Sunday, July 30, 2017

A story that just wasn’t true

As children, we all learn stories that aren’t true, sometimes they’re intended as stories or fables, other times they’re presented as fact. And then there are the stories we take to be real, regardless of whether they were told to us that way, and when we learn they’re not actually true, it can be disorienting. One such non-truthful story, a bible story I learned as a kid, was back in front of me this week.

As a kid, I learned the bible story of the battle of Jericho from the Book of Joshua. Somewhere along the line I also learned the song “Joshua Fit The Battle of Jericho” (the verison above is by Mahalia Jackson). As a child, and for some time afterward, I believed the story. Even though there’s not a shred of evidence to support the biblical story.

These days I can see I may have been a bit gullible. The Wikipedia article has a good summary of the bible’s account:
Joshua sent spies to Jericho, the first city of Canaan to be taken, and discovered that the land was in fear of Israel and their God. The Israelites marched around the walls once every day for seven days with the priests and the Ark of the Covenant. On the seventh day they marched seven times around the walls, then the priests blew their ram's horns, the Israelites raised a great shout, and the walls of the city fell. Following God's law of herem the Israelites took no slaves or plunder but slaughtered every man, woman and child in Jericho, sparing only Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute who had sheltered the spies, and her family.
There is SO much wrong with that story. The Israelites said they’d been promised the land of Canaan by their god, but ended up slaves in Egypt instead. After their release, they set about conquering and slaughtering the people living there.

Except, they didn’t in this case.

The account was written as much as two and a half millennia after the battle was supposed to have happened. Moreover, extensive archaeological work at Tell es-Sultan, as Jericho is now known, have proven that none of the wall structures date from the time of the supposed battle. For this and other reasons, scholars discount the Book of Joshua as an historic record, and instead suggest the story was written for political reasons.

We can also now prove that the Israelites did not, in fact, slaughter the Canaanites, as the story claimed, and they were a people the Book of Joshua had marked for extermination by the Israelites. An article published by New Scientist, “Bronze Age DNA helps unravel true fate of biblical Canaanites” says that the DNA of the Canaanites still exists in the region.

This story's not really important, nor is the fact that it's not true. The fact that fundamentalist religionists probably still believe the story is true as isn't all that important, either, except insofar as it's bad to reject fact and evidence in favour of believing a false story as if it was true. But there's nothing particularly unique about that, either, and it persists in cultures all around the world. And, in any case, for the religious, religious stories are more about adhering to their religion, and reasons/examples for doing so, than they are about any historic record, despite occasional claims to the contrary by those who have demonstrated a disregard (or, too often, contempt) for actual evidence.

This story is, however, an example of something else: The need for scepticism. When I was a child, I accepted all bible stories as unassailable fact, and it was only as an adult that I learned there was absolutely no supporting evidence for many of the stories I'd once held as factual, other stories (like that of the Battle of Jericho) had been proven untrue, and plenty more that had no conclusive supporting evidence.

Scepticism was a large factor in my development of religious doubt: If so much I had been taught wasn't true, was any of it true? I still haven't finished working through all that, but there was one more positive result of all this: I learned to be sceptical of whatever someone was trying to sell me—not just religion, but also politics, news, even products and services. It's simply not good enough for someone to claim something is true, they have to be able to prove it with fact-based evidence.

So, in this case, I was long ago taught the story of the Battle of Jericho, eventually learned it wasn't true, how they knew that, as well as theories about why the story was invented. And now I know what really happened to the Canaanites (who seem to have been hated by a lot of the peoples in the area). All of that is based on fact-based evidence that anyone can learn about.

Learning what happened to the Canaanites fascinated me this week and captured my attention. The memories of former beliefs, and that song, just came along for the ride.

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