Book Write-Up: The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest

John H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton.  The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest: Covenant, Retribution, and the Fate of the Canaanites.  IVP Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Biblical scholar John Walton is known for his books, The Lost World of Genesis One and the Lost World of Adam and Eve, in which he offers fresh interpretations of the Hebrew Bible in light of its ancient Near Eastern context.  With his son, J. Harvey Walton, a graduate student in biblical and theological studies, Walton attempts to do the same thing in this next book of the series, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest.  The Waltons tackle the disturbing issue of the Israelite Conquest, in which God in the Hebrew Bible commanded the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites and to take their land.  The Canaanites were put under the ban, or, in Hebrew, the cherem.

The Waltons are critical of both criticisms of the Israelite Conquest and also apologetic attempts to defend it.  Against the criticisms, the Waltons contend that there was a different mindset in the ancient Near East than there is today: the Canaanites, for example, would not have considered the Israelites to be unfair in taking their land, but rather they would have concluded that the Israelite God was stronger than their gods, or that they had somehow displeased their own gods.

Against the apologetic defenses, the Waltons contend that, in the Hebrew Bible, the Canaanites are not killed because God is punishing them for sins that they committed.  The Waltons offer alternative interpretations of biblical passages that have been held to promote the viewpoint that the Israelite Conquest was divine punishment of the Canaanites, including Genesis 15:16, Leviticus 18:27-30, and Deuteronomy 9:4-5.

According to the Waltons, the purpose of cherem was for the land of Canaan to be given to God, for God’s use.  The Waltons seem to acknowledge that, in the Hebrew Bible, this entailed the killing of the Canaanites in battle.  At the same time, they maintain that cherem does not necessarily entail killing.  It could include the Canaanites leaving their cities, Canaanites giving up their identity and becoming Israelites (as Rahab did), Canaanites being consecrated to the service of God (like the Gibeonites), and Canaanite identity being eradicated through the killing of the Canaanite kings, the leaders of the nation.

The book had interesting details.  For example, the Waltons address the biblical portrayal of the Canaanites in light of ancient Near Eastern descriptions of certain groups (like the Umman-manda) as barbarians, as people who are chaotic or even monstrous.  For the Waltons, the biblical portrayals of the Canaanites were not intended to be taken literally, but rather to remind the Israelites that their God was a God of order, not chaos.  In addition, while I have heard that the prophetic “Oracles against the Nations” were intended for an Israelite audience and not the actual nations themselves, the Waltons cogently explained how the Oracles functioned for the Israelites.

The book had somewhat of an “All dressed up and no place to go” feel, in that the Waltons failed to articulate what exactly God’s larger purposes were.  They reject the idea that God in the Hebrew Bible was seeking to convert the nations to the religion of Israel.  They seem to suggest that the goal of the Conquest was so that God could have the land so that God could manifest God’s glory to the nations, but what was the telos of that?  In a few passages, they appear to say that we do not really know: that God’s aims in the Hebrew Bible are obscure to us because we are from a different culture from theirs.  They seem to suggest something similar about the New Testament: that it leaves questions unanswered about God’s ultimate purposes.

The Waltons also address how the concept of cherem relates to the New Testament.  Cherem in the Hebrew Bible was about the surrender of a previous identity so that God could have possession.  That is the case in the New Testament, with believers.  Moreover, in the same way that the Waltons dispute that Leviticus 18 was a literal description of how the Canaanites behaved, they contend that New Testament descriptions of the flesh, likewise, are not intended to be interpreted as fully accurate.  This is not entirely convincing, but it is intriguing, as some (myself included) have wrestled with New Testament depictions of humans apart from Christ as depraved.  Another interesting detail of their discussion about the New Testament was that they held that church discipline in I Corinthians was not so much about policing sin in the church, as maintaining a good reputation with outsiders.  Yet, the Waltons balanced this out by saying that church discipline in the New Testament is about the church affirming its identity, against threats to her identity that compromise her usefulness to God.

The prose of the book was relatively simple, and the Waltons utilized analogies to make their arguments clearer.  The book was still difficult, and one reading alone may not suffice, for some readers.  One reason is that the Waltons were advancing theses that were counter-intuitive, so special attention needed to be paid to their arguments to see where they were going, and how they were getting there.  Reading the Waltons’ book brings to mind the words of Yoda: “You must UNLEARN what you have learned!”  Second, the Waltons were exploring different dimensions of topics, including the cherem.  They were not simply suggesting that the Israelite Conquest (among other things) echoes the ancient Near East, but they were pointing out areas in which concepts in the Hebrew Bible differed from the ancient Near East.  Third, they seemed to contradict themselves, at times.  They argued that Leviticus 18-20 did not contain laws that the Israelites were expected to obey, and, indeed, scholars have questioned whether ancient law codes, such as the Code of Hammurabi, were intended to be applied literally.  For the Waltons, the law codes contained principles of justice, not actual laws.  At the same time, they seem to acknowledge that there are laws of the Old Testament, and they liken the laws of the Torah to rules of a game that Israelites were expected to honor.  There was also some unclarity about the biblical passages that depict Canaanites as existing after the Conquest: does their preservation show that the Conquest did not entail utter annihilation, or did God change God’s mind about their annihilation, allowing the Canaanites to survive to be a test to the Israelites (a la Judges 3:1).

In terms of its approach to the Bible, the book is rather conservative.  It seems to accept the historicity of the Israelite Conquest.  It also uses some of its insights to present the Bible as coherent: the Waltons state, for instance, that the Pentateuch contains laws that differ from each other, but that this does not matter because the “laws” are not actually laws but are intended to convey the importance of certain principles.  Many conservatives probably would not defend the coherency of the Bible in this way, but the Waltons do so.  A good question would be, however, why there are contradictory laws in the first place, if a single God inspired the Bible.

The book is thought-provoking and informative, especially about conceptions within the ancient Near Eastern world.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest.

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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