Bible God

The conquest narratives: hyper-terror or hyperbolic?

Part 2 | The conquest narratives: hyper-terror or hyperbolic?

In his book, The Nonviolent God, J. Denny Weaver argues that the God of the Bible is not the vengeful and destructive character that many portray Him to be. That being said, it is totally understandable that this violent portrayal of God is popular, given the way the conquest narratives assign responsibility for Canaanite genocide to God Himself. It is true: “The Old Testament’s narratives may be the most serious challenge of all to the idea of a nonviolent God […].” Weaver writes. “God is described there as one who uses great destruction as vengeance and punishment, who massacres large numbers of people…and who commands God’s followers to engage in killing on both large and small scales.” 1

Let’s take a look at “God’s command” in the text ourselves in Deuteronomy. 

When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy (Deut 7: 1-2).

Clearly, the text says that God commands Moses to “destroy them totally” and to “show them no mercy” (Deut 7:2). The book of Joshua affirms that Joshua did indeed obey God’s command to exterminate the Canaanites. In Joshua 11, the text summarizes Joshua’s conquest of Canaan by saying that he took the “entire land […] exterminating them without mercy, as the LORD had commanded Moses” (Josh 11:16-20).

God commands genocide – Joshua executes this command swiftly, precisely and without mercy. This is how the book of Joshua presents the conquest narratives. But is this what actually happened? 

To answer this question, we need took a closer look at the text in Joshua and compare it to what the book of Judges says about the conquest.

The conquest narratives in Joshua identify specific cities and regions where Joshua (“and all Israel with him”) is said to have “totally destroyed” its inhabitants and “left no survivors”: Hebron (Josh 10:36-37), Debir (Josh 10:38-39), and the “whole region [of] the hill country and the Negev, the western foothills and the mountain slopes” (Josh 10:40). Yet, as Copan and Flannagan explain,

[In] the first chapter of Judges, we are told that the Canaanites lived in the Negev, in the hill country (Judg 1:9), in Debir (Judg 1:11), in Hebron (Judg 1:10) and in the western foothills (Judg 1:9). Moreover, they did so in such numbers and strength that they had to be driven out by force. These are the same cities where Joshua 10 tells us Joshua had annihilated and left no survivors.2

What might explain this very clear discrepancy between the two texts? Even more important is answering the question of what narrative is the most accurate historical account of Joshua’s conquest?

Hyperbolic Language in Joshua

If we are serious about reading the Old Testament responsibly, seeking to understand the cultural context of the Ancient Near East (ANE) should be our first priority. More specifically, we must understand the way that rulers in the ANE context spoke in military reports—the exact same genre included in the conquest narratives of the Bible.

Tuthmosis III: In the fifteenth century (BCE), an Egyptian Pharaoh by the name of Tuthmosis III went to war with the kingdom of Mitanni. Old Testament scholar, K.A. Kitchen, documents Pharaoh’s claim that “the numerous army of Mitanni was overthrown within the hour, annihilated totally, like those…non-existent.”3 What’s interesting, Kitchen observes, is that the army of Mitanni was indeed not totally annihilated like Tuthmosis III claims. In fact, they continued to fight wars well into the fourteenth century. Hmm….interesting.

Merenptah: In the thirteenth century (BCE), the Egyptian Pharaoh, Merenptah, announced in the The Merenptah ‘Israel’ Stela: “Yanoam made nonexistent; Israel is wasted, his seed is not.”4 If it must be said, we know for a fact that this is not historically accurate, and that Israel existed well beyond the thirteenth century!

