Science Corner: The Phylogenetic Trees of Lebanon

jericho photo

The fall of Jericho is a vivid story; verifiable is another matter. (Photo by TheRevSteve )

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.

Admin notes

  • 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.
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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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    Tim commented on August 2, 2017 Reply

    Friend, a grudgingly offered parenthetical statement (the “significant” revision) does not indicate productive dialogue. These were scraps, and were offered either either because we will take them or because enough angry emails were received to indicate a slight miscalculation of the zeitgeist. The original article and how it was presented (DNA evidence counters the biblical narrative) was grossly false. As to the “significant” revision(s) (“though other passages suggest that some Canaanites may have survived”), even this is poppycock: there is no “may have.” “They did not destroy the peoples as the LORD had commanded them, but they mingled with the nations and adopted their customs.” (Ps. 106). Again – these articles are not dialogue.

      Andy Walsh commented on August 2, 2017 Reply

      Perhaps I was influenced by other coverage which was far more hyperbolic and had not been updated at all. I unfortunately don’t know what the original version of this story looked like, but I’m still inclined to think that any positive response to the concerns of believers is productive. Yes, there are still gaps to be bridged, but I’m inclined to think that work will proceed more effectively when positive feedback is provided for steps in the right direction.

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