This post is part of an ongoing series examining whether or not God commanded Israel to commit genocide in the conquest of the Promised Land.
Ancient Near East Warfare Terminology
Most important for our purposes is considering the language of the conquest narratives in Deuteronomy and Joshua, especially in light of other passages which can be interpreted as a command to wipe out everything that breathes. When reading passages such as this, I would argue that it is especially important to situate oneself in the context of the original audience. As Paul Copan argues in numerous places, it is of the utmost importance to recognize that in the Ancient Near East context, especially when discussing war and military conquest, language of total domination was the norm. For example, there are ancient military records that, if not read in the milieu of ANE warfare language, would suggest that after a conquest no one was living and no brick stood on top of another, whereas historical and archeological records suggest that this was not at all the case, that people were left alive in these locations and cities remained.
A good analogy is contemporary sports smack talk. For example, after the U.S. Women’s National Team defeated Japan in the Women’s World Cup final, it is totally expected to hear things like, “We killed them”, “We annihilated them”, and the like. While not an exact parallel—so far as we can tell, at least some people did die when language of destruction was used in the ANE—this idea begins to demonstrate that the context in which language is used remains integral to understanding its meaning. In the Ancient Near East context of war, there is good reason to interpret language of total destruction and annihilation as a rhetorical device rather than a statement of actual intent.
As Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan note in Did God Really Command Genocide?, the Biblical narrative is also one of “driving out” rather than slaughter. People groups that are “wiped out” tend to re-appear later in Israel’s history, indicating that actual genocide never happened even if wars did occur. Even as early as the book of Judges (canonically and literarily immediately following Joshua) it becomes clear that many of the people groups that were either “destroyed” or “driven out” remain threats to the people of Israel. There is also the tendency to destroy a king or figure-head of a nation and then consider that people vanquished (i.e., people without a king are not capable of mounting a credible threat against Israel). A good example of this is Joshua 10:16-28, where five Amorite kings are defeated and their nations presumed to have been utterly defeated in the process.
This coming week I will turn to the consideration of two biblical passages which at first glance may seem to condone Israel’s massacre of the inhabitants of Canaan: Exodus 23:21-22 and Joshua 8.