Sennacherib: Sennacherib, the Assyrian ruler from 701-681 (BCE), is also documented using exaggerated language when depicting the outcomes of war: “The soldiers of Hirimme, dangerous enemies, I cut down with the sword; and not one escaped.” 5

What these ANE war reports (and there are many others) have in common is their use of hyperbolic language. Copan and Flannagan explain:

The hyperbolic use of language similar to that in Joshua is strikingly evident. It is equally evident that histories of this sort are…highly stylized and often used exaggeration…so as to commend the kings as faithful servants of the gods […]. The knowing ANE reader recognized that this was massive hyperbole and the accounts were not understood to be literally true. 6

Furthermore, if we can conclude that Joshua’s use of hyperbolic language was common in ANE military reports, we can also be sure that it was familiar to Moses as well. Therefore it becomes clear that “Moses himself [in the “genocide command”] did not intend a literal, comprehensive Canaanite destruction. He, like Joshua, was merely following the literary convention of the day.” 7 From the text itself, we can see a pattern in Joshua that implies the use of a literary device. Nicholas Wolterstorff explains:

The first time one reads that Joshua struck down all the inhabitants of a city with the edge of the sword, namely, in the story of the conquest of Jericho (6:11), one makes nothing of it. But the phrasing – or close variants thereon – gets repeated, seven times in close succession in chapter 10, two more times in chapter 11, and several times in other chapters. The repetition makes it unmistakable that we are dealing here with a formulaic literary convention.8

Many other Old Testament scholars agree.

K. Lawson Younger Jr. concludes that the conquest narratives in Joshua employ “the same stylistic, rhetorical and literary conventions of other war reports of the same period.” 9 He refers to this literary device as a “transmission code” used across the ANE world. 10 “What is noteworthy,” writes Younger, “is the hyperbolic nature of the transmission code.” 11

We can be confident, I believe, that the discrepancy between Joshua and Judges lies in the hyperbolic nature of Joshua. This leads us to conclude that God did not exterminate the Canaanites without mercy. God is not a genocidal maniac. 

In light of this crucial insight, we can argue that “Judges should be taken literally whereas Joshua should be taken as hagiographic history.”12 That is, history which is not meant to be historically accurate, but rather, meant to elevate Joshua as a leader on whom Yahweh’s favour rested.

Up next: Part 3 | Israel: Conquest, Culture and Imposing Modern Assumptions on Ancient texts.

Stay tuned and thanks for reading!

[1] J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013), 89.

[2] Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan, “The Ethics of ‘Holy War’ for Christian Morality and Theology,” in Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem, eds. Heath A. Thomas, Jeremy Evans and Paul Copan (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2013), 211.

[3] K.A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 174; emphasis added.

[4] K. Lawson Younger, Jr., Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History Writing, eds. David J.A. Clines and Philip R. Davies (Sheffield England: JSOT Press, 1990), 227; emphasis added.

[5] Younger, Ancient Conquest Accounts, 228; emphasis added.

[6] Copan and Flannagan, “The Ethics of ‘Holy War’ for Christian Morality and Theology,” 217-218.

[7] Ibid., 219.

[8] Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Reading Joshua,” in Divine Evil? The Moral Character of the God of Abraham,” eds. Michael Bergmann, Michael J. Murray and Michael C. Rea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 251.

[9] K. Lawson Younger Jr., “Judges 1 in Its Near Easter Literary Context,” in Faith Tradition and History: Old Testament Historiography and Its Ancient Near Eastern Context, eds. A.R. Millard, J.K. Hoffmeier and D.W. Baker (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1994), 207.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Copan and Flannagan, “The Ethics of ‘Holy War’ for Christian Morality and Theology,” 215.

  1. Good stuff, Josh. I was vaguely aware of the hyperbole explanation, but you’ve done a nice job of fleshing it out.

    However, I think it still leaves an unresolved problem: even if God did not literally command Joshua and the Israelites to wipe out the inhabitants of the land, we are still left with the supposition that he did command them to kill *some* of the people, or at the very least that he commanded them to cause great distress and suffering by dispossessing people of their homes and land.

    Again, I shall resist the temptation to say more at this point because I want to see where you’re going with the rest of the series 🙂

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