What the Bible Gets Wrong … About God? Part 2

Last time we discussed the problem of the Old Testament’s genocide passages, particularly the ones found in Joshua and 1 Samuel. I summarized the dilemma these verses pose like this:

Either they are accurate, rendering meaningless our definitions of goodness, love and mercy, or they are in some important way false, in which case their “usefulness” has largely been found by those seeking to turn their fictional violence into reality. Further, the second option would also mean the Bible’s own description of God’s thoughts and actions is, in some places, wrong, which opens a whole new set of questions.

Our next step, then, should probably be to determine which of these contingencies we actually face. Are these stories true or not?

Archaeology should be able to confirm some key details for us because what the Bible describes are significant historical events, the type of which are usually recorded and leave tracks – the death of all the firstborn children of a major empire followed by most of its army and its king in the sea, the immigration of hundreds of thousands of people and the destruction of numerous Canaanite cities by a conquering people.

These all, one would think, would leave at least some trace in the historical record. But they largely do not.

In the case of the plagues and the exodus, there is simply an absence of information. It’s possible the Egyptians simply refused to write about it because there was no way to propagandize it, and it’s possible some sort of exodus occurred but in smaller numbers than the Bible indicates.

But in the case of Joshua and the conquest, there is contradictory evidence, both archaeologically and biblically.

Although there is a city of Jericho, and it did once have walls, the city was already in ruins around the time when Joshua would have been leading the Israelites into the Promised Land. Likewise, several cities described as having been burned to the ground by the Israelites show no evidence of ever having been burned (this according to our professor; sorry I don’t have links).

Further, the Bible itself rejects some of the historical claims Joshua makes.

For example, Joshua 10 tells of how Adoni-Zedek, the Jebusite king of Jerusalem, forms a coalition with four other kings to attack the Israelites. God makes the sun stand still so Joshua and his people have enough time to conquer those armies, which they do. Later, in Joshua 12, the king of Jerusalem is listed among the 31 kings conquered by Israel, and “their lands Joshua gave as an inheritance to the tribes of Israel.”

But by Joshua 15, “the people of Judah couldn’t remove the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem,” which would be quite the feat for the Jebusites, considering they had no king and no army. Then Judges 1 says that after Joshua died, “the people of Judah fought against Jerusalem and captured it. They killed the people with swords and set the city on fire.”

Which makes it difficult to explain why, in 2 Samuel, after David consolidates his rule over the 12 tribes, he launches a campaign … to oust the Jebusites from Jerusalem!

You can, of course, construct a story in which the Jebusites have retaken Jerusalem, either by conquest or assimilation, but even if that’s the case, it would seem the text of Joshua and Judges is still, at best, engaging in some selective reporting here.

There are other examples, too.

In Joshua 10:38, Israel “took the city” of Debir “and put it to the sword, together with its king and its villages, and put them to the sword. Everyone in it was totally destroyed. They left no survivors.” Which doesn’t stop Caleb’s younger brother from capturing it again in Judges 1: 11-12. In short, Judges indicates the Israelites did not do nearly as good a job of removing the Canaanites as Joshua makes it sound. We can massage these contradictions into a single, coherent story, and frequently we do, but we need to recognize that doing so requires us to go beyond a literal reading of the text.

So there’s some evidence – a great deal of it, actually, both inside and outside the text – that Joshua is not an accurately recorded history of the origins of Israel in the promised land.

So what actually happened? Scholars posit three general theories (for a fair look at their strengths and weaknesses from someone defending a more literal reading of the text, you can read this):

  1. Conquest – Israel did in fact conquer the indigenous population of Canaan, either in a smaller scope than portrayed in the Bible or at a later date than is possible from a literal reading of the Old Testament history or over an extremely long period of time.
  2. Evolution – The Israelites were originally a loose collection of Canaanites who slowly developed their own set of rules and culture, eventually growing so large and organized that they banded together for military protection against the encroaching power of the Philistines from the coast.
  3. Revolution – Rather than through slow evolution, the Israelites began when famine, oppression or some other socially upsetting event led large numbers of people to abandon the cities of the plain and establish tribal highland communities, adopting the customs and history of the natives living there, some of whom may have escaped slavery in Egypt.

Needless to say, none of these is particularly amenable to a literal reading of Joshua. In fact, they seem to fit more in line with the culture of Judges, with its view of a mostly decentralized group of tribes who band together only when needing to fight against oppression from stronger nations. Further, they throw into question the historicity of everything about Israel in the Bible before the rise of the monarchy.

Going back to our question about the genocide passages, this could provide some comfort. If Israel was never even in a position to destroy those cities, then God could not have ordered Israel to do so. But it obviously raises a whole new set of questions, which I will try to address in Part 3.

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