The Destruction of the Canaanites: God, Genocide, and Biblical Interpretation
Charlie Trimm, The Destruction of the Canaanites: God, Genocide, and Biblical Interpretation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2022. X + 117 pages. Paperback, $14.99. ISBN 978-0802879622.
This is a useful book as I tried to indicate in a blurb I wrote on it. I think each of the chapters has something to contribute. My purpose here is not to review the book in terms of its content which is of value. Rather, I offer a few specific remarks and address Trimm’s criticism of me.
The first chapter reviews some of the reasons for war, battle preparations, the role of deities in war, and the use of rhetoric and propaganda in war. There are numerous well chosen black and white photos in this section. Not mentioned among the reasons for battle would be the control of trade. Certainly, the collection of booty and plunder was of interest but there seems also to have been interest in the development of markets and the extraction of tribute from valuable trade routes. Thus, the Neo-Assyrian kings initially (Tiglath-pileser III and Sargon II) sought to access uninhibited routes to Egypt for trade there, while later (Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal) they sought to conquer Egypt and control its trade in that manner. See Joshua Walton, The Regional Economy of the Southern Levant in the 8th-7th Centuries BCE (Ph.D. dissertation; Harvard University, 2015), pp. 136-37, 220-21.
The second chapter reviews genocide, providing examples of it (especially in the West) and a summarizing of the United Nations’ 1948 definition). It is important to realize that, as terrible and wrong as such activities may be, the definition oddly excludes the mass killig of about one hundred million people in the twentieth century who found themselves under the yoke of Soviet and Chinese Communism (as well as other smaller nations). Yet, these do not fall under the carefully worded definition of the atrocity, in no small part because the mass killing was indiscriminate and did not usually select a particular “group” of people.
Chapter three looks at Canaan and the use of the term, ḥerem. Of interest here is that the definition of Canaan in Egypt in the second millennium BC (and not in the first millennium BC) coincided with that found in the Pentateuch and Joshua. It is true that Ugarit was not included. It is also true that the Transjordan was not included (contra the map on p. 40 which, like the text, seems to suggest it was included). See Richard S. Hess, “Canaan and Canaanites at Alalakh,” Ugarit-Forschungen 31 (1999) 225-236 (Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2000); idem, “Early Israel in Canaan: A Survey of Recent Evidence and Interpretations,” pp. 492-518 in V. Philips Long ed., Israel’s Past in Present Research: Essays on Ancient Israelite Historiography (Sources for Biblical and Theological Study 7; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1999). Reprint of “Early Israel in Canaan: A Survey of Recent Evidence and Interpretations,” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 126 (1993) 125-142; idem, “Occurrences of Canaan in Late Bronze Age Archives of the West Semitic World,” pp. 365-372 in Sh. Izre’el, I. Singer, and R. Zadok eds., Israel Oriental Studies 18: Past Links: Studies in the Languages and Cultures of the Ancient Near East (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1998).
Chapters 4, 5, 6, and 7 provide a comprehensive evaluation of four major categories in which explanation for “genocide” and divine violence is provided. They are (p. 50): 1. God is not good. 2. The Old Testament is not a faithful record. 3. The Old Testament does not describe anything like genocide. 4. The mass killing of the Canaanites in the Old Testament was permitted for that one point in history. These views are attributed to a variety of writers and their weaknesses are pointed out in a summary section at the end of each chapter. Clearly, given the title, this is the heart of the book.
The final chapter (two pages in length) rejects the first view (that God is not good) and recognizes the problems of the others but does not seek a resolution. It points the reader to th laments, which are indeed a good response to unexplained human suffering. Trimm concludes by encouraging the reader to think deeply about this issue and to wrestle with it, not alone, but beside those in Christian community.
In principle, this is a good idea and there is much of value here. However, I would like to return to Trimm’s examination of my approach as he describes it on pp. 73-74 (see also some later notes on pp. 80 and 83). First, I would like to express appreciation that Trimm takes this view seriously. Many who examine these issues treat the historical, geographical, cultural, and linguistic evidence superficially (e.g., summarizing my position merely as regarding Jericho and Ai as forts) or ignore it altogether. Trimm does not and for this integrity I am grateful. I believe he also does this with many other positions that he enumerates. Second, while I express this sentiment, I would also like the opportunity to respond to the manner in which Trimm refutes my position.
In responding, I would stress that my understanding considers only Joshua and its presumed genocide. I believe that satisfactory answers to the biblical texts are possible. However, they require a case by case exegetical examination of the historical, cultural, and grammatical issues involved. Most critics have not been willing to do this. I would invite those who care to give appropriate weight to these issues to consider my position. It can be found in greater detail in Richard S. Hess, “The Jericho and Ai of the Book of Joshua,” pp. 33-46 in Critical Issues in Early Israelite History, ed. R. S. Hess, G. A. Klingbeil and P. J. Ray Jr. (Bulletin for Biblical Research Supplement 3; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2008; and idem, Joshua, Tyndale Old Testament Commentary (reprint of 1996 edition; Leicester and Downers Grove: InterVarsiy Press, 2009), especially the material on ch. 6 of the book of Joshua and the archaeological notes on Joshua and Ai.
At this point I turn to Trimm’s criticism of my position. On p. 73, Trimm writes:
“One way forward is provided by Richard Hess, who argues that the killing in the book of Joshua was restricted to military battles, apart from civilians. While the accounts of the conquest of Jericho and Ai appear to involve the defeat of a settled city full of civilians, Hess shows how each part of this description could be interpreted in other ways. For example, the word “city” can refer to a fort (2 Sam. 5:7; 12:26), while the walls might have been the exterior walls of a circle of houses around the city. The presence of Rahab at Jericho does not necessarily indicate the presence of other civilians; she and her family might have been the only noncombatants in the city. The phrase “men and women, young and old” in reference to those killed may simply be a stereotypical phrase meaning “all” and not a literal reference to civilians and children. The “king” could refer to a military leader or a commissioner…”
On p. 74 he notes further:
“The main problem with Hess’s argument is that each part of his vision of the conquest is certainly possible, but his argument requires a large number of merely “possible” interpretations to come together to make it work. In addition, seeing Jericho as a military base would imply a stronger centralized government that had the power and wealth to support it. However, such a powerful government was not known to be present in the hill country during this time period. The Amarna letters portray many small city-states there fighting each other, not the kind of government that could afford to create and maintain a military outpost at the eastern foot of the highlands. Finally, most military camps throughout history have included civilians and families; only the most temporary bases—like those directly on the front lines—would have excluded civilians. If Jericho was a military base, it seems likely it would be a more permanent kind of encampment in which at least some civilians would have lived. Indeed, in a siege situation the civilians often fled to a fortified area for defense. Hess’s argument would work better if the Israelites were fighting an army in the field rather than a fortified city.”
In response I would make the following points:
1. If Jericho was not a fort, what was it? It certainly was not a city of various classes of people. Such a phenomenon would have left diagnostic pottery that would attest occupation in Late Bronze Age of the thirteenth century BC (or the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries for an early date of the exodus). However, virtually no such pottery has ever been found at Jericho. Either it was uninhabited or a fort occupied mainly by soldiers who would not leave any pottery other than the most common that did not change from generation to generation as the more elite styles did.
2. If there were other civilians than Rahab’s family, why are they not named? Why does the text, which goes into more detail about Jericho than any other city in Canaan in the book of Joshua – why does the text never mention any other civilians, but the text does identify the king, agents of the king, and soldiers of the army? Go through the battles in Judges, Samuel, and Kings. The descriptions are replete with non-military figures involved in all manner of intrigue whenever a population center is concerned. Again, where is the archaeological evidence for a city at Tell es-Sultan (the modern name for the Old Testament site of Jericho) populated with civilians? The key presence of diagnostic pottery isn’t there.
