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Those who have read The Unseen Realm know that I have an atypical perspective on the conquest — specifically, the contention by many that the Israelite conquest was an indiscriminate genocide of the inhabitants of Canaan. My view is that it wasn’t indiscriminate at all, and that wholesale genocide wasn’t the point of the conquest. Rather, the command of to “devote to destruction” (ḥerem/kherem) was focused on the giant clans (denoted by words like Anakim, Rephaim, and, occasionally, Amorites). That is, I believe the rationale for the ḥerem was to eliminate the Anakim, the vestiges of the nephilim (Num 13:32-33), since those peoples were perceived to be (and were, in some way, according to the OT) raised up by rival gods hostile to Yahweh (and thus their own purpose was to prevent Yahweh’s people from kickstarting the kingdom of God on earth). Other people were certainly killed, since the giant clans were scattered among the general population, but I contend the conquest rationale was framed by the urgency to eliminate the nephilim bloodlines. This is textbook “mythic history” (actual historical events framed by, and articulated in light of, theological rationale / beliefs).
I base this position on a few points:
1) There are a range of verbs for what the conquest was supposed to do and what it did do — several of which don’t speak of killing or annihilation. For exampleְ garash (גרשׁ – “to drive out”: Exod 23:28, 29, 30, 31; 33:2; Deut 33:27; Josh 24:12, 18); yarash (ירשׁ – “to dispossess, drive out”: Exod 34:24; Num 21:32; 33:52, 53, 55; Josh 3:10; 12:1; 13:6; 17:12, 13; 23:5, 9).
2) The conquest account actually begins in Moses’ day in the Transjordan — which is specifically aimed at Sihon and Og (Deut 2-3). The latter is clearly a giant, and both are referred to as Rephaim (a term linked to the Anakim in Deut 2:11), kings of the Rephaim, or Amorites (in Amos’ recollection of the conquest, the Amorites are described as very tall – Amos 2:9). Consequently, the conquest begins with giant clans in view.
3) The conquest instructions projecting the days of Joshua begin with what appears to be a general command of ḥerem to the entire land (Deut 7:1-2). Howver, I argue that the use of this verb is designed to take the reader’s mind back to the battles with Sihon and Og. This makes sense because as one proceeds through the conquest, the subsequent uses of ḥerem coincide at places where Anakim giants were seen and known to be present. The particular usage frames the general instance.
I’d like to elaoborate on this perspective in this post.
Where are the Giant Clans in the Land?
Let’s start with the original scouting mission of the land under Moses. Ten of the twelve spies reported that the land could not be taken because of the Anakim, a faithless report that led to the forty years of wandering in the wilderness:
28 . . . the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. 29 The Amalekites dwell in the land of the Negeb. The Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the hill country. And the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan.
Let’s note a couple things:
1) The report tells us about the inhabitants of the hill country (Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites), as opposed to the inhabitants who live by the sea and in the Jordan river valley (the Canaanites) and in the Negeb (Amalekites). What is the hill country?
“. . . a general designation in the Bible for those parts of the Holy Land that are hilly rather than flat. Since the land of Palestine has a mountainous spine running its length between the Jordan River to the east and the Mediterranean Sea to the west, any area along that spine can be designated ‘hill country’.” Source: Paul J. Achtemeier, Harper & Row and Society of Biblical Literature, Harper’s Bible Dictionary (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 393.
“The hill country occupies most of the country between the coastal plain to the W and Jordan to the E. . . .” Source: C. Nicholas Raphael, “Geography and the Bible: Geography of Palestine,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 968.
2) Despite the geographical zones mentioned above, the Anakim are simply said to live “there” (i.e., “in the land”). This means that the Anakim were presumably scattered among these other people groups in the land.
3) If we look at the places where the terms “Anakim” and “sons of Anak” occur, we get several more specific geographical references within Canaan (Hebron [aka, Kiriath Arba], Debir, Anab) situated in the hill coutnry, along with the general regional descriptions “all the hill country of Judah” and “all the hill country of Israel.” The Anakim are not said to be found in other areas — just throughout the hill country as it stretches N to S in the land.
4) The cities of Jericho, Jerusalem, Lachish, and Ai are in the hill country, as was Hazor (in Upper Galilee, also part of the hill country). Not surprisingly, towns/cities that the king of Hazor sent aid to vs. the Israelites (and vice versa; e.g., Makkedah, Lachish) are also in the hill country. Though the precise locations of some of these sites are unknown, the biblical narrative associates them all with the hill country.
It’s not hard to see that the giant clan remnants were associated with the hill country. Since this is where the Anakim are said to live, I don’t see the overlap as coincidental, particularly in light of the ḥerem commands and the way the conquest is summarized. I also think it significant that this thread is picked up once Israel gains control of the land again under the monarchy. The accounts of David’s skirmishes with the Philistines (the remnant Anakim fled to the Philistine cities per Josh 11) and particular Goliath and his brothers are not just window-dressing. They telegraph that the giant clan bloodlines are still around — and still need elimination.
The ḥerem / kherem command
Here are all the instances of ḥerem/kherem in the conquest accounts (Numbers through Joshua). Here’s a run-down of where the annihilation command was given:
- Numbers, Deuteronomy = Sihon and Og; warnings to any and all Israelites who get their fellows to follow the gods of the people under ḥerem. Some of the instances are general and, I argue, those must be informed by the particulars in the actual campaigns. This is a “101” principle of Bible study (really, and literary interpretation) that is habitually neglected when it comes to this topic (by evangelicals and atheists alike).
- Joshua 2 = Jericho
- Joshua 6-8 = Ai
- Joshua 10 = Jerusalem, Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish, Debir, Makkedah. In several instances Joshua and the Israelites pursue the inhabitants to other places, so when we read language like “Joshua left none remaining” in certain instances, the language may refer to the people they were chasing. In any event, the places are all in the hill country.
- Joshua 11 = Hazor (upper Galilee hill country)
I would submit that the above is why Joshua sums up the conquest this way:
Josh 11:21 And Joshua came at that time and cut off the Anakim from the hill country, from Hebron, from Debir, from Anab, and from all the hill country of Judah, and from all the hill country of Israel. Joshua devoted them to destruction with their cities. 22 There was none of the Anakim left in the land of the people of Israel. Only in Gaza, in Gath, and in Ashdod did some remain. 23 So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the Lord had spoken to Moses. And Joshua gave it for an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal allotments. And the land had rest from war.
Notice that the summary doesn’t say, “There were no more [fill in the people name] in the land of the people of Israel” because “Joshua had cut off [fill in the people name].” The conquest is defined as a success along specific lines: elimination of the Anakim from the hill country so that none of them were in Israel’s land.
I also think it’s why the “mop up” that occurred afterward in the days of Joshua also focused on the elimination of the Anakim by Caleb — again in the hill country (Joshua 14-15).
Other lemmas that can speak of life-taking
There are other Hebrew verbs of destruction besides ḥerem. Though that word has very specific theological / ritual connotations, let’s see how other lemmas that can involve killing are used in the book of Joshua.
אבד (ʾabad; “destroy, perish”) – occurs three times (Josh 7:7; 23:13, 16). Each instance has the Israelites in view, not other people. The lemma is used in Numbers 21:30 of the wars against Sihon and Og, and Deut 7 and 9 of the impending warfare in Canaan.
שׁמד (shamad; “destroy”) – This lemma is used in Deut 9 to describe the conquest generally. It is used in Josh 9:24; 11:14, 20; 24:8 of the conquest. There are no added place names. Each of the instances is associated with an instance already noted, in the hill country. This is also the lemma used in Amos 2:9 to describe the demise of the very tall Amorites in Amos’ recounting of the conquest.
שׁחת (shaḥat; “destroy” in certain contexts) – The lemma occurs once in Joshua 23:33, which has Reuben and Gad in view (a civil war nearly started after the conquest).
In a nutshell, what I’m saying is that when the conquest account gives us specifics, it is the giant Anakim targeted for utter destruction. The motivation is inextricably linked to the idea that rival gods seek to prevent Yahweh’s people from re-establishing the kingdom of God on earth. Yes, it’s certain other people were killed in the combat, but the Anakim were the rationale for “required killing.” Other peoples could have simply been driven out and displaced (garash and yarash are “non-lethal lemmas”) without being killed. But not the Anakim.
Why haven’t you heard this before?
I think the answer to that is simple enough — because it requires taking these accounts and Gen 6:1-4; Num 13:32-33 seriously and supernaturally (something that involved divine beings). Instead, evangelical Bible students, pastors, and most scholars strip the passages of their supernatural elements to make them palatable to a modern audience. An ancient reader simply would not have read any of these passages without those elements (and Gen 6:1-4 certainly wasn’t written to respond to non-supernatural religious claims of Mesopotamians). You can of course opt for a modern neutered reading, a common “strategy” from Augustine onward. But if you do that, don’t talk about interpreting the Bible in context. You won’t be.
One might ask: Why are the Hittites mentioned in some of these accounts? Who are the Jebusites? The Hivites? What’s the giant connection? Is there one?
Good questions. I’ll only note here that the Hittite version of the famous Hurrian Kumarbi myth makes it clear that “giant heroes” was part of their religion (the Kumarbi text is recognized as the ancient Near Eastern precursor [source?] of Hesiod’s Titan story). See here and here. Giants were chaos symbols / referents in ancient Near Eastern religious texts. It’s quite possible the biblical writers believed giants were among the Hittites living in the region as well. “Jebusite” is still debated as to derivation. The Jebusites are thought by some to be related to the Hurrians and Hittites, which would connect them to the Kumarbi material in terms of the religious ideas Israelites would have associated with them. At any rate, they (along with the Hivites) lived among (or was it the reverse) the Anakim. Little is known of the Ḥivites (and some texts read “Ḥorites” instead — the result of graphic confusion in old Semitic script). Scholars of high stature like Skinner noted that the term comes from the same root (ḥ-w-h) as one Semitic word for “serpent,” though no conclusive evidence has been produced that makes the Hivites some sort of serpent worshiping clan. Horites were, not surprisingly, Hurrian — so we’re back to the Kumarbi / giant/ Titan text. The Ḥorites also lived in the hill country –original the hill country of Seir (Gen 14:6). They were part of the Rephaim / Anakim contingent expelled by Esau from the Transjordan before the days of Moses and Joshua (Deut 2:12, 22). Coincidence? I doubt it.