Israel’s Conquest of Canaan: Questions and Controveries–A Look at John Walton’s New Book (Part 1)

Mass genocide. Ethnic cleansing. An ancient form of colonialism. Cruel, superstitious, fanatical, barbarous war criminals no different than Nazis. That’s the ancient Israelites and their conquest of Canaan for you, and that’s the God of the Bible for you. How could anyone in their right mind think the God of the Bible to be worthy of worship?

…at least, that seems to be the prevailing attitude these days in modern America when it comes to assessing the Bible. Indeed, between the Conquest narrative in Joshua and the creation/evolution debate, the general stereotype of Christianity that some people have is that Christians are anti-scientific, anti-intellectual rubes who just long to get in some ethnic cleansing before the worship service, because, after all, that’s what Joshua and the Israelites did.

Now although such accusations are, let’s just say, a tad overblown, the fact is that there haven’t been many good arguments regarding the seeming immorality found in the Conquest narrative that is convincing to our modern sensibilities. Some Christians double-down on the issue and basically say, “Yeah, God ordered genocide—he’s God, and can do what he wants!” Others go in the opposite direction and deny any of the Conquest narrative ever really happened—so, no harm no foul. For the most part, though, if we’re honest, most Christians simply conveniently ignore it. After all, it is a really troubling, difficult topic.

Enter John Walton and His New Book: Tough Sledding Through Fascinating Terrain
Fortunately, biblical scholar John Walton recently came out with a book entitled, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest, that specifically addresses the perceived problems surrounding the Conquest narrative. I was very anxious to read it, because the moral questions surrounding the Conquest narrative are tough to get a handle on, and Walton is a scholar whose books I have loved. I was looking forward to reading his insights regarding the Conquest.

To be blunt, I found it to be both a completely fascinating and completely frustrating read. (If you read the reviews on Amazon, you’ll see they are quite a mixed bag as well).

On the positive side, Walton opened up a number of “ancient doors,” so to speak, that gave me a clearer understanding of the ancient Near East’s attitude about war, as well as the conceptual worldview that undergirds much of the Conquest narrative—and that, in turned, helped me understand a whole lot better what was going on in the Conquest narrative. Simply put, I think he convincingly answers many of the accusations leveled against the supposed immorality of the Conquest narrative.

On the negative side, though, the way the book was written and laid out really made it a tough and frustrating read. Not only was reading the book tough sledding (think it could have been organized in a much clearer fashion), but many of the statements he makes in the book come across at first to be really bizarre and coming from left field, so to speak. Although many of those initially bizarre statements are teased out and better explained by the end of the book, the fact is, I’m willing to bet that there will be many people who just stop reading the book half way through. And that is a shame, because the content of the book is really, really good.

Therefore, over the next few posts, I’m going to provide an extended book review of Walton’s book, in which I will do my best to clarify and crystalize the main arguments he makes regarding understanding the Conquest narrative.

Getting a Handle on the Main Layout of the Book
The most fundamental point in Walton’s book is this: the way we in the modern world read and evaluate the Conquest narrative is riddled with problems. That is why both critics and Christians alike tend to misunderstand and misread it. To truly understand the Conquest narrative, you have to realize it is an ancient document, based on a considerably different outlook and worldview than we in the modern world have.

Secondly, and stemming from the first point, although the Conquest narrative (as well as the Exodus narrative) should be understood as telling about actual historical events, we are wrong to interpret it as trying to give “straightforward, objective history.” Far from just trying to report facts, the biblical writer is essentially telling the story of the Conquest as a recapitulation of creation. Simply put, the Conquest story is about the creation of God’s people and the establishment of them in His land. Therefore, he uses the outlook and imagery of ancient Near Eastern mythological language as found in the early chapters of Genesis.

Thirdly, once you realize the Conquest-Creation connection, you will be in a better position to understand and assess a number of other things: (A) how the Canaanites are depicted in Leviticus, Deuteronomy, as well as Joshua, (B) the purpose of the legal treatises in the Torah pertaining to moral behavior, and (C) just what holy war and herem (i.e. “devoting to the ban,” or as many translations have it, “utterly destroy”) really means. These issues make up the bulk of Walton’s book—and his basic argument is simple: we tend to misunderstand all three of these things. A basic understanding of the worldview, legal practices, and rules of war in the ancient Near East helps tremendously in understanding the Conquest narrative.

Finally, once those first three items are understood within their ancient Near Eastern context, we will then be in a better position to understand what the purpose of the Conquest was from a covenantal point of view.

I am going to do my best to tease out these things in course of the next few posts, but for now, I want to articulate a few underlying items that Walton points out that people often overlook when it comes to understanding, not just the Conquest narrative, but the Torah itself as well.

