Monday, September 21, 2015

Joshua Fit de Battle - PART 2

          In the initial post on this subject, I described archaeology as first the defender and then the attacker on the Book of Joshua. It must be admitted that the contemporary challenges to the historicity of the Bible via the Book of Joshua are formidable. In some ways, they are more formidable than the older challenges to the historicity of the patriarchs in Genesis. While Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as real people have been dismissed by skeptics for a long time (not to mention virtually all the other characters in the Book of Genesis that are earlier than the patriarchs), the fact that the patriarchs lay so far back in antiquity was, in a sense, a safeguard. No one expected to find any material evidence of individuals as far back as nearly four millennia ago, so they were largely exempted from speculation based on such things. To be sure, the new literary theories about the Pentateuch tended to dismiss the patriarchs as fictional, but literary theories are easier to ignore than artifacts, and for the most part, conservative Christians, apart from a few notable exceptions, have done just that with the literary theories—largely ignored them. However, there is a concreteness about the archaeological investigations of Canaanite city-states mentioned in Joshua that raises the bar. Conservative Christians very well may choose to ignore this area too, but it certainly will be more difficult.

          There is, however, a way forward short of blissful ignorance. Admittedly, Christians who follow this path will be a minority in the larger academic community, but they often have survived as the minority in any number of adverse circumstances throughout their history. If such Christians believe anything at all, they believe in the sovereignty of God in all things! They must mentally prepare themselves, of course, for regular put-downs from the intellectual elite, but this is not new either. What they must NOT do is abandon the field. To a large degree they did abandon the field in the old modernist-fundamentalist debate after the Scopes “monkey trial” in the early 20th century. Their refusal to engage in dialogue with the reigning opinions of an increasingly secular culture left them marginalized and with no platform from which to speak. Isolationism was anything but helpful. Ironically, they might do well to take a chapter from their ancient Christian brothers and sisters in the Medieval World, who vigorously interacted with the likes of Aristotle, Plato and others.

The way forward must include solid scholarship at high levels, for this is where the heart of the dialogue will continue. It must also include an irenic spirit, for very little will be accomplished by a shouting match—even a scholarly shouting match. Thankfully, some high level scholars committed to biblical fidelity are deeply engaged in this discussion (for instance, Alan Millard and Kenneth Kitchen, to cite just two), and though they may be swimming against the current, they still are swimming! Here, it would seem, is the forward path.

          It should also be clearly understood that the issues concerning the Book of Joshua and the historicity of the Old Testament are part of a larger picture. That larger picture affects not only the history of the Bible, it affects the history of nearly everything! History in general is being rewritten by deconstructionist literary theorists and political activists with their own special axes to grind: New Left ideologies, radical feminists, Two-Thirds World liberation theologians, social reconstructionists, multiculturalists, New Age pop-psychologists and a host of other special interest groups are offering their versions of the past. Postmodernism, with its negative evaluation of any claims toward historical objectivity, is the handmaiden of this trend. Hence, while the historicity of the Bible is deeply important to many Christians, they should at least realize that the de-historicizing of the past is a broad cultural movement affecting everything from recent history to ancient history. It remains to be seen whether this will be a passing fancy or an enduring challenge with which to grapple. 

Kenneth Kitchen (University of Liverpool) trenchantly observes that in the biblical story the campaigns of Joshua were primarily disabling forays, not territorial conquests with Hebrew occupation as is popularly conceived. To be sure, Jericho and Ai were burned (6:24; 8:28), as was Hazor (11:13), but there is no biblical indication that this fate happened to any other Canaanite cities, though many Canaanite kings were killed in conflicts. Furthermore, after these conflicts the Israelites did NOT occupy the various cities but returned to the base camp at Gilgal (Jos. 10:15, 43; 14:6). To be sure, there was some localized occupation in central Canaan (Jos. 14:6-15; 15:13-19; 17:14-18; 18:1-2). Still, the first clear indication in the biblical text of a movement toward full occupation is not until Joshua 18:4ff. Hence, the fairly common interpretation of a sweeping conquest with nearly immediate occupation of the whole land is not what the Book of Joshua actually describes. Therefore, to expect archaeology to demonstrate such an action is misplaced. Christians, therefore, must be careful about their handling of such texts. In too many case, they have set themselves up for failure because their own hermeneutic has been deficient. Good historical method and sound principles of interpretation work hand-in-hand, and if Christian thinkers will be judicious in the use of both, they will find the way forward not nearly as gloomy as is sometimes assumed. In the end, it is always well to remember that while error is usually in a hurry, truth has time on its side. Archaeology is an ongoing discipline. Not too long ago, some scholars, particularly the Scandinavians, were dismissing David and his dynasty as a convenient fiction, no more historical than, say, King Arthur and the round table. Then Avraham Biran discovered the now-famous inscription at Tel Dan that directly mentions the "house of David". Christians can afford to wait while leaving some questions unanswered. But at all costs, they must not abandon the field! 


