Genocide or Hyperbole? Another look at the Conquest Narrative in Joshua – 3

Genocide or Hyperbole? Another look at the Conquest Narrative in Joshua – 3

The example of hyperbolic numbers of battle casualties employed to glorify the king / deity is closely related to the idea of hyperbole posited to give context to Joshua 10 and 11. Flannagan continues:

Some examples will illustrate this. The Merneptah Stele states “Yanoam was made nonexistent; Israel is laid waste, its seed is not.” here the Egyptian Pharoh Merneptah describes a skirmish with Israel in which his armies prevailed, hyperbolically, in terms of the total annihilation of Israel. The Assyrian king Sennacherib uses similar hyperbole, “The soldiers of Hirimme, dangerous enemies, I cut down with the sword; and not one escaped.” Mursili II records making “Mt. Asharpaya empty (of humanity)” and the “mountains of Tarikarimu empty (of humanity).” Similarly, The Bulletin of Ramses II, an historical narrative of Egyptian military campaigns into Syria, narrates Egypt’s considerably less than decisive victory at the battle of Kadesh with the rhetoric, “His majesty slew the entire force of the wretched foe from Hatti, together with his great chiefs and all his brothers, as well as all the chiefs of all the countries that had come with him” [Emphasis added]. The examples could be multiplied but the point is that such language was hyperbolic and not intended to be taken literally  [1].

If we grant this, then another way of reading the conquest narratives emerges:

  • God commanded the Israelites to evict the Caananites from the land which according to the Bible had been promised to Abraham centuries earlier.
  • The Israelites attacked them and defeated them. In memorialising these battles, hyperbolic language was used.
  • However, they did not complete the task – as the later chapters indicate, the Caananites were still present and in fact Israel was chided for not prosecuting the task.

The language of Exodus and Deuteronomy is difficult to square with a literal reading of Josh 10 and 11. In Ex 23:22-24 one notes how the Caananites were to be eradicated:

“But if you truly obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries. For My angel will go before you and bring you in to the land of the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites and the Jebusites; and I will completely destroy them. You shall not worship their gods, nor serve them, nor do according to their deeds; but you shall utterly overthrow them and break their sacred pillars in pieces.”

Such language does call to mind Joshua 10 and 11. A few verses later, one gets a different picture, one more consistent with what the later chapters of Joshua and Judges indicate. From verse 27:

“I will send My terror ahead of you, and throw into confusion all the people among whom you come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. I will send hornets ahead of you so that they will drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites before you. I will not drive them out before you in a single year, that the land may not become desolate and the beasts of the field become too numerous for you. I will drive them out before you little by little, until you become fruitful and take possession of the land. I will fix your boundary from the Red Sea to the sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the River Euphrates; for I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you will drive them out before you. You shall make no covenant with them or with their gods. They shall not live in your land, because they will make you sin against Me; for if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you.”

“I will drive them out before you little by little” is impossible to reconcile with utterly annihilating the Caananites, but easily fits the historical picture given from the rest of Joshua / Judges. Deuteronomy 7 reiterates this pattern of a slow eviction of the Caananites coupled with an injunction against making treaties and intermarrying:

“When the LORD your God brings you into the land where you are entering to possess it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and stronger than you, and when the LORD your God delivers them before you and you defeat them, then you shall utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them and show no favor to them. Furthermore, you shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor shall you take their daughters for your sons. For they will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods; then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you and He will quickly destroy you. But thus you shall do to them: you shall tear down their altars, and smash their sacred pillars, and hew down their Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire.”

The latter verses in fact have striking archaeological evidence to support this, Glenn Miller cites Ben-Tor’s description of Hazor in the Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Ancient Near East:

“The last LB city at Hazor was violently destroyed. A level consisting of fallen mud brick, debris, ash, and burnt wood (in some places more than 1 m thick) was encountered almost everywhere in both the upper and lower city. It is the best indication of Hazor’s catastrophic end. In areas C and H there is evidence of the [b]deliberate mutilation and desecration of cult objects[/b]. Yadin (the excavator) fixed the date of that destruction in the last quarter of the thirteenth century BCE and tended to attribute it to the conquering Israelites, as described in Joshua 11.10” [2]

If one accepts the hyperbole thesis (and there is independent support for this in the evidence of hyperbolic use of number in the ANE), then the tension between Joshua 10-11 and the remainder of Joshua and the first chapters of Judges is considerably eased, with the rhetoric of elimination seen less as a ‘war crime’, and more as ANE hyperbole.

1. Flannagan M. “Contra Mundum: Did God Command Genocide in the Old Testament?”  MandM August 1st 2010    Accessed 25th February 2013

2. Miller G “Good question…doesn’t the archaeological record in Palestine TOTALLY CONTRADICT (and hence, DISPROVE) the Bible’s claims about Joshua’s “Conquest” of the Land?! Accessed 25th February 2013

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