The majority of modern critical scholarship openly admits the historical inaccuracies and inconsistencies within the Bible.
In my Hebrew Bible class (which I absolutely love!) we are given a question we are to respond to in an essay form. Several weeks ago we were asked this question and below is my response.
– I plan to do an addendum in the future which deals more specifically with the question of how/if God commands genocide. (That addendum can be found here)
Note – in respect to my Professor who is a Jewish Scholar, I do not spell out the Hebrew name for God – Yahweh (YHWH).
Today’s question is “given the differences between the biblical books of Joshua and Judges and historical account of that period, how then do we read Joshua or Judges as sacred scripture?”
This week we read through Joshua and Judges which tell of Israel’s conquest of the land of Canaan under Joshua and Israel’s time in the land until Samuel. Even from the outset, it is clear that the Joshua narrative begins with the Israelite belief that YHWH has given the land of Canaan to the Israelites. As the Israelites cross the Jordan, YHWH miraculously provides a dry path for them to walk across and YHWH divinely intervenes by bringing down the powerful walls of Jericho. Next, Israel defeats the city of Ai and then turns toward the Gibeanites who trick the Israelites into a peace treaty, and finally bring the city of Hazor to complete ruin. Repeatedly, the Joshua narrative describes these conquests as a divine mandate in which the Israelites completely annihilate everyone. Joshua 11 best summarizes this conquest by stating:
“There was not a town that made peace with the Israelites, except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon; all were taken in battle. For it was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts so that they would come against Israel in battle, in order that they might be utterly destroyed, and might receive no mercy, but be exterminated, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.”
What is most interesting about the Canaanite conquest in the Joshua narrative is that the following narrative found in Judges opens by stating, “After the death of Joshua, the Israelites inquired of the Lord, ‘Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?’”
Clearly the Canaanites were not completely wiped out as the Joshua narrative suggests.
Not only are there biblical inconsistencies but there are also historical inaccuracies. First, it is now well known that the Israelite nation grew out of the Canaanite population and were greatly influenced by this culture.
Second, the archeological evidence shows that Jericho, Ai, and Gibeon were all uninhabited during the time the Israelites entered into the land of Canaan around 1200 BCE.
Concerning this one scholar wrote, “…the observation that the historical portrayal of the complete conquest of the land of Israel and the destruction of the Canaanite population is simply not true”.
Should we throw out this narrative since archeological evidence, as well as biblical inconsistences, show it is historically inaccurate?
If we were to throw this out, as some may suggest, I think we would be falsely assuming that truth can only be found when it is conveyed with perfect historical accuracy. I’m not sure the author of Joshua was all that concerned with perfect historical recollection. One historian writes, “The theological messages that the biblical writers sought to convey are so thoroughly intermeshed with their perceptions of history that it is difficult to separate one from the other”. When it comes to the Joshua narrative in particular, and any part of the Hebrew Bible in general, when the narrative does not align with historical and archeological evidence, we should ask what the main theological message of the narrative was – this is key.
One easy way to help uncover what the theological message concerning the specific narrative in question is to find out when and why this narrative was written. Concerning historical narratives Dr. Sweeney writes, “History was not written simply to provide an account of the past; it is written so that both its writers and readers can reflect on and learn from the past in order to build a better future”.
It seems the Joshua narrative was not written primarily to give a perfect historical account of Canaanite conquest, but was written to answer the question, “why are we, as the nation of Israel and the people of YHWH, in exile?”
Much of the Joshua and Judges narratives were written to show YHWH’s fidelity throughout Israel’s history. The people who were living in exile were certainly wrestling with the question of why – something we consistently wrestle with when we endure hardship today. By reflecting upon their history as shown in the Joshua and Judges narratives, Israel was reminded that YHWH was always faithful and that the nation of Israel prospered when they were faithful to YHWH, but were faced with difficult circumstances when they were unfaithful to YHWH.
How then should we as modern readers understand the Joshua and Judges narratives?
We should read these narratives in light of the theological message which include the questions of why and when they were written. If we get hung up on the historic and archeological inconsistencies (or on arguing against archeology and science) it only encourages us to miss the main message which is still applicable today.
The message suggests that if we face difficult situations it is not because of YHWH’s infidelity. YHWH is always faithful.
 Marvin A. Sweeney, Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 179, 193.
 Joshua 1:11, 2:9, 2:14 etc.
 Joshua 3 & 4.
 Joshua 6.
 Joshua 7 & 8.
 Joshua 9 & 10.
 Joshua 11:11-14.
 For Jericho see Joshua 6:21; for Ai see Joshua 8:22-24; for Libnah and Lachish see Joshua 10:32, 35, 37, 40; for Hazor see Joshua 11:11-14.
 Joshua 11:19-20 NRSV.
 Judges 1:1 NRSV.
 Marvin A. Sweeney, Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 182.
 Ibid, 183.
 Ibid, 182.
 Steven L. McKenzie & Stephen R. Haynes, To Each Its Own Meaning (Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 1999), 21.
 Marvin A. Sweeney, Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 172.