John Walton and the Israelite Conquest of Canaan (Part 2): The Relationship Between the Conquest and Creation

In my previous post, I began to address the controversial topic of the Israelites’ conquest of Canaan as depicted in the Book of Joshua, by means of beginning a book review of John Walton’s latest book, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest. I began by briefly discussing two of Walton’s fundamental points in the book:

  1. We are wrong to assume that the reason for the conquest was that God was using Israel to punish the Canaanites for being immoral and breaking His moral law.
  2. We are wrong to assume that the conquest itself was akin to ethnic cleansing or genocide.

Walton says, and I agree, that there is a lot more to the conquest narrative that warrants simplistic moralizing on our part. And so, before one with tries to justify the conquest on moral grounds or condemn it on moral grounds, one should step back and make sure one understands the relevant texts in both their historical and literary contexts.

Now, to be up front, I am not a biblical minimalist—that is, unlike some scholars, I do not try to say that the “real history” begins somewhere around the time of David and Solomon, and that everything before that is just unsubstantiated folklore. Yes, I do not believe Genesis 1-11 is intended to be understood as history; and yes, technically the proper genre to classify the patriarch stories is that of legend, but I still think those stories are still about actual historical people. In addition, I do believe there was a literal Exodus of Hebrew slaves out of Egypt who eventually made their way to Canaan, fought with the various Canaanites peoples there, and over time took control of the land and established the kingdom of Israel.

Incidentally, based on a translational question, I think the actual number of Hebrew slaves who left Egypt and made their way to Canaan was more around 25,000 and not 2 million. That being said, I want to be clear, I believe the Book of Joshua really does relate the historical reality of the Israelites fighting Canaanites and eventually settling in Canaan.

But I don’t think the Canaanites were being punished for breaking God’s moral law, and I don’t think the conquest was genocide. But before we can see why the conquest wasn’t a God-ordained genocide on sinful Canaanite moral-lawbreakers, we have to first understand how the writer of the Book of Joshua is presenting the conquest itself. Simply put, the conquest of Canaan has to be seed against the backdrop of creation.

This, incidentally, relates to one of my complaints about Walton’s book. In his book, he puts forth 21 propositions to consider when understanding the conquest narrative, and he doesn’t address the Conquest-Creation connections until proposition 14. As I said in my first post, I found much of the book frustrating, partly because I felt Walton was “putting the cart before the horse,” so to speak. Simply put, the specific points he addresses in his propositions 5-13 come across as confusing and questionable to me, precisely because he didn’t address this more fundamental point relating to the Conquest-Creation connection. Once I read proposition 14, I was able to look back at propositions 5-13 and understand them in a better light. Therefore, I think it would have laid the groundwork for a much easier read is Walton started with what I am about to share here: understanding the Conquest of Canaan as a recapitulation of Creation.

The Conquest and Creation
When talking about the history of the Old Testament, one thing I tell my students is this: “Yes, it is about actual historical people and events, but no, it’s not trying to be some sort of ‘objective news report’ of that history. It is presenting Israel’s history by means of story—and that means the writers are free to use literary devices, allusions, and imagery in the telling of that story. In a sense, much of the history we find in the Old Testament is more like the WWII movie, Hacksaw Ridge, than a news story or textbook article about Desmond Doss and his actions on Okinawa.

Therefore, when we read a book like Joshua (or the accounts in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy that all set the stage for Joshua), we need to be aware of how and in what light the conquest account is presented. And to that end, we need to see both the Exodus and the Conquest as a recapitulation of the creation story in Genesis. As I’ve said before elsewhere, I believe the creation story in Genesis 1-3 (actually Genesis 1-11, but for our purposes here, Genesis 1-3), is Israel’s creation myth. It is not intended to be read a literal account of how the actual universe began. Rather, like all ancient Near Eastern (ANE) myths, it’s purpose is to lay out the fundamental worldview beliefs about God, humanity, and creation. These myths basically provide the backdrop to the stage of history, so that historical events can be interpreted correctly, according to the worldview and believes of that culture.

Israel Crossing the Red Sea on Dry Land–Thus Echoing Day Three of the Creation Account

And that is precisely what we see in both the Exodus and Conquest narratives: they are historical events being presented as, and interpreted in the light of, Israel’s creation story. The story of the Israelites being freed from Egypt and eventually settling in YHWH’s land is the story of the creation of God’s people and their being established in His land. It is, simply put, a recapitulation of Genesis 1-3. It is the telling of those historical events with the imagery of the creation story in Genesis 1-3. Here are just a few examples of how that can be seen:

  1. The Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea and walking across on dry land echoes God separating the waters and so that dry land could appear and be the place where God would further His creative acts.
  2. The armies of Pharaoh being destroyed in the sea reflects ANE myth of the great sea serpent in the Sea of Chaos being vanquished by a god. Here, though, that myth is used to describe history, with Pharaoh being depicted as the embodiment of the great sea serpent. This identification is found elsewhere in the Old Testament (i.e. Isaiah 30:7, Ezekiel 29:3).
  3. The goal of the creation week to a Sabbath rest for God’s creatures and the rule of God over His creation; the goal of the Exodus and the Conquest is to provide a place where Israel can have rest from its enemies.
  4. Eden is depicted as the special land where God can dwell with humanity; in ANE understanding Eden would have been understood as the royal gardens on God’s holy mountain, from where He rules over His creation. The Promised Land of Canaan is the place where God’s Name will dwell among His people; and the Temple itself is adorned with garden imagery, and is built on Mount Zion—thus echoing Eden.
  5. On top of that (and this is something Walton doesn’t mention), we have a rather interesting episode in Joshua 5:13-15. After Joshua and the Israelites cross the Jordan River (in a similar fashion to how they crossed the Red Sea—once again, emphasizing creation imagery), we are told that Joshua encounters an angel of God with a drawn sword. When Joshua asks him if he is for them or against them, he replies, “Neither, I am the commander of the army of YHWH,” and he tells Joshua to take of his sandals because it is holy ground.

What does this mean? The Israelites have just crossed into the Promised Land, and Joshua encounters an angel with a drawn sword who tells him this is holy ground. I believe we should see this as an allusion to Genesis 3:24, when God placed an angel at the edge of Eden to guard the entrance to Eden. What this tells me is that Israel’s entrance into the Promised Land is seen as a “return to Eden,” where they will be able to dwell with God in their midst.

The reason why it is important to understand that the Exodus and Conquest narratives are being described against the background of the creation story, is because it will affect how understand the particulars regarding the Canaanites themselves, as well as the events and battles that transpire between the Israelites and Canaanites. We will get into those specifics, starting in the next post. But I’d like to end this post by presenting a very interesting translational argument Walton makes regarding Genesis 15:13-16, a passage often used to justify the eventual destruction of the Canaanites during the Conquest.

Understanding Genesis 15:16 Properly
Genesis 15 tells us about YHWH’s covenant with Abraham. In this chapter, there are a few interesting verses that relate to, not only the time of slavery in Egypt, but also to the later conquest of Canaan. Most translations of Genesis 15:13-16 are all fairly similar. This is how the NRSV has it:

13Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; 14but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.

Let’s get this straight: YHWH is telling Abraham that (A) his descendants (i.e. the Hebrews) will be slaves in Egypt for 400 years, but that (B) YHWH will then bring judgment on Egypt and free the Hebrews (i.e. the Exodus), that (C) Abraham will live a long life, and that (D) his descendants will return to the land in the fourth generation (i.e. the Conquest), because (E) the Canaanites (Amorites here) have sinned enough to warrant punishment by God.

I don’t know about you, but that’s how I always tended to interpret it, particularly 15:16—God will bring the Hebrews up from Egypt and will use them to punish the Canaanites, once the Canaanites had done enough immoral sinning to warrant annihilation.

Well, Walton thinks that might just be wrong. After all, given the way 15:16 is translation, and its placement within the larger passage, seems rather odd: (1) no matter how you slice it, “the fourth generation” cannot mean 400 years; and (2) if the passage was saying what we think it is saying, then that bit about Abraham living into a ripe old age just seems misplaced, doesn’t? We would expect it to read something like:

  1. Your descendants will be slaves for 400 years (15:13)
  2. They will be delivered, and God will punish the nation who oppressed them (15:14)
  3. They will return to the land and the Canaanites will be punished for their sins (15:16)
  4. But don’t worry, you’ll live until a ripe old age and will die in peace (15:15)

But the passage isn’t in that order—so what’s going on? Furthermore, the mention of the Amorites is interesting, because the Amorites were Abraham’s friends and allies who had actually helped Abraham rescue Lot just in the previous chapter—again, kind of odd.

