John Walton on the Israelite Conquest of Canaan (Part 4): The Depiction of the Canaanites and Understanding God’s Law

In his latest book, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest, John Walton attempts to present the conquest narrative in the Book of Joshua in its historical and literary contexts in order to correct two common misconceptions regarding Israel’s conquest of Canaan: (1) those who justify the conquest by claiming the conquest was God’s punishment on the Canaanites for breaking his moral law as revealed in the Torah, and (2) those who condemn the conquest by claiming that it was nothing more than fanatical ethnic-cleansing and genocide. Both views, argues Walton, simply reveal profound misunderstandings as to what is going on in the conquest narrative.

Here in Part 4, I wish to look at Walton’s answer to misconception #1. Now, Walton’s answer is rooted in something we looked at in Part 2, namely the understanding that the conquest is depicted as a recapitulation of creation. Once you understand that the conquest narrative uses references to, and imagery from, the creation account in order to tell the story of the creation of the nation of Israel as the people of God and the establishing them in His land, that should impact the way one understand how the Canaanites are portrayed.

Tiamat fights Marduk

The Umman-manda, the Agents of Chaos
If one has read Walton’s earlier book, The Lost World of Genesis One, one knows that one of the main themes of Genesis 1 is that of God bringing order out of chaos. In the very beginning of Genesis 1, we are presented with a picture of primordial chaos: “The earth was tohu wabohu (wilderness and waste), and darkness was over the face of the deep” (i.e. the abyss/the waters of chaos). In fact, virtually every ancient Near Eastern culture had their own creation myth in which the gods brought about the created order by slaying a giant sea serpent who embodied the waters of chaos.

Now obviously, in the Bible, the true God doesn’t battle any sea serpent, but instead simply speaks the created order into existence. Nevertheless, the imagery of the “waters of chaos” constantly threatening God’s good created order pervades throughout the Bible. Consequently, Walton argues, since the conquest narrative is essentially about God placing His people in His land that He has established for them, those that fight against it and try to prevent it from happening (i.e. the Canaanites) are equated with the waters of chaos, or more specifically, with chaos creatures.

Walton goes into some detail on this point in Proposition 12, where he engages in a fascinating discussion in regard to an ancient Near Eastern (ANE) trope regarding people who were regarded as beast-like creatures of chaos, who were known as the Umman-manda (i.e. the offspring of the chaos monster Tiamat). To the point, in the ANE, the Umman-manda were identified as those barbarians who lived outside the city-state structure, away from “organized society.”

“That Scene”…from Deliverance

Even today, this is similar to how people living in cities tend to stereotype rednecks, or “country-bumpkins” who live in the hills of Appalachia: uncultured rubes who are potentially dangerous (ever see Deliverance?). In fact, many horror movies play on this sort of thing too: a lost region or village in the middle of nowhere, completely cut-off from modern society, where a group of powerful, beast-like sub-humans terrorize any innocent travelers who happen to stumble into the area.

Well, in the ANE, those type of creatures weren’t mutated humans who somehow survived a nuclear disaster. Rather, they were seen as the offspring of the chaos monster Tiamat, and thus agents of chaos themselves—that’s why they lived away from the cities. Now, in reality, the people who lived out away from the cities were not literally creatures, but they were stereotyped that way by “city-folk.” And just like outrageous stories crop up about such outcasts of cultured society, the same held true in the ANE, and the stories worked their way into their mythology.

As far as the people of the ANE were concerned, the Umman-manda (being the offspring of Tiamat) were powerful and dangerous, too powerful to be defeated by mere humans, in fact. Therefore, in the ANE stories, the only time a king would venture to fight them would be when he was told to do so by the gods; and even then, it’s not really the king who defeats them, but rather the gods on his behalf. If the king gets too arrogant, and begins trusting in his own power, he will inevitably be defeated by the Umman-manda.

So, What Does That Have to do With the Conquest?
Now, Walton argues that if you know that about the ANE trope regarding the Umman-manda, it should be easy to see that the biblical writers (in both the Torah and Joshua) are using this ANE trope to describe the Canaanites themselves. In the ANE, the Umman-manda were those who lived outside the city; in Israel, though, the Umman-manda (i.e. the Canaanites) are those who were outside the covenant. They are portrayed as the beast-like creatures of chaos who pose a very real threat to the covenant order that YHWH is establishing through the Israelites in the land.

That is why the Canaanites are linked to the Nephilim of Genesis 6:1-4 (Num. 13:26, 33—the 12 spies) and the Rephaim (Deut. 2:11, 20; 3:11; II Sam 21:20), and again in I Sam 17:4 (Goliath) and II Sam 21:19, 22 (other giants—the “sons of Anak”). They are described as greater and more powerful than Israel (Deut. 9:1-2). Nevertheless, YHWH tells the Israelites to go defeat them, because in reality He will be the one who defeats them (Deut. 9:4-5). And indeed, this is what we see happening at Jericho (the walls come down), and in Joshua’s defense of the Gibeonites (YHWH casts down large hailstones on Joshua’s enemies). And yet, the times when the Israelites get arrogant, as in their initial battle against Ai, they are roundly defeated.

