Barnabas Aspray

Divinely Mandated Genocide: The Ethical Implications of the Conquest Narratives in Joshua

The Canaanite conquest account in the book of Joshua is among the most troublesome stories in the Old Testament, a prime example for many of God’s unethical nature. Richard Dawkins considers it “morally indistinguishable from Hitler’s invasion of Poland, or Saddam Hussein’s massacres of the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs.”1 Christians also have difficulty reconciling Jesus’ instructions to love our enemies and turn the other cheek with the God who commands mass slaughter. Even within the OT, it is hard to see how God can order his people, whom he chose to be a blessing to all peoples and a light to the nations, to do something which seems the opposite of blessing. How are we to understand these passages? I have in view primarily the texts of Joshua 6:121, 8:1-29, and 10:1-42, in which Yahweh commands the people of Israel to invade and exterminate entire populations. Although I intend to do justice to their cultural-historical context for a right understanding of these texts, I am also concerned with bridging from the descriptive exegetical task to the normative theological task of their application.2 How do they function authoritatively, as a portion of our Christian canon, for the people of God today? What can we learn from them to enrich our understanding of God and ourselves? Numerous answers have been given to these questions. Because the issue is so huge, I have limited my discussion to certain parameters. I assume the historicity of the events discussed and the canonical unity of their witness in the OT. I will not discuss whether they happened historically, or whether the OT offers contradictory interpretations of them. In this essay I will group approaches to the texts into four broad categories, critically evaluating each in turn. I then conclude with my own reflections, drawing together different threads of the other approaches.

Cited in Paul Copan, “Is Yahweh a moral monster? the new atheists and Old Testament ethics,” Philosophia Christi 10, no. 1 (2008): 7. 2 A few relevant exegetical points about the narratives have been supplied in the Appendices.

1

1

Barnabas Aspray

The first approach to the Canaanite conquest is to discredit it entirely based on principles drawn from elsewhere. An extreme version considers them a “prima facie reason for rejecting biblical inerrancy.”3 Because we know (this view states) on other grounds that genocide is wrong under any circumstance, the OT must be mistaken in asserting that God commanded genocide. Rannfrid Thelle concludes his exegesis of the conquest by saying, “the indiscriminate killing of human beings . . . cannot be accepted on moral grounds.”4 Randal Rauser establishes what he believes to be an axiomatic principle that “every rational, properly functioning person cannot help but know: it is always wrong to bludgeon babies.”5 Consequently, “if Yahweh is God then Yahweh did not command the Canaanite genocide.”6 Others find principles in the New Testament which invalidate the possibility of divinely mandated genocide in the Old. C.S. Cowles writes, “the starting point in forming a truly Christian theology is not what the Bible teaches about God in general but what Jesus reveals about God in particular.”7 For Christians, Jesus is the perfect representation of God’s character, the standard by which everything else, including the OT, is judged. “We must resist all efforts to defend Old Testament genocidal commands as reflective of the will and character of God. Since Jesus has come, we are under no obligation to justify that which cannot be justified, but can only be described as pre-Christ, sub-Christ, and anti-Christ.”8 Hershberger sees the genocidal commands as a concession due to Israel’s inability to live up to God’s perfect standards. “Israel’s wars ‘were the consequence of her own sins, and contrary to the original intention of God.’ . . . This concession is similar to God’s allowing for kingship (1 Sam 8:1ff) and divorce (Mk 10:29).”9 Violence never was part of God’s original purpose, but he permitted Israel to use violence as a moral compromise.

Wes Morriston, “Did God command genocide? a challenge to the biblical inerrantist,” Philosophia Christi 11, no. 1 (2009): 25. 4 Rannfrid I. Thelle, “The biblical conquest account and its modern hermeneutical challenges,” Studia theologica 61, no. 1 (2007): 77. 5 Randal Rauser, “‘Let nothing that breathes remain alive’: on the problem of divinely commanded genocide,” Philosophia Christi 11, no. 1 (2009): 33. Italics original. 6 Ibid., 41. 7 Show Them No Mercy: Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide , Counterpoints (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Pub. House, 2003), 23. 8 Ibid., 36. 9 Willard M Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation , 1982 (Scottdale, Pa: Herald Press, 1983), 114.

