In the Hebrew Bible, there are accounts of an invasion by Israelites that can only be described as a genocidal holocaust (Joshua 6-12). But did it really happen that way?
I will focus later on the Ten Cities listed at the end of this post because for each, the Hebrew Bible clearly states that all the people were killed in each city (with the exception of one household in Jericho (6:25)).
I know there were far more than ten cities taken by Israelites in the Hebrew Bible, but I simply cannot deal with even one more chapter of this stuff right now. Oh alright, a bit more. There were 12,000 people killed at the city of Ai by invading Israelites (Joshua 8:25-26), but how many were killed by invading Israelites in the 31 vanquished cities listed in chapter 12? (The Ten Cities are among the 31.) How many killed in the earlier destruction, under Moses, of 60 walled towns and uncounted associated villages in Deuteronomy 3:3-7, where all the men, women, and children were killed? And how many thousands or millions killed in the whole Hebrew Bible in the many wars of the Israelites against their neighbors?
Yes, I can see that the number 12 (in 12,000) and the number 60 in the previous paragraph are “special” numbers and simply indicate that the number is acceptable to the author (but could be inaccurate). The “31” was perhaps originally the special number 30, until an editor added one more. Knowing that the numbers may be off does lead me to question the accuracy of the account.
Another question for me is how the Israelites were allegedly able to conduct house to house combat within the cities without unacceptable casualties to themselves? Perhaps they didn’t? Perhaps they generally used a combination feint and ambush as they are recorded doing at Ai, tricking all the inhabitants out into the open and slaughtering them there? (Joshua 8)
Another question is whether the Israelites would actually kill all the inhabitants of a city, after all, that would have been an enormous physical effort and dangerous – maybe just drove them away and then pillaged.
Another question is how some cities allegedly fell so quickly (Eglon in one day (10:35) and Lachish in two days (10:32)) – wouldn’t they have been well able to withstand a long siege?
Another question is how an alleged army of 40,000 men (4:13) could have been sustained by tribes with a pastoral economy, living widely disseminated in a desert ecosystem, with barely enough to feed themselves (subsisting on manna), let alone feeding and maintaining supply lines to an army on the move. Even living off the land they invaded would have been problematic for such a large army. Of course, the 40 in 40,000 is a very special number and not necessarily accurate.
Another question is how supposed runaway slaves from Egypt acquired the organizational skills needed to conduct conquests and manage a super-large army so quickly – within a generation. Rather, the bulk of the invaders came from elsewhere, had not been slaves, and had a lot of experience in aggressive warfare?? ( the “aliens” in 8:33, 35??)
How did runaway slaves living in a desert accumulate enough weapons in one generation to outfit 40,000 men? Did they have metallurgy and mines to make swords, forests from which to make spears, or monetary resources to purchase these?? Maybe some part of the Israelites originated in and were trained and supplied by wealthy cities elsewhere that were feeling the pinch of overpopulation, driven by religious fervor and greed, or building empire?? There is perhaps more to the story than the Hebrew Bible tells us.
Or maybe there wasn’t any fighting: A friend has speculated – what if Joshua led the Israelites into the land, but they just went to areas less occupied and if challenged, did not fight, just ran away?
I have to ask if the Israelites, who were said to be herders, would be interested in taking over cities and the surrounding farms and gardens, and would suddenly know how to farm and do that instead. Or would they just stay in the non-agricultural areas with their herds, and pillage once in a while? Based on my own pitiful attempts at gardening, I can attest that farming is an art and a science that has to be learned. I suspect the herders drifted through the land for many generations.
It does not seem likely that the Israelites burned down some of the cities – weren’t the cities built with mud bricks and stone??
Perhaps the biblical author exaggerated a bit because he needed propaganda to whip up support for wars in his own time?
The biblical author says that Joshua’s lifetime of genocide (as described in the Book of Joshua 6-12, 13:1) was decreed by both Yahweh and Moses (11:15). But let’s not blame Yahweh who has been reported as saying, “You shall not murder (or kill) . . . . You shall not steal.” (Exodus 20:13, 15)
Even if the Israelite invaders were not genocidal but were still violent, they would have caused a huge amount of suffering to the native peoples who were displaced, whose economies were shattered, or who were injured or killed or knew someone who was. How many starved in the cities and villages because their food reserves, crops, and livestock were stolen, their fields were trampled by invading armies, or their markets were no more? How many wells and other water supplies were tainted? How many were sickened by exposure, disease? How many were raped or robbed or injured as they fled? How many refugees fled and could not return to their own homes?
Should major faith traditions be based on records made by ancient Israelites who according to their own records were aggressive invaders and many of whom, at least according to the Book of Joshua, allegedly acted like the worst sort of predators against civilized societies? I don’t have a problem with using their records. We are all sinners and we are all chosen and we are all saved, or that’s the theory anyway. The Daily Word opines, “God works through people of all countries and walks of life. All people have a divine purpose.” (June 27, 2012) Ancient wandering tribes could have had occasional insights into the truth just as much as anyone else, despite any violence done in their names.
Our own government makes wars in our names and there is little anyone can do about that and little anyone can do about the global warming destroying the Earth, as long as governments are in the hands of corporations and special interests.
Should today’s ownership and control of the land be based on ancestral ownership and control thousands of years ago? If yes, I have the right to have ownership and control in some countries where I’ve never lived and have no holdings. Maybe decide who gets to live where, based on whose ancestors had the most warlike kingdoms in their own legends?? I believe there is a better way: encourage the current inhabitants of the Near East to live together in peace and harmony, respecting the human rights of all concerned, sharing the land and water, building a participatory democracy, and empowering those marginalized. The world is waiting for some progress.
As you might guess, none of the butchery in the Book of Joshua is read on Sundays in the Catholic Church (St. Joseph Sunday Missal) and I doubt any Church would choose to read these passages in a Sunday service where there could be small children present. I suppose there are many Sunday-Christians and Christmas-Christians out there who have never bothered to read the Bible and who have some vague notion that “God gave the Promised Land to the Israelites” based on sermons they’ve half-listened to, and don’t have a clue that instead, the Israelites may have brutally invaded the land wiping out whole cities.
I think the story of Joshua and the disappeared Ten Cities should be taught to the teens in Bible study classes. This is important to do because teens should learn early on that the Bible is not all “nice-nice,” lest they become disillusioned and feel that they have been deceived by their teachers when they discover this on their own as adults. Let the teens learn about the Ten Cities. Let them fully understand the meaning of genocidal holocaust as told in the story. Tell them that the story gives us a lesson: how easy it is to mistake one’s own covetous and murderous impulses for the will of God. Ask the teens if God has a gender, if God has partiality toward men, if God prefers a particular nation or that nation’s name for God. Let them know how dark the darkness can be, darker than the darkest night without the moon or the stars.
It does seem from the amount of detail in the Book of Joshua that something horrific really could have happened to the Ten Cities and their native peoples (some of the cities named in Joshua 6-12) – many innocent men, women, and children killed, harmed, or dispossessed by invading Israelites. The following is a memorial to the victims:
IN MEMORY OF THE TEN CITIES
In the order they were reportedly attacked
I mourn for the people in these Ten Cities who had no one to mourn for them. Let’s never forget them.
If the Ten Cities were disappeared, there would never have been another sunrise for them.
Never again until the last day when everything is renewed – a day that has already dawned in the mind of God.
NRSV used in this post.