Thursday, 21 December 2017

Genetics and the Caananite Genocide - how not to respond to a scientific paper

Earlier this year, geneticist Marc Haber and his colleagues published a paper [1] detailing the results of a study in which they compared genomic data from five individuals from ancient Sidon who lived around 3700 years ago, with the genomic data from 99 modern Lebanese individuals, and found that not only did the modern Lebanese individuals have considerable ancient Canaanite ancestry, but also have Eurasian ancestry not present in Bronze Age or earlier inhabitants of the Levant, most likely originating between 3750 - 2170 years ago as a result of a wave of successive conquests of the area. It's a fascinating study that has already been cited positively a number of times in the scientific literature.

Unfortunately, reporting of the article by mainstream journalism was disappointing, with news outlets such as The Independent leading with the frankly sensationalistic headline "Bible says Canaanites were wiped out by Israelites but scientists just found their descendants living in Lebanon." [2] Haber et al did make an en passant reference to the Bible, noting that the "Bible reports the destruction of the Canaanite cities and the annihilation of its people", inferring that if this was the case, "Canaanites could not have directly contributed genetically to present-day populations", and commenting that "no archaeological evidence has so far been found to support widespread destruction of Canaanite cities between the Bronze and Iron Ages." [3] However, as the Canaanites that Joshua 9-12 states were exterminated were south of Sidon, [4] Haber's reference is irrelevant. Furthermore, this was a side-issue in the paper, the focus of which was on demonstrating continuity between ancient and modern-day populations in Lebanon, and the timing and nature of admixture of outside genetic material. For The Independent to sell the story by making this en passant reference the main feature was sloppy journalism.

This month, The Testimony [5] responded to the sensationalist reports of the Haber et al paper correctly pointing out that the Bible states that the Canaanites were in fact not completely exterminated, and noting that at least one of the papers [6] published a correction noting this fact. Unfortunately, The Testimony failed to address two points, the fact that a literal reading of Joshua 10-12 does in fact described the near-extermination of the Canaanites, standing in marked tension with the narrative in the rest of Joshua and Judges, while Haber et al were correct in pointing out that the archaeological record does not support a widespread destruction of Canaanite cities in the Late Bronze to Iron ages. [7] Both are hardly trivial, and it is regrettable that this article failed to substantively address textual issues relating to the conquest narrative.

Haber's paper, which is freely available makes for fascinating reading. Haber notes the centrality of the Near East to human prehistory since Homo sapiens moved out of Africa through the Near East. Properly working out the genetic history of the region requires both ancient and modern DNA, but as the authors note,  "work is hindered by the hot and sometimes wet environment" that makes extracting DNA difficult. [8]  Given this, the authors have definitely made a significant contribution with their study of genome sequences from five  ~3700 year individuals from ancient Sidon.

In addition to sequencing the five ancient Sidonian genomes, the authors sequenced the genomes from 99 present-day Lebanese. Given Lebanon's multiracial history, it is important that the present-day genomes together provide a representative sample, and as the following image shows, the collection appears representative.

The authors compared their ancient and modern Lebanese data with ancient and modern Eurasian genomic data in order to answer two questions:
  1. How were the ancient Lebanese related to other ancient populations
  2. How great was their contribution to present-day populations. [9]
Initial analysis suggested that the ancient Sidonian data overlapped with contemporary Lebanese, with further analysis supporting the hypothesis that there has been significant genetic continuity between ancient and modern Lebanese. Interestingly, the authors found genetic markers associated with hair, skin, and eye colour suggesting the ancient Lebanese had "comparable skin, hair, and eye colors...but with Sidon_BA probably having darker skin than Lebanese today from variants in SLC45A2 [a protein involved in melanin synthesis] resulting in darker pigmentation." [10]
The authors note that the Sidonian genomic data clustered with that of three individuals from an Early Bronze age Jordanian Cave near 'Ain Gazal.  As the authors point out, this is significant as it suggests that ancient Jordanian and ancient Lebanese individuals were genetically similar, consistent with previous reoorts that
the different cultural groups who inhabited the Levant during the Bronze Age, such as the Ammonites, Moabites, Israelites, and Phoenicians, each achieved their own cultural identities but all shared a common genetic and ethnic root with Canaanites. [11]
As for how the ancient Sidonians were related to the neighbouring people, the initial analyssis showed that the Sidonian genomic data was positioned between ancient Iranians and ancient Levantine inhabitants. Further analysis supported roughly equal contributions between these tw0 groups (48.4% Levantine and 51.6% Iranian). [12]
Having established that there was significant ancient Iranian input to the Bronze-age Sidonian population, the authors then set out to determine when this occurred. Their analysis suggested that this occurred around 5000 years ago, +/- 1500 years. While these dates make sense as:

  • The admixture time falls between the dates of the Sidonian and Iranian DNA data 
  • It overlaps the time the ancient Akkadian empire controlled the area from Iran to the Levant.