3

2

Barnabas Aspray

My overall difficulty with this approach is its failure to treat the text as normative in any way. In the first case, it is judged by standards which are neither explained nor justified, simply assumed. This amounts to the suggestion that, since genocide is self-evidently immoral, the text is discredited, which is a complete avoidance of the issue. The authors of Joshua at least did not see genocide as self-evidently immoral, or we would not have a problematic text in the first place! What seems self-evident to one may not be self-evident to all. The issue at stake here is whether conscience should be shaped by scripture, or scripture judged by conscience. Here we are given not so much an argument as an assertion that conscience overrides scripture, without reasons given as to why this should be the case, or why one person’s conscience is more reliable than anyone else’s when perspectives differ. Attempts to judge the OT by NT standards also encounter difficulties. It is true that for Christians the NT is an interpretive lens for the OT. But if the NT were an interpretive standard apart from the OT, the OT would not be scripture. Christ is indeed the perfect representation of God’s character, but there must be a hermeneutical circle between Christ’s illumination of the OT and the OT’s illumination of Christ. The OT must contribute to and correct our understanding of Christ, otherwise it has no authority and becomes for us no different than any other text. There have also been efforts to invalidate the conquest by means of other OT texts which give an alternative view of God’s character. But although the texts must indeed be read in the context of canon, as part of the canon they also contribute their own voice to it. Stronger OT themes cannot be used to silence weaker themes, as Goldingay notes: “if [theology decides what is right] in the light of what is central and fundamental, and if righteousness and justice are central, then the kind of election that links with the elimination of the Canaanites can disappear from Old Testament theology.”10 In short, the genocides are unavoidably part of the Christian canon. Although understood in dialogue with other sources of truth (conscience, the NT, the rest of the OT), they must not be muted by them, but instead help to shape them.

Reading the Hebrew Bible for a New Millennium: Form, Concept, and Theological Perspective, Studies in antiquity and Christianity (Harrisburg, Pa: Trinity Press International, 2000), 170.

10

3

Barnabas Aspray

The second approach seeks to justify the genocides on the basis of Canaanite wickedness and God’s justice. On this view Daniel Card writes, “A more pertinent question than why God commanded such brutal practices as the extermination of the Canaanites is why he did not command the destruction of the entire human race in time and history.”11 Clay Jones argues that “a closer look at the horror of Canaanite sinfulness . . . reveals that God was just in His ordering the Canaanite’s destruction. But Western culture’s embrace of ‘Canaanite sin’ inoculates it against the seriousness of that sin.”12 He concludes, “it is no surprise that when we see God’s judgment upon those who committed the sins we commit, that complaint and protest arises within our hearts . . . But studying these things over the years has led me to wonder if the Canaanites might not stand up at the Judgment and condemn this generation.”13 The fundamental problem with this view is that it fails to recognise the real difficulty with the conquest narratives. God’s justice and human sinfulness are not the key question here. Many scriptural passages speak of God’s judgment on wickedness; distinctive in Joshua is that the judgment was enacted, not directly by God, nor by an unwitting agent, but through Israel at God’s command. If God once commanded his people to commit genocide, why would he not command the same thing again today? Any answer to this question renders irrelevant the issue of God’s holiness or human wickedness: other factors are in play. This approach either implies that Christians should kill people whose practices correspond to the Canaanites’, or it assumes a discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, which is instead the key issue. A third way of dealing with the OT genocides – traditionally the most popular – is to adopt a ‘spiritual reading’ of them. It takes two forms: one interprets the texts as representing the internal battle against sin in the believer’s life, the other sees their contemporary equivalent in the cosmic battle against Satan. 3rd century theologian Origen pioneers the former stance. He writes about Joshua 10, “if we understand these things spiritually and manage wars of this type spiritually, and if we drive out all those spiritual iniquities from heaven, then we shall be able at last to receive from Jesus . . . a share of the inheritance[.]”14 Tremper Longman, taking the latter stance,

