Not only are there variant traditions in the Torah that talk about when these Transjordanian territories were conquered and by whom (#317-318)—and even if there was a Transjordanian conquest (#282-285)—but there are also variant traditions describing what happened to the land’s cities and inhabitants. Were these cities utterly destroyed or did the Israelites simply “move in” to them? Likewise, were the inhabitants completely wiped out or were there still remnants of them living on the land? Our answer to these questions depends on what textual tradition we read.
The Yahwist Tradition
And Israel took all of these cities, and Israel lived in all of the Amorite cities in Hesbon and all of its environs. (Num 21:25)
Our infants, our women, our livestock, and all our animals will be there in the cities of Gilead. (Num 32:25)
And Moses gave them, the children of Gad and the children of Reuben and half of the tribe of Manasseh son of Joseph, the kingdom of Sihon, king of the Amorites, and the kingdom of Og, king of Bashan, the land with its cities. (Num 32:33)
These verses, which not surprisingly represent a single textual tradition, the Yahwist tradition written in the 9th-8th century BCE, clearly indicate that the Israelites took the land from the Amorites and simply moved into their cities as it were.
The Deuteronomic Tradition
However, when the 7th century BCE Deuteronomist inherited this tradition, he had his spokesperson, Moses, renarrate this event with some significant alterations.
And Yahweh our god put him [Sihon] before us and we struck him and his sons and all his people. And we captured all his cities at that time and we put every city to complete destruction (herem): men and women and infants! We didn’t leave a remnant. Only the animals we despoiled for ourselves and the spoil of the cities we captured. From Aroer, which is on the edge of the Wadi Arnon and the city that is in the wadi, to Gilead, there wasn’t a town that was too high for us. (Deut 2:33-36)
And Yahweh our god put Og, king of Bashan, and all his people in our hand as well, and we struck him until he did not have a remnant left. And we captured all his cities at that time. There wasn’t a town that we didn’t take from them: sixty cities—all the region of Argob. Og’s kingdom in Bashan. All of these were fortified cities (high walls, double gates and bar) aside from a great many unwalled cities. And we completely destroyed (herem) them as we did to Sihon, king of Hesbon, completely destroyed (herem) every city: man, women, and infants! (Deut 3:3-6)
Besides the stylistic differences between these two traditions, the most notable variation is the Deuteronomist’s emphatic insistence that both cities and peoples were completely destroyed! And this difference, this feature, is a core ideological feature of the Deuteronomic tradition. In other words, the herem, the dedication or devotion to Yahweh of conquered cities and peoples to complete annihilation and destruction, is a unique feature of the Deuteronomist. This is perhaps nowhere more clearly articulated than in Deuteronomy 7:
When Yahweh your god will bring you to the land to which you are coming to take possession of it and will eject numerous nations before you—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you—and Yahweh your god will put them in front of you, and you’ll strike them, you shall completely destroy them (herem)! You shall not make a covenant with them, and you shall not spare them (Deut 7:1-2). You shall devour all the people whom Yahweh your god delivers to you. You shall show them no pity (7:16; cf. 20:16).
When you’ll hear in one of your cities that Yahweh your god is giving you to live there that “Some good-for-nothing people have gone out from among you and driven away their city’s residents saying ‘Let’s go and serve other gods!'” . . . you shall strike that city’s residents by the sword, completely destroying (herem) it and everything in it and its animals with the sword! (Deut 13:13-16)
Herem designates a sacrificial devotion in the sense of the utter destruction of cities, peoples, and even animals for Yahweh. It is a core ideological tenet of the Deuteronomic tradition. So what the Deuteronomist has done in his retelling of the very tradition that he inherited (the earlier Yahwist tradition) was to change it so that it conformed to his own ideological outlook. No longer did the Israelites merely take the land and “live in its cities,” but now the story was told in a manner that suited the aims and agenda of the Deuteornomic scribe—they completely destroyed both cities and peoples!
My Christian readers should express a sigh of relief here. These Deuteronomic passages are often cited in debates showing the alleged immoral nature of the biblical god, or God, in his decree to extinguish entire peoples, in short to command genocide! However, properly understanding what exactly is ancient literature, who wrote it, and what literary conventions were employed, we readily see that this has nothing to do with a god, or God, commanding genocide. Rather we have a text expressing in hyperbolic and theoretical fashion the beliefs and ideology of its author and his guild, where the god Yahweh is used as a literary mouthpiece—a literary invention—to authenticate this author’s agenda. In other words, ancient texts, such as Deuteronomy here, represent the beliefs and ideological tenets of the ancient peoples and cultures that penned these texts! That’s all. So the question is not why did God command this, but more correctly why did this author present his god commanding genocide? We will look at this in more detail when I get to posting the contradictions in the book of Deuteronomy, but it might briefly be noted that this ideological program was not unique to Israelite scribes. In the Moabite stela cited in contradiction #271-273, Moab’s conquering of the Israelites in norther Moab during the end of the 9th century by the decree of Chemosh is also spoken of as a herem, only here a ritualized destruction of cities and peoples and everything in them as a dedication to Chemosh!
The Priestly Tradition
The 6th century BCE Priestly writer’s retelling of this same story is perhaps the less clear of our traditions. Indeed, the Priestly tradition says nothing about the Transjordanian conquest; yet in its allotment of the land narration in Numbers 32, he mentions that the Reubenites and Gadites “will build (banah) walls and cities” (vv. 16 & 24), and furthermore to protect their woman and livestock from “the residents of the land” (Num 32:17)—thus also contradicting Deuteronomy’s herem requirements, the complete annihilation of the people!
The Hebrew banah means “to build,” but in our present context it might mean “to rebuild.” So it’s difficult to say whether we’re talking about destruction and rebuilding, or simply building from scratch. As a side note, this is the same verb used by the Yahwist to speak of Yahweh building (banah) Eve from Adam’s rib!
In conclusion, we’re quite confident in asserting that the Torah itself bears witness to variant tellings of the above tradition. And in one case in particular (D), we actually see and understand why a later scribe might have wished to alter the very tradition he himself inherited—to make it conform to his own theological and ideological agenda! When we get to the book of Deuteronomy, which should now be very soon, we will see that this author has Moses repeatedly renarrate earlier traditions while radically modifying and altering them, indeed consciously contradicting these earlier traditions—again, so that these traditions now served the Deuteronomist’s own ideological and theological agenda. We will see numerous examples of this.