Friday, June 18, 2010

Genocide in the Bible (1/2)

The Israelites’ conquest of Canaan is probably the most detailed account of ethnic cleansing we have from the ancient Near East. In the candid narrative of the Scriptures, the Chosen People appear as both victims and perpetrators in the military takeover of the Transjordan under Moses and the Western region of modern-day Palestine under Joshua. If we read the Hebrew Bible less through the eyes of piety and more with historical scrutiny we find it indeed pockmarked with instances of genocidal massacres. The siege of a city ends in the slaughter of the men, sexual enslavement of the women, razing of the town, and the allotment of spoils and territory to the tribes of Israel. Jehovah’s rules of engagement for the Israelites as they come into contact with other nations were rather brutal by anyone’s standard.

The fate of the Midianites, as recounted in the Book of Numbers, goes beyond an act of war and enters the realm of genocide. After victory in battle, the Israelites slew all of the males, razed their towns, enslaved the women and children, and plundered for booty. Angry with the officer staff of the army for taking captives, Moses ordered them to kill all women and boys and save only virgin girls for themselves. These atrocities stemmed from both vengeance and strategy. The women had earlier enticed Israelite men sexually, causing them to worship pagan deities. Moreover, only by defeating the Midianites could the Israelites consolidate their hold over the Transjordanian area.

One of the most famous stories of the Old Testament is the destruction of Jericho. The Lord promised to deliver the city into the hands of his people. The Israelites marched around the city for six days and, after seven times around the city on the seventh day, “the people shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the people gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so every man charged straight in, and they took the city” (Joshua 6:20). Often neglected is the next verse that records the wholesale slaughter of men, women, children, and livestock. That Jericho was possibly a center for pagan worship might account for the Israelites’ ferocity in this case.

On the heels of Jericho’s destruction came the siege of Ai. Joshua sent an advance party to draw out the city dwellers by feigning a retreat. After the army of Ai took the bait, a second smaller force entered the city from the rear and set it to the torch. Demoralized, Israel’s pursuers lost the initiative and the hunters became the hunted. The two Israelite forces combined their attack on the hapless people of Ai and crushed them mercilessly. In fact, they killed all 12,000 inhabitants. After having plundered the city with God’s blessing, the Israelites burned the city to the ground “and made it a desolate place to this day.”

Why such drastic measures? We could come up with a theological answer, I suppose, but thank goodness we don’t give our soldiers and marines similar ROE in Iraq and Afghanistan. One could point to the irony of world history’s first known genocidal regime later falling victim to the worst genocide in history, but the historicity of these genocidal massacres is dubious.

Does archeology substantiate any of these massacres? According to the Bible, the Israelites conquered the land of Canaan in the course of seven years through a tenacious military campaign under Moses and Joshua. Among the devastation, God’s chosen people completely destroyed the towns of Heshbon, Edre, Jericho, Ai, Arad, and Hazor and slaughtered all of the inhabitants. Most scholars think that the Israelites entered Canaan not by conquest, however, but by a peaceful “pastoral infiltration” of transhumance over many years.

Let’s look at the archeological evidence. The mound that was once ancient Jericho has yielded scant information to conform the Biblical story. Radio carbon dating indicates the city existed before 7000 BCE and is thus the oldest city still in existence. Its famous walls, dating back to the Early Bronze Age, came tumbling down long before even Abraham came onto the scene. Moreover, the continuous reoccupation of the site after the 13th century BCE disproves the effectiveness of Joshua’s divine curse on the city. Since the Bible states that the Israelites burned the city, archeologists hoping to confirm the story’s historical veracity have made much of the layers of ash found at the site. But the fire more likely occurred in an Egyptian attack centuries before the Israelite “conquest.” The site of Jericho reveals a wealth of information about the prehistoric Middle East in general, but nothing about the Israelites. The most plausible explanation of the biblical Jericho is that it is an etiological saga designed not only to explain the ruins that the Israelites saw around them, but it also provided a national folktale to give confidence to this small nomadic people.