  1. Archaeological considerations aside, I have always struggled with the assertion of total victory over the Canaanites found in the book of Joshua for two simple reasons.

    First, the remainder of the Deuteronomic History (Judges - II Kings) seems to assume only a limited invasion with only a partial victory over the native dwellers in Palestine--many of whom are kinsmen with the ancient Hebrews. The ongoing wars with the various Canaanite groups--especially the Philistines who were invaders themselves, "sea peoples," and not native Palestinians--play a key role in the rise of Saul and David and the emergence of a Hebrew monarchy. Up to the eighth century BCE, with the strengthening of Syria to the north and the slow, but steady, encroachment of international politics into the life of often isolated Palestine--the struggle for Egyptian, Assyrian, neo-Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and finally Roman hegemony--the earlier books of Samuel and I Kings tell of "culture wars," played out in religious and political terms between Israel and its Canaanite neighbors (see especially the Elijah and Elisha cycles). Israel was always "tempted" to assimilate with the, at times, larger and more dominant, cultures of Canaan. The Canaanite fertility religion of Baal and his consort Asherah held strong appeal to Hebrew farmers.

    Second, the book of Judges offers a very different picture of the "conquest" of Canaan than the idealized, nationalistic story told in Joshua. While the book of Joshua describes a portrait of a well-organized campaign of a united people with a single national goal, that split central Palestine with a westward thrust and then turned south in a "divide and conquer" strategy and finally to the north to completely defeat and displace the native populations; the book of Judges tells of tribal divisions and sporadic battles with Canaanites that often seem to be firmly entrenched in the land and much more powerful than the Hebrew tribes. The "office" of the judge--which foreshadows the unifying power of the monarchy--is necessary to build temporary alliances between the Hebrew tribes to fight apparently up-hill battles with their stronger neighbors. Equally important is the cycle of Deuteronomic judgments that structure the book of Judges--the tribes of Israel "forget" Yahweh, social disintegration and foreign threat follow, Israel cries out to Yahweh for relief who, in turn, raises up a temporary military leader that defeats the opposing enemy. This pattern of repeated struggle by a weaker invader against a stronger native population fits the later Deuteronomic History of I and II Samuel and I Kings better than the idealized, total triumph depicted in the book of Joshua.

  2. Just a quick comment about the writings of William Dever. I am well acquainted with his earlier works.

    "What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?: What Archaeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel" (2001)

    "Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?" (2006)

    "Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel" (2008)

    These proved to be invaluable to me when I first confronted the more extreme--dare I say sensationalist--claims of the most radical biblical minimalists (Tommy Thompson, Niels Peter Lemche, John van Seters, and others).

    "The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology And The Myth Of Israel" (Thomas Thompson, 1993)

    "The Israelites in History and Tradition" (Niels Peter Lemche, 1998)

    "The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts" (Neil Asher Silberman and Israel Finkelstein, 2002)


    I have not yet read Dever's more recent works, but I plan to soon.

    "The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel: When Archaeology and the Bible Intersect" (2012)

    "The Rise of Ancient Israel" (2013)

    I am not sure of the direction than Dever takes in these later works, but I can heartily endorse the earlier works. Don't get me wrong, even the earlier works show a healthy dose of realism bordering on skepticism, but they are still a welcome antidote of common sense and intellectual humility compared with the writings of the more radical biblical minimalists.

  3. Thanks, Joe, for your additional and valuable perspective! My point, of course, is that the tone of victory in the book of Joshua needs to be balanced with clear statements such as those found in Jos. 13:1; 15:63; 16:10 and 17:12. In addition, the Book of Deuteronomy adds another balancing note about the conquest being gradual (Dt. 7:22). I think that Kitchen has made an important point in suggesting that the common viewpoint of total victory in the Book of Joshua is a case of reading the victory statements without taking seriously the "this is what is still left to do" statements. The pitting of the record in Joshua against the record in Judges (and later D-History texts) as though they were incompatible is probably overstated.

    I would agree that Dever's work is balanced and a breath of fresh air after the highly dismissive works of Thompson, Lemche and Seters. As to Dever's loss of faith, which he frankly admits, I suspect it concerns more than just historical issues. Dever lost a child for which he was very distressed (as naturally he would be), and I suspect this loss also figures into his loss of faith.