NOTE: This book is an attempt to rationalize the atrocities committed or commanded by God in the Old Testament for the New Testament Christian. The early Orthodox Church Fathers had a similar approach when dealing with passages that seemed irreconcilable with the Christian Faith and Orthodox Theology. The mosaics used in this article are from the 5th century and found in the Nave of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome.
Recently there has been a new wave of biblical apologetics that seeks to defend the account of the Canaanite conquest and genocides depicted in the Book of Joshua in one or both of two ways:
(1) The language of total destruction, which depicts the wholesale slaughter of men, women and children, is a common motif in ancient Near Eastern war literature and is hyperbolic in nature—it is not meant to be taken literally. The accounts are exaggerated, and we should not read into them literal historical claims that women and children were in fact slaughtered.
(2) The book of Joshua is hagiographic in nature, which means that its intention was not to recount literal history so much as to make a moral point using the literary devices of warfare literature in order to encourage a certain type of orthodox religious behavior among the faith community who gathers to hear the book as sacred scripture. Both of these strategies have been taken up by Evangelical biblical scholar Richard Hess as well as by Christian apologists specializing in philosophy of religion such as Nicholas Wolterstorff, Paul Copan, and Matt Flannagan.
Douglas S. Earl’s new book, The Joshua Delusion? Rethinking Genocide in the Bible, should be seen within the context of this new wave. It is by far the most sophisticated attempt to defend the biblical narratives along these lines, as it should be since Earl wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Book of Joshua.
The hyperbolic reading of the Joshua genocides (the first of the aforementioned strategies) is wholly untenable for a number of reasons…Proponents of the hyperbolic reading will find no help from Douglas Earl. Earl argues that the book of Joshua is not about genocide; rather, it is a myth written to challenge the assumption of Israelites that their favor with Yahweh was owed to their ethnicity as descendants of Abraham.
Earl begins his first chapter with a statement of the historical problem of the Canaanite conquest: If Jericho was not razed, is our faith in vain? Earl points out that the majority of biblical scholars have concluded based on the archaeological evidence that a conquest of Canaan such as that depicted in the book of Joshua could not have occurred historically. He does not go into many of the details of the archaeological record, citing primarily Kathleen Kenyon’s excavation at Jericho, which concluded that no destruction took place anywhere near the time the conquest of Canaan is purported to have occurred (by either the conservative or critical dating of the emergence of Israel in Canaan). But his focus here is to state that if the conquest did not occur as described, our faith is not in vain.
Earl then proceeds to show that some early Christian theologians saw these texts to be morally problematic, and therefore opted for non-literal, metaphorical or allegorical readings. He quotes from both Origen and Gregory of Nyssa in this respect.
Origen explicitly states that the genocidal nature of the conquest narratives make it “impossible” to interpret the text literally. He opts instead to read them as allegories for Christ’s conquest of the soul. The Canaanites become symbols of the internal vices that Christians must overcome as Christ makes his conquest within us. Other interpreters did similar things, reading the conquest of Canaan as a metaphor for the Christian mission to the Gentiles. Gregory of Nyssa takes the same approach to the tenth plague of Egypt, the slaughter of the first-born sons. Gregory rightly contends that such a slaughter, if taken literally, would be morally intolerable. He therefore interprets the killing of the first-born as the Christian’s killing of personal vices early, before they can blossom into serious sins.
For Earl, Origen and Gregory show that morally problematic texts serve as “cues to the reader of the text to seek the significance of the text in a ‘spiritual sense’”. He rightly notes that the reading strategy of Origen and Gregory stand in counter-distinction to that of Marcion, who insisted on a literal reading of the conquest narratives.
He summarizes: “The Church Fathers suggest to us that historical and ethical difficulties in a narrative might be indicators to us that we misread an Old Testament text if we read it primarily in terms of historical or ethical description via the ‘plain sense’ of the text. The Fathers mapped out a whole other way of reading the texts in a theologically faithful scheme, but a scheme that is perhaps unconvincing in a number of its details today. One could, therefore, reject the scheme, or one could ask if whether the fact the instincts of the Church Fathers were basically correct in moving towards reading some texts ‘non-literally,’ but in a non-literal sense that needs to be constructed and understood in another way today.”
Earl insists that the proper way to understand Joshua is as a myth. By “myth,” of course, Earl does not mean, “something that is not true.” The question of whether the text is historically true or not is irrelevant to its categorization as “myth.” He uses myth in the anthropological sense of a narrative that is used to bring a sense of coherency to a community.
Earl urges us to understand Joshua as such a “myth” that was composed in order to shape the identity of Israel, but the question of Joshua’s historicity is irrelevant, according to Earl, to understanding what the book of Joshua was trying to say and do. All of this leads Earl to conclude that “the historical and ethical difficulties [in the Book of Joshua] point us not necessarily to an allegorical or spiritual sense of a text, but rather to a symbolic sense that has theological and spiritual implications”
The 28 page review can be read below: