The Joshua Delusion

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.

My thanks to Wipf and Stock Publishers for kindly sending me a review copy of The Joshua Delusion? What follows is a brief critical review. I apologize for the brevity, but my webhost has arbitrarily imposed a 15GB limit on all book reviews for this website.


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, 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 Yahweh’s army. Joshua asks the angel if he is on Israel’s 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 Yahweh’s 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 Israel’s side; rather, Israel is to be on Yahweh’s side. It is faithfulness to Yahweh’s 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 Earl’s reading, therefore, the total destruction of the Canaanites at Jericho is absolutely essential to the point of the story. If they didn’t kill absolutely every last woman and child in Jericho, except for Rahab and her family, then Rahab’s 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 Earl’s 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 Earl’s 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 wasn’t 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 hyperbolic.

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 agendas.

Apologists such as Copan and Flannagan would do well to abandon the “hyperbolic” strategy, and pay attention to Earl’s 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 Earl’s 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 Earl’s 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 Earl’s book, offering some critiques throughout, before concluding with a summary of the book’s 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 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). 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 doesn’t 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 chapter’s 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 God’s 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 isn’t 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, isn’t it an evil one? Hasn’t it been used to justify religiously motivated violence for centuries?

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 wasn’t used to justify later conquests, genocides, and holy wars, that doesn’t resolve the problem of the narrative itself being thoroughly morally problematic—as 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 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.

But Earl does not, as I do, locate these moves within a broader Hellenistic tradition of allegorical apologetics that began with certain Greek intellectuals who used allegory as an apologetic for the capricious behavior of the gods in the Homeric epics. This strategy was picked up by Hellenistic Jewish thinkers such as Philo, who used allegory to make the Mosaic laws more palatable to refined Greco-Roman sensibilities, and then again in the early Christian book, the Shepherd of Hermas, which did the same. 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’” (8). He rightly notes that the reading strategy of Origen and Gregory stand in counterdistinction to that of Marcion, who insisted on a literal reading of the conquest narratives. But Earl never sufficiently identifies the problematic nature of the allegorical readings. He does not identify them in their broader context of Hellenistic apologetics; rather he seems to regard them as more or less legitimate moves, even if he does ultimately want a reading that is somewhat more “fitting” to the text’s original voice than the allegorical readings were concerned to provide. He wants to argue that the “traditional Christian ways of reading Scripture [such as those of Origen and Gregory] can be reworked for our own context” (14). 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. (15)

This is essentially what he sets out to do with the rest of his book, and chapter 2 lays the groundwork for his approach.

Chapter 2: “On Wearing Good Glasses: The Importance of Interpretation”

Earl begins by noting that the Bible in general, and Joshua in particular, is a narrative

that “seeks” to shape the existence and life of a community in response to the manifestation and discernment of a gracious God. The biblical narratives are constructed so as to function in drawing people and communities into closer relationship with God and ever more faithful response to him. (16-17)

It is of course very true that Joshua is a text which seeks to shape a community in ways that are considered faithful, but the portrait painted here by Earl is very rosy, and very naïve, particularly when it comes to Joshua, as I will show later. The Bible is a corpus written predominantly by the elite, ruling classes, and while it certainly seeks to shape the community in ways that are considered faithful, the question of what the writers considered to be “faithful” and of how and why they sought to shape the populace to conform to their ideas of faithfulness is of paramount importance, and it is a question that Earl never addresses. But for now we’ll let his statement stand.

For Earl, because Joshua is a narrative that seeks to shape a community, that says something important about how Joshua is to be read. In short, it is to be read as a text that is seeking to shape a community, not as a text that is necessarily seeking to be a precise record of history for posterity’s sake. And, according to Earl, since Christians gather around the text to be shaped by it, then the proper reading posture for the Christian community is to look to the text to be shaped by it (17). (This would preclude, therefore, critical readings of the text.) But in order for Christians to be able to achieve that proper reading posture, then we must learn to come to the text on its “own terms,” in other words, we have to understand something about the genre of Joshua, and how it was intended to function in the life of the community. In order to help us get there, Earl introduces us to some anthropological models.

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. In this sense, Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy are mythical figures in the American myth, even though they are historical figures. Their story is a “myth” because it is a story that brings definition to the identity of a nation, and to the hundreds of millions of individuals’ lives that comprise the nation. So a myth can be historical or unhistorical—that is largely irrelevant. To call a story a myth is not to make a statement about its historicity but about the role that story plays in shaping the identity of a community. Moreover, “myths are narratives that are often set in ‘prototypical’ times –i.e., in times that are foundational to the life of a community” (20). When a narrative is set in such a time, it “confers authority and importance on the kind of identity that the narrative seeks to construct, for it implies that such identity is foundational to and inherent in the community’s existence” (20).

So, 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” (21).

Earl then points out that anthropologists have examined myths from different angles, predominantly two: (1) political/ideological, and (2) psychological. The psychological approach to myths focus on the “desire” that is latent in the narrative, and Earl argues that the latent desire in Joshua is not a desire for genocide or destruction, but rather a desire for “rest.” He points to Josh 1:13, 15; 21:44; 22:4 and 23:1.

In these important summary statements it is “rest” that God promises, and, in psychological perspective, rest is what Israel desires. The promise and desire is thus for peace and not war, and so Joshua might then be seen fundamentally about achieving peace and rest rather than being about warfare. (22)

I’ll take a moment to point out that while “rest” is certainly presented in the text as the goal of conquest, this is hardly exceptional in terms of the history of genocidal propaganda. Not even the most ardent jingoist claims that everlasting war is the desired end. All warfare is justified by some nobler endgame, and “peace” and “rest” are among the most frequently cited. The Nazis sought “rest” from the “scourge” of the “Jewish malaise.” All victims of genocide are portrayed by their killers as threats to peace and security. So to state that the Book of Joshua is about rest rather than warfare is both naïve and irrelevant. The problem is not that Israelites sought peace; the problem is how they sought to achieve it, at least as portrayed in Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua.

Earl proceeds to highlight the way that symbols function in myths, and distinguishes between two senses of a symbol, the surface-level, “first-order” sense of the symbol, and the figurative, non-literal, “second-order” sense (23). He identifies Rahab as one such symbol. In the first-order sense, she is just a Canaanite prostitute. But her real significance, in a second-order sense, is that she is a symbol of the “outsider.” He then points out that the “promised land” would in later times come to be a symbol of eschatological rest (paradigmatically in the book of Hebrews). But this says nothing about the original symbolic meaning of the land. Earl identifies the original symbolic meaning as living in right-relationship with Yahweh. So to enter the land is to enter into the covenant with Yahweh, and to be expelled from the land is a literal-symbolic representation of the underlying reality that right-relationship with Yahweh has been severed.

This becomes important for Earl in the following way: myths are meant to be appropriated according to their second-order sense, but they are easily read only in a flat, literal, first-order sense. Earl contends that the genocides become problematic when the text is read in the first-order sense, but attention to the second-order sense reveals a valuable “word” that can be appropriated by the community of faith unapologetically. “The question to ask is not then that of whether a text such as Joshua provides an accurate historical description of past events, but rather of whether it provides a faithful and fitting invitation to a world that encourages fuller and more transparent participation with life in God” (27).