Show Them No Mercy, 140. Clay Jones, “We don’t hate sin so we don’t understand what happened to the Canaanites: an addendum to ‘divine genocide’ arguments,” Philosophia Christi 11, no. 1 (2009): 53. 13 Ibid., 72. 14 Origen, Homilies on Joshua, trans. Barbara J Bruce, 2002, 12.3.
12

11

4

Barnabas Aspray

writes: “The Bible makes it clear that we are still involved in ḥerem15 warfare; but rather than being directed toward physical enemies, it is a spiritual battle.”16 He then cites Ephesians 6:12: “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Likewise Eugene Merrill writes, “Yahweh war as articulated in the Old Testament has no justification in the age of the church except in terms of spiritual conflict.”17 Whether or not the genocide texts are spiritually instructive, the problem is not solved if one believes they also happened historically. With the greatest respect for Origen, I find no evidence that his spiritual reading of the genocides is done as a supplement to the literal reading, rather than a replacement for it. Given all the wisdom offered by spiritual interpretations, I still wish to understand the significance of the historical event that the ‘literal sense’ records. What does God’s command to commit genocide say about his character and how he wants his people to behave? The second stance – ‘cosmic-spiritual-battle’ – is also problematic. It depends, like the previously discussed ‘Canaanite-wickedness’ approach, on assumptions about intertestamental discontinuity. For example, Longman writes, “When Jesus told Peter to put away the sword, he was telling the church that would follow that physical violence could not be used to further his cause.”18 This leaves unexplained both why God would suddenly change tactics when Jesus came and why he commanded physical warfare previously. More importantly, it leaves unexplained why, if God radically altered his strategy in Jesus, we still read the OT expecting God to speak to us through it. Without a concomitant explanation of the continuity between the Testaments, the OT becomes irrelevant, and the above views nothing more than problem-solving exercises without normative value for today. The fourth approach offers a part-way solution to the above difficulty by providing reasons for the genocides’ particularity as arising from an unrepeatable historical situation. Merrill thus writes, “the genocide sanctioned by Scripture was unique to its time, place, and circumstances. It

The Hebrew term ‘ḥerem’ – used consistently of the genocides – refers to irrevocable devotion of items to God, usually by destruction. For a more detailed exegesis of this term, see Appendix I. 16 Show Them No Mercy, 186. 17 Ibid., 91. 18 Ibid., 181.

15

5

Barnabas Aspray

is not to be carried over to the age of the church.”19 For Christopher Wright, “The conquest narratives describe one particular period of Israel’s long history.”20 For Copan, they are “an example of how Israel at different stages of development faces different challenges that require distinct responses.”21 This approach is closest to my own, insofar as I agree with the perspective offered but do not think it a complete solution. Having established the uniqueness of the event, it remains to be seen what made it unique and in what way, despite its uniqueness, it can still be considered normative. Why was genocide legitimate for Israel but not for us? A popular answer to this question is provided in the ESV Study Bible: the genocides were legitimate for Israel as a nation-state, but “Christians are not to carry out this kind of warfare, because the people of God are no longer identified with a particular nation-state.”22 Card also writes that “Israel, along with its theological identity, also had a political identity. . . . But as to the church herself, her identity is only as a theological entity, whose warfare is spiritual, not fleshly.”23 Peter Craigie makes the same point. “The laws of war . . . specifically concerned the functioning of the state of Israel; Israel was the manifestation of the Kingdom of God in Old Testament times. But the conception of the Kingdom of God in the teaching of Jesus is quite different; the Kingdom is no longer identified with the nation state.”24 Craigie goes on to divide Christian duties between state-loyalty and Kingdom-loyalty. In my opinion this explanation distinguishes too sharply between the sacred and the secular and fails to get to the root of the issue. Does the OT have nothing to say to Christians engaging in politics? What are the Biblical principles for governing a nation-state? Would genocide be legitimate if, theoretically, a Christian nation-state were formed today? If not, why did God change his political strategy? This raises again the problem of intertestamental relations. An emphasis on discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments without any stated underlying continuity renders the OT little more than a curiosity about how God used to treat his people. It

