I don’t remember the first time someone told me the story of Jericho. It was a tale that took vague form as it was referenced over and over during my childhood. I do remember seeing a stylishly-drawn Rahab lowering spies over the wall in one of those illustrated children’s Bibles. I even remember (and this will be weird for those of you who weren’t raised in the church) watching an assortment of vegetable Israelites do battle with a city full of slurpee-wielding French peas in a 90s animation.
What I don’t remember ever considering – maybe because it never seemed to bother any of my teachers – is that the story of Jericho is the story of an invasion, siege, and eventual massacre. Those peas, annoying as they were, represented real people killed by merciless invaders bent on their total destruction. What the church had turned into a children’s tale was instead the brutal annihilation of an entire people on the express command of the God we worshipped.
The conquest of Jericho and Ai in the book of Joshua is one of the Bible’s rabbit holes — a small text that raises huge questions about the character of God and his attitude towards violence. Whole books have been written on these battles and the ensuing conquest from many perspectives, the texts are a favorite target for atheist critics attempting to portray God as an ugly, jealous murderer. Indeed, it is no secret that these texts are deeply troubling even in Christian circles, for they seem to depict the wholesale slaughter of men, women, and children as pleasing to God. Reconciling Jesus, who condemned violence among his followers, with Yahweh, who destroyed entire cities in judgment, is no mean feat.
Still, there are a number of historical, archaeological and cultural factors that play into the conquest of Canaan, and they deserve to be included in the discussion. I’ll be touching on them in the rest of this post as I explore the upper caverns of this rabbit hole and how they relate to Jericho/Ai. If you aren’t familiar with the Joshua text I’m referring to, I’d very much suggest visiting the link above and refreshing your memory because I won’t be quoting specific versus.
The Numbers Issue
A very long time ago in Bible college I picked up The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and was shocked to discover that, for a professional egghead, he does very little research. One of his opening arguments was a critique of the numbers of Israelites offered up in the Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament), in which he observed that it would have been impossible for the Sinai peninsula at the time to support more than two million semi-nomadic Semitic wanderers. Dawkins presented this as a revelation, but in fact scholars have considered this number a mistranslation for decades. The Hebrew word being translated as ‘thousand’ (elaph), can also mean ‘military unit’ or ‘family unit.’ The larger numbers have persisted in the text simply because no one is quite sure how the word should be translated, and therefore not sure what number to substitute in.
However, the actual number of Israelites who crossed the Jordan into Canaan was most likely under 20,000, and could possibly be under 10,000. This is significant to the conquest narrative because larger numbers are actually inconsistent with the story as a whole. For example, if two million Israelites marched into Canaan, they would already outnumber the native population by a significant margin. Deuteronomy 7:1 claims that the Israelites would encounter “seven nations larger and stronger than you” when they entered Canaan. The reader is supposed to assume Israel is a small nation. At a size of two million, they would have absolutely no worries about overwhelming Jericho (a small ten acre site with a max population of 2000 people), and no reason to flee in panic from the forces of Ai after losing all of 36 warriors. Two million Israelites would hardly need to rely upon Yahweh to conquer the promised land, indeed, given a few chariots, they could have probably conquered much of the ancient world!
2. The Charge of Genocide
Our post-WWII society rates the crime of ‘genocide’ or the premeditated murder of an entire ethnic group, as one of the most monstrous atrocities imaginable. Many critics have been quick to accuse Yahweh of commanding the Israelites to commit genocide in Canaan, but the truth, while bloody, is not as simple as the charge implies. While the various tribes residing in Canaan were chosen for destruction by Yahweh, it was not their ethnicity that was condemned but their sinful practice. Similarly, the chosen people of Israel were to be the recipients of their ancestor Abraham’s covenant, but still it was not because of their ethnicity but because of their obedience to Yahweh that they continued to experience divine blessing. For instance, a few centuries later in 587 BC, they, like the Canaanites in this story, were “vomited” out of the land because of their sinful practices.