Earl recognizes the immediate problem here: “But how then, one naturally asks, can a text that has as its world a world of genocide and destruction in any way invite one to a fuller relationship with a loving and compassionate God” (17)? On the way to answering this question, Earl makes a stop by the anthropological work of Victor Turner. Turner notes that myths are typically amoral, or even immoral. He writes:

The myth does not describe what ought to be done . . . Liminal symbolism [that is, symbolism associated with ambiguous phases of transition or the bridging of differing categories such as human/divine], both in its ritual and mythic expressions, abounds in direct or figurative transgressions of the moral codes that hold good in secular life, such as human sacrifice, human flesh eating, and incestuous unions of brother-sister or mother-son deities or their human representatives. . . . Myths and liminal rites are not to be treated as models for secular behavior. Nor, on the other hand, are they to be regarded as cautionary tales, as negative models which should not be followed . . . Liminality is pure potency, where anything can happen, where immoderacy is normal, even normative, and where the elements of culture and society are released from their customary configurations and recombined in bizarre and terrifying imagery. Yet this boundlessness is restricted . . . by the knowledge that this is a unique situation and by a definition of the situation which states that the rites and myths must be told in a prescribed order and in a symbolic rather than a literal form. (quoted in 27-28)

Earl applies Turner’s insight about the role that myths play in sacred rites and rituals to the text of Joshua. “Its significance should not be understood in terms of a description of the ethics and practice of ancient warfare, or as a ‘model’ to follow and ‘act out’ in daily life” (29). In the same way that Joshua isn’t concerned with history at face value, it isn’t concerned with ethics at face value, according to Earl. The main point Earl wants us to take home here is that the genocidal narratives were not written to encourage Israelites (who heard these stories much later than they are set) to commit genocide. Rather, according to Earl, herem (devotion of a city to total destruction) functions symbolically in the narrative. Rahab and Achan are symbols of the outsider-turned-insider and the insider-turned-outsider, as Earl will argue more fully in the next two chapters, and herem, as Earl will argue, is a symbol of the “divine encounter.” When Rahab and Achan encounter herem, how they respond to it determines their location vis-à-vis the congregation of Israel. Rahab responds to the threat of herem by choosing to be loyal to Yahweh, and she becomes an insider. Achan responds to the command of herem (not to take spoil) by disregarding it, and thus becomes an “outsider” and is himself (along with his family and animals) subjected to herem, by being executed.

Earl next takes us on a tour of another anthropological approach, namely, neo-structuralism. Neo-structuralism is concerned to identify the way that myths distinguish between outsiders and insiders, unclean and clean. Rahab and Achan function within the myth to challenge received assumptions about insider/outsider structure, and to show the reader how those lines really ought to be drawn, namely, not according to ethnicity, but according to faithfulness to Yahweh’s demands.

Earl then briefly discusses how Rahab became an important symbol in later Christian reflection, because she was a sort of prototypical convert to faith. Whereas in most of Israelite religion and Judaism, insider/outsider status was relatively fixed, in Christianity, all such barriers were broken down, thus the Book of Joshua, and Rahab in particular, took on new significance when the myth was read from a later Christian perspective. Earl contends, however, that originally, the author of the Book of Joshua was trying to move away from the paradigm which stated that conversion was impossible (as represented by the book of Ezra, for example).

A key move Earl then makes with regard to herem is to contend that herem serves a literary function that is required to make the story work. He argues that the author could not have made the point he (yes, he) wished to make with Rahab and Achan without herem as a plot device (38-39). Earl’s argument here, however, is extremely problematic. While he is correct that the stories of Rahab and Achan depend upon herem for their intelligibility, that says nothing about the countless other instances of herem that permeate the book of Joshua. The reality is that herem is there because it is meant to be there; herem is how Yahweh determined to give the land of Canaan to the Israelites, and according to the Deuteronomistic historian (also the author of Joshua 1-12 according to Earl), the herem was necessary for two reasons: to protect the spiritual and religious purity of the people of Israel from the “scourge” of the “Canaanite malaise,” and to punish the Canaanites for their depravity. Earl contends that in the book of Joshua itself, the punishment motivation for the genocides is never mentioned. He rightly notes that in chapters 10-12, the conquest is justified by reference to the aggression of the Canaanite kings. But the conquest began solely because Yahweh had promised the land to the Israelites; the Canaanites were not aggressive until Israel began a campaign of surprise attacks, leveling one Canaanite city after another.

Moreover, the Book of Joshua very clearly has Deuteronomy 7 and 20 in the background, both of which identify the motivations for herem as punishment of the Canaanites and protection of Israelite spiritual purity. This is clear because those texts forbid the Israelites from making covenants with the inhabitants of Canaan, but permits them to make covenants with people who live outside the borders of the land Yahweh is giving to Israel. But in Joshua 9, the Gibeonites secure a covenant with Israel by lying to Joshua about where they’re from. This story would make no sense if Deuteronomy 7 and 20 were not already presupposed. Thus, it is untenable to claim, as Earl does, that punishment is not also presupposed as a motivation for the herem in Joshua.

For that reason, Earl’s broader argument that herem only serves a literary function in Joshua to make Rahab and Achan work as symbols must be deemed to be a failure. Nevertheless, Earl insists: “what I am suggesting is not simply that Joshua needs to be understood in a more symbolic or metaphorical sense over time, but rather that it was always to be understood in a symbolic way, with this being related to its function as discourse. This is simply to clarify Joshua’s genre” (45). Later I will show in greater detail why this argument fails. For now suffice it to say that this is what Earl contends—the genre of Joshua is not one of literal history, but of symbolic myth, and for that reason we miss the point when we condemn it on ethical grounds.

Chapter 3: “Clearing the Ground: Understanding Joshua as an Ancient Text”

Earl ultimately wants to find a way to use Joshua as Christian scripture. This is his agenda. A faithful Christian reading of Joshua will go beyond its original intent, as new contexts bring new questions to the text. But before we can read Joshua as Christian scripture, Earl rightly contends, we must seek to understand what it originally sought to achieve as discourse (46). This means, according to Earl, that reading Joshua as history is the wrong way to begin if we are going to come up with faithful readings in a Christian context. Rather, we must recognize its genre as myth. Earl begins this third chapter by demarcating the two sources that comprise the now unified book of Joshua. I have already detailed how he does this above. Chapters 1-12 are the product of Dtr, chapters 13-22 are the product of P, chapter 23 is again Dtr, and 24 is something more ambiguous and general. I will just note here that although Earl marshals some good evidence for this thesis, it is highly controversial. Many scholars, indeed, see a lot of material in Joshua that predates Dtr (late seventh century BCE) in terms of composition, but the majority of critical scholars see the whole book as primarily of deuteronomistic composition.

Martin Noth, in his seminal volume, The Deuteronomistic History, was the first to defend this thesis at considerable length, and he soundly refuted many of the arguments against the book’s essential unity. That said, and as I said, Earl’s argument has a degree of plausibility to it, although it is not without its weaknesses. One of those weaknesses is rather important. As I noted in a footnote earlier, Earl seems to think that the P material antedates the Dtr material, but he identifies a reference to herem in Josh 22:20 (the P section) as a “reference back to Achan’s story” (54), which is in the Dtr section. If P antedates Dtr, it is difficult to see how it can make a reference to a story from the Dtr material. However, this doesn’t undermine Earl’s two-source thesis so much as his assumption that P antedates Dtr, unless he supposes that Josh 22:20 is an interpolation by Dtr, but he doesn’t say so.

He is however very successful in displaying that there is solid evidence in the text for continual revisions, which Earl notes is a testament to Joshua’s status as a “living text,” much, I might add, like the Book of Daniel was, with its composite nature (chapters 2-6; chapters 7-12) and the many additions to the book that are preserved in the deuterocanonical scriptures. Joshua’s status as a “living text” speaks to Earl to its genre as myth (50).

Next, Earl raises the question of whether Joshua should properly be termed a “conquest account” and seeks to answer this question by comparing it to some ancient Near Eastern parallels. He compares Joshua, specifically, to the Assyrian Annals of Tiglath-Pileser I and to the Assyrian king Sargon’s Letter to God. He notes the work of Evangelical scholar K. Lawson Younger, who compared Joshua 9-12 to these and other ancient conquest accounts. Though Earl does not quote him, Younger’s study concluded that “the historical narrative in which Josh 9-12 is cast utilizes a common transmission code observable in numerous ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts, employing the same ideology.” According to Younger, “the ideology which lies behind the text of Joshua is one like that underlying other ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts—namely, imperialistic.”6

But Earl complains that Younger’s study only covers chapters 9-12 of Joshua, while chapters 2-8 of Joshua contain “stories that have no parallel elsewhere in other conquest accounts” (52). He notes that the book gives “a good deal of space” to these stories, and that they have “little to do with bloodshed” (52). Another point Earl makes against reading Joshua within the genre of ancient conquest accounts is that “other conquest accounts are generally told using the first person, to bolster the image of the conquering king – ‘I conquered . . .’ Again, we do not have this in Joshua, suggesting that Joshua serves an altogether different purpose” (52). Earl concludes “that there are crucial differences that would suggest that Joshua does not, in fact, share this genre of ‘conquest account’” (52).

But Earl’s conclusion is problematic for a number of reasons. First, Earl’s presentation of ancient conquest accounts is extremely selective. While it is true that many conquest accounts are written from the first person perspective of the conquering king, many others are told from the first person perspective of the deity, and are done so precisely to emphasize that it is the deity who conquers, and not his or her human agents. Other war literature is written, as is Joshua, in the third person, and often it is describing not the exploits of the human warriors or the king, but the exploits of the deity who fights on behalf of his or her people. So this is a spurious move on Earl’s part.

As Sa-Moon Kang, Lori Rowlett, and numerous other scholars of ancient Near Eastern war literature have shown, virtually all ancient Near Eastern warfare was cast in the literature in terms of divine warfare. All victories were the victories of the deities, and often times a defeated enemy is described as trusting in their own strength, which explains their failure in battle. This is precisely what we see in Joshua.

Another related point to be made here is that in examples Earl cites, the accounts are official royal records that were written within the lifetimes of the kings whose exploits they described. In the case of Joshua, however, the events being depicted are in the primitive past, which explains why they are not written in the first person. In the biblical corpus, many of the Psalms were written in the first person from the perspective of the king, describing his exploits, although most of them were not actually written by the king himself. So Earl is making distinctions where they ought not apply.

Second, to say that Joshua is not a conquest account because it contains elements that other extant conquest accounts do not contain is rather pedantic. That’s like saying Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is not a science-fiction novel because in it, Arthur Dent does not discover that the answer to “life, the universe, and everything” is 42. That is not to deny that Joshua is a type of myth, but it is certainly a myth that combines the genres of ancient conquest, midrash, and etiology. It is national origin myth cast as a conquest account that functions as propaganda to “inspire” obedience to the deuteronomistic law code—but now we are getting ahead of ourselves and I’m tipping my hand.

In the final section of this third chapter, Earl seeks to understand the term herem as it is used variously throughout the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East. Earl identifies what he thinks are three separate conceptions of herem in the Hebrew Bible, a priestly conception, a deuteronomistic conception, and a prophetic one. The priestly conception of herem refers to anything that is set apart as holy to God, for sacrificial purposes or otherwise. The deuteronomistic herem refers to the idea of separation from idolatry, and the object that comes under herem is unclean. He also notes that this conception refers solely to events in the past. The prophetic conception of herem refers to the eschatological annihilation of the enemies of God, and is therefore projected into the future. Outside of the Hebrew Bible, the deuteronomistic conception of herem as an object or people devoted to destruction is paralleled in the Mesha Inscription, in which King Mesha of Moab is instructed by his god Kemosh to devote to destruction an Israelite city, killing all of the men, women, and children.

But Earl draws far too sharp a distinction between these three conceptions of herem. He wants to insist that the deuteronomistic is relegated to the past, and that the prophetic is relegated to the eschatological future, in order to underline that herem was never intended to be a prescribed ethic in the present. This serves his thesis that it is largely symbolic. But herem warfare was frequently the reality of warfare in the ancient world, even if it was not always called by that name. In order to dissociate the priestly from the deuteronomistic conceptions, Earl rejects the idea that herem referred to the devotion of a city to the deity in a sacrificial manner, but it is clear that in its earliest use, this was in fact the case. There was an exchange in which Yahweh gave victory in battle to the Israelites and in turn the Israelites offered all of the non-combatants to Yahweh as a sacrificial offering as payment for his aid in battle. This has been argued persuasively by Susan Niditch in her monograph, War in the Hebrew Bible, of which Earl makes no mention. Thus, the priestly and the deuteronomistic conceptions of herem are not so unrelated as Earl would like them to be.

Earl claims that “there is very little mention of herem in the Pentateuch . . . in the context of warfare and conquest. It is only in Deuteronomy that we find much reference to herem” (60). He argues that Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy each have a different idea about how the land of Canaan will be given to Israel. In Exodus 23:23, it is said that the inhabitants of Canaan will “vanish.” In Leviticus 18:25, 28, it is said that they will be “vomited out.” Only in Deuteronomy, Earl contends, is herem warfare envisioned. He writes that “three different traditions in the Pentateuch provide three different portraits or interpretations of how space will be made available in the promised land for Israel. This would again suggest caution in seeing herem as reflecting a historical description of Israel’s entrance to the land” (60). Earl is stretching very hard to make his case here. Certainly he doesn’t think that the authors of these portions of Exodus and Leviticus literally believed that the Canaanites would simply “vanish,” or that they would literally be “vomited out” by the land! These are clearly metaphors for the obvious: the Canaanites are going to be wiped out.

As noted, originally Earl stated that there is “very little” mention of herem in the Pentateuch. In his summary Earl makes this a stronger claim, stating that it appears only in Deuteronomy 7, but this claim is false. It also occurs in the book of Numbers, which is not deuteronomistic:

Then Israel made a vow to Yahweh and said, “If you will indeed give this people into our hands, then we will utterly destroy [herem] their towns.” Yahweh listened to the voice of Israel, and handed over the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed [herem] them and their towns; so the place was called Hormah. (Num 21:2-3)

Note also that the town they destroyed was renamed “Hormah” which is derivative of the herem root, and means “destruction.” So herem used in this sense is certainly not unique to the Deuteronomistic historian, and this undermines his contention that it only functions in a symbolic way.

Earl’s contention that herem is only ever used in reference to the distant past or the distant future is also fallacious, since it is used in 1 Samuel 15 when Saul is given instructions to apply herem to the Amalekites. Moreover, as noted, this kind of warfare was common, whether it went by the descriptive term herem or not. For instance, David practiced herem style warfare, as seen in 1 Sam 27:9, although the term was not used in that instance.

Essentially all of the arguments regarding herem that Earl makes in this chapter are designed to support his thesis that it is to be understood figuratively or symbolically, rather than literally. He offers one more, which also fails to persuade:

in Deuteronomy 7:1-5 there are problems with understanding the herem command in 7:1-2 as something literally commanded that was to be fulfilled or practiced “literally.” Deut 7:2-3 prohibits Israel’s making of covenants with the locals and intermarriage with locals. But if the locals were destroyed as per 7:2, there would be no need for this command – corpses do not provide temptations to intermarry! This might suggest then that herem has a more “rhetorical” symbolic sense in Deuteronomy 7:1-2, at least in the way that the text is to be applied or enacted. (60-61)

We’re seeing more and more of Earl the Apologist here. He doesn’t actually display Deuteronomy 7:1-5. If he did, it would undermine his claim quite patently:

When Yahweh your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you—and when Yahweh your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy [herem] them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of Yahweh would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. But this is how you must deal with them: break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire.

According to Earl, the prohibition of making covenants with the people of the land is an indication that the prescription to kill them all should not be taken literally. After all, if they’re all dead, how could they make a covenant with them! This argument is bordering on ridiculous, to be frank. Note that right after the text says, “make no covenant with them” it says, “show them no mercy.” To make a covenant with them would be to show them mercy. The opposite of showing them mercy is to kill them. What the text is doing is holding up herem and covenant-making as alternatives. If they didn’t kill everybody, then they would have made a covenant of peace with them. They are not to do this; rather, they are to kill everybody.

Earl never mentions Deuteronomy 20. There a distinction is made between the people of the land of Canaan and those outside the borders allotted to Israel by Yahweh. Those inside the borders are to be utterly destroyed and no covenant is to be made with them. Conversely, Israel is permitted to make covenants of peace with the people outside the allotted borders. Earl keeps stretching to make a case for a figurative understanding of herem, and he keeps failing.

(On a side note with regard to the prohibition of peace treaties with the Canaanites in Deuteronomy 7, it is noteworthy that Josh 11:18 seems to indicate that peace treaties were in fact offered to the Canaanites, even if only to make the point that the Canaanites refused to make any peace treaties because, as verse 20 states, Yahweh hardened their hearts to prevent them from doing so, so that Yahweh could accomplish his purpose of giving the land to Israel.)7

Chapter 4: Reading Joshua

In this chapter Earl proceeds to read through the entire book of Joshua, offering an extended reading of the text. He begins by pointing out again that his objective is to “read Joshua in a fitting way so as to consider the kind of way in which it would have been heard as discourse written to achieve something” (64). In other words, Earl wants to let Joshua speak in its own voice and wants to attempt to understand what the authors were attempting to accomplish in composing the narrative the way they did. But as I will show later, Earl never actually does this.

Earl begins in Joshua chapter 1 with Joshua’s commission. Here the land of Canaan is promised to Israel as a gift, and Joshua is affirmed as Moses’ successor; God is now with Joshua just as he was with Moses. Earl then notes that in 1:6-9 “there is an exhortation to be strong and courageous.” But, Earl contends,

it is interesting that this is not strength and courage in warfare in the ordinary sense – rather, it is courage and strength in obeying the Law of Moses. Language taken from the military domain has been taken and reapplied to paint a picture of the nature of obedient responsiveness to God. (66)

For Earl this is significant because it underlines his theme that Joshua is not about warfare; rather, it is about what it means to have right relationship with Yahweh through observance of the law. But in fact the majority of critical scholars see the reference to Torah observance in this passage to be a later interpolation. Let’s look at the text:

Be strong and courageous; for you shall put this people in possession of the land that I swore to their ancestors to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful. I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for Yahweh your God is with you wherever you go.

Most critical scholars who deal with this text believe that the portion in italics above is a later addition to the text, because it does not fit the broader context of the passage, which is certainly a commission to warfare. The military terminology used throughout (which Earl notes) makes this clear. For a full argument in this regard, and for the relevant scholarship, see Lori L. Rowlett, Joshua and the Rhetoric of Violence, 137-141. Joshua could hardly meditate on the law day and night if he is to be spending the days and nights ahead in battle! The exhortation to Torah observance is very foreign to the context. Earl does not note the scholarly discussion here.

The main lines of Earl’s reading of the first seven chapters of Joshua we have already noted above. Rahab is the symbol of the outsider, and Achan is the symbol of the insider. The narrative functions to incite a surprising role reversal. Rahab offers her hesed (covenant loyalty) to Yahweh, over against her own people, and Achan betrays his own people by disobeying Yahweh’s command.

In chapters 3-4, the Israelites cross the Jordan into the promised land, and the land is symbolic of right relationship with Yahweh. In chapter 5, Israel prepares to take the land from the Canaanites, and this involves covenant rites such as the circumcision of all the males. Also in this chapter, Joshua encounters the angelic commander of Yahweh’s army, and learns that the angel is neither on the side of Israel nor of the Canaanites, but on Yahweh’s side. Thus, Yahweh’s people are not defined by ethnicity, but by their obedience to the demands of the covenant.

In chapter 6 we come to the conclusion of the Rahab story (begun in chapter 2) and the destruction of Jericho. Here Earl insists that herem warfare in this narrative functions solely as a device to make the stories of Rahab and Achan work. The herem is only “extreme” here because their stories require it to be. But this is not a persuasive argument at all. Earl is of course correct that their stories require herem to be in effect, but herem was not invented just to serve their stories. Herem continues throughout Joshua long after the stories of Rahab and Achan are concluded, and it began long before, in Deuteronomy, and even in Numbers, as we have seen. Moreover, this was just the nature of warfare in the ancient world. Women and children were not always killed, but they were frequently and routinely killed, by invading armies.

Turning to chapter 7, Earl argues that Achan was killed because of his disobedience, and not because herem was contagious. This is a dubious argument indeed. It is true that Achan was killed because of his disobedience, but his disobedience involved bringing the herem contagion into the camp. As a result of Achan’s sin, Israel lost their next battle because Yahweh’s anger was “burning against Israel” on account of Achan. In other words, Achan contaminated the camp when he brought the spoil from Jericho into it; the spoil was supposed to be devoted to destruction and when it came into contact with the camp, it brought Yahweh’s wrath against all of Israel. The camp was infected with the forbidden spoil.

Earl contends that the herem was not a contagion, but simply that Achan’s sin was disobedience to the covenant. “Achan thus symbolizes the non-Israelite as one who disregards Yahweh” (75). But Earl’s reading is belied by the text itself. Achan was not just punished for his disobedience. Let’s look at what the text really says. After Achan was found out and he confessed his sin, he told Joshua that the herem objects were hidden under his tent.

So Joshua sent messengers, and they ran to the tent; and there it was, hidden in his tent with the silver underneath. They took them out of the tent and brought them to Joshua and all the Israelites; and they spread them out before Yahweh. Then Joshua and all Israel with him took Achan son of Zerah, with the silver, the mantle, and the bar of gold, with his sons and daughters, with his oxen, donkeys, and sheep, and his tent and all that he had; and they brought them up to the Valley of Achor. Joshua said, “Why did you bring trouble on us? Yahweh is bringing trouble on you today.” And all Israel stoned him to death; they burned them with fire, cast stones on them, and raised over him a great heap of stones that remains to this day. Then Yahweh turned from his burning anger. Therefore that place to this day is called the Valley of Achor. (Josh 7:22-26)

The nature of the reaction of Joshua and the rest of the camp makes it clear that the herem objects are seen as a contagion. Everything they touch becomes herem as well. “Why did you bring trouble on us?” Achan’s name, as Earl rightly notes, is a play on the word achar, which means “trouble.” So too with the Valley of Achor—trouble. Not just Achan, the troublemaker, but his entire family, his livestock, his tent, and all of his material possessions are stoned, destroyed by fire, and then covered up with a pile of stones for good measure. This is because they were contaminated by their proximity to the herem objects. Again, Earl attempts to evade the obvious in order to make his case that Joshua is essentially about covenant loyalty. For Earl, Achan’s sin is not bringing the contagion into the camp, but his disobedience to the covenant. Earl claims that “it is disobedience to Yahweh that is the contagion, and not herem” (76). But Earl makes it an either/or when it is not.

Yes, Achan’s sin was disobedience, but, significantly, the herem objects were also contagions. Achan, his family, his livestock, and all his material possessions had to be destroyed, not because Achan was disobedient to the covenant generally speaking, but because his disobedience entailed exposure to the contagion. Otherwise, there would be no need to burn his tent and his daughter’s underwear and bury the ashes thereof under a pile of rubble. The herem objects were a contagion because they were Canaanite wares. By bringing it into his tent, Achan had made himself and his family a Canaanite family, and by bringing into the camp, he had threatened to make Israel as the Canaanites to Yahweh. There is certainly symbolism here, but there is also a great deal of standard ancient superstition. After all, Deuteronomy 7 and 20 did warn them that the Canaanites were contaminated.

Earl then contends that Achan’s family is only killed in order “to make the contrast complete”—that is, the contrast between Achan and Rahab (76). Rahab’s family is spared along with her, and Achan’s family is killed along with him. But this is tenuous. We have already noted that it was not only Achan and his family who were killed, but also his animals; additionally, all of his material possessions were destroyed. They were killed and destroyed because the herem objects were a contagion, not in order to make the contrast complete. Moreover, Rahab’s family was spared not for any symbolic reason, but because Rahab asked the spies to swear on oath that she and her family would be spared when Israel returned to destroy Jericho. It would be the natural thing for her to insist upon. She may have been a traitor to her own people, but she wasn’t so bad as to allow her own kin to perish, too.

This is not to deny that Rahab and Achan function as symbols in the narrative, but just to insist that we not press the symbolism further than the text actually allows.

In chapter 8, Israel, now free of contamination, fights another battle and wins. Earl notes that in this next battle, Israel is permitted to take spoils, although the humans are still to be utterly destroyed. Earl thinks that this indicates that the more “extreme” herem at Jericho must be a literary device. Rather, the point is that the spoil was contaminated because it was put under the herem. If the spoil is not put under the herem according to the command of Yahweh, that is tantamount to declaring it “clean.”

Earl devotes several pages to chapter 9 and the story of the Gibeonites. The Gibeonites secure a peace treaty with Israel by trickery. They told Joshua that they lived outside the borders, when in fact they lived inside the borders. Joshua only learns of this after he had made the treaty with them, and was therefore locked in. Earl gives too much attention to this story. He makes no mention of the fact that it is simply an etiology that functions to explain why the Gibeonites (who were still around at the time the story was composed) were not wiped out. They in fact functioned as a tribe of slaves, serving the Israelites. So the etiology is also probably intended to provide a justification of sorts for the Gibeonites’ status as slaves.

Moving onto chapters 10-11, Earl writes that in these “most developed ‘battle accounts’ in Joshua, the conquest proceeds as a defensive reaction against military aggression” (80). That is certainly the way the text portrays the events, but Earl offers no critique of this perspective. I have done so in my book.8 Claims of “defensive wars” in the text reek of apologetic justification. Israel is the aggressor here. They are commissioned to take the entire land of Canaan from all of its inhabitants, and they were ordered to do so whether the Canaanite kings fought back or not. If we’re to take these accounts at face value, the Canaanite kings are only responding to Israelite aggression. Israel’s first battles are surprise attacks, and they were moving throughout the land attacking one city after another. It would only be appropriate for the other Canaanite cities to be worried and to mount counter-attacks in response. Earl wants the aggression of the Canaanite kings to count as evidence that Joshua is not about genocide, but while it may be true that Joshua is not “about” genocide, that certainly isn’t because some of the battles are (deceptively) portrayed as defensive.