Ibid., 94. Christopher J. H Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, Ill: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004), 474. 21 Copan, “Is Yahweh a moral monster?,” 26. 22 The ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles, 2008), 391. 23 Show Them No Mercy, 137–138. 24 Peter C Craigie, The Problem of War in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1978), 102.
20

19

6

Barnabas Aspray

fragments God’s character, making him seem arbitrary, commanding one thing in the past and another in the present without explanation for the difference. If the Bible is a revelation of God’s character to guide our actions, then we cannot be satisfied with an inconsistent picture of who God is and what he wants of us. In short, we need an understanding of intertestamental relations which both respects the genocides’ historical particularity and maintains their normative quality for today’s context. We need a theology by which the OT provides insights into God’s unchanging nature across the changing landscape of history. On this subject Swartley makes the following observations:
[G]enuine historical difference exists between the Testaments . . . God is not bound to time and space, but humanity is. When God’s dealings with humanity are under discussion, one cannot ignore the different circumstances in the different time periods. All creatures are bound and limited by time and place; they can perceive morality only within the restrictions of time and place.25

Two key ideas emerge from this quotation. The first is the narrative trajectory of the Biblical story, in which God’s relationship with his people grows and changes because they grow and change. When I was four years old my father forbade me from crossing the road. Later he retracted the command, not because he had changed but because I had. Nevertheless the command, although it no longer applies, reveals important truth about my father’s concern for my welfare which affects my relationship with him today. The second idea is that of the limited moral horizons of all human beings. Just as we do not have access to epistemological certainty, neither do we have access to absolute morality. Much of the ethical objection to the OT emerges from a Cartesian anxiety which cannot imagine God operating within a moral horizon different to our own. But this is really due to our own shortsightedness in failing to recognize our own moral horizon, thinking instead that God communicates absolute certainties to us. Israel had no such Cartesian delusions. Instead, she recognised the limited relational perspective inherent in morality. As Goldingay notes, our understanding of ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’ suggests abstract universal principles, for which the Hebrew words mišpāṭ and ṣĕdāqah are not faithful equivalents. “Characteristically, mišpāṭ suggests the declaring and implementing of a decisive judgment, while ṣĕdāqah denotes the quality of some act, the way it
25

Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women , 141.

7

Barnabas Aspray

fits into a worldview and a set of relationships that possess, among other things, some moral and social order. . . . Whereas ‘righteousness’ suggests conformity to a norm or standard, then, ṣĕdāqah is a relationship word.”26 An overly abstracted morality blinds us to the reality of our distinct perspective from which we view the genocides. When an understanding of our limited perspective is recovered, an analysis of contemporary society reveals two characteristics that make it difficult for us to comprehend God’s genocidal commands. First, we have an acutely elevated horror of suffering and death, probably due to its comparative lack relative to other societies throughout history. For us, death is (almost) the Worst Possible Thing, and killing is therefore the Worst Possible Atrocity. But in most of world history, people more familiar with the reality of death and the temporariness of life considered other things far worse: dishonesty, shame, defeat, or simply being evil, to cite a few examples. Second, our society is distinctive in considering all human beings equal regardless of race, gender or ethnicity. I believe this difference to be positive, a progression in our understanding (or rather, in God’s revelation), but it is condescending to look back and judge previous generations for not imagining something which seems self-evident to us. The ‘moral and social order’ of the ANE27 had no concept of the immorality of interracial war. Israel was no exception. The commandment ‘thou shalt not kill’ uses the verb rāṣaḥ, which “is normally used in the context of one Hebrew killing another Hebrew. It is not the verb used to describe the killing of foreigners in war, for example; the verbs hārag and qātal are used in such contexts. Thus the preliminary meaning of the commandment seems to be: ‘You shall not kill a fellow Hebrew.’”28 Neither Israel nor the Canaanites would have had any moral objection to interracial warfare. The Israelites were doing to the Canaanites something which, in other circumstances, the Canaanites might well have done to the Israelites. As Copan writes, “in the ANE, warfare was a way of life and a means of survival”29 – far from the ethical dilemma it is today.

