Monday, August 16, 2004


There are many ways to proceed in Bible study from Exodus. One could go back into Genesis, to discover the roots of the Israelites relationship to God and the nature of the conflicts between them and their neighbors. One could go sideways into the priestly law of Leviticus. One could enter the parallel track of Deuteronomy, the recapitulation of the giving of the law and the story of Moses' death. I choose to plunge into Canaan through Joshua (see or

Before proceeding, it must be said that the simple narrative of the book of Joshua, which presents the conquest of Israel as a simple military campaign, is neither consistent with the archaeological evidence nor with other passages of the Bible. H.H. Ben Sasson (A History of the Jewish People) says that two time frames are consistent with two separate biblical traditions. Between the 19th and 13th centuries BCE, the area later occupied by Edom, Moab and Ammon was depopulated. By the time of the Iron Age (somewhat before 1000 BCE), a system of fortifications had been constructed around Ammon, consistent with Numbers 21:24.

Ben Sasson notes that a great deal of archaeology does support the notion of a violent conquest (See Many Canaanite cities were destroyed in the later half of the 13th century BCE, However, it is unlikely that the conquest of Ai (modern day Et-Tell, near Bethel) was as recorded, since it was unoccupied for 1,000 years prior to the Israelite invasion. Also, the walls of Jericho existed prior to 1500 BCE, not at the time of the Israelite invasion.

Ben Sasson proposes that there were waves of penetration into Canaan, originating from Kadesh-barnea, an oasis. First was the intrusion of Joshua of the tribe of Ephraim into Edom and Moab, across the Jordan to capture Jericho and the region near Gibeon, defeating the Amorites. The Rachel tribes then occupied Mount Ephraim and north into Galilee. The Leah tribes defeated the Amorite kingdom of Sihon at Jahaz and proceeded north to confront Og, the king of Bashan, with the tribes of Reuben and Gad seizing south-central Transjordan.

While noting these extrabiblical interpretations, for the purpose of this study, let us proceed as if the book of Joshua is literally true, and seek to understand what it says and how that compares with other biblical material. From the standpoint of faith, after all, the historical accuracy is irrelevant. What matters is the scriptural message. The scriptural message of Joshua is very difficult for Christians to accept, since it is a message of brutal conquest, torture, and genocide. This is part of our tradition, but what does it mean?


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