Earl then notes that some of the miraculous elements to the battle stories, such as Yahweh dropping large rocks on Israel’s enemies from the heavens, are common motifs in ancient warfare literature. He rightly discourages us from being concerned with trying to defend the miraculous elements as historical, or trying to explain such elements with recourse to natural phenomena (such as rockslides). But he goes too far: “what we have is an exciting and gripping way of telling a good story, a story told using standard motifs” (80). Earl can’t escape being the apologist here, demythologizing the text. In reality, ancient peoples commonly interpreted natural phenomena as divine aid in combat, from sudden storms to, yes, rockslides. These phenomena are of course exaggerated, but we cannot evade the reality that ancient peoples believed such phenomena were the actions of divine beings.

Earl attempts to argue that the aggression of the Canaanite kings is another indicator that herem functions symbolically in the text. He claims that “when confronted with herem” the Canaanite kings show themselves to be “outsiders” by reacting with aggression (82). Earl is again stretching to make his symbolic reading of herem fit the text, like a square peg in a round hole. Obviously the Canaanite kings were outsiders. Israel was ordered to annihilate them long before they got aggressive, long before they were even aware of Israel’s existence. Certainly Earl is not suggesting that the Canaanite kings could have become Rahabs! Rahab was the exception proving the rule, and she only escaped destruction because by happenstance the spies came to her and she chose to help them. No other Israelite ambassadors were sent to anyone else in Canaan. And as noted, although Josh 11:18 seems to imply that peace treaties were offered to these kings, Yahweh prevented them from making peace, by hardening the kings’ hearts, in order to give the land to Israel.

Concluding the first deuteronomistic portion of Joshua with chapter 12, Earl claims that the list of defeated kings “serves to make Joshua look rather like a ‘conquest account,’ although as we have seen, it is far from a conquest account with there being rather little space given to the details of warfare” (82). But I have already responded to this tenuous argument above.

Earl concludes his reading of chapters 1-12 with a summary:

Although the story is set in the context of conquest, it is not really about conquest. Conquest is the backdrop for stories that make one think carefully about the construction of the identity of the community of those who worship Yahweh. (82)

This is true enough, but Earl ultimately misses the point here, as I will argue later on. Earl concludes by reiterating his approach to Joshua as myth, via the description of myth he learned from Victor Turner: “myths do not provide description of or models for behaviour, at least not at the literal or descriptive level of the text taken at face value” (83).

He further claims that these “are not literal descriptive reports that are designed to tell us about the nature of God or of Israel’s early existence” (83). But to this claim I object emphatically. Whatever is going on behind the text in terms of the historical context in which the text was composed and the historical and ideological motivations for the composition of the text, the text seeks to speak to the people of God about the kind of punishments and rewards that are commensurate with disobedience and obedience to God’s commands. If Achan’s disobedience to the covenant (coveting) results in his execution by Joshua (the leader) and the whole community, that tells us something about God and how God responds to disobedience to the covenant, even if the execution is only symbolic. But as I will show later, the execution is certainly not merely symbolic, contrary to Earl’s claim that it is.

In the next section, Earl discusses what he identifies as the priestly portion of Joshua, chapters 13-22. I will not summarize his discussion here. I will only point out that Earl argues that (as contrasted with Joshua 10-12 which portrays the conquest as thoroughly complete) the portrayal of the conquest as incomplete in this portion of Joshua “allows for the text to have a direct relevance to the ongoing daily life of Israel” (86).

Moving on to chapters 23-24, we have come back to what Earl identifies as the deuteronomistic material in chapter 23, and a “more general” section in 24. Earl argues that in 23 Israel’s role in the conquest transitions to one that is “entirely passive . . . from now on” (93). In order to substantiate this claim, Earl points to Josh 23:5: “Yahweh your God will push them back before you, and drive them out of your sight; and you shall possess their land, as Yahweh your God promised you.” Earl contends that there “is no reference to herem here” (93). But this is an untenable interpretation of Josh 23:5. To say that Yahweh will drive them out is not to say that no warfare is in view. Rather, it is the standard language of divine warfare in the ancient Near East. Yahweh does the fighting for Israel. Throughout the book of Joshua, this is in fact the way that the battles are frequently portrayed. In 6:2, Yahweh “hands Jericho over” to Joshua. In 8:1, Yahweh “hands over the king of Ai and his people, his city, and his land” to Joshua, but the Israelites are still required to fight. Does Earl suppose that in 23:5 the “driving out” envisioned is miraculous in nature? Israel’s role certainly continues to be in view here and can hardly be construed as “entirely passive.”

Earl then notes that in 23:16, Israel is warned that if they transgress the covenant, they too will be driven from the land. But most scholars recognize this warning as a later addition to the text. Frank Moore Cross argued that there are two stages to the deuteronomistic history, which he labels Dtr1 and Dtr2 respectively. Dtr1 was written during the reign of the Judean king Josiah in the late seventh century (this was the consensus view already). But Cross argues that a second redactional layer was added by someone within the deuteronomistic school during the Babylonian exile. Dtr1 was triumphalist and saw Josiah as the ideal Davidic king who would usher in peace and prosperity to Judea. But Dtr2 was writing after those hopes had been dashed, and amended the text in order to explain why Israel had been “punished” by being brought into captivity in Babylon.9 Dtr2 sought to explain Israel’s plight in Babylon by reference to failures on Israel’s part to conform to the covenant codes as defined by the Josianic reforms. Thus references like this one here in Josh 23:16 to being “driven from the land” on account of covenant disloyalty were added to explain why the everlasting Davidic dynasty had been dethroned (see also Deut 4:25-31; 9; 29:21-27, among numerous others).

Earl attempts to argue that Joshua is not concerned to justify the conquest but is “about something different” (93) because the issue of Canaanite idolatry is not raised in the book. But this is belied, as I have already noted, by the fact that Joshua presupposes texts like Deuteronomy 7.

Earl then contends that chapter 24 comes from a different source than 23. Again his argument here is tenuous. He argues that there are notable differences between the emphases in 24 and 23, but doesn’t really provide any. He states that the emphasis on “choosing Yahweh” in chapter 24, as opposed to choosing other gods, is different from chapter 23, but this is hardly clear. I see nothing in his argument to persuade me that chapters 23 and 24 come from different sources, with of course the exception of the insertions by Dtr2 in both chapters (e.g., 23:16; 24:20)—but Earl makes no mention of Dtr2.

Earl concludes the chapter by reiterating his thesis that Joshua is not about genocide, but is rather about Israel’s identity. It is not about violence, but faithfulness (98). This contention is problematic for a number of reasons. On one level, the propaganda literature of all perpetrators of genocide is not “about genocide.” Genocide is always justified by reference to cleansing the land of the negative influence, and is championed in the name of faithfulness to this or that ideology. Joshua is no different in this respect from the Nazi propaganda materials that avoided portrayals of the violence and focused instead on anecdotes and stories of heroic individuals who were symbols of what it meant to be a “true German.”

On another level, as I will spell out later, the violence that pervades the Book of Joshua functions as a psychological deterrent to the community who hears the narrative. Just because the violence is often in the background of the narrative does not mean that it isn’t one of the central characters.

Chapter 5: “Reading Joshua as Christian Scripture” and Chapter 6: “So What?”

In his final two chapters Earl seeks to display how a reading of Joshua in a Christian context might proceed. I will not provide a thorough summary of the discussion here, but I will cover a few of the salient points and offer some criticisms.

Earl begins by stating that for any reading of Joshua to be “fitting” it must be grounded in Joshua’s “own voice” (105). Before a Christian reading can proceed, the interpreter must first answer the question, “What are the concerns of this text and what was it composed to achieve in the kinds of context[s] in which it would have been heard and used ‘originally’” (100)? As I have stated and will show, Earl never in fact does this. But he has contended that the answer to that question is that Joshua was written to challenge common assumptions about Jewish identity and to iterate that authentic Jewish identity is centered on faithfulness to the covenant, rather than ethnicity. He contends that genocide and violence are “elements that were never the real concern of the text” (107).