Reading the Hebrew Bible for a New Millennium, 175. Ancient Near East 28 Craigie, The Problem of War in the OT, 58. 29 Paul Copan, “Yahweh wars and the Canaanites: divinely mandated geno cide or corporate capital punishment? responses to critics,” Philosophia Christi 11, no. 1 (2009): 88.
27

26

8

Barnabas Aspray

The seeming unfairness of God’s preferential treatment for Israel remains a common objection made against the Canaanite conquest, arising from the importance we place on human equality. Three points must be made in this regard. First, Deuteronomy 9:4-6 makes it clear that the genocides were God’s punishment on the Canaanites for their wickedness, not a reward to Israel for her goodness or any other reason. Second, although God may treat Israel specially as his chosen people, he does not show her favouritism,30 and she later received punishment comparable to that of the Canaanites for similar wicked practices.31 Third, the Canaanites were given opportunity to defect when the reality of their situation became apparent to them, demonstrated by the story of Rahab (Joshua 2:1-24). As Copan writes:
God was certainly willing to preserve any who acknowledged his evident lordship over the nations, which was very well known to the Canaanites (Josh. 2:8-11; 9:9-11,24; cf. Exod. 15:14-17; Deut. 2:25). Even Israel’s sevenfold march around Jericho, each circumambulation serving as an opportunity for Jericho to evade the ban, was sadly matched by Jericho’s sevenfold refusal to relent and acknowledge Yahweh’s rule.32

To summarise: if we trust the OT testimony, we must believe that God’s punishment of the Canaanites was fair and in accordance with their injustice. His use of the Israelites to implement this punishment took place within a moral framework different from our own, to which both Israel and Canaan belonged, within which God was consistent in his treatment of both people groups. Israel’s overarching calling to bring justice and salvation to the nations coheres with the punishment of unjust nations who refuse to submit to God’s righteous rule. When viewed from its own context, the Canaanite conquest provides a coherent message about the way God uses his people within their limited perspective, his concern for justice throughout the world, willingness to give second chances, and even-handed treatment of every nation. These lessons speak powerfully of God’s character in ways that, when brought into dialogue with insights from the rest of the Bible, do much to shape our understanding for today.

On the nature of election in the OT, see Goldingay, “Justice and Salvation for Israel and Canaan” in Reading the Hebrew Bible for a New Millennium. 31 See Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, 476. 32 Copan, “Yahweh wars and the Canaanites,” 88.

30

9

Barnabas Aspray

Appendix I: ‫רם‬ ֶ‫ח‬ ֵ֫ (‘ḥerem’) Word Study
The close association of the Hebrew noun ḥerem with the Canaanite conquest necessitates its examination in order to understand the particularity of the conquest within Israel’s story. The term is used in every text pertaining to the Canaanite genocides, both the commands in Deuteronomy and their implementation in Joshua. Yair Hoffman, a source critic, writes: “with the exception of the book of Joshua, the ḥerem is neither mentioned nor even assumed in the Deuteronomistic historiography [Deuteronomy-Kings]. One may therefore conclude that the ḥerem is a concept typical only of some passages in the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua.”33 The word and its verbal cognate ḥaram do, in fact, occur outside Deuteronomy and Joshua. For example, Exodus 22:20 says “He who sacrifices to any god, other than to the Lord alone, shall be ḥaramed.”34 But because the usage is fairly consistent, we can safely focus on its particular application in the relevant cases. Brown-Driver-Briggs offers the following definitions of ḥerem: 1) “thing hostile to theocracy, and therefore (in the strictest application) to be either destroyed, or, in the case of certain objects (e.g. silver and gold, vessels of brass and iron Joshua 6:19,24), set apart to sacred uses.” 2) “anything devoted to sanctuary under specially stringent conditions” 3) “devotion, ban, involving destruction.” BDB definitions of ḥaram are as follows: 1) “to ban, devote, exterminate . . . most often of devoting to destruction cities of Canaanites and other neighbours of Israel, exterminating inhabitants, and destroying or appropriating their possessions” 2) “devote . . . for sacred uses the spoil of the nations.” For every occurrence of the word, the NIV Bible provides a footnote, “The Hebrew term refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the LORD, often by totally destroying them.” This is a reasonable gloss. Joshua is commanded in Deuteronomy 7:1-2 to ḥaram (‘totally destroy’) the seven Canaanite nations in the land. There follows in verses 3-5 a catalogue of ways not to be involved with them, emphasising that the Israelites are to have nothing to do with these cultures and religions.

