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What if the Bible’s Violent Conquest of Canaan never actually happened?

What if the Bible’s Violent Conquest of Canaan never actually happened?

One of the most troubling stories in the Bible is the conquest of Canaan in the Book of Joshua. In that book, God demands that the Israelites commit acts of genocide against the people living in the land. If you are unfamiliar with the story, you can read the Book of Joshua. But there is a summary of the conquest in Joshua 11:16-23 that will get you up to speed. 

Basically, Joshua enters the land and kills nearly everyone. For example, one part of the land was named Hazor. Joshua 11:11 states, “And they put to the sword all who were in it, utterly destroying them; there was no one left who breathed, and he burned Hazor to the ground.”

Is God a Moral Monster?

The story is morally problematic and people have come up with various interpretations. One interpretation states that God is good and since God is good there was a good reason for God to command the genocide of the people living in the land of Canaan because the Canaanites deserved it. I think this position is morally reprehensible, but possibly the best advocate for it is Paul Copan in his book, Is God a Moral Monster? Copan’s answer in response to the conquest story is “No.” But I think the clear answer is “Yes.”

But what if the conquest of Canaan never actually happened?

I first came across this question when I was in seminary nearly 20 years ago. I had never heard the theory before, but apparently scholars had been talking about it for over 50 years. And the theory states that the conquest of Canaan, as it is told in the Hebrew Bible, never happened.

Why do many scholars think this? 

I recently interviewed Dr. Kate Common on my podcast about this question. We talked about her book Undoing Conquest: Ancient Israel, the Bible, and the Future of Christianity. It’s the best introduction that I have read on this topic. I highly recommend it. 

The reason that this is a question is that there is no archeological evidence that a group of people entered the land of Canaan to destroy the land and kill massive amounts of people.

Archeologists state that if the event actually happened they should have found some evidence for it. But there is no archeological evidence from that time period that suggests something like the conquest of Canaan happened. 

Along with Common’s research in her book, Victor Matthews and James Moyer, both professors of Religious Studies and Missouri State University, state in their book The Old Testament: Text and Context,

One of the primary difficulties with the account of the conquest in Joshua 1-12 is that there is no supportive physical evidence (either artifactual or textual) supplied by archeological excavation…Because of the failure to discover corroborating archeological evidence that matches the account of the book of Joshua, scholars have attempted to provide alternative theories on the conquest. (pgs 78-79).

Mathews and Moyer provide two related theories for why the conquest of Canaan never happened. The first is the ”Infiltration/Migration Theory.” It states that over a period of time, groups of people from surrounding areas migrated to the land of Canaan, but without a massive conquest. The second theory is known as the “Withdrawl/Peasant Revolt Theory.” It adds to the first theory that as groups of people migrated to the land of Canaan, the political leaders of the land oppressed the lower classes, including a group of migrants known as the “Israelites.” Eventually, the Israelites threatened their oppressors. Matthews and Moyer state that,

The monumental construction projects, heavy taxes, forced labor, and military service of these Canaanite states further contributed to the climate of discontent. When the Israelite threat appeared, people from the Canaanite peasant class chose to withdraw their support from their own leaders and joined the Israelites. (pg 81)

Why Did the Biblical Storytellers Use Such Violent Imagery?

For me, this information is not merely interesting. And I am not telling you this because I want you to doubt the Bible. I’m telling you about this theory because it makes the Bible more meaningful for me and I think it is very good news.

The lack of archeological evidence brings up a question: Why would the Biblical storytellers describe their origin story in such a violent, but fictional way?

I’ve been helped in answering this question by James Alison’s book Jesus the Forging Victim. Alison states that the book of Joshua was most likely written in its current form when the ancient Jewish people were returning to the land after the Babylonian exile. But the problem was that there were already people in the land. The storytellers told the story of Joshua in such a way that let those who already occupied the land know that,

You needn’t fear us returning Judeans from Babylon, for, as our text shows, so completely did Joshua extirpate the former occupiers of the land, many centuries ago, that if you are there now, you must in fact really be part of us already.

I wish the ancient storytellers were able to tell the story in a much more nonviolent way. But I think it’s important to know that the fictional story in Joshua was made up, but it was made up for a reason – to address the occupiers of the land during the return from exile that the returning Judeans weren’t going to harm them.

One example of how the story works this way is in Joshua 2-6. The storyteller says that Joshua sent spies to Jericho in the land of Canaan so that Joshua could plan his attack against the city. The king of Jericho heard about the spies and sent soldiers to capture them. A prostitute named Rahab protected the spies by hiding them in her house.

Rahab told the spies that she knew that God was on their side and she knew that they were going to destroy the land and the people of Jericho. But Rahab made a deal with the spies. She pleaded with them, saying,

Now then, since I have dealt kindly with you, swear to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal kindly with my family. Give me a sign of good faith that you will spare my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.

The spies promised to deal kindly with Rahab’s family. The fictional story in Joshua 6 states that the Israelites destroyed the land and killed all the people, but they kept their promise to Rahab and her family. “But Rahab the prostitute, with her family and all who belonged to her, Joshua spared. Her family has lived in Israel ever since. For she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy on Jericho” (verse 25.)

Joshua not only spared Rahab, but as the story continues he also made peace treaties with other peoples.

In the End, Could this Be a Story of Peace?

In one sense, the Biblical storyteller described the conquest of Canaan in such a violent way because most origin stories involve a violent conquest. Even here in the United States, we celebrate our origin story of a war against the British every 4th of July. Unfortunately, humans have always thought that stories of violent conquest give us a sense of glory and power.

But in another sense, the Biblical storyteller included the story of Rahab and of the peace treaties upon their return to the land from the Babylonian exile to tell the people already living there that they didn’t need to fear violence upon their return. To paraphrase James Alison, “For Joshua so completely killed the former occupants of the land, that if you are a Canaanite and in the land, you must be a descendant of Rahab. Or you are from a group with whom Joshua made a peace treaty. Either way, we have promised to protect you and your family.”

For some, the idea that the conquest of Canaan is a completely fictional story might lead them to doubt the historicity of the Bible. But ancient storytellers weren’t concerned with telling literal history. They were primarily concerned with the meaning behind stories. After all, a fictional story often tells us a deeper meaning than literal history.

And that’s what I think, in the end, the very troubling story of the violent conquest of Canaan was trying to do – to tell a vulnerable minority group with little power that they were safe and that they belonged in the land.

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Adam Ericksen

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