Of the many things that journalists are ignorant of, religion is at the top of the list. I like to collect examples of biblical illiteracy. The Associated Press once gave William Butler Yeats credit for writing Hebrews. The New York Times said that Easter marks the resurrection of Jesus … into heaven.
The past few days have seen a flurry of articles claiming that a new archeological find disputes the scriptural account of the Canaanites. Here’s USA Today, for example:
The Bible claimed that the ancient Canaanites were wiped out according to God’s orders, but a new genetic research study reveals a different story.
As it turns out, the Canaanites survived God’s order, and their DNA lives on in Lebanon, where over 90% of Lebanese derive their ancestry from Canaanites, according to a study published in the American Journal of Human Genetics.
The Independent‘s headline for this explosive news was, “Bible says Canaanites were wiped out by Israelites but scientists just found their descendants living in Lebanon.”
The Telegraph was blunt: “Study disproves the Bible’s suggestion that the ancient Canaanites were wiped out.” Science magazine went with, “Ancient DNA counters biblical account of the mysterious Canaanites.” And Cosmos Magazine declared, “DNA vs the Bible: Israelites did not wipe out the Canaanites.”
The New York Times led with the same angle:
There is a story in the Hebrew Bible that tells of God’s call for the annihilation of the Canaanites, a people who lived in what are now Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the Palestinian territories thousands of years ago.
‘You shall not leave alive anything that breathes,’ God said in the passage. “But you shall utterly destroy them.’
But a genetic analysis published on Thursday has found that the ancient population survived that divine call for their extinction, and their descendants live in modern Lebanon.
The only problem being, of course, that all of these stories are wrong about what the Bible claims regarding the annihilation of the Canaanites.
Yes, there are passages in the Bible about God instructing Israel to destroy the Canaanites. The group is mentioned in Genesis and Exodus as inhabitants of the land God wants Israel to posess. They’re notoriously wicked, according to biblical reports. There is a call for their annihilation. The book of Joshua is pretty much about this attempt by the Israelites to vanquish their enemies, the Canaanites. Interestingly, some scholars believe that the Canaanites created the Semitic alphabet, which developed into the Hebrew language.
Anyway, by the end of the very exciting book of Joshua, readers are told that the annihilation of the enemy is not complete. And it’s laid out in more detail in the book of Judges. Judges begins with yet more tales of conquests of the Canaanites. But as a section headline in my Bible states, there was a “failure to complete the conquest.” Here are verses 27 through 33:
However, Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth Shean and its villages, or Taanach and its villages, or the inhabitants of Dor and its villages, or the inhabitants of Ibleam and its villages, or the inhabitants of Megiddo and its villages; for the Canaanites were determined to dwell in that land.
And it came to pass, when Israel was strong, that they put the Canaanites under tribute, but did not completely drive them out.
Nor did Ephraim drive out the Canaanites who dwelt in Gezer; so the Canaanites dwelt in Gezer among them.
Nor did Zebulun drive out the inhabitants of Kitron or the inhabitants of Nahalol; so the Canaanites dwelt among them, and were put under tribute.
Nor did Asher drive out the inhabitants of Acco or the inhabitants of Sidon, or of Ahlab, Achzib, Helbah, Aphik, or Rehob.
So the Asherites dwelt among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land; for they did not drive them out.
Nor did Naphtali drive out the inhabitants of Beth Shemesh or the inhabitants of Beth Anath; but they dwelt among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land. Nevertheless the inhabitants of Beth Shemesh and Beth Anath were put under tribute to them.
It could not be more clear. Over and over and over again, we’re told that the Canaanites survived.
And in the next chapter of Judges, God makes it explicit that he will not drive out the Canaanites:
Then the Angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim, and said: ‘I led you up from Egypt and brought you to the land of which I swore to your fathers; and I said, ‘I will never break My covenant with you. And you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall tear down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed My voice. Why have you done this? Therefore I also said, ‘I will not drive them out before you; but they shall be thorns in your side, and their gods shall be a snare to you.’
In the next chapter it says, “Thus the children of Israel dwelt among the Canaanites… And they took their daughters to be their wives, and gave their daughters to their sons; and they served their gods.”
All of which to say DNA testing that shows Canaanites were not destroyed by Israelites would not refute Scripture but instead confirm it.
Some of the media outlets above slightly revised or outright corrected their stories. All were too willing to accept the assumptions in the original study, which made misleading claims about what scripture teaches regarding Canaanites.
The books of the Old and New Testaments are things that all journalists should be familiar with at a passing level, particularly if they’re going to write about them. Even a cursory knowledge of God’s covenant relationship with Israel would have been enough to avoid these missteps or false claims. These media outlets should hire people who are Sunday School teachers or otherwise familiar with the story of the land God gave to Israel. These errors are not surprising any more, but they should be avoided at a time of declining media credibility.