Yair Hoffman, “The Deuteronomistic Concept of the Herem,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 111 (1999): 196–210. 34 NASB base translation

33

10

Barnabas Aspray

Rannfrid Thelle translates Joshua 6:17, “and the city shall be ḥerem, it and all that is in it, to YHWH.” He continues:
This phrase is very difficult to translate into English, because there is no exact equivalent. It has been translated quite variously. For example, we find the Revised English Bible has, “The city is to be under solemn ban: everything in it belongs to the Lord” and the New American Bible translates part of the verse with the previous one, rendering, “ . . . for the Lord has given you the city and everything in it. It is under the Lord’s ban.” And the New Jerusalem Bible has, “The city and everyone in it must be devoted to Yahweh under the curse of destruction”. The question is whether any of these translations capture what is meant by the ḥerem, and the cultural and religious context of this term.35

The phrase ‘under the ban’ has become so uncommon in contemporary English that it is unlikely to shed any light on the meaning of ḥerem even if it were an accurate translation, unless associated with the more familiar verb ‘to ban (x from y).’ The idea of banning a substance, person or activity, is helpful as a beginning for an understanding of ḥerem. But it is also important to understand both the implications of destruction and the overtones of holiness inherent in the word. Thelle writes:
Ḥerem denotes destruction, but also more than that. Both in biblical literature in and in Ancient Near Eastern texts, there is also a range of meanings of ḥerem that denotes “that which is separated, devoted, consecrated.” In Lev 27:28, for example, ḥerem is used in parallel with qodesh qodashim (exceedingly holy). This shows the nuance of ḥerem as something that is set apart from the human realm, or the secular realm. . . . [T]here is a clear understanding in these texts that that which belongs to the deity is set aside, it is out of circulation from the human realm and belongs exclusively to the deity. In this case, we can understand the destruction of that which is ḥerem as something that was necessary in order to preserve that state. The things that were ḥerem had to be destroyed, to prevent them from being abused.36

Two significant extrabiblical attestations offer helpful corroborations of evidence for the word’s meaning. Lauren Monroe writes, “circumstances similar to those in Josh, viii characterize the ninth-century Mesha Inscription, which celebrates the victory of Mesha King of Moab over the Israelites, and his devotion of spoils to the Moabite god Kemosh. . . . He is credited with taking the town, killing everyone in it, and putting it to the hêrem for Ashtar-Kemosh.”37 Monroe’s particular interest, however, is with the Sabaean text RES 3945, which “shares many

Rannfrid I. Thelle, “The biblical conquest account and its modern hermeneutical challenges,” Studia theologica 61, no. 1 (2007): 63. 36 Ibid., 64–65. 37 Lauren A. S. Monroe, “Israelite, Moabite and Sabean War -herem Traditions and the Forging of National Identity : Reconsidering the Sabaean Text RES 3945 in Light of Biblical and Moabite Evidence,” Vetus Testamentum 57 (2007): 324.

