Joshua’s Conquest of Canaan, Genocide, Biblical Reliability…and the big point where I disagree with Peter Enns

Ever since the writing of his book, Inspiration and Incarnation, Peter Enns has been somewhat of a lightning rod in many Evangelical circles. I have always enjoyed his book, be it Inspiration and Incarnation, The Evolution of Adam, The Bible Tells Me So, or The Sin of Certainty, and although I am certainly aware of the “touchy subjects” about the Bible that often make people uncomfortable, I have always thought that the majority of Enns’ work to be common sense, good biblical exegetical work. To any group like Answers in Genesis, who loves to paint Enns as a secular-loving liberal who longs to undermine biblical authority, I just want to say, “No, it’s called good biblical interpretation, and Enns displays a love and a respect for the Bible that impels him to put aside his own assumptions and make sure he is understanding what God actually inspired.

But as much as I have loved Enns’ books, I don’t think he is right on every point he makes. And so, in this post, I’m going to discuss an area of Old Testament studies where I think Enns goes too far and overstates his case. Specifically, I want to look at the portion in his book, The Bible Tells Me So, where he discusses both the Exodus and “the conquest” in Joshua. To be clear, I don’t think he is completely wrong in his comments—in fact, he makes a number of very good insights—but I can certainly see how his comments regarding the Exodus and “the conquest” would cause unnecessary problems to your typical Christian in the pew.

So, let’s jump headlong into the controversy.

Joshua….fitting the Battle of Jericho

The Genocidal Conquest…Fact or Fiction?
If one were to copy pages 35-53 from The Bible Tells Me So, and then give them to a stereotypical “person in the pews” at your local Evangelical church, or perhaps the pastor of that church, one had better watch out—heads might literally explode. Why is that, you may ask? Because Enns, does a really good job showing how shocking some of the stuff regarding the “conquest” of Canaan should strike us. Simply put, if you’ve grown up in church, chances are you’ve sung songs about how “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho,” and yet have never taken the time to really think how bloody things get in parts of the Exodus and in the book of Joshua. If those events happened today and were covered by major news networks, everyone would undoubtedly be condemning Moses and Joshua as genocidal maniacs.

And what’s more, and this is Enns’ point, their God—YHWH of Israel—comes across as pretty brutal as well. The best way to capture Enns’ comments, though, is to simply share some of his comments. Have a read, and pay attention to how you react as you read them:

  • “God’s plan to form a nation out of Abraham’s descendants is punctuated by a foreboding sense that the Canaanites are dead meat” (35).
  • “Bottom line, the extermination of the Canaanites is not an afterthought. According to the Bible, Israel’s God planned it from the days of Noah and the flood, and he carries out the plan with bracing determination and precision, patiently encouraging and even training troops to get it done” (40).
  • “The Israelites weren’t defending their borders against the Canaanites. They were the aggressors.” (45).
  • “The biblical writers believed, God is a warrior who likes waging war against the enemy and acquiring land. He doesn’t buy into the system reluctantly. War brings him honor and glory” (45).
  • “Israel can, in principle, coexist with other nations—as long as everyone behaves and keeps their distance. But you can’t have God’s people sharing living space and intermingling with unclean pagans. That’s why the Canaanites were exterminated. There is no way to balance that” (49).
  • “Eventually we must confront the truth. However immoral the Canaanites were, the real problem isn’t what they did, but where they did it. …The Canaanites main sin was their street address. That is why they had to be eliminated” (51).
  • “If we were reading a story like this in some other religious text, we’d call this genocide, ethnic cleansing, and barbarous—pure and simple” (53).

So how does reading Enns telling you that the God of the Bible ordered the Israelites to commit atrocities that would impress Saddam Hussein make you feel? Well, if you’re thinking, “Surely, Enns explains what’s really going on, so that we can be assured that God was justified in all that,” you’re going to be disappointed. Enns doesn’t do that. Instead, he goes in a direction that not only causes your typical Evangelical’s head to explode, but to be honest, it made my eyebrow raise a little.

Joshua’s Defeat of the Amorites

Enns’ Explanation of the Genocide
To the point, Enns doesn’t provide an explanation that tries to “get God off the hook.” Instead he says this: “God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. The Israelites believed that God told them to kill the Canaanites” (54). And to be clear, Enns isn’t saying that the ancient Israelites actually committed genocide and thought God told them to do it. No—Enns says that no genocide happened in the first place, and that only later in their history, when they told stories about the birth of their nation, they essentially made the story of the conquest up.

The reason why Enns doesn’t believe the genocidal conquest ever happened was because archaeology just doesn’t bear those claims out. As Enns says: “Biblical archaeologists are about as certain as you can be about these things that the conquest of Canaan as the Bible describes did not happen: no mass invasion from the outside by an Israelite army, and no extermination of Canaanites as God commanded” (58). For example, despite the Bible claiming that 16 of the 31 Canaanite towns were destroyed, only 3-4 show signs of violent destruction. The four towns on the other side of the Jordan that the Bible claims the Israelites destroyed didn’t even seem to be inhabited at the time. Furthermore, Jericho was “minimally inhabited at best at the time” and “it had no massive protective walls” (59)—which basically means, “Hey, the walls didn’t come tumbling down, because there were no massive walls to tumble down in the first place.

Because of that, Enns concludes that (A) God didn’t order genocide, and (B) no genocide happened, because (C) those stories of the “conquest” are just that—stories—but they aren’t really “accurate history.” They were highly embellished and exaggerated stories about early times from the later times during the monarchy. And thus, as Enns states, “What most everyone is certain about, however, is that the Bible’s version of events is not what happened. And that puts the question, ‘How could God have all those Canaanites put to death?’ in a different light, indeed.  He didn’t” (60).

