This post on Unreasonable Faith depicts a page from a newsletter for conservative Christian homeschoolers, teaching how to confront atheists who cite “the most ridiculous stories in the Bible.” Wait, so the person who wrote this is ADMITTING that there are ridiculous stories in the Bible? Anyway, as you might expect, the argument makes no sense. I must say I’ve always been disturbed by the accounts of the Israelites conquering the tribes that were already living in the area. It’s a very might-makes-right concept, made even odder by the fact that the historical record doesn’t totally support these stories. It’s not entirely clear when the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan took place, but the date suggested by the Biblical text was likely one in which Jericho, for instance, wasn’t inhabited at all.
Also, while the end of the Book of Joshua makes it sound like the conquest was a done deal, Judges makes it clear that much of this territory was still disputed for long after that.
If we take the Biblical narrative as presenting a basically consistent view of history (which it really doesn’t), Abraham was promised that his descendants would take control of the land of Canaan. His son Isaac and grandson Jacob lived there, but Jacob and his sons emigrated to Egypt during a famine. Their descendants remained there for a few centuries, and then returned to Canaan to take it back. Can it really be considered taking it back, though? Genesis says that Abraham was from Mesopotamia, and when he came to Canaan there were already plenty of people living there. They even had their own cities. Abraham did legally purchase some land here, but this consisted solely of a cave in Hebron that became his family burial plot. Abraham and the other patriarchs were nomadic herders, and apparently didn’t have any permanent home. Sure, God promised the land to Abraham’s descendants, but I doubt this kind of claim has any legal basis. After all, the Canaanites probably thought their gods had promised them that same land. So it really just becomes a case of the Israelites becoming the owners of the land because they killed and/or conquered all the other inhabitants. To the victor go the spoils, and all that rot. Even if the Canaanite tribes didn’t settle there until after Jacob left for Egypt, it still seems that they would have had more legal right to it than a bunch of former Egyptian slaves who claimed their ancestors lived there 400 years previously. As someone else pointed out, if we’re going to consider them squatters then they would presumably have squatters’ rights, and they were actually using that land.
If Joshua’s conquest of Canaan really didn’t occur in the way the Bible says, as many historians believe, what would possess whoever wrote it to insist it did? After all, if you’re going to hold up your own nation as God’s favorite, couldn’t the account for how it came to possess the land be just about anything? That someone would actually CHOOSE to claim their own ancestors committed genocide and massive destruction, often even putting the women and children to death (although in certain special cases they were permitted to rape the women instead) shows that this society had some rather bizarre values by today’s standards. I guess they were basically saying the neighbors shouldn’t mess with them because they were the most bad-ass people around. After all, their victories in battle must mean God was on their side, right?
Never mind that, if God is as powerful as he’s usually said to be, he presumably could have provided a more peaceful and less disputable way for the Israelites to rule the land. That he instead decided his chosen people should put everyone else to the sword shows a quite militaristic and violent character for God, certainly quite different from the personality Jesus would give him.