It is easy to predict where Earl’s Christian reading proceeds thence. Rahab, the symbol of the outsider-turned-insider becomes in a Christian context a model of faith and a paradigm of conversion. Earl covers the interpretation of Joshua in early Christian tradition, and discusses how we might take the traditional readings forward into our own context. He contends that our readings of Joshua must be restrained by canonical parameters, that it is fitting to read it alongside the Gospels (wherein Rahab is another symbol akin to the Syro-Phoenician [that is, Canaanite] woman who demonstrated great faith to Jesus). A reading of Joshua in a Christian context will discern a message of “openness to ‘the other’” (121). Earl argues that we should not see Joshua as speaking of Rahab’s conversion, so much as speaking of Israel’s conversion to a new point of view vis-à-vis those outside the traditional identity boundaries.

Here also is where the title of the book comes into play. Earl contends, alluding to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, that if there is a “Joshua delusion” it is the delusion that God is on the side of ethnic Israel, and that is a delusion that is exposed in Joshua 5:13-15, where Joshua encounters the angelic commander of Yahweh’s armies, who corrects Joshua’s delusion by calling Joshua to be on Yahweh’s side, rather than assuming that Yahweh is on the side of Israel.

Earl contends that Joshua does not seek to make any sort of statement about the legitimacy of certain kinds of warfare, such as ambushes, and genocide. He says these are cases of a “narrative level theme that serves the interests of the story (here, I think by making the story a more interesting and exciting story) rather than being a source of ethics or history” (125). But this is misleading. The reality is that such war tactics just reflect the reality of warfare (in both the ancient and modern worlds). It is true that Joshua is not concerned to legitimate what we would consider to be questionable battle strategies (such as ambushes), but to suggest that Joshua is not so concerned means that Joshua might disapprove of such strategies is disingenuous. Joshua is not concerned to speak to the ethics of such practices because for the authors of Joshua their legitimacy was taken for granted (125).

Earl then responds to those who argue that we must disabuse ourselves of the use of combat metaphors for spiritual realities. Here he simply asserts that such metaphors are perfectly appropriate (125). He seems to understand why their appropriateness could be called into question, but he offers no reasons in support of his claim that they should continue to be used.

In the final chapter he recognizes that the problem of warfare in general, and genocidal warfare in particular, extends beyond the book of Joshua to the broader biblical corpus. So he seeks to offer a quick apologetic for various other problematic texts.

He looks at 1 Samuel 15 in which Saul is ordered by Yahweh to apply herem to the Amalekites, utterly wiping out every man, woman and child. He contends that genocide is not the real issue here; rather, the narrative functions to show that Saul was not faithful to Yahweh’s command. Saul did kill everyone, according to the narrative, but he failed to kill the king of Amalek, and he failed to kill their livestock. He took the livestock as booty, and kept the king alive in order to lead him on a standard ancient humiliation parade. Earl concludes that “herem does not reflect ‘what happened’ but is functioning symbolically and mythically to make another point, i.e., testing faithful responsiveness to God in obedience, something that is made clear in the story itself (15:22)” (129).

There are several problems with Earl’s conclusion here. First, he fails to note that the appearance of herem here undermines his earlier claim that herem was only ever distant primordial past or distant eschatological future. Second, he fails accurately to characterize the nature of this account. It is pro-Davidic propaganda. Earl is correct that the text is largely fictional, although it was most certainly rooted in the record of a historic battle. But the text was not written as a “myth” in anything like the sense that Joshua or Genesis is a myth. It was propaganda literature, and would have been written not long after the events themselves took place.10 It is part of a much larger body of pro-Davidic propaganda in the book of Samuel that was written in order to legitimate David’s ascension to the throne rather than the ascension of one of Saul’s own sons (many of whom were conveniently killed right after Saul’s death). Saul was killed in battle, coincidentally a battle in which David was also involved, fighting for the other side. At the end of that battle, David is already in possession of Saul’s armor. The pro-Davidic apologist had his hands full explaining problems like this, and the story of Saul’s slaughter of the Amalekites is one strategy employed to legitimize David’s rise to power. The propagandistic nature of this material is problematic in and of itself, genocide notwithstanding.

Earl next “discusses” 1 Sam 27:9, where David and his men are killing women and children in skirmishes, with Yahweh’s support. The only move Earl makes here is to reference a recent (2009) work by John Van Seters who argues that “these narratives are in fact designed to cast David’s actions in a negative light” (130). Thus, Earl makes quick work of that problematic passage. But he never tells us what Van Seters’s argument consists of. The fact is, however, that in these portions of the book of Samuel, David is portrayed in a very positive light, as a national hero. David’s herem-like slaughters are not at all portrayed in a negative light, but these accounts are part of a broader body of apologetic material that seeks to salvage David’s reputation in light of the fact that he had gone over to fight for the Philistines.11

Perhaps sensing that his apologetic readings of these problematic texts are not going well, Earl concludes: “It may turn out that some narratives in the Old Testament remain deeply problematic. But it surely makes things look rather different in our contemporary situation to see that what is arguably the ‘main’ problematic narrative – Joshua – does not function in a way that is often assumed today, and that the same can be said for other narratives such as 1 Samuel 15” (131). For my part I cannot bring myself to see this as anything other than a feeble attempt to avoid the real problems, even if we were to concede that Earl’s readings of Joshua and 1 Samuel 15 are on target, which I certainly do not.

Indeed, not even conservative Evangelical scholar Christopher J. H. Wright was convinced by Earl’s argument. In his response chapter at the end of the book, Wright insists that although Joshua is obviously not merely a conquest account, it most certainly is at least that (142). Furthermore, while Wright values “the importance Earl gives to the balancing stories of Rahab and Achan,” he struggles “to agree that the intervening story of Jericho is merely a narrative feature which is there to make the wider story ‘work’” (143).

Wright makes several other critiques of Earl’s work, some of which I think are apposite, others of which are just what we would expect from an inerrantist scholar quibbling over the use of terms like “myth” in reference to biblical material. Nevertheless, it is quite ironic that I found myself agreeing with Wright over against Earl on a few significant points, since I devoted 50 pages in my recent book to refuting Wright’s apologetic maneuvering around the biblical genocides.

What Earl Gets Right

Before I go on to offer some concluding critiques of Earl’s book I want to pause to highlight some of the things I think he did well and got right. I don’t want my thoroughgoing disagreement with Earl’s thesis, and with most of the arguments he makes in support of his thesis, to be taken as indicators that I do not think Earl’s book is valuable. I think it is actually quite admirable for a number of reasons, and although Earl the Apologist does make a number of appearances throughout the book, I think that for the most part Earl takes a solid scholarly approach to the material, albeit an approach that is full of holes, much like his bibliography. Although ultimately Earl’s thesis is dangerously naïve, one might say that his “heart” is in the right place.

First, Earl’s book is very accessible. He successfully distills a lot of important scholarly material in a palatable way, and does a fine job of making complex anthropological categories intelligible to an initiate audience.

Second, Earl is right to insist that we not try to locate the meaning of Joshua on the surface of the text. The tiresome attempts of conservative Evangelical apologists to contend for the “historicity” of Joshua rightly, and adequately, comes under Earl’s attack. He is right to identify Joshua as “mythic” in character, although he unfortunately shrinks back from making a confident statement that this particular myth also happens to be essentially fictional. He is right to argue that there is more going on in the text than a surface-level, “historical” reading of the text is concerned to find. But of course, Earl ultimately, and tragically, fails to identify what it is that is really going on beneath the surface of the text. (More on that in the next section.)

Third, and finally, he is quite right to insist that before a proper and fitting Christian appropriation of Joshua can proceed, we must first attempt to understand Joshua in its own voice. This was also the argument I made in my recent book, and the way that I have characterized it (though not explicitly in my book) is that the biblical texts must be read in their own voice first before they can become scripture for the faith community. To the extent that Earl encourages Christian communities to seek to hear Joshua in its own voice before proceeding to appropriate it as scripture, he is doing us all a great service. This is, I think, the greatest strength of the book.

