I dearly love the American Southwest. I'm never happier than when I am exploring the ruins left by the ancient peoples of the Four Corners region, miraculous sites like Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde.
Not long ago, though, I was shocked to realize just how much these places have to tell us about understanding the Bible.
Let me explain. A highly controversial theme in the study of the Old Testament is the Israelite takeover of the land of Canaan, which the scripture presents as an extremely bloody war of conquest and extermination around 1200 B.C. The books of Deuteronomy and Joshua tell us how the Hebrew people captured and sacked the cities of the native peoples, massacring their populations wholesale as commanded by the law of herem warfare.
Under this rule, the ritual "ban," the Hebrews followed a brutal principle: show them no mercy! Women, children and animals perished en masse, together with adult men. The new Israel was built over a graveyard.
The ethical problems of such an account are obvious enough, but they are actually outweighed by archaeological and historical difficulties. As scholars have long realized, mass destruction of this kind should leave a clear mark in the archaeological record, and it just doesn't. Yes, Canaanite cities fought each other, and some communities were attacked and overcome, but we find nothing like the systematic ruin within a brief period that we would expect from the texts. Some cities supposedly conquered by the warlord Joshua did indeed exist long before the era of the conquest, but had ceased to function by the appropriate time; others would not be founded for centuries afterwards.
In a few cases, cities that actually were destroyed around 1200 B.C. do not feature in the Biblical Conquest account, suggesting perhaps that they fell to enemies other than the Hebrews. Putting the archaeological evidence together, Joshua's conquest is close to invisible. Moreover, the Biblical book of Judges often conflicts with Joshua, suggesting that cities supposedly wiped out in the earlier era were still standing later.
Also mysterious are the supposed Hebrew invaders. Scholarly opinion about these matters changes over time, but at present, next to no evidence points to a mass incursion of foreign settlers from outside Canaan anywhere near the relevant dates. The closer we examine the early Hebrews, in their language, their material goods and their life-styles, the more they look like the Canaanites they supposedly displaced and exterminated. (I explain this in my recent book Laying Down the Sword).
That discrepancy leads many modern scholars to suggest a very different model for Hebrew origins. Under this view, the Hebrew people emerged from the larger Canaanite world, but progressively grew away from them. During a time of massive social and cultural crisis, groups of terrified or disaffected people literally took to the hills, establishing a distinctive new world in the Judean highlands, where we later find the first signs of a people called Israel. Over time, they developed stories to account for their national origin, which were intended to make them look as different as possible from the Canaanites, who had really been their cousins. To make the separation look as total as possible, these tales even reported that the former inhabitants had been wiped out altogether.
All of which brings us back to the American Southwest. Now, I certainly don't accept the Mormon view that American Indian peoples are the descendants of ancient Hebrews, nor any suggestion of a direct ancient linkage between the two regions. But I do think that we can learn a lot from studying what happens when a city perishes and its people are massacred, wherever in the world that occurs -- and even if it happens in a very different era.
Over the past century, archaeologists have discovered much about the people we used to call the Anasazi, whom it is now fashionable to call Ancestral Puebloans. (Actually, that title also has its problems). They built wonderful cities connected by extensive roads, but by the thirteenth century AD this society began to crumble, as we can tell from the growing use of fortifications.
We also find undeniable evidence of extraordinary bloodshed, in a landscape of burned houses and ruined ritual buildings. Sacked villages and fortresses are littered with the unburied skeletons of men, women and children, some dismembered. Archaeologists can determine not just that warriors had perpetrated indiscriminate slaughter at these places, but how their victims had perished -- how so many had been tortured, mutilated, or burned alive, even subjected to cannibalism. Human bones regularly display wounds made by the common weapons of that era, an arsenal not too different from that of Joshua's time. Even animals were destroyed wholesale.
We can argue about what motivated the perpetrators. Was this their normal means of combat, or were they levying a special kind of ritualistic total war against people they designated as evil witches? But the picture of massacre and cataclysm is unequivocal.
In the Southwest at least, someone definitely did decide to show no mercy, and the material evidence of something very much like herem warfare is overwhelming. If the Biblical invasion accounts were literally correct, this is just what we would expect to find in Israel/Palestine, and we clearly don't.
Now, the Canaanite comparison is not perfect, and the obvious difference is one of chronology. Joshua's conquest, if it happened, was three thousand years ago, compared to just eight hundred for the Southwest's massacres. But in both regions, remains tend to be well preserved over time especially when, as in the Middle East, the alleged sites of city destruction are easily accessible to archaeologists.
Allowing for those differences, then, the "Anasazi" story does help illuminate what we find -- and what we don't find -- in the Middle East. It gives strong support to those who think that Hebrew origins lie within Canaan itself, rather than in a genocidal invasion.