God’s Marauders: Interpreting the Conquest Narratives.



This short paper is a sub-part of an exegetical assignment for Biblical Studies. It zooms in on the Judges 1:1–3:6 pericope and essentially asks the following three questions:

  1. By focusing on the text discuss why the Israelites did not take possession of all of the Promised Land?
  1. How do you reconcile these different explanations with what we read in the book of Joshua of Israel’s complete possession of the land?
  1. What are the implications of this for how you read Joshua and Judges?  Does this impact the way you understand the whole Old Testament?

Question (1) seeks to find an answer through the internal witness of the Torah and the Judges text itself. Question (2) attempts to account for the differences in the historical recollections. Finally, question (3) is pertinent to my own theological interpretation concerning morality and the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. This is attempted through a consideration of the problematic texts in Judges and the Old Testament.

1. Discuss, by focusing on the text, why the Israelites did not take possession of all of the Promised Land.

I think that there are several reasons why the Israelites did not take possession of the Promised Land. This is a question that we can answer from the text itself as well as reading between the lines. We shall read between the lines first.

Firstly, Israel at the time was not a military power. I have argued before that they probably, in sum, numbered no more than a few dozen thousands (Bishop, 2016). I believe that this has biblical warrant. The point being, given that the conquest narratives are grounded in any history, is that they had their fair share to deal with when they came across their opponents. And they clearly struggled. Clues throughout the Torah suggest that they were militarily inferior, for example, the other “nations are greater and mightier than you” (Deu. 7:1), Israel “were the fewest of all people” (Deu. 7:7), compared to others they were “like [tiny, fearful] grasshoppers” (Num. 13), and the entire Israelite army (‘all the men of war”) were able to march around Jericho several times which in itself seems to imply a smaller army (Josh. 6:3) (Unger, 1966: 672). Even more revealingly is that God, prior to Israel’s inheriting the land, informs Israel that he will “Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land” (Exod. 23:29-30, emphasis added). The Promised Land, where the Canaanite tribes sojourned, was not a large piece of real estate. It is, therefore, likely that the Israelites were a small migrant population not large enough to possess a small land. I agree with Max Apple’s diagnosis that “The tribes of Israel enter into Canaan as weak and frail and vulnerable as any other Bedouins” (Apple, 1987: 67).

The Judges text itself implies that the Israelites struggled in combat against the people from the plains. Although the Israelites had been quite successful in battle having previously overcome several Canaanite and Perizzite populations (1:4), defeated kings (1:7), invaded Jerusalem (1:8) destroyed Hebron (1:9), and a sizeable Canaanite city, Zephath (1:17), they surprisingly struggle against the people from the plains. We are told that the tribes from these plains possessed superior war machines, namely that of iron chariots (1:19-20). Evidently, the warfare of the Israelites was no match for these chariots. This would do well in the way of an adequate explanation as to why they couldn’t physically settle in the land.

Thirdly, theologically speaking, we are told that the Israelites were also disobedient to their god, Yahweh. For example, God angrily declares that Israel has disobeyed him by breaking their covenant whereby the Israelites are engaging in the customs (altar worship) of their neighbours (2:1-4). Being guilty before God they were remorseful enough to weep, they also offered sacrifices to God, and called the place Bokim (“weepers”) (2:4-6). Moreover, as the generations passed and time went on, the Israelites “did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals.” (2:11) These Baals being the gods of the other nations around them which suggests that at this point they had willingly forsaken their own god. In retaliation God’s anger escalates (2:12), and he gives them into the hands of raiders who Israel were too weak to combat (2:14). They were thus in great distress (2:15) after having made the mistake of disobeying their god, Yahweh.

So, why did the Israelites struggle to take possession of all of the Promised Land? For three reasons: they were militarily inferior (implied by Exodus, Deuteronomy, Joshua and Judges), they were a small migrating population (arguably the reason why, other than lacking iron chariots, they were militarily inferior), and they disobeyed their god, Yahweh.

2. How do you reconcile these different explanations with what we read in the book of Joshua of Israel’s complete possession of the land?  

It is clear that a central theme concerning the book of Joshua is that it is concerned with land conquest and land distribution (Brueggemann, 2003: 146). This could only take place subsequent to the Israelite’s settling into the land. Clearly, as we’ve seen, Judges is concerned with the conquests leading up to this event.

I believe that the inherent differences between these two books come down to the historical tradition. We need to remember that the authors of these books were recollecting memories that begun circulating centuries before they were written down. What this implies, as I’ve argued before (Bishop, 2016), is that this allows for much re-interpretive imagination. Beyond the infancy narratives of Jesus of Nazareth within the New Testament I’d argue that this is best seen in how Samuel-Kings and Chronicles recount alternative histories concerning King David. For example, Chronicles elevates David by diminishing his sins whereas Samuel does no such thing as to blot out David’s transgressions. Over and over again this theme is repeated, a fact that has led scholars to infer that there is a lot of theological imagining taking place. I believe that this applies to the traditions concerning the conquest narratives and Israel’s taking possession of the Promised Land. Walter Brueggemann rightly explains that “from a historical perspective… we are dealing with different traditions of the conquest of the land, with overlapping stories” (Brueggemann, 2003: 151). These traditions also appear to conflict, which Brueggemann admits is “surely an intentional paradox: the taking of the land, and the dispossession of its inhabitants… We might even see here an ethical conflict of memory: on the one hand Israel, like any nation, wants a clean and decisive story of its origins, but on the other hand it preserves evidence of a messier and more ethically problematic story of origins, one in which the annihilation of a land’s inhabitants is not so simple after all. It is not easy to hold these two versions together, but the canon insists that we do” (Brueggemann, 2003: 151).

3. What are the implications of this for how you read Joshua and Judges?  Does this impact the way you understand the whole Old Testament?

There are several pertinent points that come to the fore in my understanding of the Old Testament. There is the moral question and the biblical inerrancy question. Let’s first engage the notion of biblical inerrancy, a doctrine I do not adhere to myself (Bishop, 2016).

Inerrancy is the doctrine that scripture “is without error or fault in all its teaching.” This encompasses the disciplines of science, history and philosophy. In other words, the inerrantist holds that scripture, to be God’s word, cannot err when it comes to these subjects. However, the Old Testament errs scientifically (Bishop, 2016), morally (Bishop, 2016), and historically (I shall develop the latter two here). In other words, as a Christian myself, I don’t think we can impose such a rigid standard on the Bible, and if we do it falls flat. However, I don’t wish for us to become side-tracked, so let’s look at the historicity of the conquest narratives.

Brueggemann explains that the academy’s general view is that “The historical evidence for such a conquest is, in current judgment, quite problematic” (Brueggemann, 2003: 141). This has led to three central scholarly interpretations which do all “proceed on the assumption that the text of Joshua 2–12 reflects a core of historical memory” (Brueggemann, 2003: 142). But what warrants these doubtful views? This is a good question and one to which Christian scholar Thom Stark replies, “Many of the conquest accounts depicted in the biblical narratives are in fact contradicted both by archaeological and internal textual evidence” (Stark, 2011: Location 4314)

For example, in Numbers 20:14-21 we read of the Israelites heading from Negev to Edom. However, they are refused this passage by the King of Edom. The problem is that archaeological evidence tells us that only sparse, nomadic tribes dwelled in this region at the time of the event. In other words, there was no king to deny Israel access. Edom only obtained their nationalism 600 years after the described biblical events took place (Stark, 2011: Location 4314). Moreover, Numbers 21:1-3 tells us that Israel obliterated a number of cities in the region of northern Negev (one being the Canaanite city we already mentioned, Zephath). The problem is that, explains Stark, “excavations in the 1970s found that no Late Bronze Age occupational levels exist in this entire region. In other words, at the time of the supposed Israelite attack, nobody was home” (Stark, 2011: Location 4314). Starke continues, “With regard to the city of Arad in particular, it was not founded until the tenth century BCE, about 300 years after the events described in Numbers” (Stark, 2011: Location 4316). Joshua 6:20 recounts the walls of Jericho falling flat, however, excavations by Kathleen Kenyon found that Jericho never had any walls when Israel was said to have invaded it (Kenyon, 1957: 256-265). The American archaeologist Joseph Callaway, after excavating in the 1960s, explained that when it comes to Joshua “every reconstruction based on upon the biblical traditions has foundered on the evidence from archaeological remains” (Callaway, 1985: 31-49). However, although the archaeological issues are rife, Stark argues that “it is not likely that such stories were invented whole cloth” (Stark, 2011: Location: 4329). The narratives almost certainly have their origins in some battles. It is likewise a historical fact that a small fraction of what the conquest narratives alleged happened did actually occur. In support of this claim one can point to corroboration for the conquest account of Hazor which suggests that is must be based upon a historical kernel (Dever, 2003: 23-50). This is hardly an exhaustive treatment, but I think it suffices for now. My conclusion is that it would seem hard, given this, to hold to an inerrant Bible. However, let’s consider the moral question.

It is very clear that the conquest narratives in Judges and Joshua mandate genocide, the indiscriminate killing of whole populations. Brueggemann explains as much, “This notion, well entrenched in Israel, is a way whereby raw military violence and the will of YHWH are intimately linked, wherein the will of YHWH is seen to justify and authorize and legitimate acts of extermination. The rhetoric mandates nothing less than genocide” (Brueggemann, 2003: 148). Prominent Christian biblical professor Peter Enns explicates that “God commanded the Israelites to go from town to town and exterminate the current residents – men, women, children, and animals -and move in. If we read this anywhere else, we would call it genocide” (Enns, 2014). This is evidently problematic, theologically, for Christians who hold to biblical inerrancy as well as to a loving God; a God that is routinely defined to be the greatest conceivable being (Craig, 2010). Being such an entity requires moral perfection without blemish. Brueggemann realizes this and writes that “There is no question more troubling for theological interpretation of the Old Testament than the undercurrent of violence that moves through a good bit of the text” (Brueggemann, 2003: 147). Stark claims that this is hard to swallow since “a loving God could not have commanded genocide” (Stark, 2011: Location: 4407).

I have argued before that God never actually commanded the Israelites to slaughter entire populations wholesale (Bishop, 2016). Just because it is in the Bible doesn’t mean it really happened or that God sanctioned it. If we can trust these traditions then one has to conclude that Israelites were no more than common bandits, pillages, and thugs who went from town to town slitting throats and cutting off thumbs. This is known as herem which is extreme violence that is rooted in Yahweh, as Brueggemann notes, “This is the ancient conviction that things offered to YHWH as booty captured from the enemy must be “utterly destroyed.” The verb related to herem recurs in the narrative of Joshua 10, where it is repeatedly rendered “utterly destroy” (Brueggemann, 2003: 148). However, that this was never actually commanded by God is a position persuasively argued for by the likes of Randal Rauser, Thom Stark, Peter Enns, and Walter Brueggemann. Brueggemann pens that “It is possible, of course, to say that the ideology is so virulent and self-satisfied that it draws YHWH into the claim of the violence” (Brueggemann, 2003: 147). In other words, in all probability, the Israelites implicated God as divine justification for their conquests. This is not to deny that many Christian apologists (notably William Lane Craig, Paul Copan and Christopher Wright) have provided some articulate and well thought out arguments hoping to preserve the doctrine of inerrancy by justifying God’s alleged genocidal acts. However, I have looked into this matter for some time and have found their explanations unconvincing in hindsight of opposing voices. A consideration of these arguments would be quite beyond the scope here.

So, in conclusion, a comprehension of the violence perpetuated in the books of Judges and Joshua, and within the larger Old Testament corpus, calls into question the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. It clearly proves very difficult to defend the concept of a morally perfect God while at the same time holding that this God mandated genocide. This coupled with the fact that archaeology seems unkind towards the conquest narratives further calls into question inerrancy. In these two ways do these questions impact my understanding of the Old Testament.


Apple, M. 1987. Joshua.

Bishop, J. 2016. A Small Israelite Exodus Population. Available:
[15 August 2016]

Bishop, J. 2016. Luke & Matthew’s Creative Portrayal of Jesus in the Infancy Narratives. Available:
[15 August 2016]

Bishop, J. 2016. Inerrancy. Available:
[15 August 2016]

Bishop, J. 2016. Genesis Creation & Narrative as Myth. A Perspective. Available:
[15 August 2016]

Bishop, J. 2016. Child Sacrifice in the Mosaic Law (Exo. 22:29). Available:
[15 August 2016]

Bishop, J. 2016. Bible Genocide, Hijacking God, and the Inerrantist’s Double Standard. Available:
https://jamesbishopblog.wordpress.com/2016/06/28/bible-genocide-hijacking-god-and-the-inerrantists-double-standard/ [15 August 2016]

Brueggemann, W. 2003. An Introduction to the Old Testament. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Callaway, J. 1985. A New Perspective on the Hill Country Settlement of Canaan in Iron Age 1. Palestine in the Bronze and Iron Ages. London: Institute of Archaeology.

Craig, W. 2010. Perfect Being Theology. Available:
[15 August 2016]

Dever, W. 2003. Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come from? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Enns, P. 2014. The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. New York: Harper Collins.

Kenyon, K. 1957. Digging up Jericho: The results of the Jericho excavations, 1952-1956. London: Ernest Benn Limited.

Stark, T. 2011. The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (And Why Inerrancy Tries To Hide It). Eugene: Wipf & Stock Pub.

Unger, M. 1966. The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary. Chicago: Moody Publishers.

5 responses to “God’s Marauders: Interpreting the Conquest Narratives.

  1. Two questions, James:

    1. If the exodus and conquest narattives aren’t historically accurate, how much of the account can be comfortably affirmed as having taken place?

    2. If God had not actually decreed the slaughter of the Canaanites in the conquest narrative, couldn’t we also look at other OT revelations (to Abraham, or to Moses in the burning bush) as allegorical and not to have taken place in time?

    • 1. My personal belief is that they aren’t entirely accurate nor are they entirely false. However, in response I don’t think we will ever know. I have no doubt that imaginative embellishments have been constructed upon the historical kernal. Did Moses experience God in the burning bush? I don’t know. Did the Israelites cross the Reed Sea? I don’t know. I don’t doubt that there is a historical component to the narratives.

      2. That would be an interesting question. It is possible that they really happened but it is also possible that they are imaginative reconstructions. We won’t ever know.

  2. It takes a special kind of stupid to believe that the bible is full of scientific, historical,moral and philosophical errors and still believe it’s the word of your god. It makes more sense to believe that they are just ancient myths and writings from a pre-scientific tribe but that’s christians for you. The more I read your blog, James, the more I have to laugh at you.

  3. Pingback: Q&A – Why are there so many myths in the Bible? | James Bishop's Theology & Apologetics.·

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