The conquest of Canaan has long been a controversial element of the Bible. Did God really command a genocide? If so, can we still describe God as just and loving? Such ethical and theological questions occur to many who read these stories. Then came archeological investigations whose results raised questions about the historical accuracy of the accounts. Was Jericho a major city when the Israelites arrived? Is there evidence it was destroyed? While there is some archeological corroboration for some features of Joshua and other relevant Bible passages, I think it is also fair to say that at the very least, the physical evidence for a full conquest is not conclusive. Now a new avenue of investigation has been opened up thanks to genetics.
You may have seen headlines about DNA evidence that Canaanites survived the conquest of Canaan, with some more strongly worded versions suggesting a refutation of the Bible. Here’s what happened. Skeletons were found in the ruins of ancient Sidon which were dated to around the time of Joshua. DNA extracted from those skeletons has similarities with the DNA of modern Lebanese people, consistent with either direct lineage or more likely a common ancestor. If the Canaanites have living descendants, then obviously they weren’t completely wiped out. And apparently many people believe the Bible unequivocally claims that all Canaanites were wiped out, leading them to conclude that science (once again) had proven the Bible wrong.
As you can probably guess, reports of the Bible’s demise were greatly exaggerated. Apart from any critique of the science or the logic, those claims reflect a relative ignorance of what the Bible actually says. There are several indications that some groups of Canaanites survived from the Bible itself, such as Joshua 17:12-18 which indicates certain towns were not occupied by the Israelites. Similarly, the city of Sidon is not conquered and regularly comes up in the story of Israel as a separate entity. Maybe there’s some feature of the history I’m missing, but based on the Bible I would not expect the ancient occupants of Sidon to be without modern descendants.
As I noted in our discussion of The War on Science, lack of familiarity with the Bible is just as much a barrier to communication between Christian communities and scientific communities as unfamiliarity with science. The AAAS coverage (linked above) of the Canaanite DNA story is an interesting snapshot of those issues. Based on the update note at the bottom, the story was significantly rewritten to reflect what the Bible actually claims and how this new evidence relates to those claims. The current version seems reasonable to me, but I gather the original story wasn’t as nuanced. I do appreciate that they made the effort to correct it; that’s what productive dialogue looks like.
- We’re having one more video chat to discuss The War on Science tomorrow night (8/3) at 9pm (EDT). I hope you can join us!
- I got some positive feedback on the blog book club, so I think we’ll try it again in the fall. The reading schedule turned out to be overly ambitious, so we’ll tone that down a bit and give a little more notice so you can read ahead if you want. Right now, I’d like to hear any book suggestions you have; in a couple of weeks we’ll have a poll.
- If you were unable to attend the 2017 ASA conference last week, or if you did attend but want to catch up on concurrent sessions, audio and some video of the talks are being posted. Highlights of material already posted include talks by Katherine Hayhoe and Ian Hutchinson on climate change and sustainability. ESN contributor Josh Swamidass gave two talks that will be available soon.