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Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites - Page 3

6. Total Annihilation and "Bludgeoning Babies"?

(a) "All that breathes."

I observed in my previous essay that the language of total obliteration ("all that breathes") is an ANE rhetorical device, an exaggeration commonly associated with warfare. For example, in Deuteronomy 2:34 ("we captured all his cities at that time and utterly destroyed the men, women and children of every city. We left no survivor.") and 3:6 (". . . utterly destroying the men, women and children of every city"), we come upon what is a standard expression of military bravado in ANE warfare. In 7:2?5, alongside Yahweh's command to "destroy" the Canaanites is the assumption they would not be obliterated?hence the warnings not to make political alliances or intermarry with them. That is, we have stock ANE phrases referring to a crushing defeat and utter obliteration in my earlier article, but this is what Goldingay calls "monumental hyperbole."[30]  After all, the books of Joshua and Judges themselves make clear that many inhabitants remained in the land.[31]  "While Joshua does speak of Israel's utterly destroying the Canaanites, even these accounts can give a misleading impression: peoples that have been annihilated have no trouble reappearing later in the story; after Judah puts Jerusalem to the sword, its occupants are still living there ?to this day' (Judg. 1:8, 21)."[32] 

OT scholar Richard Hess has written on the Canaanite question, offering further insights on the entire discussion.[33]  (Following Hess here, I shall present "Scenario 1," which argues that the Canaanites targeted for destruction were political leaders and their armies rather than noncombatants.)[34]  Hess's research has led him to conclude that the ban (herem) of Deuteronomy 20:10?18 refers to "the total destruction of all warriors in the battle," [35]  not noncombatants. [36]  But does not Joshua 6:21 mention the ban?"every living thing in it"?in connection with "men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys"? The stock phrase "men and women [lit. ?from man (and) unto woman']" occurs seven times in the OT?Ai (Josh. 8:25); Amalek (1 Sam. 15:3); Saul at Nob (1 Sam. 22:19 [only here are children explicitly mentioned]); Jerusalem during Ezra's time (Neh. 8:2); and Israel (2 Sam 6:19 = 2 Chron. 15:3). Each time?except at Nob, where Saul killed the entire priestly family, save one (1 Sam. 21:20)?the word "all [kol]" is used. Hess contends that "the phrase [?men and women'] appears to be stereotypical for describing all the inhabitants of a town or region, without predisposing the reader to assume anything further about their ages or even their genders."[37] 

(b) The military forts of Jericho and Ai.

As we look specifically at Joshua's language concerning Jericho and Ai, it appears harsh at first glance: "They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it?men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys" (6:21); and again, "[t]welve thousand men and women fell that day?all the people of Ai" (8:25).[38]  As we shall see below, this stereotypical language describes attacks on military forts or garrisons?not a general population that includes women and children. Jericho and Ai were military strongholds guarding the travel routes from the Jordan Valley up to population centers in the hill country. That means that Israel's wars here are directed toward government and military installments. So the mention "women" and "young and old" turns out to be stock ANE language that could be used even if "women" and "young and old" were not living there. The language of "all" ("men and women") at Jericho and Ai is, in Hess's words, a "stereotypical expression for the destruction of all human life in the fort, presumably composed entirely of combatants."[39]  The text just does not require that "women" and "young and old" must have been in these cities.

The term "city" (?ir) reinforces this theme.[40]  Regarding Jericho, Ai, and other cities in Canaan, Hess writes: "we know that many of these ?cities' were used primarily for government buildings, and the common people lived in the surrounding countryside."[41]  Archaeological evidence points to the lack of civilian populations at Jericho, Ai, and other cities mentioned in Joshua. That "cities" were fortresses or citadels is made all the more clear by an associated term, melek ("king"), which was used in Canaan during this time for a military leader. What is more, the battles in Joshua do not mention noncombatants (women and children). Hess adduces inscriptional, archaeological, and other such evidences that Jericho was a small settlement of probably 100 or fewer soldiers. This is why all of Israel could circle it seven times in one day and then do battle against it.[42]  So if Jericho was a fort, then "all" those killed therein were warriors?Rahab and her family being the exceptional noncombatants dwelling within this militarized camp.[43]  The same applies throughout the book of Joshua. All of this turns out to be quite the opposite of what many have been taught in Sunday school classes!

(c) Rahab in a tavern.

What, then of Rahab? She was in charge of what was likely the fortress's tavern or hostel rather than a brothel, though these were sometimes run by prostitutes.[44]  Such overnight places for traveling caravans and royal messengers were common during this period.[45]  The Code of Hammurabi (?109) parallels what we see in Joshua 2: "If conspirators meet in the house of a tavern-keeper, and these conspirators are not captured and delivered to the court, the tavern-keeper shall be put to death." As Moshe Weinfeld notes, such reconnaissance missions were a "widespread phenomenon in the east." Such an innkeeper's home would be "the accustomed place for meeting with spies, conspirators, and the like." In light of such potential security threats, the Hittites prohibited the building of any such inn or tavern near fortress walls.[46] 

We could add here, contra Morriston, that the author of Joshua goes out of his way to indicate that no sexual liaison took place: the spies "stayed there" (2:1)?not "stayed with her," which would imply something sexual. Consider Samson, by contrast, who "saw a harlot, and went in to her" (Judg. 16:1). The OT does not shrink from using such language; we just do not have any sexual reference here. Rather, as observed above, the book of Joshua depicts Rahab as a true God-fearer. Yes, such taverns in the ANE would draw people seeking sexual pleasure, but this just does not apply to the Israelite spies, who visited there because it was a public place where they could learn about the practical and military dispositions of the area and could solicit a possible "fifth column" of support.[47] 

(d) Israel's warfare methods.

When we examine Israel's warfare, we should consider a number of features that help minimize the notion that Israel's army consisted of bloodthirsty, maniacal warmongers. First, the aftermath of Joshua's victories are featherweight descriptions in comparison to those found in the annals of the major empires of the ANE?whether Hittite and Egyptian (second millennium), Aramaean, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, or Greek (first millennium).[48]  Unlike Joshua's brief, four-verse description of the treatment of the five kings (10:24?27), the Neo-Assyrian annals of Asshurnasirpal (tenth century) take pleasure in describing the atrocities which gruesomely describe the flaying of live victims, the impaling of others on poles, and the heaping up of bodies for display.[49] 

Second, a number of battles that Israel fought on the way to and within Canaan were defensive: the Amalekites attacked the traveling Israelites (Exod. 17:8); the Canaanite king of Arad attacked and captured some Israelites (Num. 21:1); the Amorite king Sihon refused Israel's peaceful overtures and attacked instead (Num. 21:21?32; Deut. 2:26); Bashan's king Og came out to meet Israel in battle (Num. 21:3; Deut. 3:1); Israel responded to Midian's calculated attempts to lead Israel astray through idolatry and immorality (Num. 31:2?3; cp. Num. 25 and 31:16); five kings attacked Gibeon, which Joshua defended because of Israel's peace pact with the Gibeonites (Josh. 10:4). Furthermore, God prohibited Israel from conquering other neighboring nations: (i) Moab and Ammon (Deut. 2:9, 19); (ii) Edom (Deut. 2:4; 23:7)?despite the fact that Edom had earlier refused to assist the Israelites (Num. 20:14?21; cp. Deut. 2:6?8).

Third, all sanctioned "Yahweh battles" beyond the time of Joshua were defensive ones, including Joshua's battle to defend Gibeon (Josh. 10?11).[50]  Of course, while certain offensive battles take place in Judges and under David and beyond, these are not commended as ideal or exemplary.[51]


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