35

11

Barnabas Aspray

features with the biblical and Moabite hêrem texts. This text describes the civic and military accomplishments of the Sabaean mukarrib11 Karib-ilu, who reigned during an early period in the Kingdom of Saba.”38 After an extensive study of this text, Monroe concludes:
The Sabaean text thus contains the following four key elements. First, hêrem is associated with destruction wrought on a massive scale and effectuated by conflagration. Second, at least some segment of the population of the conquered city is killed and consecrated to the deity. This is expressed in line 16 by the comment, “he gave command concerning those of NSN whose dedication to the gods was allotted, so that they were killed.” Third, resettlement of the conquered territory by the victors is tied specifically to the occupation of individual towns, so that the town in effect becomes an empty vessel ready to receive the new population. Fourth, a cult installation is erected, signifying that the new population and its patron god have set up residence. All four of these are elements that the Sabaean text shares with the biblical and Moabite hêrem accounts.39

Christopher Wright summarises the word as “that specific form of warfare in which YHWH is the chief protagonist and the enemy is ‘renounced’ or ‘devoted’ to him. Some of the later wars also had this characteristic, but many are not explicitly so described.”40 Thelle’s summary is as follows:
That which is ḥerem must be destroyed. This has to do with a way of categorizing the world into categories akin to those of purity and impurity, sacred and profane, or that which is for humans and that which is beyond, exempt, outside. . . . This explanation seems to be the primary one for the concept of ḥerem, and other explanations follow from it. Seeing ḥerem in this way provides one type of context for understanding the meaning of the total annihilation of the enemy in the biblical conquest account.41

Ibid., 326. Ibid., 335. 40 Christopher J. H Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, Ill: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004), 474. 41 Thelle, “The biblical conquest account and its modern hermeneutical challenges,” 65.
39

38

12

Barnabas Aspray

Appendix II: The Literary Structure of the Canaanite Conquest
One of the troublesome aspects of the conquest narrative in Joshua is its apparently comprehensive scope. Joshua 10:40b says “[Joshua] destroyed everything that had breath, just as Yahweh, the God of Israel, commanded.” However, in later chapters (and in the book of Judges) it becomes clear that there are still many Canaanites in the land. This produces three difficulties for the reader. First, the total eradication of men, women and children seems excessively violent beyond even what may have been necessary in order to conquer the land. Second, on the face of it the claim appears unrealistic: does ‘everything that had breath’ include even animals? Third, the claim is contradicted both shortly after in the same book and in another biblical book. How, then, can we make sense of this claim? To begin with, comparing the text with other similar texts from the same genre may highlight certain conventions, such as hyperbole, which relativise the superlative language used. Provan, Long and Longman have explored this aspect in detail, and deserve to be quoted at length:
Even where our interests may be ultimately in the historical import of ancient texts, we cannot hope to discern this import correctly unless we approach them on their own literary terms. . . . [W]e stand to benefit greatly from learning as much as we can about the specific literary conventions, or transmission codes, used in texts we are studying. A model study in this regard is Younger’s Ancient Conquest Accounts, in which he seeks to place the conquest account of Joshua 9-12 in the broader context of second- and first-millenium B.C. conquest accounts from Assyria, Hatti, and Egypt. The result of Younger’s careful comparative study is to confirm that “while there are differences [between ancient Near Eastern and biblical history writing] (e.g., the characteristics of the deities in the individual cultures), the Hebrew conquest account of Canaan in Joshua 9-12 is, by and large, typical of any ancient Near Eastern account.” The “transmission code” shared by biblical and ancient Near Eastern historiography involves “an intermingling of the texts’ figurative and ideological aspects.”42

What, then, is the historical reality behind a typical ANE conquest account? Rather than a comprehensive annihilation of literally ‘everything that breathed,’ Younger discovered that the language referred rhetorically, with immediate comprehension to anyone familiar with the genre, simply to a successful military conquest. As Younger puts it:
If scholars had realized the hyperbolic nature of the account in Joshua, if they had compared it with other ancient Near Eastern accounts of complete conquest, if they had differentiated a little more closely in the past between occupation and subjugation, the

Iain W Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman, A Biblical History of Israel, 1st ed. (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 148 –149.

