Q. Peter Enns has a book out called The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. In this book, among other things, he argues that there is a huge lack of archaeological evidence for the exodus and for the Canaanite “genocides.” He says that outside of evangelical scholarship this is essentially an undisputed fact. He argues that these stories likely reflect a sort of “tribal deity” rhetoric/mentality and are full of hyperbole and would have been characteristic of how people in that time and place related to God. He also argues that to the extent that the Israelites did massacre the Canaanites, they were not in fact carrying out God’s will but were instead doing what they erroneously thought God was telling them to do (since they related to him as a tribal warrior god). What do you make of these claims?
I haven’t yet read this particular book by Enns, though I have read some of his other books and I appreciate him as an honest, thoughtful, careful, articulate, and provocative writer. But I do discuss the historicity of the Canaanite genocides and their theological implications in this post, in light of a review of another book that makes similar claims.
I’m not qualified to speak to the archaeological debate, though I can imagine how it could easily devolve into circular arguments: “Of course there’s no trace left of the campaign against the Canaanites, because the Israelites were told to ‘break down their altars, smash their sacred pillars, burn their Asherah poles, cut down their carved idols, and completely erase the names of their gods.’ You shouldn’t expect to find anything. It’s just an argument from silence that it didn’t happen because you haven’t found anything.” But basically I will leave the archaeology to others.
Instead, to address the biblical and theological side of things, let me say again that the biblical stories of genocide are so disturbing that it would be a great relief to think that they never really happened. However, I think we have to ask ourselves what the implications would be if they actually had happened, and for that matter what the implications are that the Bible says they happened. As I wrote earlier, I think we need to see these stories as exceptional and even incongruous within the Bible, and on that basis see whether we can account for them somehow.
The best I’ve been able to do with that is still to see the life and teachings of Jesus as normative for the interpretation of all of Scripture, and on that basis to conclude that no one today should emulate the actions or attitudes represented by the genocide stories in the Bible. Instead, we need to hold them in an uncomfortably painful tension with the normative teachings about loving our enemies and seeking forgiveness and reconciliation, pursue those things, and await the day when “we shall know fully, even as we are now fully known,” and hopefully then understand.