Why Earl’s Argument Fails

Tragically, the greatest strength of Earl’s book is also its greatest and most fundamental weakness. Because while Earl insists that we must seek to understand why Joshua was composed, and what its composers were trying to achieve with the narrative, at the same time Earl thoroughly fails to do this. By that I do not just mean that his argument about the underlying meaning of the narrative fails (although for the most part it does); I mean that not once in the entire book does Earl entertain any kind of discussion of the historical and political context in which Joshua was composed. Earl rightly identifies Joshua 1-12 and 23 as part of the deuteronomistic corpus, but he never identifies who the deuteronomistic historian is, what his historical context was, why he was writing and what he was trying to achieve.

The fatal problem here is that once we identify the deuteronomistic historian and locate his historical context and political agenda, Earl’s reading of Joshua falls to pieces. Earl ultimately fails to do what he insists we must do—to hear Joshua in its own voice, as a product of a specific time and place for a specific agenda.

This would not have been difficult to do, and in fact it has been done by many a scholar. There is a broad consensus among critical scholars that the deuteronomistic corpus is a production of a historian who crafted an overarching narrative in order to support the sweeping political and religious reforms of the Judean king Josiah in the late seventh century BCE. In broad strokes, John J. Collins summarizes the gist of the Josianic reforms:

Josiah’s reform was, among other things, an assertion of national identity. Judah was emerging from the shadow of Assyria, and laying claim to sovereignty over the ancient territory of Israel. The assertion of identity entails differentiation from others, especially from those who are close but different. The ferocity of Deuteronomic rhetoric toward the Canaanites may be due in part to the fact that Israelites were Canaanites to begin with. Moreover, Josiah promoted a purist view of Yahwism that tolerated the worship of no other deities. The Canaanites were perceived as a threat to the purity of Israelite religion.12

The reforms were somewhat more complicated than that, however. We have to understand them against the background of the transition of Israelite religion from polytheistic to monotheistic in roughly this period.  Asherah, for instance,  a female goddess, was for a long time worshiped in Israel as Yahweh’s consort (wife). This was acceptable orthodoxy for a time.13 The deuteronomistic polemic against Asherah worship reflects a novel shift in Israelite religion.

Moreover, in ancient religion, a god was often worshiped in different regions as a “local manifestation.” So there isn’t just one Yahweh, but a Yahweh of Samaria (the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel)14 and a Yahweh of Teman,15 and of course a Yahweh of Jerusalem. But during the Josianic period, these local manifestations were polemicized as false or foreign deities, with the exception of course of the one who resided in Jerusalem.

Also, there is the issue of Baal worship. Baal was a Canaanite deity, but it is clear that in Israelite religion there was significant overlap between Baal and Yahweh.16 The divine name “Baal” in fact was just a generic word meaning “lord,” and so many Israelites, in worshiping Baal, saw themselves as worshiping Yahweh. It’s just that they used the word “baal” to describe Yahweh as “lord.” This is evident, for instance, in the name of one of David’s mighty men: Baaliah, meaning, “Yahweh is Baal.” It can also be seen in one of King Saul’s sons. His name was Ishbaal. His name simply meant, “man of the lord.” By naming his son Ishbaal, Saul did not intend to honor a deity other than Yahweh. But the prophet Hosea in the eighth century polemicized Baal worship and identified him as a foreign god, and the deuteronomistic historian about a century later did the same thing. So in the deuteronomistic history (Samuel and Kings), Ishbaal’s name is changed to Ishboshet. Ishboshet means “man of shame.” Obviously Saul did not name his son “man of shame.” This was the deuteronomistic historian’s way of sticking it to Saul, who was a bad guy in his book (pun intended).

What this means is that all the high places of worship devoted to Baal, or to regional manifestations of Yahweh, were attacked by the deuteronomistic historian as high places devoted to the worship of foreign gods. But in reality, Israelites were just worshiping Yahweh according to the old traditions.

This brings us to another central feature of the Josianic reforms. Josiah instigated a massive campaign to tear down all of the high places of worship and all of the local altars in order to centralize worship in Jerusalem. In other words, Josiah outlawed worshiping Yahweh outside of the temple complex. With the exception of a short-lived attempt to centralize worship in this way by King Hezekiah in the previous century, the idea of centralization was novel, and extremely controversial. In fact, it was so controversial that when Hezekiah attempted to do it, an Assyrian ambassador came to Israel and rallied the Israelites against Hezekiah by arguing that Yahweh was angered with Israel because Hezekiah had torn down all of the places of worship. This made a great deal of sense to the average Israelite, but didn’t make the religious and political elites in Jerusalem very happy. The ambassador in fact delivered his message in the common tongue of the Judean people (he was very well educated), rather than in the language spoken by the Jerusalem elites. The elites had to insist that he stop speaking in a language the people could understand (and one they weren’t very good at themselves).

Anyway, Josiah instituted this centralization reform, and there were obvious reasons for doing so. For one thing, he was trying to consolidate power because of mounting tensions between the two great empires to the north and south of Judea. Secondly, the financial benefits to the elites were tremendous. If people were no longer allowed to sacrifice to Yahweh in their own backyards, but had to come to Jerusalem, purchase their animals there and have them sacrificed by the temple regime, well, that meant a significant increase in revenue.

But this reform was so controversial, and cut so deeply against the grain of traditional Israelite religion, that Josiah had to come up with a good reason for the people to comply. He had essentially outlawed their traditional religion. Imagine if all of a sudden Barack Obama tried to outlaw paying tithes to local churches, and demanded that all tithes be paid to the U.S. treasury. That would incite revolution, and this is essentially what Josiah was doing. So how did he accomplish this?

Well, 2 Kings 22 tells us how. The story goes that the High Priest in Jerusalem, Hilkiah by name, was overseeing some renovations to the temple. During the renovations, a scroll was “found” stuck in a wall in the temple. The scroll consisted of a set of legal codes that purported to be from the time of Moses. Hilkiah took it to Josiah and he read it and tore his clothes in mourning. They wanted to confirm that the scroll was authentic. At that time, carbon dating hadn’t been perfected yet, so they took it to the next best thing: a prophet. Apparently Jeremiah wasn’t available, so they took it to a prophetess named Huldah, and she “confirmed” for the king and high priest that the scroll was in fact authentic.

And of course, the content of the scroll coincided perfectly with the sweeping reforms Josiah instituted. Of course, the Book of Kings portrays the reforms as being instituted in response to the discovery of the lost book of legal codes, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the scroll was actually composed by the elites in order to legitimate the reforms they already had in mind, the reforms that just so happened to consolidate political power and centralize worship in Jerusalem, thus giving the elites unprecedented control over Israelite religion and increasing their revenue exponentially.

Scholars identify this “found” scroll as comprising much of the legal material in the book of Deuteronomy. (Hence the name “deuteronomistic historian.”) One of the things the scroll said was that after Israel had settled, all sacrificial worship was to be centralized in the capital city. No altars are to be erected outside the temple in Jerusalem. (See Deuteronomy 12-14.)

We are meant to believe that this scroll was somehow lost in the wall of the temple and that explains why nobody ever knew that erecting high places was a breach of the Mosaic law. But we know that this is a deception, because David knew nothing of this rule. David erected sacrificial altars in a number of places outside of Jerusalem, and never got in trouble for it. So did Samuel. Remember that the temple wasn’t built until after David’s death, so the scroll couldn’t have been lost when David was in power in Jerusalem; there was no temple wall yet in existence in which to lose it.

On a number of points, the reforms of Josiah corresponded to the content of this “lost” (but obviously forged) scroll. The forging of ancient legal materials in order to legitimize new policy is actually something that occurred in a number of places throughout the ancient Near East. The comparative evidence confirms to us that this is something that did happen. And why shouldn’t it? In the ancient world, the general populace was illiterate. Only the elites knew how to read and write. So essentially, whatever they read to the populace was pretty much gospel, so to speak.

So, armed with a forged Mosaic law code and a battalion of sword-wielding enforcers, Josiah set off across the country side tearing down all the local sacrificial altars and slaughtering all of the local religious leaders, as well as anyone who opposed “God’s Word.”

He [Josiah] slaughtered on the altars all the priests of the high places who were there, and burned human bones on them. (2 Kgs 23:30)

This is the background against which we must understand the Book of Joshua.

John Collins writes that “the violence of Joshua toward the Canaanites was meant to provide a model for the violence of Josiah toward those who deviated from strict Yahwism,”17 as defined (we ought to add) by Hilkiah’s and Josiah’s new scroll.

