Friday, September 2, 2016

Fight the Good Fight of the Faith: Joshua in History

Wow, it has been quite a long time since I have had a chance to write. I apologize for being MIA for so long. It has been quite a busy past few months while my senior pastor has been on sabbatical, and I have barely had enough time to get done what I have needed to get done for my family and church over the past few months, so I have just let writing fall to the wayside. I still do not have a lot of time to write presently, but I have also recently finished a sermon series at my church (GCPC), and it should give me enough for a couple of posts per week for a while.

The sermon series was called "Joshua: Fight the Good Fight of the Faith," and it is the story of the battles of the Christian life from the book of Joshua. Each week I wrote a short devotional that went out as an email to my church, which related to the passage on which the sermon was focused and, of course, preached a sermon from that passage. So, I will put all that up here as the weeks progress

The first weekly devotional for this series was a short summary of the historical debates and issues surrounding the book of Joshua. I argued that it is a reliable source of history that matches up well with what we know of Canaan and the ancient Near East in the second millennium BC. This historical basis is important because if it is just tales, then it does not actually teach us about the true God or tell us what He has done, so there is no reason for us to care about it. Legend does not help us in the Christian life. So, here it is. On Sunday I will post the first sermon entitled, "Be Strong and Courageous."

This Sunday we start our summer sermon series, which will go through the book of Joshua. And, any time we take a look at Scripture, particular the books of the Old Testament, it is helpful and even necessary to address the question of the historicity of the book.

Joshua is the book that tells the story of God's people entering the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua, after the exodus from Egypt and forty years of wandering in the wilderness under Moses. Yet, the book of Joshua is much more than the story of God's people beginning the conquest of the land of Canaan: it is history and presents itself as history. In fact, as I will talk more about in the sermon posted Sunday, it is prophetic history--historical events recorded not merely to inform us of what happened but to proclaim a message from God Himself to us, a message that has much to teach us about our spiritual battles and the Christian life.

However, like many or even most Old Testament books, the historical truthfulness of the book of Joshua has come under fire in recent times, and since that is the case, it is necessary for us to talk briefly about its history and why we can trust it.

Much of the claim that the book of Joshua is "closer to fiction than it is history" comes from the fact that there is little archaeological evidence and historical documentation to corroborate what Scripture tells us. Now, hidden in this objection is the idea that Scripture itself is not history and therefore cannot be taken as historical evidence in its own right. That is a dubious assumption, to say the least, and it commits the logical fallacy of "begging the question" (i.e. failing to prove what it assumes). Many great books have been written on the historical veracity of Scripture, particularly the Old Testament (e.g. Kingdom of Priests is a good one), so I will not take that up here. It is too broad of a subject to address in this post, but keep in mind that since Scripture presents itself as history, when someone claims it is not, the burden of proof is on them to show that Scripture contradicts established, historical facts. It is not enough to say, "Well, there is no corroborating evidence," for that is an argument from silence or it assumes that historians are in possession of every bit of ancient historical evidence, which, of course, we know they are not. There is still much discovery to be done when it comes to archaeology and ancient history, and saying that there is no or little corroborating evidence to date is not a sufficient objection. The objector must prove that there is well-established, irrefutable evidence that contradicts the Bible before they can say, "Yes, the Bible presents itself as history, but we should not take it that way."

When I preached on Exodus last summer, I wrote about the historical evidence for the exodus from Egypt here, which might be a good place to start for extra reading. In that article, I argued for a date of 1446 BC for the exodus from Egypt, which has been questioned in recent times, and I address those objections to that date in the article, showing why it is biblical and fits the historical evidence from the time.

Given the date of 1446 BC for the exodus and the fact that the Scriptures tell us God's people wandered in the desert for forty years after that, that puts the date of the beginning of the conquest of the land of Canaan at 1406 BC. So, the main question then is: Is there verifiable archaeological and/or historical evidence that contradicts that date? If not, then there is no good reason to believe that what the Bible presents is not true history. A secondary question is: Is there corroborating evidence for this date? So, let's look at those two questions briefly:

