It Depends On Where You Stop the Story

An Atheist Reads the Bible, Part 6

At the end of the Pentateuch—the first five books of the Bible—we saw two big developments: the creation of a religious dictatorship under the rule of Moses, and the development of the idea of a covenant in which God promises the Hebrews victory over their enemies in exchange for obedience to his laws. The first book after the Pentateuch, the Book of Joshua, follows up on both of these ideas.

It begins in the first chapter by restating them. (Follow along in the King James Version.) First the covenant: “Only be thou strong and very courageous, that thou mayest observe to do according to all the law, which Moses my servant commanded thee: turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayest prosper whithersoever thou goest.” Then the dictatorship: “Whosoever he be that doth rebel against thy commandment, and will not hearken unto thy words in all that thou commandest him, he shall be put to death.”

Those last words are spoken regarding Joshua. This book begins when Moses dies and the dictatorship of the Hebrews passes to him. At least, the civil and military parts of the dictatorship pass to Joshua. The religious part seems to devolve to the Levites, the Hebrew tribe descended from Moses’ brother, Aaron. (There are several passing references in Joshua to Aaron’s son Eleazar and his son Phinehas as the leading priests of the era.) This incipient split between civil and religious authority, which had been combined in Moses, will be significant in later books.

After Joshua takes on the leadership of the Hebrews, he brings them out of the desert to finally claim the land that has been promised to them in Canaan.

Now after the death of Moses the servant of the Lord it came to pass, that the Lord spake unto Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ minister, saying,
Moses my servant is dead; now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, thou, and all this people, unto the land which I do give to them, even to the children of Israel.
Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon, that have I given unto you, as I said unto Moses.

This divine grant is quite expansive: “From the wilderness and this Lebanon even unto the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, and unto the great sea toward the going down of the sun, shall be your coast.” That would mean everything from western Iraq through Syria and Jordan to modern-day Israel on the Mediterranean. The Hebrews would never conquer anywhere near this much territory. But the reference to this as the “land of the Hittites” is significant.

The term “Hittite” in the Bible is a transliteration of a word that means “the people of Heth.” Heth was supposedly a son of Canaan, who was a son of Ham, who was a son of Noah. In an earlier Biblical story, we saw how Ham was rather unfairly condemned to subservience to his brothers—including Shem, the ancestor of the Israelites. That’s what the Table of Nations was supposed to accomplish: backing up the Israelites’ claim to dominion over the Canaanites.

But the Hittites are also one of those points where Biblical legend overlaps with verifiable historical and archaeological evidence. There is some controversy over whether the Biblical Hittites were quite the same as the Hittites who came out of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) to subdue a large Middle Eastern empire. But at about the time of Joshua, around 1200 BC, the Hittite empire in the region was rapidly collapsing, and the Hebrews took advantage of the power vacuum to pick off a collection of Canaanite kingdoms while they were disunited and lacked a powerful overlord or protector.

The only hitch with this plan to seize the lands of the Canaanites is that the Canaanites were already living there. So God instructs Joshua to do what most ancient peoples did when faced with this problem.

And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword….
And they burnt the city with fire, and all that was therein: only the silver and the gold, and the vessels of brass and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the Lord.

This is after the first big battle, the siege of Jericho.

Not quite everybody was killed. Before the siege, Joshua sent spies into Jericho, who were sheltered by a “harlot” in exchange for safe passage for her and her family; “and she dwelleth in Israel even unto this day,” which presumably refers to her descendants. Later on, the inhabitants of Gibeon pretend to be travelers from a distant land and conclude a peace treaty with the Israelites. When Joshua discovers the deception, he does not kill them but makes them “bondmen”: “And Joshua made them that day hewers of wood and drawers of water for the congregation, and for the altar of the Lord, even unto this day, in the place which he should choose.” Note again the phrase “even unto this day.” This is the way the compilers of the Bible explained the continuing presence within Israel of subject peoples.

