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On reading conquest rightly

Summary

Iain Provan fills in some cultural background to the biblical conquest narratives.

Summary

Iain Provan fills in some cultural background to the biblical conquest narratives.

Transcript

There’s a fair bit of misunderstanding of those conquest stories because people don’t know and have not been told about the cultural background.

So for example, in ancient conquest narratives generally, you find very extravagant, exaggerated language about total victory and total annihilation. But it is understood to be literary convention describing comprehensive victory – it’s not to be pressed pedantically into the detail. And that’s a common feature, it’s just the way people wrote conquest accounts back in that day.

When you then bring that perspective back to the Bible, of course what you notice is that in spite of those statements in a book like Joshua about wiping everything out that breathed, that in the story afterwards there’s lots and lots of people still around, and so you know there’s something wrong with that rather simplistic, literalistic reading. It’s a far more satisfactory coherent explanation to think that there are literary conventions of an ancient kind governing these compositions which, until fairly recently, we have not fully grasped.

The very fact that we have laws about being kind to foreigners and also these accounts that apparently contradict those laws should be one of the very things that makes us ask the question, have I read these narratives correctly? The conquest narratives are not about being unkind to foreigners, they are about the justice of God falling on injustice.