Yeah, I Can See Why Some Might Have Problem With That…
Enns justifies those conclusions by pointing out that we need to read the stories we find in Joshua in their original context, and we shouldn’t read them through the modern lens that assumes such stories are trying to give an “accurate version of historical events.” What we are reading, says Enns, is later Israel’s looking back at their past and telling their story of God from their own limited point of view. And Israel, just like every other nation in the ancient Near East, saw YHWH as a “divine warrior.” And therefore, they told the story of their past with that picture of God, and they, like good storytellers, “invented dialogue, characters, and scenes to turn past moments into a flowing story” (76). And the purpose of the telling of those stories wasn’t to really provide accurate history, as it was to speak to their current situation in the latter part of the monarchy, and later exile.

That is the conclusion Enns comes to regarding the “conquest” story in the Bible. Trying to make the “conquest” story out to be real history, in Enns’ opinion, just won’t do. He writes, “Readers who come to the Bible expecting something more like an accurate textbook, a more-or-less objective recalling of the past—because, surely, God wouldn’t have it any other way—are in for an uncomfortable read. But if they take seriously the words in front of them, they will quickly find that the Bible doesn’t deliver on that expectation. Not remotely” (76). And again, “Cramming the stories of Israel into a modern mold of history writing not only makes the Bible look like utter nonsense; it also obscures what the Bible models for us about our own spiritual journey” (98).

Here’s the Problem…
Okay, so here’s the problem I have with Enns’ take on the “conquest.” Yes, he is absolutely right to insist that we not read the Bible in general, and the “conquest” story in particular, through our modernist lens that assumes the purpose was to “write objective and fully accurate history.” The writers back then were not “just the facts news reporters.” And yes, he is right to emphasize that the biblical writers were story tellers who, like every story teller, wrote stories, and thus used artistic license. I mean, think about it. How would the writers know what certain characters in the Exodus were thinking? They didn’t. And they didn’t provide actual dictation of conversations either. So yes, the writers essentially “invented” dialogue, etc., in the telling of their stories.

Robert Alter: The Art of Biblical Narrative

In other words, in today’s world, we tend to compartmentalize between “fiction writing” and “non-fiction writing.” The biblical writers didn’t—they told of their history through the means of what we call “fiction writing.” But here’s the thing: it would be wrong to call it fiction writing because it still, nevertheless, was about history. It is what scholars like Robert Alter call, “fictionalized history.” Or as I would say: it’s history told in a story format.

Therefore, although I fully acknowledge the creative license of the biblical writers, although I too agree that we need to read these stories in the Bible in their original contexts, and although I agree that the writers were not trying to “write objective history” in our modern sense of the world—that doesn’t mean that the “conquest” story is all fiction.

Moses on Mount Sinai

Later on, when discussing the Exodus, Enns makes it a point that he does think the Exodus story does have a historical basis—therefore, I have to assume that if you pressed him more on the “conquest” story, he’d agree that there probably were Hebrew slaves from Egypt who made their way into Canaan, and that some amount of fighting (and killing) happened. But the problem I have with his coverage of these stories is that I feel he too is trying too hard to “get God off the hook” for the killings and battles the book of Joshua describes.

I just don’t feel there is any justification for saying the whole thing was made up by later writers. And to be honest, that is certainly is what Enns seems to be saying. I’m sorry, I just don’t agree. I think it is a rather sloppy claim that freaks people out more than it provides clarity. If you want to get into the nuts and bolts about how the ancient biblical writers wrote their works, that is a much-needed topic more and more Christians need to become aware of, for it does affect how one reads much of the Old Testament.

But in this particular case, I think Enns goes overboard, and doesn’t even really attempt to elaborate on the historical question. Going on for pages about how if that stuff happened, then God is a genocidal maniac, then turning around and saying, “Oh, don’t worry, none of that ever happened,” and then just leaving it at that just won’t do. Quite frankly, it’s not beneficial. It shocks and offends the typical Christian in the pew, without really trying to reassure that person about the reliability and trustworthiness of the Bible.

The fact is, a lot more could, and should, be said about the specifics about the “conquest,” the Exodus, in regards to the writing of these biblical books and the question of the history behind them. And if you’re going to address the problematic stories about the “conquest,” you had better take the time to really address them. And in this case, I feel Enns failed to do that.

That being said, over the next few weeks, I’ll try to write a number of posts about the topic regarding the “conquest,” in order to put things in a clearer light. But if you can’t wait, here’s my view in a very, very small nutshell: yes, there were Israelites who came out of Egypt during the Exodus and went into Canaan; yes, there was fighting and battles where people were killed; yes, it was the will of God; yes, the Israelites eventually settled the land; yes the stories about the “conquest” reflect historical realities; but no, they are not giving a blow-by-blow newspaper-report of “just the facts” accuracy. There is a lot of creativity going on in the telling of that history. And that’s okay—that’s how the biblical writers wrote.

In other words, it’s not like a textbook account of the historical facts of WWII; it’s like Mel Gibson’s movie, Hacksaw Ridge—certainly about history, but certainly a creative work to entertain, challenge, and inspire. Therefore, biblical literalists go wrong in insisting books like Joshua are “historically accurate accounts” of exactly what happened. At the same time, Enns goes wrong by implying that books like Joshua aren’t history at all, and are just fictions (although I don’t that’s exactly what he believes).

If we’re going to truly understand the troublesome stories found in Joshua, we have to do better than those two options.

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