To the point, Walton suggests the common translation for Genesis 15:15-16 is simply wrong:  First, the fourth generation is an idiomatic expression (i.e. Ex. 20:5; 34:7; Num. 14:18; Deut. 5:9), and not some odd reference to 400 years. It is a reference to the first generation Abraham will not see grow into adulthood. Therefore, God isn’t telling Abraham his descendants will return to the land within four generations of they’re going down into Egypt. Rather, God is saying, “Your descendants will return to the land long after you’ve died, and long after the time of the generations you’ll see into adulthood.”

Secondly, there is a translation question regarding what is normally translated as, “for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” Walton argues that the word translated as “iniquity” shouldn’t be understood as the iniquity that the Amorites are doing, but rather the destruction that God has decreed to happen to them eventually. Therefore, the phrase that is translated as “not yet complete” isn’t a reference to the Amorites’ sinning, but rather to the destruction God has decreed for the Amorites.

Put that all together, and what God is saying to Abraham in Genesis 15:13-16 is this: “Your descendants will be enslaved for 400 years in Egypt, but I will eventually punish Egypt and bring your descendants back to this land. You yourself will live a long life and will die at a ripe old age, and although I have decreed the destruction of the Amorites, that destruction won’t come upon the Amorites who are your friends and allies.”

I wanted to add the following section when I was ask to tease out Walton’s more detailed argument regarding Genesis 15:16. If you like getting deeper into the weeds of translational questions, this section is for you. 

1. The word “Awon” (translated as “iniquity”) is also used in places like in Gen. 19:15 (Lot is told to leave Sodom, or else get swept up in the “Awon of the city”); Gen. 4:13 (When Cain says his “Awon” is more than he can bear); and Gen. 44:16 (When Judah says that his “Awon” has been found by God)–all three examples aren’t using “Awon” as the iniquity done BY the person, but rather the punishment/disaster that is coming UPON the person. Therefore, Walton believes the “Awon” in Gen. 15:16 is a reference to disaster that would one day come UPON the Amorites.

2. The phrase “ad-henna” (translated as “not yet”): in English, the phrase basically means “there is a current state of things, with the expectation that there will be a change” (i.e. my car is NOT YET fixed). In Hebrew, “ad-henna” often means something like “there is a current state of things, with no expectation of change.” Walton gives a number of passages that indicate this: Gen. 44:28; I Sam 7:12; I Chr. 9:18; I Chr. 12:29; Num. 14:19; Jdgs 16:13.

3. The phrase “lo-salem” (transited as “not complete”), when used to modify an adjective (in this case “awon” is a noun representing an abstraction) indicates something that is not yet fully paid out, as in Ruth 2:12, that indicates Ruth will receive all that she is owed (i.e. her wages will be “salem”).

Put all that together, Walton argues that Genesis 15:16 is saying, “Yes, there is disaster (“Awon”) that is going to come on the Amorites, but that disaster isn’t going to be fully paid out yet (“lo-salem”), and God has no plans to pay it out yet at any time in the near future (“ad-henna”). It won’t happen until at some point after the fourth generation after Abraham.

What’s the Point?
The point of all this is not to justify God’s decree against the Amorites/Canaanites. The Old Testament is quite clear: it is God’s will the later conquest happens. Rather, the point is that Genesis 15:13-16 is not saying the reason for the decreed destruction is because the Canaanites’ sin against God’s moral law just became too much. Yes, the Old Testament is clear: YHWH told the Israelites to do what they did, but the reason for it was not that it was God’s punishment for the Canaanites breaking His universal moral law as depicted in the Torah

Something else is going on here, and yes, it is related to understanding the connections between the Conquest and Creation.

We’re still just getting started understanding what the conquest narrative is really about. So, chew on this post for a day or two, and come back for Part 3.

1 Comment

  1. Pointing out the angel with the drawn sword at the entrance to the Promised Land absolutely blew my mind. I’m never going to be able to forget that now; I pretty much instantly accepted the suggestion that entering the Holy Land is symbolically re-entering Eden as soon as I read that.

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