In her monograph for the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series, entitled Joshua and the Rhetoric of Violence, Lori L. Rowlett argues precisely this. In the Book of Joshua, the character of Joshua functions as the ideal leader, and is meant to be read as a type of Josiah.18 Just as Joshua purges the land of the scourge of heretical worship, Josiah now purges the land of the high places of worship, outlawed under the new policy. Just as Joshua shows no mercy to those who contaminate the land with their outlaw religion, Josiah shows no mercy.

Just as Joshua learned (in chapter 5) that Yahweh is not on the side of Israel, but rather that Israel must be on Yahweh’s side through obedience to the covenant, Josiah “discovers” a scroll that tells him the very same thing: Israelite identity had been ill-conceived and must now be reoriented around obedience to the deuteronomistic covenant.

In this same way, we see how the stories of Rahab and Achan function as Josianic propaganda. They are not an object lesson about inclusiveness. They are meant to show the reader that they cannot be secure in their old assumptions about what it means to be a faithful Israelite. Faithfulness is obedience to Yahweh (as defined by the new scroll). Thus, Rahab’s betrayal of her own people is depicted as faithfulness to Yahweh, and this encourages average Judeans to turn in any offenders—it is not a betrayal of your neighbors to do so; it would be a betrayal of Yahweh not to do so. In Josiah’s world, the new Canaanites were the traditional Israelites. In the same way, Achan, ostensibly an Israelite, is revealed to be a Canaanite. He and his family are contaminated with Canaanite wares. The narrative tells the Judeans that the proper response to infractions of the new law is for the community to execute offenders, just as Joshua/Josiah model as the ideal leaders.

Therefore, contrary to Earl’s claim that the violence in Joshua is only incidental, that the book is not actually about herem and destruction, just cursory attention to the world behind the text shows us that the violence is a central character in the story. The violence functions as a threat to those Israelites who would persist in the traditional patterns of religion over against the new policy instituted by the elites in Jerusalem.

Rowlett shows how much of the language and descriptions of violence in the Book of Joshua is taken from notorious Assyrian warfare practices, practices with which the average Israelite was very familiar. For instance, in Joshua 10, Joshua executes five Canaanite kings and hangs their corpses from trees on public display. This was an Assyrian practice that was used to incite terror in their enemies. Thus, the Book of Joshua uses the most terrifying images of violence available in order to terrify the Judean populace into obedience. As the ideal leader after the model of Joshua, Josiah was to be seen as a ruthless and merciless enemy to those who commit infractions against the new law. But in that way, Josiah is to be seen as the ideal king who does the will of Yahweh completely. Thus it is said of Joshua:

As Yahweh had commanded his servant Moses, so Moses commanded Joshua, and so Joshua did; he left nothing undone of all that Yahweh had commanded Moses. (Josh 11:15)

Similarly, it is said of Josiah:

Before him there was no king like him, who turned to Yahweh with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him. (2 Kgs 23:25)

In fact, it is only with respect to Joshua and Josiah that the deuteronomistic historian ever uses the phrase “not to turn aside to the right or to the left” from the law of Moses (cf. Josh 1:7; 23:6; 2 Kgs 22:2).

Thus, the Israelites say to Joshua at the opening of the book, “Whoever rebels against your orders and disobeys your words, whatever you command, shall be put to death” (Josh 1:18). Earl is right to insist that there is much more going on beneath the surface of the text of Joshua. Here is a warning to the populace in Josiah’s day: if you rebel against Josiah’s new law, you will be executed. In short, the violence and the herem in the Book of Joshua are not incidental to the story. They are there to incite terror in the hearts of the seventh century Judean populace.

This is what the book of Joshua was trying to achieve as discourse. By ignoring the actual historical context behind the composition of the Book of Joshua, Earl failed to allow the book to speak in its “own voice,” which is the very thing he set out to do. For this reason, among others, it is with regret that I must deem Earl’s thesis to be a failure. He is correct that the Book of Joshua was written with the purpose of shaping a faith community, but his inattention to the historical background behind the composition of Joshua allowed him to claim naïvely that the Book of Joshua sought to shape the faith community in the direction of inclusiveness. To the contrary, the Book of Joshua was composed as propaganda for a violent reform which sought to eradicate religious diversity in Judea and Israel, all for the sake of power and money.

I agree with Earl that before Joshua can be appropriated as Christian scripture, it must be heard on its own terms. But I emphatically disagree with Earl about what Joshua is saying when we hear it in its original voice. And for that reason, my proposal for how Joshua ought to be appropriated as Christian scripture is radically different from that of Earl. I do believe that it can and should be used as scripture by Christians, and I detail how I think that ought to be done in the final chapter of my book, The Human Faces of God. In brief my proposal can be put this way: What was the Joshua delusion? The Joshua delusion was really the Josiah delusion, but the Josiah delusion is really a very human delusion. It is the delusion that we have answers, and that those answers are worth demonizing and killing for.

  1. The Deuteronomistic historian (Dtr) is typically dated to the time of King Josiah in the late seventh century BCE. [BACK]
  2. Most date the Priestly writer (P) to the Babylonian exile, chronologically after Dtr, but Earl seems to think P preceded Dtr. He identifies the first half of Joshua as a “deuteronomistic addition to the otherwise priestly Joshua” (85), indicating that Dtr was adding to a body of work already composed by P. Ultimately, for Earl’s argument at least, which writer wrote first is largely irrelevant, but Earl’s is certainly a controversial assumption. [BACK]
  3. Thom Stark, The Human Faces of God, 141-44, and the literature cited therein. [BACK]
  4. Though they are in the minority, and even if they can salvage the possibility of the potential historicity of one or two accounts, the vast majority of the accounts cannot be salvaged by the data. Earl never ultimately comes down on one side or the other, because to him the question is largely irrelevant. Though this is problematic for his thesis if indeed it could be said that the accounts are historical. [BACK]
  5. Stark, The Human Faces of God, 32-35, 138-40. [BACK]
  6. Younger, Ancient Conquest Accounts, 255. [BACK]
  7. I discuss this in Stark, The Human Faces of God, 111-13. Earl also notes this interesting tidbit on pp. 81-82. [BACK]
  8. Stark, The Human Faces of God, 111-13. [BACK]
  9. Most critical scholars have been persuaded by Cross here. For a concise defense of this thesis, see the essay by Cross’s student Richard Elliott Friedman, “From Egypt to Egypt: Dtr1 and Dtr2” in Traditions in Transformation: Turning Points in Biblical Faith, edited by Baruch Halpern and Jon D. Levenson, 167-92. [BACK]
  10. On the temporal proximity of these pro-Davidic propaganda accounts to their historical referents, see P. Kyle McCarter, “The Apology of David,” JBL 99/4 (1980) 489-504. [BACK]
  11. On all of this, see the Anchor Bible Commentary on 1 Samuel by P. Kyle McCarter. [BACK]
  12. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, 194. [BACK]
  13. See William G. Dever, Did God Have a Wife? Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008). [BACK]
  14. See David Noel Freedman, “Yahweh of Samaria and His Asherah,” Biblical Archaeologist 50 (Dec 1987), 241-49. [BACK]
  15. John A. Emerton, “New Light on Israelite Religion: The Implications of the Inscriptions from Kuntillet ’Ajrud,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 94/1 (1982), 2-20. [BACK]
  16. See John Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan (London: Sheffield Academic, 2000), 91-127; also Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973), 147-94. [BACK]
  17. Ibid. [BACK]
  18. This is the position of a large number of critical scholars. In addition to Rowlett, see also, for example, Richard D. Nelson, “Josiah in the Book of Joshua,” JBL 100/4 (1981) 531-540. [BACK]

4 thoughts on “The Joshua Delusion

  1. I think you could make a wonderful ePub book(s) from your book reviews. This, and your coverage of Copan are exemplary reads.

  2. I profited greatly from both this and from your review of Copan. I wonder how something like what you have done here, could be brought to bear on Islamic apologetics. Certainly a great number of Muslims have spiritualized the Quran, but there remain too many Islamists that even now powerfully act out the worst of Old Testament principles.

    Incidentally, your critical explanation of Ezekiel’s recasting of God’s command for human sacrifices made me think of the Quran’s “Satanic Verses”. Stuff like that could be enlightening.

    It seems you could adapt your work for skeptically tending Muslims to encourage more of them to do Judaic-like/Christian-like spiritualization. It could even encourage them to abandon the authority of their primitive scripture which is laden with faulty morals. “The Human Faces of Allah” might get “herem” treatment, but how about just, “The Faces of Allah”?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *