The first excavation of et-Tell, the putative site of the Biblical Ai, occurred in the 1930s. The conquest and destruction of Ai, including the slaughter of 12,000 inhabitants, came about after an earlier failed attack that resulted in the death of thirty-six Israelites. Success followed Achan’s execution for taking booty from Jericho against God’s mandate. So this account of Ai’s destruction has a theological underpinning that casts suspicion on its historicity. Archeologists disagree over whether the mound at et-Tell is in fact the site of Ai and at which time the destruction took place. At best, if this was the site, Joshua’s troops came upon the largely unoccupied ruins of a town conquered decades if not centuries earlier.
The ruins of Hazor located on Tell el-Qedah seem best to corroborate the Bible. The size of the site confirms the greatness attributed to it by Joshua. With a population of 40,000, temples and commercial activity, Hazor was the greatest city in Palestine during the Bronze Age. It appears to have been violently destroyed in the 13th century BCE when the conquest of Canaan would have occurred. Evidence of an attack calls into question the aforementioned thesis that Israelites settled the lands as pastoralists over a couple of centuries through transhumance, but it still doesn’t prove the Biblical story. Archeological data and extra-biblical textual evidence give virtually no support. Though a couple cities can fit the account, that doesn’t mean the Israelites destroyed those places; it could have been someone else for all we know.
In addition to archeology, the Biblical text itself sometimes subverts its own account of genocide. The Amalekites were one of the first peoples to attack the Israelites as they were leaving Egypt. The Lord wanted vengeance. “Now go and smite Amalek and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both men, and women, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass” (Deuteronomy 25). Jehovah promised moreover to blot out the memory of Amalek forever. However, the Amalekites keep reappearing in the Biblical record, leaving the task of killing them to later patriarchs. As if to account for the continual presence of a people that should have been destroyed, Exodus 17 has Jehovah vowing to make war against the Amalekites “from generation to generation.” To wit, Israel’s first king Saul “utterly destroyed all the people [Amalekites] with the edge of the sword” (1 Samuel 15:2-8). The Amalekites leave the biblical record only after a further encounter with no less than King David, who “smote them from the twilight even into the evening of the next day” so that only 400 young men escaped (1 Samuel 30). Initially, God’s vengeance was to wipe them out but, perhaps due to technical difficulties—the refusal of these wily people to die en masse—God’s vengeance was transmuted into an incessant persecution "from generation to generation."
If these events did not take place, why would Jewish scribes fabricate these stories centuries later? How do we read these accounts? What kinds of meanings did the biblical writers embed in the text? If we divest the narrative of its theological message and try to forget the theological significance the passages have come to mean for later generations, we see a brutally frank account of a nomadic ethnic group seeking to carve out a “land flowing with milk and honey” by the removal or destruction of people occupying that land. But again, why brag about such foul deeds if they didn’t occur? One historian has postulated that the Biblical writers were employing the “rhetoric of genocide” in order to give the impression that their forefathers had massacred the Canaanites. The Israelites wanted to instill fear in neighboring communities, essentially indicating to them what would happen if they didn’t relinquish their lands or at least cease from taking up arms. This propaganda, designed to avoid or minimize conflict, was later recorded in Scripture, giving the impression that these events had actually occurred. The ongoing saga of the Amelakites shows that the earlier statement about wiping out this people was just rhetoric, for they kept reappearing in the Biblical record.
The faithful have drawn some interesting applications from these accounts. In a famous 16th-century debate between the theologian Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda and the Dominican priest (and ex-slave trader) Bartolomé de Las Casas, the atrocities recorded in the Bible became points of contention. On the basis of Deuteronomy 7 and other passages Sepulveda defended Spain’s brutal subjugation of indigenous peoples in the New World by arguing that God was punishing the Indians for their crimes in the same way that God punished the heathen Canaanites. In short, he likened the Conquistadors to the Israelites as dispensers of divine judgment and the rightful possessors of a Promised Land. Unfortunately, Las Casas, despite his noble intention of protecting the Indians from Spanish atrocities, drew hardly a better moral lesson from these embarrassing passages of the Old Testament. For him, the mandate to destroy entire peoples applied only to communities in the Promised Land. The Lord did not command the Israelites to exterminate peoples living in other lands. Las Casas made an exception for the Midianites and Amelakites who respectively led Israelite men astray and twice provoked a war. He adds that the Hebrew, “especially prone to idolatry,” needed to remove the source of their temptations, namely women and graven images.