However, the wide 1500 year confidence intervals, as the authors point out mean that the historical connections should be taken with caution. [13]

Returning to modern Lebanese, the authors note that unlike the ancient Sidonians, modern Lebanese have not only ancient Iranian and ancient Levantine ancestry, but a 11-22% contribution from Eurasian hunter-gatherer and Steppe population groups.

Figure 4. Genetic History of the Levant (A) A model of population relationships which fits the qpAdm results from Lazaridis et al.13 (solid arrows) and this study (dotted arrows). Percentages on arrows are the inferred admixture proportions.
(B) Levant timeline of historical events with genetically inferred admixture dates shown as colored double-ended arrows with length representing the SE. [14]
 Of course, such studies are limited by the small number of ancient samples available, but as the authors show, examining the genetic history of populations over time is technically feasible, and as more ancient DNA samples are available, our understanding of human genetic history will continue to become more accurate and precise.

So, how does this relate to the Canaanite Genocide?

It is a shame that an en passant remark in the paper has triggered an inaccurate, provocative media coverage of this fascinating study. This no doubt came from focusing on a paragraph in the introduction in which the authors establish the motivation for their study. The authors note that the origin of the Canaanites is still uncertain, and after rejecting the ancient view promoted by Greek historians that the Canaanite lay somewhere in the Persian Gulf, they outlined an alternative hypothesis in which the Canaanite culture developed from local Chalcolithic people who in turn came from people who settled in Neolithic farming villages around 9-10 thousand years ago. [15] The authors continued by stating:

Uncertainties also surround the fate of the Canaanites: the Bible reports the destruction of the Canaanite cities and the annihilation of its people; if true, the Canaanites could not have directly contributed genetically to present-day populations. However, no archaeological evidence has so far been found to support widespread destruction of Canaanite cities between the Bronze and Iron Ages: cities on the Levant coast such as Sidon and Tyre show continuity of occupation until the present day. [16] (Emphasis mine)
From this single paragraph stems all the problems. For example, The Telegraph's coverage of this paper had the frankly inflammatory title, "Study shows ancient Canaanites survived divine call in Bible for them to be wiped out",  and opened with:
The ancient Canaanites survived a divine call for their elimination and went on to become modern-day Lebanese, a study has found.

According to the Bible, God had ordered the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites, a people who lived between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago in the Middle East.

“You shall not leave alive anything that breathes," the passage in Deuteronomy reads. "But you shall utterly destroy them ... so that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods.” [17]
Similarly, the Independent's report was entitled "Bible says Canaanites were wiped out by Israelites but scientists just found their descendants living in Lebanon" and opened in a similarly overblown, gratuitous manner:

It is a command that led the leading atheist Richard Dawkins to claim that the God of the Old Testament was “a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser … a genocidal … megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully”.

For God had ordered the Israelites to slaughter the apparently sinful Canaanites, saying: “You shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them.” And, according to a passage in the Old Testament's Book of Joshua, they did just that:
“Thus Joshua struck all the land, the hill country and the Negev and the lowland and the slopes and all their kings. He left no survivor, but he utterly destroyed all who breathed, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded….  He left nothing undone of all that the Lord had commanded Moses.” (Joshua. 10:40, 11:15)
However, a new genetic study has found that the Canaanites actually managed to survive this purge of their traditional homeland, passing on their DNA over the centuries to their numerous descendants in modern-day Lebanon. [18]
As any careful reader of the Biblical conquest narrative knows, while Joshua 10-12 when read literally describe a near-total extermination of the population in ancient Canaan, the rest of Joshua and Judges stand in tension to these chapters by describing the Canaanites as very much alive. While a full resolution of this problem would take several books, recognising the fact that Joshua 10-12 are written in a hyperbolic style similar to other ancient Near Eastern conquest narratives which describe victories irrespective of scale as total destruction of the enemy is an important step in properly reading these narratives. [19]

The Independent much later in its article acknowledged both the tension between the Joshua narratives that describe a near-extermination of the Canaanites, and the other passages that do not, and the hyperbolic interpretation of the Joshua narratives:
While the Bible suggests they were wiped out by the Israelites under Joshua in the land of Canaan, later passages appear to contradict this and state that there were survivors. Some Biblical scholars have argued the passages describing the Canaanites wholesale destruction are hyperbole and inconclusive, and the genetic research would indeed appear to indicate the slaughter was much less extensive than described.
The Telegraph did not even do this, having to admit later  at the end of a revised edition of their article that
The original version of this story erroneously said the Bible claimed the Canaanites were wiped. However, elsewhere in the Bible, it says the elimination was not successful. 
One could of course point out that Haber et al should have noted both the Biblical narratives outside of Joshua 10-12 that state the Canaanites were not all exterminated, as well as the fact that even the conquest narratives in Joshua 11 do not report an extermination of Canaanites living outside what is now Israel and Jordan. [20] Given this, it is not surprising that present-day Lebanese would have Canaanite ancestry given that their Canaanite ancestry came from areas outside that which Joshua 10-12 state were conquered by the Israelites.

The Testimony Fares No Better

David Burges, writing in the December 2017 edition of The Testimony commented on both the Haber article and the popular media coverage, noting that
When a recent genetic study showed that the DNA sequences of ancient Canaanites and modern Lebanese share many common features, the authors declared, in passing, that this showed the Bible to be wrong, since "the Bible reports the destruction of the Canaanite cities and the annihilation of its people...if true, the Canaanites could not have directly contributed genetically to present-day populations." Although this is not what the Bible reports, this was the feature of the report that made headlines in the world's press. Corrections subsequently appeared in small print in some of the web editions. [21]
Later in his article, Burges correctly noted that passages such as Judges 1:31-33 and Judges 3:3 record the Canaanites as being very much present in the land. The restrained criticism Burges directs towards the popular media reporting of this paper is fully justified; it is lazy, poorly-informed, and inflammatory journalism.

Unfortunately, Burges' explanation for the perception that the Bible records the extermination of the Canaanites is puzzingly incomplete. He writes:
The basis for the claim that the Bible "reports...annihilation of [the Canaanites]" is based upon the instructions concerning warfare and the conquest of teh Land in the Law of Moses"
"But of the cities of these people which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance, you shall let nothing that breathes remain alive, but you shall utterly destroy them; the Hittite and the Amorite and the Canaanite...lest they teach you to do according to all their abominations..." (Deut 20:16-18)
It is important to note that this injunction applied only to cities within the land designated for Israel's occupation; an offer of peace could be made to cities further off." [22]
However, Burges' failure to record the passages in Joshua 10-12 that when read literally clearly describe an extermination of the Canaanite inhabitants is perplexing. The relevant passages are hardly ambiguous (Emphasis mine):
Josh 10:16-21 Meanwhile, these five kings fled and hid themselves in the cave at Makkedah.  And it was told Joshua, “The five kings have been found, hidden in the cave at Makkedah.”  Joshua said, “Roll large stones against the mouth of the cave, and set men by it to guard them;  but do not stay there yourselves; pursue your enemies, and attack them from the rear. Do not let them enter their towns, for the LORD your God has given them into your hand.”  When Joshua and the Israelites had finished inflicting a very great slaughter on them, until they were wiped out, and when the survivors had entered into the fortified towns,  all the people returned safe to Joshua in the camp at Makkedah; no one dared to speak against any of the Israelites.

Josh 10:28-41 Joshua took Makkedah on that day, and struck it and its king with the edge of the sword; he utterly destroyed every person in it; he left no one remaining. And he did to the king of Makkedah as he had done to the king of Jericho.

Then Joshua passed on from Makkedah, and all Israel with him, to Libnah, and fought against Libnah.  The LORD gave it also and its king into the hand of Israel; and he struck it with the edge of the sword, and every person in it; he left no one remaining in it; and he did to its king as he had done to the king of Jericho.

Next Joshua passed on from Libnah, and all Israel with him, to Lachish, and laid siege to it, and assaulted it. The LORD gave Lachish into the hand of Israel, and he took it on the second day, and struck it with the edge of the sword, and every person in it, as he had done to Libnah.

Then King Horam of Gezer came up to help Lachish; and Joshua struck him and his people, leaving him no survivors.

From Lachish Joshua passed on with all Israel to Eglon; and they laid siege to it, and assaulted it;  and they took it that day, and struck it with the edge of the sword; and every person in it he utterly destroyed that day, as he had done to Lachish.

