows this convention in describing numerous battles occurring in a single day or within a single campaign.[8]Ancient Near Eastern accounts also, like Joshua, repeatedly make reference to the enemy “melting with fear”.[9] Even the way post-battle pursuits are set out and described have parallels with pursuits in Ancient Near Eastern literature.[10] 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 conventions of writing about conquests in Egyptian, Hittite, Akkadian, Moabite, and Aramaic texts, they are revealed to be very similar”.[11]

Second, Younger notes such accounts are “highly figurative”[12] and narrate military events via a common transmission code.  The literary motif of divine intervention is an example. Both 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.[13] Tuthmosis III has a similar story regarding a meteor.[14]Younger notes these accounts are extremely similar to parallel accounts in Joshua 10. Similarly, Younger notes in many Ancient Near Eastern texts “one can discern a literary technique whereby the deity is implored to maintain daylight long enough for there to be a victory”[15] which has obvious parallels to Josh 10:13-14.  Similarly, Richard Hess notes that Hittite conquest accounts describe the gods knocking down the walls of an enemy city in a manner similar to that described in the battle of Jericho.[16] The fact that similar events are narrated in multiple different accounts suggests they are “notable ingredient of the transmission code for conquest accounts”;[17]that is, part of the common hyperbolic rhetoric of warfare rather than descriptions of what actually occurred.

Third, part of this “transmission code” is that victories are narrated in a stereotyped exaggerated hyperbolic fashion in terms of total conquest, complete annihilation and destruction of the enemy, killing everyone, leaving no survivors, etc. Kenneth Kitchen notes,

[T]he 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 later fifteenth century Tuthmosis III could boast “the numerous army of Mitanni, was overthrown within the hour, annihilated totally, like those (now) non-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 also be understood.[18]

Younger notes numerous other examples. Merenptah’s Stele describes a skirmish with Israel as follows, “Yanoam is nonexistent; Israel is wasted, his seed is not”.[19] 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”.[20] Mursilli II records making “Mt.Asharpaya empty (of humanity)” and the “mountains of Tarikarimu empty (of humanity)”.[21] Mesha (whom Kitchen cites 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.[22]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 aschaff[23] [Emphasis original]

Numerous other examples could be provided. The hyperbolic use of language similar to that in Joshua is strikingly evident.[24] It is equally evident that histories of this sort are highly stylised and often use this exaggeration for what could be called hagiographic purposes to commend the kings as faithful servants of the gods rather than as literal descriptions of what occurred.[25]They constitute “monumental hyperbole.”[26]

In addition, 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, it states 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.  Similarly, the account of the battle of Ai is clearly hyperbolic. After Joshua’s troops feign a retreat the text states that “all the men of Ai” are pressed to chase them.   “Not a man remained in Ai or Bethel who did not go after Israel. They left the city open and went in pursuit of Israel.” Joshua lures the pursuers into a trap “so that they were caught in the middle, with Israelites on both sides. Israel cut them down, leaving them neither survivors nor fugitives” Then it immediately goes on to assert “When 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” they went to the city of Ai and killed all the men in it. Apparently all the men of Ai were killed three times in the battle and in each case they appear alive again. A final example is suggested by Goldingay, in the first chapter of Judges he notes that after Judah puts Jerusalem to the sword, its occupants are still living there ‘to this day’.

A similar phenomenon occurs in the case of Midian,[27] the Amalekites[28] and the Babylonian invasion[29].  In each case a battle is narrated in totalistic terms of complete destruction of all the people and later narration goes on to matter-of-factly assume it did not literally occur. The fact that this occurs on multiple occasions in different books rapidly diminishes the probability that these features are co-incidental or careless errors. Why is that almost every time a narration of “genocide” occurs, it is followed by an account which presupposes it did not? These facts significantly increase the possibility that this is deliberate literary construction by the authors.

Four things are evident; first, that taken as a single narrative and taken literally, Joshua 1-11 gives a contradictory account of events to that narrated by Judges and also to that narrated by the later chapters of Joshua itself. Second is that “those who edited the final version of these writings into one sequence were not mindless” particularly if God speaks through them. Third, while Judges reads as “down to earth history” a careful reading of Joshua reveals it to be full of ritualistic, stylised, accounts, formulaic language. This third point is supported by research into Ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts. Such studies show (a) such accounts are highly  hyperbolic, hagiographic, figurative and follow a common transmission code (b) comparisons between these accounts and the early chapters of Joshua suggest Joshua is written according to the same literary conventions and  transmission code (c) part of this transmission code is to hyperbolically portray a victory in absolute terms of totally destroying the enemy or in terms of miraculous divine intervention; “such statements are rhetoric indicative of military victory”,[30] not literal descriptions of what occurred.  Fourth, this hyperbolic way of describing victories is attested in several places elsewhere in Scripture.

I think these four points, taken together, provide compelling reasons for thinking that one should interpret the text as a highly figurative and hyperbolic account of what occurred. In light of these factors it seems sensible to conclude that the accounts of battles in Joshua 6-11 are not meant to be taken literally.


[1] Kenneth Kitchen On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids MI: Erdmans Publishing Co, 2003) 170.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid 172.
[4] Ibid, 174-175.
[5] J Van Seters “Joshua’s Campaign of Canaan and Near Eastern Historiography” 2 Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament (1990) 1-12.
[6] James K Hoffmier “The Structure of Joshua 1—11 and the Annals of Thutmose III” in A R Millard, J K Hoffmeier, D W Baker (eds) Faith Tradition and History: Old Testament Historiography and its Ancient Near Eastern context (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1994) 165-181.
[7] K Lawson Younger Jr Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History Writing (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990) 200-204.
[8] Ibid 216.
[9] Ibid 258-260.
[10] Ibid 220-225.
[11] Ziony Zevit The Religions of Ancient Israel: A Synthesis of Parallactic Approaches (London and New York: Continuum, 2001) 114.
[12] K Lawson Younger Jr “Judges 1 in its Near Eastern Literary Context” in A R Millard, J K Hoffmeier, D W Baker (eds) Faith Tradition and History: Old Testament Historiography and its Ancient near Eastern context (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1994) 207.
[13] Younger, supra n 24, 208-211.
[14] Ibid 217.
[15] Ibid  219, for further  discussion of the relationship between Joshua’s long day and other ANE texts see John Walton “Joshua 10:12-15 and Mesopotamian Celestial Omen Texts” in A R Millard, J K Hoffmeier, D W Baker (eds) Faith Tradition and History: Old Testament Historiography and its Ancient near Eastern context (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1994) 181-190.
[16] Richard Hess “West Semitic Texts and the Book of Joshua” Bulletin for Biblical Research 7 (1997) 68.
[17] Younger, supra n 24, 211.
[18] Kitchen On the Reliability of the Old Testament 174.
[19] Younger, supra n 24, 227.
[20] Ibid 228.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid 227.
[23] Ibid 245.
[24] In addition, 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, it states 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. Similarly, the account of the battle of Ai is clearly hyperbolic. After Joshua’s troops feign a retreat the text states that “all the men of Ai” are pressed to chase them. “Not a man remained in Ai or Bethel who did not go after Israel. They left the city open and went in pursuit of Israel.” Joshua lures the pursuers into a trap “so that they were caught in the middle, with Israelites on both sides. Israel cut them down, leaving them neither survivors nor fugitives” Then it immediately goes on to assert “When 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” they went to the city of Ai and killed all the men in it.
[25] Thomas Thompson examines several different ANE conquest accounts of this type and notes they have a hagiographic function. See his “A Testimony of the Good King: Reading the Mesha Stele” in  Lester L Grabbe (Ed) Ahabs Agonistes: The Rise and Fall of the Omri Dynasty (New York: T&T Clark, 2007).
[26] John Goldingay “City and Nation” Old Testament Theology vol. 3 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009) 570. Goldingay goes on to give yet another example from within the Bible itself “While Joshua does speak of Israel’s utterly destroying the Canaanites, even these accounts can give a misleading impression: peoples that have been annihilated have no trouble reappearing later in the story; after Judah puts Jerusalem to the sword, its occupants are still living there ‘to this day’ (Judg. 1:8, 21).”
[27] Compare Numbers 31 with Judges 6 and 7.
[28] Compare 1 Sam 15 with 1 Sam 28:8 and 1 Sam  30.
[29] Compare 2 Chronicles 36:17 with 36:20 and 2 Chronicles 36:18 with 36:19
[30] K Lawson Younger “Joshua” in John H Walton, Victor H Matthews,  Mark W Chavalas (eds) The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove Il: Intervarsity Press) 227.

RELATED POSTS:
God and the Genocide of the Canaanites Part I: Wolterstorff’s Argument for the Hagiographic Hyperbolic Interpretation
Sunday Study: Joshua and the Genocide of the Canaanites Part I
Sunday Study: Joshua and the Genocide of the Canaanites Part II
Did God Command Genocide in the Old Testament?


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