The point is simple: the way the writer depicts the Canaanites is very similar to the way the ANE trope depicts the Umman-manda. This depiction is key to understanding how the conquest should be understood. As Walton argues, since chaos is the absence of order, and since the Canaanites are depicted as “chaos creatures” who exist outside the covenant order, the Canaanites are not capable for violating the covenant order because they were never a part of it to begin with.

Hence, the Canaanites are not “being punished” for violating the covenant and God’s moral law. As strange as it may initially sound, the Canaanites are not depicted as being punished for their sin. As Walton puts it: “Agents of non-order literally cannot sin and therefore cannot ever be said to be punished for sin; this is why the Canaanites, in accordance with their depiction as agents of non-order, are frequently accused of (badness) and (behavior outside the bounds of order), but never (sin): the twisting, bending, perverting, distorting, or corrupting of order. Only agents of order are capable of sin and therefore able to be punished for sin” (166).

“The purpose of the conquest narrative is not to describe the literal nature of the literal people, but to describe what is happening to them in such a way that the nature of the event can be properly understood. They were sinners (as all humanity is), but that is not the reason why the conquest was happening to them. They were being treated like chaos monsters, not treated like sinners, so the text depicts them as if they were chaos creatures (by means of the trope of invincible barbarians) to make clear what is actually going on” (166).

Or, if I may put it this way, the Canaanites were swept aside, not because they were guilty for breaking God’s moral law in the covenant, but rather because they were threats to God’s good purposes and order. Now, you might be thinking, “Well, whoop-dee-doo! The end result is still pretty much the same, right?” In a sense, yes, that is correct. But at the same time, it does force you to rethink a few things about how the Torah describes the behavior of the Canaanites.

The Torah: Idolatry, Underlying Principles, and Moral Laws
Walton discusses what the Torah says about the Canaanites in Propositions 8, 9, and 13. And although he makes a number of very interesting and convincing observations, I must say this is the one area of the book where I think he overstates his case. First, though, let’s recap his argument.

As I’ve said above, Walton argues that the Canaanites are not being punished for breaking God’s universal moral law as put forth in the covenant, because (1) not only were the Canaanites not under the covenant in the first place, but (2) that very view of the covenant (i.e. the codification of God’s moral laws that one must obey in order to be saved) is wrong.

Therefore, for example, Walton says that Israel could be found guilty of the crime of idolatry, because idolatry was a violation of the covenant—they were to worship YHWH alone. Furthermore, in places like Deuteronomy 32:16-17 that talk about how the Israelites worshipped “strange gods” and “demons,” Walton points out that in the ANE, the sedim (i.e. what is translated as “demons”) were considered beings (or gods) that lived on the periphery of the ordered world, and often were associated with either wild animals or the spirits of the dead, and yes, those outcasts from society—the Umman-manda. Hence, Israel’s sin was that they were worshipping beings that associated with chaos and disorder.

But since the Canaanites were not under the covenant, their idolatry would not have been considered “a crime,” in the sense that it was a violation of the covenant—because they were not under the obligations of the covenant.

Now, someone might say, “Okay, sure, technically that may be correct: the Canaanites were not guilty of breaking the covenant, because they were not under the covenant in the first place. But still, as passages like Leviticus 18-20 and Deuteronomy 12 clearly show, the Canaanites were clearly an immoral and perverted people, right?”

Well, Walton says, “Not so fast.” And this is where I do not fully agree with him.

First, though, where I think his argument is valid. Basically, Walton says that we are wrong to think the Torah is essentially a list of moral commands that God tells people to obey in order to produce justice. You know that old saying, “You can’t legislate morality?” Walton is arguing, “That’s true, and God knows that—therefore, that’s not what the legal material in the Torah is trying to do.”

Simply put, Walton argues that they are not so much actual laws, as they are examples of legal wisdom that illustrate underlying principles of justice in various hypothetical, everyday situations. Therefore, as Walton says, “The Old Testament’s legal wisdom literature in context is indeed supposed to shape Israelite society but it is not supposed to provide a set of instructions by which anyone in any place or time can construct God’s ideal society” (101). In other words, the Torah illustrates underlying principles of justice, but it doesn’t try to legislate morality.

To an extent, I fully get that. I don’t think Exodus 21:33-34 is a “law” that will ever apply to me: I don’t dig pits, and none of my neighbors have donkeys or oxen who might fall into the pit I’ve never dug. But, I do understand the underlying principle those verses are getting at: if I do something that causes someone else to lose valuable property, the just thing for me to do is to reimburse them for their loss.

Observations Thus Far
That being said, what Walton argues next, in regard to how various passages in the Torah describe Canaanite behaviors and abominations, I think goes too far, and is ultimately not convincing.

Nevertheless, the two main points I’ve discussed in this post are convincing…at least to me:

  1. The Canaanites are described as “chaos creatures,” similar to the ANE concept of the Umman-manda, and thus are seen as a threat to God’s order.
  2. The Torah itself (i.e. God’s Law) is more about illustrating underlying principles of justice than it is about legislating morality and providing a list of moral commands. That being said, I think we can’t describe all of the Torah that way, because I do not think one can so easily separate justice from morality. Still, I think Walton is correct to push back on the common, pharisaical misconception of the Torah that many Christians tend to have, namely, “You’d better follow God’s moral rules to a “T,” or else you’re really going to get it!”

In my next post, I will discuss my main objection to Walton, in regard to what he says about how the Torah describes Canaanite behavior.

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