Episode 84: Violence in the Bible with George A. Pierce

The Old Testament is filled with grisly tales, which are understandably offensive to modern eyes. Some of the most shocking are found within the conquest narratives of the Deuteronomistic History. In Deuteronomy 7, the Israelites were instructed to smite, destroy, and consume the inhabitants of Canaan, an act that Joshua initiates at the city of Jericho. The text is incredibly violent, bloody, and gruesome, and leaves readers scratching their heads as to why anyone would ever carry out any of these actions.

But could Joshua be getting a bad rap?

In this episode of the LDS Perspectives Podcast, Laura Harris Hales interviews Dr. George Pierce, a specialist in ancient Near East archaeology and anthropology, about just what these chapters might be telling us. Dr. George Pierce maintains that if we view the conquest narratives through the lenses that ancient Israel would have understood them, then we may gain a better appreciation for their contents.

Situated in Deuteronomy, Samuel, Judges, and Kings are tales of Israel’s conquest of Canaan and the rise of its kingdoms. As we look at the account of Joshua and the Israelites and what they’re doing with the defeat of Canaanite cities, we see that the text itself is trying to couch these events in terms of Deuteronomy 7 and its mandate to settle this land and effectively remove its inhabitants.

The main thrust of Deuteronomy 7 is to not have Israel interact with the people around them. They have been given divine instruction: don’t interact with the Canaanites; don’t intermarry them; and don’t worship their deities. What we see is that Israel is doing the opposite. They’re not able to dislodge the Canaanites. They do start to intermarry with the Canaanites. They do start to worship other deities. Israel needs a call to repentance.

But these are also tales of re-creation. Israel is coming into a land, which for them, because of Canaanites, Hittites, Parrizites, and all the rest of the inhabitants, is effectively chaos. The creation is a parallel concept to the conquest narratives. In creation, Jehovah steps in, puts everything into order with its right function, purifies the thing, and then on the seventh day has rest. In the book of Joshua, the Israelites purify the land by conquests. After capturing the City of the Patriarchs, the land has rest.

Many readers look at this ancient text and ask, “What can I get out of this?” And while it’s probably popular to just turn to Joshua 24 and say, “Well, the whole thing just revolves around: “As for me and my house, we’re going to serve the Lord,” Dr. Pierce believes we shortchange the book of Joshua and the Deuteronomic History by not exploring the text on a deeper level. Within the text are complex and rich elements telling us that Israel is trying to obey the commandments of the Lord, but they’re not always successful.

Listen in as we discuss Israel’s tale of emergence and settlement in the Holy Land and what it means in terms of obedience and longevity in the land.

About Our Guest: Dr. George Pierce grew up in a Baptist household in Florida. He received a BA in History from Clearwater Christian College, an MSC in Archaeological Information Systems from the University of York, an MA in Biblical Studies from Wheaton College, and a PhD in Near Eastern Language and Cultures from UCLA where he joined a church in June 2009.

He’s also served as research faculty at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, Israel. He has excavated in Florida, Scotland, the West Bank, and Israel. His research focuses on regional settlements, historical geography, and computer applications in archaeology. He and his wife, Dr. Krystal Pierce, have two children, Victoria and George III.

Episode 84 Transcript

A Bible Reader’s History of the Ancient World


LDS Perspectives Podcast

Episode 84: Violence in the Bible with George A. Pierce


(Released June 13, 2018)


This is not a verbatim transcript.

 Some grammar and wording has been modified for clarity and time stamps are approximate.


LAURA HALES: This is Laura Harris Hales, and I’m here today with George Pierce to talk about conquest and settlement narratives in the Old Testament. George Pierce grew up in a Baptist household in Florida. He received a BA in History from Clearwater Christian College, an MSC in Archaeological Information Systems from the University of York, an MA in Biblical Studies from Wheaton College, and a PhD in Near Eastern Language and Cultures from UCLA where he joined a church in June 2009.



He’s also served as research faculty at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, Israel. He has excavated in Florida, Scotland, the West Bank, and Israel. His research focuses on regional settlements, historical geography, and computer applications in archaeology. He and his wife, Dr. Krystal Pierce, have two children, Victoria and George III.


He also contributed three chapters to A Bible Reader’s History of the Ancient World, which we are going to discuss today.


Welcome, George.





LAURA HALES: Happy to have you.



GEORGE PIERCE: 01:24 Glad to be here.
LAURA HALES: 01:25 We’re going to talk about a gruesome topic today.
GEORGE PIERCE: 01:31 Sounds good to me.
LAURA HALES: 01:33 Conquest narratives—those chapters that make us squirm in our pew.
GEORGE PIERCE: 01:41 There are a number of grisly tales in the Old Testament, and the conquest narratives are part of that motif of violence, unfortunately, as we think about it in the modern times. If we view the conquest narratives through the lenses that ancient Israel would have understood them, then we can get a different appreciation for these rather than just the current one of being texts that are incredibly violent, bloody, and gruesome and leave us scratching our heads as to why anyone would ever carry out any of these actions.



LAURA HALES: 02:13 Israel’s conquest of the land of Canaan is recorded in Numbers 21 through 2 Samuel 5. Outside of the Bible, what do we know about Israel’s conquest of the land?



GEORGE PIERCE: 02:31 Outside of the Bible we have very little textual evidence for people coming into Canaan and performing the acts that we see recorded in Joshua or any of the warfare that we see happening in Judges or any of that portion from Numbers 21 through second Samuel 5.



What we do see is, archaeologically, are two things: surveys both intensive as in how they’re carried out, on foot walking across the landscape, and extensive, throughout most of what is now considered the nation-state of Israel and the territories of the West Bank and the Golan Heights and partially Gaza as well. These intensive and extensive surveys have revealed a number of sites that seem to be established at the end of the late Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age, so somewhere in the 14th century BC through the 12th century BC. In addition to this, archaeological excavations have shown cities, such as Hazor or Lachish or other cities mentioned in the conquest narratives, which have identifiable, destroyed layers as part of the archaeological record.


GEORGE PIERCE: 03:48 Archaeologists can look at both the settlement patterns, the excavated results, and the time frame and can say these settlements and these destroyed layers could fit within the range of the conquest. Now, to definitely associate it with Joshua, I think is a different story, but archaeology tells us there’s a picture of some sort of social disruption happening throughout much of Canaan during the period that we would associate with the conquest.



LAURA HALES: 04:18 Okay. Joshua blows his trumpet; the walls of Jericho fall. What groups initially settled in Canaan as recorded in the Bible?



GEORGE PIERCE: 04:28 As we look at the biblical narrative, we can see that even the Canaanites themselves are not necessarily a monolithic culture. There’s not one sort of big Canaanite entity if that makes sense. So, they don’t call themselves Canaanites. They usually refer to themselves either by a city name, such as Sidon, or the descendants of a particular group like a tribal group, so the Jebusites or Amorites or any other “-ites” that we see happening in Genesis and other books such as Numbers or in Joshua. Canaanite serves as a collective term for all these people that the Bible, and then, now, biblical scholars have picked up on this by just saying, “Canaanite,” but we have to understand that there’s a whole bunch of different peoples.



GEORGE PIERCE: 05:13 At the same time we have Israel trying to make their settlement into the land of Canaan, we also then see the sea peoples. Most notably from the Bible, we say, “Philistines,” who are a group of sea peoples. The Philistines are also settling, and they’re settling on the coast.



We have Israel in the highlands of Judah and the highlands of Ephraim, or Ephraim, we have then the Philistines on the coastal plain, and we have the Canaanites then somewhere in the middle—either being dispossessed or abandoning territories or moving elsewhere or being subjugated. There’s just a whole host of things going on. If we were to say the big three, it’d be Canaanites, Israelites in the hill country, and then Philistines in the coastal plain.


LAURA HALES: 06:02 The conquest of the Canaanites and six other peoples was commanded in Deuteronomy 7. The Israelites were instructed to smite, destroy, and consume the inhabitants of Canaan. Rereading this chapter, I realized that pretty much every single verse would be offensive to modern ears. Take us through the highlights of this violent conquest narrative.



GEORGE PIERCE: 06:32 As we have in the Bible, we can see that the conquest narrative of Canaan itself starts off with the very unusual, unique conquest of Jericho. We have that story in Joshua 7.



Joshua and the Israelites are commanded to march around Jericho once each day for six days, and on the seventh day, they’re going to march around it seven times. And they’re doing it all in silence in plain view of the people living in Jericho. And then, they blow the trumpets and raise a shout after the seventh time around the city on the seventh day, and the walls fall down.


And then we have this ensuing bloodbath as recorded there in Joshua. The story goes on to talk about how the fact that everything that was in Jericho was supposed to be slain, nothing taken, no sort of spoils of war or anything else like that. We had the instance in which a member of the House of Israel does take things, and this doesn’t fair well for other campaigns such as the campaign at Ai in which Israel loses that battle and loses lives there. And that’s a setback. But as we go forward, we see that Ai is eventually conquered according to the text. We see that when we have the central part around Jerusalem or the central hill country there, after some campaigns there and some battles, we see that attention focuses northward.


GEORGE PIERCE: 08:03 Joshua and the Israelites head toward a northern campaign and are going to face a coalition of forces that are led by those from Hazor. We see that in the biblical narrative, Joshua utterly destroys Hazor. It says in the Bible, Joshua 11:11, that he burned Hazor with fire and that’s an important point that we can come back to later on. But he burned Hazor, and then we start to see then that there’s a southern campaign. And once the southern campaign occurs and they are able to take sites in the south, such as Lachish or even Hebron, it’s then in Joshua 11, toward the end of it, that we see that all the land had a rest from war.



There’s an initial central campaign and then there’s a northern campaign, which will take out most of the sites in the north, specifically Hazor, and then there’s a southern campaign to retake places like Hebron, which is important for them because it’s the burial place of the patriarchs.


GEORGE PIERCE: 09:01 Once that happens, then, the narrative says the land had rest from war. It doesn’t mean that they are able to just do nothing. Now, it’s up to the Israelites to do things like planting crops and marking out fields and building houses and all the things that they should be doing instead of conducting warfare.



Joshua 12 gives us the culmination of that in which it lists all these kings and cities that are defeated by the Israelites according to the record here and carries on quite this extensive list because that’s going to prefigure then the division of the territory into tribal territory starting in Joshua 13.


LAURA HALES: 09:40 It’s a grim affair.
GEORGE PIERCE: 09:41 It is.
LAURA HALES: 09:42 What’s the modern reader to think about this over-the-top narrative? They conquered all the land. Really?



GEORGE PIERCE: 09:51 For the modern reader, we look at it and take it at a literal face value, and I think this was the reading that predominated within the biblical academy or scholarship on the Bible at least up through the first part of the 20th century. A very literal Joshua came in and he conquered this place, and he conquered that place, and this king and that king and all the rest, without any sort of nuance and understanding of what’s going on here in the ancient Near East and what the narrative is even doing.



The mandate to wage this total warfare against Canaan comes in Deuteronomy 7 with these seven cultural groups, which include the Canaanites. And the word that’s used is herem, which means something that’s either devoted entirely or something that’s destroyed, and we can think about how those two things are related. It’s been interpreted as something of this sort of holy war of utter destruction and Jehovah is ordering them to go in and wipe out everything and to do this.


GEORGE PIERCE: 10:52 As modern readers, we can say, “How does this work?” A God that we would look at and say is merciful and loving—and we have those passages in the Old Testament telling about how he gives mercy to Israel and loves Israel—how he can act this way against other, within our theological terms, other children of God. How can he act this way against the Canaanites or how does he act this way against the Egyptians?



One of the things we can think about is that we have to understand what it means in terms of literature and what’s going on here literarily, and what it means in terms of actual conduct of warfare, and then how this works with the archaeological picture. As we look at herem, and we look at Bronze and Iron Age literature, we can see that they describe what’s going on with Joshua in the same sort of terms that we see other campaigns conducted by Assyrian kings or by other kings of the Amorites or those of Syria or other texts that we have, in the sense that language of conquest is similar.


GEORGE PIERCE: 11:56 We can look at those other campaigns and say clearly Assyria’s not coming in and wholesale wiping everybody out. Clearly these kings of the Amorites or Assyria or whatever as they’re conducting warfare, they’re not wiping everybody and everything out. It’s just not going to be possible. But we can see that Joshua is using the same sort of language. Now, if we were to read the Assyrian campaigns, which I have, they’re fairly grisly too.



Unfortunately, one of the other things we have to think about is as modern readers, especially within the context of North America, in Utah, or elsewhere, is that we’re far removed from the concept of warfare. Now, I know we have veterans who have been in 20th and 21st century conflicts, who are very familiar with that and can probably identify, but for most readers, we’re removed from it. So, it’s very shocking. For these ancient peoples, this is a part of life and this is just what was occurring.


GEORGE PIERCE: 12:53 That’s not to say it’s all happening like this, though. That’s not to say that they’re going in and wholesale chopping up people and all the rest of this and then walking away wiping the blood off of their sword, and we’re supposed to just accept it. There are certain other things we want to keep in mind as we look at warfare in the ancient Near East and even modern warfare. For one, it is logistically impossible to annihilate an entire population.



What do I mean by that? Let’s just think about this logically. So, Joshua is in Jericho, which he’s commanded to conquer. Right? Everything is put to the sword, animals and the whole deal. I mean, nothing’s safe. Well, they’re commanded to walk around the city once each day for six days. Once they circumnavigate the city and they go back to the places where they’re camping, would not somebody in Jericho who thinks that an invasion is coming just leave?


One of the things we have to think about as modern readers is the fact that there’s always going to be this refugee population. Anthropological and literary studies in the Near East have shown us that these people have a built-in, what we call as anthropologists, hardiness structure. They’re living in cities, but they’re going out to their farms every day, and then coming back into the city. They’re very fluid, and they can move between a sedentary house-based lifestyle to a more nomadic tent-based lifestyle to living in caves quite rapidly.


GEORGE PIERCE: 14:23 In fact, one of the verses that comes to mind is when Rehoboam becomes king over Israel after the death of his father, Solomon, and there’s some dispute about mandatory labor and taxes. Rehoboam says that he’s going to do even more than what his father Solomon did. The cry is, “To your tents, O Israel,” because they realized that they have no part in what Rehoboam’s doing. It’s kind of this call to go and to become more nomadic once again or at least to leave and break that bond with Judah. We see that the people can move between houses and tents and caves fairly quickly.



Going back to Joshua, if he’s walking and having the people walk around the city once a day for six days, there’s plenty of time that people are going to be leaving Jericho and taking their tents and going out and living elsewhere where Joshua and the Israelites aren’t going to bother them. They’re going to go to caves in the region. They’re going to go across somewhere else and live until everything is said and done.


When we see the picture in Joshua of the conquest where he’s conquering, they’re killing everybody in Jericho, and they’re killing animals. They’re doing all this stuff. There’s always going to be this population that’s refugee that’s going to be out there somewhere. So total annihilation is not going to be possible.


GEORGE PIERCE: 15:47 What we don’t understand from the Joshua narratives is what types of warfare are involved here. When Joshua and the Israelites conquer a town like Megiddo or Taanach or Jerusalem, and it says that they did so, what does that actually mean? Did they defeat the forces of that town in the field, and they never really touched the town? Did they come up against the town and most of the population has already moved off, and they fight some people in the town so that by the time they’re done, a place like Megiddo has no one left in it? And they move out, and those people move right back in, which is archaeologically what we see happening at a place like Megiddo or Taanach.



Textually we see that there’s five times that Jerusalem is mentioned as either conquered or not conquered, and it keeps going back and forth. We see the final conquest of Jerusalem then under David in 2 Samuel 5. In fact, it’s like the last place that needs to be conquered, but we don’t know what the character of that warfare is.


Hopefully, that makes some sort of sense. We don’t know if conquering means taking the town or if it’s defeating the army in the field or if it’s just subjugating the king and they want to make some sort of alliance or treaty and it counts as conquest. We can definitely see it in some places like Hazor. In Joshua 11, it says Hazor was burned with fire. We can see that there’s an archaeological destruction layer at Hazor that is burned with fire.


GEORGE PIERCE: 17:11 Now, we then have people coming back to Hazor and reoccupying Hazor in time, but in certain places it mentions this is a conquest— this warfare actually happened, and we can match that up. In other places, we don’t know what kind of warfare it was.



I don’t know if that’s a comfort to the modern reader or not, but it’s one of the things that we should keep in mind.


LAURA HALES: 17:34 Also, Joshua didn’t sit down after he’d conquered these places and write a narrative of what happened. When was this recorded, and might that explain a little bit why there was a literary purpose to what they were writing rather than just historically recounting facts?



GEORGE PIERCE: 17:58 That’s correct. Joshua probably did not sit down and immediately start writing in his journal, “Today we conquered Hazor, and we burned it with fire,” and then would move on to another chapter of Joshua.



The best scholarly opinion is that Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, and we can also include Deuteronomy in with part of this, forms what is known as the Deuteronomistic History. As a literary unit, we see them in our Old Testament, and they are individual books: Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings. But as a literary unit, it’s all together in one big history. In fact, as you look at the books, it’s all structured that way. It’s all structured as one big history.


The date of writing has been sort of thrown back and forth, and I think scholarly consensus would estimate that the Deuteronomistic History was probably written in probably the late 7th century or early 6th century BC somewhere. We can see that there’s evidence of it being structured and parts of it being written during the reign of King Josiah of Judah and parts of it were written after King Josiah’s reign. By that, I mean this: when we look at the whole picture, we can see literarily how the conquest narratives can serve as Israel effectively trying to recreate creation if that makes sense.


GEORGE PIERCE: 19:24 They’re coming into a land, which for them, because of all these Canaanites and Hittites and Parrizites and all the rest of these people, is effectively chaos—much like creation. So, in creation, Jehovah steps in, puts everything into order with its right function, purifies the thing, and then on the seventh day has rest.



In Joshua, we have the Israelites coming in, purifying the land by conquests or whatever else we want to see literarily, and at the end of this whole thing when they’ve taken the City of the Patriarchs, then the land has rest. We can see that parallel concept there.


The rest of this then, the rest of the history, is going to talk about, effectively, David. Believe it or not. It’s all leading us up to David, and it’s building up this Davidic ideal for a king. The fact that we have problems with other tribes, but not with Judah, and the fact that Judah and Benjamin have this row at the end of Judges, yet somehow are tied together, shows us that Benjamin isn’t supposed to have a king, but Judah should. It ties us right into 1 Samuel where we have Saul being proclaimed the first king of Israel, and to a reader 400–500 years down the line, they’re going to go, “Yeah. No. Benjamin shouldn’t have a king,” and clearly, right, it doesn’t work out.


LAURA HALES: 20:47 That leads us into one of the grisly things we find in the Bible. During the civil war, there’s this famous story involving a woman and the tribe of Benjamin. Review that with us and tell us how it might tie into Saul being the appropriate king.



GEORGE PIERCE: 21:10 In Judges 19 we’re given the story that there is a Levite who has a concubine, and she is from Bethlehem. While the Levite is serving somewhere in Mount Ephraim, she goes back home to Bethlehem, and later he has to go retrieve her from her father.



We have a tale that while they’re traveling, they’re going to have to spend the night somewhere, and the Levite’s servant suggests that they should stop in Jerusalem. Jerusalem, at the time, was still the home of the Jebusites and had not been conquered by David, clearly. The Levite says, “No, we’re going to move on to Gibeah,” which is a city of Benjamin. The Levite consciously makes this decision, “We’re not going to go to a Jebusite town. We’re going to go to a town where Israelites live,” specifically Benjaminites. The assumption is that they’re going to be treated well and that they have this kinship because they’re all part of the House of Israel.


While he’s staying in this town in Benjamin, the men of Gibeah knock on the door, and they’re sort of demanding that the Levite be given to them for whatever sort of sexual assault is implied in the text. And instead, he puts out the concubine, and they assault her. And then in the morning, as she’s dragging herself up the steps, he takes her to their home in Ephraim, and then ends up killing her and sending parts of her all over Israel.


LAURA HALES: 22:46 To each of the tribes.
GEORGE PIERCE: 22:46 Yes. Twelve parts are sent to each of the twelve tribes. The 12 tribes get together, and the Levite then addresses them to say, “Look at how I’ve been wronged. Look how I’m the one that’s offended here.” No discussion—and biblical scholars have picked up on this—no discussion of what’s happened to this woman and her rights and anything else that’s going on, but look how the Levite has been offended personally by the behavior of these people from Benjamin.



The 11 tribes who were gathered together then all decide, “Well, we need to go to war against Benjamin.” Then, we have the ensuing civil war between Benjamin and the rest of Israel. It is mostly Judah carrying out the attacks to the point where, I think, the text mentions that Benjamin has nearly been wiped out except for a handful of them, who are taking refuge at some place that’s either in a cave or on a hill somewhere.


GEORGE PIERCE: 23:41 Eventually they need to make peace between themselves and Israel because Israel feels bad about almost wiping out an entire tribe. And then, we have then this tie between Judah and Benjamin established.