Then Joshua went up with all Israel from Eglon to Hebron; they assaulted it, and took it, and struck it with the edge of the sword, and its king and its towns, and every person in it; he left no one remaining, just as he had done to Eglon, and utterly destroyed it with every person in it. 

Then Joshua, with all Israel, turned back to Debir and assaulted it,  and he took it with its king and all its towns; they struck them with the edge of the sword, and utterly destroyed every person in it; he left no one remaining; just as he had done to Hebron, and, as he had done to Libnah and its king, so he did to Debir and its king.

So Joshua defeated the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings; he left no one remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the LORD God of Israel commanded. And Joshua defeated them from Kadesh-barnea to Gaza, and all the country of Goshen, as far as Gibeon

Josh 11:10-15 Joshua turned back at that time, and took Hazor, and struck its king down with the sword. Before that time Hazor was the head of all those kingdoms.  And they put to the sword all who were in it, utterly destroying them; there was no one left who breathed, and he burned Hazor with fire. And all the towns of those kings, and all their kings, Joshua took, and struck them with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying them, as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded.  But Israel burned none of the towns that stood on mounds except Hazor, which Joshua did burn. All the spoil of these towns, and the livestock, the Israelites took for their booty; but all the people they struck down with the edge of the sword, until they had destroyed them, and they did not leave any who breathed. As the LORD had commanded his servant Moses, so Moses commanded Joshua, and so Joshua did; he left nothing undone of all that the LORD had commanded Moses.

Josh 11:16-23 So Joshua took all that land: the hill country and all the Negeb and all the land of Goshen and the lowland and the Arabah and the hill country of Israel and its lowland, from Mount Halak, which rises toward Seir, as far as Baal-gad in the valley of Lebanon below Mount Hermon. He took all their kings, struck them down, and put them to death. Joshua made war a long time with all those kings. There was not a town that made peace with the Israelites, except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon; all were taken in battle. For it was the LORD’s doing to harden their hearts so that they would come against Israel in battle, in order that they might be utterly destroyed, and might receive no mercy, but be exterminated, just as the LORD had commanded Moses. 
At that time Joshua came and wiped out the Anakim from the hill country, from Hebron, from Debir, from Anab, and from all the hill country of Judah, and from all the hill country of Israel; Joshua utterly destroyed them with their towns. None of the Anakim was left in the land of the Israelites; some remained only in Gaza, in Gath, and in Ashdod.  So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the LORD had spoken to Moses; and Joshua gave it for an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal allotments. And the land had rest from war.
Burges is correct in noting that Judges describes the Israelites and Canaanites coexisting in the same land, but his argument is undermined by its failure both to address the command to exterminate the Canaanites in Joshua 10-12, and to provide a substantive explanation for why these chapters of Joshua stand in marked tension with the rest of Joshua and the early chapters of Judges.

This, it must be said, is widely recognised by Biblical scholars as a problem which requires serious analysis. Gordon Mitchell notes that
The text of Joshua presents the reader with a puzzling contradiction. One the one hand, there are commands to slaughter all of the enemy, descriptions of complete destruction and statements recording the success of the conquest, and on the other hand, Rahab’s family, the Gibeonites and others continue to live in the land. [23]
while John Laughlin points out
A careful reading of Numbers–Joshua also reveals tensions within the text that are hard to reconcile with one another. After the sweeping claims of Joshua 10:40 and 11:16–20, we are told in 13:1 that Joshua “is old” and much land still remains “to be possessed.” This note about Joshua is followed by a long list of unconquered territories. Moreover, Joshuah 10:29–43 claims that Joshua destroyed all the cities of the hill country, including Hebron and Debir. What, then, are we to make of the claim in Judges 15:13–19 that Hebron was destroyed by Caleb and Debir by Othniel, not Joshua? [24]
A large part of this problem I would argue stems from a failure to recognise the ancient Near Eastern context of the book of Joshua, in particular the conquest narratives in chapters 10-12, which as K. Lawson Younger Jr notes reflects the ANE conquest narrative genre, in which stylised, hyperbolic language is used to describe a victory, irrespective of its size. Fundamentalists who impose on the narrative a flat literal hermeneutic have created the problem by reading Joshua 10-12 literally and promoting both the perception that the chapters describe a genocide [25], as well as putting these chapters in tension with the latter part of Joshua and Judges. It is disappointing that Burges did not take the opportunity to point this out in his article.


Haber et al is a fascinating article that points forward to the possibility of being able to reconstruct the genetic history of ancient peoples, one which will have no little importance for students of the Bible. The response to the article, both by mainstream journalism and The Testimony show however the need for a careful, measured response that takes into account all the data, rather than pursuing an agenda.

1. Haber, M. et al. Continuity and admixture in the last five millennia of Levantine history from ancient Canaanite and present-day Lebanese genome sequences. Am. J. Hum. Genet (2017) 101(2):274–282
2. Johnston, I. "Bible says Canaanites were wiped out by Israelites but scientists just found their descendants living in Lebanon" The Independent 27th July 2017
3. Haber, op cit., p 275.
4. While Joshua 11:8 reports that the Israelite forces pursued the Canaanites as far as "Great Sidon", Joshua 11:16 notes that "Joshua took all that far as Baal-gad in the valley of Lebanon below Mount Hermon". A literal reading of Joshua 11 does not support the extermination of Canaanites living in Sidon.
5. Burges D "Israel and the Canaanites" The Testimony December 2017 p 458-459
6. Graham C "Study shows ancient Canaanites survived divine call in Bible for them to be wiped out" The Telegraph 28th July 2017
7."This rather superficial review shows that in some cases (southern Transjordan, Arad, ĘżAi, Yarmuth, and Hebron) there is an outright conflict between the archaeological findings and the conquest narratives, while in others (Lachish, Hazor, Bethel) archaeology does not contradict these stories."
Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible 10,000-586 B.C.E. (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1990), 334.
8. Haber, op cit., p 274
9. ibid., p 277
10. ibid., p 277
11. ibid., p 277
12. ibid., p 277
13. ibid., p 278
14. ibid., p 280
15. ibid, p 274-275
16. ibid, p 276
17. See ref 6.
18. See ref 2.
19. "In conclusion, it appears that the text of Joshua 9–12 is structured on a transmission code similar to that of other ancient Near Eastern royal inscriptions. Since the account utilizes similar literary and ideological aspects to the ancient Near Eastern conquest account, as well as similar syntagmic structuring, this conclusion seems justified." K. Lawson Younger Jr., Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History Writing (vol. 98; Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990), 237.
20. See ref 4.
21. Burges op cit., p 458
22. ibid, p 459
23. Gordon Mitchell, Together in the Land: A Reading of the Book of Joshua (vol. 134; Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993), 13.
24. John C. H. Laughlin, Reading Joshua: A Historical-Critical/Archaeological Commentary (ed. Mark E. Biddle; Reading the Old Testament Series; Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2015), 32–33.
25. Lori Rowlett's fascinating monograph "Joshua and the Rhetoric of Violence: A New Historicist Analysis", building in part on Richard Nelson's 1981 Journal of Biblical Literature article "Josiah in the Book of Joshua,” argues that:
Josiah’s monarchy was based on the concept of a cohesive identity under a highly centralized government. The authorities asserting their power through the religious, political, military and cultural control mechanisms were using the text to establish boundaries of acceptability in the society they were creating. In the wake of Assyrian collapse, the previously existing power structures and military values remained. Removal of the Assyrian Empire did not remove the mechanisms of power assertion. As part of their imperial strategy, the Assyrians had undermined the sense of identity of the nations they conquered. Identity was being reasserted in the Joshua story, but it was done by adopting the violent ideology of the oppressors. The same ideology that had undermined their identity was now being used to exert their identity.
The rhetoric of violence appropriated from the oppressor is turned by the oppressed into a vehicle of self-reconstitution. Although the Canaanites are the ostensible victims in Joshua, the goal is not to incite literal violence against a particular ethnic group. The text of Joshua is concerned with voluntary submission to a set of rules and norms; it is directed primarily at Josiah’s own subjects, not at real (ethnic) outsiders, but at insiders who pose a threat to the hierarchy being asserted. The message is that the punishment of Otherness is death, and that insiders can easily become outsiders (Others) by failure to submit. The purpose of the rhetoric of violence in the conquest narrative is to serve as a warning to the people of Josiah’s kingdom that the post-imperial power of the central government could and would be unleashed upon any who resisted its assertion of control.
If this is the case, and these chapters of Joshua are a retelling of the settlement of Canaan by the early Israelites with Joshua as a "thinly disguised Josiah", then the question of these chapters describing an actual genocide becomes further untenable. See Lori L. Rowlett, Joshua and the Rhetoric of Violence: A New Historicist Analysis (vol. 226; Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 183.