Apologetic Issues in the Old Testament, Part 3

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Apologetic Issues in the Old Testament, Part 3


Note: Today’s entry on the BioLogos Forum, by Old Testament scholar Richard S. Hess, was first published as an appendix to Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove: IVP Academic; Nottingham: Apollos, 2011). On Monday, Hess began this series with a consideration of some of the chief issues addressed more popularly in recent pro-atheist books. Yesterday, he discussed arguments made by the so-called “minimalists” and criticisms of the historical witness of the Bible. Today, Hess looks at perhaps the most important apologetic issue in the Old Testament, that of Deuteronomy, Joshua and divinely ordained genocide

Turning in a different direction, I want to consider the question of genocide against the Canaanites as portrayed in Deuteronomy and Joshua. Per- haps more than any other issue that troubles those interested in the God of the Bible, the role played by God in warfare, and especially warfare against the Canaanites, causes concern. There are many texts that could be cited in regard to this issue. However, Deuteronomy 20 and Joshua 1–11 are among the most frequently cited.

Deuteronomy 20:16-18 commands the complete destruction of every “city” in the land that God has given to Israel. This complete destruction, or devotion to the ban (Hebrew herem), is known in neighboring nations as well. However, in Deuteronomy this destruction is confined to the cities in Canaan. The term translated “city” is ‘ir . This term does not necessarily refer to a major urban center, as we tend to think of a city today. In the Bible this term can describe a village (Bethlehem [1 Samuel 20:6]), tent encampments ( Judges 10:4) and a citadel (2 Samuel 12:26) or a for- tress such as Zion in Jerusalem (2 Samuel 5:7, 9).21 In fact, it seems often to identify a military context. Archaeologically, this conforms to many sites in the Late Bronze Age (e.g., Tell Balatah or Shechem) and in the Iron Age (e.g., Arad) where these walled fortresses were not habitations for the average persons to live. The masses lived in hamlets and other places nearby these forts. The forts themselves contained the palace, royal storehouses for the taxes “in kind,” temples, some homes for the leadership and perhaps barracks for the troops. These “cities” were not the home of non-elites or of noncombatants. Rather, they represented the leadership, the military and those most involved with the oppression and rulership of the land. Thus the command in Deuteronomy 20 concerns complete destruction of those armies and forts that represent a religious faith and ideology that directly opposes that of Israel and God. In this sense it is indeed true to assert that God and Israel are holy and that they are called to de- stroy those who would oppose this God and his covenant people by leading them astray through their military might and ideology of force.

It is essential to understand that Deuteronomy 20 is an ideal, as already noted concerning Israelite (and much ancient Near Eastern) law. It is not a description of something that ever occurred or is purported to have occurred. For this, we need to examine the first half of the book of Joshua. These texts are often understood as prima facie evidence of divinely willed genocide. Usually Joshua 6:21 and Joshua 8:25 are cited. Joshua 6:21 de- scribes the capture of Jericho and mentions how Israel “devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.” Joshua 8:25 says some- thing similar about Ai: “Twelve thousand men and women fell that day.” In both cases, the phrase men and women is literally “from man (and) unto woman.” It is found elsewhere (1 Samuel 15:3; 22:19; 2 Samuel 6:19; 1 Chronicles 16:3]; Nehemiah 8:2; 2 Chronicles 15:13) always (except for 1 Samuel 22:19, where children are specifically mentioned) in parallelism with the Hebrew kol (“all, everyone”).22 Thus this phrase is synonymous with everyone and is stereotypical in the sense that it does not prejudice who might be in that group. It could include men or women, but not necessarily. In fact, a careful reading of Joshua 1–12 indicates that no specific noncombatants are ever mentioned among the Canaanites; except for Rahab and her family, who are spared. This is because the Israelites did not target nor did they kill noncombatants.

In particular, Jericho and Ai should be understood as forts, rather than as what we might think of towns with civilians. As already mentioned the biblical text mentions no specific noncombatants, except for Rahab and her family. This may in part explain the absence of archaeological evidence at these sites in the Late Bronze Age (the period of Israel’s attack on Jericho and Ai, in light of the biblical chronology). If they were forts, and perhaps makeshift ones that used earlier defenses, there would be no evidence such as might be found in a conventional “city” where wealthy citizens would preserve higher quality (and therefore diagnostic) pottery and possessions. The term for “king” at both of these forts is Hebrew melek. This root appears in a number of examples throughout the West Semitic world with the meaning of someone in charge of a place or region, but under the authority of a higher authority. See, for example, the fourteenth- century b.c. letter from the leader of Byblos who uses this root to describe Piwuri, a commissioner of the pharaoh over a region that includes Byblos.23 Thus the “kings” of Jericho and Ai might be military administrators in charge of their forts but under authority to leaders of cities such as Jerusalem (one of the major east-west roads from Jericho connects with Jerusalem) and Bethel (cf. Joshua 8:9, 12, 17). Unlike Gibeon ( Joshua 10:2) and Hazor ( Joshua 11:10), neither Jericho nor Ai are mentioned as large or at the head of all those kingdoms. Therefore, views that Jericho or Ai were large cities are not based on the biblical witness. The name Ai means “ruin,” and could appropriately identify a fort that was built out of existing Early Bronze Age walls.

Joshua 10–11 describe in detail the other major battles against the northern and southern coalitions. Both begin as defensive wars with an attack on their ally (Gibeon [ Joshua 10:35]) and on Israel itself (Joshua 11:1-5). Thus these battles were defensive, not offensive exercises. Either Israel had to fight or it faced extinction. Again, noncombatants are not specifically mentioned anywhere. The detailed description of Joshua 10:28-42, where “city” after “city” is destroyed, should be understood in the context of the “city” as primarily a fort for the king, the temple and the army. Understood in this way there is no reason to assume that noncombatant innocents were slaughtered in these forts. Even if the common people of Canaan chose not to join Israel as Rahab and her family, they probably did not station themselves in these forts, as they had been emptied of their armies who went to fight Israel (and faced defeat). Knowing that the Israelites were on their way to attack these forts, the average Canaanite most likely f led to the hills where they hid until the Israelite army had passed. The biblical evidence for this is that the book of Judges knows of no Canaanite extermination. It knows only that there were plenty of Canaanites around in the next generation to lead Israel astray (e.g., Judges 2:10-13).

Neither the biblical text of Joshua nor that of Judges supports any genocide. The attacks on Jericho and Ai were assaults on military targets. The major wars that Israel fought were defensive. Canaanites remained in all regions ( Judges 1) and intermarried with Israelites in the following generations. This is the biblical understanding of these battles. The archaeological and extrabiblical textual evidence do not contradict it.

Although space does not permit further examples, it is my desire that the answers to these specific charges demonstrate that there are answers available to address these issues. They require an understanding of the grammatical and literary nature of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, as well as the culture, archaeology and extrabiblical textual witness. It is hoped that the examples discussed here will inspire confidence and interest in the serious study of the Old Testament and its witness to God’s mighty acts in history.


21. See Richard S. Hess, “The Jericho and Ai of the Book of Joshua,” in Critical Issues in Early Israelite History, ed. Hess, Klingbeil and Ray, pp. 35-36.

22. Ibid., pp. 38-39.

23. Ibid., pp. 39-41. The Amarna text referred to here is EA 131, lines 21-24.


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