Now the story as we look at it is awful. Right? So, there’s rape and there’s murder; there’s civil war; and there’s all kinds of things going on. But what it’s doing literarily is showing us a couple of things. First of all, here at the end of Judges, the phrase that keeps getting used over and over is, “There was no king in Israel and everyone did that which was right in their eyes.” It’s showing us that Israel needs a king. Israel is going crazy; they’re entering into these civil wars with each other; they’re having these problems; and they need a central leadership.


What it’s also doing is calling attention to the actions of the Benjaminites. The people who should have offered refuge, the people who should have offered this person help, the people who should have taken in a Levite from Ephraim and a concubine from Bethlehem and brought them into a house, fed them, clothed them, fed the donkeys or whatever, they’re the ones who acted most inhospitable, and that’s putting it mildly.


What the tale shows is that Israel needs a king. Benjamin is not a source of kingship, and there’s that hint there that the concubine is from Bethlehem and of the tribe of Judah. So, it’s kind of setting you up for what’s going to happen.


GEORGE PIERCE: 25:09 In the Deuteronomistic History, if we turn to 1 Samuel, what do we see? Israel saying, “Look, we need a king.” Saul is anointed the first king of Israel, and he comes from Benjamin. So, again, the reader is going to look and say, “That’s not right,” but it’s setting us up for David. All these things are leading up to say, “Look how great David is.”



What the Deuteronomistic History does is set up David as this pillar of kingship and this model of a godly biblical king. Now, we’re going to look at it and go, “What about other things that David does?” That’s beside the point. David’s leadership and his kingship and his devotion to God is held up as an example. As you start reading in your personal studies mentioned in 1 and 2 Kings, you will notice that they are always compared to David. They either did that which was right in the sight of the Lord and walked after the ways of David their father, or they did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not walk after the ways of David their father.


Deuteronomistic History sets us up for this big emphasis on David. And then there’s a big emphasis on King Josiah, who should be the second David. They’re always looking for the second David. Right? Who’s going to be the king that’s going to be just like David and do all these things? Josiah seems to be leading up to that point.


GEORGE PIERCE: 26:30 We can see in the Deuteronomistic History that there are later editions and corrections because once Josiah dies, it’s realized that he’s not going to be the second David, and that’s what we’re left with. We’re left with a text that literarily is putting together the conquest narratives of Joshua and the Israelites coming into Canaan, trying to establish some sort of order to what is going on in the land—a land, then, which falls into disorder because they don’t have a king. A king who rises up, such as David, who’s going to bring all these tribes together, who’s going to establish this monarchy.



Solomon’s going to come in as well, I think, capitalizing on David’s charisma and having that building effort of fortifying cities and building the temple and all the rest of these things that Solomon does. The whole thing sort of dissolves, but they’re looking for a second David the whole time. That’s why you have to sort of look at the whole picture, which is a fairly large nutshell of the Deuteronomistic History.


LAURA HALES: 27:32 There is one more thing I’d like to discuss that you covered in your chapter. You said, “Look at these conquest narratives. Are the Israelites conquering lands or kings?” Why is that important?



GEORGE PIERCE: 27:52 Modern readers see these narratives through the lens of 20th century warfare. We have almost this World War II-like idea of them coming into Canaan like landing on the beaches of Normandy and then sort of marching across the hill country like the Americans and the Allied Forces coming across France. They’re taking territory and they’re taking back cities, and they’re fighting for these things. We have the same thing on the eastern front with the Russians fighting the Germans, and they’re eventually sort of making their way to Berlin. But they’re conquering territory.



What we really see in the conquest narrative is what it mentions in Joshua 12: here’s all the lists of these kings and their cities. It’s more of a conquest of people and not so much territory because there’s a lot of missing space in between, or there are instances in which cities like Megiddo and Taanach and Jerusalem and others are mentioned as conquered, but they’re not conquered later on.


The narratives of Joshua have to be juxtaposed against Judges 1, which as we look at Joshua we say, “Oh, look at the picture of conquests and what Joshua was able to accomplish,” and all the rest of these things, but Judges 1 says, “No, the conquest wasn’t finished and there are all these other places that need to be conquered, some of which are mentioned in Joshua.”


GEORGE PIERCE: 29:21 Really what Joshua 12 and the list of kings is doing is saying these are peoples that are subjected, but their lands may or may not be completely within the control of the Israelites. There’s still going to be this struggle of Canaanites living in the land. They’re still going to have enclaves of people who are not Israel maybe being within a tribal territory of Israelites. We can read the conquest narratives in that way and sort of understand this isn’t them sort of marching across the land and taking every single square inch. This is the process of taking some territory, subjecting other peoples, maybe fighting an army in the field. Clearly, the coastal plain with the Philistines is going to cause a problem as we see later on in the narratives in 1 and 2 Samuel.



That’s one way we can sort of think about that because, again, when we look at the conquest narratives, we’re tempted to read it based on our experiences or our family’s experiences historically. We look at this in a very 20th century sort of way. And to be quite fair, it’s not like 20th century warfare. It’s not like the events of the 20th century like the Holocaust or something like that. It’s something different. We need to appreciate that if we can appreciate a violent text such as Joshua.


LAURA HALES: 30:42 Is the Book of Joshua getting a bad rap? Is it really that much worse than the rest of the Old Testament?



GEORGE PIERCE: 30:49 I would claim that it’s not worse than many of the other books of scripture or events that we have listed in scripture. When we think about Joshua, we look at him and go, “Wow. There’s a lot of conquest here, and they’re burning cities, and they’re putting people and things to the sword.” We see other events. What about the flood in the days of Noah, which wiped off everybody except for the people who were on the ark? What about the events of the Book of Mormon in which we have Nephites and Lamanites fighting each other? And there are some pretty grim things in there within Mormon and within Moroni 9 that would sort of cause you to really reel at what’s going on in warfare between those two groups. We look toward events of the second coming and the apocalypse and preparing for the millennium, there’s a lot of destruction there.



There’s a lot of violence going on. And that doesn’t excuse anything, but I think it helps us to put into context the violence from the flood through the second coming; it’s part of the human experience.


LAURA HALES: 31:54 We’ve gone over the conquest narrative in the Bible. Obviously, the Israelites settled in the Levant somehow. What other scholarly theories account for the settlement of this area?



GEORGE PIERCE: 32:09 In the early 20th century, the academic view of Joshua and the conquest narratives within the Old Testament was that these events were literal and that archaeological evidence should prove them to be literal. The predominant theory was one of conquest—one that Joshua came in, he conquered all the cities that are mentioned in the Bible, he conquered the kings and the territories that were there, and the archaeological record would should all these destructions everywhere.



Now, this model has had to be adapted because as archaeologists looked at sites like Jericho. The original excavator, John Garstang, thought that the walls that he found collapsed around the city were late Bronze Age walls, and this was evidence of Joshua. Later, excavators like Kathleen Kenyon re-dated that wall and that set of walls to the early Bronze Age based on the pottery—predating Joshua by at least 1500 years.


Archaeologists and biblical historians had to rethink the conquest model and have proposed something a little bit more modified more recently. They call it a modified conquest model in that the cities that show archaeological destruction, such as Hazor and others, that are mentioned in the Bible as being burned with fire, these we can cautiously link to a conquest done by the Israelites.


GEORGE PIERCE: 33:35 In other places, the conquest is either done by covenant or done by conquering the armies in the field, as we mentioned, or the people had left the town leaving only some sort of force to defend it, and the town was conquered and by the time Joshua walked away, they didn’t think anyone was left, but everyone’s going to move back in, leaving us that story. That’s how Joshua and Judges kind of get reconciled in a modified conquest model. But this isn’t the only model.



Other scholars in the 20th century started to come up with other pictures because as they looked at the archaeological evidence and as they looked at the texts, they said, “Well, conquest may not be what’s actually happening here,” and so we have a couple other theories.


First of all, gradual infiltration. The fact that Israel is in Transjordan, across the Jordan River, for a while and they kind of move in accounts for a lot of the survey evidence. The archaeological surveys find sites that suddenly crop up at the end of the late Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age, which scholars would identify with some sort of new settlement group coming in. It’s not done by destruction. Nobody’s destroying the site because it wasn’t there before. It’s simply newly founded.


GEORGE PIERCE: 34:47 This spoke to scholars and said, “Well, maybe there’s something going on here in which they’re gradually infiltrating.” All right? They’re coming in peacefully and the conquest narrative is completely fabricated later on to show that Joshua was as much of a conqueror as David or any of the other Assyrian or Syrian kings going around.



It’s not as plausible because it doesn’t take into account some of the archaeological evidence or the sort of rapid rise that we see in settlement patterns in the Iron Age. If it were more gradual, we’d expect a more gradual rise in these things, but they all kind of come in at the same time. There’s also the Peasant Revolt Theory in which two scholars, particularly Norman Gottwald but also George Mendenhall, proposed, independently, that Israel had come out from Canaan. All right? So, they were originally Canaanites; they were the peasants of the Canaanites; they were coalescing around this idea of the worship of Jehovah; and that they revolted against their Canaanite overlords.


This theory does account for the rise in settlement during the end of the late Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age, but there’s no evidence for population decline elsewhere or other types of villages that show up. And so, it hasn’t gotten as much traction as other theories.


GEORGE PIERCE: 36:10 More recently the theory has been proposed that Israel and the settlement narratives can be explained by what’s called nomadization. Canaanites suddenly went from living in towns to living in tents and then eventually settling in smaller villages. But this also doesn’t account for all the archaeological evidence.



The final theory is that of ruralization. The fact that there’s plenty of land available, and those who didn’t have land and would not inherit land through their family structures would eventually become this Israelites population with the various villages that are settled. But it doesn’t account for what’s going on with the worship of Jehovah or the evidence of such within the Iron age.


As we look at the different theories of Israelite settlement, there’s not one that completely fits all the material that’s in front of us. To be able to take the text and the archaeology together, we have to have a combination of conquest, of gradual infiltration and peaceful settlement, a theory that involves a people who are nomadic and eventually settle down, a theory that involves Canaanites who may be moving to a rural situation or who may be dissatisfied with their social status joining in with Israel, which is what we see in the biblical text happening as well.


There’s not one main theory that fits. We kind of have to take all of it and mash it together and come up with something that would be acceptable and would make sense in our minds.


LAURA HALES: 37:47 Some members of the LDS church try desperately to find devotional elements in the Old Testament when, perhaps, they are not always there. The Bible is a library. Part of it is this conquest narrative. What conclusions have you come to regarding the purpose of the conquest narratives in the Bible?



GEORGE PIERCE: 38:12 As we look at the account of Joshua and the Israelites and what they’re doing with the defeat of Canaanite cities as presented, we can see that the text itself is trying to couch these events in terms of Deuteronomy 7 and its mandate to go in and to settle this land and effectively remove its inhabitants. We can also see what’s going on as we look at Judges, the fact that it was difficult to get rid of the Canaanite population.



The main thrust of Deuteronomy 7 is to not have Israel interact with the people around them. They have this divine instruction. Don’t interact with the Canaanites. Don’t intermarry them. Don’t worship their deities. And instead, what we see is Israel doing everything opposite. They’re not able to dislodge the Canaanites. They do start to intermarry with the Canaanites. They do start to worship other deities. We can see that it’s difficult to understand the Canaanite narratives in terms of archaeology and marrying that with the text and looking at the material culture and everything else that’s there.


GEORGE PIERCE: 39:26 And we’re left then with looking at the text to say, “What do I get out of it?” And while it’s probably popular to just turn to Joshua 24 and to say, “Well, the whole thing just revolves around: “As for me and my house, we’re going to serve the Lord,” I think we shortchange the book of Joshua by not saying there’s something within the text telling us they’re trying to obey the commandment of the Lord, but they’re not successful at always doing so. When we think about the importance of that and how that works, we can see how it’s going to play out in the rest of the life of the House of Israel, whether it’s in the book of Judges or later on under the monarchy or when the monarchy splits into the two kingdoms— everything stems back to their obedience.



To try and get one thing out or just to try and shorten it all down to Joshua 24 and saying, “As for me and my house, we’re going to serve the Lord,” I think misses the rest of the complexity and the richness that’s there in this tale of Israel’s emergence and their settlement in the Holy Land and understanding what that means in terms of obedience and what that means in terms of longevity in the land.


LAURA HALES: 40:42 Thank you, George. I appreciate you spending time with us today.
GEORGE PIERCE: 40:46 Thank you.



Disclaimer:     LDS Perspectives Podcast is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The opinions expressed on this episode represent the views of the guests and the podcaster alone, and LDS Perspectives Podcast and its parent organization may or may not agree with them. While the ideas presented may vary from traditional understandings or teachings, they in no way reflect criticism of LDS Church leaders, policies, or practices.

Similar Posts