But the general rule in the Book of Joshua is complete destruction. Here is the conquest of the city of Ai, from Chapter 8:

And so it was, that all that fell that day, both of men and women, were twelve thousand, even all the men of Ai.
For Joshua drew not his hand back, wherewith he stretched out the spear, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai.
Only the cattle and the spoil of that city Israel took for a prey unto themselves, according unto the word of the Lord which he commanded Joshua.
And Joshua burnt Ai, and made it an heap for ever, even a desolation unto this day.
And the king of Ai he hanged on a tree until eventide: and as soon as the sun was down, Joshua commanded that they should take his carcass down from the tree, and cast it at the entering of the gate of the city, and raise thereon a great heap of stones, that remaineth unto this day.

And the people of Makkedah: “And that day Joshua took Makkedah, and smote it with the edge of the sword, and the king thereof he utterly destroyed, them, and all the souls that were therein; he let none remain.” And Libnah: “he smote it with the edge of the sword, and all the souls that were therein; he let none remain in it.” And Lachish and Gezer and Eglon and Hebron and Debir, and so on. “So Joshua smote all the country of the hills, and of the south, and of the vale, and of the springs, and all their kings: he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded.”

The story of the Book of Joshua is the story of the genocide of the Canaanites. This is not merely the excess brutality of an overzealous warlord. It is described as being directly commanded by God, who supports the slaughter with the performance of miracles. For example, the famous incident in Chapter 10 when Joshua commands the sun to stand still in the sky is because he wants extra daylight in which to slaughter his defeated enemies: “And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies.”

The purpose of all of this killing is looting. Here is how Joshua describes it at the end: “And I have given you a land for which ye did not labour, and cities which ye built not, and ye dwell in them; of the vineyards and oliveyards which ye planted not do ye eat.”

Once again, we find that the Bible—at this point, at least—is less of a “good book” full of moral lessons than it is a mere tribal chronicle intended to establish the historical claim of the Hebrews to supremacy over the land of Israel. There is no real effort to show that the religious practices of the Canaanites were sinful, that their behavior was wicked, or that they did something to deserve their fate. The Bible probably could have found such evidence—the ancient world was full of barbaric practices—but it doesn’t even try. Instead, the Canaanites are killed simply for occupying territory that God wanted to give to the Hebrews.

We should acknowledge that what Joshua does in Canaan is not unusual for the time. He was following the normal rules of war in the Bronze Age. Like I said, the ancient world was barbarous. But if the Bible is going to claim to be a source of wisdom and moral authority, shouldn’t we expect it to be better than its times?

If the Bible ended here, it would be a mandate for conquest by primitive religious zealots and the mass murder or subjugation of other ethnic groups. Judaism would be a warlike religion of conquest.

But the Bible, thankfully, does not end here. As Orson Welles once said, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” If we don’t stop the story with Joshua, do we get a happier ending?

In some ways, we do. In pretty short order, the triumphalism of Joshua is going to give way to the messier reality of the Israelites as a beleaguered people hemmed in by rivals and enemies. The conquerers will frequently become the conquered, and this will change the religion of the Israelites in ways we will see later on.

More important for the historical impact of the Bible is that for Christians this tribal history of the Hebrew people is superseded by a New Testament telling the story of Jesus, whose religious views and personal example are more pacifist than warlike.

This is the usual Christian answer when skeptics point to the barbarism of these early books of the Bible. The pattern of the answer goes something like this. The early Jews tried to become holy by following God’s laws and instructions in exchange for worldly dominion, but this whole arrangement fell short. The promise of earthly rewards to one nation of people was just an early form of God’s grace, surpassed and made irrelevant by Christ’s “new covenant” which promises salvation to all men in the next life.

God is not now funneling his redemptive activity through a single nation such as was needed during the time of Old Testament Israel…. [T]he nation of Israel is no longer uniquely designed to exhibit the sole rule of God…. In this New Testament phase of his kingdom, Christ conquers the earth (not just a small territory like Canaan) in saving grace by his Word and Spirit, rather than in military exploit. Thus, in this era, reflecting our Savior before us, believers spread the gospel not by violence but through faithful witness that involves enduring the opposition—and perhaps even violence—of the world.