3. The phrase, “men and women” is best translated from Hebrew as “from man to woman.” It is a unique phrase that appears only seven times in the Bible, always synonymous to “everyone” and never concerned to identify whether that “everyone” included combatants or non-combatants. There are many examples of other terms to describe the entire population, that go on to specify who that involved. In every case, “from man to woman” is stereotypical and identifies everyone without regard to the presence of both genders or the combatant nature of those involved. This is important because on this phrase rests the entire argument for the biblically explicit presence of non-combatants (other than Rahab’s family) in the fort/city of Jericho and that of Ai.
4. It is indefensible to call the above three points “possible” interpretations, as Trimm does. Such a weak argument ignores the archaeological reality of Tell es-Sultan and the unique Hebrew linguistic feature of the phrase in point 3. These are not merely possible. They are the only interpretation, taking into account both the biblical and the extra biblical evidence; and accepting that something resembling the events of chs. 2 and 6 of Joshua did take place in the last century of the Late Bronze Age (or earlier, for those accepting a fifteenth century date for the exodus). It is not enough for someone to attack a position by describing it as merely possible. They must present an empirically based rational argument that is more compelling. Trimm does not.
5a. Actually, the Amarna texts provide a geopolitical reality in southern Canaan that fits my interpretation. As has long been noted by Amarna scholars, the Canaanite city states that the 14th century Amarna letters reveal were just that sort. Nadav Na’aman wrote his doctoral thesis on the alliances and enemies that the city-states formed and warred against (The Political Disposition and Historical Development of Eretz-Israel according to the Amarna Letters[Ph.D. dissertation, Tel-Aviv University, 1975. Hebrew]). This is the picture of the southern coalition led by Jerusalem’s leader in Joshua 10:1-5. The presence of a fort in the Jordan Valley at the ancient site of Jericho is exactly what one would expect. Someone would control this region politically and militarily, and gain profit from the tariffs charged merchants and other travelers passing north/south and east/west.
5b. As David A. Dorsey (The Roads and Highways of Ancient Israel [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1991], pp. 201-6) points out, in the Iron Age presumably building upon Bronze Age roads, the site of Jericho lay at the confluence of three roads west from Jericho into the hill country; one going to Jerusalem, one to Bethel/Beitin, and one farther north. It would be expected that sites such as Jerusalem (see the Amarna letters for discussion of positive and negative relationships with named city states and their leaders much farther north, south, and west than Jericho was) would have an interest in maintaining garrisons and political control at such a key, nearby area. That it could have been further garrisoned by nearby allies such as Bethel would also be reasonable.
5c. Anson Rainey (The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World [Jerusalem: Carta,2006], pp. 77-90) details the picture of the Amarna Age, the same sorts of alliances and city-state control of regions could be found throughout Canaan. Thus, the ruler of Jerusalem (p. 85; El Amarna text 290.2-5, 15-16) complains that the alliance of Gezer, Gath, and Keilah have seized Beth-Horon “a town of the land of Jerusalem.” Beth-Horon is a comparable distance (12 miles to Upper Beth-Horon and perhaps 14 miles to Lower Beth-Horon) northwest of Jerusalem as Jericho is east of Jerusalem (18 miles). There is no basis for stating that Jerusalem could not “maintain a military outpost” as far away as Jericho.
6. I don’t know whether “most military bases throughout history” have included families, nor do I know how to prove or disprove this point. What I do know is that there is an absence of evidence for such a phenomenon at Jericho in the Late Bronze Age. Here Trimm moves to possibilities of his own without presenting evidence.
Thus, 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 narrative’s understanding of these battles. The archaeological and extra-biblical textual evidence do not contradict it. In the case of Deuteronomy and Joshua, the Israelites attacked forts. They did so in order to defend their own existence and, in the cases of Jericho and Ai, to challenge the claims of the kings of Canaan and their armies who claimed the land for themselves and their gods. The Israelites fought and defeated the armies of Canaan and their leaders. They did not commit genocide.
Trimm’s book is worth reading for a good review and summary of the major points at issue. However, I remain persuaded that my understanding as outlined here is both reasonable and an accurate reading of the biblical text of Joshua.
Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages