Review of the Joshua Delusion

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A book review by Thom Stark


  • Review of The Joshua Delusion (Thom Stark, 2010)

    Review: Douglas S. Earl, The Joshua Delusion? Rethinking Genocide in the Bible. Eugene: Cascade,

    2010. Paperback. 190 pages. $22.00. ISBN 13: 978-1-60899-892-0. Buy this book here.


    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 natureit 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


    Douglas S. Earls 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


    The hyperbolic reading of the Joshua genocides (the first of the aforementioned strategies) is wholly

    untenable for a number of reasons, as I have pointed out in the past. For instance, in Judges 20-21, there is

    a story in which the allied tribes of Israel launch an attack against the Benjamites, another Israelite tribe,

  • because some men from the tribe of Benjamin refused to turn over a handful of criminals to meet justice

    for their rape and murder of the concubine of a Levite man who was passing through their territory. The

    response of the allied Israelite tribes, as instructed and affirmed by Yahweh, was to utterly wipe out the

    tribe of Benjamin for the crimes of a few men. They attacked the Benjamite soldiers, a small number of

    whom escaped from the battle. The Israelites then proceeded to massacre every last woman and child in

    the land of Benjamin.

    The problem for the hyperbolic reading of such slaughters comes with the second half of the story. The

    Israelites decided to show mercy on the tribe of Benjamin, not desiring to blot them out forever. The

    problem they face, however, is that there are only a few hundred remaining men (the soldiers who

    escaped), who no longer have wives and children. Why? Because the slaughters were not exaggerated.

    The Benjamite women and children were literally annihilated, completely. So to solve their little problem,

    the Israelites decide to attack a neighboring town; they slaughter all of the men, women, and children,

    with the exception of a few hundred virgin girls who are captured and forced to become wives to the

    surviving Benjamite soldiers. This is just one example of several to show that a hyperbolic reading is

    wholly untenable.

    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 sees the story of the

    Canaanite prostitute Rahab in chapters 2 and 6, and the story of Achan in chapter 7, as central to the

    message of the book of Joshua. This message is stated most clearly in chapter 5 when Joshua encounters

    an angel who identifies himself as the commander of Yahwehs army. Joshua asks the angel if he is on

    Israels side, or the side of the Canaanites. The angel replies, No. The angel is not on any human side,

    but is on the side of Yahweh.

    This theme is spelled out in the stories of Rahab and Achan. Rahab has three things going against her: she

    is a Canaanite, she is a prostitute, and she is a woman. But because of her faith and loyalty to Yahweh

    (she betrays her own people by helping the Israelite spies to escape, and by not warning the people of

    Jericho about its impending doom), she and her family are integrated into Israel. An outsider comes in. On

    the other hand, Achan, who is a pure-blooded Israelite, disobeys Yahwehs orders and takes some spoil

    from the destruction site of Jericho. Everything in Jericho was to be devoted to destruction, and was

    therefore off limits. But Achan coveted, and as a result, he and his whole family (not to mention his

    animals) were executed by the community on orders coming straight from the top. An insider goes out.

    Earl contends that these three stories are at the heart of Joshua (that is, of chapters 1-12), and that the

    genocides are only the backdrop to these narratives, which is the real point of the book. The point is that

    Yahweh is not on Israels side; rather, Israel is to be on Yahwehs side. It is faithfulness to Yahwehs

    commands, and not ethnicity, that makes one a true Israelite, and it is disobedience, not ethnicity, that

    makes one an outsider, and therefore subject to execution.

    According to Earls reading, therefore, the total destruction of the Canaanites at Jericho is absolutely

    essential to the point of the story. If they didnt kill absolutely every last woman and child in Jericho,

    except for Rahab and her family, then Rahabs survival could have been explained in other ways than as a

    reward for her loyalty to Yahweh. For Earl, the logic of the story depends absolutely on the herem

    (devotion to destruction) of the Canaanites being total, and literal. Earl writes, why should the

  • destruction be so extreme here, and extreme even with regard to herem? Well, if it was not extreme then

    the stories of Rahab (Josh. 2) and of Achan (Josh. 7), whose story the tale of Jericho introduces, would

    not work. If the destruction of Jericho was not total, then Rahab might have got lucky and been one of the

    survivors. She might have lived through good fortune rather than as a result of the oath made (73).

    Thus, if we accept Earls reading of Rahab and Achan as central to the story of the first half of Joshua,

    then the hyperbolic reading of herem is further undermined.

    The claims of hyperbolists like Flannagan and Copan are undermined by Earls reading of Joshua in

    another way. They often attempt to use contradictions in the text in their favor. For instance, populations

    that were said to have been utterly destroyed in Joshua 10-12 are still alive and mounting resistance in the

    latter half of Joshua, as well as in the book of Judges. The hyperbolists say that, since the author wasnt

    stupid, the contradictions indicate that the language of total destruction is not to be taken literally. If it

    says in one part of the book that an entire population was killed, but that population is still alive later on,

    then it is clear that the earlier statement was hyperbolic in nature, not to be taken literally. The earlier

    claims were exaggerated, but the more realistic statements later on are cues to read the earlier claims as


    But Earl argues that the book of Joshua is composite in nature. The first half of the book, chapters 1-12,

    was written by the Deuteronomistic historian,1 but chapters 13-22 were written by the Priestly writer.2

    Chapter 23 returns again to the concerns of the Deuteronomistic historian, and according to Earl, chapter

    24 (the final chapter) represents a more generic summary.

    Once again, hyperbolists will not find a helpful resource in Earl. If Earl is correct that Joshua is two-part

    composite, that sufficiently explains the contradictions between the summaries of military victories. The

    latter half of Joshua does not contradict the former in order to provide a cue to read the earlier statements

    as hyperbolic; they are contradictory because they represent two different sources with two different


    Apologists such as Copan and Flannagan would do well to abandon the hyperbolic strategy, and pay

    attention to Earls presentation of their second thesis: that the material in Joshua is what they call

  • hagiographic, or what Earl calls mythic, in character. Its intent is not to relay historical details; rather,

    these are stories carefully constructed to teach something that is believed to be vital to the faith

    community. In this sense, we might see Joshua, on Earls reading, as something more like one of Jesus

    parables than as a modern, or even an ancient, work of historiography. After all, even the characters in

    Jesus parables were often rooted in historical realities.

    As I stated earlier, I think Earls argument is by far the most sophisticated representation of the

    hagriographic thesis to date, from among this new wave of Joshua apologetics. For that reason, it

    should be taken quite seriously by parties on every side of the Joshua debate. That said, however, it is a

    sophisticated argument which ultimately fails on just about every level. I want to take the time here to

    thoroughly spell out why it fails, and why its failure is very important, because it is a very seductive

    thesis, especially to those (like Copan and Flannagan) who are not properly trained in Hebrew biblical

    studies and in ancient Near Eastern studies more broadly.

    This review will summarize the contents of Earls book, offering some critiques throughout, before

    concluding with a summary of the books strengths, and its fundamental weaknesses.

    Chapter 1: If Jericho was Razed, is our Faith in Vain?

    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 Kenyons 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). I have laid out the

    archaeological evidence somewhat more thoroughly in the sixth chapter of my book.3 The evidence

    shows that much of the geography described in Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua did not yet exist at

    the time of the purported conquest. Rather, it reflects a geographical perspective dating to about the

    seventh century BCE. This is uncontroversial for Earl, since he dates the composition of Joshua to around

    this time anyway.

    But his focus here is to state that if the conquest did not occur as described, our faith is not in vain. It is a

    poor understanding of the word of God that sees its truth-value only in its correspondence or lack

    thereof to historical accuracy. Rather, the truth-value in the word of God lies in the message being

    delivered, not necessarily in the incidentals used to relay the message. This is all well and good. But this

    doesnt solve the problem.

    Some scholars continue to assert that the archaeological evidence supports the historicity of the conquest

    of Canaan.4 If this is the case, then the question posed in the chapters title comes to the fore: If Jericho

    was razed, is our faith in vain? This is the ethical problem.

    He is right to note that even if archaeology were to verify that destruction levels are present in the

    appropriate period, this does not prove that God really commanded the Israelites to commit genocide, nor

    that the book of Joshua rightly interpreted Gods commands, nor that it was even the Israelites who were

  • the perpetrators of the genocides. Nevertheless, if these accounts are historically accurate, that may allay

    the fears of some Christians, but the real problem is the ethics of genocide. Do we want to worship a

    cruel, violent and brutal God, particularly where religiously motivated violence is one of the biggest

    problems facing the contemporary world (4)?

    Earl notes that posing the question this way has led to a new kind of apologetic, namely, that since the

    genocides did not occur historically, then God is off the hook, morally speaking. But Earl rightly notes

    that the problem is not so easily resolved (although, as we will see, his position is ultimately just a slightly

    more nuanced statement of this same apologetic strategy, which isnt able to escape the problem he here

    identifies). How can Christians affirm that a text full of genocide has any theological value? Even if it is a

    made-up story, isnt it an evil one? Hasnt it been used to justify religiously motivated violence for


    To this latter question, Earl answers, no. He argues, and will argue more thoroughly in a forthcoming

    book, that there is no evidence that the Book of Joshua was used to justify the Crusades, or the Conquest

    of the Americas, and so on. I will have to read this book. Essentially what his argument amounts to is that

    Joshua seems never to have been explicitly cited or quoted in these campaigns, but this is only a half-

    truth. It was most certainly alluded to. It is heavily documented that the Christian settlers in North

    America saw themselves as a New Israel, saw the Natives as the Canaanites, and America as the New

    Promised Land. Nevertheless, regardless of the proper answer to this latter question, the former question

    remains. Even if it wasnt used to justify later conquests, genocides, and holy wars, that doesnt resolve

    the problem of the narrative itself being thoroughly morally problematicas even Evangelical scholar

    Christopher J. H. Wright insists in his response chapter at the end of the book (142).

    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. In my book I also used these same passages from Origen and

    Gregory, in addition to John Cassian.5 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

    Christs 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