The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest: Covenant, Retribution, and the Fate of the Canaanites
John H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton
InterVarsity Press (IVP Academic)
PO Box 1400
Downers Grove, IL 60515
ISBN: 978-0-8308-5184-3; July 2017; $20.00
It is a piece of the biblical story that has inflamed some, incensed others, embarrassed many, and baffled not a few. What does one do with the violent conquest of Canaan by Israel? John H. Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College and Graduate School, and J. Harvey Walton, researcher in biblical studies, have assembled suggestions that map out one way to read the conquest narratives in their recently published 288 page paperback “The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest: Covenant, Retribution, and the Fate of the Canaanites”. This compilation is one more installment in the multivolume “Lost World” series spearheaded by John Walton. The present work slowly moves the technical and non-technical reader through twenty-one propositions toward their final conclusion.
“The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest” moves, step-by-step, along a line that attempts to tease out what the conquest narratives would have meant “to the people to whom it was originally written” (8). To accomplish this feat, Walton and Walton address the cognitive environment of the original audience and challenge present readers not to impose modern sensitivities and sensibilities to the accounts; “what matters is not what modern Westerners think about the methods, but what ancient Near Easterners would have thought” (11). One overarching claim by the authors is the proposal “that the Bible is given to us not to provide a list of rules for behavior but to reveal God’s plans and purposes to us, which in turn will allow us to participate with him in those plans and purposes” (15-6).
To reach their aim, the authors take apart every text that comes to mind, which has normally been translated and read as moral justifications for the conquest stories. Their working assumption, woven throughout, is that when “we see the people in Canaan suffer, therefore, we dare not assume that their suffering must have been earned through evil” (37). From Genesis 15:6 to Leviticus 18-20 and on through 1 and 2 Kings, Walton and Walton tangle with the Hebrew to bring out a different understanding of every passage than it has normally been translated or understood to mean. Since the authors appear to deny a universal moral law that people of Canaan had broken (77), then their conclusion is that there was no retribution for idolatry because “idolatry is not inherently immoral” (80), nor a reprisal for social and sexual immorality. Rather, in the conquests Yahweh is depicted as “carrying out the proper function of a god in the context of the ancient Near East” (78). To validate this last assertion the authors lean heavily on Ancient Near Eastern myths and tales.
So if the conquests were not conducted for reasons of immorality, then what was their goal? Here “The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest” pursues the Hebrew word, ḥērem, which is often translated “total destruction”. To my mind, this was the most beneficial portion of the whole volume. According to Messrs. Walton and Walton, ḥērem is about “identity, not ethnicity” (186). In other words, the aim of ḥērem was for removing “the identity of a conquered people” which was “a standard procedure of ancient warfare”. And so Canaanite identity “needs to be removed so that Israel cannot make use of it (191). The objective “is to remove the various Canaanite identities from the use of every individual who remains in the land, by one way or another,” including the command to Saul to wipe out the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15 (214-29).
It is from this perspective that the authors apply the conquests, and especially ḥērem, to Christians. The Old Testament template of ḥērem “tells us, then, …that in order to serve God’s purpose we are supposed to purge ourselves – our personal allotment of “land” – of all identities other than “in Christ,” just as the Israelite tribes were supposed to purge their allotted territory of all identities other than the people of the covenant…” (244). Further, the imagery employed in the conquests is meant “to portray …God driving away the forces of chaos in a recapitulation of the biblical creation story,” and is designed to bring us to interpret the story “as the establishment of a new created order and to interpret the covenant as the manifestation of the order” (256).
Beyond the heavy dependence on Ancient Near Eastern tales to bolster their case, I found a few issues to be highly problematic. The first was the denial of a universal moral law for all peoples. This is implied in several places and stated clearly in a few others. For example, in one footnote, “…the definition of justice is relative to the context of the observers…This is why the Mosaic law cannot be understood in universal terms; it represents Near Eastern ideals, not absolute divine ideals” (121, fn4). One could add to this quotation statements made on pages 42-44, 76-78, 121, and 138, to point to a few places. This leads the authors to claim that the “cultural river or cognitive environment” in which Israel dwelt gave God’s people sufficient “moral knowledge” on how to be good (254). But it also seems to be the momentum that compels the authors to spill truck-loads of ink on stripping the moral justifications from the conquest narratives.
“The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest” is a mixed bag. It is easy to read and comprehend. Also, it makes some valuable conclusions with regard to ḥērem. But then there are areas that are deeply disappointing and unhelpful, to say the least. If you are attempting to get your mind and heart around the conquest narratives, I would cautiously recommend reading this volume.
Thanks to IVP Academic for providing, upon my request, the free copy of the book used for this review. The assessments are mine given without restrictions or requirements (as per Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255).