The most obvious examples of this nuance are the stories of Rahab and Achan during the early stages of the conquest. Rahab was a Canaanite prostitute residing in Jericho, whose assistance to Joshua’s spies and faith in Israel’s God preserved her through the fall of the city. Achan was an Israelite man from the tribe of Judah who broke a divine law by stealing plunder from Jericho, a crime that resulted in him and his family being stoned. Despite their respective ethnicities, Rahab and her family were integrated into the nation of Israel while Achan and his family were cast out. The essential difference between them was not race, but religious affiliation.
Had the Canaanites bowed down in obedience to Israel’s God, it seems that they would not have been put to the sword. It was their unbelief (and violation of what Leviticus 18 considers to be universally revealed ethical standards against child sacrifice, incest, etc), not their status as Edomites, Moabites, Amelekites, Hittites, or Canaanites that doomed them.
3. Siege Warfare
While the tactics of siege warfare have changed drastically over the years, the basic premise hasn’t. Like a starfish attacking a clam, an offending force tries to dislodge a defending force from their stronghold, or, failing that, starve them out. Sieges in the ancient world often devolved into months-long stalemates with the defenders sometimes reduced to eating their own children to survive.
Because of this, the decision to harbor hungry civilians in a regional stronghold during war could be tough and as a result may have been a rare occurrence. I’ve heard a pastor argue (along the same lines as Paul Copan in his book Is God A Moral Monster?), that Jericho and Ai were military garrisons with “no archaeological evidence of civilian populations,”[i] and therefore very few women and children would have been there at the time of the Israelite invasion. In this pastor’s mind, those present were either warriors or the cultural elite, and were obviously complicit in the despicable practices of the Canaanite peoples.
I doubt this is true, in part because of the presence of Rahab and her family in Jericho as obvious non-combatants. In times of war, the larger civilian populations that generally surround political strongholds were faced with two choices: grab their loved ones and head for the hills, or retreat inside the walls and hope for their taxes-worth of protection from the local lord. Most knew that their possessions and crops would be consumed or destroyed by foraging parties (it wasn’t only the defending force that had to feed itself), and that any locals caught outside the walls might be raped/murdered. Therefore it is very likely that Jericho did have a significant civilian population during the Israelite assault, and that these civilians were murdered by the Israelites after the walls crumbled.
This is not an easy idea to consider, but it shouldn’t exactly come as a great surprise to a modern reader. For all the pretty ethics of our democratic sensibilities, we are still quite good at killing civilians, and even targeting them when the stakes are high enough. It was the Allies who firebombed Dresden after all, and it’s coalition forces that are currently reigning down hellfire from remote-controlled drones in the Middle East. Like it or not, civilians have always been direct participants in war, and are accomplices in the supplying and nurturing of every soldier.
There are also cultural incentives to kill civilians for the Israelites, as disgusting as the idea may seem. In an age without a concept of heaven or hell, ancient peoples thought to achieve immortality through their children. To kill the parent and not the child was to allow the family legacy to survive, as well as to create future a warrior honour-bound to avenge his progenitor. In an age of harsh realities (and harsh divine justice), the necessity of warfare and killing would not have been doubted.
I should also note that the Israelite conquest was not actually a siege in the strict sense of the word. The Israelites were camped at a place called Gilgal, a few miles from the city, and never fully encircled the walls. This meant that Canaanites who wished to sneak out of the city were probably fully capable of leaving, and that the ones who remained chose (in some sense) to maintain their defiance of the Israelites and their God. Copan even argues that each Israelites circuit of the wall was an opportunity for Jericho to open the gates and repent,[ii] although I doubt that, given the general outcome of ancient Middle East sieges, this was a compelling idea for those within the city.
Still, a ray of hope does exist in the midst of this disturbing divine behavior (to steal Eric Siebert’s title), and it calls into question the ways in which the Israelites interpreted and obeyed Yahweh’s commands. Some scholars choose to interpret the commands themselves as being attributed to God by a writer eager to assume divine justification for the Israelite’s conquests, but I fear this fundamentally devalues scripture. Instead, I simply think we need to take a more nuanced view of ancient Israelite story-telling and record-keeping.