In answer to the first (Is there verifiable archaeological and/or historical evidence that contradicts that date?): no, but that is not always the answer some scholars try to give. However, let me give a couple of reasons why the answer to that question is "No, there is no evidence that contradicts that Bible":
  • Some scholars have argued that there is no archaeological evidence for a large-scale destruction of Canaanite cities until ca. 1250 BC. Given that, it is argued, the story of Joshua and Israel's conquest of Canaan in Scripture cannot be squared with archaeology, so the book his not historical. However, such an argument flat-out ignores the biblical account of Israel's conquest of Canaan. That argument assumes that the Israelites would have followed traditional conquest patterns of the time (i.e. complete destruction of cities) instead of taking seriously how Scripture describes the conquest:
    • Joshua was specifically told by God only to destroy completely Jericho, Ai, and Hazor. The other cities were specifically not to be destroyed so that the Israelites would have places to live when "all was said and done" (cf. e.g. Dt. 6:10-11; 19:1). So, we should not expect there to be any evidence for a large-scale destruction of the cities in Canaan ca. 1406 BC. In fact, the archaeological evidence for a large-scale destruction ca. 1250 BC could easily be attributed to the severe oppression of Israel during the time of Deborah in the book of Judges.
    • In addition, renown archaeologist John Garstangs's excavation of Jericho shows that the walls of the city fell outward and that it was probably destroyed ca. 1400 BC (though this date is still debated among archaeologists), both of which fit the biblical data quite well.
    • Furthermore, Yigael Yadin's work in the excavation of Hazor (cf. Jos. 11) has shown that it was leveled in also around 1400 BC, which again comports well with the Bible's story and chronology.
    • Dating the conquest to 1406 BC does fit what little archaeological and historical evidence in Canaan that we have.
  • Furthermore, the biblical story of the conquest of Canaan also fits well with the surround events in the other nations of the ancient Near East (ANE). In fact, when the surrounding history is viewed with an eye that looks for God's providential hand, ca. 1400 BC was the perfect time for the conquest. All of the major powers surrounding Canaan that could have hindered Israel were all preoccupied somehow, which left Canaan ripe for conquest:
    • The Hittites (a major power) and Mitannites were at war, and even if the Hittites could have fought on two fronts, they would not press into Canaan for fear of angering Egypt (who had claim to Canaan at the time through treaties with the peoples there).
    • Syria was brought under Hittite control during this time, so it posed no threat to Israel in Canaan.
    • Assyria and Egypt had entered into a treaty, so Assyria would not risk that treaty by interfering with Canaanites affairs.
    • And, even though Egypt had claim to Canaan ca. 1400 BC, it was disinterested in Canaan because Amenhotep III (1417-1379 BC) had turned inward to focus on hunting and arts, and Amenhotep IV (1379-1362 BC) was engaged in religious pursuits and disinterested in Canaan as well. In fact, Burnaburias II of the Kassites wrote a letter to Amenhotep IV (1370 BC) complaining about the shoddy treatment of his messengers that traveled through Canaan (a letter which does not appear to have received a response), and the description in the letter fits the biblical account of the time of the Judges after the conquest.
  • As the historian and biblical scholar Eugene H. Merrill says, "The other side of the coin of Egyptian indifference to Canaanite affairs surely has to be the hand of Yahweh, who provided exactly the right circumstances in which His people could possess the land He had promised them."
In answer to the second question: (Is there corroborating evidence for the conquest?): perhaps, though it is not so solid that we can say without a doubt that the documentation of the time refers directly to the Bible's account of the conquest:
  • At this time, there was a group of people known as the 'Apiru or Habiru (in the Canaanite language). They do not appear to be an ethnic group (i.e. a race like Hebrews or Hittites) but probably a social class, specifically: mercenaries. There exists a series of letters coming from Canaan to Egypt pleading for help defending against the 'Apiru called the Amarna Letters, and these letters have been dated to ca. 1400-1350 BC. (Egypt did not respond to any of them, by the way, because the Pharaohs described above were disinterested in Canaan and ignored them.) Now, it is clear that these people are not to be fully identified with the Israelites, however, given that their name is remarkably linguistically similar to the word "Hebrew" in Canaanite, it is possible that the Canaanites may have confused the Hebrews with the 'Apiru and perhaps some of the Amarna Letters are really referring to the Hebrews. This would make sense for the Canaanites probably would not have been able to distinguish between peoples attacking them from the outside, especially when their names were so similar.
  • There are several Amarna Letters that sound almost exactly like parts of the biblical account of the conquest. Merrill collects several of these together in his book Kingdom of Priests and shows how they fit quite well with the biblical account of the Israelite ownership of Shechem, the defeat of Megiddo, the account of the enslavement of the inhabitants of Gezer by Ephraim of Israel, and the taking of part of Jerusalem by Judah. So, some of the Amarna Letters could very well refer to the Hebrews and not the actual 'Apiru.
  • In fact, this possible confusion of the 'Apiru with the Hebrews might explain why the OT very rarely shows the Israelites using "Hebrew" for self-reference--they almost never called themselves "Hebrews." They would not call themselves something that would confuse them with a social class of mercenaries. This confusion also could explain 1 Sa. 13:3, 6-7; 14:21, which distinguish the Hebrews from the Israelites (where these distinguished Hebrews really 'Apiru?).
So, while the 'Apiru cannot be completely identified with the Hebrews, some of the Amarna letters may, in fact, describe the Hebrews (being confused with the 'Apiru). And, even if they do not, they do not contradict the biblical account at all.

As stated above, when one wants to question this historical truthfulness of the book of Joshua, one has to show that it contradicts established, verified archaeological and historical evidence. Hopefully, the above overview shows that it does not, but, in fact, what little extra-biblical data there is for Canaan ca. 1400 BC fits quite well with Scripture and may even offer support for its account of the conquest in the book of Joshua.

On Sunday, we will begin looking at the narrative itself and see how it can fortify us for the Christian life.

By His Grace,

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