So it all got retconned in the sequel.

This offers no real comfort to the Jews, of course, and it’s an extremely evasive way of disavowing the Book of Joshua without actually dropping it from the Bible. After all, the Hebrews don’t commit the crimes listed in Joshua because they disobeyed God’s commands. They commit them in obedience to God’s commands.

But this interpretation does raise an interesting question: How do we redeem the past?

Human history is full of barbarism and cruelty—all of it. We all come from primitive origins, filled with error and evil. So what do we rely on as our hope for overcoming the evils of the past?

It’s helpful to look at another example which gives us a very different answer. At about the same time as the events of the Book of Joshua, about a thousand miles to the northwest, a Greek army was laying siege to the city of Troy. When they finally breached the city’s walls, they employed much the same Bronze Age rules as the Israelites: they looted and burned the city, killed all of the men, and enslaved all of the women and children. This story became a favorite topic of their legends and poetry. About six hundred years later, at about the same time the Hebrews were putting these early books of the Old Testament into a standard written form, the Ancient Greeks were writing down the Homeric poems that celebrated the sack of Troy, which were then frequently cited by them as a source of moral and religious authority.

Even at the height of Greek cultural achievement, the same rules applied. In the famous Melian Dialogue, the Greek historian Thucydides describes Athenian threats against the island of Melos in 416 BC. The city was subsequently conquered and its people were given the same treatment as the Trojans. To be sure, there was some growing discomfort with this approach to war. Thucydides presents it as a shockingly amoral exercise in raw power politics, and Euripides’s play The Trojan Women, which was performed the very next year, is regarded as a contemporary commentary on the cruelty of Athenian policy. Yet the Bronze Age rules would persist for some time.

It would be easy to say that the genocide of the Canaanites requires us to renounce the entire legacy of the Bible. But if so, would Troy, Melos, Carthage, and a hundred other examples require us to renounce the legacy of the Classical world?

Of course not, because the Greek legacy also includes the discovery of science, history, and medicine, their invaluable contributions to the foundation every one of the arts and sciences, and above all their discovery of philosophy, which allows us to bring rational thought to bear on precisely this kind of moral and metaphysical question. It is only on the basis of the Greek achievement that we could rise to a higher level of civilization and begin to regard the old rules as barbarous. Even the word “barbarous” is borrowed from the Greeks, because they were the first to provide a solid basis for distinguishing the enlightened from the primitive.

Once again, if you want a happy ending, it depends on where you stop the story. If we don’t stop the story with the siege of Melos and other ancient cruelties, we can carry it forward through the Renaissance and Enlightenment and up to the modern day and see how Greek achievements in science, philosophy, and politics helped redeem the barbarous past and create a more civilized future.

The real difference between the Biblical tradition and the Classical tradition is not the level of their historical barbarism. It is the means they offer for moving beyond that past. It is the path they offer for human salvation.

In the Christian reinterpretation of the Book of Joshua, the past is redeemed only through divine agency. Humans do not really become less sinful and barbarous, but they can gain forgiveness for their sins and escape pain and cruelty in the afterlife, through the supernatural intercession of Jesus.

The Greek legacy, by contrast, is redeemed through the actions of man: the discovery of the knowledge and ideas that raise us above barbarism. This redemption happens on earth, in a measurable, observable way—nor is it merely a speculative possibility. We can see it actualized in the extraordinary improvements in human life and the declines in poverty, ignorance, cruelty, and violence since the Enlightenment. We can point to this historical record and conclude that we don’t need to be saved by Jesus, because we can learn how to save ourselves.

I’ll leave it to you to decide which is the more benevolent and hopeful alternative.

In terms of understanding the Bible, however, we are getting way ahead of ourselves. At the end of the Book of Joshua, the Israelites are still exulting in their triumphs and dividing the spoils, and their religion is at its most chauvinist and unreformed. To borrow an idea from the Greeks, this is their moment of hubris, and they are about to start paying for it.

To what extent are they humbled by this, and what impact it does it have on their religion? That is what we will learn when we continue the story.

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