4. Tropes of the Iron Age
It’s a time-honoured rule of human interaction that we don’t always say what we mean, or mean what we say. In Canada we talk about ‘social butterflies,’ being ‘jacked,’ or ‘cleaning up our crap’ — all phrases that are very confusing to those who don’t speak our language or understand our culture. The ancient Israelites had their own sayings, perspectives and cultural idiosyncrasies, and some directly affected the way they told stories about warfare.
For example, scholars feel that there is no archaeological evidence for a massive conquest event in Canaan around 1200 B.C., nor evidence for catastrophic destruction at Jericho or Ai. These findings have led theologian Peter Enns to argue “The stories of mass extermination of Canaanites that God ordered (Deuteronomy 7:1-5 and 20:10-20) do not depict brute historical events, but Israel’s culturally influenced way of making an important theological statement.” While I don’t agree with Enns in his denying of the historicity of the conquest, I do suspect that there our pieces of the story we are misinterpreting.
Battle narratives in the ancient Middle East were very different from those written about such events today. Our western historical tradition stresses the factual accuracy of dates, times, numbers, and events, while ancient writers were expected to be a little more…literary. There are numerous passages in the Bible which claim that such-and-such tribe was utterly annihilated, only to have survivors of that tribe pop up (sometimes in large numbers) a few chapters later. Copan, Enns, and others call this “exaggeration rhetoric”[iii] and suggest that the conquest is a more gradual and less bloody process than the text makes it out to be.
Actually, the Bible gives two different views on how the Canaanites were driven out. One is the “conventional Blitzkrieg idea” (to quote Enns[iv]), while the other implies the Canaanites were gradually “vomited out” due to natural processes (albeit with possibly supernatural origins). In the second narrative the Israelites simply occupy the land being abandoned by their enemies with relatively few actual battles between the two sides. During a long transitional period the Israelites may have even lived side-by-side with their Canaanite neighbours.
While this narrative does not fit our conventional view of the Israelites waging total war against Canaan’s heathen inhabitants, it does explain the book of Joshua’s more contradictory passages. As Copan states:
“Joshua seems to have fulfilled Moses’ command to utterly destroy the Canaanites (Josh 11:12, 11:20), despite leaving all sorts of survivors. “So if Joshua did just as Moses commanded, and if Joshua’s described destruction was really hyperbole common in ancient Near Eastern warfare language and familiar to Moses, then clearly Moses himself didn’t intend a literal, comprehensive Canaanite destruction. He, like Joshua, was merely following the literary conventions of the day.”[v]
Conclusion: God as Warrior
There really isn’t any way to respect the historicity of the Bible and avoid a Canaanite massacre at Jericho. What I have tried to do is show that the killing was limited to a small number of Canaanites, does not constitute the beginnings of a genocide, and was less absolute than has been historically taught. Scholars are not even sure if the conquest was a fast invasion or a slow encroachment, or if the Canaanites were indeed killed or simply driven out of the land (the Hebrew word is unclear).
In my other post on the subject I discuss the worrisome precedent of believers as agents of divine violence, and whether or not such a precedent could be used to inspire a Christian version of ISIS. I discussed the idea that a ‘radical discontinuity’ exists between the Old Testament and the New Testament, a discontinuity created by the new covenant of Jesus Christ. While God occasionally used various peoples, including the Israelites, as agents of justice in the ancient world, the new covenant expanded his pact with the Israelites to include all of humankind. As Christians, our ‘Christocentric’ theology precludes any form of divinely sanctioned killing, as we are all potential brothers and sisters in Christ.
The Canaanite conquest is not easily explained as the product of a loving and peaceful God, but neither is it damning evidence of a petty and genocidal tyrant. Segments of the narrative raise significant questions about the character of God, but often these seem to be the result of a massive cultural divide between reader and writer. The ancient Middle East was a harsh environment far removed from our egalitarian modern sensibilities, and the Bible does reflect the cultural environment in which it was composed.
So, to sum up, there is far more to the assault on Jericho than we ever learned about in Sunday school or from vegetables, including significant and necessary questions which any mature Christian should ask about violence commanded by God. The rabbit hole is deep, and while I’ve explored some of it in this post, there are all sorts of dark passages yet to be explored.
Yet remember that God is a God of truth, of light, of shalom (peace), and he is bigger than our theological issues.
[i] Copan, 175.