Oh, How Modern Presuppositions Get in the Way!
The first four chapters in Walton’s book deal with the fundamental mistake we in the modern world make when reading the Conquest story: we read and assess an ancient document with a truckload of modern presuppositions. Let me try to explain this as clearly as possible:

(1) Christians tend to assume that the Bible, particularly the Old Testament Law, contain God’s universal moral ideals and laws that he expects human beings to follow in order to be good. Therefore, when it comes to the Conquest narrative, they assume that (A) the Canaanites were not keeping God’s law and were therefore immoral; (B) thus they deserved God’s wrath and judgment because they weren’t keeping His law. And when Christians actually do read many of the laws in the Torah, their reaction is, “Wow, some of these are pretty weird!” But then they go about picking and choosing which laws still apply to us today, and which ones that don’t have to be followed anymore.

That’s how many Christians tend to interpret both the Torah and the Conquest narrative—and that’s wrong.

(2) Skeptics, on the other hand, read the Book of Joshua and draw parallels to other events in history that they think are similar. And so, they equate the Conquest with the Holocaust, colonial imperialism, Islamic jihad, the Crusades, or some modern example of ethnic cleansing. On top of that, when they actually look at a lot of the specific laws in the Torah, their reaction is, “Those are bizarre…and immoral!” And they thus conclude that the Conquest was genocide, that the God of Israel can’t be real, because if he was, he’d be a moral monster—therefore, there really is only one conclusion: those ancient Israelites were horrible, genocidal maniacs who justified their terror by claiming their God told them to do it.

That’s how skeptics tend to interpret both the Torah and the Conquest narrative—and that’s wrong too.

In addressing these two misconceptions, Walton makes two points: first, we are simply wrong to assume that the Bible is just giving us rules that tell us how to be good. To reduce the Bible to some kind of “universal moral rule book” is to, in fact, do the same thing the Pharisees did, and it actually makes it almost impossible to really understand what the Torah and the Conquest narrative really is about. That is not to say that the Bible is not concerned with moral behavior—it is. It is just we are wrong to assume that the Old Testament Law is some sort of universal moral checklist we must obey if we want to get blessed, and should expect punishment for not obeying it. If we think that, then we’re going to misunderstand the Conquest narrative.

Secondly, we simply cannot judge the Torah and the Conquest by modern standards of morality. Furthermore, what is being described in the Book of Joshua is ancient warfare, plain and simple. From the ancient perspective, there is nothing in the Conquest narrative that would have been considered shocking or immoral—it was basically done according to the accepted rules of ancient warfare. As Walton puts it, “The ancient world did not perceive of war as an irreconcilable evil that modern people do” (11). And specifically, when it came to the Conquest, no one would have classified those events as war crimes. As strange as it may sound to us in the modern world, what is being described in the Conquest narrative would not have been seen as immoral from the ancient perspective.

When It Gets Right Down to It…
When it gets right down to it, both misconceptions fail at the same point: they assume that the purpose of both the Torah and the Conquest narrative is simply to define goodness and badness, and to essentially say, “Hey, these are the rules God wants you to follow so you can be good and progressively improve society; here are the prohibitions not to do, or else you’ll be bad; the reason why the Israelites slaughtered the Canaanites was because the Canaanites weren’t being moral according to God’s standards, and so in the long run, slaughtering them was a good thing.”

Generally speaking, a lot of Christians tend to accept that view, thinking it is the key to bring about a more moral society, whereas skeptics reject that view, because they think we’ve morally progressed since ancient times and are, in fact, more moral now: but both Christians and skeptics assume that that is the view the Torah and Conquest narrative is promoting.

And Walton’s fundamental point is that such an assumption is simply wrong. As we will see, Walton is going to argue that the Torah and the Conquest narrative are about something quite different altogether. The way people tend to view the Torah and Conquest Narratives is similar to the way the Pharisees tended to view Jesus: He was about ushering in the Kingdom of God and the New Creation, and they were obsessing that he was doing it on the Sabbath, and thus was breaking a rule. They couldn’t see what he was doing because they were convinced the key to progress was through meticulous observance of the rules.

I finish this first post on John Walton’s book about the Israelite conquest of Canaan with a few quotes from Walton himself.  Chew on them for a bit, then check back in a few days for Part 2.

“Although we should understand God’s actions as purposeful (that is, working toward a goal), we should not imagine that God furthers that goal by producing progress. We should not imagine that God is constantly shaping humanity to ever-higher levels of goodness or morality that will eventually achieve the ideal” (25).

“…the Bible was not written to tell us how to produce goodness; it was written to tell us how to participate in the goodness that God is producing” (27).

“The text does not affirm that killing the Canaanites is good, because killing the Canaanites is not the objective of the conquest. The objective of the conquest is to fulfill the covenant, which in turn is only a part in a larger process leading up to the new covenant, which in itself is only a part of the process leading up to the new creation” (29).

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