42

13

Barnabas Aspray

image of the conquest as represented in Joshua would have emerged in far clearer focus than it has.43

Younger later examined the rhetorical features of the conquest accounts in a separate article. His conclusions lead him to a further insight: that the narratives even as they stand are not intended to be exhaustive. He writes that it is “manifest from a careful reading of [Joshua 12] that the narratives of Joshua 6-11 are partial and are not intended to give a complete history of the process of Israel’s coming into possession of the land. . . . Thus, the list forms a natural link to the description of the land that remains unconquered at the beginning of chap. 13.”44 These findings are supported by James Hoffmeier’s comparison of Joshua 1-11 with Egyptian literary conventions which he believes influenced the biblical passage. Hoffmeier argues that “the parallels shown here between [Egyptian Pharaoh] Thutmose III’s Annals and Joshua 1-11 may be attributed to the Hebrews’ borrowing of the Egyptian daybook scribal tradition for recording military actions.”45 Situating the conquest account in its cultural-historical context, while it does not eradicate the fundamental ethical issue of divinely mandated slaughter, does at least soften it by removing the need to see the Israelites as engaging in excessively violent bloodshed beyond what was necessary to conquer the land. As Christopher Wright points out about the conquest, “we need, therefore, in reading some of the more graphic descriptions, either of what was commanded to be done, or recorded as accomplished, to allow for this rhetorical element. This is not to accuse the biblical writers of falsehood, but to recognize the literary conventions of writing about warfare.”46

Cited in Ibid., 168. K. Lawson Younger, “The Rhetorical Structuring of the Joshua Conquest Narratives,” in Critical Issues (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008), 32. 45 James K. Hoffmeier, “The structure of Joshua 1-11 and the annals of Thutmose III,” in Faith, tradition, and history (Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 1994), 177. 46 Christopher J. H Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, Ill: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004), 475.
44

43

14

Barnabas Aspray

Bibliography
Copan, Paul. “Is Yahweh a moral monster? the new atheists and Old Testament ethics.” Philosophia Christi 10, no. 1 (2008): 7–37. ———. “Yahweh wars and the Canaanites: divinely mandated genocide or corporate capital punishment? responses to critics.” Philosophia Christi 11, no. 1 (2009): 73–90. Craigie, Peter C. The Problem of War in the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1978. Hoffman, Yair. “The Deuteronomistic Concept of the Herem.” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 111 (1999): 196–210. Hoffmeier, James K. “The structure of Joshua 1-11 and the annals of Thutmose III.” In Faith, tradition, and history, 165–179. Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 1994. Jones, Clay. “We don’t hate sin so we don’t understand what happened to the Canaanites: an addendum to ‘divine genocide’ arguments.” Philosophia Christi 11, no. 1 (2009): 53–72. Monroe, Lauren A. S. “Israelite, Moabite and Sabean War-herem Traditions and the Forging of National Identity : Reconsidering the Sabaean Text RES 3945 in Light of Biblical and Moabite Evidence.” Vetus Testamentum 57 (2007): 318–341. Morriston, Wes. “Did God command genocide? a challenge to the biblical inerrantist.” Philosophia Christi 11, no. 1 (2009): 7–26. Origen. Homilies on Joshua. Translated by Barbara J Bruce, 2002. Provan, Iain W, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman. A Biblical History of Israel. 1st ed. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003. Rauser, Randal. “‘Let nothing that breathes remain alive’: on the problem of divinely commanded genocide.” Philosophia Christi 11, no. 1 (2009): 27–41. Reading the Hebrew Bible for a New Millennium: Form, Concept, and Theological Perspective. Studies in antiquity and Christianity. Harrisburg, Pa: Trinity Press International, 2000. Show Them No Mercy: Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide. Counterpoints. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Pub. House, 2003. Swartley, Willard M. Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation. 1982. Scottdale, Pa: Herald Press, 1983. The ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles, 2008. Thelle, Rannfrid I. “The biblical conquest account and its modern hermeneutical challenges.” Studia theologica 61, no. 1 (2007): 61–81. Wright, Christopher J. H. Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2004. Younger, K. Lawson. “The Rhetorical Structuring of the Joshua Conquest Narratives.” In Critical Issues, 3–32. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008.

15

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful