Monday, October 15, 2007

Is the Book of Joshua Completely Fictional? (Cont.)

(Continued from here)

It is a commonplace that the slavery in Egypt and deliverance by Moses is a peculiarly meaningful theme in Afro-American Christianity. Those who have been historically oppressed identify with the theme of liberation and the overthrow of the powers that be by God's righteous hand.

The other side of this, of course, is that the Joshua event, at least as it is written in Scripture, has peculiarly uncomfortable overtones for liberation-centered Christianity. While one can get some liberatory mileage out of the idea of poor Israelites shouting down the great walls of Jericho, the bottom line is, the book celebrates conquest, and more than that, racially- and religiously-based genocidal conquest (no use softening phrases, that's what it says). As the concept of conquest and replacement of alien races gradually moved from being a natural part of human history to a criminal act (a movement that certainly began no later than the 1770s, was still of not great significance in 1914, but had achieved dominance in 1945 and was certainly completed by 1975), the book of Joshua likewise went from being natural to extremely troubling.

As a result, as the archaeological case evaporated for a historic Joshua event in the Late Bronze Age-Iron Age transition, it was natural that the idea of a Joshua event would undergo a transmutation. There was little evidence of an invasion and an invasion would be grossly inappropriate for glorification by Scripture in any case: well, then, perhaps Joshua can be turned into something liberatory, something Exodus-like. And if you know what the ideological climate was in the 1960s, you will know know what the war of Joshua was turned into: a peasant rebellion.

This move was first made by George E. Mendenhall, a Lutheran scholar (non-LCMS, of course) -- bio notice here, picture and interview here. It has to be remembered that Mendenhall was not attacking just the Biblical account, but the fusion of the Biblical account with historico-anthropological explanation that analogized the Joshua event with the Arab conquest of the seventh century: supposedly an explosion of purely nomadic egalitarian Bedouin monotheists who invaded from the desert and overthrew the empires of (East) Rome and Persia.

In a 1962 article (you can read it here if you, or your university, subscribes to JSTOR), he pointed out that the "anthropologized" version of the Joshua event, in which the conquest is a nomadic conquest of ethnically alien sedentary people did not fit with the usual pattern of nomadic-sedentary relations or with the archeology of the Late Bronze-Iron Age transition. Bedouins didn't really exist in the Bronze Age, and even if they did, Middle Eastern nomads and sedentaries are usually integrated by kin and economic networks. This viewpoint was later elaborated in later books, beginning with the Tenth Generation.

He then argued that what happened was not an invasion, but a rebellion. Around a small core -- maybe only 70 families -- of Habiru/Hebrew "transgressors" or "rebels" who had rebelled against Egyptian rule*, rebels rallied to their message that YHWH is Lord and therefore Pharaoh/Jabin** isn't. Listening to the freedom riders who had escaped from Egypt bearing a new theology of liberation, the oppressed serfs of the arrogant imperialists in Canaan rose up -- and the walls came tumbling down. The Conquest was really an Insurrection.

Notice how not just conquest, but the idea of racial or religious exclusivism has been eliminated from the Biblical picture, and instead transmuted into their opposites. The assimilation of Rahab has gone from being the exception to the rule.

Mendenhall's Peasant Revolt model operated with the theologian's traditional idealist explanation in which egalitarian theology generates egalitarian sociology. Norman Gottwald, whose massive Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250-1050, was dedicated to the Viet Cong, developed the idea with a materialist twist. Yahwism, and all the other basic religious concepts of early Israel, are simply the ideological reflections of the fundamental reality of the egalitarian, anti-urban revolt:

'Yahweh' is the historically concretized, primordial power to establish and sustain social equality in the face of counter-oppression from without and again provincial and non-egalitarian tendencies from within society. 'The Chosen People' is the distinctive self-consciousness of a society of equals created in the intertribal order and demarcated from a primarily centralized and stratified surrounding world. 'Covenant is the bonding of decentralized social groups in a larger society of equals committed to cooperation without authoritarian leadership' (p. 692).

In short, those who are committed to social egalitarianism are living out Yahwism, and those who aren't, aren't.

(Mendenhall later accused Gottwald of trying to 'force the ancient historical data into the Procrustes' Bed of nineteenth-century Marxist ideology.' Actually, of course, Marx was a big fan of cities; the particular Procrustes' Bed here is not nineteenth-century Marxism, but twentieth-century Maoism and the idea that the rural areas are the bearers of liberation and Lin Biao's slogan "surround the cities from the countryside!" One wonders if Gottwald's rejection of even Mendenhall's limited role for Mosaic freedom riders from Egypt was also influenced by the contemporary Maoist attempts to minimize the significance of Soviet Comintern advisers in the origin of Chinese and Vietnamese Communism.)

This picture was influenced by the archeology, but it is impossible to deny that both Mendenhall and Gottwald's theories are shaped throughout by the need to fashion the Joshua event into something that is non-racial, non-exclusive, non-conquest, and non-genocidal -- a usable theological past, whether it be for a liberal civil rights activist like Mendenhall or a for far left peasant warrior liberation theologian like Gottwald.

But if the Joshua event was really a peasant rebellion, how did it become a conquest? Here is where the monarchy fits in. The formation of the monarchy (whether of the charismatic Saulian type in Ephraim and the North, or of the dynastic Davidic type of Judah and the South) was according to this scenario a betrayal of the original egalitarian message of Yahwism. The revolution having been betrayed by a new revisionist, imperialist ruling class of pseudo-Yahwist bureaucrats (just as Khrushchev's revisionists betrayed the original Leninist revolutionary vision), the history of the revolution was rewritten in the usual direction of pagan imperialism -- legitimation of rule by conquest. Thus what was really a peasant revolt was rewritten as a conquest -- precisely to legitimize the hierarchical, urban version of Yahwism centered on the temple and priesthood in Jerusalem or Bethel, Dan, and Samaria that had supplanted the original egalitarian vision. Yet still within the ruling narrative a counter-narrative of liberation remained hidden in the texts -- to be excavated by Mendenhall and Gottwald in the twentieth century.

Gottwald's magnum opus came out in 1979, exercised a big influence for a while but has now faded. The main grave digger was the Danish scholar Niels Lemche, who did to Gottwald what Gottwald and Mendenhall had done to the Albright-style "nomadic invasion" thesis. Remember what they had done was taken a historico-anthropological explanation of the Joshua event, founded in the last analysis on an analogy (in the earlier case with the Arab invasion), and demonstrated that the supposed analogy was anachronistic and implausible. In his 1985 Early Israel: Anthropological and Historical Studies on the Israelite Society before the Monarchy (review here for those of you with JSTOR), Lemche did the same to Gottwald. He pointed out that rural and urban society is generally symbiotic, that "tribes" are not generally egalitarian, that the anthropological schema used by Gottwald is based on a narrow and skewed reading of social anthropology, and in short that the whole peasant revolt scheme lacks solid comparative foundation.

Lemche went on to become one of the founding "minimalists". (Probably the best popular presentation of their viewpoint is Silberman and Finkelstein's The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. Here's a short presentation of the viewpoint that appeared in Harper's magazine.) Keith Whitelam (more here) has probably been the most explicit in linking this new minimalist school to the contemporary anti-Zionist point of view.

To understand their significance, it is important to keep in mind what Mendenhall and Gottwald still retained of the traditional narrative. They agreed that the Israel of the Judges period (i.e. pre-monarchic Israel) was conscious of their radical break with Canaanite society, and that the Joshua event was a mythologized version of that radical break. They also agreed that the monarchic period, and particularly the forced labor under Solomon was historical, and marked a kind of covert "restoration" of many features of Canaanite society, centered on the urban temple. This restoration was, however, a betrayal of a previously existing radically anti-Canaanite Yahwistic vision.

To the minimalists, however, pre-monarchic Israel was simply a spatially reorganized Canaanite society. There were different, more dispersed settlement patterns (this is documented by Iron Age I and II archaeology), but no real ideological break. It is natural then that the monarchies which developed in the tenth century BC were Canaanite in style. The monarchies were not a betrayal of some earlier unified egalitarian vision, since we have no evidence that such a vision existed. Since David and Solomon were, as the minimalists famously contend, mythical, there were originally two Canaanite kingdoms: Israel and Judah.

So when did the idea of a radical break with Canaanite society happen? First in the declining years of the Judahite kingdom the ideas of monotheism were explicated by a minority. But it is only in the post-Exilic period, when the colonial Zionist settlers returned from Babylon, that an ideology of "We are different! We have nothing to do with these natives! We are not Canaanite! We are not the 'People of the Land,' but conquering immigrants!" became codified in the form of a historical narrative.

This historical narrative was designed to legitimate stealing the land from the native Samarian/Philistine/Idumean/non-fanatic Isrealites (the Palestinians of their day), with a fictitious Exodus event, a fictitious Joshua event, a fictitious unified monarchy under David and Solomon, and a distorted view of the real and historic dual monarchies of Israel and Judah. This distorted view, codified in the fifth or fourth century BC in the creation of the Torah and the Deuteronomistic History anachronistically foisted on those earlier kingdoms the same "We are not Canaanites!" ideology that in fact only become the majority report among the Diaspora. So the Joshua event was indeed a mythical event following the usual pagan Near Eastern ideas of justifying possession by conquest. But rather than being a royal mystification of what was originally liberation, it was all along an ideology of dispossession by a racially and religiously exclusive elite of religious fanatics. In short, there is no theologically usable past in the basic narrative Hebrew Bible, and theologically; the task is to excavate the fundamentally oppressive and exploitative lineaments of the narrative and so liberate ourselves from them.

At present, the idea that there was no Joshua event has been widely accepted. Remember how this happened: 1) Albright and company pegged it to the Late Bronze Age-Iron Age transition (roughly 1250-1210 BC), and analogized it to the Arab invasions. 2) The Arab invasion analogy was shown to be faulty and the archeology of the LB-Iron Age transition shown not to evidence of foreign conquest. Hence the new idea was indigenous peasant revolt; 3) the indigenous peasant revolt model was also shown to be faulty, and the scattered archaeological evidence of destruction of the LB-Iron Age transition in a few lowland cities seemed to have nothing to with the new settlement patterns in the uplands, settlement patterns which were taken as the visible birth of what would later be Israel.

Hence the Joshua event is not even a mystified version of a real conflict; it's just a fiction.

The only conflict left among critical scholars is whether it's a fiction of the monarchic period made to justify monarchy (the mainstream critical viewpoint), or else a fiction of the Persian period made to justify the return from exile and the founding of an exclusivist theocratic temple state (the minimalist position).

(to be continued)

NOTE: A big source of this has been the essays in Ronald E. Clements's World of Ancient Israel.
*This is meaning (at least according to Mendenhall) of the term 'Apiru, found in many Middle Bronze Age cuneiform texts from Assyria (Nuzi) to Egypt (Amarna) which he associates with "Hebrew". This association is controversial for a host of reasons.
** Jabin, king of Hazor, the greatest city of Canaan, appears in inscriptions from Hazor, but it appears to be a title, like Pharaoh, not a name.

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